The Wild White Man of Badu


Two men – such men. Repulsive in repose. Implacable. Blood-shot eyes simmering to blaze into animal fury – now veiled by a cold wariness pretending utter lack of interest in the other. Grim, deep-lined faces shadowing brutal mouths, beards matted with salt spray. Protruding bones made wretched the near-naked bodies seared with wounds from the cat-o-nine-tails, wounds festering under sunburn, wounds hellfire torture from salt spray.

One man would – must kill the other.

The is an extract from the 1950 publication The Wild White Man of Badu, by the prolific, part boys-own-adventure, part pulp author, Ion L. Idriess.


Ion Llewellyn Idriess, OBE (20 September 1889 – 6 June 1979), or ‘Jack’ as he was known was a prolific and influential Australian author. Publishing his first book at 38, he went on to publish 53 books over his life. A soldier at Gallipoli, prospector and a drover, he represented the quintessential Aussie bloke. Largely shunned by the Australian literati, his punctuated hard-boiled tone apparently leaved much to be desired.



A Patrick White he was not. Despite the hints of empire and language that would be deemed slightly course by today’s standards, referring to Indigenous people as ‘blacks’ and ‘savages’, it’s obvious Jack had an affection for the Strait. He spent time sailing around the islands and even lived the homestead of the infamous Frank Jardine on the Cape York Peninsular.



Frank Jardine (28 August 1841 – 1919), a pioneer pastoralist who shot his way across Cape York, bragging to have personally killed 47 Aborigines. He has been venerated as the man that opened up the Cape, he built a homestead in Somerset, married a Samoan Princess Sana Solia and was appointed the police magistrate before dying of leprosy. Pubs, streets and rivers have been named after him.

Princess Sana

Princess Sana

Jack’s Wild White Man of Badu is part fiction part fact, cobbled together from tales whispered in the pubs of TI by old-time pioneer pearlers and notes in Jardine’s journals of Wani, Wild White Man of Badu”, one of “the most fiendish renegades that ever terrorised the seas.”

It is the story of two convicts, Weasel and Wani, who escape from Norfolk Island in 1849 in an open dinghy with a sail and at the mercy of the winds cover some 1700 nautical miles to the Torres Strait. Wani then kills and eats his motley companion, Weasel and sails into mythology.

I like the cut of Jack’s jib, blending truth and fable, as an old journo hack myself, I too never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn…

Where fact blends with fable, take this passage from the book:

The ‘Skull Chief’ Kebisu of Tutu.

…a commanding figure, a tall, bearded, dark-brown warrior with massive shoulder muscles. Coal-black ringlets fell upon those shoulders, but neither they nor the beard could hide the grim jaw and broad savage cheeks. On his chest gleamed the pearl shell “mai”, insignia of Mamoose, the chief of chiefs.

Today the great, great (?) grandson of the Skull Chief Kebisu is the cultural liaison officer at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre. He is a quiet, modest man of slight build and a coy smile – yet his eyes have a burning intensity and he carries a pride of his lineage that is neither inflated or bashful.

The people of Badu or the Badulgal had a reputation as being both fierce warriors and highly competent head hunters, the decapitated heads of warrior foes being the currency of the day.


Jack’s tale of Badu and the eternal feud with the neighbouring island of Moa, each taking out head-hunting raiding parties on each other, sparked a boys-own-adventure, intrigue within me, reminiscent of an age-of-empire innocence, that belongs to my father’s generation rather than my own. Separated by a channel of sea, narrow enough to be mistaken for the mouth of a river.

Today, although the currency of severed heads is no longer legal tender, the people of Badu have a very strong culture and they flex their fierceness on the sports field and in their dance.

Badu Island Dance Team

Badu Island Dance Team


The destiny that drove this man on was uncanny. Seas, tides, winds, storms, thirst, hunger; not man-controlled happenings but even the forces of nature drew him on inexorably over great distances and through many perils to the one spot, in the right time, and under almost magical circumstances to where he could take his island.

Wani then washes up on Badu Island in the midst of a thunder storm and rather unbelievably slays the island chief and proclaims himself king, naming himself Wongai, which he mistakenly understands means warrior. Its actually the name of a revered indigenous plum. He inadvertently named himself after a piece of fruit. Jack obviously had a sense of humour.

Wongai Plum

Wongai Plum

Now jump 165 years into the future.

