The Doctor and the Dugongs

The Doctor and the Dugongs

Have you ever had someone take credit for your work?

Maybe your boss pretended that brilliant new roster was all their idea?

Or your sister in law took credit for the Christmas lunch YOU put together while she sat about in the kitchen? 

I think something like this has happened to all of us.  It even drives my daughter bananas when someone copies her painting ideas at school!

Imagine the worst time this has happened to you, and then multiply it by a thousand…

Imagine someone taking credit for knowledge you had, then they made an incredibly successful business out of it, had you work for them until it got off the ground, then sacked you and hired their friends. 

Imagine they gained not just fortune but fame, they literally won international awards and acclaim.

This is, exactly that story…


Moreton Bay was once brimming with Dugong, I like to imagine them frolicking in the shallows nibbling from seagrass meadows. Racing each other through the water and sunning themselves on rocks (although I’m absolutely confusing them with seals there!)

But at one particular point in time, the numbers started dropping, drastically, and I bet you can guess when…

Did you guess the late 1800’s early 1900’s? You got it!

Amazingly there was basically one guy in particular we can thank for that.

You’ve heard of him, he owned a lot of land in Scarborough once upon a time… Dr William Hobbs.

 Image courtesy of Moreton Bay Regional Council, reference number RLPC-000\000294

 There he is! How’s that beard hey?  As much as this story is about him, I don’t want it to be.  You can find out all you’d ever need to know with a quick google, but as far as I’m concerned there has been far too much chatter about him -he doesn’t need anymore. 

 So let’s stick to the Dugongs, that’s more than enough for us to tackle right now.

The Quandamooka people are made of of 3 tribal groups, spread across Mulgumpin (Moreton Island) and Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and in their language - Jandai- Yangang is the word for dugong.  

For tens of thousands of years, the Quandamooka people (and many, many others) have used the Yangang to heal the sick. 

It’s likely that many different groups of coastal people hunted Yangang, including Yuggera, Gubbi Gubbi and Turrbal people in our SE region and many more Australia wide but we can assume that the interactions Hobbs had, were most likely with Quandamooka people.

When caught every part of the animal was used, the flesh for meat, the skin was dried to leather, the bones fashioned into utensils, the fat made into salves and the subsequent oil was used both externally on the skin and taken internally by the spoonful. Yangang were used as a medicine, their meat, oil and fat relieved ailments and nurtured the Quaandamooka people and other bayside groups, Yangang were revered and respected. 

I suppose you could think of Yangang oil as similar to cod liver oil which was a very popular cure all in the UK from the early 1800’s…can you guess where this is going?  

During his stint in Brisbane, Hobbs started to notice these traditional practices, he saw (predominantly) men, who were looking unwell, heading off to an island for a time and returning in full health.  Ever the curious cat, he asked what was happening, where were they going and how were they coming back cured of whatever illness they had? 

The locals shared their knowledge with him, their medicine, oral wisdom that was passed from father to son, mother to daughter.  Medicinal practice intertwined within a belief system where you are part of the country you live on - take what you need, when needed, nothing more.  Use it all, nothing less.

And so Hobbs learnt the value of the Dugong.

See how I used the word “learnt” there, rather than discovered? But back then, the word “discovered” was thrown about pretty liberally! 

Have a look at this excerpt from an article in a Queensland paper dated 1869….

“It remained for a prominent citizen of Brisbane to discover the chief and peculiar value of the dugong. To Dr. Hobbs, M. L. C. , who was at that time the Health Officer of Moreton Bay under the New South Wales Government, belongs the distinction of first conceiving the idea of making use of dugong oil as an article of medicine.”

Excuse me? “First conceiving the idea”? Oh but it doesn’t stop there… He was heralded as a “pioneer of the new land”, for the amazing “contribution he was making to the economic stability of the region” by setting up a fishing station on St Helena.

The story goes that to set up the fishing station he initially had Quandamooka men working for him, they knew the Yangang best, knew how to catch them efficiently and humanely, what to look for in the water, where they would likely be (not sunning themselves on rocks for the record- that’s seals).  I’d like to imagine they were paid a tidy sum for their labour and irreplaceable knowledge, maybe they were paid a whopping great amount, and perhaps a sunning Dugong managed the books…?

