FORBY SUTHERLAND’S GRAVE: ANOTHER POET’S EULOGY

Forby’s Scottish accent is drowned by the tuberculosis death rattle consuming his breath.  Sailing the world he has prepared unfamiliar poultry for Banks’ sketches, the officers’ pot, Tahitian women and Venus’ successful transit.  From a hammock slung aboard HMS Endeavour he dreams of northern crofts.
Death visits terra nullius, the great southern land.  She drifts in the canvas, hand trailing in the longboat’s wake.  She wades ashore, smoothes the sailcloth shroud in the carpenter’s rough box and sits with him, watching the converted collier depart.  They wait ninety years for the poet who knows the birdsongs in the eucalypts’ breath.

____________________

Back on the 4-June-2013 I happened upon my great grandfather Lawrence MacBrair’s  1886 edition of “Poems by Henry Kendall” on our bookshelf.  This volume with a blue cover spray of maidenhair fern in gilt embossing was publish four years after Kendall’s death by George Robertson & Company.  The reason I picked it up is because my family history research has revealed that my great-grandfather Dr George Cox M.D. (whose grave was the subject of an earlier drabble posting) may have had Henry Kendall’s maternal grandparents, the McNallys as tenants on his Illawarra holding.  Certainly there is evidence of Matilda Kendall relocating with her children to her family in the Illawarra in 1853 after her husband’s death on the Clarence River at South Grafton.

On pages 103-104 there was a curious poem titled “Sutherland’s* Grave. [The first white man buried in Australia.]”
The footnote says: “* A seaman of Captain Cook’s first voyage, who died shortly after the Endeavour anchored in Botany Bay.”

After doing a little research I knew a little more about the man whose grave didn’t get a memorial, in spite of calls for the same in newspapers as early as 1863, until the Royal Australian Historical Society acted in 1933,  almost exactly 163 years after the burial.  Captain James Cook named the point on the southern edge of Botany Bay Sutherland’s Point, but the naming of Sutherland Shire was more a result of a clerical officer omitting a letter from the explorer and surveyor Mitchell’s recommended ‘Southerland’ by mistake.

On Thursday 6th June I shared an earlier version of the drabble with my fellow writers at the Bangalow Writer’s Group:

FORBY SUTHERLAND’S GRAVE

It is not Forby’s Scottish accent that chokes him. It is the death rattle, the tuberculosis scourge that slowly slices the man.  In the hammock aboard HMS Bark ‘Endeavour’ he dreams of his northern home, lungs bleeding their protest.
Death visits Terra Nullis, the great southern land.  She drifts in the sails, hand trailing in the longboat’s wake. She comes ashore with the shroud, the mortal remains of a Hebredean sailor wrapped in sailcloth.  She sits with him long after Cook departs and waits for the poet, the one who knows the eucalypts by day, and southern cross at night.

Having done a little more research since then, and with some clear gaps in Forby Sutherland’s (or is it Forbes?) story, I felt happier putting it to bed in the form, even though I am still curious as to how this lad with a farming background made his way as an able seaman onto the Endeavour, where he filled the role of ‘poulterer’ (which I initially thought might involve the keeping of chickens for fresh eggs).  A later writer (and POW survivor), Ray Parkin in his book H. M. Bark Endeavour (2003) elaborates that Forby Sutherland,  was responsible for preparing game birds for the table, including those shot by the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks and Lieutenant Gore.  Was Forby the cook’s apprentice for all thing avian perhaps?

 I cannot help but think how many times I’ve been on a plane taking off or landing at Sydney’s airport, arcing over the southern perimeter of Botany Bay, eyes drawn towards the northern harbour with it’s iconic landmarks. A more grounded visit to the memorial marking the approximate location of his grave is on my list of things to do next time I visit Sydney.  I will take a copy of Kendall’s poem and my own small offering from someone born 200 years after the event.

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