by Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson
Travellers approaching a bush township are sure to find some distance from
the town a lonely public-house waiting by the roadside to give them
welcome. Thirsty (miscalled Thursday) Island is the outlying pub of
When the China and British-India steamers arrive from the North the first
place they come to is Thirsty Island, the sentinel at the gate of Torres
Straits. New chums on the steamers see a fleet of white-sailed pearling
luggers, a long pier clustered with a hybrid crowd of every colour,
caste and creed under Heaven, and at the back of it all a little
galvanized-iron town shining in the sun.
For nine months of the year a crisp, cool south-east wind blows, the
snow-white beach is splashed with spray and dotted with the picturesque
figures of Japanese divers and South Sea Island boatmen. Coco-nut palms
line the roads by the beach, and back of the town are the barracks and a
fort nestling among the trees on the hillside. Thirsty Island is a nice
place—to look at.
When a vessel makes fast the Thirsty Islanders come down to greet the
new-comers and give them welcome to Australia. The new-chums are
inclined to patronise these simple, outlying people. Fresh from the
iniquities of the China-coast cocktail and the unhallowed orgies of the
Sourabaya Club, new-chums think they have little to learn in the way of
drink; at any rate, they haven't come all the way to Thursday Island to
be taught anything. Poor new-chums! Little do they know the kind of
people they are up against.
The following description of a night at Thursday Island is taken from a
new-chum's note book:
"Passed Proudfoot shoal and arrived at Thursday Island. First sight of
Australia. Lot of men came aboard, all called Captain. They are all
pearl-fishers or pilots, not a bit like the bushmen I expected. When
they came aboard they divided into parties. Some invaded the Captain's
cabin; others sat in the smoking room; the rest crowded into the saloon.
They talked to the passengers about the Boer War, and told us about
pearls worth 1000 pounds that had been found lately.
"One captain pulled a handful of loose pearls out of a jar and handed them
round in a casual way for us to look at. The stewards opened bottles and
we all sat down for a drink and a smoke. I spoke to one captain—an
oldish man—and he grinned amiably, but did not answer. Another captain
leaned over to me and said, 'Don't take any notice of him, he's boozed
all this week.'
"Conversation and drink became general. The night was very hot and close,
and some of the passengers seemed to be taking more than was good for
them. A contagious thirst spread round the ship, and before long the
stewards and firemen were at it. The saloon became an inferno of drink
and sweat and tobacco smoke. Perfect strangers were talking to each
other at the top of their voices.
"Young MacTavish, who is in a crack English regiment, asked the captain of
a pearling lugger whether he didn't know Talbot de Cholmondeley in the
"The pearler said very likely he had met 'em, and no doubt he'd remember
their faces if he saw them, but he never could remember names.
"Another passenger—a Jew—was trying to buy some pearls cheap from the
captains, but the more the captains drank the less anxious they became
to talk about pearls.
"The night wore on, and still the drinks circulated. Young MacTavish slept
"One passenger gave his steward a sovereign as he was leaving the ship,
and in half an hour the steward was carried to his berth in a
fit—alcoholic in its origin. Another steward was observed openly
drinking the passengers' whisky. When accused, he didn't even attempt to
defend himself; the great Thursday Island thirst seemed to have
communicated itself to everyone on board, and he simply had to
"About three in the morning a tour of the ship disclosed the following
state of affairs: Captain's room full of captains solemnly tight;
smoking-room empty, except for the inanimate form of the captain who had
been boozed all the week, and was now sleeping peacefully with his feet
on the sofa and his head on the floor. The saloon was full of captains
and passengers—the latter mostly in a state of collapse or laughing and
singing deliriously; the rails lined with firemen who had business over
the side; stewards ditto.
"At last the Thursday Islanders departed, unsteadily, but still on their
feet, leaving a demoralized ship behind them. And young MacTavish, who
has seen a thing or two in his brief span, staggered to his berth,
saying, 'My God! Is all Australia like this place?'"
When no ships arrive, the Islanders just drop into the pubs, as a matter
of routine, for their usual evening soak. They drink weird
compounds—horehound beer, known as "lady dog", and things like that.
About two in the morning they go home speechless, but still able to
travel. It is very rarely that an Islander gets helplessly drunk, but
strangers generally have to be put to bed.
The Japanese on the island are a strong faction. They have a club of their
own, and once gave a dinner to mark the death of one of their members.
He was shrewdly suspected of having tried to drown another member by
cutting his airpipe, so, when he died, the club celebrated the event.
The Japanese are not looked upon with favor by the white islanders. They
send their money to Japan—thousands of pounds a year go through the
little office in money-orders—and so they are not "good for trade".
The Manilamen and Kanakas and Torres Strait islanders, on the other hand,
bring all the money they do not spend on the pearling schooner to the
island, and "blow it in", like men. They knife each other sometimes, and
now and again have to be run in wholesale, but they are "good for
trade". The local lock-up has a record of eighteen drunks run in in
seven minutes. They weren't taken along in carriages-and-four, either;
they were mostly dragged along by the scruff of the neck.
Billy Malkeela, the South Sea diver, summed up the Japanese
question—"Seems to me dis Islan' soon b'long Japanee altogedder. One
time pa-lenty rickatta (plenty regatta), all same Isle of Wight. Now no
more rickatta. All money go Japan!"
An English new-chum made his appearance there lately—a most undefeated
sportsman. He was put down in a diving dress in about eight feet of
water, where he bubbled and struggled about in great style. Suddenly he
turned, rushed for the beach, and made for the foot of a tree, which he
tried to climb under the impression that he was still at the bottom of
the ocean. Then he was hauled in by the life-line.
The pearlers thought to get some fun out of him by giving him an oyster to
open in which they had previously planted a pearl; he never saw the
pearl and threw the oyster into the scuppers with the rest, and the
pearlers had to go down on all fours and grope for that pearl among the
stinking oysters. It was funny—but not in the way they had intended.
The pearlers go out in schooners called floating stations (their enemies
call them floating public-houses) and no man knows what hospitality is
till he has been a guest on a pearling schooner. They carry it to
extremes sometimes. Some pearlers were out in a lugger, and were passing
by one of these schooners. They determined not to go on board, as it was
late, and they were in a hurry. The captain of the schooner went below,
got his rifle and put two bullets through their foresail. Then they put
the helm down and went aboard; it was an invitation almost equivalent to
a royal command. They felt heartily ashamed of themselves as they slunk
up on deck, and the captain of the schooner eyed them reproachfully.
"I couldn't let you disgrace yourselves by passing my schooner," he said;
"but if it ever happens again I'll fire at the deck. A man that would
pass a schooner in broad daylight is better dead."
There is a fort and garrison at Thirsty Island, but they are not needed.
If an invading fleet comes this way it should be encouraged by every
possible means to land at the island; the heat, the thirst, the
horehound beer, and the Islanders may be trusted to do the rest.