The first ship to be wrecked on
the Australian coast was, as far as the records show, the first English ship to
catch sight of the then unknown shoreline of the Fifth Continent.
It would not be surprising if,
earlier than the wreck of the Trial, in 1622, there had been many other
wrecks unrecorded; for the Australian coast is from the navigator's point of
view a most inhospitable and dangerous shore. Its northern flanks are guarded by
treacherous reefs and shoals while its southern coasts are swept by fierce
seasonal storms. The surface of its surrounding seas is often calm and tranquil,
beautifully deceptive, like soft lips hiding sharp and terrible teeth.
The earliest navigators suffered
much on the then unnamed Australian coast, and left their bad impressions to
Dampier, after his first
experience of it in 1688, wrote of it as a land most undesirable, peopled by
“dirty, fly-blown creatures.” Captain John Daniel, who had seen it six and a
half years earlier, had nothing better to say of it. And the little ship
Trial, most probably first British ship to see it at all, remembered it
as a bone-strewn strand, a coast of tragedy. She, despite the skill of her
master, John Brooke, was smashed to matchwood on the rocks of the north-west
In the year 1622 the Dutch
explorers' work was bearing fruit; the Netherlands Indies were already sending
their rich booty to Europe, when the ship Trial left London on an
expedition to Java, with an eye to trade.
Re-victualled and refreshed, she
left the Cape of Good Hope on March 19, 1622, and two months later ran to her
doom on a shelf of rock. Of her company of 143, 97 men were lost- the others,
but for whom the story would never have been known, made a most remarkable
escape in two small boats. The letters written by Thomas Bright, who was
fortunate enough to be in one of those boats, are still preserved in the India
Office, London; and it is to them and the letters of John Brooke, master, that
posterity owes this first authentic record of a shipwreck on the Australian
Brooke wrote from Java, nearly
three months after the wreck. The Trial, he said, had a good run across
the Indian Ocean, and finally sighted land in 22 degrees of latitude, on May 1,
on her forty-second day of open sea voyaging. To the skipper the distant land
appeared to be an island; but it has since been identified by historical
researchers as Point Cloates, which is practically the most westerly point of
the Australian mainland, just south of North-West Cape.
It was not Java: that much John
Brooke knew; so the Trial stood to her course, the “island” dropping down
to the south-east horizon. But north and north-east winds sprang up, and between
May 5 and May 24 the little ship made scarcely any headway; but these
circumstances were all in the life of a mariner in sail days, and when the wind
veered to the south-east on May 25, the Trial's luck had changed, she
took a northeast tack and bade fair to continue her interrupted voyage.
The night of May 25- like so
many other nights of coastal tragedy in the Australian annals- was calm and
clear. The setting sun dyed the sea with a translucent crimson blush, the sky
was tranquil, the water almost still. There was no sign of land, no weed or mud
stirred in the water, no creamy comb of spume betrayed a reef or sunken
“Fayre weather and smoothe
watter - the shipp strooke," wrote Brooke with dramatic simplicity, in his
letter. For it was on that perfect night, under a dark, star-studded sky, that
the Trial ran without warning upon a point of rock and shuddered to a
standstill. So contrary were the surrounding signs that even then some of those
experienced sailors refused to believe they had been wrecked. But there was no
“I ran to the Poope and hove the
leads," Brooke wrote. “I found but three fadom watter, 60 men being upon deck,
five of them would not believe that she had strooke, I cryinge to them to beare
up and tacke to westward.
“They did ther beste, but the
rocke being sharpe the ship was presentlie full of watter. For the most part
these rocks lie two fadom under watter. It struck my men in such a mayze when I
said the ship strooke wid they could see neyther breach, land, rocks, change of
watter nor signe of danger.
Thomas Bright observed that the “hold of the shipp was full of watter in an instant."
Meanwhile the wind freshened and
the Trial swayed and struck the second time. Brooke hurried about his
business, making every possible effort to save the ship. He sent out a skiff and
put members of the crew to sounding about the vessel in the darkness to
ascertain the exact condition of the water.
They discovered that the ship
had been caught on a sharp sunken rock half a cable in length, and was pierced
astern. There was no surrounding shallow; these teeth of rock rose like the
spires of a deathly cathedral from some much lower foundations; and there being
no surrounding shallow, the task of the shipwrecked was made the harder.
“I made all the waye I could to gett out my long boate, and by 2 of the clocke had gotten her out and hanged her in the tackles over the side," wrote Brooke.
He then instructed Thomas Bright
to supervise the handling of the long boat- “the hold of the shipp was full of
watter in an instant… 128 soules left to God's mercye, whereof 36 were saved,"
Keen as were both men in their
powers of observation, they were swift to work. Bright had the long boat hanging
in readiness for a little while before the men in the skiff reported, as a
result of their examination, that there was no hope at all of saving the
The wind was freshening minute
by minute, which rendered it still more dangerous to cling to the wreck; and
Brooke, “seeing the shipp full of watter and the wind to increase, made all the
means I could to save as manie as I could. The long boat put off at 4
in the morning. Half an hour after the fore part of the boat fell to
Under Brooke's orders Bright
lowered the long boat and took into it as many as it would safely accommodate
36, he estimated, was the maximum. Then he and his fortunate fellows pushed off
from the wreck, feeling their way through the darkness and rowing slowly, lest
the smaller vessel too should be cast onto some similar needle point of
“We stayed near the shipp until
day," he wrote from Java later, “but the sea was running soe high that we durst
not venture near."
At length, seeing the
hopelessness of trying any movement at all for the benefit of those remaining on
the wreck, Bright conceived it his duty to save as many as he could of the men
in the long boat; so they began to row in earnest, watching the hulk of their
ship grow smaller in the sea as they made their way in the general direction of
Java. They were commencing, from the first recorded Australian wreck, the first
of many notable long voyages performed in small boats- the first, but by no
means the unhappiest, of those small boat voyages.
The long boat came to an island
(since identified as Barrow Island) where the men went ashore in the hope of
increasing their scanty supply of provisions. There was but one barrecoe of
water and “a few victuals" in the long boat- not nearly enough for the voyage
they hoped to make. And Barrow Island proved a barren island, with “no watter
except what the good, Lord gave per rayne," and no birds, animals or vegetables
which could be used for food.
Nevertheless, after the long
voyage- across the Indian Ocean, and the exciting escape from the wreck, the
sailors were glad enough to feel land under their feet again, and spent seven
days on the island. It was a small, rocky place from the pinnacles of which
other low-lying islands could be seen.
Bright himself, although he was
“alone on the wide wide sea", with very little prospect of ever reaching
civilization again, and with every possibility of shortly starving to death,
preserved remarkable calmness. He seems to have kept perfect discipline among
the men, as well- which is equally a tribute to Bright and to the character of
the men, as the records of sea-horror show all too clearly. Maybe, too, in those
days before psychology was a science, Bright had a clear appreciation of the
value of work; for he spent part of his time preparing “2 draughts" of the group
of islands, mapping in other islands visible from the one on which he was, for
the time being, marooned.
He also wrote a description of
the archipelago in which he stated that there were other islands
While Bright and his men were
thus safely ashore and calmly engaged, John Brooke was fighting out his own
destiny; for he had realised the hopelessness of sticking to the ship any
longer, and had prepared to make an attempt, in the small skiff, to reach Java.
He also came across “a little, low island"- probably another of the archipelago
Bright had struck- and he also remarked upon the barrenness of his discovery. He
kept his course, however, and on June 8 sighted the east end of the island of
Java, after a voyage of 14 days.
The skiff was better equipped
with provisions, having “one barrecoe of water, 2 cases of bottles, 2 runnets of
aquavite, 40 li. bread." For four days together there was continuous rain, so
that the men in the skiff ran no danger at all of perishing from thirst. And
having reached Java they pushed onward in their little boat, reaching Batavia on
June 26, getting a good reception, and settling down to write a letter which,
when delivered to the London office perhaps three months later, would tell the
owners of the Trial that they had lost their vessel long ago.
He was in no position in that
letter, however, to give any assurances on Bright's behalf; for Bright and his
long boat moved on from their desert island and they, too, arrived safely in
Java. They did not attempt to reach Batavia, so Bright's letter, written
independently from Java, told the story of the 36 who were saved, making no
reference to the good fortune of the captain and his nine companions.
The fate of those who were left
on the vessel may be imagined; it will never, mercifully, be described.
Already when Brooke left he had
seen the fore part of the vessel tear away from the hull and crash into the sea;
and that sea was already marked by flashing fins. The remainder of the ship
could not have lasted long. The sweeping seas would batter it mercilessly,
wrenching planks from their ribs, crumbling the sodden timbers under the feet of
the wretched men for whom there was no hope. Hunger and thirst would begin to
prey upon those men as they waited, helplessly, for the coming of death.
Perhaps, when they were finally
thrown into the sea, the swift attack of the shark, or the suffocation of
the waves, was relief from their last hours (or were they days?) upon the
No rescue vessels put back into
that uncharted sea on the off-chance of finding the unknown rocks; and had they
done so they would have been too late to succor the men of the Trial. By
the time Brooke reached Java every man left behind must have gone to his
sailor's grave; and Brooke, who seems to have been blessed with a share of
common sense as well as of humanity, did not try anything so crazy as sending
living men after dead ones.
However, when the story of the
Trial became known in London, attempts were made to locate the rocks
which had caused the wreck. Thomas Bright's charts, so calmly made between a
dangerous past and an uncertain future, reached London safely, but were either
too crude to be useful or were lost after their arrival.
In spite of many searches the
rocks were not definitely recorded as seen again, until 1819 when the
Greyhound reported passing them. In the following year Lieutenant P. P.
King, in the Mermaid, identified them with the Monte Bello group, and a
perusal of the extant facts of the Trial wreck led these islands to be
identified as Trial Rocks.
Australia’s story, rich in so many dramatic ingredients,
is strangely short of buried treasures.
In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries the Indian Ocean seemed to hold all the necessary units for
piracy- except pirates. The heavily freighted galleons that took silk and spice
and a multitude of rich merchandises from the Dutch East Indies to Europe, were
stowed especially to be pirates' prey, if you have that romantic turn of mind.
They sailed down a lonely sea lane, past the rocky coasts of unknown islands but
no skull- and- crossbones fluttered from the mastheads of the raiders as they
shot out from behind a bald headland and fired the warning shot across the bows
of the merchantmen. The tactics of the West Indies of the period did not
penetrate to the East Indies. Providence and the Spanish Main, Morgan and Kidd,
are without their counterparts in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Nevertheless, Australia did have
her buried treasure. Just one.
It is possible that, apart from
the fabled caches of a few bushrangers, there are other lost treasures about
Australia, of which history makes no mention. Spanish and Portuguese and Dutch
mariners did record their contacts with the mainland. De Quiros and Torres
scraped the north and left their names upon its map until this day; Dutch Jantz
Tasman skirted the south and named the bit he saw after his boss, Governor
Antony Van Diemen. Houtman was shipwrecked on the west and the rocks responsible
are still charted as Houtman's Abrolhos.
In the main, the Dutch touched
the west and the Spaniards the east, and this is easy to understand. Holland had
settled in the East Indies, carried on a regular trade with vessels sailing
round the Cape of Good Hope, and thus had a regular trade route almost along the
Australian west coast. The Spaniards were long settled in South America and had
interests in the Philippine Islands, and their ships crossing the Pacific had
not to be blown far off course to get tangled up in the Torres Straits Islands
or spitted on the sharp submarine points of the Barrier Reef. Don Jorge de
Menenis in 1526 saw New Guinea- and named it Papua (from a Malayan word meaning
“fuzzy”, because of the hair of the natives). Two years later Alvarez de
Saavedra touched the same shore and called it Isla del Dra, which is good
Portuguese for Isle of Gold. Yuigo Ortiz de Retz sailed two hundred and fifty
miles along its coast and called it Nueva Guinea, in 1545.
So there were fairly good
chances of some high balconied galleon well ballasted with pieces of eight and
ingots from the land of riches, to run to ruin around the Barrier and lay their
treasures submissively on the seabed of the ocean that had beaten them. If that
happened, it constitutes the story of Australia's unrecorded hidden treasure;
for the Spaniards left behind them no clue to posterity as to where any
shipwrecked fortune might be found.
If one pillar be able to support
this dream of unknown treasure, it exists in the strange “Mahogany Ship"
discovered half-buried in the sand of a Victorian beach, preserving enough of
its shape to be identified as a Portuguese galleon, or a similar ship, said to
be of Spanish origin, buried in the swamp behind the dunes of Stradbroke Island
off Brisbane, Queensland.
Yet it is to the Dutch that
Australia owes her one authentic buried treasure; and on their authority one can
say that on the north-west coast of Australia, at 30 degrees 40 minutes of
latitude approximately, there are 78,600 guelder, or golden dollars, awaiting
the lucky seeker. They were left there after the wreck of the Vergulde
The Vergulde Draeck
(which means Golden Dragon though it has often tricked people, by its look
and sound, into wrongly calling it the Golden Drake) was equipped by the Chamber
of Amsterdam (a commercial institution) for a voyage to the rich East Indies. It
sailed from Holland on October 4, 1655.
Historians are disposed to
quarrel as to whether there were 193 or 195 people aboard, though the point is
not vital to the story. On the night of April 28, 1656, when the long journey
seemed almost at an end, the ship ran on a submerged reef sticking one and a
half miles out from the coast; and the Vergulde Draeck became a
There is happy agreement among
the authorities on the point that 75 of the ship's company came safely to shore
and that they brought with them provisions to last for a spell of Crusoeing, and
the 78.600 guelders which were to earn the name. picturesque and fitting,
Dollars of Death. R. H. Major errs in saying as he tells the story, that
“nothing was saved from the ship but provisions." The records clearly show that
the treasure was brought ashore and buried for safely.
Among those rescued were the under-steersman and the ship's master, Captain Pieter Alberz (also spelt Albert and Alberts by various and varying chroniclers).
Though the ship's company was
temporarily safe, every endeavor had to be made to reach Batavia; so it was
decided that the under-steersman should take six sailors with him on one of the
Vergulde Draeck's boats and endeavor to add yet another open-boat voyage to
Australia's long list. Captain Alberz remained in charge of the survivors.
With them he disappeared.
There is something of a mystery
about the disappearance and there is no room for a wisecrack about it being easy
to understand why 68 men should disappear when there was 78,600 guelder anchored
in the offing.
The truth of the matter is that
the under-steersman brought his vessel safely to Batavia, unfolded the fate of
the Vergulde Draeck, and aroused the immediate interest in the bringing
back of the bullion. Two yachts, the Goede Hoop and the Witte
Valck, left Batavia on June 8, to look for the remains of the wreck. They
sailed into a spasm of bad weather and were separated.
Cruising along the coast looking
for 30 deg. 40 min. on the coastline, the Goede Hoop saw signs of life,
put inshore, and sent a boat. Three men struck into the virgin wilds of
Australia to follow up the signs, and were lost in the bush. When they failed to
return, eight more men went in search, of them, and these, too, failed to
The wind freshened, the water
rose, and the boat which had taken them ashore was smashed. The Goede
Hoop wrote off eleven men as a trading loss and prowled further along the
coast. Finally, the captain concluded that an extension of the search would be
fruitless, and put about for Batavia.
In the following year, however,
another vessel, the Wincke (wrongly spelt Vinck by some, on account of
its pronunciation) was sent after the lost treasure ship. That trusty old
Australian historian, Ernest Favenc, let himself down for once when he wrote in
the Sydney Evening News of September 1, 1906, that the Wincke “searched
Actually, the Wincke saw signs
of the wreck on June 8, 1657. But as she was searching almost twelve months to
the day after the Goede Hoop, she ran into similar bad weather, and
instead of investigating the hopeful signs she saw she scudded before a strong
wind for three days, from June 9 to June 12. Then, with the lightening of the
wind, she managed to change her course from south to south-south-west, then to
south-west, and finally back towards Batavia.
Her arrival on June 29 with the
news that there were signs of the Vergulde Draeck along the coast was the
necessary stimulus, however, for yet a third search-party.
New Year's Day, 1658, was the
starting point. The ships were the Waeckende Boey and the
Emeloort. They sailed in company as the Goede Hoop and the
Witte Valck had done, became separated at sea in the same way and fell in
with each other before returning to Batavia.
The Waeckende Boey
skirted the coast, landed at intervals, kept up a steady fire of signal guns,
but attracted no response from the elusive Crusoes. At one point the search of
the Waeckende Boey ran parallel to that of the Goede Hoop to the
point of fatality. The Waeckende Boey sent a boat ashore with fourteen of
the crew in charge of the upper steersman, and both boat and crew were lost,
reducing the little vessel's original crew of 40 and adding to the death-roll of
In the coastal waters and along
the beach, however the Waeckende Boey found definite signs that it was on
the right track. Planks, blocks, a piece of mast, a taff-rail, and staves from
casks, were seen scattered, and were fairly definitely identified by the seekers
as all that was left of the object of their search.
These relics were, however, of
little help, and the poor Waeckende Boey, having lost its companion
vessel and fourteen of its company, turned again home.
About the only bright spot in a
bald and uninteresting voyage occurred when, on April 14, she fell in again with
the Emeloort, which had a more incidental, if not more enlightening,
story to tell.
Somewhat the smaller of the two
vessels, the Emeloort sailed with a crew of twenty-five, under the
command of Aucke Pieters Jonck, and sighted land on March 8, at 30 degrees 25
minutes latitude, some fifteen minutes, which is roughly fifteen miles north of
the locality given for the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck.
On this same day the
Emeloort’s crew saw smoke on the land, and fired signal guns without
getting any answer. During the night the search ship stood by off the coast and
saw fires; but the fires disappeared before dawn.
On the following morning, March
9, a boat containing nine men went ashore and began a search of the locality
where the fire had been seen.
The search was fruitless, and
the men came back to the beach to the boat. They were only four in number.
The four men had stories to
tell. They had found the remains of three huts, and these huts they presumed to
have been built by shipwrecked sailors, most likely those whom they sought.
They had seen something else.
Coming into a clearing in the scrub they faced five men “of gigantic stature,’
black men “who resembled the natives of Africa.” From before these apparitions
the hardy sailors fled. It should be noted here again that historian Favenc
falters with his capable pen, in recording that the men of the Emeloort
saw “five immense blacks, but did not land and look at them.”
That, however, is all the news
that the Emeloort had to bring back. Intimidated by the loss of five men,
disheartened at getting no response to their signal, discouraged by their
impression of the black giants who inhabited the shore, Captain Aucke Pieters
Jonck turned back towards Batavia, and on April 14 fell in again with the
The two vessels together could
only say, in cold effect, “We saw flotsam from the lost ship; we saw smoke and
fires on the shore; we saw the remains of three huts, five discouragingly large
Of all this the flotsam is
about the only conclusive piece of evidence. The “huts” may well have been
native gunyahs, which impressed the seamen as being tumbled-down white men’s
dwellings. The smoke and fire might as easily have come from an aboriginal
camping ground as from any marooned whites. In fact, the evidence of the
Emeloort that the fire on March 8 at night died down before morning is
what could naturally be expected of a campfire.
So the fate of Captain Pieter Alberz and his sixty-seven survivors and his 78,600 dollars of death (which I forgot to mention were packed in eight cases) remains a mystery.
In fact, its claim to being in our history at all crumbles a little before the battering-rams of imagination. The story is that the dollars were buried for safety. Maybe they were before the boat left for Batavia. But what if the survivors divided the spoil and got away on rafts? Was there a clique formed among some of the men avaricious for the treasure, which murdered the rest and got away with the gold? Did they try to carry the gold inland in hope of escaping?
Maybe yes, maybe no. The idle thought is invited by the fact that a long search failed to reveal even the bleached bones of the shipwrecked sailors, and by the fact that the treasure of the Vergulde Draeck has never been located.
And the final death-roll of the tragedy:
Lost at the wreck
Survivors lost (including
From the Goede
From the Waeckende
“I hope, sir,” the seaman said, ‘you do not think me so mean as to be
guilty of stealing.”
He said it humbly, with a kind of repressed self-respect, as he stood
sycophantly before the commander of the ship.
The naval officer was the harshly independent type of man, the autocrat
who loved to issue orders and to see them obeyed speedily; but he did not love
sycophancy among his men. As he looked at the seaman his lip stiffened and his
eye gleamed scornfully.
“Yes, you bloody hound, I do think so,” he snapped. Perhaps his tone was
dictated as much by contempt for the sailor as from conviction that the man was
The atmosphere was tense on the gleaming deck of that 215-ton vessel as
the crew, lined up for enquiry, watched the conflict between the spineless man
and the disciplinarian officer.
The officer ran his eye along the muster line.
“You bloody rascals, you are all thieves alike!’ he shouted “You all
combine with the men to rob me. I will flog you and make you jump overboard
before we reach Endeavor Straits.”
Red in the face be turned to his clerk.
