1797 - 1833 from Scotland

mariner and sealer, has a birth recorded in Perth, Tayside in 1797. Nothing is known of his early life or schooling, but his brother was master of a brig trading between Liverpool and Quebec. It can be assumed that Brisbane's seafaring started in the merchant service as there is no trace of any service in naval records.

62 Governor O’GRADY lays the new...
Sealing with Weddell

He first swam into the general public's gaze in 1825 within the covers of a book: A Voyage Towards The South Pole Performed In The Years 1822-24 by James WEDDELL. This was the narrative of a sealing voyage into the Antarctic with two vessels, the 160 ton brig Jane commanded by Weddell, and owned by him with two other partners. Her consort was the small 65 ton cutter Beaufoy commanded by Brisbane with a crew of thirteen; this small vessel also being part owned by Weddell. Weddell was no stranger to Antarctic sealing, having sailed Jane to the Falkland Islands and South Shetland Islands in 1819-20 and Jane and Beaufoy (commanded by Michael McLeod) to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Shetland Islands and South Orkney Islands in 1821-22.

The Jane and Beaufoy sailed from England on 17 September 1822: Jane and Weddell bound for Madeira to stock with the island's wine, Beaufoy and Brisbane for Bonavista in the Cape Verde Islands to load salt for the curing of sealskins. Weddell rejoined Brisbane at Bonavista and both vessels sailed in company on 20 October, bound for South America. By 19 December they were anchored in the bay of Port St Elena on the South American coast to repair a troublesome leak in the brig. Brisbane sailed south in search of seals, arranging to meet Weddell at Penguin Island off the Patagonian coast. On New Year's Day 1823 the two vessels were reunited and sailed for the South Orkneys. These islands, discovered on 6 December 1821, were relatively unknown, and Weddell was determined to explore them for both seals and hydrography. On 12 January 1823 they sighted the peaks of the islands. Two days later they were sealing, but with little success. The southerly coast of the South Orkneys was roughly surveyed by Brisbane; and in tribute Weddell gave the name Brisbane's Bluff (now Cape Faraday) to the cliffs on the north point of Powell Island. Few seals were found and Weddell decided to sail south in the hope of finding undiscovered sealing islands. It was, however, but slow progress, with frequent fogs, snow squalls, and the necessity to heave to at night to avoid damaging collisions with ice floes. By 27 January they had reached 64°58'S. Here Weddell decided to sail north and look for land between the South Orkneys and the South Sandwich Islands. No land was found and on 4 February the Jane and Beaufoy turned south again. During one day of their southern quest they sailed through a massed phalanx of 66 icebergs. On 20 February 1823 they reached 74°15'S and 34°16'W: making a furthest south record which was to last until James Clark ROSS reached 78°10'S in the Ross Sea on 23 February 1842.

421 Matthew Brisbane's original grave...

As the season was now growing short and with the wind freshening from the south, Weddell made the decision to head north and the two vessels bore away for South Georgia, but not before colours were raised, cannons fired and an extra tot of rum issued to all hands. On 5 March they anchored in South Georgia's Undine Bay. After five months at sea, fearing the onset of scurvy, they quickly set about collecting fresh greens and young albatross for the pot. A month was spent at South Georgia before sailing for the Falkland Islands. The passage proved stormy, but on 11 May the two vessels came to anchor at New Island. As the rest of the winter was to be spent in the Falklands the anchorage was shifted to Weddell Island where the Jane's topmasts were struck down and all was made secure for winter gales. The Beaufoy was kept in commission in the constant search for fur seals. On 7 October, both vessels were again prepared to sail for the South Shetlands. On 16 October, some 95 miles from the South Shetlands, they came across thick packice. Weddell and Brisbane now ranged along the edge of the pack for a over a month, seeking a lead to the islands. On 16 November, with both vessels damaged by ice, the men frostbitten and with clothes worn to shreds, the decision was taken to sail for Tierra del Fuego. They came to anchor on 23 November in Wigwam Cove {Caleta San Martin} on Hermite Island, some ten miles north-west of Cape Horn. On 9 December Brisbane sailed for one more attempt at the South Shetlands; but found the packice impenetrable. Returning to Tierra del Fuego the Beaufoy's sails were split in a vicious squall and, seeking a harbour to make repairs, Brisbane came upon a sheltered anchorage some miles up a narrow sound. The next day, repairs completed and sailing away from his new-found harbour, Brisbane sighted the Jane sealing off the Ildefonsos Islands. Brisbane told Weddell of the anchorage; they then made their way up New Year's Sound {Seno Año Nuevo} and into Indian Cove, coming to anchor on 26 December. The next day Brisbane sailed for the Diego Ramirez Islands, some 55 miles south-west of Cape Horn. On the last day of 1823 he returned to Indian Cove with a small quantity of sealskins, plus meat and blubber for the Fuegians camped at the cove.

