For several years in the mid-1800s — before the prison was established, St Helena Island achieved some notoriety by hosting the commercial slaughter of a harmless and guileless sea animal called the dugong.
In the years that followed European settlement of Moreton Bay, the early pioneers had discovered, as had aboriginal people before them, that this particular animal was a gastronomic delight. More than this, many became convinced that the oil of the dugong held valuable curative properties, especially for treating stomach disorders and tuberculosis.
By 1858, Dr William Hobbs was using a 20-tonne cutter-boat with two whaleboats for harvesting dugong. The flotilla could remain at sea for many weeks and gather sufficient carcasses to produce the equivalent of 70 barrels of oil per expedition, extracted in a small factory on St Helena Island.
In the late 1850s, the St Helena undertaking was at its peak and for a number of years the business was carried on with great success. Orders for large quantities of dugong oil poured into Brisbane from England—one leading firm of English chemists placed an order for 1000 gallons at three guineas a gallon. English newspapers of the day left the reader in no doubt that a most remarkable remedial agent for the dreaded wasting disease, consumption, had been discovered in faraway Moreton Bay.
And the dugong oil from the St Helena factory won prestigious awards at the London and Paris Expositions.
In time the once-pure liquid from St Helena began to lose the quality for which it had become famous; the workers, with a view to quick profits, thought nothing of throwing in a shark’s liver or two to swell the quantity of their product. By the end of the 1850s, trade and consumption had ceased entirely in Europe and a promising industry was destroyed.