Wednesday, October 19, 2011



Stradbroke Island, where I live, is rich in traditional native folklore.  The island’s Aboriginal name is Minjerribah, and its people, the Quandamooka have lived here since long before written history.

 Over the centuries a great number of European explorers and seamen passed briefly by, Captain Cook on his voyage of discovery in 1770 and Matthew Flinders some time later.  Both made note of the island before moving on to continue their voyages.  But a lot more lesser known adventurers made land, dropped anchor and stayed.

They weren’t stupid, they obviously knew they had chanced upon a veritable paradise and they were in no hurry to leave.

The original inhabitants were made up of several tribes or clans.  They were friendly, hospitable and willing to share their island bounty.  The newcomers slowly became part of the community and in time their European and Pacific Islander names became part of the Minjerribah landscape. Their offspring married, blending with the Traditional Owners and inheriting their rights and traditions.

Unfortunately,  European newcomers on the mainland  quickly multiplied, establishing Government bureaucracies that eventually found their way to Minjerribah, swiftly changed the name to Stradbroke Island,  and then began moving the locals into Mission settlements.

Which brings me to the early 1900’s and Sam Rollands, the Dugong Man.

One of Sam Rolland’s ancestors was a South Seas Islander who met and was charmed by a woman of the Moorgumpin people of Moreton Island.  The tribe eventually crossed the narrow channel to the island of Minjerribah and there, some time later Sam married the widowed Margaret Brown whose tribal name was Miboo.

Her brood of children became his, and in years to come he would be fondly known as Grandfather Rollands, not only to his own children, but to the young Brown’s and their offspring as well.

Some years earlier Bureaucrats from the mainland, now going under the title Aboriginal Protection Association, established a Mission Station near Dunwich, naming it Myora, though locals preferred its original name, Moongalba. 

 Sam became it’s resident policeman.  A job that entitled him to a wage and a policeman’s uniform; but still left him plenty of time to maintain his orchard of 11 orange trees, nine mango trees, bananas, lemons, guavas and sweet potatoes, and still find time to hunt the dugong... 

As you can clearly see, life on Straddie, even back then was lived to a different beat of the drum.

Myora Mission, Dunwich c1906  (John Oxley library)


Dugong’s are gentle creatures, they glide through the water, calm and unhurried, diving to the sea bed to feed on grass roots.  Sailors of old mistook them  for ‘mermaids’.

Only a very few have been kept in captivity.  Sydney Aquarium staff speak of the dugong with affection, diving with them in huge tanks, they describe the mammals as highly intelligent.  ‘The dugong use their flippers like hands, they sometimes wrap their flippers around us, holding us when we dive with them.  They have a smooth skin with small bristly hairs and lots of nerve endings...and they love to be patted.’

They’re known in some countries as sea cows or even as sea pigs.  It’s said a newborn dugong looks very much like a newborn piglet.
I’ve fished the Rous Channel, not far from my Straddie home, and seen the dugongs up close beside our small boat.  They’ve left me with an awesome sense of their fragility and inquisitive nature.  Their very expression one of inquiry, questioning our presence.  The thought of killing a dugong is abhorrent to me.

And yet, I quite happily fish, reeling in small fish and large, killing them without a second thought.  Perhaps it is the huge bulk of the dugong, its human like movement as it glides through the water, it’s expression of genuine interest  that makes me want so much to protect them.

The flesh of the dugong had long been a delicacy to the Aboriginal people, its taste likened to that of pork or veal.   At one time the dugong had been present in the waters of Moreton Bay in great numbers.  Its total number perhaps something like the buffalo of North America.

Like the buffalo it too has been hunted almost, but not quite, to extinction.

When the indigenous tribes around the Australian coast hunted the dugong, nothing was wasted of the carcass.  A dugong kill meant the entire community would share the meat, the women boiling down the remainder to obtain its oil. And the oil was used as a medicine, both orally and externally.  It could be likened to cod liver oil.

It didn’t take long for mainland Europeans to cotton on to the commercial viability of the dugong.

