Coral reef named after ship’s surgeon from Ulster Lakelands

Aerial View of Montgomery Reef and Islands
Aerial View of Montgomery Reef and Islands

The rugged, remote and breathtakingly beautiful Kimberley Coast of Western Australia embraces almost 3,000 mapped islands and countless remote bays fringed with an extensive system of multi-coloured coral reefs.

The coastline also boasts Australia’s largest inshore reef, world-class seagrass meadows, extensive mangrove forests and the planet’s largest population of Humpback whales.

Aerial View of Montgomery Reef and Islands

Aerial View of Montgomery Reef and Islands

There’s also a little-recounted but important link with an Ulsterman - from County Fermanagh.

One of the wonders of the Kimberley Coast is the 80km long (50 miles) Montgomery Reef - an incredible spectacle to behold, particularly when the tide goes out.

Almost 400 square kilometres of lagoons (154 square miles), rivers and coral inlets appear to rise 4 metres (13 feet) above the sea on a falling tide.

These remarkable tidal movements of up to 10 metres (33 feet) slowly reveal vast lagoons, sandstone islets and an enormous central mangrove island.

Port Jackson. Late 1700s

Port Jackson. Late 1700s

As the reef gradually emerges from the ocean, a wide meandering river magically materialises and waterfalls cascade along countless coral channels.

Large areas of shallow lagoons, seagrass beds and colourful corals seem to emerge from the depths, swarming with marine life including sponges, crabs, cushion stars, turtles and octopi, with seabirds dropping in for a feast!

Amidst this wondrous seascape, almost in the centre of the reef on an extensive sandbank, are the Montgomery Islands.

The reef and islands, mostly accessible only by boat, are an internationally acclaimed visitor attraction.

Andrew Montgomery, after whom this unique, scenic paradise was named, was born in Enniskillen around 1792.

If any News Letter readers know anything about Montgomery’s Fermanagh connections I hope they’ll inform Roamer.

With the help of the local Council Museum Services it’s only known (to date) that Montgomery’s Tenement was number two on a section of land in Enniskillen called Windmill Hill on a 1772 map of the town.

Several old books about convict ships refer to Montgomery’s appointment as assistant Convict-ship surgeon on 20 November 1813 and his promotion to the position of surgeon in 1817.

He was employed as surgeon superintendent on the convict ship Elizabeth in 1820, departing southern England on August 18, 1820 and arriving in Port Jackson, now Sydney harbour, Australia, on December 31, 1820.

He kept a medical journal from 1 August 1820 to 11 January 1821 as well as a daily diary in which he noted the weather and other events.

Montgomery was evidently a very capable surgeon because there’s wasn’t a single death amongst a total of almost 200 convicts, guards, crewmen and passengers during the entire 135-day voyage!

There’ll be more from his enormously intriguing journal and diary on this page very soon, but one of Montgomery’s rather endearing entries on August 3, before the Elizabeth set sail, recounts the convicts coming on board: “Male prisoners were each given as follows: one woollen cap, one Guernsey frock, one checked shirt, one pair of raven duck trousers, one pair of shoes and stockings and a neckerchief, all new. Inspected them and checked their irons, and having served out each man a bed, pillow and blanket (all by numbers) sent them down to the prisons. Opened a puncheon of rum for the soldiers.”

Soon after arrival in Australia, Montgomery joined Philip Parker King’s fourth and last survey expedition.

Later to become a famous Admiral, Phillip Parker King, FRS, RN (1791 -1856) was an early explorer of the Australian and Patagonian coasts.

Surgeon Montgomery joined King on HMS Bathurst, a survey vessel.

His appointment, replacing the previous medic called Mr Hunter, was officially announced in the British newspapers in October 1821, by which time the expedition was over!

The Admiralty instructed King to discover whether there was any river “likely to lead to an interior navigation into this great continent.”

Meanwhile the Colonial Office wanted King to collect information about topography, fauna, timber, minerals, climate “and the natives.”

Britain was also tremendously interested in developing trade with the vast, distant continent.

With 33 crew on board the 170-ton, teak-built Bathurst set sail on 26 May 1821.

Parker King noted comfortingly that his ship carried a longboat that was large enough to transport and weigh an anchor ‘or to save the crew if any accident should happen to the vessel!’

According to an early page in the ship’s log, his vessel also carried a surprise.

Three days into their voyage sailors opened the hold where ‘a young girl, not more than 14 years of age was found concealed among the casks, where she had secreted herself in order to accompany the boatswain to sea.’

Parker King described her “most pitiable plight, for her dress and appearance were filthy from four days’ close confinement in a dark hold, and from having been dreadfully seasick the whole time.”

The stowaway remained on board ‘but in a very short time heartily repented of her imprudence” observed Parker King, adding: “She would gladly have been re-landed had it been possible.’

On June 23, 1821 the ship’s log recorded that Surgeon Montgomery and a botanist called Cunningham rowed to a reef that ‘abounded with shells, of which they brought back to the Bathurst a large collection.’

Parker King named the reef and the surrounding islands after Surgeon Montgomery, and there’ll be another edition of the Enniskillen sea-farer’s adventures here shortly.