On 4 January 1824 Weddell and Brisbane separated: Weddell to sail for the eastern Patagonian coast; Brisbane to remain sealing in the immediate neighbourhood until 20 January and then sail for the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The two vessels were to rejoin off the coast of Patagonia in March. Southerly gales blew the Beaufoy far north of the rendezvous position, and Brisbane made the decision to sail for England, arriving on 20 June 1824. Weddell arrived two weeks later and plans were made for Brisbane to sail south again for another sealing voyage, this time alone.


The Brig Jane and the Cutter Beaufoy...

Sealing as Master

On 23 August 1824 Brisbane and the Beaufoy sailed from the Downs. They sealed along the Patagonian coast and the Falkland Islands before sailing into Maxwell's Harbour, twelve miles north-east of Cape Horn, on 16 October 1825. The Fuegians recognized both Brisbane and several of the crew: Brisbane had made a great impression upon them during the previous visit with his skill at using their favourite weapon, the slingshot. Brisbane sailed from Tierra del Fuego on 17 December, bound for Patagonia's east coast. Here Brisbane shot an animal 'of the lion species' though not before it had killed the cutter's pet bulldog. (Brisbane brought back the skin and skull for identification; it was identified as a puma.) On 15 January 1826 the Beaufoy sailed for home, arriving at the Downs on 29 March.

A few months later, on 16 June 1826, Brisbane became master of the 103 ton schooner Prince of Saxe Coburg, the owners being Pirie & Co of Freeman's Court, Cornhill, and outfitted for a sealing voyage to the South Shetlands. The voyage proved disastrous. Meeting atrocious weather off the South Shetlands, and then being beset and damaged by packice, Brisbane was forced to run for Tierra del Fuego to make repairs. But, on 16 December 1826, lying at anchor in Fury Bay, at the southern end of the Cockburn Channel, the schooner was driven ashore by violent 'williwaws' and wrecked. Brisbane and his crew of twenty-one survived and managed to rescue three of the schooner's boats and most of the provisions. Having established a camp ashore with improvised tents, Brisbane was faced with the problem of organizing an escape from their desolate and remote island. Over the next few weeks one man died, one man accidentally exploded a cask of gunpowder and was badly hurt, and three mutinous crew were isolated on three separate islands with a week's provisions. Seven other crew, with Brisbane's permission, took the largest of the boats and set off to make their way through the maze of the Fuegian channels in an attempt to reach the Río Negro on the Atlantic coast of South America, over a thousand miles away. Here it was believed lay the nearest point of civilized habitation. (They did survive their voyage, and then volunteered for service with a Buenos Aires squadron engaged in a war with Brazil.)


Luis Vernet - portrait by Luisa...

Brisbane organized the remaining party. Some were sent out in the two boats to scour the channels in the hope of finding other sealing vessels. The rest set to work to construct a vessel from the wreckage of the schooner. Two weeks later the boats returned unsuccessful. But more attempts were made, and, on 3 March 1827, one of the boats was sighted by HMS Beagle, commanded by Captain Pringle Stokes, engaged in the survey of the South American coast. Stokes then set off with two ten-oared launches to cover the eighty miles through the Barbara Channel to Fury Bay and rescue the castaways.

