WA History

The Great Monkey Escape

It all started innocently enough. The British India steamer Nalgora departed Calcutta in early November and arrived in Fremantle Harbour on 27 November 1931 carrying a cargo of gunnies (coarse, heavy fabric) and bananas. The unloading of the cargo began almost immediately and it was at that point that a monkey was spied on deck.

The Nalgora. Courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The alarm was immediately raised and the crew quickly ran to check the two cages on board. One was found to be open and part of their cargo (18 of the 36 rhesus monkeys purchased from Calcutta Zoo and bound for Melbourne Zoo) had escaped.

A rhesus monkey.

Under the Quarantine Act, each monkey was attached with a £50 bond to ensure that they reached their proper destination. If the monkeys were landed elsewhere (which, I suppose, technically they were) the bond would be forfeited. There was far too much money at stake. The search was on!

The crew first began by investigating every nook and cranny on the ship. They scoured the decks, cabins, rigging and boats and after giving chase, found and recaptured 10 of the monkeys. Then a man, evidently in a rush, brought with him a message that two monkeys had been seen crossing the overhead bridge, leaving Victoria Quay and headed for James Street.

Several members of the crew hurried into Fremantle to continue the search and, according to the press, the monkeys led them on a “lively chase”  through the streets, sending them clambering over rooftops in order to catch their rogue cargo (much to the amusement of the Fremantle locals).

Scampering off the ship the monkeys scurried from the wharf, and showed their delight at again having their freedom, by climbing to the tops of buildings in Adelaide-street.


Several were eventually caught. One headed for the safety of the rooftop of the Congregational Church in Adelaide Street and eluded capture for some time. Another proved to be overwhelmingly troublesome and after scampering across the rooftops of a couple of two-storey houses on Queen Victoria Street, soon made its home in a drain pipe where it refused to budge.


By the 30 November, about 13 had been recaptured. The search was ongoing and included the Chief Officer, Wireless Operator and four of the crew of the Nalgora. One monkey was soon located on McLeary Street in South Fremantle which took the total found to 14.

Reports alluded to the fact that the only way the monkeys could have escaped from their cage was if someone had opened it. No details were provided and while the cage may have been opened out of curiosity, there is the strong possibility that the cage was opened in the normal course of duties (i.e. feeding time) and was not closed correctly. Sadly for the monkeys, a simple mistake was to result in dire consequences. Desperate, and with monkeys still on the loose, rifles were brought in.

By the 2 December it was reported that two of the four remaining monkeys had been found. One had made it to Beaconsfield while the other was the aforementioned monkey in the drain pipe. It had become stuck and a plumber was called in to remove the pipe and extricate the monkey.

The Hotel Orient. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

The Nalgora was due to depart Fremantle on the 2nd. Just before it sailed, the final two monkeys were found; one was on the roof of the Hotel Orient while the other was spied hiding beneath the wharf.

The reports in The West Australian and The Daily News with regards to the capture of the last two monkeys differ. The West Australian reported that the monkey hiding under the wharf was caught after giving chase while the Hotel Orient monkey was shot in the leg with a pea-rifle bullet and the injury was attended to. On the other hand, The Daily News went into further detail by stating that the monkey hiding under the wharf could not be recaptured easily and, in the end, the pea-rifle was used but without the happy ending printed in The West.

Jacko eluded his would-be capturers in the gloom beath [sic] Victoria Quay until yesterday morning, when his liberty, which threatened to cost the ship quite a lot of money, was ended by a bullet from a pea rifle.

It’s a rather sad end to what initially started as quite a humorous story. There is however some hope. After the Nalgora arrived in Victoria, the Captain, J. H. Hughes, made an official report with respect to the escapade at Fremantle. While the article contained detailed descriptions of where the monkeys were caught throughout the port town, the final paragraph stated:

The agent (Mr. C. R. Duncan) has offered a reward for the monkeys still missing.

Incidentally, despite the stress at the time of the incident, Captain Hughes returned to Fremantle several years later and was said to have wandered around the streets, recalling old memories of the great monkey escape and chuckling to himself as he walked.



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