“Mr. Samuels,” he ordered, “stop the villains' grog and give them only
half a pound of yams tomorrow.”
He turned brusquely on his heel and walked away.
Slowly and sullenly the crew shuffled from their line and returned to
their usual duty. The man who had been singled out for special mention was
scowling and muttering as he moved away. He was not a handsome man, neither was
he in good health. About five feet nine inches in height, he was of dark and
sallow complexion. He looked older than his twenty-four years. As he walked
for'ard along the deck tears started from his eyes.
He was unashamedly crying when the ship's carpenter asked him what was
“Can you ask me, and hear the treatment I receive?" he demanded.
The carpenter tried to cheer him.
But the sailor was scarcely conscious of the carpenter's words of simple,
sea-born philosophy. He was not a man in normal health; he had not that quiet,
philosophic, good-humored temperament which is common to sailors the world over,
when their health is good and their conditions fair. Nor was this sailor fitted
for the life of the sea in the year 1789: he should have stayed ashore. If his
commanding officer was rapturously in love with strict discipline, this was one
man who had no stomach for discipline, who could find no vicarious pride in
being one of a well regimented line: there was something pathological about his
sensitiveness; and out of that pathological sensitiveness arose resentment. The
unhappiness of his position, his quarrels, with his sharp-tongued commander, the
imagined disgrace in the eyes of his fellows of being told he was a suspected
thief, all bit into his mind like acid into a zinc plate; and those resentful
feelings etched there the pattern of mutiny.
The seaman mourned his helplessness in being confined to a ship 94 feet
long, half a world away from his homeland, in an unknown and un-civilised
hemisphere where land had barely been discovered . . . His mind shot off at a
tangent. Land had been discovered! The ship was not very far from land now. Why
not slip overboard- desert the ship and trust to being picked up by a native
So the poor, unsteady man made his way to his cabin. He took from his
sea-chest the curios he had collected from those brilliant and lazy Pacific
Islands where the ship had called, and these trophies he distributed to his
shipmates. Later, in the luminous darkness of the tropic night he was seen
standing in the ship's fore-chains, tearing up letters and papers and throwing
the scraps overboard.
Then he sought out his sympathetic friend, the ship's carpenter.
“Purcell, can you give me some nails?”
“Take what you want from the locker.”
He helped himself, stuffing them into his pockets.
Ready with ditty bag packed, to act on the inspiration of the afternoon,
the unhappy sailor waited patiently and cunningly through the first and middle
The master yielded the first watch to the gunner and the gunner was
dishearteningly watchful. That night, of all nights, everybody seemed to be
moving about the deck, eyes seemed to be everywhere. But the deserter waited
shrewdly for his chance . . . He threw himself down in his hammock, but he could
not sleep. The night wore through, the morning stars were visible. At four
o'clock, just before daybreak, the discontented would-be deserter was called
upon to take the watch.
He went on deck and took up his station, and watched the mate of the
watch stretch out on the arms-chest to take a nap. As he waited in the darkness
before the dawn he realised that the other midshipman of the watch had not made
his appearance. The poor mind which had seethed all the previous afternoon and
evening, which had planned and waited all night, and had been frustrated in its
intention of escape, received a violent, sudden twist. With the officer of the
watch asleep- his fellow watcher not on deck- this unhappy sailor was in control
of the ship.
Why not remain in charge?
Why not displace the commander whose harshness and rudeness of tongue had
caused the trouble?
His grievances justified the crime in his eyes, though he knew how many
sailors had swung grotesquely from a yard-arm for trying the same thing. His
bitterness of mind, the desperateness of his plan of desertion, the quietness of
the ship, all emphasised the simplicity and the advantages of his plan. In
contrast to his earlier bitterness there came a sudden vision of himself in
charge: of himself in the place of that disciplinarian whom he hated and feared
yet whose self-confidence and firmness he envied; psychologists know the kind of
reaction; it is standard in this type of situation.
That vision of authority, coupled with the comforts of the ship and
escape from the dread rule of the commander, swung the tortured man's decision.
Instead of being a deserter at the mercy of the waves, he would be a captain on
his own deck.
Fletcher Christian was not the only man on the ship who suffered from
resentment against the captain. Once the seeds of mutiny had germinated in his
mind, he knew where there existed fertile soil for their growth. He hurriedly
found two seamen who had been flogged, and suggested his plan. They agreed, and
found two more seamen who readily joined the plot. Three others, likely
prospects for such a venture, were sounded out.
All of this took, actually, only a few minutes. Then the impromptu
conspirators were presenting themselves to the ship's armorer, asking him for
muskets to fire at a shark which was cruising through the dawn water beside the
ship. The arms were issued to them, and carrying them openly, the mutineers went
on deck. Members of the crew who knew nothing of the impending trouble were
looking over the ship's side at the shark.
His face no longer sullen, the leader of the trouble beckoned another
seaman to follow him. His eyes gleamed excitedly, and perhaps a trifle madly, as
he and his companion made their way towards the cabin of the commander. Fletcher
Christian threw open the cabin door. William Bligh was asleep on his bunk.
It was ridiculously simple to make a prisoner of the commander. He was
hauled, ignominiously, out on deck, and he stood there in the cool dawn of April
28, 1789, shivering in his nightshirt, his hands bound behind his back.
“What is the meaning of this violence?” he asked.
“Hold your tongue or you are a dead man,” was his answer.
That insolence brought the old tone of authority ringing in William
Bligh's voice. A seaman thrust a bayonet against his chest. “If you don't hold
your tongue you'll die this instant,” the seaman answered shout with shout.
The armed men were in command of the ship.
It seemed impossible that the wild scheme hatched in one poorly-balanced
mind could be so quickly and so utterly successful. Yet it was, and in view of
the unstable character of the ringleader and his henchmen, it is likely that
only by its unpremeditated rapidity it could have succeeded, for it seems
certain that these men could not have kept a secret among them for any length of
There is reasonable certainty that Fletcher Christian, the author of the
mutiny, was never a robust type of mentality: there are records extant to show
that he suffered from syphilis and had received treatment for that disease more
than once. The play of syphilis on the mentality was not understood in those
days as it is now: but the facts as recorded, examined in the light of modern
knowledge, make it a reasonable suggestion that the mutiny of the Bounty had its
origin in the venereal affection of Fletcher Christian's mind.
The records are preserved so completely that the dialogue in this account
is mainly in the actual words recorded by Bligh and others as spoken on the deck
on that fateful day. It seems in the interest of historical truth to set out the
events and their very important medical background (on Fletcher Christian's
part) as they happened. The dramatisation and the badly- informed accounts of
this much told story have thrown the weight of responsibility perhaps rather too
heavily upon Bligh. His strictness, amounting at times to ruthlessness, is well
known; and without doubt his quick tongue and temper contributed their share to
the flare-up, as the scene shows. Nevertheless, in an attempt to assess the
blame for the Bounty mutiny, it must be acknowledged that Bligh, though a hard
man, tried to be fair-minded. Insisting on strict discipline was, he conceived,
no more than his duty; and if he was- as his own record of utterances seems to
show- a man of quick and stinging tongue, he was also a man of quick and
generous friendship. Had this not been so he could not have called Fletcher
Christian a “thief” and a “bloody hound” in one breath, and yet invited him to
sup in the commander's cabin.
The desire to pin the blame for such an event upon a single person is a
rather unscientific, emotional demand to have a real episode cut and dried with
hero and villain. But very rarely is anybody completely a hero, or completely a
villain, in life. On the Bounty there is no doubt Bligh's peculiarly complex
personality aggravated the men; nor is there any doubt that Fletcher Christian,
syphilitic and sensitive, was especially susceptible to irritation, especially
resentful; nor is there, again, any doubt that the members of the crew, long
away from home and living with memories of seductive Tahitian women, had a
strong, general desire to return to their Paradise Island and the amenities of
love, rather than live the iron-bound life of the ship and were consequently
especially susceptible to any suggestion which would give them the more
luxurious life. If it be urged that Bligh's harshness aggravated this desire of
the men to return to Tahiti and its women, then a fair answer is a comparison
between Bligh's treatment of his crew and the severity with which other naval
ratings in other ships under other commanders were treated at the same period-
from which it can be inferred with certainty that Bligh did not appear such a
gorgon in his own company as he may appear among the naval officers of
To return to the thread of adventure, however: the mutiny, quick and simple and singularly lacking in sensationalism, was the beginning of two epic stories- the foundation of a unique island settlement, and a record open-boat voyage.
Although the mutineers of the
Bounty won the day without a struggle, the ship's company was by no means
unanimously against Bligh- and it argues something in his favor that, when the
crew divided on the point of loyalty, there were eighteen who elected to remain
with Bligh to face the open sea in a small boat, while twenty-five threw in
their lot with Christian.
The leader of the mutiny himself
dictated the terms- Bligh was to be cast loose in a small boat, and any who
chose to go with him were free to do so: no man was to be compelled to join the
mutineers. So Bligh and the eighteen loyalists climbed over the side into a
23-foot launch and floated away from their ship into a merciless sea and a
future of greatest peril.
The launch contained food for
only a few days; some of the men were neither able nor experienced seamen; the
launch was so low in the water that it had to be baled out most of the time; the
men could only lie down in watches; many things had to be thrown overboard; and
the man in command of this party, Bligh, was never gifted with tact or patience
in the handling of men, even under ordinary circumstances.
A sporting evaluation of this
party's chance of making safety would have given pretty long odds; but Bligh was
not to be under-estimated. He was, above all else, a man of great
resourcefulness and determination. It was true to say of him that, whatever
adverse traits showed in his character, he did not know the word or the thought
All that first day the boat held
steadily on its course blown by a light breeze. At seven o'clock in the evening,
just after darkness had fallen, it came to the island of Tafoa; but the shores
were steep and in the darkness no landing place could be found. On the
30th, however, a cove was found on the north-west of the island where
the boat was beached, and until the 2nd of May the party roamed the
island trying to collect food. At first the natives left them alone, remembering
that the white men in their experience had used noisy and harmful methods of
self-protection; but when they discovered that the white men had no firearms
they attacked with clubs and stones.
Most of Bligh's men were hurt;
John Norton, who had been quartermaster of the Bounty, was killed. The rest of
the men retreated in orderly fashion to the beach and put out from land in the
boat; but the natives once seeing their foe in flight, jumped into canoes which
they loaded with stones, and followed, pelting the unfortunate and unprotected
white men. It is characteristic of Bligh that in recording the episode he paid
tribute to the “force and exactness” with which the natives threw the stones.
The coming of darkness, with tropical swiftness, saved further injury to the
Bligh made up his mind to go to
Tongatabu, in the south of the islands, to look for King Paulehow, in the hope
of enlisting the imperial darkie's aid; but the bad reception he received at
Tafoa led him to expect that there would be little help from him, and to become
more than ever convinced that the white men had in the past owed their safety to
their firearms and the native fear of firearms. Under these circumstances Bligh
feared that far from coming to any diplomatic arrangement with the king, he
might find himself robbed of his boat, and so be unable to get away from the
The thoughts of the crew ran
along the same lines. They did not relish trying to settle, even for a time, on
the island; and any fascination the dark women had exercised over their
imagination in the safety of a hammock on the after deck, had evaporated. They
were continuous in their request that Bligh should take them towards home which,
when all the circumstances are considered, was quite a tribute to their
commander's skill in navigation.
“When I told them that no hopes
of relief remained for us but what I might find at New Holland until I came to
Timor, a distance of 1200 leagues, they all agreed to live on one ounce of bread
a day and a gill of water. I therefore, after recommending this promise forever
to their memory, bore away from New Holland to Timor, across a sea but little
known and in a small boat loaded deep with 18 souls, without a single map of any
kind, and nothing but my own recollection and general knowledge of the situation
of places to direct us.” So Bligh describes in his report the beginning of the
voyage proper- a brave bid, made with cool decision after the factors had been
Early in the voyage they
sustained a loss which, in the circumstances, was a heavy blow, when some of
their provisions went overboard. They faced the greater part of the journey
still, and for their sustenance had only 20 lb. of pork, 3 bottles of wine, 5
quarts of rum, 150 lb. of bread and 28 gallons of water.
Day by day Bligh took bearings
with his quadrant, kept to a course he had determined by means of a compass,
reckoned his bearings with a gunner's watch and an old book of latitudes and
longitudes, and checked up with the data furnished by his own remarkable memory.
And day by day, while he knew that the guidance of these meagre instruments was
insufficient to guarantee him any degree of real accuracy, he cheered the crew,
through fine weather and bad, by holding high courage and a sort of cool
decisiveness, as though everything were going according to a well-planned
Many of the men in the boat were
useless. Four of them became definitely mutinous. The rest, owing either to
their idleness or inexperience, could not be looked upon as able seamen.
Food began to run low; Bligh
kept stricter supervision than ever upon it, and finally improvised a pair of
scales to divide it fairly in the sight of all the men. For weight in the scales
he used a 25-bore pistol bullet, which was known to weigh 272 grains; and by
this ingenuity he managed to divide the food with unscrupulous fairness. He
showed up, too, as something of a storyteller, keeping all hands interested by
describing the situation of New Guinea and New Holland, and telling them all he
knew of these strange seas.
The men received other
instructions as well, which served the double purpose of killing dull time and
making them capable of carrying on should they be left leaderless. They were,
for example, taught to make a log line, and to count seconds until they could do
it with a fair degree of exactness- an accomplishment they found very useful
when the not-too-reliable gunner's watch stopped. In short, the little party was
a very busy party as their boat ploughed through day after day of unbroken sea;
and the spectacle of their employment makes anybody familiar with the ghastly
fate of similar voyagers feel that much of the horror of the open-boat trips has
been due, in no small measure, to lack of discipline, lack of foresight, and
At last, on May 28, after
twenty-six days of continual travelling, the boat sighted the coast of New
Holland. They found a break in a reef and entered it at a bearing which Bligh
carefully, recorded and kept. They followed the coast carefully, going
north-ward, and putting in at places which Bligh “found convenient” to refresh
“my people by the best means in my power”. They found oysters and a few clams,
which they ate joyfully, and “they were greatly benefited by them and a good
There was no dallying nor
idling, however. The pauses having served their purpose, the little boat was
again loaded down and put to sea. The most northerly peak of New Holland was
reached and rounded and the course set for Timor. On June 12 Timor was sighted,
“a happy sight for every one, particularly several, who perhaps have existed a
week or a day longer.”
The boat was over the worst of
its ordeal. The men were wan and hunger-ridden spectres; they were sunburned and
blistered, bearded, and longhaired; but they were well, they had some strength,
they had been spared the exquisite agony of acute hunger and burning thirst.
They were overjoyed at seeing the land which Bligh believed was Timor, and kept
watching it eagerly as the boat followed the contour of the island until, on the
14th in the afternoon, they took a Malay aboard to guide them to
“On the next morning before day
I anchored under the Fort,” Bligh records, “and at about 11 o'clock I saw the
Governor, who received me with great humanity and kindness. Necessary directions
were instantly given for our support, and perhaps a more miserable set of beings
were never seen.”
Yet many more miserable sets of
beings had been and were to be seen along the coast after shipwrecks. For when
the boat finally anchored it had still enough supplies to feed the men (on
the rations they had been having) for another eleven days. And amazing as it may
seem, this little boat was, after all its hardship, able to contribute a gift in
return for the hospitality of Koepang. Timor had quite run out of chalk, and
there was a small store of chalk in the launch which Bligh was able to give to
The boat voyage was safely over-
one of the most amazing journeys history can record, carried out with a calmness
and precision which eased its tough spots and while robbing the voyage of drama,
was actually the most dramatic aspect of the whole story; for there is something
strong and fascinating about the calm, well-ordered conduct of an apparently
But Bligh considered this to be
only the first part of his duty. He had to return to England; he had to take his
men home. And he had to look after them. He refused to be separated from them
while he was in Timor, lodging them all with himself and dividing his house
there between them, and supervising their habits of eating and drinking and
resting, fully realising that if their health were to be preserved, they must
exercise restraint in adopting a full diet again.
The conclusion of the adventure Bligh puts pithily:
“I found three vessels here
bound for Batavia, but as their sailing would be late I considered it to the
advantage of His Majesty's Service to purchase a vessel to take my people to
Batavia before the sailing of the fleet for Europe in October, as no one could
be hired but at a price equal to a purchase. I therefore gave public notice of
my intent and assisted by the Governor I got a vessel for 1000 rix dollars and
called her the Resource. We have not yet our health perfectly
established. Four of my people are still ill and I have had the misfortune to
lose Mr. Nelson the Botanist, whose good conduct in the course of the whole
voyage, and manly fortitude in our late disastrous circumstances deserves this
tribute to his memory.”
Bligh reached Batavia on October
1, and was stricken with a bout of headaches and fever. He received medical
attention, and got his men on the home-bound ships; but these were so crowded
that the party had to be divided, and the Resource was sold by Dutch
auction for 295 dollars to an Englishman, Captain John Eddie, who commanded an
English ship from Bengal. The launch was sold as well, separately; and Bligh
revealed an unexpected streak of sentiment when he wrote, “The service she had
rendered us made me feel great reluctance at parting with her; which I would not
have done if I could have found a convenient opportunity for getting her
conveyed to Europe.”
Bligh landed from the packet at
Portsmouth on March 14, 1790, knowing full well that the four men who had died
in Batavia were the victims of the tropical conditions rather than of his
carelessness. His story excited widespread interest, but even more intriguing
was the fact that the Bounty and its mutineers could not be traced.
Lieutenant Bligh, the hero of the episode, was to be Governor of N.S.W. when, in 1808, the mutineers were found on Pitcairn Island.
After Bligh's launch had cast
off from the Bounty to make this amazing voyage- perhaps the most remarkable of
the many small boat voyages associated with the Australian coast- the
pathological Fletcher Christian found himself with his impulsively-sought
ambition on his hands. He was promoted by his resentment from seaman to captain,
and had not only the glories and the authority of the ship, but the
If Fletcher Christian lacked
confidence he did not reveal the fact. He immediately gave orders to alter
course, and set the Bounty running for Tubuai, in the Austral Islands, 300 miles
south of Tahiti.
Until May 25, 1789, when it came
to anchor in the island's lagoon, the Bounty had an uneventful voyage; the
intention of the mutineers was to settle down on the island and yield to the
very impulses Bligh's men had dismissed- the lazy, luxurious life of tropical
Livestock and food presented
pressing problems, however, and though the Bounty's captors, like Bligh's
companions, regarded it as highly dangerous to return to Tahiti, they went and
secured their supply of animals and food without trouble.
It is an interesting sidelight
that the Bounty men gave as their reason for fearing to return to Tahiti, that
Bligh was not with them, and Bligh would be a certain guarantee of security, as
he was known there- while Bligh hesitated to return without the panoply of the
big ship and firearms. From the reception the mutineers received, it appears
that both parties could have gone back safely!
The Bounty took its food
supplies back to Tubuai where the mutineers commenced to build for themselves a
fort; but the natives turned a jaundiced eye on these signs of settlement and
became hostile. The builders abandoned the idea, and made another trip to
Here the mutineers broke up-
sixteen men decided they would stay at Tahiti and join the first British ship
that should come along, telling the story of the mutiny and disclaiming any
responsibility for what had happened. The other eight elected to sail with
Christian, who had heard of Philip Carteret's discovery of Pitcairn Island in
1767, knew that the island was deserted and far from shipping routes, and
therefore comparatively safe, and so decided to settle there. Six Fijian men and
a dozen women joined the party, and the Bounty, after a long and worrying voyage
(the position of the island on the charts of that day was 200 miles out) safely
reached its destination.
There is not room to detail the
attempt made to settle the island; the island was divided into nine lots, on
which houses were built. Then Williams, one of the white men, lost his native
wife, who fell over a cliff while collecting birds' eggs. He took one of the
natives' wives, the natives conspired to kill the white men, but the women
betrayed the intrigue and two natives were murdered. And thus began a guerrilla
war between this pitiful handful of settlers, which ended in all the mutineers
but two (Young, who died of asthma, and John Adams, who died a natural death)
being murdered by the natives.
Adams (properly named Alexander
Smith) was the sole survivor, all the others being dead by 1800. He, with the
women and children (the first-born being Fletcher Christian's son, a boy called
Thursday October) lived on Pitcairn, became religious (owing to a dream, he
said) and brought up the growing community in the light of the strictest
Christian principles. This remarkable community remained secret from the world
until an American ship, Topaz (Captain Folger), put in at the island and
answered the question, long puzzling to England, as to the fate of the Bounty's
After the Damoclean sword of
doom had been suspended over the ship Sydney Cove for twenty-three days,
it fell on the grey morning of February 9, 1797. The vessel, running before a
gale, slid slowly onto a sandbank in 19 feet of water within sight of
Preservation Island in the Furneaux Group, Bass Strait. Thus commenced a heroic
two-month walk of great hardship and a dear price in human life, a dramatic and
tragic story of human suffering which had as its grand anti-climax the discovery
of the extensive coalfields of the South Coast of New South Wales.
The beginning of this fateful
story-the actual “commencement of hostilities” in this battle between frail men
and nature- was no surprise to the company of the Sydney Cove: they had
felt its nearness for weeks, and when the blow fell they could have no other
reaction than thankfulness that the inevitable had occurred within sight of
land. As they ran from the Indian Ocean into the Roaring Forties doom had
threatened them repeatedly; as they nosed their way into the fierce summer gales
of the low latitudes, they had not found a single cause for optimism. From the
time of their leaving Calcutta, November 10 of the year previous, there had been
fair voyaging until January 13; then, as a result of the continuous battering by
strong-running seas, the ship sprang a bad leak, and fear became a member of the
ship's company. A thrummed sail was put over the starboard bow and passed under
the bottom of the ship in an effort to minimise the damage- and though it
stemmed the leak, the bad fate which had commenced sailing with the Sydney
Cove continued to produce a succession of minor tragedies.
On January 25 the second mate
was washed from the yard-arm by a great, curling cream-crested wave. The gale
increased, rain commenced, the weather, in spite of the time of year, became
bitterly cold. The Lascar crew, shipped in Calcutta, the ship's port of origin,
was too affected by the cold to be able to work the pumps. The British crew was
so weakened by privation, by extreme weather, and by almost incessant working at
the pumps, that it could not keep the water down.
On the eighth of the month the
ship rounded Van Diemen's Land and nosed her way into a hurricane.
At half-past three on this
afternoon a fresh leak appeared and a great deal of cargo had to be thrown
overboard in a last effort to make the ship live. The damage was, however, too
severe; and it was as she settled lower and lower in the water, the leak beating
the pumps, that she nosed her way firmly into a sandbank. Thus it was that the
only feeling of the crew was one of thankfulness; for after the desperate
struggle against the cruelty of the sea, it was in their eyes nothing short of a
miracle that this foreshadowed wreck should occur within sight of safety.
On the ninth of February all the
ship's company was landed safely on Preservation Island. A well was dug to seven
and a half feet in the sand, and provided drinkable but brackish water, the
first essential to survival. From their place of safety the men could see the
wreck, wallowing and swaying under the hammers of the ocean, but held by the
sand from sinking further.
Captain Hamilton, seeing his
ship lost and his men saved, took stock of the position, with a view to
discovering how best to get assistance. He was on the uncharted southern coast
of Australia; the English had not been ten years settled at Port Jackson; there
was little chance of rescue, as George Bass had only just discovered the
existence of Bass Strait, and shipping in its normal course was wide of the
scene of tragedy.
So the first sixteen days of
this stormy exile were spent in equipping a lifeboat which would go out and seek
help; and on February 27 this frail craft was ready to sail under the charge of
Mr. Hugh Thompson, the Sydney Cove's chief mate. The supercargo, a man named
Clark, acted as Thompson's second in command, and the lifeboat was given a crew
of three Europeans and 12 Lascars.
The story of the Sydney
Cove becomes, from this time on, mainly the adventures of these seventeen
men. The men remaining on the island were safe, and when the hurricane abated
employed themselves in transferring cargo from the wreck, and settling down into
the existence of so many Robinson Crusoes- a life monotonous but spiced with
Very different was the fate of
the lifeboat. The malign fate which had been the unseen member of the ship's
company seemed to sail in the small boat as well, and two days after it left the
island, Mr. Thompson doubted whether his boat could weather the storm that
Land was in sight, but a
forbidding surf rebuked all thoughts of landing; two anchors were put out for
the night, and through long hours of darkness the little boat tossed dizzily,
quivering again and again as sheets of water hammered her frail sides or crashed
down upon her.
With the dawning of the day it
was decided to try and make the beach, in spite of the rough surf; and as it
headed shoreward a great comber picked it up and swept it in. The timbers
groaned and began to part. The men bent every energy to pushing with their oars
through the barrage of boiling waves. As the lifeboat grounded on the sand it
fell apart; the men jumped into the swirling foam, picked themselves up and
battled ashore against the undertow.
They were safe- safe and
stranded. In the dawn light they could see a seemingly interminable stretch of
surf-washed sand, curling away to the north, losing itself in the mistiness of
the grey horizon. They knew that somewhere beyond that horizon lay the newly
settled Sydney Town; that somewhere in the murk behind them their comrades were
clinging to life and trusting to Hugh Thompson's men.
These exhausting events were,
however, only training for the real ordeal that lay ahead. They set their faces,
did these marooned sailors, to the longest walk attempted in the Great South
Land up to that time for it later transpired that they had been wrecked on the
Ninety Mile Beach of Gippsland and they were going to walk within fourteen miles
of Botany Bay before making contact with whites again.
For three days they loitered
around the scene of the wreck, collecting their scattered goods as they were
washed ashore. It was not until March 15 that they commenced their travels; on
the 16th they walked sixteen or eighteen miles along the sandy beach
with the baffled roaring of the cheated sea ever in their ears; and on the
17th they crossed several little rivers and Clark wrote in his diary
that one of these was so big that a raft had to be constructed to cross it.
This diary kept by the
supercargo Clark turned out to be one of the real benefits which came to the new
colony as a result of the wreck of the Sydney Cove; it was the first
account of exploration beyond the immediate environment of Sydney, and it gave a
graphic first-hand description of the country throughout the southern coastal
district of New South Wales. Apart from its value in this regard it is an
intensely human document also, more thrilling in its casually-written adventures
than any work of fiction. There is all the drama of living in this simple entry
which Clark made on April 16:
“Our poor unfortunate
companions, worn out by want and excessive fatigue, began to drop behind very
fast. We were under the painful necessity of leaving nine of our
fellow-sufferers behind, they being unable to proceed further, but we thought
that they would be able to come up with us in a day of two, as now we often
delayed for some time with the natives when we found them kind to us, or
loitered about the rocks to pick up shell fish or collect herbs.”
Clark's desperate hope that the
men who dropped behind might later on catch up, was not realised; for when two
months later the travellers arrived in Sydney, there were but three of the
original seventeen. Exhaustion, exposure, hunger, hardship, had claimed
The party had met some blacks,
too, and had found them treacherous. It appears from the diary that on April 26
they fell in with some of the natives and made signs to them that they were
hungry and exhausted. The blacks understood these signs, brought them fish and
treated them very kindly. Just as they were about to continue their journey,
however, a party of about fifty stalwart natives made their appearance. Thompson
gave them what little presents he could afford, and they were apparently
satisfied; but they had not parted from the blacks for more than twenty minutes
when a much greater crowd approached, shouting in a most hideous manner. A few
of them threw spears, and Clark records the great control the hunted party
exercised: “We made signs for them to desist, giving them some presents and
appearing in no way dismayed at their conduct. Any other demeanour would have
been useless, as we had only one musket, which was unloaded, and pistols were
out of repair.”
The presents, however, failed to
satisfy the natives. As soon as they had taken all they were going to receive
they reopened hostilities. The whites were pursued eight miles along the coast,
and were just getting clear of their savage enemies when they came down to a bay
of great depth. Night was falling, and it was the nerve-racking lot of the
fugitives to lie awake through the dark hours, knowing that the blacks were
stalking close by, and expecting at any moment the soft death-whistle of their
spears or the bloodcurdling yell of their lust to kill. The night passed
uneventfully, strangely enough: but on the following morning the blacks were
still there, and they followed along until about 9 a.m., when they “betook
themselves to the woods, leaving us extremely happy at their departure.”
The journey continued in this
strain. On April 30 they came to a wide river, which was evidently the
Shoalhaven- it had been named by Bass a little before this- and for fifteen days
more they walked, sometimes meeting blacks, losing more of their number and
still wondering whether by this route they really would reach Port Jackson. In
reading about their journey it must be remembered that nothing of the coast or
country was known to them: the fact that Port Jackson lay ahead of them was pure
conjecture, with probability to lend it weight; but there was in the back of
their minds, over and above the horrors of these two months, the steadily
growing uncertainty: the possibility that they would never reach the goal.
On May 13, the monotony of the
walk was broken by an event the significance of which these weary and
half-beaten men did not fully realise. They came upon an outcrop of coal on the
cliff face- they recognised it, and made a fire with it, and continued on their
way, too depressed by the growing uncertainty of their predicament even to
consider seriously the importance of their discovery.
Two days later, however, they
saw a fishing boat. Hugh Thompson saw it first- and the now reduced party took
on a new life and hurried towards it. They discerned plainly that it was a white
man's boat- not a native canoe; and presently they could clearly see the white
men seated in it.
Their walk was ended.
They were then fourteen miles south of Botany Bay, and the end of their journey was hastened. The colony's second governor, Hunter, received them cordially and gave them what care the settlement offered to restore their strength. They set the wheels of rescue in motion immediately- and more, recalled the coal they had discovered. Sydney, for its brief few hours was a bustle again. The schooner Francis under the command of Matthew Flinders, and the sloop Eliza, were sent immediately south to seek the men of the Sydney Cove, and also to report on the coal which Hugh Thompson's men had observed.
The coal seam was located-
reported as six feet wide and observed for nine miles along the cliffs, running
southward. And further down still, the castaways were found on Preservation
They, too, had undergone their
privation and their suffering, though they had not suffered the loss of life
which broke up the walking party. On June 8 their despair had been brightened
for a moment by the appearance of what they took for a long boat, which seemed
to be looking for the wreck, but which turned from the island and disappeared,
leaving them more downcast than they had been since their arrival… But the very
next day a schooner broke the horizon, and on the 10th the “long
boat”, which was the sloop Eliza, came back. The schooner was the
Francis (which six years later was to go on a similar errand of mercy to
rescue the survivors of the Porpoise and Cato wrecks) and the two
rescue vessels loaded as much of the Sydney Cove's cargo as they could
carry, and sailed for Sydney on June 21.
Some of the cargo had to be left
behind- and of the Sydney Cove's survivors five men volunteered to remain
on the island to guard the remainder until it could be collected!
After a journey of 15 days the
Francis arrived safely back in Port Jackson with cargo and crew.
But Fate was determined to wring
the last bitter drop from this terrible visitation of misfortune- the
Eliza became separated from the Francis in a storm, and neither
boat, master, nor crew, was heard of again.
Captain Hamilton of the
Sydney Cove had suffered severely from anxiety and privation; he had,
unlike many another master in sail on the Australian coast, acted like a good
captain from the outset; and perhaps it was because he had done his duty that he
died from the effects of the adventure soon after arriving safely in
With his death Fate was
appeased, and the terrible chain of accidents which started with the second
mate's death on January 25, was ended. The story had, however, its two brighter
points- Clark's valuable diary, and the discovery of the south coast coalfield
of New South Wales.
Seven years after the founding of New South Wales a
young man named Matthew Flinders distinguished himself in an eight-foot dinghy
called the Tom. Thumb. Two years later he was commissioned by
Governor Hunter to go to the rescue of the marooned crew of the Sydney
Cove, which had been wrecked on Preservation Island. In 1799, with his
partner George Bass and a twenty five-ton sloop, the Norfolk (built on
Norfolk Island) he circumnavigated Tasmania, and later in the year, in the same
ship, he explored the north coast of New South Wales, and marked Moreton Bay and
Glasshouse Bay on his chart.
When during the year 1801
Flinders was given a ship of 334 tons, the Investigator, it appeared at
last that he had a vessel worthy of his great work. But the cruise of the
Investigator was to become the prelude to a double tragedy which, though
only a tiny figure on the great canvas of pioneering history, is a thrilling and
romantic episode in the story of Australian ships.
The first shadow of the tragedy
fell across the Investigator while it was exploring the Gulf of
Carpentaria and was discovered to be leaking badly. Flinders and his first
lieutenant, R. M. later Admiral) Fowler, decided that the ship could finish her
voyage, however, and in her they circumnavigated Australia for the first time,
arriving in Sydney on June 9, 1803, when the ship was condemned as
At Encounter Bay, during the
voyage, Flinders had met Baudin, the French explorer; and Flinders was afraid
that if Baudin got back to Europe first there might be some cross purposes to be
untangled, for Baudin was anxious to make the most of his own explorations in
the Great South Land. With this as his incentive Flinders applied for immediate
passage to England, and was allowed to take his officers and crew on to the
Porpoise, a converted Spanish packet which had been in the transport
By August 10, 1803, the
Investigator's crew were snugly re-housed, and the Porpoise stood
out from Port Jackson in company with the Cato and the
Bridgewater, both of which were bound for Bombay.
For a week they kept gay
company. They were almost constantly in sight of the beautiful but then
uncharted coast. They exchanged signals many times a day. Their canvas stretched
to a brisk breeze, their tackle strained, and their hulls leaped forward like
things alive as they raced across the smooth sea.
To the three ships and their men
it was a sporting race up the coast, over an ideal course.
To Matthew Flinders there was a
stronger purpose: he was racing the Frenchman to Europe, to publish his
discoveries of the Great South Land.
For seven days all went well;
then, in the evening at about ten o'clock, the Porpoise was leading the
merry race when the lookout hailed –“Breakers ahead!”
The cry brought for a moment
such a silence as fell upon the Philistine feast when blind Samson tugged “those
two massy pillars with horrible convulsions to and fro.” Then the spell broke.
The men who ran anxiously to the lee rail could see a long, thin line of
seething water, cream in the starlit night. Lieutenant Fowler ran on deck. He
saw that the breeze which had served them well so far in the race had proved a
treacherous mistress, and was now driving all three vessels briskly towards the
jagged teeth of a coral trap. The Porpoise was nearest the danger; Fowler
ordered her course altered at once, and at the same time set a junior to fire a
warning to the Cato and Bridgewater, both scurrying quickly
towards the danger.
The eager boy rushed to the
swivel gun which was always kept primed for such an emergency. Forgetting that
it was fully exposed to the wind he whipped off the canvas cap; the wind howled
down the deck and cleaned the powder out of the touch hole, rendering the signal
gun useless. It was impossible to re-prime and fire it quickly in the wind. The
apprentice tore pages from books, set light to them, and hung them in the lower
rigging while the crew shouted warnings.
Easily and quickly the
Bridgewater hauled to wind on a larboard tack, cut across the
Cato's stern narrowly avoiding collision, and scudded into a course wide
of the reef and out of danger. Then, with the gallantry of sail days, she hove
to and waited for her companions to clear themselves.
With expert seamanship Fowler
brought the bow of the Porpoise round to the wind, successfully but too
late. For long seconds the ship was helpless, swinging on the heavy swell. Then
the canvas bellied and she drove away on her new course to the tune of creaking
tackle. In the midst of her leap for freedom she paused and trembled like a
thing in terror. She began to take a port list, then to sway helplessly with the
The wind had carried her
broadside on to the reef.
The minutes had been too crammed
with activity for anybody but the despairing commander to notice how the night
had thickened, and how angry the wind had become. A green bank swept above the
helpless Porpoise, splintering over her superstructure and gurgling back
into the sea. The wind howled now in rising passion. Above both noises came a
terrible sound: a blending of crashes and cries while the Porpoise
wrestled with the water. The foremast went with a crack like a cannon shot.
Canvas and rigging dragged across the vessel and swayed helplessly on the water.
The hull of the ship sprawled on beam ends on the coral, so firmly held that the
rising sea could not wash her clear.
Fate was gradually unfolding new
dangers for the men who had so recently escaped from the weakness of the
Investigator. Matthew Flinders had been stopped short in his race to
The storm wind brought to the
Porpoise another symphony of cries and crashes; but the men clinging to
the wave-washed wreck could see nothing in the darkness of the storm. Through
seven hours of the night they remained on deck, helpless, wet and frozen by the
Bleak and gray was the winter
dawn; a suitable morning for the funeral of two gallant wooden ships. It showed
the men of the Porpoise the cause of the crash they had heard in the
night the Cato, driven high on the reef, and already breaking up. The
Bridgewater, however, was still standing by, well off from the reef, her
sticks almost bare of canvas, waiting until the sea became calm enough for small
boats to bring assistance to the wrecks.
Dawn showed, also, the Scylla
and Charybdis of the two ships. A flat, barren little island of coral rising
above the high water mark, gray and treeless, but apparently dry and safe. It
was better than the shipwrecked men might have hoped for in a sea which was
peppered with submerged reefs many miles from the coast, for it was plain that
only one course was open to them. That course was to abandon the ships and make
this cheerless piece of coral their temporary refuge.
The water close to the reef was
calm enough for the Porpoise's crew to launch their lifeboats and load
them with what necessities they could salvage. They made trip after trip to the
island. Food, bedding, clothing, canvas were here; water, cooking utensils,
wood, pieces of odd cabin furniture, were energetically ferried ashore. By
eleven in the morning (it was August 18) the Cato's crew had launched
their boats as well, for the wreck was rapidly becoming unsafe. Straining
against the whirling eddies which might have smashed the little boats against
the rocks, they managed to make the Porpoise and scramble aboard.
Temporarily they were safe. They were able, as well, to reinforce the salvage
When the sun made its bed among
the ragged storm clouds which were already wind-torn, the men from both wrecks
were able to stand thankfully on safe, dry land. In typical adventure story
fashion they spent their first long night, sleepless and without shelter.
In the morning the faithful
Bridgewater was still standing by, but the storm was giving its last kicks and
her master seemed unwilling to risk any third wreck by coming in to pick up the
On the island the day was busy.
The wrecks were stripped further, until the Cato, completely crumbled
under the hammering of the sea, could not be visited again. Cords and canvas,
marlinspikes and hatchways, anchors and navigating instruments, were all rescued
and heaped safely on the island in a scene which rivaled anything Ballantyne or
Kingston might have written under such a chapter heading as “I Visit the Wreck.”
Pieces of driftwood, oars and hatches, washed ashore, were collected.
The second Crusoe evening
brought a sense of grateful satisfaction. Safely housed, with the
Bridgewater standing by to pick them up as soon as the water quietened,
much of their valuable property and navigating instruments around them, the men
who had circled Australia in the leaky Investigator felt that for a
second time they had been saved from a sailor's grave. But the darkness of that
night hatched a bitter disappointment, for the third dawn on the island revealed
that the Bridgewater had disappeared. The storm was still wagging its
tail fitfully, the surf about the island would still have been perilous for
small boats. The marooned men reasoned that the Bridgewater would not
have been able to accommodate two more ships' companies besides her own, and
that, rather than run foolish risks the captain had decided to continue his
voyage, taking the first opportunity of sending them help.
It was evident that at least
some days must pass before assistance could arrive. Flinders was eager to be on
his way; he felt that his race against Baudin was too important to be staked on
the arrival of chance assistance. Fowler was unwilling to become a Micawber of
the sea, waiting for something to turn up.
The Porpoise had carried
a cutter, a fairly long and strong boat, but unserviceable for the open sea
because it was un-decked. But Fowler felt that if this cutter were decked over
with wood from the wrecks it would stand an even chance of making Port Jackson
(there was at that time no settlement on Moreton Bay) and of hurrying
The island became a cauldron of
activity as the men settled in, making their waiting as comfortable as possible,
and working with all speed on the cutter. A week after the wreck this boat could
be seen on the beach, its deck almost completed. Not far away lay the long
straight keel of a twenty-ton vessel: a keel made from driftwood for a vessel to
be built of driftwood, which, when it was finished, would enable some of the men
to make another trip to Port Jackson for help, if the cutter failed.
Flinders had shown by his
earlier career that he was a brave and capable man indeed. He detailed Fowler to
take charge of the marooned men and announced that he would himself take the
cutter on the 357 mile journey back to Sydney to bring assistance. The trip, he
must have realised, was more hazardous than his Tom Thumb episode eight years
earlier- and he could ill afford to run risks, now that he had so much important
information about the new continent to publish in England. But out of the
knowledge and experience of his hardy early days Flinders felt that he was
better qualified than anybody else in the company to undertake the important
“You can finish that
twenty-tonner in six weeks,” he told his men before he left. “If you do not hear
from me by then, launch the boat, which will be far more seaworthy than this
cutter, and try to make Port Jackson yourselves, and get help for the
The day after Flinders left in
the cutter some of the seamen took a small boat which had weathered the storm,
and in it they sailed round their island refuge. During the trip they detected another
island, eight or ten miles distant from that on which they were, and determined
to visit it. Their long pull over the now calm sea was amply rewarded. The new
island proved to be extremely fertile, and the little boat came back low in the
water with birds' eggs and turtles, vegetables and fresh water- unexpected
luxuries for men who were putting themselves on a plain and meagre diet from the
Small in itself, the incident
had a most favorable reaction among the men. Less worried about their
circumstances, and cheered by the welcome food, they went to work
So the twenty-tonner took shape.
