South Arm: Betsey Island: mountain in the water with many names

Betsey Island viewed from Mount Nelson.jpg
‘The Mountain in the Water’ viewed from Mount Nelson

Who are you really, Betsey Island?

Betsey is a hump of island, the largest of the three in the Betsey Island Group and although it is visible from a number of Hobart suburbs, because of the hilly landscape and the peninsulas that surround the city, it often disguises itself as just another bump in the landscape.  Like Tinderbox Peninsula, its reefs were shaped by volcanic activity and on three sides cliffs rise steeply.  It has a small pebbled beach, Black Jack Reef lies between Betsey and Hope Beach and if Tinpot Island, also a member of the Betsey Group, is the sentinel for the Derwent River, then Betsey Island in Storm Bay is a sentinel as you sail towards Frederick Henry Bay.

2 Hope Beach betsey and little betsey.jpg
Betsey Island and Little Betsey Island viewed from the Hope Beach reef

Sailing Betsey

I was pretty excited the first time I took part in one of the 29 nm races from its start at Castray Esplanade in the Derwent River, out around Betsey Island and back to start on a Trad 30.  It remained a favourite race because it left the confines of the river and took in  a stretch of coastline I walked but rarely sailed.

It was on race that I discovered that Betsey Island had a tiny companion, Little Betsey Island, tucked under its southern shoulder and that this little island trails a reef too.  On the lovely Birngana, we came in tantalisingly close beneath Betsey’s eastern cliffs on one race (seabirds swirling above), seemed just behind Hope’s breaking waves on another and, each time I’ve done this race, it’s proved long enough to glide to a halt  on a mirrored surface in the river, to enjoy a reach exhilaratingly heeled, to watch the sea state change time over time with the arrival of catspaws or wild gusts.  Spinnakers up, or reefs in, maybe romping back up the river or stuck at the back of the fleet, the sailing on Birngana was always convivial, the rounding of the two Betseys full of curiosity and wonder, and the fun of the race always continued through drinks and snacks back in the berth.

Confused Identity

Names come and go and play a role shaping  identify.   For the longest time Betsey Island is understood to have been called Teemiteletta or Lore.by.larner.wa.  There is a record of both names, presumably given by different tribes – the latter name seems linked to the Moomairremener, who had a myth about a group of girls who went across to Lore.by.larner.wa to enjoy themselves, but were chased by some men.  To escape them they leapt into the sea and a spirit, Rageoropper, who judged in favour of the girls, turned the men into rock, while the girls swam back to rejoin their tribe. (Go girls! #metoo.)

 Those name givers that made their way over the water to the island as wild swimmers or in their bark canoes left memories of their journeys by way of scatters of shell and stone.  They’d have been seeking mutton birds, shellfish and penguin eggs.  Bruni D’Entrecasteaux, the French explorer, called the mountain in the sea Willaumez Island after Jean Baptiste Willaumez, who was on board the  Recherche with him.

In the 1800s the British came with a heavier footstep and in short succession the island gained a string of new names – Lady Franklin Island, Franklin Island and these days Betsey Island.  It’s possible it may have been named after Betsey, the daughter of Sergeant MaCauley and his wife Maria, who farmed in the Clarence area and were friends with the Reverend Knopwood.

The island was still being used by the Moomairremener in the first years though, because in 1804 an aboriginal man was taken from the island into Hobart and the governor ordered him to be dressed in European clothes.  Luckily he was able to escape that night (Nicholls, cited by Clarence City Council).

In 1814 another group of aborigines were found sitting around a fire on the island and encouraged to visit Hobart.  Again they were inspected by the Governor and given clothes.  After being offended by a local it is unclear whether they were taken to Bruny Island or drowned as they tried to reach it.

Betsey’s Many Uses

In the early days of the colony two convicts were placed there to signal when a ship was sighted, either by firing a gun by day or lighting a fire by night. It was used  as a lookout by whalers.

It also became the home of the offspring of  five rabbits who were on the First Fleet to Australia.  In the 1820s, when the island was bought by a Mr James King, he built himself a stone house, took his water from a couple of fresh water springs and set about  breeding rabbits for the Chinese fur trade, a profound shock to the island’s ecosystem.  His endeavours were quite successful but he sold the island on for 470 pounds to Captain John Bell and Mr Crombie, who continued this business … and while the men sold rabbit pelts to China, the rabbits nibbled steadily through Teemiteletta’s pelt.

By the 1840s the dishevelled island had been bought by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin for 910 pounds and one of her many creative notions was to establish a botanical garden or game reserve there.  The plan never came together and the island was left to itself, although it was visited occasionally by fishermen and was the temporary hang out of  a handful of deserters, feasting on rabbits and birds, no doubt, while they patiently waited for their ship, the Cicero (American) to leave Hobart.

Then, in The Mercury of 24 May 1876 there’s this intriguing report:

Land Slip at Franklin Island.

A letter received by Mr. J. W. Graves from’James Alexander, better known as ” Old Alick,” who has for some years resided on Franklin Island, recorded an interesting occurrence that occurred there on the 18th inst. Alick states that himself and the boy who resides with him were at the back of the island about four o’clock in the afternoon, when they had a narrow escape of being buried alive.
They had just crossed the flat ground at the back end of the long hill, when the land began to move steadily, ” the same as a ship being launched.” In a few moments an immense mass of earth,’ the best piece of land on the island, fell into the water, leaving, as the writer describes it, “a great gulf.”
Alick seemed very much concerned about it, probably from an idea that at any moment the whole island may disappear in a similar manner.’ He says it does not look like the same island, and wants Mr. Graves to go down and see it. Franklin Island, as is well known, was named after that noble lady who passed away last year;  but the native name of it was Teemiteletta, or, mountain in the water. It was given by Lady Franklin to the people of the colony, and has always been looked upon with great interest. It would be a thousand pities if it was swallowed up in the Derwent.

