- Hordern, Marsden
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The next few hours passed uneventfully. Stokes had finished his morning sights by ten and went back to the Beagle, intending to return about two o’clock to take a corresponding set of afternoon sights. Bynoe, the hunter, roaming with his party over the wooded country above the cliff, noticed another new finch, Gould’s Amadina Gouldiae, and shot it. He failed, however, to notice a party of Murinbata tribesmen following them stealthily through the scrub, and was so confident that no blacks were nearby that when he returned to the ship at midday he left Tait behind to botanize – despite standing orders which forbade lone wandering in areas inhabited by hostile Aborigines.
Early in the afternoon Stokes prepared to return to his morning observation spot with Tarrant. Meeting Bynoe at the gangway, he paused to chat, then climbed down into the boat and pushed off. As they approached the shore, all was quiet and still. The tide had ebbed, and the boat grounded well out. Faced with crossing half a mile of reef, and reassured by Bynoe’s report that he had seen no natives, Stokes decided not to burden himself with his gun. Taking only the chronometer, he hurried off towards the cliff, with Tarrant and a seaman, carrying the artificial horizon and sextant, lagging behind.
Stokes reached the spot and scanned the cliff above him. Nothing stirred. Then, impatient at the others’ delay, he turned to hurry them along. As he turned, something struck him a violent blow, and he felt a piercing pain in his left shoulder. Realizing instantly that he had been speared, he glanced up in shocked disbelief at the cliff, so recently deserted. It now swarmed with Aboriginals leaping and yelling.
Stokes twisted around, grasped the spear, and tore it out of his shoulder. Then, still clutching both it and the chronometer, he turned and started running frantically back to the boat. The natives scrambled down the cliff after him, while Tarrant and the seaman, seeing the chase, dropped their instruments and began hurrying towards Stokes across the reef. By now blood was pouring from Stokes’s wound: at every step he became weaker and his vision more blurred. He knew, too, from the Aborigines’ voices, that they were gaining on him. Twice he fell, but, spurred on by the sight of his companions running towards him, dragged himself up and staggered on. Then, to his horror, he saw Tarrant and the seaman suddenly stop, turn, and start back towards the boat. Not realizing Stokes had been speared, they had decided that he was making good his escape and did not need their help.
Stokes gave up hope: he could never reach the boat alone. Every second he expected to feel another spear in his back. He stumbled on, however, but with ‘one brief mental act of supplication or rather submission to Him in whose hands are the issues of life and death,’ prepared himself for ‘that last dreadful struggle.’
But Stokes’s time had not yet come. The vigilant Pasco, who had heard the Aborigines’ sudden shouts, had rushed on deck and taken the situation in at a glance. Immediately Emery was off in the cutter, signalling to Tarrant to go back to help Stokes. Tarrant and the seaman turned again, rushed to Stokes and, supporting him on either side, started dragging him towards the boat.
The pursuers were now only thirty yards behind and still gaining; settled into single file they ran purposefully, brandishing clubs. Stokes knew there was no chance of reaching the boat before them: he would have to make a stand. Gasping, he ordered Tarrant and the seaman to turn and face them – a desperate measure, but one which momentarily checked them, and in that pause they sighted Emery’s party rowing furiously towards them.
In a flash the situation changed. Overawed, the blacks turned and fled, covering their flight from Emery’s fire – either by chance or skill – behind Stokes and his supporters, and disappeared into the scrub as quickly as they had emerged. Their shouts died away, silence fell again, and in a moment the scene was as peaceful as it had been minutes before. It had been another almost miraculous escape: