Bass Strait Maritime Centre

Tales of Bass Strait Pirates

We’ve been down the rabbit hole of Trove the last few days, and came across this cracker of an article about a Mr Charles Winter that we simply must share. Continue scrolling to have a read. If anyone knows more about this chap or has photographs of him, we’d love to hear from you! Please note that this article does have some period-specific language in it.

Daily Telegraph (Launceston, Tas. : 1883 – 1928), Wednesday 9 February 1921, page 3


Tales of Bass Strait Pirates

“This knife” he said, “could tell a pretty tale, if only it could speak. It belonged to a dirty little Spaniard, as wicked a little devil as ever set foot on a boat or stole a woman away from a wrecked ship.” The old man stood, turning over in his hand the rusty, vicious-looking dirk, as his memory went back through the years to the time when there were real pirates in Bass Strait, when human life was held cheaply, and when men lived through adventures which exist nowadays only in the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Although in his 73rd year, Charles Winter is still hale and strong, with a clear eye and a steady hand. His face lights up as he talks of other days, which he describes with a vividness of language which makes the scenes live again. One can almost see the mountainous seas rolling in, or the wrecker’s fires gleaming through the fog, and hear the whistling of the gale and the roar of the surf on the rockbound coast. In the dim light of the oil lamp, with weird troubles of the past all round, one recognises the realism of Winter’s story of how he crouched down in terror and listened to the wrangling of the pirates of Bass Strait over the division of the spoil.

Nowadays Charles Winter has no adventures. He does not go forth in turbulent seas in a sealer’s boat with a half-caste woman at her tiller. He does not have to dodge the writhing of a whale in its agony in the Antarctic Seas, nor watch in the twilight when the myriads of mutton birds sweep home to rest on the barren shores of King Island. The rockets of ships in distress are no longer for his eyes, and the days are past when he had to fight for life in the cruel waves (says “The Age”). To-day he lives in a clean little house in Commercial-road, following the unromantic calling of smoky chimney curer. But he has his memories, and he loves to talk of happenings that have faded from memories of other men. The walls of his living room are hung around with ancient weapons — old pistols, rusty bayonets, knives and daggers that have figured in deadly combat, native spears and arrows — whilst pictures of full-rigged ships whose names are no longer heard in the harbors of the world are to be seen on all sides. Everywhere there are souvenirs of an adventurous life, and wound round each is a memory.

Born on King Island, on 19th October, 1848. Winter spent most of his life on the islands or in sealing and whaling vessels. Gifted with an excellent memory and with a highly developed sense of the melo-dramatic, he has the art of telling a story as few men can. As he talks tales of long ago wind out, one memory leading

naturally to another, incidents of thirty years ago figuring side by side with happenings of more than half a century old. “I am the only white man alive who remembers the Bass Strait pirates.” he said. They used to build bonfires on King Island to mislead the ships in the fog, and many a good ship have I seen come ashore on the rocks in a heavy gale, and with mountainous seas running. The pirates hid all their loot at Robbin’s Island, and when I was a boy I remember seeing nineteen boats there which had been taken from various ships, together with scores of cutlasses, pistols, knives, and blunderbusses.”

He described the ringleader in staccato sentences. The arch villain was “a Scotchman, the most cowardly ruffian that God ever made. He made off with many a poor woman from a wreck.” Another was “a most desperate rascal, a big, powerful fellow, who thought nothing of taking a fellow creature’s life”. And then there was “the dirty little devil of a Spaniard — a wicked creature, always ready with his knife, but shrewd — he was the shrewdest man on the islands.” Winter leaves one with vivid impressions of these men who lived in a by-gone era. Long-forgotten wrecks emerge from his memory — topsail schooners that came ashore in a gale, big passenger ships that were lured to their doom on the rocks of King Island by the fires of the wreckers. One, a merchant ship, the George Marshall, which went ashore, a total loss, over fifty years ago. Another, The Swordfish, a topsail schooner of about 100 tons, which came to grief at Circular Head, on the north coast or Tasmania, 45 years ago. A third, a brigantine, loaded with New Zealand kauri, the wreck of which was purchased and re-sold at a huge profit. It is fascinating to hear the old man telling of these wrecks of other days.

But the pirates constituted his favorite topic. From his graphic description, one could picture the great, sailing vessel with all sails set, driving in before the gale, lured by the wreckers’ bonfires to her doom on the rocks. “Not a soul was left alive to tell the tale,” said Winter, as he told the story. “The body of a richly-dressed woman was washed up on shore next morning, and one of the wreckers, observing the diamond rings on her fingers, chopped the fingers off so as to obtain the jewellery with the least possible trouble.” But the pirates were forestalled by a black woman. She swam out in the night and removed the gold and jewellery, and would not disclose their whereabouts until one of the pirates married her. Shortly afterwards she was drowned by the capsize of a cutter belonging to her white husband, who married again, this time a white woman, a fine, strapping girl, who was cook for a magistrate in Tasmania. Little intimate details about the mode of life on the islands creep into all his stories— the jealousy amongst the wreckers, their disputes and fights, when knives were drawn, and men disappeared mysteriously in the night.

“I was crouched down in the cow shed one night,” he said, “when I heard two of the leaders arguing over the cutting up of the loot. I was trembling with fear, for I was only a boy, and I heard them swearing great oaths against each other. At last they agreed to go next day and divide the spoil. That night, after they had sailed

away, the wife of one of them dreamt that she had seen their boat sailing on a calm sea on beautiful evening. Suddenly she noticed that the sail dipped, and the next moment she had another vision of the two men fighting — one with a tomahawk and the other with a bottle. From that day to this, neither of the wreckers was ever heard of again.”

The memories seemed to throng in upon him. One moment he was battling for life against the huge waves in the Strait; the next he was climbing ashore over the ice at Cape Adare, Victoria Land. There in his early youth he found a lone cross inscribed in a foreign language, and at its foot two letters in the French language, a gold watch and a pair of binoculars — relics left by an expedition of French explorers of the Antarctic.

Again he was back again off the coast of Tasmania in the doomed ship Rose Ann, of which he was the sole survivor. He was then about eighteen or nineteen years of age, and when the vessel went on the Conical Rocks off Circular Head he jumped over board, braved the surf, and got ashore, where he wandered for ten days, ultimately coming out at the Arthur River, 100 miles away, after untold privations. Graphically and with infinite detail he told of his adventure, of the Tasmanian “tigers” that he killed on the way, of the black possum which disturbed his rest, and which he subsequently ate as punishment for the animal’s unseemly behaviour.

By and by he was back in King Island again. He told of his “adopted mother,” Lucy Beedon, the half-caste woman, who weighed 32 stone, and was Queen of the islands, besides being “the bravest woman who over steered a sealer’s boat.” He spoke of the way the half-caste girls, with the aid of a gauntlet of lamb’s skin, with the wool on the outside, drew the black snakes from the holes in the ground which housed the young mutton birds. He made the mouths of his hearers water with the details of the delicious flavor of the mutton birds, and he piqued their curiosity and appealed to their imagination by picturing the thousands of swift-flying birds soaring up into the air in the face of a gale, and wheeling away to their unknown feeding ground, whence they returned at evening with shrimps to feed their young.

Far into the evening the old salt rambled on, passing from scene to scene, with bewildering suddennence telling of places and characters and happenings that fired the imagination and whetted the appetite for more. A picturesque figure from the past, few of his time remain to tell the stirring tales of life around the coast when Australia was young and of no account among the nations of the world.

Link to the article on Trove