Ribs were added to the keel that Flinders had seen laid down before he left; and
the barren little island of tragedy was transformed into a busy scene such as
Day by day the vessel
With timbers fashioned strong
Stemson and keenson and
Till, framed with perfect
A skeleton ship rose up to
And around the bow and along
The heavy hammers and mallets
Many eager hands made the work
light, and the knowledge that their lives and freedom might yet depend upon the
quality of the work lent a special skill and carefulness to the builders.
Because of their enthusiasm the new ship was ready in less than the six weeks
allowed by the cautious Flinders. They called it, appropriately, the
Its launching was a proud day of
expectation and hope mingled with fear. The coral exile rang with cheers when
the Resource took the water and floated gracefully on an even keel.
Overnight her interior kept perfectly dry: she was, well caulked.
The willingness of the first
building days was redoubled as the decking went over her while she floated.
Every touch was added to guarantee her a safe journey to Sydney; and when she
was ready every man jack on the island believed that in her both the ill-fated
Porpoise and Cato lived again.
The approaching trial trip
naturally aroused speculation on the island. Although the six weeks allotted by
Flinders had not yet expired, the sight of a seaworthy vessel fed the suppressed
longings to be free, and the men began to debate whether they should wait for
the time to expire, or whether they should start immediately for Port Jackson.
Many of them urged the latter course.
Lieutenant Fowler handled the
situation tactfully. The men remained happy until October 17, the day of the
trial- the day, too, which was to end all disputes. The trial trip began
successfully as the little Resource slid out from the lee of the island
with wind-filled sails. It was a much greater success before she returned; for
three other sails were sighted. It was the day before the wreck over again-
three sails abreast skimming gaily before a brisk breeze like three great white
horses of the ocean. And as they cleared the horizon they bore down on the
island and one by one they trimmed their canvas and hove to.
The wondering castaways soon
learned that the new arrivals were the Rolla, a convict transport; the
colonial schooner Francis, and a 28-ton sloop, a “crazy vessel given
Flinders by Governor King,” named the Cumberland- it was the first
sea-going vessel built in Australia. Eagerly watching from the island which was
a prison no longer, Fowler and his men saw Captain Matthew Flinders step into a
boat lowered from the Cumberland and pull ashore. The consultation they
held where they stood was one of the most exciting in the history of Australian
Flinders had been given the
Cumberland to aid him in his race against Baudin- that race upon which so
many exploration claims depended. The Rolla and the Francis were
going to divide the sailors and their effects, and transport them safely to
civilisation. Those who went with the Rolla were to be taken to Canton
and reshipped on East Indiamen bound for London. The others were to be taken
back to Port Jackson with the stores by the Francis. Flinders himself,
already too long delayed in his race, was going to put the crazy
Cumberland through Torres Strait and go direct to England through the
Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope.
This plan was put into effect.
The castaways of the Porpoise and Cato arrived in England in twos
and threes as various vessels berthed from Sydney or Canton.
But seven years were to pass
before Flinders came back to London. He drove the Cumberland on the
course he had planned, without incident until he reached the Mauritius on
December 17. There he was detained by General de Caen, Governor of the island.
The pretext which interrupted his race a second time was flimsy indeed. The
French Government had given him a passport in the name of the ship
Investigator; but General de Caen held that this did not cover the
Cumberland on which Flinders was then travelling. The vessel was
searched; the precious charts and notebooks that he was rushing to London were
taken from him, and Baudin, his adversary in the race, was allowed to examine
It was 1810 before Flinders
regained his freedom- the second interruption, though less dangerous physically,
had proved a greater obstacle than the first. It was to have heartbreaking
consequences, too; for when Flinders at last reached, London it was to learn
that Baudin had published an account of his exploration, and had used in it the
data gleaned from Flinders' research. Flinders had been a fighter all his life:
and he, in the midst of his disappointment, braced himself to fight again. He
had not won the great race with Baudin, but he was determined to win back his
stolen laurels. He published a statement which exposed Baudin's false claims and
his own bad treatment, and by doing so ended forever the French Government's
hope of claiming footing in Australia as a colonial right.
This statement came to the public on July 14, 1814. On that day Flinders died.
There is one loose thread in the
dramatic story of the race and the wreck: it is the fate of the little
Resource. She was not abandoned on the island. Denis Lacey, one of the
crew of the Porpoise, had faith enough in her to try her against the open
sea, and in her he returned safely to Port Jackson. Her behaviour through the
voyage was a credit to the craftsmanship of the castaways.
The island had been occupied for
just two months- two months of hardship and of constant anxiety; of cold weather
and hard work. But they were months of adventure, of discovery, of fellowship,
making the story of the double wreck more of a romance than a tragedy- making
it, in fact, the most fortunate wreck of the Australian coast- a wreck without a
Dignity of a Prince
As in the present, so in the past it has been
the consistent error of the white man to under-estimate the dignity of his
colored brothers. It has been taken for granted that other systems of
civilisation and other habits of living are inferior to those of Western
civilisation. It has been too often forgotten that the colored races have their
social distinctions, and that their ruling classes usually invest themselves
with a personal dignity which is not tempered by democratic ideas.
It is tragic that the tough old
salt, John Thompson, who captained the ship Boyd when she put out from
Port Jackson on November 12, 1809, was not in a position to realise these simple
truths. For Captain Thompson had in his crew a number of Maoris who, having
ventured as far from home as New South Wales, wanted to get back again. It was
understood that they should work their passage as far as Whangaroa on the
Boyd, as the vessel was to call there for kauri spars to be delivered in
There was nothing unusual in
this arrangement, and no reason to suspect that it should prove unsatisfactory,
until Master Thompson asked a Maori named Tarra to turn his hand to some
Tarra was a chief's son, and
Tarra had been sick. Tarra was persuaded, therefore, that he could reasonably
refuse to work on the ship. He was certain, too, that being the highborn son of
chief Te Puhi, he could travel on the work of the low-born Maoris. But Captain
Thompson had other ideas, and Tarra received a flogging.
His rank notwithstanding, the
Maori showed no sulkiness or resentment at this treatment. He persisted
patiently that he could not and would not work, and the captain retaliated by
stopping his food. Tarra, wrapped in the invisible mantle of aristocratic
dignity, starved in silence. So the Boyd came to Whangaroa harbor, and
Chief Ti Puhi came aboard the
vessel to welcome his son, fell on the boy's neck and wept, and asked about
Tarra's treatment on the voyage. For Te Puhi shared his son's opinion that only
the best was good enough, and manual work was beneath his dignity- a sentiment
which can well be understood when it is realised that these natives were royal
in their own eyes.
When old Ti Puhi heard of his
son's treatment- both from Tarra and the other Maoris- and when he saw the weals
on the boy's back, he sympathized in silence. He conversed with Thompson as to
the cutting of kauri spars for the Boyd's cargo, and promised that the
best spars ever to go out of New Zealand were available in the Whangaroa
John Thompson, on his outward
voyage from Dublin, had brought a load of Irish convicts to Botany Bay, and had
ruled them with an iron hand without seeing the necessity for a velvet glove. He
earned the name for being cruel and bullying, but these attributes were more of
an advantage than a condemnation for a man engaged in convict transportation.
John Thompson felt quite naturally, then, that his firm treatment of Tarra had
settled for good the aggravating question as to who was boss. Ti Puhi's
willingness to lead him to the wood he wanted strengthened the captain in this
opinion, and willing to follow one advantage with another, he arranged terms
whereby the Maoris were to cut and load the spars for him.
Three days after the Boyd's hook
grappled with the muddy bottom of Whangaroa Bay, Thompson went ashore with his
first officer and three boatloads of men, accompanied by the Maoris who had been
on the ship, travelling in their own canoes. Ti Puhi led this small fleet into
the mouth of a river, up which they travelled for some time, until they were
both out of sight and out of sound of the ship.
Well up on the river bank the
party landed and began to inspect likely looking trees. The natives, however,
pointed out unsuitable timber, and the party wandered far into the forest of
long-trunked trees, leaving their boats pulled up on the bank.
At first it seemed that the
natives were in a jocular mood, pointing to broken and rotting tree-stumps and
asking Thompson if these would suit him. It became evident, however, that this
was intended as insolence rather than humor; and as the conversation swung the
Maoris from the Boyd began to upbraid Thompson for his
Tired from walking and a trifle bewildered by the subtle change of front in the Maoris, Thompson and his crew sat down on some fallen tree-trunks. Ti Puhi remained friendly towards them, and stood in front of them talking pleasantly.
Cheered by the fact that the chief was a friend, and interested in what he had to say, the men from the Boyd took no notice of the other Maoris in the party. But while Ti Puhi spoke these dark-skinned and treacherous people moved about quietly until behind each white man there stood a Maori, with arms folded and face impassive.
Ti Puhi gesticulated as he talked, looking from one man to the other, and at his own men. He reached a point in the conversation where he brought the edge of his right hand down sharply on the palm of his left, with a quick, cutting motion.
To the white men it was one more gesture. To the Maoris behind them it was …
Like lightning, axes and clubs swept from beneath the mats worn by the Maoris. They flashed in the air and were descending before the white men realised their danger. It was perhaps the quickest and most merciful massacre recorded in history. In a minute every white man from the Boyd was a bloody corpse with cleft skull. Most of the sailors had carried muskets but none had opportunity to use them.
So quickly and darkly was the killing accomplished that until the very end nobody realised that such an act was even remotely contemplated. Yet when the bodies of the pakehas lay lifeless in the clearing the hatred and resentment which had smouldered beneath the calm faces of the Maoris broke forth like the bubbling lava of their own volcanoes.
They dragged the clothes from the bodies of the fallen men, and dressed themselves in the uniforms. They took the muskets which the sailors had carried, and turned back to the river bank and the Boyd's boats. They climbed into these and commenced the return voyage.
When the dressed-up Maoris brought the boats in sight of the Boyd it was quite dark. The second officer was in charge of the ship, and he hailed the boats as they approached. Having to answer the hail the Maoris said that Thompson and his party had chosen the spars and had remained on shore overnight to make certain of an early start to cutting on the following day.
It was a likely story, and the second officer believed it, and allowed the Maoris to come aboard. He gasped as he saw them tumble over the railing in the uniforms of his comrades. It was the last thing he did.
The second officer being down with an axe through his skull, the barefooted Maoris began to scatter through the ship. The sailors of the watch, taken by surprise, were killed one by one.
Other Maoris descended the companionways, and knocked at the cabin doors, asking the passengers to come on deck to see the spars that had been cut. One woman passenger ran out and started up the companionway. She was killed before she reached the deck. The noise alarmed other passengers, who ran out of their cabins and were killed as they appeared. Four or five of them managed to reach the deck, and to climb into the rigging, where they stayed all night.
Puhi saw them hanging in the shrouds and called to them to come into his canoe.
At great personal risk they climbed down, dodged across the deck, and diving
into the water, managed to reach the canoe. They were killed as soon as
they reached the
A woman and two children who were found hiding in a cabin, and a fifteen year old apprentice boy, were the only members of that ill-fated company to survive.
Meanwhile the Maoris, now thoroughly absorbed in the work of slaughtering and plundering, were busily getting the Boyd's cargo on deck and loading it into boats and canoes, dividing it among themselves. The foodstuffs they tasted, judged as unpalatable, and threw into the sea. Muskets and ammunition they prized above everything else.
One native, finding a musket and a barrel of gunpowder, stove in the keg, poured powder into the pan of the musket, and pulled the trigger. The flash ignited the barrel of powder. Five women and eight or nine men were killed in the explosion that followed, and part of the ship burst into flame.
By the light of this ruddy fire the work of plunder went on. When at last it was finished, Ti Puhi pulled a keg of powder into the middle of the deck and repeated the trick of his tribesman: tearing off the top of the keg he snapped a musket over it. The explosion killed himself and most of the other Maoris aboard, and started another fire.
The force of these explosions tore the vessel from it’s anchorage, and, its superstructure a ruddy mass of flickering flame, it drifted down the bay on the current, trailing a wake of water turned to blood by the reflection of the fire.
On a shallow part of the bay the Boyd grounded, and there she stayed, a burnt-out hulk, a charred memorial to a bullying captain's ignorance of a young Maori prince's dignity. For the whole of this sordid holocaust arose from Tarra's hidden resentment at being flogged.
Even there the matter did not end. The bloody story had a bloody sequel. The history of the Boyd came to the British whaler New Zealander, and Captain Parker felt that he would be fully justified in suspending his whaling activities until he had inflicted reprisals on the natives.
Parker's only clue to the tragedy was that the chief's name was Ti Puhi: and by the time this name reached him it was confused with Ti Pahi, chief of the Bay of Islands tribe.
The New Zealander, therefore, went to the Bay of Islands, landed two hundred men, and attacked the unfortunate Maoris wherever they could be discovered. Natives were shot on sight, their houses burned, and their crops destroyed. Chief Ti Pahi was seriously wounded, and though he managed to escape immediate death, he died in the forest a few months later as a result of gangrene from the wounds.
The New Zealander's company rested in the confidence that they had done a good job of meting out justice to a cruel and stubborn tribe; but the real culprits of the Boyd massacre were some fifty miles south-east of the Bay of Islands.
Ti Pahi's tribe knew, however, that the Ngati Pou men from Whangaroa were really responsible for the Boyd trouble, and managed to discover why they had been so ruthlessly set upon. War followed.
Ti Pahi's tribe engaged the Ngati Pou natives in war, and for five years they skirmished and carried on an unhappy guerilla war. All of this could be traced back directly to those few fateful days when Captain Thompson and Tarra disagreed on the Boyd, just out from Sydney. A missionary might have said, “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth.” Such was indeed the case; and it took a missionary, the famous Samuel Marsden, to extinguish the fire, for it was his intervention in 1815 that finally brought peace between the Whangaroa natives and the badly wronged men of the Bay of Islands, thus closing after five years the unhappy story of the ship Boyd.
For many years there was a
laundry in Pitt Street, North Sydney. There was nothing more remarkable about
the laundry than the stone paving at its entrance, and even that seemed to hold
no special interest.
As the construction of the Sydney Harbor Bridge progressed, interesting parts of oldest Sydney were demolished to make way for the approaches on either side of the big span, and in the work of clearance the old laundry was demolished and the paving stones were pulled up. As those stones were lifted from their clay one of them attracted attention as being different from the others. On it was still to be seen some faint, half-obliterated carving which, when deciphered, showed that the old paving stone had paid a double debt, for it had once stood at the head of a grave before turned to its later use. The inscription on the stone was:
MR. PETER CRAWFORD
chief officer of the ship Surry who in the execution of his duty fell victim to
a malignant Typhus Fever which raged with unprecedented fury throughout the
Here, then, progress in the form
of the bridge construction, awakened to faint echo the voice of the past, and
there called back from the cobbles of an uninteresting old street the grim
memories of one of Australia's most ill-fated ships, the Surry (mis-spelt
in some reference books as Surrey). It was a ship which arrived in Sydney Harbor
under the scourge of a dangerous disease, and swung at quarantine while death
stalked its decks. But the Surry outlived the dark days, and stayed to
vindicate itself in peaceable Australian trade.
The Surry's dramatic
arrival in Port Jackson occurred in 1814, a date which couples it with the first
arrival of the great religious pioneer Samuel Marsden, and with the burning of
the ship Three B's at the waterside in Port Jackson.
But the story of the
Surry is best approached from another vessel, the Broxbornebury (in
some documents Broxhornbury, Broxborneburry and Brexhernbury- all wrong
spellings of the unusual name) which was the first contact by which the story of
the Surry became known.
Back then, to the
Broxbornebury which sailed from England in 1814, carrying on its
passenger list two people destined to become distinctive Australian
personalities- J. H. Bent Esq., the new Chief Judge of the Supreme Court of New
South Wales, and the more colorful Dr. Sir John Jamison, K.G.V., son of the
surgeon's mate of the first fleeter Sirius and a man who had served with
Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen, who had performed a delicate operation on
the Queen of Sweden, and had for that latter service been awarded the high
Swedish honor of a Knight of Gustavus Vasa, whence the K.G.V. Jamison's father
had been awarded a grant of 1000 acres of land in the Penrith district, but had
left it to go back to England where he was a witness in the trial of William
Bligh of the Bounty. This older Dr. Jamison died on January 25, 1811,
leaving his son what must have then seemed a precarious inheritance- the 1000
acres of bushland near Penrith, in the newly-opened colony, before Penrith was
of any size or importance.
These two men were among the
human freight of the Broxbornebury and it was while they were enjoying
the unique excitement that comes when a long and hazardous journey is nearing
its last hours that their lookout caught sight of a big ship.
All the sails of the strange
vessel were into the wind; distress signals were flying from its rigging. It was
in answer to these signals that the Broxbornebury came up with the ship,
which proved to be the Surry in sorry trouble.
The shipping register of the
Port of Sydney shows that the Surry was of 443 tons, manned with 30 men
and armed with 14 guns, built at Hardwick, registered in London, and owned by
Messrs. Mangles, a name with a slightly Dickensian flavor!
When the Broxbornebury
found her off the New South Wales coast the Surry was under Captain William
Patterson, but typhus fever was in charge of the ship. A number of people were
already dead. Most of the others were sick. The captain and his officers were
suffering, and although they were still alive they were incapable of taking the
ship to port.
The case was a serious one, and
one in which Captain Thomas Pitcher junior (another Dickensian name!) part-owner
and master of the Broxbornebury, felt justified in calling for a
volunteer to take over the ill-fated vessel rather than detail a man for the
control of the death-ship. It was a task which, in the limited medical knowledge
of the day, was infinitely more hazardous than it would be at the present time,
though it would be a suicide job even now, without special medical equipment.
Nevertheless, there was one ready volunteer, a man who made himself one of
Australia's unsung heroes by taking the responsibility- so unsung that most of
the extant records refer, to him simply as an “unknown seaman”, or “a man whose
name is not known.” The Historical Records of Australia, however, state the
man's name as “Nash,” and that seems to be all that is said of him.
Knowing he was stepping to
almost certain death, he went aboard the Surry at his own request,
and he brought her safely into port.
Dr. William Redfern was surgeon
in charge in New South Wales at the time. The investigation of the
Surry's outbreak was one of his jobs, and he reported on the matter to
the Commissioners for Transport. In this report he states that the two vessels
met on July 26, and that Milson's Point, then called the North Shore, was
declared a quarantine ground for the Surry on July 28.
Nash was, of course, the first
man to know the story; Dr. Redfern afterwards uncovered it in its simple horror
as he checked through the Surry’s log to try and find out how the plague
had started and spread.
The ship had left England
carrying a number of convicts and a detachment of the 46th Regiment
which, at Governor Lachlan Macquarie's request was to be stationed in New South
Wales. Shortly after the voyage began, on March 7, one
The ship's surgeon, working furiously to combat the outbreak, went as far as his limited medical means would allow, but his best efforts were unsuccessful against the virulence of the scourge.
It is a curious sidelight that Governor Macquarie blamed Captain Patterson and the ship's surgeon for the outbreak, lightly claiming that they could have let the men on deck more frequently. The Governor left that statement in his report to the Commissioners for Transport, which was accompanied by Redfern's professional exoneration of the two officers in question.
Whatever measures had been taken however were ineffectual.
When the Broxbornebury discovered the Surry the trouble had gone on steadily from March 7 to July 28- for 143 days; one hundred and forty three days of dragging death, of suffering, of increasing impotence which paralysed the ship and rendered it a helpless victim of the sea. Many of the vessel's small company were dead; her officers and men powerless. She could scarcely ever have made port but for the chance encounter- she might have drifted out to sea with her miserable cargo; she might have been washed up somewhere on the rugged Australian rocks, adding terror to suffering.
Safely quarantined at Milson's Point, tents were erected along the shore and the sick men were carried off the ship, lucky to be ashore, lucky to be alive, but the transition marked only a stage in their misery. For nine months more the patients were to remain in their canvas hospital while the plague-ship swung, empty and idly, on her anchor cables. During the period the death roll mounted. Finally fifty of the people who left London for that voyage had passed on their way to that longer and last of all voyages. Of that fated fifty, 36 were convicts; Captain Patterson, his first and second officers, the boatswain and six seamen, a sergeant and three privates of the 46th Regiment detachment, also died. And where these men died, on the then green and steep North Shore, near where an amusement park and bridge approach now are, they were buried, quietly, in the bush, with headstones to their memory.
In the year 1895 a contractor worked on a piece of vacant ground belonging to a Mr. Goddard (whose grandson, Mr. R. H. Goddard of Sydney, is an authority on the Surry and has written the ship's biography). This land had been a market garden in the North Shore area, and when cleared by the contractor yielded three tombstones. One of these was that dug up at the laundry entrance in Pitt Street, North Sydney, and is preserved, though broken, in the Royal Australian Historical Society's rooms in Sydney. The other two Surry headstones were used for hearth stones and apparently were broken up in general demolition work, for they have not been preserved: they were the stones to the memory of Captain Patterson and the ship's surgeon.
But there were, to revert to the narrative, survivors of the Surry. After the fever had run its course- these were transferred from the quarantine across the harbor to the main settlement and joined in the life of the community. The good ship Surry, in spite of her gruelling introduction to Australia, was restored to a useful mercantile service under Captain Thomas Raine, who was part-owner of the vessel and was the great-grandfather of Mr. E. R. Raine of the Sydney real estate firm of Raine and Horne. Mr. Raine still has in his Sydney home some of the logbooks and diaries of the old mariner-pioneer who piloted the Surry through her happier days.
One of the most tragic sidelights of an entirely
tragic voyage was the youthfulness of the two principal victims. Both Captain
Patterson and Surgeon John Brooks were only 24 years old when they died on the
same day, August 12. A more remarkable circumstance is that though the fever
spread and raged so mercilessly through the Surry it did not spread to
the settlement, as might have been expected. And it is only fitting as a
conclusion to Nash's heroic volunteering that his name not being among the list
of victims, it can be presumed that he lived through the selfimposed ordeal.
Actually the Surry was
the second ship to bring a dread disease into Port Jackson, but neither she nor
the earlier plague-ship, Hillsborough, spread the epidemic to the shore
settlement. This was providential, for such an outbreak at that time could not
have been effectively checked. There was no effective organisation for hospital
and medical attention- those were progressive steps which the colony owed, among
many other improvements, to the far-seeing Lachlan Macquarie: and at the time of
the arrival of both ships a miniature enactment of the Plague of
London might easily have been the lot of the foundations of a Commonwealth.
The Hillsborough sailed through Sydney Heads, badly affected but
under control, on July 26, 1799- fifteen years to the day prior to the
Broxbornebury’s discovery of the Surry. Of the 300 convicts she carried
95 had died of typhus before she berthed, six more died after coming ashore. In
those early days the sick men were not even quarantined; they were brought
ashore into the healthy colony as casually as though they merely suffered from
broken legs: which makes the colony's escape from epidemic all the more
The next appearance of typhus
was in 1838 when the Minerva, carrying 285 immigrants, arrived and
went into quarantine, 33 people dying. For the lack of hygiene in those old
ships, perhaps the number of and the number of casualties, was light: and
it is fortunate that no vessel has recorded such gruesome plague story as the
little Surry which has such close ties with Australian history, and with Sydney
of the present day.
Within five years of the First Fleet's arrival in
Port Jackson, British sailors had discovered an exciting and lucrative
profession in the southern seas.
They were men of action, and
went to work forthwith. The season 1792- 1793 found bloody activity in the
vicinity of Dusky Sound, New Zealand, the scene of the first Australasian
seal-hunting expeditions. Wanton and ruthless hunters knocked female and baby
seals on the head with belaying pins or improvised clubs, and the beautiful furs
were ripped from carcasses still pulsing with life.
By 1802 Governor King wrote of
sealing as an established industry. A year later an ex-convict operating on King
Island, Bass Strait, sent two thousand sealskins to England. Luttrell wrote in
1807 that this extravagant hunting had frightened the seal from Bass Strait
islands and the Tasmanian coast. With uncanny instinct they migrated to southern
New Zealand, to find that the seal community there had known no better
In the early days of Governor
Macquarie's regime, T. W. Birch's brig Sophia was working on the
Australian coast, making regular trips to Van Diemen's Land. Mr. Birch decided
to embark on a sealing enterprise, and when the Sophia was set to this
work in the last month of 1817, it followed the driven seals to the southern
coast of New Zealand. Hopes ran high that the much sought skins and oil would
make the Sophia a wealthy investment. Actually, however, the vessel was
to reap the reward of another crew's cruelty, and end as a Government transport
on the Tasmanian coast.
Sailing from Hobart at the
beginning December, under Captain James Kelly, the Sophia dropped anchor
on December 11 at Port Daniel, a sealing station opened seven years previously,
Kelly immediately decided to go
ashore, and, in picking a boat's crew, was glad to include a seaman named
Turner, who said he had previously visited the place, and was known to the
natives. The Maoris ran down the beach to meet the small boat, and watched in
silence until Turner commenced to walk towards them. They immediately began
chattering, pointing to him, and calling, “Wioree.” This, he explained, was a
name they had given him on previous visits.
This first contact with the
Maoris was in every way successful.
On the following day he went
ashore with this purpose, at Small Bay, outside the harbour's mouth, and about
two miles from where the Sophia was anchored. Here more natives met him,
and also recognised Turner as their white friend Wioree. The chief of the
village, an imposing man decoratively tattooed, gladly accepted a present of
iron from Kelly; and the captain in turn visited the chief's dwelling to barter
He took Turner and four other
men with him, leaving one man, Robinson, to look after the boat.
Their reception was in every way
friendly, and Kelly was glad that, on the advice of some of the crew, they had
not brought firearms.
At the chief's house, Captain
Kelly found a Lascar who was able to speak English, and seemed quite at home
with the Maori dialect. He had been a member of the crew of a brig,
Matilda, which had come to Port Daniel under a Captain Fowler, and which
had been wrecked there. A number of the Matilda's men had been killed. The
Lascar had made his home in the village. He seemed glad to see the white men,
and offered, because he knew the Maori language, to barter for the potatoes
The news of the white men's
arrival spread quickly. A great crowd of natives from every corner of the
district assembled around the chief's house. Captain Kelly reckoned there must
be sixty of them in the compound surrounding the chief's house, where all the
white men were standing together.
Everybody was amiable. The
natives chattered among themselves, and stared at the strange pale men. Entirely
at ease, the Sophia's men stood in a knot talking.
Without warning a horrible yell
went up from the Maoris, and in a second the dark men were charging through the
compound, waving their spears, screaming threats, bearing down on the little,
The captain and two men, John
Griffiths and Veto Viole, went down before the surging mob. Tucker, who knew the
temperament of the natives, shouted to Dutton and Waller to follow him, and
fought his way from the compound. Threshing at the brown faces with horny fists
clenched, the three men cleared the yard, and broke into a desperate run towards
the beach. Spears fell around them as they ran; but they managed to make the
water's edge. Dutton and Waller found Robinson already a victim of the attack,
helpless beside the boat, an ugly wound in his head. They lifted him into it,
and tried to push the boat into deep water. They were certain that the three men
in the chief's yard could not escape.
Turner was still standing on the
sand, watching the maddened Maoris who were his friends. He turned as Dutton and
Waller launched the little boat.
“Wait! Here comes the
Kelly had put up a terrific
fight with the natives. He had been carrying a new billhook, for use on the
potatoes he hoped to obtain. Now he used it on the Maoris.
As its concave edge thudded
sickeningly into Maori flesh, a spear took him through the left hand. With this
handicap, he, nevertheless, managed to swing his billhook to advantage, despair
giving him strength.
Finally he broke loose from the
compound, and ran headlong towards the beach. His last sight in that shambles
was Veto lying on the ground insensible, pounded by the maddened Maori feet.
Griffiths had disappeared.
As he ran down the sand he could
see the boat gliding into the water. He was choking for breath and could not
shout. But Tucker had seen him. He threw himself into the water, and was dragged
over the gunwale by the two men already there. Dutton was calling to Tucker to
The sailor, however, made a
desperate bid to stem the fury of the natives. He stood on the hard, wet sand,
the gentle ripples lapping over his feet, calling to the frenzied natives that
he was Wioree, their friend.
“I am Wioree. Do not hurt Wioree
. . .”
And a spear took him through the
right thigh. It came from the hand of a man whom Kelly had wounded with his
The miserable men in the boat
could do nothing. Beaten, bruised, exhausted, they floated idly on the gentle
wavelets while the Maoris, blood-lust in their eyes, tore Wioree, their friend,
limb from limb.
Turner's last desperate cry to
them– “For God's sake don't leave me!” -echoed in their ears as his dismembered
body was carried up the sand to shouts of savage triumph.
They managed to cover the two
miles that separated them from the Sophia. They clambered aboard. Other
Maoris were there; friendly Maoris, who had no idea of their fellow tribes-men's
Kelly sent them ashore,
“considering the principle of revenge in such cases unjustifiable.” Four days
later the Sophia weighed anchor. Her sealing venture was already
The Sydney Gazette
reported the affair on April 18, 1818, nearly five months after it happened. It
commented that “Captain K. regrets having listened to the persuasion of Tucker
and the wish of the other men, to go on ashore the second day without firearms,
to which the loss of the three unfortunate men may be attributed.”
In justice to Wioree, however,
the report continued, “Tucker's confidence, however deceived, was founded on
good experience, and Captain Kelly had some reason to believe that these
natives, though certainly not dependable, were fired in their revenge by the
recollection of two or more of their people being shot by Europeans.”
James Kelly proved himself to be
one of the stalwarts of the early coastal trade. He took the Sophia
almost immediately to Hobart, and on May 24 returned to Sydney with a cargo of
Tasmanian wheat. A fortnight later, while the brig was lying quietly at anchor
in Sydney Cove, it became the centre of a second exciting scene.
In these early years desperate
plans to escape from the colony were of frequent occurrence. Rebellious spirits-
many of them motivated by a sense of injustice at being exiled to a strange wild
land for petty crimes and sometimes for no crime at all- found many ways to
freedom open. There was the bush, with the risk of striking unfriendly blacks;
some saw possibilities of a colorful, if lawless career, and became bushrangers;
others could not resist the fascinating suggestiveness of a ship riding at
A dark night offered every
facility for getting a vessel to sea unobserved; the one task- no mean one,
either- was that of overpowering whatever crew happened to be on board. The
Sophia became the centre of such dreams.
Captain Kelly, it was rumoured,
would make a trip to Parramatta, on the 18th. Plans were laid
accordingly, which were thought to be secret; and late on the night of the
18th, or early on the morning of the 19th, a Thursday, a
daring attempt was made to overpower the crew of the Sophia and steal the
ship from her moorings.
The idea, however, had been
carried to the ship, and Kelly was aboard before the hour arranged. A small boat
brought the pirates stealthily from the foreshores of the harbour, and the
ruffians climbed aboard. They were met by a forewarned and fully armed
“The design was completely
frustrated,” says a contemporary record, and the party well peppered with a
brisk discharge of musketry under the direction of Captain Kelly, who was fully
prepared for the occasion. Immediately firing was heard on shore, a well-manned
boat set out under direction of Mr. Williams, His Excellency the Governor's
coxswain, but the desperadoes were not caught.”
By this time Kelly was something
of a local hero, and the Gazette expressed high regard for his work in
saving the Sophia from piracy, which was, at that time, rampant in the
“It is with no little
satisfaction we understand that it is in contemplation with the merchants and
ship owners of Sydney to present Captain Kelly with a handsome piece of plate,
inscribed with the record of his manly and successful exertions in repelling a
strong and desperate party of sanguinary pirates.”
The Sophia seems to have
borne “the stamp of fate, the sanction of the gods.” Bursting into the realm of
the picturesque at Port Daniel, tasting the thrill of attempted piracy in
Sydney's not so quiet Cove, she was destined at last to historic association
with the cruelest convict settlement in Australian history.
In December, 1821, the
Government hired the brig. In company with His Majesty's brig Prince
Leopold, she nosed out of Hobart Town. They were on their way to Macquarie
Harbour, discovered on June 14, 1816, and noted as a possible settlement.
The Sydney Gazette of
January 4, 1822, noted: “Hobart Town, December 15. On Tuesday last the
detachment of troops with stores, artificers, and convicts, detailed to form the
new establishment at Macquarie Harbour, were embarked on board His Majesty's
Colonial brig Prince Leopold and the hired brig Sophia. On
Wednesday the two vessels sailed with a fair wind.”
The settlement they formed
became the worst dumping ground for the hardest of convicts; it became the home
of countless atrocities, on the parts both of officers and prisoners; it was the
scene of the mutiny on the Cyprus; it was the prison from which Alexander
Pierce, the cannibal convict, escaped; it richly earned the soubriquet it
afterwards carried-“Hell Harbor.”
Here the Sophia ended her
days, carrying convicts and supplies, and settling down to a grim welter of
cruelty and bloodshed of which the famous Port Daniel episode was the
The notice which appeared in the
Gazette might almost have been the brig's obituary:
“Hobart Town, February 23 (1822). –The brig
Sophia which has made several voyages to Macquarie Harbour while owned by
the late T. W. Birch, Esq., has been purchased by the Government for the
use of the settlement. Her name has
There are some vivid pictures of
sea-war from the days when the good Sir Richard Grenville jousted against the
Spanish Fifty-three, to the missile exchanges of today; but until the serious
outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941, these gaudy passages had been confined
practically entirely to the Old World. All the stirring deeds of Drake and
Frobisher and Benbow and Nelson, were fought out between the Mediterranean and
the West Atlantic; some of the most highly sung episodes of sea-war were small
engagements in bays and backwaters; their most colorful background was the
sparse islands of the Atlantic- the Azores and some of the West Indian islands.
And such was the preponderance of these gaudy battles that they have captured
sea history almost exclusively, carrying the day by the weight of their
Nevertheless, in those steady
days of the early nineteenth century when one-eyed Nelson sailed with his coffin
in his cabin and the Turks used mediaeval battering-rams against the British
fleet before Constantinople- back there, war came to the Pacific, and caught in
its toils ships of the Australian trade. It was the American warship
Essex which brought this smack of warfare and a touch of buccaneering
verve to the Pacific, and indirectly to the Australian coast. It was a colorful,
semi-piratical kind of expedition, the kind of thing that one associates with
treasure-ships and privateers on the Spanish Main, the temperature of Captain
Blood or Australian Ernest Wells' Dirk Spaanders. And like most warfare and
piracy, the episode had a political background which is best sketched quickly in
the words of the textbook:
“America's difficulties with
Britain might have been solved but President Madison blundered into the war in
1812. The Northern tribes of Indians aided the British forces operating in
Canada; the American Army was defeated during an attempted invasion, and the
Indians won several successes which they followed by massacre. The American Navy
was more successful; but was eventually blockaded in its ports. The British
naval forces on the Great Lakes were, however, destroyed.”
Thus the stage was set for a
unique episode in Australia's history; for the American vessel Essex,
cruising in the Pacific, tried to harry the vessels engaged in Australian trade,
and they picked their prizes among the whaling windbags which were looking for
sea wealth among the islands. This was not the Essex which, some few
years later, was sunk by a whale, providing the basis for Herman Melville's Moby
It was another Essex, a
man-o'-war of 32 guns, sent specially on the raiding expedition; and in
following its instructions it captured British whalers. One of these was the
Greenwich, which it took to the Marquesas Islands, where an American base had
been established, although the United States had not taken possession of the
That trip was eventful enough:
the Marquesans raided the Americans and killed a number of them on May 16, 1813.
The Greenwich was set afire, and the Americans left the island. They
wished to continue raiding British vessels- they also wished to keep a base in
the Marquesas where they could build a fort which would serve as prison for
British captured seamen, and at the same time safeguard themselves against
further attacks by the natives.
The ship Seringapatam,
375 tons, built in Bombay and transferred from trading runs to the whaling
venture, explored the Pacific on her new quest. But when she sailed into Sydney
Harbor on July 1, 1814, she was no longer under the command of Captain Stivers,
and she was carrying eighteen guns she had not possessed when she left port. She
was manned by fourteen British seamen who all showed signs of hard living and
great suffering, and who could back up these outward signs of privation by a
strange story of adventure.
The Seringapatam had some
months before, been cruising off the Galapagos Islands, near the west coast of
South America, in the Pacific. There she sighted a foreign sail- an enemy sail.
The two ships quickly drew together, and it became apparent that the
Seringapatam was no match for the stranger. The old, familiar scenes of
the Spanish Main were re-enacted. The chase-canvas bellying before a fresh
breeze, every man at his station as the wooden bow ploughed the sea; the spurt
of smoke from the stranger's side as the warning ball whistled across the bow of
the Seringapatam, the signal to “heave to”; and finally the sharp short
tussle in which the Americans, superior in every way, took possession of the
Captain David Porter of the
Essex had brought down another bird. He sorted out his prisoners and
inspected his prize like a pirate to the manner born. He treated Captain Stivers
of the Seringapatam as a fellow officer should be treated- Stivers was placed
aboard the Georgiana and sent to America, and there was a certain
ignominy in that, for the Georgiana was an English ship captured by the
Essex some time earlier. Other officers and men of the
Seringapatam were placed aboard another British prize, the
Charlton, and under the Charlton's own British captain, a skilful
seaman Halcrow, they were given a little food and told to make for Rio de
Janiero. The Charlton had been stripped of everything that could serve to
help the Essex, and the Britons under Halcrow found themselves very
meagerly supplied in every way- but they had their freedom and a ship to
The Seringapatam remained
in Captain David Porter's hands, and he prepared to take her back to the
Marquesas, which lay some distance west. He rounded up other prize ships, loaded
them with British prisoners of war, and led his fleet of captives to his pirate
They arrived at the Marquesas on
September 13, 1813, at an island on which the Americans had already commenced
the building of a fort; but there was more work to be done to complete the
defences, and the Americans put the British seamen to work on the job.
Here was re-enacted such a scene
as was familiar among the Spaniards of the West Indies centuries before. The
captured British seamen were, virtually, slaves. With meagre material they
worked under the strictest supervision and on insufficient rations, and they
worked damned hard. It was November in the Marquesas, burning summer punctuated
with tropical rains which came in drenching storms and were followed by steamy,
sticky heat through which thousands of insects swarmed. December came with a
rising thermometer and all through that miserable month, and all through the
January which followed, the British prisoners toiled at the fort. Although
escape from the miserable place seemed an utter impossibility, they were kept
continually under the strictest supervision. Later when Australia's autocratic
Governor Macquarie wrote a despatch to Lord Bathurst about it, he said in his
crisp, decisive style that these men had been “made to work on the erection of a
fort and exposed to indignities which, as prisoners of war, they should have
been exempted from.”
While this was the fate of the
British sailors, the British ship Seringapatam lay idle in the bay. She
had been converted into a store-ship, her tween-decks stuffed with goods
captured from other vessels, strictly and constantly watched by three
prize-masters. Around her other captured craft lay forlornly at anchor while the
weeds thickened on their bottoms.
The fort was at length
completed, and became the nightly prison of the men who had built it. Their life
dragged into a miserable, uncomfortable, despair-ridden existence- but they were
not the only malcontents. Captain Porter himself, the presiding genius in this
lair, grew restive. The Essex could not justify her existence by lolling
about the bay; so early in the year, confident that the arrangements at the
Marquesas base were satisfactory, the Essex put to sea again to use
further her roving commission. All through February and March she remained at
sea. In April she had not returned.
On the islands soldiers and
prisoners alike began to wonder at her long absence. They could not know, of
course, that on March 28, 1814, she had tried conclusions with the British
frigate Phoebe off Valparaiso, and had taken the count herself. Captain
Porter's ship died as she had lived, amid the crash of round shot and the smell
Under the hardships which were
daily fare on the island the prisoners' discontent swelled and grew. They began
to express their discontent openly; and as the Essex failed, through
succeeding days, to return, this expression of restlessness became bolder. And
as the men became bolder in their speech, hopes of escape began to filter into
their occasional talks. More than once they put their heads together, whispering
of this or that plan for breaking away from their prison.
When that kind of thing starts
to happen among prisoners, the time is approaching for some kind of showdown,
which is going to lead to escape, at least for some or to the frustration of an
attempt and worse conditions than ever afterwards.
The British sailors evolved
their plan. Fully realising that failure would place them in an even worse
position, they went over every step of the plan, carefully considering and
testing every projected move. They were fairly sure of themselves when finally,
on May 6, 1814, they boarded the Seringapatam.
Swiftly they overpowered the
three prize-masters in charge of the store-ship. These officials, taken
unawares, were bound hand and foot without offering any resistance. Macquarie's
despatch describing the event said that the ship was “recaptured without any act
of violence or severity being offered to the enemy.”
The fourteen conspirators then
took aboard the Seringapatam the arms and ammunition that had been
captured from the ship Greenwich. They worked their way to the
battlements of the fort they had helped to build, and spiked the guns so, that
they could not be fired on if they were detected in their escape. Then, deftly
cutting the cables that held the ship, and under cover of darkness, they slipped
away on the tide. By the time their blocks were creaking and their tackle
rattling as they hoisted sail, they were beyond the reach of the men
They still had on the
Seringapatam the three prize-masters who had been overpowered, and they
had no idea of retaliating and keeping them as prisoners of war. Perhaps they
thought they had their work cut out to look after the ship, without looking
after prisoners as well. So the three prize-masters were lowered in a small boat
when the Seringapatam was well off the island, and were left the long,
slow, but by no means dangerous row back.
Among the men who had seized the
Seringapatam there were no officers; but in those days of versatile
seamen the fourteen managed to handle the vessel well and safely. She touched at
Tahiti, and thence continued her voyage to Sydney, arriving on July 1, 1814. She
came back a different vessel- for she left as a whaler, and came back as a
man-o'-war mounting 22 guns.
The ship's arrival, the story of
her strange adventure, and the daring of the fourteen seamen who recaptured her,
set the young town agog. Legally, it was plain that the Seringapatam was
the prize of the fourteen men who had taken her; but ironing out the legalities
was a bit too much for the colony, and Governor Macquarie decided that the
status of the vessel, and the prize money to be paid to the fourteen sailors,
was beyond the jurisdiction of the Court of the Vice-Admiralty of Sydney. He
despatched the vessel to England to have the position clarified. The men who had
brought her down from the Marquesas were offered the opportunity of making the
further voyage to England in her; but they frankly acknowledged their lack of
seamanship adequate to the long journey.
An old Sydney-ite, Eber Bunker,
“a very able and most expert seaman and of a most respectable character” (said
Macquarie) was given the command for the home run. He was promised no wages for
his task, declaring that he would be satisfied to register his claim with the
British Court, and to accept whatever decision it might make in the matter.
That is what actually happened,
and it brought to a successful conclusion for all concerned the strange
adventure of the Seringapatam, the ship that introduced a war-time
privateering touch to Australia's sea history.
The final home run of the
Seringapatam has an interesting contact with Australian history in two of
the despatches which it carried. One of these was the story of the plague-ship
Surry. The story of Governor Macquarie, Dr. Redfern's medical reports,
and all the documents relating to that vessel of death, went to England on this
other vessel of strange adventure. The Seringapatam's mail-bag contained
as well another despatch of note that in which Macquarie complained to the Home
Government that Australia's great missionary, Samuel Marsden, was using “in
divine worship unauthorised versions of psalms, without my authority.”
It is the exception, rather than
the rule, in the history of the sea, that a vessel comes safely out of trouble
and the Seringapatam is one of the exceptions. Her story is the story of
the ship, rather than of the men; the men who originally manned her fade from
the story (they finally received their tickets of safety) while prisoners of war
became her later crew, and her new masters.
If Lord Northcliff, who
declaimed that it was news when a man bit a dog, had been running a newspaper in
the year 1819, he might have given his front page a banner heading like
BITES SHIP IN TWO
White Men Eat
Such a heading to an item of
news would invite at least scepticism; yet that is the stark and sober truth
about the tragedy of the American whaling ship Essex, as attested by
three independent witnesses who were caught up in the amazing tragedy and who
lived through an aftermath of hell.
The Essex (not to be
confused with the privateer) met her doom in the South Pacific, 1150 miles
west-sou'-west of Tasmania. Her fabulous story was carried immediately to
Hobart, and is of special interest because it later inspired Herman Melville,
who was born in the year of the tragedy, to write his Moby Dick, classic of all
Captain George Pollard took the
260-ton whaler out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on August 19, 1819, bound for
the South Pacific on a whaling expedition and provisioned for a long cruise. The
Americans had been increasingly conscious of the possibilities of Pacific
whaling- it was because some unfortunate whaling vessels were wrecked along the
Japanese coast that Commodore Perry was finally commissioned to open up Japan to
American trade: and it was by studying the stories that wrecked and rescued
whaler crews brought back from Nippon that Perry formulated, to no small extent,
his plan of approach to the unknown nation. At that time numerous American
vessels searched the Pacific for whales, many of them calling at Port Jackson,
and laying the first foundations for American- Australian relations,
introducing, as it were, one country to the other.
It was whaling, too, which
provided this most amazing story of the sea, in the fate of the Essex,
which by November 13, 1819, was sailing in a calm southern sea when a breaking
dawn showed the ship to be surrounded by a school of whales.
Boats were lowered at once for
the kill, the whaling technique in those days being to chase the whales in small
boats lowered from the mother ship. That day the boats were lucky- by noon
everyone had fastened, i.e. had harpooned a whale and was following up for the
kill. Just at that time, when everything was progressing so well, the first
mate's little boat was struck a fierce blow by the fluke of a whale, and the
gunwale was stove in. The boat was in danger of sinking, and the first mate
hacked through the harpoon line and ordered his men to take the boat back to the
Essex, loosing the whale for their own safety.
The boats in charge of the
captain and the second mate continued their chase. Both were on the point of
making their kill when a sudden cry of alarm went up from the Essex. The
distracted men turned to their boats and saw the mother ship heel and fall on
her beam ends for no apparent reason. A steady breeze was blowing, the sea was
calm, there were no reefs nor shoals. Both boats cut their fish immediately and
pulled hard for the ship. When they reached the Essex, she, too, was
stove in, and was rapidly filling with water and settling down.
Captain Pollard sprang from his
boat onto the deck, calling his men to follow him. They cut away the mast
immediately. Grabbing an axe the captain himself began to shear through the
standing rigging, and as the superstructure fell away the Essex righted
herself in the water, though settling very low.
The first mate told Pollard an
amazing tale. Just after he had come aboard from his damaged boat a sperm whale
of unusual size had risen close to the vessel and immediately charged the ship,
battering into its broadside with a massive head, tearing away portion of the
keel abreast of the main channels. The monster lay stunned on the surface for a
while, then, turning fiercely, tried to bite through the vessel's wooden hull.
Even a whale's mouth was not big enough; so the fish turned and swam some
quarter of a mile ahead of the ship, which was then drifting at about four
knots. Suddenly Leviathan turned and began to swim strongly for the ship. A
great impact threw the men to the deck as whale and ship met in head-on
collision. The bow planking tore and split like matchwood. The bows of the
Essex were lifted out of the water so that the sea began to gurgle
through open stern portholes. The Essex heeled over and began to sink.
Then Captain Pollard heard the cries of alarm and started back for the partial
The story was fantastic enough:
but the damage the Captain could see was proof enough of what had happened- the
facts are made a little more digestible to readers of today by the record that
the cachalot or sperm whale, though usually the size of an ordinary whale, does
in individual cases reach a length of 80 to 90 feet. Pollard's dilemma was,
however, what to do with the ship. A quick examination showed that it could not
possibly live long; it did, however, stay afloat for a few days, during which
the crew busied themselves preparing for a long boat voyage. Owing to the first
mate's accident there were only two seaworthy whale boats, both of which were
equipped as well and as thoroughly as possible for the journey- in this respect
if in no other the crew of the Essex had an edge on most small boat
voyagers of the sea; they had time to prepare their boats, and ample provisions
upon which to draw.
The Essex had been very
well provisioned, but the water which was steadily filling the hull, cut the men
off from the food supplies, and the decking had to be scuttled to enable the men
to haul up enough food with which to furnish the small boats. Three days were
occupied in these preparations, and in that time the captain and his officers
had an opportunity of surveying calmly their position and their best hope of
salvation. Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) was the nearest coast, and the
latitude in which the Essex lay was too low to promise any chance meeting
with another vessel. A conference was held which decided that the best course
would be to strike out for a higher latitude, in the hope of meeting other
American whalers which might be expected to be operating there. It seemed an
easier and wiser course than going on a direct route for a journey of a known
Every preparation made and this
resolve taken, the vessel was abandoned. The two whale-boats, carrying the
entire ship's company, made way side by side for a time; but with the fall of
the first night they became separated, and from that night the story of the
Essex became a double tragedy as both boats sailed their independent
courses through seas of living death.
One of the boats sailed for two
months without any object breaking the eternity of water. The expectation of
meeting an American whaler, or any other vessel, became daily dimmer, and in the
depths of gloom the men cheered heartily if hoarsely when, at last, they came
within sight of land. But the cheer was wasted. It was a small and barren island
on which the starving and exhausted sailors found no vegetation, very little
water, and no potential meat. Nevertheless, after the rigors of the small boat-
two months in such a confined space is in itself a refined torture they were
glad to spend a week walking about the island, after which some of them wanted
to leave. Three men, however, said they would rather stay. There was some
discussion on the point, but as neither would be persuaded, the party split. The
three men stood on a rocky prominence and watched, their comrades crawl slowly
over the horizon.
Those men crawled away to drift
for another ninety days in the open sea. They were glad that there were three
less men in the boat; that made things a little easier; but the heat of the sun,
the weakness of thirst and starvation, and the terrible privation of their long
exposure, had reduced them to mere skeletons when they were finally discovered
by another whale-boat which picked them up and carried them to Valparaiso,
Chile, on the South American Pacific coast.
In Valparaiso they told the
story of the Essex and the whale, of their crusoe comrades, of their five
months at sea in the small boat. Even their terrible condition was not
sufficient to give credence to their story; it was thought that they suffered
from delusions as a result of intense hunger and the effects of the sun.
But another whaler called at
Valparaiso bearing two demented bags of bones, scarcely recognisable as human.
One of them claimed that he was George Pollard of the Essex, and he,
before he had seen the survivors of the first boat, told his independent
narrative- the same fantastic story of the ship's being attacked by a whale.
Even the sceptics in Valparaiso granted it would be too much of a coincidence
for two demented sailors to have precisely the same delusions!
But worse than the fantasy of
that story, and worse than the fate of the men in the first whale boat, was the
gruesome tale Pollard told.
In his little boat the stock of
provisions ran low. The hoped-for American whalers were not sighted- nor was
land. Amid the boundless blueness of the far south Pacific the ten men in the
boat stared starvation in the face.
“We looked at each other,”
George Pollard said later, “with horrid thoughts in our minds; but we held our
tongues. I am sure we loved one another as brothers all the time, and yet our
looks told plainly what was to be done.
“We cast lots and the fatal one
fell to my cabin-boy. I started forward instantly and cried out, ‘My lad, my
lad! If you don't like your lot I'll shoot the first man who touches you!’ The
boy hesitated for a moment or two, then laid his head on the gunwale of the
boat. ‘I like it as well as any other,' he said.
“He was soon despatched, and
none of him left. Then another man died of himself, and him too we ate.”
Thus the men in the boat kept
starvation at bay, eating the raw flesh of their comrades knowing in their minds
that even as they lived, some of them ate so that they might be alive to kill-
knowing in their minds that as they ate their fellow-man, the time would come
when their fellow-men would eat ... this one? that one?
A third man was killed and
Every time the terrible rite was
carried out the circle became smaller, the chances of escaping the fatal lot
became less- the odds in favor of sacrifice were lengthened.
The terrible lot was cast
In the deranged fantasy of that
phantasmagoric day men might sit in the boat, imagining that it was their own
head that lay across the gunwale awaiting the fatal blow; their own flesh that
bled and was fed upon; their own entrails that were thrown to the waiting
Captain Pollard's mind broke
down before he could finish the grisly narrative.
“I cannot tell you more!” he
shouted at his horrified audience. “My head is on fire at the
And well might that be so. While
the death boat was tossed across the Pacific for sixty days eight men were
killed by lot and eaten. Probably, like the first young victim, they liked that
fate as well as any other. It may be they found little to choose between being
eaten themselves and eating the flesh-nourished flesh of their unlucky
In those days they grew
sharp-featured with hunger, big-eyed with horror and with fear. The flesh wasted
on their bodies, the weather-tanned skin grew tight and blistered over bulging
unsightly bones. Despondency seized them, naturally enough, so that they had
neither the strength nor will to row or help themselves in any way. One by one
they died to support their diminishing and slowly dementing fellows, and they
became almost less than human.
Ten men put off from the
Essex in that boat.
Eight had been killed and
Captain George Pollard and a boy
Came the day when those two sat
in the bloodstained boat, alone, and hungry.
They sat for a long, long time
in silence. The terrible privations and constant horrible practices of the last
weeks had taken from them all the horror of what must inevitably follow. Last of
that terrible band, they were becoming immune to the practice! They were
beginning to accept it! They sat, looking at each other. One would kill the
other, and eat him, and then.
And then he would go mad, would
shriek and burn up his own brain in an ecstasy of hysteria before he plunged
overboard into the sea to the merciful sharks, leaving the mystery of an empty,
bloodstained boat to be misunderstood by a world that would never guess a truth
But why postpone the fatal hour
with terrible dreams of what was to come for the unlucky man to survive the lot?
And by what token did the master of the Essex, George Pollard, live
immune again and again while the lot fell on all but him for even when the
finger of death was cast the lot fell upon the boy, and Pollard, while he
steeled himself for his terrible work of slaughter, had yet to steel himself for
the more terrible, memory-haunted loneliness.
Ready to kill, Pollard stood up
in the boat and saw a sail. Far away, low down on the horizon, there was a ship.
The death-blow was stayed. Both were too dulled in mind, too weary in body, to
be excited. Both hoped, with a timid, fearful hope, that this last terrible
death might be stayed. The sail grew; the vessel bore down upon them. It saw
them, and the last terrible deed of cannibalism was never perpetrated. It was an
American whaler, and it took them aboard.
Because Valparaiso was a popular
centre for whaling vessels active in the Pacific, they were taken there. And
there, to their amazed audience, they told their story, corroborating the
fantastic narrative of the first survivors, and embroidering it with their
unspeakably terrible experience.
Yet another corroboration of the narrative was forthcoming. Captain Raine, of the whaler Surry (this was the plague-ship after its ordeal) was in Valparaiso. On March 10, 1820, he put to sea on the story of the Essex survivors, to search for the three men marooned on the desolate little island. On April 5 he found them- “three skeletons in trousers”, and he was able to take a small boat through an angry surf to bring them aboard.
Weak as they were from hunger, they were on the verge of insanity. Overcome by their unexpected deliverance, they were quite unable to speak. Their names were Thomas Chappel, William Wright, Seth Walker. When they had received food and rest and had spent several days gaining strength, they were able to add their testimony to the story already told by two other independent witnesses, of that most remarkable shipwreck caused by a whale.
Captain Raine took these three men to Hobart. Here the story was reported, and the little Van Diemen's Land settlement heard at first hand, from the lips of three unhappy actors, the drama in which Herman Melville was later to find the material for Moby Dick.
In 1939 in America a young aero pilot with
specially good publicity ideas took off from New York in a crazy little plane to
fly east-west to San Francisco. He landed at Cork, Ireland, after having crossed
the Atlantic, and gave vent to the naive remark that he must have taken the
wrong direction; but, of course, he didn't realise it until he saw the coast of
Ireland. And so there was born into the American language a new phrase- “to do a
Corrigan,” that being the young pilot's name.
I am happy to find that,
although America made great capital of her Irish-minded flier, Australian
history can trump the trick. For bigger stakes, too, since the four men who “did
a Corrigan” in an open boat in 1823 turned in something more than a freak
performance; they discovered the site of one of Australia's capital cities as
well, at the end of their adventure. Very grieving it is, however, to find that
they have not received history-book credit for this discovery, which is due to
an oversight on the part of the explorer involved. The claims of these four men
are, however, so well authenticated that it is a pleasure to advance them,
together with the whole story, and the very best of authority. Back, then, to
Thomas Pamphlet was born in
England in 1789, and at the age of thirty received assisted passage to New South
Wales. He later found employment as a timber-cutter in the Illawarra district.
Four years after his arrival, on March 23, 1823, he and three comrades put a
scheme into operation; they were to take an open boat down the coast to the Five
Islands to get cedar wood. The ship-boat would be a better word- was twenty-nine
and a half feet long and of ten feet beam, quite a small vessel to go down the
coast after timber, and manned on the trip by Richard Parsons, part-owner, and
three men, John Finnegan, John Thompson, and Thomas Pamphlet.
They left Sydney early in the
morning, and were within eight miles of their destination at four in the
afternoon when a gale sprang up without warning, and it began to rain. In the
darkness of the storm which quickly shaded into the darkness of night, the four
men lost sight of land, and were compelled to give all attention to maneuvering
their boat through rapidly rising seas.
As the weather became worse they
found it necessary to lower their sail and to run with bare poles before the
storm. In the morning they were out of sight of land, the mobile sea, whipped
into, an ever-changing contour of hills and valleys, surrounded them and
threatened them, and drove them pitching and rollicking onwards.
As they had intended only to
follow the coastline for fifty miles they had not equipped themselves with
navigating instruments, but a fair stock of provisions, including four gallons
of water and five of rum, had been laid aboard for food during their work away
Day after day they ran before
the storm, which lasted a week. For another five days the weather was too
boisterous, though calming, to allow them to put up their canvas again. When,
finally, on April 2, they were in command of the boat again- they had been able
to exercise no control over it at all during the storm- they judged that they
had been driven as far south as the coast of Van Diemen's Land.
The return of fair weather found
their provisions depleted, and the men tired from sleeplessness and weak from
sickness. Their only hope of taking a course was by the sun; and they set
The story of their subsequent
sufferings is a long and harrowing one, and becomes, in the only preserved
account, a monotonous repetition of unenviable experiences. Its preservation is
due to the energetic and versatile Barron Field, who heard it from one of John
Oxley's seamen, and published it in full in 1825 in his Geographical Memoir on
New South Wales. As the details came straight from the lips of Thomas Pamphlet
and John Finnegan, they may be regarded as accurate. In two respects they
correct the Australian Encyclopedia; in the spelling of Pamphlet's name with one
final “t” instead of double-t, and in giving the Five Islands instead of
Wollongong as the destination of the boat.
The story written by Field
describes the intense sufferings from thirst that they experienced. The water
(they had only four gallons) ran out on the second day, and for thirteen days,
Pamphlet remarked with what, under other circumstances, would be dry humor- they
had nothing but rum to drink. The effect of this was bad for a start, and
although there was still rum left in the boat the craving for water became so
desperate that John Thompson, an ex-man-o'-war sailor and “the best in the
boat,” started to drink sea-water. Delirium followed, and Thompson was strapped
down in the boat to prevent his throwing himself overboard, or doing other
Twice it rained, and each time a
precious bucket of rain-water was divided between the four sufferers.
On the nineteenth day out from
Sydney, Finnegan saw land from the mast-head, but lost sight of it again.
Ploughing on still through the tractless sea, with no other direction than the
approximate guidance of the sun, the men stood two-hour watches in turn, both
day and night, until on the twenty-first day out (April 12) they again saw land.
Several islands broke the sea before them.
They crowded sail, and tried to
cheer the pinioned and dying Thompson with the news, but he died in delirium
just about that time, talking about his Scottish home.
There were natives on the shore,
and it was late afternoon. Desperately thirsty though they were, the men stood
off shore overnight (for which Pamphlet gave no reason when he told the story)
and while the boat was thus hove to it was washed against some half-submerged
rocks. By a miracle it did not sustain damage, the water picking it up and
carrying it right over the danger point.
The reversal of fortune took
them further, however; they drifted so far to seaward during the darkness that
land was barely visible in the morning. They steered back before a favorable
breeze, however, but still delayed their landing because they saw a large number
of natives, working quietly about the shore.
It became apparent, however,
that the danger from that quarter must be risked. Parsons, being part-owner of
the boat, was not prepared to risk trying to beach it in the surf that was
running. They anchored half a mile from the shore, and Pamphlet, stripping off
his clothes, swam to the beach. He was so weakened that even the prospect of
fresh water ahead of him could not spur him on. It took him an hour and a half
to cover the distance, and when he landed, weak-kneed and trembling, he tottered
to the stream that ran down between low banks, threw himself on his belly, and
“drank like a horse.”
The others stripped themselves,
preparatory to swimming ashore, but Pamphlet called to them to cut the hawser
and let the boat drift in, believing no doubt from his own experience, that they
may not be able to make the distance. They did as he advised, and the boat was
carried up, on to the sand with a force that stove in its bottom. Parsons and
Finnegan came ashore naked, threw themselves down at the fresh water and drank
until they were sick, then drank again.
Pamphlet came across a native who, he said, addressed him in good English; this he took as a sign that they were at least within reasonable, range of white men. He proved desperately wrong, however for in that crazy boat journey they had covered well over six hundred miles and were actually in Moreton Bay, thus being the first white men (with the exception of Flinders who first charted the opening) to land there. In view of this fact, Field offers a footnote explanation that Pamphlet must still have been in delirium when he imagined that the native addressed him in English saying, “What do you want? Don't kill me.” A reader of the story feels it likely that these words, supposed to have been spoken by the black, were actually the words of Pamphlet, who would logically make such a plea to the black man, and who either
(a) heard his own words in a foggy frame of mind and imagined deliriously that they came from somebody else, not realising that he had spoken, or
was incoherent in his telling of the story to John Uniacke, so that
Pamphlet's actual account was reported wrongly.
It seems that the former
suggestion is the correct one, for Pamphlet adduced from this native's “English”
that whites were not far away.
Following along the bush track
made by the aborigines the three naked white men came to some huts where they
were well received. In fact, throughout the entirety of their stay they found
the natives friendly and helpful, and willing to give them sustenance and
For many days to come they lived
the Edenic life, wandering along the coast and about the bays, becoming more and
more intimate with the natives, riding in canoes, and wandering around the bay
and the locality of the bay.
Five days after their landing they came to a channel about three miles wide, which the natives helped them cross, under circumstances which gave Pamphlet a temporary fright.
The canoe placed at their
disposal by the blacks did not look solid enough to carry the dusky crew, the
three white passengers, and some luggage they had got together from the wreck;
so Pamphlet agreed to remain ashore while the others were ferried across, the
canoe to then return for him.
But the canoe did not return for
some long time, and Pamphlet was already devising schemes for looking after
himself when he was unexpectedly and happily united by the blacks with Parsons
Finnegan, several days later,
succumbed to the languorous charm of wandering naked in the warm sun, living
without trouble, and doing nothing. He expressed his determination to remain
among the blacks, and adopt their life. The aborigines, however, seemed to take
a particular interest in keeping the three castaways together. Time and again
they prevented a separation between Finnegan, Parsons and Pamphlet. And all the
time they fed them on dingowa, and treated them as members of the tribe. . .
Time lengthened out slowly. The
one hundred and first day came, and passed. That far Pamphlet had kept count of
time; but the record became confused in his mind, and soon dates and time seemed
not to matter any more. Actually he had been for nearly eight months away from
Sydney when the natives ran to him one morning, pointing out a large cutter
about three miles down the bay.
The spell of their wilderness
paradise left them instantly at the sight of a familiar ship. The three men,
fully restored in physical health, raced eagerly down the bay, and made signals
which attracted attention, and brought off a small boat. John Oxley, exploring
the north coast, was in the boat; the cutter was his exploration ship,
As he stood on the beach talking
to Pamphlet, the castaway learned for the first time that, instead of being
somewhere between Wollongong and Sydney, he was in Moreton Bay, five hundred
miles north of Port Jackson. Again the Australian Encyclopedia appears to err in
saying, in its article headed Pamphlett, that they were on the island
later called Stradbroke Island. The original narrative, though not entirely
lucid on the point (how could it be in describing strange bays and beaches which
had no name?) leaves the definite impression, by the scope of their wanderings,
and the situation depicted, that they were not on an island, but on the
Another fact they learned to
their dismay was that it was November 29. All of the winter had passed for them
in warm and sunny idleness.
Oxley had been as far north as
Port Curtis, and wished to give Moreton Bay a closer examination than Flinders
had done when he casually marked it down on his chart. Pamphlet and Parsons and
Finnegan were taken on the Mermaid, fed, rested and clothed, and regretfully,
once again, the common mistake has been made that Pamphlet was by himself when
he was discovered, “his two comrades having gone north” (Australian
Encyclopedia). Actually, his comrades were quite close at hand with the natives,
the true fact of the situation being that Pamphlet merely ran first to where the
Oxley spent a week examining the
river, which he went up for fifty miles and called Brisbane, after the then
governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane. Then he took the
Mermaid back to Sydney, and the three timber‑getters with him.
Actually to these men belongs
the honor of being first to land at or live at Brisbane. But Oxley, in his
published account of the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay, gave them no mention at
all. Thus, whatever recognition they now receive, at the time of their adventure
they didn’t get anything out of “doing a Corrigan."
The British Government's
decision to open up New South Wales as a convict settlement automatically did
something else; it opened up the south seas, their islands and their
Thanks largely to the diaries of
Cook, and the slightly later reports of French navigators, all the territory
lying east and south of the Dutch East Indies came in for inspection, and very
quickly suggested itself as waiting to be exploited.
The ships that brought convicts
to Australia, and later the supply ships that supplemented the limited food
stocks of the colony, had a return journey to make to England, and soon
discovered a variety of Pacific produce that could be profitably garnered.
Timber from New Zealand was an item in the very early days; by 1801 men had
hunted mutton-birds on the Bass Strait islands, whaling had started in the seas
south of New Zealand and Tasmania, and on the little islands south of New
Zealand- Stewart, Auckland, Campbell and Macquarie Islands- seals were being
hunted in large numbers. In many localities they were, in fact, being so
ruthlessly slaughtered that they died out altogether.
Whaling had its own peculiar
hazards, as the adventure of the American ship, Essex (holed and sunk by
a great whale charging it), showed. Whalers sometimes became involved in other
kinds of adventure, such as the mutiny on the Junior, another American
ship searching for whales. And every crew that left a mother-ship in one of the
small, fat-bellied whale-boats ran the risk of being towed by the harpooned
whale, or as often actually happened, of having their boat smashed by a blow
from a great whale's tail.
Sealing, however, offered
adventure of another kind- the prowling about rocky, sleet-swept coasts,
exploring angry seas and treacherous island shoals under the most
unfavorable conditions and without charts. All the difference was that,
The story of the Royal Sovereign, an English vessel which left
London in 1825, reads more like the well-spun plot for a sea-adventure yarn than
an actual sequence of historic events; but it is typical of the sealing risks,
and shows what adventures might await any party of sealers who dared to seek
fortune in the far south seas, somewhere below forty.
To understand the Royal
Sovereign's story, however, a word of explanation as to sealing practice is
first necessary. The sealer went to Kerguelen Islands, which are in the Roaring
Forties about midway between South Africa and Australia, and which are a group
of extremely desolate and rocky isles which, at that time, were thickly
populated with seals. It was a favorite sealing ground, in spite of the hazards
its deadly coasts presented, and to overcome these dangers the mother-ship of
the sealing expedition did not try to go inshore. Instead, it carried in frame a
cutter of about 40 tons, which was called a shallop, and some half-dozen whaling
boats. The mother-ship then anchored off-shore, prepared to swing on her hook
for eighteen months to two years in many cases, while the shallop and boats
nosed round the rocks off the coast, picking up seals and returning them to the
ship. When the ships left for home with their cargoes, they beached their
shallops, and on their return floated them and used them again.
When the Royal Sovereign
reached Kerguelen Island it was carrying a shallop in frame. On the beach, high
and dry, were two other shallops, left there by ships named Frances and
Favorite- and for purposes of this story those names will do for the
shallops themselves. The men on the Royal Sovereign decided to refit the
shallops already on the beach, and use them for their sealing.
Refitting the Frances and
Favorite- meant caulking the seams, rigging masts and sails, and
generally making them seaworthy after their spell ashore, work which took some
When these preliminaries were at
last done, however, the two shallops started to explore the rocky island coast
for seals. The Frances started along the western shore of Kerguelen
Island with a crew of four under the command of one of the Royal
Sovereign's mates. The weather was fine at first, and the little vessel had
no difficulty in weaving in and out of treacherous bays, scanning the shore for
seals. But in the still of a cold night at Young William Harbor the
Frances reeled under a sudden blow, and shivered from stem to stern.
The men rushed on deck, fearing
that the shallop had drifted on to a reef; but the look-out assured them that
actually a large fin-whale, swimming in the dark water, had struck the vessel.
Inspection showed that no damage was done, and the ordinary reader of today
would no doubt feel that the men should have been glad to dismiss the matter as
a lucky escape. Not these men, however. The seamen of 1825 were singularly
superstitious. In this mere accident they saw an ill omen- and for once the
superstition of the sea proved correct, for in the wake of the fin-whale came a
chain of tragedies and hardships such as few bands of seamen have suffered.
In November, the Frances
was caught in fog and snowstorms which made her work both difficult and.
dangerous, for the best sailors had only a scanty knowledge of the Kerguelen
coast, and no charts. November is summer in the southern hemisphere, of course,
but in 1773 when de Kerguelen Tremarec, a Breton nobleman, discovered the
islands, he observed that even in midsummer they were barren and desolate and
swept by gales and fogs, and were extremely cold. For this reason he gave them
the name Desolation Islands- a name which was later changed in de Kerguelen's
After weathering this November
gale for some time, the little shallop was caught off-guard by a strong wind,
and went on the rocks in a bay of Saddle Island, one of the group. The crew
managed to get ashore safely in the dinghy before the Frances settled
down in seven fathoms of water.
Their plight was not a happy
one. The Favorite, the other shallop, was somewhere among the islands,
and might have been in the same unhappy position. On the other hand, it might
survive the dangers of the gale and come in search of the Frances- there
was a chance. But whether, in the event of a search, the Favorite could
find this obscure bay with its castaway crew- that was another matter.
Exploring the neighborhood, the
castaways made two discoveries. One was a cave which was big and comfortable,
and the other was a shallop called the Loon, beached for the time
The men decided to live in the
cave, but realised that if the Favorite should look for them, she would
certainly inspect the Loon. So they chalked messages on the side of the
beached shallop, directing finders to “Look in the cabin.” In the cabin they
left an account of what had happened to them, and an outline of their plans to
live in the cave. In the event of a ship coming while they were hunting, this
message might save them. If the ship came too late, the message would be their
The weather was bad for a long
spell, and during the whole time the men were confined to their cave, eating
their way through the limited provisions they had saved from the
The Favorite, in the
meantime, beat about the Kerguelens finding some seals. She had mapped out a
course which did not include Saddle Island; but she also struck trouble in the
storm which finished the Frances, and ran for shelter. Apparently, from
the sketchy documents relating to the episode- and these came from the men in
the cave, not the men of the Favorite- she weathered this storm all right, but
lost a mast in a later gale.
This was most serious, and would
certainly have thrown the Favorite's men into danger had they not known
that along this coast the Loon was beached. They accordingly shaped their
course for the bay, and limped in, at last, with no other thought in mind than
to borrow the Loon's mast to get back to the Royal Sovereign
The Favorite sent a
dinghy ashore, and the sailors, as they approached the Loon, saw the
message chalked in large letters on her side. It was the romantic, mysterious
message of the pirate adventure books: “Look in the cabin!” While the men were
obeying this instruction, however, the castaways from the Frances
discovered the presence of their sister shallop, and hurried down from their
cave to the beach.
The adventure was over.
Half-starved and suffering from exposure, they were doctored from the stores of
the Favorite. They told their story, thanked God for the sheer
coincidence which brought the Favorite to the very spot at which they had
been wrecked, and turned a willing hand to borrowing the Loon's mast and
stepping it into the vessel which was to be their salvation from a miserable
The Favorite then took
them aboard, and made straight back to Greenland Bay, where the Royal
Thus closed- not the episode of
the Royal Sovereign, of which I made mention at the outset, but the first
phase of the episode. For more trouble yet, in the character of further
coincidence, was awaiting the four ill-fated men of the wrecked shallop
Frances. They, having recovered from their ordeal, were added to the crew
of the Favorite to embark on another sealing expedition around the
islands. They went further south than they had previously gone, and in that land
of dirty weather once again storms caught up with them. They lay weather-bound
at Christmas Harbor for eleven days, and then went on to shelter again in Africa
Finally, on Boxing Day, 1825,
they found themselves once more at Saddle Island, the scene of the last tragedy.
And certainly Saddle Island was a place accursed as far as these men were
concerned, for, while anchored there, the Favorite sprang a leak.
The bad luck following in the
wake of that fin-whale was coming thick and fast. The omens were, for once,
The leak was, without doubt, due
to the severe strain which had been imposed on the little shallop in its
storm-fighting about the inhospitable coast. Seams had started, and were in too
bad a condition to allow any effective repair work to be done.
As the Favorite filled
up, it became apparent to the crew that nothing could be done to save the ship.
They took out of her everything that was likely to be of use, and built a raft
from loose woodwork about the ship. On this raft they reached the shore, with
their salvage, and while they stood on the beach from which they had not long
been rescued, they watched the second shallop go down.
All the dangers and problems
from which they had, not long since, escaped, confronted them again. This time
with less hope, since there was no shallop which might, by any coincidence,
rescue them. They knew, too, that the mother ship, Royal Sovereign, would
never run the risk of probing the uncharted coast of the islands. So it seemed
that their only course was to make themselves as comfortable as possible, to
settle down and die on the island, or to await the coming of other sealing
shallops in the undefined future.
At first the shipwrecked men
made for the beached Loon (the shallop which had been left there by an
earlier sealing expedition) and settled into its warm cabin; but living there
they very soon found themselves short of food. For eight days they did not even
see a penguin that might have helped to stave off the pangs of hunger.
Desperation led them to search over the little island for anything edible and
all they found was a twelve-foot dinghy.
Although this was not edible, it
gave them an idea. They patched up gaps in its seams and floated it, making in
it for the main island. The sea was rough, and a strong wind blowing. The water
ran in strong eddies about the half-submerged rocks and reefs of the coast. The
sailors, weak from starvation, were not well able to handle the frail little
boat. But they succeeded in reaching the main island, and, doing so, they
Tottering from sheer exhaustion,
they armed themselves with clubs and began to hunt seals among the rocks; but
the timid seals slithered into the sea at their approach. In a sweat of weakness
and desperation they hunted, watching food slide from under their noses, and
unable, because of their weakened state, to do much about it.
When, finally, some of their
number managed to stun a sea-elephant, there was great rejoicing. None of them
has preserved the story of the scene that took place about that sea-elephant's
body; but imagination sketches a vivid dingus of the kill; of skinny men chewing
eagerly at the bloody, uncooked flesh, their eyes alight with hope, their hands
trembling with thankfulness, their bodies feeling renewed strength.
The sea-elephant was a big
fellow. He represented both food and fuel. Once the first driving pangs were
relieved, they realised that blubber and oil made a fire, and the full-bellied
men felt warmth again. Surely no stranger summer scene has been witnessed than
the raw-flesh feast in the biting cold of that Antarctic January.
But with the killing of the
sea-elephant one hurdle had been jumped. The men were on the island where seals
abounded; they had fuel and food. It is true that the weather was so cold that
the animals blood froze on the hands of the killers as they killed and flayed;
but that was now a minor trial.
They loaded seal meat into the
dinghy, and strengthened by their repasts, returned to the Loon for
warmth. In the cabin of the shallop they tried to cook their food, and in this
way they lived for six more weeks. With advancing February the summer season was
passing; and if this had been Kerguelen's warm weather, they were frightened of
what the winter might bring.
The immediate future appeared
indeed so black that they determined on a desperate bid for freedom from the
storm-barred prison; they planned to try and raise the Favorite.
Refloating a sunken forty-ton
vessel without any equipment at all is a bit of a poser; the only help they had
was that the vessel was down in shallow water...
At low tide, when the Favorite was not completely submerged, they started to remove the ballast. The hull empty they collected empty casks, big bulks of timber, and the twelve-foot dinghy, and fastened these to the vessel at low tide. They hoped against hope that as the tide rose, the wood would float, and by so doing raise the Favorite from the sand.
The prospect was no more hopeful
than it sounds. The shallop was too settled down for such a scheme to be
productive. Several times they tried, and always without result, or without any
hope of success. Then came the conclusion that only one scheme could liberate
them from the island- that was refitting the long beached Loon for a sea
So long out of the water had the
shallop been that its seams had started, and its timbers were in very bad
repair. Its gear was frozen and frayed and rusted, too. It was not a seaworthy
But the desire to be free from
their prison was strong within them. They had been liberated from this bay
before because the Favorite needed a new mast, and had put in to borrow
that of the Loon. Consequently the Loon, upon which they now
depended, was without a mast. They had to take that of the Favorite- and
that meant cutting it off at deck level. But the deck was awash, and they had no
Behold, then, the Crusoes of
Kerguelen, working on a whale lance to turn it into a saw which, however crude,
would nevertheless serve to cut the, Favorite's mast free. And in this
task they succeeded. All other useful gear was freed from the wreck, and in
bundles was towed ashore.
Then came the work on the
Loon. The rescued mast was stepped into place, gaping seams were caulked
with frayed rope that had to serve as oakum. Every piece of available rope was
pressed into service to improvise rigging. When the clouds broke the castaways
sat in the pale and heatless sunlight, splicing short pieces of rope together,
cutting ropes where they were frayed, and joining the stout pieces.
As they went about this heroic
task they were working against time; against the shortening winter days, which
were becoming colder, against the rising stormy winter winds; and always now,
overshadowed by one significant query- they had been so long away from their
mother ship that the Royal Sovereign might not be waiting for them on
Will the Royal Sovereign
be there or will she have abandoned hope?
Those questions goaded them as
they effected with seamanlike workmanship the essential repairs. Then they came
to the brave day when the Loon was, with great effort, dug out of the
sand, and slowly hauled to the water. With the coming of the high-tide they
worked furiously and the Loon floated!
Relieved of that anxiety, they
climbed aboard and set their course along the cruel coast they knew so well.
Again imagination sketches them- glad of their triumph in getting the shallop to
sea, confident of their knowledge of the rocky coast, apprehensive as to whether
they would find the Royal Sovereign waiting patiently for their
In the latter they were disappointed; gravely disappointed. It seemed, as they came into Greenland Bay and saw that the ship was no longer there, that all the strain and work of the last days had been worth nothing. For they were no nearer to rescue than when they crouched, shivering, in the cabin of the beached shallop.
The castaways went to a bay
called Shoalwater Bay, on the south-east corner of the island, which they
believed would be best for the only line of conduct now open to them- to make a
permanent camp. They took the Loon back to Greenland Bay and beached her.
Then, returning overland to Shoalwater Bay, they collected all the available
material, and the shipwrights turned architect as they followed their
boat-building efforts by building a hut.
The story has not taken long to
tell; but two years had passed over the heads of the Crusoes. Their hut, which
they sanguinely called Hope Cottage, was finished in August, 1827. At Shallop
Harbour they put up a notice directing any boats that called to their cottage-
the walls of which were made of turf- and then they settled down to live on seal
meat, to protect themselves from the cold with seal-skin wraps which would have
been the envy of London's society.
Little detail has been left of
how they eked out their existence; once again, imagination can fill the gaps.
But their record shows that they became accustomed to the cold hardships of
life; they improvised the satisfaction for their greatest needs; they became
idle, isolated dwellers in a frozen and forgotten land. And although the islands
had been such a favorite sealing ground, through those two long years they saw
no signs of other hunters.
Then, one brave morning, when
they were walking out from , their Hope Cottage, they reached the top of a rise
to see unbelievable sight! - to see men walking; cheery-looking sailor-men in
fresh, dry clothes. Their long loneliness was ended. Hope Cottage had served its
purpose. The castaways could go back to civilisation.
The men had come ashore from a
cutter, and had seen the notice at Shoal Bay. They took the castaways aboard
their cutter, the Lively, which belonged to the Enderby whaler
The men were welcomed on board,
and warmly congratulated on the narrowness of their escape- for the
Sprightly had called at the island only by chance. Eager to renew their
acquaintance with something like a normal life, the castaways joined the crew of
the ship, and worked with a will until the Sprightly landed them at Table
Bay, South Africa. Thence they made their way to England, and ended far more
happily than they expected the story of their marathon marooning on one of the
most inhospitable islands in the world.
Who Turned Up
“Nemesis is retribution-or
rather, the righteous anger of God."
So says the text book, stating a
fact the solemnity of which has been overlooked by a host of writers to whom
every minor example of reaping what you sow becomes “Nemesis.” But the idea of
an inescapable punishment that follows men until, in the words of the poet
him down the nights and down the days,
They fled him down the arches
of the years”
such a sweeping idea of majestic
justice, that is Nemesis- and perhaps it can only be so called when it happens
in real life: in other words perhaps no retribution created in fiction, even by
a Dostrovsky or a Tolstoy, is worthy of the name.
For however philosophers think
and theorize, there are, in the sweeping stocktaking of history, a few grand
dramas where the Effect has administered justice to the author of the Cause, as
when Dr. Joseph Guillotin, the inventor of the famous machine of execution,
perished beneath the blade of his own design, or when Robespierre, author of the
Reign of Terror, became one of the victims of his own inexorable law.
These grand dramas of actual
life, with their clashing crises of poetic justice- they are examples of
Nemesis. There is in Australia's coast of tragedy, one such drama. It is the
fate which overtook the crew of the Cyprus, who, apart from Fletcher
Christian's followers, were the most successful mutineers in Australian history,
outshining in their accomplishment the rebels of the Helen and the
Junior, and many minor cases of similar nature. So balanced in its rise
and fall, and so fitting in its conclusion, is the story of the Cyprus,
that it reads more like well-plotted fiction than the haphazard chain of factual
The striking climax was played
out in London when seven men were placed on trial in the Thames Police Court. It
was suspected that they had committed some breach of maritime law, but their
testimony was unshakable; under the harshest cross-examination they maintained
that they were the survivors of the ship Edward which, under Captain
Waldron, had been wrecked in the China Sea.
One of the men, claiming to be
Waldron, produced a sextant bearing his name, in proof of the story. Certain it
was that the men had arrived in Canton in a ship's boat bearing the name
Edward. Equally it was certain that their story had been received and
believed in Canton, and they had been trans-shipped to England on a merchant
vessel. Yet, in spite of this general air of authenticity, there were loopholes
which aroused the gravest suspicion, but could not be turned to account.
It is more than likely that the
court would have been forced to give the men the benefit of the doubt, and their
liberty, had not a man named Capon, an ex-gaoler from far Hobart Town, been
present in the court and recognised some of his erstwhile charges.
At this critical stage a man was
arrested for begging in the streets- an insignificant thing in itself, a common
occurrence; but in this case that ragged man was the voice of justice. Obviously
frightened of some life secret, this beggar offered to tell the story of the
seven mysterious survivors.
He was presented to the court as
a man named Popjoy, who had been transported to New South Wales as a convict.
