She was the only child out of 30, to survive. Despite endless speculation, she lived her entire life never really knowing who she was. Her family perished when the RMS Quetta sank; February 28, 1890. Rescued from the water the following day, she was adopted by a Thursday Island ship’s captain, Edmund Brown. Because no one could definitively say who she was, Edmund renamed her Cecil Brown for the adoption. She was known publicly however as “Quetta Brown” In 1942, well into her fifties, after being hounded by the press for her entire life, she was quoted as saying: “I wish they would leave me alone! They don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am. Nobody knows who I am”.
Cecil Quetta Brown was just 18 months old when her parents carried her up the gangplank of the London bound, RMS Quetta. Just walking and barely able to speak, she was too young to remember her own name when, less than a week after the ship had left Brisbane, the shallow swirling waters of the Torres Straits stole her true identity. The RMS Quetta had her hull smashed in by an unknown rock, taking 134 to a salty end.
Interviews with the girl and every surviving passenger from the ship failed to shed any light on who she really was, only on who she ‘could be’. The only words she said were “Mama”,”Jimmsy” and “Willie”, but the ships manifest showed that there was more than one family on board who had young boys with both the names James and William. All of them, parents and children, were now dead. The toddler had been dragged naked onto the decks of the sinking ship by one of the crew members and despite having been accidently dropped into the water, she somehow found herself in a lifeboat; cold, bruised and desperately crying out for her family.
The survivors of the Quetta wreck were plucked from the sea and shipped to nearby Thursday Island. In the weeks that followed, argument ensued as to who should take care of the toddler. Not able to speak for herself, several of the island community and indeed several of the rescued survivors expressed a desire to adopt and raise the nameless child. Local identity Edmund Brown initially called for donations to send her back to Scotland, to a family most likely considered to be her own kin. But upon receiving photos of her in advance, the Scottish clan denied her ancestry; they didn’t recognise her as having any resemblance to those known to them. Unclaimed, she ended up remaining on the island and Captain Browns fondness for her proved worthy, she remained with him until his death some ten years later. From there she was well cared for amongst the extensive Brown family.
One can only imagine the torment that befell Quetta Brown as she progressed through her youth. The tragedy of her life was played out in the press almost constantly as she grew into adulthood. The Quetta shipwreck was a major event of the era. The massive loss of life was unequalled at the time. RMS Quetta would not be forgotten easily and whenever the story resurfaced in the press, the saga of the orphan was always involved. Quetta Brown eventually married in 1915 and lived what some might call a disjointed life, never fully putting the events of 1890 behind her.
“I don’t know who I am. Nobody knows who I am”
Spoilsport is set to revisit the wreck of the RMS Quetta in 2022/3.
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