The year was 1843, and Barbara Thompson was just thirteen years old. At this tender age she had already emigrated with her family from Scotland to Australia, and was living as the de facto wife of a man called William Thompson. They were both on board the cutter America when it ran into a reef off Possession Island, Cape York.
The boat was breaking up on rocks when a lookout sighted a fleet of canoes heading for the wreck, bristling with spears and war clubs. Attempts to parley with the Kaurareg warriors failed. Every man on board was slaughtered, and the doomed ship ransacked.
When the Kaurareg chief, a man called Peaquee, saw Barbara, she reminded him of his daughter, who had recently died. He ordered that she be spared and taken ashore alive.
For five years Barbara lived the life of the chief’s daughter, until a party from a passing ship, the HMS Rattlesnake, came ashore for water. While they were trading with the Kaurareg, they spotted a naked white girl, and after establishing her story, took her aboard and back to civilisation.
Barbara would later marry twice, and became the subject of Ion Idriess’s fictional account: Isles of Despair.
(Written and researched by Greg Barron – Image of the beach where Barbara was rescued, credit: BBC – Sources: gregbarron.com/resources/sources)