During a tour of the Torres Strait region in 1911, the Governor of Queensland, Sir William MacGregor, had the above photo of an elderly man and two Islander boys (Digital Image ID 5847) taken on Yorke Island. It was titled only ‘Yankee Ned and his grandchildren’. In his dispatch, which later became part of the records at Queensland State Archives, Sir William describes his brief encounter with the old settler on Yorke Island, Mr Mosby. What is missing from our records is the legendary tale of how an American sailor came to be known as the patriarchal Yankee Ned of Yorke Island.
Edward Mosby, aka Yankee Ned, was a Civil War veteran from Virginia, US, who deserted the United States Navy and made his way to Australia on an American whaling schooner. Upon reaching Australian shores he fled the ship after a conflict with the First Mate, and made his way north to the Torres Strait region.
Here, the colloquially named ‘Yankee Ned’ made his home on the island of Masig, now known as Yorke Island. He lived among the Islanders, learning about the local pearl and beche-de-mer trades, and offering the locals a share in the wealth from the sea if they helped him harvest the pearls and sea-slugs, rather than working for the foreign pearlers in the area.
Yankee Ned settled into the community of Masig, marrying Queenie, a local woman who bore him four sons who would come to help Yankee Ned manage his local pearl and beche-de-mer business. But not all the Islanders were happy with the growing influence of this stranger within their midst, and one night Ned and Queenie’s grass-thatched house was set alight while they slept. It was only through the quick actions of the other Islanders that they were able to escape.
Yankee Ned’s popularity rose during a conflict with the villagers of Masig Island and a tribe of fearsome warriors from Mer, or Murray Island. As the canoes of the warriors of Mer came into sight of Masig, Yankee Ned organised the men of the village into a force that was so successful in defending the island, barely a half-full canoe of the Mer attckers were able to escape, and no hostile force ever again tried to invade.
After this, the community of Masig Island came to accept Yankee Ned as a leader, and he introduced many new ideas to the island. He helped the villagers make roads and new gardens, planting hundreds of coconut trees and introducing cattle and horses to the island. His pearling industry flourished, and he used his new wealth to build a new European style house on the north side of the island. He also brought western education to the children of the island, paying the cost of a school master from his own pocket.
In his later years, Yankee Ned lost his leg to an infection from coral poisoning, and his sons and grandsons took over the family pearling and fishing business as Ned could no longer go to sea. He spent his days sitting on the veranda of his home, scanning the waters of the Strait with his telescope for passing ships, and looking over his collection of pearls, the wealth that he had collected over his years on the island.
One night, he noticed a Japanese pearl diver spying on him as he was counting his pearls, and in fear of them being stolen, Yankee Ned buried them on the island, telling no-one their location. Upon his death in 1911, at the age of 71, the location of the pearls was still unknown. While Yankee Ned was buried in the cemetery on Thursday Island, his legacy lives strong amongst his descendants on Masig, a legend of tropical islands and buried treasure.
A more extensive search through the records at Queensland State Archives revealed other snippets of the story of Yankee Ned and the Mosby family. Within the Ecclesiastical files from the Supreme Court of Queensland lies the last will and testament of Edward Mosby, leaving his remaining wealth to his wife and sons. There are also records of correspondence from the Justice and Attorney General’s Department regarding an investigation of transactions between the Mosby family and the Wyben Pearling Fleet. Further information regarding the interactions between the Queensland State Government and the people of the Torres Strait and surrounding areas can be discovered on our website or through the links below.
Number 34 – Queensland Coast Islands Act of 1879, Queensland State Archives; http://www.archives.qld.gov.au/Researchers/Exhibitions/Top150/026-050/Pages/034.aspx
Colonial Secretary’s correspondence relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 1859-1903, Queensland State Archives; http://www.archives.qld.gov.au/Researchers/Indexes/Indigenous/Pages/ColonialSecretaryCorrespondenc1859.aspx
Masig (Yorke Island), Queensland Government; https://www.qld.gov.au/atsi/cultural-awareness-heritage-arts/community-histories-masig/
American Civil War Veterans of Australia & New Zealand: Edward Mosby; http://www.acwv.info/1-files-veterans/M/mosby/mosby.htm
Trove, The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, QLD) Fri 27 Dec 1912, Page 3, TORRES STRAITS AND THURSDAY ISLAND NOTES; http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/79145624?