In fact it was the Health Officer for Moreton Bay, a Dr Hobbs,  who first set up a processing works on a smaller island in the Bay in the 1850’s  to extract the oil. He also set up a fishing fleet with the express aim of netting as many dugong as possible. And they did, staying out weeks at a time until enough dugong carcasses had been accumulated to produce 70 barrels of oil from a single expedition.

For Dr Hobbs the result was pure gold.

He began touting the oil as a cure all for everything from asthma to TB.  Hobbs may have believed he was the first to recognize its curative properties, but the indigenous people right round Australia had beaten him to it.  They  had been utilising the oil long before Cook even discovered Australia.

Hobbs Dugong Oil was an instant success, outlets all over the world began selling his product.  The Dugong Oil from the little factory on St Helena Island in Moreton Bay even won top awards at London and Paris Expositions.

In the end, for Hobbs  his fishing of the dugong proved his undoing.  The workers on the boats, clearly with an eye to quick profits began throwing in shark liver to swell the quantity,  a greedy practice that lowered the quality of the oil.

By the end of the mid 1800’s, the oil’s trade and consumption had ceased in Europe and the doctor’s business venture came to an end.

Sam Rollands however operated on a smaller scale, purely for his people and friends; he netted when the meat and the oil was needed.

...the community gathered to meet the boat(Oxley library)
As one resident recalled...’it was like a red letter day for everyone when Grandfather Rollands caught a dugong.  He would hoist a red flag on his boat, the Rona,  to tell people he was bringing one back.  When everyone at the mission and around Dunwich saw the flag they’d all rush down to the waters edge  waiting for him to come in.’

Another remembered ...’boiling the nose and different parts of the dugong for the oil that Grandfather Rollands used to sell.  He cured the meat, making it into bacon, and it did taste like the bacon from pork.  All the little kids would get the innards, we called it ‘garrumping’.

Where others used harsh and inhumane methods to kill the dugong, Sam favoured a gentle approach, netting the dugong first, bringing it alongside the boat and softly covering the breathing holes with a hessian bag.

Another Myora resident, a youngster at the time recalled ‘going out with Grandfather Sammy Rollands and Uncle Bob Campbell off Amity, catching two dugong in their nets.’
Bob Gregory and Dolph Campbell, Amity c 1940 (photo Gregory family)

Polio, or Infantile Paralysis was once the scourge of the world, with frequent epidemics either killing many victims  or rendering them unable to walk, or even to breathe normally.

A present day Elder on Straddie, Aunty Rose Borey, remembers her elder siblings in the 1930’s struck down with polio and their mother lathering their limbs with the dugong oil,  alternating  with hot salt water baths.   They survived with no after effects.

Sam Rollands proudly kept a letter he received, from Sister Kenny, requesting a supply of dugong oil for her ongoing work with polio patients.

Sydney (Kindara) Rollands – Sam’s mother.
Sam Rollands though, wasn’t admired by his peers for the dugong catches alone. Over the years  he established a rapport with the Chief Protector of the time, John Bleakley.  When a voice was needed to settle a dispute with officialdom, it was Sam who did the negotiating, communicating either by letter or in person.  

His mother,   Sydney Rollands, Kindara her childhood name, one of the Amity Point Elders mentioned by the Historian, Thomas Welsby, as his dear friends, received an education on the mainland.  Her son would feature in many jousts with the Government Teaching Board, as the Myora community battled a succession of closures, neglect and petty wrangling.

The Chief Protector who became his friend, John Bleakley, valued and respected Sam to such an extent he waived repayments to the Department for his house. And when, at the age of 80, the old gentleman was informed by a local official that he would need a permit to continue dugong fishing, Sam took his complaint to the Chief Protector.

The local official was immediately over ruled.


Grandfather Sammy Rollands continued living at Myora, tending his garden and fishing the Bay for dugong until his death in 1936 at the age of 85.  His wife Granny Miboo, the former Margaret Thompson predeceased him in 1932.

 Robyn Mortimer ©2011