Brisbane returned to London towards the end of 1827, where he found another command, also owned by Pirie & Co., the 145 ton schooner Hope outfitted for sealing. By 17 January 1828 Brisbane was heading south across the Bay of Biscay. During the April of 1829 Brisbane was wrecked again, but this time in South Georgia. He and the crew made a shallop from the wreckage and sailed for Montevideo. The building of the shallop and the passage across to Montevideo must have been accomplished with some speed, as the Hope's certificate of registration was delivered to the British Consul on 20 May.


Port Louis in 1834

Brisbane's third shipwreck, aboard the sealer Bellville commanded by Captain Bray, happened during February 1830 on the east coast of Tierra del Fuego, fourteen miles to the west of Cape San Diego at the northern entrance to the Le Maire Strait. The castaways had great trouble from the Fuegians stealing their tools during the construction of a decked shallop from the remains of the wreck. By 9 April the provisions saved from the wreck were finished. Close to starvation they existed on hides, putrid blubber, berries, limpets and fish. On 1 May they set to sea in what proved a very leaky boat, their only provisions being hides. Four days later they sighted Cape Meredith on the southern extremity of West Falkland. The following day two men died. This was followed by a gale and the near foundering of the shallop. But they managed to make a landing in a sheltered cove, promptly killed geese, and were just as promptly ill from the sudden change of diet. On 17 May they landed at Port Pleasant and killed two wild cows - promptly eaten, but this time with no illness. By 30 May they were safely at Port Louis.

With Vernet

That same year a British naval officer met Brisbane at Louis VERNET's house in Port Louis, for Brisbane had a sealing contract with Vernet. Buenos Aires had granted fishing rights to Vernet and, in order to protect these, Vernet made Brisbane his director of fisheries. Brisbane visited Buenos Aires in 1830 and gave information to the British Packet and Argentine News on Vernet's fishing claims and warnings to sealers. Woodbine PARISH, the British minister, met Brisbane and warned him not to interfere with any British vessels. In July and August of 1831, three American schooners, Breakwater, Harriet, and Superior, were seized by Vernet and Brisbane. The Breakwater escaped and the Superior was allowed to continue sealing, but under certain conditions. Vernet and his family then sailed aboard the Harriet for Buenos Aires in order to legalise her seizure, reaching Buenos Aires on 19 November 1831. While Vernet told the Argentine authorities that he had left Henry Metcalfe in charge at Port Louis, Brisbane was particularly exposed as the person who had actually seized the American schooners.

The seizure of the American schooners proved disastrous for Vernet, Brisbane, and the settlers at Port Louis. Silas M DUNCAN, commanding the powerful USS Lexington, then at the River Plate, heard of Vernet's action. Branding Vernet a pirate and his actions an outrage on American citizens, Duncan sailed for Port Louis to exact revenge. On 31 December 1831 the Lexington came to anchor off Port Louis. Brisbane was brought on board, the settlement's guns spiked, magazine fired, weapons seized. On 3 February 1832 the Lexington arrived at Montevideo carrying Brisbane and six settlers, all under arrest. On 16 February Vernet wrote to Brisbane reporting that Duncan's attack on Port Louis had ruined him, that Brisbane had been wronged, but hoping that when Brisbane got to America 'justice will be done you'. On 16 April the seven prisoners were transferred to the USS Warren. Brisbane was later released on the orders of Commodore Rogers.

Brisbane returned to the Falklands as pilot of the Sarandi, commanded by Jose Pinedo, bringing the unfortunate Major Juan MESTIVIER appointed as governor by Buenos Aires to replace Vernet. The Lexington incident and the rumour that Washington contemplated taking possession of the Falklands to safeguard American sealing and whaling interests prompted the British to repossess the islands. On 3 January 1833 the Union Jack was raised at Port Louis on the orders of John ONSLOW, commander of HM sloop Clio. The flag was entrusted for its raising and lowering to William DICKSON, Vernet's storekeeper. The Sarandi, carrying the lowered Argentine flag, sailed for Buenos Aires on 5 January and Brisbane resigned as pilot.

