First landings – the story of Elizabeth Beare

History is full of disputed events and the story of the first landing on Kangaroo Island is one of these.  In the post for 27 July 1836 we included excerpts from both of the contemporary sources that recorded this event.  They were the diary kept by Captain Robert Morgan, Master of the Duke of York, and that kept by Samuel Stephen, South Australian Company Manager. The diary entries were both written on the day concerned and are consistent with each other. Captain Morgan’s diary entry ran:

AM we ran down close to the reefe which forms the harbour of nepean bay found the entrance and at 10 or half past came to anchor in three fathoms water…the water being perfectly smooth we got out all our boats and anchored them in shore and got ready for moveing when the tide suits we landed the colonan manager [Samuel Stephens] and Mr Bear and we went to gather [together] to look for the lagoon but had to return unsucksessfull night comeing on.

Stephens’ entry is similar, although the spelling is better.

After a pleasant voyage from England in the SA Co’s Barque Duke of York we reached Nepean Bay Kangaroo Island and brought up in 4 fathoms water at ½ past 10 am. We lowered a boat and Captain Morgan, Mr Beare, myself and five hands went ashore.  I was the first who ever set foot on the shore as a settler in the Colony of South A.  We rambled a little while in the bush then examined the shore for some distance and returned at dark well pleased and well tired.

Over the intervening years however a more romantic account of the first landing has emerged.  It is not absolutely clear where the story originated, but it has come down to us through several sets of reminiscences, published some 50 or 60 years after the events that are described. The reminiscences are those of William Beare, the eldest of the Beare children, who was 10 years old when the Duke of York landed on Kangaroo Island, and those of the second mate Robert Russell, who was interviewed by a correspondent of the Register at the age of 82 years in July 1886.  In these accounts we are told that as the Duke of York reached anchorage in Nepean Bay there was considerable bickering amongst the passengers about who would be the first to set foot on the new land.  Captain Morgan decided to resolve the matter by instructing Russell to take the toddler daughter of the Beares (Elizabeth, then aged about two years) and row her to shore to be the ‘first’.  Of course Russell points out in his interview that he was actually the first to step on shore, since he was carrying the child, but that she was the ‘first white female to set foot on the strand’. (South Australian Register, 27 July 1886) It is these accounts that have captured the popular imagination – as well they might, and in many newspaper accounts of the early days they are simply repeated as fact. (e.g. South Australian Register 27 December 1886)

The difficulty is that there is no hint of this story in either of the two accounts that survive from the 1830s, although both diaries generally recorded a good deal of detail. This does not necessarily mean that the story is untrue, but we do have to ask ourselves how likely it is that both Captain Morgan and Samuel Stephens would neglect to record such an elaborately contrived event?  It is hard to imagine that both would fail to do so.  Moreover the two contemporary accounts of Morgan and Samuels are consistent with each other in every major detail and are entirely plausible. By contrast instructing a sailor to spirit away a two year old child, without her father’s knowledge or consent, and row her to an unknown shore, seems reckless to say the least, and is at odds with our general impression of the careful Captain Morgan.

There are other inconsistencies in the later reminiscences, as might well be expected fifty or sixty years after the events in question.  Robert Russell suggests that Elizabeth Beare is ‘married now I believe’, when in fact she died in 1846.  He also conflates other events, and confuses the point at which Captain Morgan and the others first met the sealers and the Aboriginal women already settled on the Island.  William’s reminiscences are similarly hazy about the events of the first weeks, confusing the time it took to erect tents and create a habitable settlement.  As we know, the overriding initial concern was to find enough fresh water to sustain the settlement. William’s reminiscences imply that the family landed immediately and pitched the tents as they had practised before leaving England, whereas we know from both Captain Morgan and Samuel Stephens’ diaries that the Beare children were not being cared for by their parents at this time, but were in fact, on board under the care of their aunt.  William’s age must also be a factor: he was, after all, only ten years old.

According to both diaries Captain Morgan took the children ashore on 14 August and settled them with their aunt at Samuel Stephens’ tent.  It is quite conceivable to imagine the children squabbling about who should be the first to land, prompting the Captain to decide the argument by selecting the youngest to land first. Perhaps that was how the story first emerged, to be further embroidered later. We know from other sources that even experienced historians can ‘invent’ quite elaborate memories over time.  Perhaps the most famous in recent years is Manning Clark’s claim that he arrived in Bonn on the night of Krystallnacht, (the night on which Nazi storm troopers rampaged through German cities smashing Jewish shop windows,) whereas we now know that he was still in London at this time.  It was his wife who was in Bonn.[i] Given their mother’s illness and the extended absence of both parents, this must have been a very confusing and distressing time for the Beare children.  It is not perhaps surprising that William’s memory of it is clouded, or even perhaps that he prefers not to remember some aspects.

In the final analysis we cannot know for certain who first set foot on the sand at Nepean Bay. As in all historical matters we can only weigh the evidence we have. But generally speaking, historians tend to rely more on contemporary sources than on ‘memories’ recalled many years later.  All sources must be cross-checked against other available evidence, but reminiscences require particularly careful assessment.  In this case we have two contemporary accounts, written independently, that agree in all respects with each other. The alternate accounts appeared many years later and contain many inconsistencies.  Attractive as the Elizabeth Beare version of the story is, if we assess the sources dispassionately, we probably have to conclude that the more prosaic version, which has Samuel Stephens stepping ashore first, is the more likely of the two. But the Elizabeth Beare version of the story has another life by now, in the popular beliefs of Kangaroo Islanders, and that is unlikely to change.

[i] David Marr, ‘Manning Clark’s fraud revealed’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2007.

Share this page:

Comments or Questions:

5 Responses to “First landings – the story of Elizabeth Beare”

    Error thrown

    Call to undefined function ereg()