Opium watch

Kelly Drake
Monday, 27 June 2022

It’s an age-old story: ships, sailors and smuggling. With opium smoking outlawed in 1905, the Australian Customs Service increased their vigilance. Smuggling became increasingly lucrative.

In 1916, in Townsville, a partnership between the local police and the Australian Customs Service led to the arrest of an alleged opium smuggler.

A tip-off and a missing sailor

On March 6 1916, the S.S. Montoro was docked in Townsville. It was due to depart for Singapore later in the day, and was transporting both passengers and cargo. The Montoro operated the Australia, Java and Singapore run until the mid-1920's, and included Australian Officers and mostly Malay, Indian and Chinese crew.

For smuggling prevention, ships that spent a short time in dock during the night were of less concern to Customs officials, as crew tended not to leave their vessels. However, the Montoro was docked during the day – and inside word had been received that an attempt would be made to land some opium. Customs Officers Colledge and Robinson were instructed that a special watch was to be kept on the movements of the crew on and off the vessel.

Around midday, there was a muster to ensure that the number of crew present was the same as listed in the ship’s articles. One member of the crew, Malaysian sailor Sallay Bin Abdullah, was present and accounted for at that muster.

At the completion of a second muster immediately before departure, it was found that a Sallay Bin Abdullah was now missing.

The muster paperwork triggered a process where the shipping company, Burns Philip & Company, confirmed that the crew member was missing, and that they were therefore in contravention of the Immigration Act.

The Arrest

By 4:30 in the afternoon, Customs were requested to return to the ship. The missing sailor had been found.

Sallay bin Abdullah has been arrested by a plain clothes officer in Flinders Lane, carrying the equivalent of about 2 kilograms of opium.

He told the police that earlier in the afternoon, he was standing on the wharf washing the side of the Montoro when he was approached by a Chinese sailor, who offered to pay him to carry the opium into town. He was passed the opium through a porthole, which he hid in a cloth around his waist. He would not reveal the identity of the man who had offered to pay him, and refused to reveal the address he planned to deliver to.

He was arrested and convicted of an 'offense against the Aboriginals' Protection and Sale of Opium Act' and fined 50 pounds. As he was unable to pay, he was imprisoned in Stewarts Creek Jail for 6 months.

The Customs officers, Robinson and College, were defensive about their failure to spot Abdullah leaving the ship. Officer Colledge claimed that he had kept as careful watch as possible and had even accosted and searched 5 sailors in the afternoon, without discovering any opium.

Customs Officer Robinson also claimed that he had made every effort to detect anyone bringing opium ashore. However, he was fully occupied attending the gangway to prevent anyone boarding the boat without authority, and checking the crew’s identification cards. As passengers and crew were moving on and off the vessel all afternoon, he was unable to watch the entire vessel.

The Collector of Customs, D.A. Kimball, appeared not to accept these excuses. He felt there was a lapse in Robinson and College’s attention, and felt that it was almost inconceivable that a man could come ashore in broad daylight carrying that quantity of opium without being intercepted especially as customs had been pre-warned. Robinson and Colledge were accused of 'lacking ingenuity' in their detection of smugglers, and issued a warning that they would be held responsible should something like this happen again on their watch. Mr Kimball also suggested that the officers might be 'replaced by more energetic officers, who are prepared to take an intelligent interest in their work.'

For bin Sallay, his arrest on smuggling charges wasn’t the end. On completion of his 6 month sentence for opium smuggling, a policeman was sent to Stewarts Creek Jail to be present for his discharge at 5:30 am. He then served Sallay bin Abdullah with an English dictation test, which was required by the immigration laws at the time.

Upon failing to pass the test, Sallay was then found guilty of being a prohibited immigrant and arrested again. He was sentenced to another month in jail, and was subsequently deported by Ministerial Order on 8 August 1916. Deportation was at the expense of his former employers, Burns Philp & Company, who accepted responsibility for the behaviour of their crew under the Immigration Act.