The Real Owners

Forget the affairs and acquisitiveness of men.  These two islands and the Betsey Reef are now part of a 176 ha nature reserve which somewhat protects its natural owners.  On its rocky dolerite cliffs, with outcrops of sandstone, on its scree slopes, sedgeland and saltmarsh life exists.  White’s skink and the she-oak skink live here.  Birds add colour and music to the open eucalypt woodlands and burrow into the sandier soils but there is only one mammal – the silver-haired rabbit  – that erodes Teemiteletta still – well, at least up until 2002 – but let’s hope the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service has rectified this by now.

In  1985 and 1999, when Nigel Brothers and David Pemberton surveyed the island there were over 15,000 little penguins living there, joined in summer by approximately 150,000 shearwaters.  The penguins, arriving and departing the island risked their lives because both professional and recreational fishers set nets just offshore. It is  outrageous that nets were not been banned decades ago.

232 black-faced cormorant couples also lived on Betsey then.  Kelp gulls were outsiders – only 3 pairs and 11 individuals set up home here.

They saw a white-faced heron.  A pair of sea-eagles had a nest in the eucalyptus forest but wedge tailed eagles also had a presence.  Other raptors included swamp harriers and the brown goshawk and in the Eucalyptus globulus woodland there were spotted pardalote, noisy miners, various honeyeaters, the grey butcherbird, the forest raven, the nankeen kestrel and silvereyes.

The thunder of the human footprint also exists in the weeds that limit Teemiteletta’s life giving generosity.  Boxthorn and Cape Leeuwin wattle restrict the natural habitat available to the amazing diversity of species this small 175.13 ha island supports.

Beautiful Graveyard

I didn’t know when we sailed by Betsey that beneath us lay wooden and metallic corpses, now bejewelled with marine flora.  Old ships need graveyards and since 1916 they’ve been dragged out to Little Betsey Island to create vibrant underwater gardens frequented by divers.    Two of the ships are flattened 1930s freighters now lying off Little Betsey Island reef and a number of harbour vessels lie out to the west.  There’s even a section of Hobart’s old pontoon bridge there.

(For more about the scuttled ships see these links:  Shipwrecks of Tasmania , Tasmanian Scuba Diving Club and the Marine Life Network

Black Jack Snaffles a Ferry

Black Jack Rocks, closely associated with Betsey Island snared a nautical prize in 1994.  Incat, Hobart’s ferry making success story, had been contracted to build Condor 11, a 78 m vessel, but on its trial in Storm Bay on 8 October 1994, there was a navigational slip up  and in the darkness of the night the ferry rushed a full boat length on to the semi-submerged reef – and stayed there for a good two months, its stern and portside hull clear of the water, while repeated rescues were attempted until finally it was freed.

Fish Farms

Change is coming again to the mountain in the sea.  Conscious of the damage done to the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Macquarie Harbour, fish farms are moving out into Storm Bay.  The proliferation in this area will have a negative environmental and recreational impact on the bay and the island.

Sources:

Brothers, Nigel; Pemberton, David; Pryor, Helen; & Halley, Vanessa. (2001). Tasmania’s Offshore Islands: seabirds and other natural features. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery: Hobart.

Clarence City Council.  Aboriginal people and early European activity. n.d.

Clarence City Council.  2002? Early settlers (pdf)

Donnelly, Area.  Bunnies by the billions thanks to one gun-loving Englishman.  The Daily Telegraph January 12, 2016.

HISTORY OF BETSY ISLAND. The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 14 October 1913. p. 4. Retrieved 5 January 2016.

Tasmania. Parks and Wildlife Service. 2002.  Small South-East Islands Draft Management Plan 2002, Hobart.  

Textual Silence Project. 2014. A brief history of Betsey Island

Wickham, Mark. 2005.  Entrepreneurship and the management of innovation in the global marketplace: the Incat story. The Management Case Study Journal Vol.5 Issue2 Nov 2005: pp83-93


6 thoughts on “South Arm: Betsey Island: mountain in the water with many names

      1. Yes, he lived on the island for almost a decade. At first he was employed as a gamekeeper (in connection with the rabbit trade), a job that lasted around 18 months from memory, and then he lived the remainder of the time with no known income. He was better known as Elshender, referred to by one newspaper in Scotland as “a modern day Rob Roy.”

      2. In fact, here’s the newspaper report (he was eventually transported to Tasmania on spurious charges):

        Edinburgh Advertiser newspaper report, 13th November 1840:

        Apprehension of a Desperate Robber

        ‘Our readers will recollect, that on the 23rd of last month, James Alexander, or Elshender, a notorious robber who had earned himself the sobriquet of “The Modern Rob Roy,” had broken out of Lanark jail, where he was incarcerated, charged with a desperate act of highway robbery; and that £20 was offered by the authorities there for his apprehension. Since then the police have been on the alert, to discover the daring freebooter; and having got a hint that he was likely to visit Hallow Fair, Sergeant-Major Colquhoun traced Elshender on Wednesday afternoon to a house in Bruntsfield Links, where, assisted by the criminal officers of the Establishment, and Mr Currie, Chief Officer of Police at Lanark, they pounced upon him and a confederate named Somerville. Both Elshender and Somerville are strong and desperate men, and they made a powerful resistance, but Colquhoun and his party succeeded in overpowering them both, and in dragging, or almost carrying them bodily, to the cells of the Police Office, where they were safely lodged, to be dealt with according to the law. The farmers in the west of Edinburghshire, as well as those of Lanark and Linlithgowshires, will, we believe, feel relieved by the knowledge that Elshender is at length in safekeeping.’

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