Travels in East Moreton, 1859: An Introduction

In the early months of 1859, the Moreton Bay Courier published a series of seven articles titled ‘Random Sketches of a Traveller through the district of East Moreton’, penned by an author identified only as the ‘Traveller’. These writings provided a snapshot of life in and around Brisbane during a watershed year for the young town. The Moreton Bay penal settlement had closed only seventeen years earlier, and the town was still a remote northern outpost of New South Wales. By the end of the year, however, Brisbane was the capital of the new colony of Queensland.

These ‘Random Sketches’ provide a ground-level view of the district around Brisbane, written as they are by someone moving slowly through the landscape with time enough to observe the changing landscape and those responsible for the change. These are descriptions not only of the destination, but also of the journey itself.

The Traveller was a government official travelling the district in the course of his ‘duties’, and these sketches often descend into propaganda for the nascent colony, repeatedly imploring an imagined English readership to come and settle in the Moreton Bay district. The potential of the natural resources of timber and coal, and the rich agricultural lands, is constantly advertised, as is the ‘progress’ made in stripping back the dense woodlands to ‘open up’ the land for commercial exploitation, and the laying down of infrastructure to better enable that exploitation.   

Despite the generally positive tone of the writings there are some frank portrayals, especially of Cleveland, which in 1859 was a community still coming to terms with an unsuccessful attempt to become the primary port and centre of trade in the northern colony. The town had slipped into an unexpected insignificance, and while Brisbane was the centre of a thriving hotel industry, the Traveller visited a Cleveland hotel that had not seen a customer for two months.

The style here is often flowery ‘journalese’, long-winded and over-poetic. It is employed to describe the feelings of journeying through the landscape, such as on the road to Sandgate:
Now then for the route, the forest road, the glades and thickets, the hill and dale, the joyful breathing of the health-infusing breeze, the mad gallop for a brief space after that timid kangaroo; to luxuriate in such revelry as this, makes one (makes me at all events), at times wise, plot some fortunate discovery, some lucky hit, or providential death of a rich old aunt that had given me possession of the means to wander where fancy wills.
In other scenes, such as recalling a first visit to 1840s South Brisbane, it captures the chaos of a near-riot following an alleged murder:
Passing up the road leading from the water side, in the direction of the accommodation house, we were at once in the midst, pel mell, of bullock bows and yokes wielded and hurled in fearful proximity to our persons. Yells of fiendish blasphemy were uttered on every side, whilst a woman, with her front teeth knocked out from the blow of a bullock yoke, stood shrieking for help in the midst of this rum maddened throng.
His flowery writing also conveys his sense of nostalgia for the earliest days of free Brisbane (he had lived in the area since 1842):
In fact, the old stock, the pioneer squatters of the Moreton Bay country, were gentlemen; they made no boast of their aristocratic acquaintances in the old country, and drank their tin pot of tea, with a bit of beef and damper, in social familiarity with those hardy bushmen who helped them to open out and secure those runs and stations, or rather principalities, which the Plutocracy of Sydney have, unfortunately for these districts, managed to engulph within their ever craving and capacious maws.
The overall result is a fascinating snapshot of a young town and its districts on the verge of ‘adulthood’.