Australian Buffaloes

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald of 1924, about the introduction of buffaloes to Australia in 1857, an adventure involving both a great-great-grandfather and a great-great-great-grandfather of mine. I wonder if the ship mentioned below, the Florence Street, was named after a member of the illustrious Street Family of New South Wales.

To the late Captain Peverley, of Balmain, belongs the credit of having introduced the buffalo to Northern Australia, though he did so indirectly in a measure, when the good barque the Florence Street became a total wreck on the northern coast, not very far from where Wyndham now stands.

Captain Peverley, ship master and ship owner had, when he settled in Balmain, 28 ships of various sizes and capacities; he always boasted that not one was a “coffin ship”, and that he himself would sail on them in any sea, in any weather, and he would add as climax that he would give a first-rate rope’s ending to any of his crew, who dared to complain or say otherwise. He was a true type of the ship’s master of the old windjammer days, days when Sydney Harbour was crowded with sailing craft of all kinds, the days of the middle and late ‘fifties, when the gold fever had reached its crisis after the astonishing yields from Bendigo and Ballarat.

Captain Peverley made his home at Balmain, where probably the foundations of the fine old house still rest. He liked the bush land rising above the bay, where the fore- shores made pier building easy and inexpensive, where he could, in person, and without undue exertion, supervise the docking, the stocking, the incoming and the outgoing of his craft. The soaring price of cattle and sheep succeeding the gold rushes, gave to the captain an idea about buffaloes; he had traded for years along the coasts of India, Burmah, and amongst the Malay States. He had braved typhoons, pirates, mutinies, and the bad times when trade had ebbed away, and was now ready as ever to take up a new venture if it held any promise of profit. His barque, the Florence Street, was well adapted to the transhipment of cattle, and the carrying out of the project was put in the hands of his most trusted friend and ship master, Captain McBurney, a Glasgow man, reputed to be as “tight as he was long headed” where business was concerned. So the Florence was put in commission, and very handsome she looked as she lay out in the bay, right in front of Captain Peverley’s garden, newly rigged, newly painted, a perfect model of a windjammer. There, too was a picked crew. Officers and men were all old hands with the owner or with his master. Captain McBurney. The sailors wore pigtails then and would have despised a ship which had no whipping-post; for the rope’s end led the seaman from his apprenticeship to the A.B. stage, and a ship master who failed to conform to the established idea would have been regarded as a phenomenon, and a weak one at that.

The ship left Sydney in April, 1856 or 1857, so that the trip to the Orient would be falling in with the sou’-west monsoon, and then the fearful hurricane which might be expected from September to April would be avoided , That time of storm might well be spent in short coasting trips, getting in touch with rajahs and petty rulers who would be willing to aid in the shipment of buffaloes. All went well. The buffaloes were collected at a very cheap rate, and by the end of August the Florence Street sailed in, and from each depot along the coast the animals were loaded, rough cattle races being built by the coolie labour of the district. So far so good. Neither Captain Peverley nor McBurney had let fall a hint of their purpose, meaning to spring a surprise on the meat markets of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, Even a trial shipment to New Zealand was in Captain Peverley’s mind. The luck of the Florence Street had been almost phenomenal, and in a measure she was the darling of the Captain’s trading fleet. He suffered not anxiety, pursuing his hobby of landscape gardening with tranquil mind, whilst his friend McBurney ranged the rough country for his living cargo. Captain McBurney’s experiences at sea had never comprised the handling of buffaloes, nor had he aboard an experienced stockman, and from this want of foresight in organisation the subsequent disaster was due. The question of fodder was extremely difficult, and could only be met by setting the natives to work on making a half dried hay, which soon turned sour, and had much of it to be thrown overboard. The captain timed his departure for the end of September, but was a month late in leaving Rangoon, and then had to go back and beat along the Malayan coast to pick up fresh fodder and now supplies of fresh water. The giant beasts were housed on the middle deck, and the pens not being too secure broke away, and the beasts, freed, made a kind of stampede on the upper deck, their terror at the wild weather making them mad.

The weather grow worse and worse, the food supply failed, and the Florence Street ran, when off the coasts of Timor, into a gale, or rather a typhoon, before which she was carried almost with bare poles on to the reefs near the estuary of the Ord River. Captain and crew narrowly escaped with their lives, for the terrified cattle broke the remaining barriers and stampeded the ship, falling down companion ways, rushing the bridge and stateroom, and gradually being driven by an excited crew into the sea. Bulwarks were removed, where they had not carried away in the fearful weather, which had been of unprecedented violence through two days and nights. Many of the buffaloes were drowned, others managed, to gain the sheltered waters of the estuary and were soon at home in the grassy marsh lands lying about the lower Ord River. The captain and crew waited for the stormy season to pass, making camp where Port Essington was established later. Friendly natives carried the news across country to the police station newly established at Broome, and a pearler’s schooner came to the rescue as soon as weather permitted. The timbers of the ill-fated Florence Street lay on the reefs for many a long year, finally disappearing in the terrible hurricane which swept the coast in the ‘Eighties. That was Captain Peverley’s first and last cattle deal, but to him the honour of pioneer buffalo breeder is due. The animals were extremely prolific in their new domain, and within two decades the export of buffalo skins was of considerable value, and the loss of the Florence Street meant the gain to Australia.”

A. Howe [1924]: Buffaloes: Introduction in 1857. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 1924.

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