On 1 March 1833, HMS Beagle, commanded by Captain Robert FITZROY and with Charles DARWIN on board as naturalist, anchored in Berkeley Sound. A boat was sent to Port Louis and returned with the news that Brisbane had just arrived from Buenos Aires aboard the schooner Rapid. Brisbane had been delighted to meet the Beagle's officer as he had been one of those who helped save his life when wrecked in the Prince of Saxe Coburg. The next day Brisbane came aboard Beagle and presented his papers. These showed that he was only acting as Vernet's private agent to look after the remains of his private property, and there was not the slightest reference to civil or military authority. FitzRoy then visited Port Louis and, expecting a thriving community, found nothing but desolation. Brisbane told him that it was all due to the Lexington, and that he had been treated as a pirate and abused 'most violently' by Duncan on the quarterdeck. Brisbane and FitzRoy had many conversations on a variety of subjects concerning the Falklands: the growing of wheat and vegetables at Port Louis, the wool sent to Liverpool from East Falkland selling for nearly double the price of Buenos Aires wool, the collecting of pearls from the large mussels (Brisbane had a bottle full), the whalebones found a hundred feet above high water. And FitzRoy, in his account of the Falklands, pays due regard to these conversations, writing that he was indebted to Brisbane for most of the information. But FitzRoy sailed from the Falklands with 'gloomy forebodings' on the lack of regular authority in a virtually lawless group of islands.

Death at Port Louis

FitzRoy was proved right. On 26 August 1833, resenting Brisbane's fearless attempts to protect Vernet's property, five Indian convicts and three gauchos led by Antonio RIVERO went on a killing spree in Port Louis, murdering Brisbane, William Dickson, Antony Wagner, Juan SIMON and Ventura Pasos. Thomas HELSBY, who had arrived with Brisbane aboard the Rapid, narrowly escaped being murdered and described seeing Brisbane lying dead upon the floor: 'he appeared to have been making towards his pistols before he fell, and there was a smile of contempt or disdain very strongly marked in his countenance'. The killers later dragged his body behind a horse and left it some distance from the house.

A year later, on the Beagle's second visit to the Falklands, FitzRoy visited Port Louis to find Brisbane's feet protruding above the ground from a shallow grave. Dogs had fed upon the corpse. FitzRoy's anger is palpable:

This was the fate of an honest, industrious and most faithful man: of a man who feared no danger, and despised hardships. He was murdered by villains, because he defended the property of his friend; he was mangled by them to satisfy their hellish spite; dragged by lasso, at a horse's heels, away from the houses, and left to be eaten by dogs.

In 1842 his body was reburied by Captain James Clark ROSS, then in the Falklands with the Erebus and Terror. A wooden memorial was erected over his grave, inscribed:

To theMEMORYofMr. Matthew Brisbanewho was barbarousleymurdered on the26th August 1833___________In the command of theBeaufoy Cutter he wasthe Zealous and ableCompanion of CaptnJames Weddell duringhis enterprising Voyageto beyond the 74th Degree ofSouth Latitudein February 1823___________His remains were removed tothis spot by the crews of H.B.M.ships "Erebus" and "Terror"on the 25th August, 1842.

On 3 April 1906 the wooden headstone, being much weathered and barely legible, was replaced with a new memorial bearing the same inscription. This in turn was replaced in 1933 by a marble slab. The wooden headstone is now in the museum at Stanley, where there is a Brisbane Road. Brisbane's other memorials are on charts: Cape Brisbane and Mount Beaufoy on Henderson Island in Tierra del Fuego, and Brisbane Heights on Coronation Island in the South Orkneys.

Weddell, Ross, and FitzRoy, all superb seamen, had the highest regard for Brisbane. For here was a man with a tough pioneering quality about him and one who was obviously fascinated by the Falklands. But then he would probably have found himself at home on any nineteenth-century frontier. For the Falklands he should be remembered as a man striving to bring some order to a virtually lawless community.


Alan Gurney

External links


A. G. E. Jones; Matthew Brisbane; Falkland Islands Journal, 1975

A.C.F. David; The Massacre of Matthew Brisbane and his companions at Port Louis in 1833; Falkland Islands Journal; 2007



2006 - Original version
2017 - Updated by David Tatham
May 2019 photograph of original grave marker added
July 2019 Additional illustration added; references added
December 2019 Two additional illustrations added