The Torres Strait, lying between Australia and New Guinea, has been an important international sea lane ever since Luís Vaz de Torres first navigated it in 1605. Its shallow waters and maze of reefs made it notoriously hazardous, but what really gripped the imagination of European seafarers were the stories of those unfortunate enough to be cast adrift among the Strait’s clusters of islands, into the hands of the ‘murderous savages’ who inhabited them.
Every so often, news would emerge of Europeans who had befallen such a fate. One such remarkable story was that of a young man named Joseph Forbes, who had been rescued from Timor Laut in April 1839, after being held captive for 17 years.
Joe Forbes set sail from London in 1821 as a 10 year-old cabin boy on board the schooner Stedcombe, along with his older brother Bill Forbes. Its mission was to trade with the Torres Strait islanders and they eventually reached Timor Laut some months later. One morning, the captain and crew – including the older Forbes – tentatively went ashore on the island of Olillet to make contact with the natives, leaving the vessel in the hands of the steward, Joe, and another boy named John Edwards.
Joe kept watch on the captain and crew through the ship’s telescope. Their initial meeting with the islanders suddenly turned violent, and to his horror, Joe saw the natives attack and kill the captain and crew, including his brother.
In a state of panic, the two boys slipped the cable and the steward attempted get under weigh. However, they were not fast enough to outrun the natives’ canoes. The natives clambered aboard and surrounded the steward, while the boys took refuge up in the rigging. Joe saw the natives “dash the steward’s brains out” with a handspike and throw his body overboard.
Joe and John clung on to the mast head until the evening. The natives made several attempts to climb up after them, but their evident fear of heights kept them on deck. They fired several arrows at the boys, but none found their target. Realising that they couldn’t stay up there forever, the boys eventually resolved to come down. The natives immediately stripped them, put them into the canoes and took them ashore.
On their arrival, the boys found that the natives had arranged the now headless bodies of their shipmates in a line on the beach. As part of a ritual, the natives made the boys walk over the bodies. Treading on the third body in line, Joe recognized it as the remains of his brother.
On the following day the bodies were thrown into the bay, the heads were tied together and hung up on a tree in the centre of the village, around which the natives danced for 3 successive days and nights. When the heads finally decomposed, they were taken down and placed alongside a stone near the beach. They remained there for 6 years before Joe had the opportunity to secretly bury them.
The natives had ransacked then set fire to the vessel, so all Joe and John’s hopes of escape had gone. They were treated as slaves. During the day the boys were set to work planting cocoa nuts, yams and melons, and during the evening they fished. Their diet mainly consisted of yams and fish.
John survived captivity for 7 years but eventually succumbed to his ill-treatment, leaving Joe as the Stedcombe’s sole survivor. After John’s death, his remains were placed in a basket and hung up on a tree on the beach, where they remained until the bones fell piece by piece through the decaying basket. Joe picked up his friend’s bones from around the root of the tree and secretly buried them too.
Initially, Joe also took his share of beatings, mainly because he couldn’t understand his captors’ orders. But, as the years passed, he picked up their language and was treated more humanely. Nevertheless, he had to suffer tribal initiations: his earlobes were pierced to carry earrings nearly half a pound each in weight; his teeth were filed to the gums; his arms were branded; and the back of his right hand was tattooed. Whenever a ship came in sight of the island, he was bound hand and foot and carried into the interior until it had gone.
By 1839, his 17th year of captivity, Joe’s feet were ulcerated because of his confinement in a hut and he was unable to walk. In March that year, a Dutch man-of-war anchored at Olillet. The natives went on board and told the captain that they were holding an Englishman and would release him in exchange for muskets and ammunition. The Dutch captain thought better of arming the natives and left. About a week later he met an English sea captain operating in the area – Captain Thomas Watson, skipper of the Essington – and informed him of their captive countryman.
Captain Watson decided to mount a rescue mission. On 31 March the Essington reached Olillet and several natives, including one of the principle chiefs, came on board. Captain Watson took the chief as a prisoner and drove the others off, telling them that the chief would be held captive until the Englishman was delivered safely on board.
The natives made several attempts to rescue the chief, including an attempt to capture the vessel, but the Essington’s crew repelled them. Losing patience, Watson said that unless the Englishman was given up immediately, the chief would be summarily executed. The alarmed chief sent an order to his people to comply and Joe was finally handed over. The chief was given three old muskets, some handkerchiefs and fishing hooks for his trouble, and was sent on his way.
Joe presented a shocking sight to the Essington’s crew. He was crippled and covered in ulcerated sores. His hair was extremely long, as were his earlobes – unnaturally extended from the weight of the earrings he was forced to wear. Remarkably, he still wore the same waistcoat he had worn as a 10 year-old cabin boy, as well as remnants of his white cotton shirt, which he wore around his waste to protect his modesty. After 17 years among the natives, he had largely lost his use of English and only recalled enough to pronounce his name. He wasn’t even sure of the nationality of his rescuers.
Joe was taken to Sydney where he spent months recovering from his long ordeal. He also recovered his native language and before long spoke English as fluently as he ever did. A public subscription raised enough money to finally bring him back to London in October 1841 – some 20 years after he had first departed.