Under the jurisdiction of Australian territory, the people of Badu finally realised an intergenerational battle to gain the sovereignty of their island, and on February 1, 2014, the Queensland Government officially handed the title of land back to the traditional owners. Cadging a lift with Assistant Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, member for Cook, David Kempton, I was able to be there for the historic occasion. Flying in on a chopper instead of at the whim’s of the wind in the Wild White Man’s small boat a century and a half earlier, I wondered which wild white man I was and which was David. Hmmm, an old fruit and a weasel, I’ll leave that one hanging…

Notice we both have our 'Top Gun' sunnies on.

Notice we both have our ‘Top Gun’ sunnies on.


Luckily neither of us would have to cannibalise the other to survive the trip, as there would be plenty of island kai kai, of crayfish and kupmurrie to go round at the celebrations.

David, part of Queensland’s Newman Government is not particularly popular in this Labor stronghold and many find his laissez-faire nonplussed attitude arrogant. David lamented in conversation about a recent engagement where Indigenous Elders were protesting where he tried to talk to them and was told, “I’d rather speak to the horse’s mouth than the horse’s arse.”

David sighs: “When I look in the mirror at night I ask myself, am I really all those things they said I was?”

A solicitor in his previous life, wearing fine Italian leather shoes, David declined a photo of him in front of the chopper: “The Courier Mail crucifies me in the press for government exorbitance, with other photos in me getting around in choppers.”

I had graciously offered to whore myself as his photographer for the lift.

On finding out our bird only has a solitary engine, he again laments dryly: “I’m not allowed to fly in a single engine chopper, I’m sure my number must be coming up soon, spent so much time flying around the electorate in one these things.”

Despite this he still darts for the front seat like an anxious school kid: “You can have the front on the way back.”

An idyllic island our pilots says is infested with Death Adders.

An idyllic island our pilots says is infested with Death Adders.

a couple of the 4,000 ships that pass thru the Strait annually.

a couple of the 4,000 ships that pass thru the Strait annually.


After a series of impassioned speeches by indigenous leaders, David took the podium to share a few words before officially handing over the deed title to an Island Elder.


The three flags behind me (Torres Strait, Australian and Aboriginal) are symbols of three nations and a symbol of separation. Two hundred years ago when the British flag, which appears on today’s flag, was stuck into the ground and raised, it swept away the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It wasn’t until Eddie Mabo came along and addressed how Terra Nullius was wrong, that he swept that away.”

Today we are trying to fix that wrong here on Badu and respect your rights and self governance.

I am absolutely confident when your community will make decisions from now on, it will be the right one, as it has not been imposed upon you.”

Deed title and a slouch hat...

Deed title and a slouch hat…


With our unseasonally good weather hole in the Wet closing up, after a flurry of handshakes and wolfing down a couple of cray tails, we had to dash back to the chopper before the black clouds again swallowed up the sky. David had to be back in Cairns for the opening of the Chinese year of the Horse, hopefully he would be regarded as the mouth this time and not the posterior.

He also graciously let me ride in the front on the way back, to complete my boy’s-own-adventure fantasy.

IMG_1505 IMG_1518

4 thoughts on “The Wild White Man of Badu

  1. Damn good show I say! Keep the chin up old man, the Queen still needs good chaps like you! May I suggest taking a “cat-o-nine-tails”, and beating the weasel and the old fruit outta you? Good thing your government chap didn’t have to deal with a more prominent part of the horse’s anatomy! And get your mind outta the gutter, I was thinking about the pancreas, what a superior insulin making machine it has! Good to know the boy is alive and well!

  2. It’s good to hear from another outsider to our region and Island home. By the way the handing over of the DOGIT was again another process in which the traditional people themselves were left out of the equation. No one knows and do not want to know about the internal conflicts that exist between the traditional and historical people. Historical people have been in power since the early 1900’s and their descendants are still in decision making positions, which still alienates the true traditional owners of our God given inheritance.

    • Thanks for the comment Maureen. I appreciate that for many traditional owners, this may not have been the result they wanted. I also totally agree that they ‘historical’ people that you refer to are still in decision making positions which alienate traditional owners. However I disagree that no one whats to know about these internal conflicts. I admit the majority of non-indigenous Australians may not, but there are some that do, myself included and I hope my time up here in this amazing parto f the world, allows me to develop a better understanding of those issue.

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