This prose poem and excerpts from it have been published by several magazines and newspapers over the years. It is partly based on word of mouth accounts of squatters and Aboriginals as reported in articles that appeared in newspapers of the period, and of the account given in the diary of Captain Charles Swanson, in which he recorded Akers, their guide's account of the events which led up to his parting company with Gellibrand and Hesse. The dialogue in this poem between Gellibrand, Hesse, and Akers is almost word for word with the diary record. I have also accessed other historical records relating to that period (See Notes for details).
Many history books wrongly describe Gellibrand and Hesse as brave explorers who lost their way. As a result of this myth, rivers, mountains, and towns have been named after them, in my opinion, undeservedly. Gillibrand and Hesse had vast land holdings in Victoria and were members of The Port Phillip Association, a consortium of squatters and businessmen.
Both Gillibrand and Hesse were well-to-do members of the British Colonial Society, who spent their time in Hobart attending their duties and occupations as high ranking civil servants and in Geelong and Melbourne, consolidating and expanding their business interests and the interests of the Port Phillip Association. Hesse was a Lawyer and Gillibrand the first Attorney General of Tasmania.
At the end of February 1837, they set off down the Barwon intending to branch up the Leigh and follow it round in a wide arc to join the Werribee River and so reach Melbourne. Refusing to take the advice of their guide, they took the wrong turn at the junction of the Barwon and the Leigh, wandered down into the Otways and were never seen again.
Stories and reports tell of a skeleton being identified by dental work after it was recovered from a settler, others tell of wild horses wearing fragments of the harness being seen in the Otways. Another story supposes that Hesse had died in the forest, and that Gellibrand wandered as far as Moonlight Head, where he was discovered by an Aboriginal Clan, with whom he lived for three months, before being speared to death by the members of a rival clan. Whatever the truth, the disappearance of Gellibrand and Hesse is one of the most enduring and fascinating myths of the region.
Some of the Aboriginal clans referred to in the final verse of this poem were part of the Wathaurong tribe (an assortment of clans with ancestral blood ties). According to reports from early settlers most of these clans were hostile to each other and often fought amongst themselves, although they belonged to the same tribe. The clans that lived on the opposite side of Moonlight Head, belonged to other Aboriginal tribes, possibly the Gadubanud.
Notes: Background information for this poem can be found in the Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, Vol. XIV, ser.111. Vol IV and V; R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol II, chapter XVIII; C.R. Long, Journals of Proceedings Royal Historical Society, vol.XXI, p.306; C.H. Bertie, The Home, May 1931; Letters from Victorian Pioneers, p. 279. The Colonial Times, Wednesday july 10, 1844. John Batman (The Inside Story of the Birth of Melbourne). Joy Braybrook. Chapter 16, 2012. A History of the Colony of Victoria. Vol I A.D. 1797-1854. Henry Gyles Turner. Chapter VII. The Diary of Captain Charles Swanson. Victorian Historical Society. The Port Phillip Herald. 1840. Sunday Advertiser. February 25, 2001.
In 1837, Gellibrand and Hesse sailed
from Van Dieman’s land across the Strait,
heading for the Swanson Station,
their destiny: to follow the Barwon
to the junction of the Leigh, and then,
through a veil, into a great mystery.
Setting out with Robert Akers, an expert
tracker and guide, they followed
the Northern banks of the Barwon
till Akers suddenly stepped aside:
"I ain’t goin’ any further sirs, without
proper food and drink, for yonder lies
the wild country: Corangamite,
Moonlight Head and Blanket Bay,
and mishaps aplenty for any man,
who, by pride and arrogance,
is easily led Astray.
Of that I have no doubt sir.
But I’ll bet my poor shepherd’s purse
(providing you say your penance first)
that you’ll sooner end up in the House
of the Lord, than before the friendly fire
that burns at Pollock’s Ford."
"Then be off with you, you truant pilot – be off!"
Gellibrand exclaimed as he reared his horse
at Aker's side. "Before I take this whip
to your miserable shepherd’s hide!
Then Hesse interjected, as both turned
their horses for the ride:
"I’m no coward, Joseph,
but an ominous presentment
pervades my mind, concerning
the words of this truant guide."
"Has your reason softened to this wretch’s
cowardice and lies?" Gellibrand replied.
"Would you too desert me with this glorious
park - like country before our very eyes?
Come, my chickenhearted friend,
let’s be done with doubt and speculation
and take this journey to its end."
For three days they crossed
the Birregurra plain, where optimism
finally gave way to despair,
and on the third night,
huddled around a miserable flame,
both came to realize that Aker’s directions
may have served them right.
In the East, the full pearl of the moon
was rising, in the West, the sun
was going down, soaking the sky
with a sometimes strong, sometimes
subtle blush or brush, singeing the edges
of clouds, and between their doomed
dark sails, cast intermittent tunnels of light.
"What a wonderful night," said Mr. Hesse,
who sat shivering and cold, his face
a glow with fear and anticipation.
And Gellibrand sighed as he looked
into the sky and said: "it’s a dreadful beauty
now my friend that holds us prisoners
in her bed. But we must not attend
to melancholy, nor let the weight
of its anchor drag us down,
for tomorrow we head for those hills
and the coast, and with God’s grace
and a bit of luck, hail a brig
and sail for Melbourne town."
The next day they headed southward
into the bush, where they stumbled
across the Barret River, intending
to follow it to the coast. But on the fifth day,
Hesse’s horse bolted, and on the sixth,
Gellibrand’s mare had given up its ghost.
But the smell of salt in the air
kept their spirits high, as both continued
without provisions to follow
the current of the stream,
sleeping at night where they fell,
escaping for a while into oblivion or a dream.
And as day followed night and night
followed day, they followed what became
the flow of an eternal stream,
that gradually drowned communication,
puncturing the silence between
with an occasional grunt or scream.
And at night they were tossed in a broken sleep
and were visited by spirits of the air
and trees, who scattered their thoughts
a little more, as they infiltrated their hopes
and dreams, driving out the gifts
of their breeding, and all the edifices
of a gentleman’s education,
till all that remained was instinct,
and a heightening of every sensation;
the man in each, succumbing to
the machinations of the beast.
Some say they were speared by the Karakoi
at Corangamite, others say they wasted away
in the shelter of a Warrion cave; some say
a squatter named Henry James was led
by a Koori to Gellibrand’s grave - below a midden
in the hills - that he kept his skull as a trophy,
filling its sockets with an ink-well and quills.
Some say Gellibrand made it to Ngalla Country,
living for three moons with the clan, till slain
in an ambush by Ngarowurd men
(while penning his journal on the sand),
who corked his nostrils with bracken shafts
and stuffed his mouth with river bed,
then left his body for the flies and crows
to feast on at Moonlight Head.
© 2022 Eugene Alexander Donnini