Cooktown – Mrs Mary Watson Story

Mary Watson Story

Cooktown - grave yard

This tragic account of Mary Watson a 23 year old with a four month old infant living on Lizard Island in 1879 still echoes in Northern Queensland today.

Visiting the local cemetery and finding Mary Watson’s grave site was one of the activities we had planned to do while visiting Cooktown in far north Queensland.

This is a fascinating placed filled with history of the early pioneer days of Cooktown and the account of Mary Watson still is alive after 132 years, not a long time in the scheme of things.

Part of pioneer folklore…

Mary Watson is part of the pioneer folklore of northern Queensland, a heartbreaking story of a young woman with an infant son living on Lizard Island with her husband Captain Robert Watson a beche-de-mer fisherman and along with some Chinese servants.

The story goes like this….

While Captain Watson was away, mainland Aboriginals came to Lizard Island, a sacred place for local indigenous people and attack the settlement. One of the Chinese servants was killed, there was an uneasy standoff and Mary Watson along with her infant son and the remaining Chinese servant Ah Sam acquired the only available vessel.

This was a huge metal drum used for boiling  beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) they set sail from Lizard Island 2nd October 1881 unaware that Lizard Island (named by Captain Cook) is the only island in the group with fresh water.

A tragic end

The dishearten result was that the three of them died of thirst; the metal drum discovered a few months later by a passing fishing vessel on 19th January 1882.

The sad picture of the three  fugitives in the metal drum with the infant still at Mary’s breast, along with a diary of her short life on Lizard Island and documentation of their final days, had a huge impact on the local community and unjust reprisals ensued.
The whole account of this tragic event along with the prejudice that existed at the time can be read here in more detail..Mary Watson's grave in Cooktown

Cooktown Cemetery

After a visit to Finch Bay we followed the Tourist Map in search of Mary Watson’s grave.

It took us a while to find the site, the cemetery had a lonely abandoned feel, elaborate headstones adored parts of the graveyard and other sites were just mounds.

A window into the past I believe where there was a time when folks didn’t even have an equal footing in death.

We reach the grave with a puce coloured bougainvillea to the side, the inscription was hard to read, testament to the 130 years since her death.

This is a fascinating place to visit if history is of interest to you..

In addition I am lead to believe that the ruins of the small stone cottage are still visible on Lizard Island, near Mangrove Creek at the southern end of Watson’s Bay.

Maybe one day I will have the privilege of visiting Lizard Island and writing about my visit to this tragic site.

3 comments

  1. jillycal says:

    Thanks Janet, sorry I took so long to acknowledge you comment. Cooktown is a fascinating place and the story of Mary Watson is a reflection of many tragedies that took place in the area. And the comments in her diary are particularly sad.
    Thanks Gillian

  2. Janet says:

    Mary Watson is my 3x Great Aunt. I have always grown up with the family story that we were related and have only recently been able to confirm this. The entire Watson family have such an interesting history in Queensland. My 3x Great Grandfather was brother to Mary Watson’s husband Robert. I am so glad that family history like this is enjoyed by so many.

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