He also had in his employ a few white men, apparently tensions were high aboard the boats and fights started to break out between the white men and the Aboriginal men.  The fighting was beginning to affect productivity, and you know, wildly unsafe & people were getting hurt? But *whelp* the productivity!

Naturally the solution was to sack all the Aboriginal men and hire some more “chummy lads”.

So lets just quickly recap…

-You find out about an ancient cultural remedy and curative. 

-You learn all you can about it from people kind enough to teach you. 

-You claim you discovered it yourself. 

-You set up a mass fishing company so that you can catch as many as possible.

-You initially hire the people who originally told you about it. 

-They get into fights with your buddies. 

-You sack all the people who first gave you the knowledge.

-You hire more of your friends.

-You’ve basically created a whole new industry that consists of a chummy crew of lads, sailing the bay slaughtering dugongs… 

Times are wild, if we think life now is hectic, whoa Mary! 

I do have to ask you though, do you think he stops there?

Nah of course you don’t, we haven’t got to the international acclaim yet!  

This is my “favourite” part…

“An exhibit of the article was made at the Sydney Museum in 1854, by the Commissioners of the Paris Exhibition of 1855, and it was afterwards sent to that Exhibition. This was so highly prized that Dr Hobbs received a silver medal, and, as a consequence, considerable orders were received for the article. A branch of trade sprang up, which promised to add considerably to the wealth and resources of the colony, while at the same time conferring a priceless boon on thousands of sufferers in all parts of the world.”  - 8/10/1869 The Brisbane Courier 

 The Paris Exhibition the writer refers to is the Exposition Universelle of 1855 held on the Champs-Élysées from May to November 1855, which nearly 5.2 million people attended.

And there’s Hobbsie, I can just imagine him strutting around with his beard and his miracle oil, being slapped on the back and shouted beers for his incredible “discovery”.

“Bravo Hobbs Old Chap!” 

It was probably a teeny bit more civilised than that, but I mean, my imagination is a fun place…

The Dugong oil business took off and everyone wanted a piece of the pie…barrel? 

In 1862 a British supplier of pharmaceuticals placed an order for 1200 gallons (or 4546 litres) of dugong oil.  Newspaper reports from the time claim that the average haul is between 8-12 gallons per animal. So if my fourth grade math is correct, conservatively, that’s at least 100 Dugongs FOR ONE ORDER! 
Now just give me one second and I’ll fill you in on some quick Dugong facts…
- they can live for fifty years, but female Dugongs only reach maturity somewhere between 4 and 17 years
- they’re are pregnant for a whopping 13-15 months, only give birth to one calf and often only reproduce a few times during their life. 
Can you spot an issue here?
Supply could not meet demand, the Dugongs were hunted to near extinction and businesses were doing some wild desperate stuff, like substituting dugong oil with shark oil… 
Luckily for the dugong (and the sharks I guess) the industry lost all credibility and dugong oil was no longer a commercially sought after medicinal product, so businesses began to shut down.
You know what I think is the biggest problem with the whole story though? 
I’d never heard it.
I had heard that even though in March 1969 dugongs were declared a protected species, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were still allowed to hunt them for cultural reasons, and I think a lot of people know that. 
Now let’s imagine, like me, you were a kid when you heard that, what you know is…
- Dugongs are a protected species and there’s not many of them left. 
- Dugongs can be hunted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for cultural reasons, they eat them and make things from their bones. 
Neither of those things are untrue, but there’s a whole lot of information missing isn’t there? Would it not be fair to assume that someone (especially a child) might draw the conclusion that the lack of dugongs in the bay is due to culturally allowed hunting? 
I think that’s a reasonable assumption. 
I wonder how many people out there have only part of the story? 
And I wonder how many other stories I “know” -are missing great big, important, chunks of facts that (quite honestly) change the story altogether…
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1 comment

Yes, Hobbs was no slouch when it came to self promotion, despite managing to stuff up most (possibly all) of his business ventures and some of his medical activities as well.

Duncan Richardson

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