There he had been granted a free pardon in reward for some act of gallantry, and
had returned to England. It transpired that the winning of his pardon and the
doings of the seven suspected men were most intimately entangled.
The story he told went back to
August, 1829, when the brig Cyprus, a well-founded little vessel of 130
tons, sailed from Hobart Town for Macquarie Harbor, the penal settlement on the
west coast of Tasmania which earned the soubriquet “Hell Harbor” because of the
harshness of the treatment meted out to prisoners there. This was the rubbish
dump for the most loathsome of all human wrecks drafted to Van Diemen's Land;
and when the Cyprus sailed for it, she carried 31 desperate convicts
under the guard of ten men from the 63rd Manchester Regiment,
commanded by Lieutenant Carew. The brig was manned by a captain, mate, steward,
and 12 seamen, and carried, besides Carew's wife, three other women and two
children, whose homes were at Macquarie Harbor.
Fierce south-west gales and icy
seas were lashing the rugged coast and after five full weeks of beating against
the storms the Cyprus had been unable to double South East Cape. The
heavy weather had taken toll of practically everybody on board; hardened seamen
found themselves in, the throes of mal-de-mer; the women and children were
confined to their bunks, and the convicts had been for the whole time shut up in
their dark and dirty cells below the waterline.
Finding it impossible to
continue his voyage to Macquarie Harbor the captain put into Recherche Bay
(named after Admiral d'Entrecasteaux's ship, Recherche) for shelter. The
cove was well protected from the storm, the weather lightened, and with it the
spirits of all on board became the more optimistic. The prisoners were taken out
of irons and brought on to the deck in batches of six or seven for exercise and
fresh air, under a guard of two soldiers. Among them were some desperate men-
men who had narrowly escaped the gallows, and who were far from resigned to
their transportation. Fergusson, a giant both in stature and in strength, was
being sent to the “Hell” for life. Walker and Swallow, equally desperate, were
to share his miserable fate. The three were earmarked as the danger-points in
the human freight, were kept apart as far as possible, and were not allowed on
the deck together.
The miseries of the voyage had
stirred up, as was perhaps only natural, the harsher feelings in the minds of
these men, and had placed the other convicts in anything but an admirable frame
of mind. For five weeks their diet had been the poorest and their life most
miserable. In the shelter of the harbor Lieutenant Carew
Taking a convict named Popjoy
and another soldier, he set out in a small boat to fish, and was floating
quietly about a mile from the Cyprus when the sharp report of muskets
warned him that all was not well. Immediately he commenced to row back.
While this quiet fishing had
been going on it became Fergusson's turn to take a stroll on deck; and while
doing so Fergusson had attacked one of the Redcoats. Another convict had sprung
to his assistance and in a moment the guards were knocked insensible, and the
two desperadoes had secured their muskets and bayonets. Backed by the rest of
the convicts on deck, Fergusson and his companions mounted guard over the open
hatchway and called on the crew and the seven soldiers below to surrender.
It was a desperate moment, and
there was no immediate response. Then a volley of lead splattered up the
companionway as the soldiers tried to shoot the mutineers from below. Fergusson,
standing back from the line of fire, called on them to surrender, and after a
little time the captain, the mate, the steward, seamen and soldiers, all came up
and surrendered their arms. It was remarkable that twenty-two fully armed men
should have yielded so easily, especially when they knew that Carew was not far
away; yet when the Lieutenant returned to the vessel the episode had closed, and
Fergusson, leaning belligerently upon his musket, was in charge of the
Carew parleyed with him from the
boat, without success. Fergusson announced that he had seized the ship, and
would murder any resisters. He shot at Carew, narrowly missing his shoulder, and
thus clinched his own argument. The rest of the convicts then came on deck, the
crew and soldiers were imprisoned, and the mutineers held a council of war upon
the future. One member of the party, Swallow, declared for piracy, and 18 others
agreed heartily. Thirteen, including the man Popjoy, refused to join the
Fergusson then ordered a boat to
be lowered, Carew and the rest of the soldiers and crew, the thirteen who had
refused to join him, and the women and children, were all rowed ashore. At first
it was brutally declared that all the provisions the ship contained would be
held by the pirates; but in answer to Carew's pleas, a small boatload of
biscuits, flour, beef, tea, sugar and spirits was sent to serve the castaways,
who were told with coarse jests that they might walk to Hobart Town. As the crow
flies, Hobart is but fifty miles from Recherche Bay; but the country was rugged
and unexplored, the men were inexperienced in bush life and had no maps nor
instruments, and their only course would have been to follow the tortuous coast
to the mouth of the Derwent River- a walk of at least 150 miles.
In the dawn of the following day
the unfortunate party stood on the beach and watched the Cyprus stand out
to sea. It ran into a howling south-west gale, and was last seen battering its
way north in a terrible sea.
The marooned people were not
long idle. Popjoy, and another convict, Morgan, suggested the building of a
boat; they cut young wattles for the skeleton, covered these with sailcloth, and
collected all the soap and resin the camp contained, melting it to form a crude
pitch, which was smeared over the sailcloth. In spite of the heavy weather,
Popjoy and Morgan set sail in this crazy little craft. Hugging the coastline,
taking advantage of every inch of shelter, they beat around the coast. Cold,
tired, hungry, soaked with water and encrusted with salt, they arrived at
Partridge Bay in a state of exhaustion, to find two weather-bound ships, the
Oreila and the Georgina, sheltering there. When their story was
told the Oreila sailed for Hobart Town with Popjoy and Morgan, while the
Georgina went to Recherche Bay to rescue the castaways.
Back in Hobart, Carew was
court-martialled for the loss of the Cyprus and the prisoners, but was
honorably acquitted. Morgan received a free pardon and a grant of land in Van
Diemen's Land. A similar offer was made to Popjoy, but he preferred to return to
London. There he fell on evil times, and was at length reduced to begging in the
streets. He was arrested on this charge, and told his story.
When they found themselves
recognised by their former gaoler and so completely betrayed by their
ex-associate, the men told their full adventures with the Cyprus, knowing
that their position was desperate indeed, and that if the truth would not save
them, lies could not.
Their voyage on the
Cyprus has been far from easy.
They battled against heavy
storms after they left Recherche Bay, and, in spite of a gigantic ignorance of
navigation, managed to bring their vessel to Tonga, in the Friendly Group. There
the weakness which spoiled so many early adventures in the South Seas settled
Fergusson, the leader, Walker,
his lieutenant, and five others, succumbed to the charms of the dusky belles,
deserted the ship for the idyllic island life, and disappeared. No trace of them
was ever found.
Swallow now instituted himself
leader of the band. He was all for piracy, and the other twelve were willing to
accept his desperate dictum. The Cyprus under its new commander set a
northerly course, and made for the China Coast.
The would-be black-flaggers
were, however, still handicapped by ignorance of navigation matters, and were
unable to chart any kind of course or determine their position, and when land
finally appeared, they found themselves in Nagasaki, Japan.
Here a quarrel arose, more of
the party were dropped in the Japanese port, and Swallow set his course for
China, with six comrades. It was obvious now, even to his desperate mind, that a
colorful career on the high seas was impossible. Six men were grossly
insufficient to handle the ship for any length of time, or to cope with any
rough weather. To take the Cyprus into a Chinese port would have been to
confess to the whole tissue of crime.
Fate pushed a solution across
their path; a small boat was found floating and empty in the sea, and when
recovered bore the name Edward. Swallow jumped to the conclusion that the
Edward had been wrecked, and this was part of the flotsam; it seems never
to have occurred to him that the boat might have broken adrift, and that he
might encounter the Edward safe at any time, to give the lie to the
subterfuge he now concocted. He remembered that in the cabin of the
Swallow and his men took to the
Edward's boat, bearing the precious evidence of the sextant, and a few
provisions. They rowed to shore, and found themselves in Canton. The
Edward was not known there, and their tale was believed. A passage to
England was arranged.
In England, however, the story
was not so easily believed, and though suspicion was aroused, nothing was said
to the men as to the doubts entertained as to the truth of their narrative. They
were, however, placed before an enquiry. They were cross-examined most
carefully, without their story breaking down. But Capon and Popjoy appeared just
as they looked like escaping, and the tale ended rather grimly.
Two of the men, Watt and Davies,
were convicted of piracy and hanged. Three others including Swallow, strangely
enough, were transported to Hobart, and after this desperate adventure, ended as
they began. One of them was hanged in Hobart, and the other two were sent to
Port Arthur. There Swallow died; the fate of the unnamed pirate has never been
Trail of Falsehoods
In the early nineteenth century,
when a patch of New South Wales was practically all the civilisation Australia
could claim, and much of the coast was unknown to the average master in sail, it
was hard to get the truth of many matters pertaining to the sea.
Slow old windbags pulled out of
port and nosed into strange waters . . . if they were behind schedule at their
next port of call they might simply have been becalmed and come in late, or
their crew, or part of it, might be brought in by another ship to tell a story
of shipwreck; or the Waratah was not the only ship to leave Australian
shores never to be seen again.
Under these circumstances it is
only to be expected that some accounts of sea tragedies and mysteries are scanty
or inaccurate. The writer who aims at setting down the true stories today finds
the evidence scattered, often contradictory, and, sometimes entirely misleading.
Digging out the truth of it (as far as this is possible) is a fascinating
This is particularly so in the
case of the wreck of the Mermaid, the story of which, to the best of my
researches, has not been written, though it deals with one of the most gallant
little cutters ever to break Australian waters.
The Mermaid was one of
the first survey vessels used in the charting of the Australian coast, a
schooner of 84 tons, purchased for 12,000, and sent to Australia from India for
the convenience of Phillip Parker King, the son of Phillip Gidley King, third
governor of New South Wales, after whom King Island, Bass Strait, was
Young Phillip Parker King was
born on Norfolk Island in 1791, while his father, during Arthur Phillip's
governorship of New South Wales, was in charge of the Norfolk Island convict
settlement. While he was a young midshipman in the Navy, Bass and Flinders were
establishing the fact that Tasmania and the mainland of Australia were
separated, and were beginning to chart the coast. By the time young King was a
fully-fledged naval officer Matthew Flinders and George Bass had both finished
with the compass and sextant, and the young Norfolk Islander was selected to
finish the coastal survey.
So one of Australia's first
free-born citizens returned to do important work, and his ship was the
Mermaid, from 1817 to 1820. In her sailed Alan Cunningham, botanist,
whose memorial is an obelisk in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, and versifier of
A wet sheet and a flowing
And a wind that follows
lines probably inspired by the
Mermaid herself. In the Mermaid, too, was Bongarie, the aborigine
who sailed with Flinders.
The Mermaid worked from
North-West Cape to George's Sound; nosed south to Van Diemen's Land; turned
north along the little known coast which is now Queensland, and in 1820 was
condemned as unsuitable for this work.
But ships were scarce, and the
Mermaid, no longer fitted for the service, was repaired and sent into
coastal trade. She was wrecked in 1829.
Henriker Heaton in his
Dictionary of Dates, has scattered a paper-trail of falsehoods about the
wreck of the Mermaid. More than one writer has wished that the brief
entry in the Dictionary might be true
“The Mermaid, colonial
government cutter, Captain Samuel Holbrow, left Sydney for Raffles Bay, but
on entering Torres Straits she got on shore and was lost, October, 1829. All on
board were saved upon a rock. 1n three days the Swiftsure, Captain
Johnson, which sailed from Tasmania, hove in sight and took on board
Captain Holbrow and his crew, but in a few days she got on shore and was
wrecked. Two days afterwards the Governor Ready, also from Tasmania, April 2,
was passing within sight, took the shipwrecked people belonging to the
Mermaid and the Swiftsure on board, but was itself wrecked, May
18, at 3 p.m., but all the people were saved by taking refuge in the longboats.
The ship Comet, also from Tasmania, soon afterwards took the whole
of the collected crews of the lost ships Mermaid, Swiftsure, and
Governor Ready on board, but was herself wrecked, all hands, however,
saved. At last the Jupiter, from Tasmania, came in sight, and taking all
on board, steered for Port Raffles, at the entrance to which harbor she got on
shore and received so much damage that it may be said she was also
If only such a chain of
coincidence might be true! Five Tasmanian ships chasing each other, picking up
the stranded crews in succession!
But the above entry immediately
bends in the middle. The Mermaid was lost in October, 1829, and its
stranded crew were picked up by the Governor Ready before May 18, 1829!
Could the explanation be that the Governor Ready was wrecked in 1830?
Unfortunately not the miracle of miracles is asserted in this Dictionary, for
this most fortunate crew was picked up six months before it was wrecked!
I checked over the records then for details of the other ships. Five in my list -Mermaid, Swiftsure, Governor Ready, Comet, Jupiter- and four of them blanks.
I am afraid, after making an
extensive search of available documents, that the entire story of the
Mermaid must be pieced together from another angle- the facts taken from
the diary of T. B. Wilson, surgeon of the Governor Ready, which had
actually been wrecked on May 18, 1829, at 2.45 p.m., which had not the slightest
connection with the wreck of the Mermaid, except that shipwrecked surgeon
Wilson crossed the path of the Mermaid's rescued men.
It will be best to tell Wilson's
story, then, and let the Mermaid take its logical place in the sequence,
and so to stumble on the fact that there were complications about the
Mermaid wreck, but neither of the order nor dimensions suggested by
The Governor Ready, a
512-ton ship which arrived in Van Diemen's land in 1828, had been chartered to
bring two hundred convicts from the Cove of Cork, Ireland, to Port Arthur, was
to sail from Port Jackson on January 17, 1829, to pick up a cargo of sugar at
the Isle of France, so that she would not have to go home empty. But, this
project being abandoned because of bad sugar crops at the Isle of France, she
made a passenger trip to Tasmania, after which, on April 2, 1829, she sailed for
She tried to cross the
Australian Bight, skirt Cape Leeuwin, and beat up the west coast; but the winds
were contrary, so she was put about to take the east coast, and cross through
The decision appears to have
been a fairly foolhardy one, for Wilson says in his diary that “the ship was not
provided with charts of New Holland nor of the Indian Archipelago (he means the
East Indies) as it was not contemplated on leaving England that they would be
required. This circumstance was untoward, but knowing that we should have
opportunities for ascertaining our true position from lunar observations and
determining to keep a good lookout we hoped to get safely through the dangers
which abounded on the route we were now compelled to pursue.”
The ship passed Port Jackson
without stopping, slid north into the tropical waters, and “as soon as we passed
the tropic (of Capricorn) and entered into the sea bestrewed with coral reefs
and sandbanks, every measure was adopted to ensure a constant and careful
Later: “Shortly after noon the
wind became light and variable; during the night it blew from westward . . .
thus having passed safely between these reefs we were elated by being the first
who had made the attempt during the night.”
And so to May 18: “About 1 p.m.
in the fair channel under the influence of a strong breeze and the tide in our
favor, we pursued our serpentine and perilous course with much rapidity, guided
only by the color of the water, passing many sandbanks and reefs in safety until
2.45 p.m., when the ship struck with such force on a small detached piece of
coral that the rock penetrated instantly through the bottom.”
So the Governor Ready's
experiment in chartless navigation ended with nineteen of the ship's company in
a longboat, twelve in a skiff, and eight in a jollyboat, each boat provided with
food- a conclusion which should surprise nobody.
The three boats touched at
Halfway Island, nosed ashore on other unknown and uninhabited islands. Later, in
heavy weather, the jollyboat was abandoned, and its eight passengers were taken
into the longboat. This loaded boat, its light and compass spoiled by the heavy
water it had shipped, ran before a strong wind until it came at the same time in
sight of land and the brig Amity.
The land was Timor; the brig was
bound for Raffles Bay, a settlement near Melville and Bathurst Islands, on the
north coast of Arnhem Land. Some of the longboat's crew preferred to go ashore.
Others joined the Amity. That night the brig made a great deal of water,
the pumps were brought into use, and it had to put back to Koepang (Coupang in
the diary) for repairs. By June 7 the Amity, repaired and loaded with
sheep and maize, left for Raffles Bay, and diarist Doctor Wilson was with her.
She was almost shipwrecked before she reached the settlement.
And here the Mermaid
enters the picture. Or rather, she was supposed to enter the picture, as a
relief vessel for the Amity. But she was a very long time overdue, and
when at last Wilson, ex the Governor Ready, and other watchers saw a
vessel approaching, it was not the Mermaid at all, but another ship bound
out of Sydney for the Isle of France, Resource by name. She was putting
in at Raffles Bay to land the crew of the wrecked Mermaid.
The facts of the Mermaid
wreck, as Wilson then learned them, were that on June 13 the little exploration
ship had run ashore on the outer barrier reef, and was hopelessly lost. The crew
took to the boats, and after three days were picked up- not by the
Swiftsure to be wrecked again, as Heaton says- but by the Admiral
Gifford, which shortly afterwards transferred the Mermaid's men to
the Swiftsure, which it met at sea.
The latter vessel was not bound
out of Tasmania for Raffles Bay, as Heaton evidently believed. She was a Sydney
ship making her way to the Mauritius Islands via the East Indies, and so passing
Raffles Bay settlement in her course, a circumstance which would enable her to
land the Mermaid's crew at their destination.
But the Swiftsure
encountered ill fortune on Cape Sidmouth, where she was wrecked on July 5. No
hands were lost, and in these strange circumstances the crew of the
Mermaid found themselves wrecked a second time, with their rescuers.
It was the Resource that
found the two crews on Cape Sidmouth, and took them both aboard, bringing them
to Raffles Bay safely in calm weather.
This, then, is the actual last
chapter in the history of Phillip Parker King's gallant little ship. Captain
Holbrow of the Mermaid was carrying with him important papers- a despatch
ordering the Raffles Bay settlement to be abandoned. This order was carried out
at the time, but later the settlement was again opened.
Of the actual events connected
with the Mermaid's sinking I can find no account; but from description of
the weather at that time as given by other ships in the same seas, the
conditions were mild and warm, and the wrecks were due to ignorance of the sea
rather than storm conditions. In the case of both the Mermaid and the
Swiftsure no lives were lost. In both cases the crews managed to land on
some rocks and were quickly picked up by other vessels.
One point of difference still
remains to be settled, however, in the grossly contradictory references to the
date of the Mermaid's sinking. The Australian Encyclopedia agrees with
Henniker Heaton (probably follows him as other references are scarce) in placing
the wreck in October of 1829. Wilson, the eye-witness, however, places the date
as much earlier, for he declares that the Resource brought the survivors
to Raffles Bay on June 22, and gives the date of the Mermaid wreck as
Having examined the records
carefully, and finding no authority to support the Encyclopedia statements, I
feel disposed to take the word of the eye-witness, whose diary throughout shows
extreme care, even to minutes and seconds of latitude and longitude of places he
names. It is not likely that this careful man would be five months out in his
There is little to be said for
any other vessel included in the original five listed by Heaton as connected
with the Mermaid. The Comet was a small brig which met shipwreck
south of Boot Reef, near the approach to Torres Strait, in May, 1829. She was
sailing from Sydney to Batavia, having left Sydney on April 12, and all hands
were saved from the wreck. The Jupiter (according to Heaton a Tasmanian
ship which was wrecked at Raffles Bay while landing the Mermaid's crew)
was actually on a Sydney to Singapore run, did leave Sydney in April of 1829,
and did go ashore at the entrance to Raffles Bay- a year afterwards, in 1830,
and not while landing the combined crews of Mermaid, Swiftsure, Governor
Ready and Comet.
It has been interesting to sort
out the remarkable bunch of shipwrecks which occurred along the barrier and
through the Strait about that time, for it not only has revealed the ultimate
fate of what should be one of the most romantic of the pioneering vessels on the
Australian coast, but it establishes some finality on what is, I believe,
one of the most remarkable fallacies in the history of shipwrecks- the fallacy
of the five-fold wrecking of the Mermaid's crew.
“Each man for himself!”
The cry is inseparably linked in almost every mind with disaster at sea.
It conjures up a vision of desperate odds against which every man must make his
own headway; of disorganization and danger which make concerted action
It is a cry which is scarcely linked with brute selfishness; yet in the
wreck of the Charles Eaton it became true in its most sordid implication-
each man moved with utter indifference to the fate of his fellows, so that here,
in what might have been a minor tragedy had any principle of honour bound the
ship's company, the first law of nature asserted itself with primitive
“Each man for himself!” Never in the history of the storm‑swept,
wreck‑scattered Australian coast was the cry more desperately appropriate.
When the barque Charles Eaton sailed through the high Port Jackson
heads on July 26, 1834, she had behind her seven months of uneventful, pleasant
cruising from London, over the Cape route, which the intrepid Portuguese and
Spanish mariners had made safe for nearly four centuries. Before the ship
The lives of thirty-two people
were in the hands of Captain Frederick Moore as he nosed his way northward
outside the Great Barrier Reef. Of the crew of twenty-six the only one to figure
prominently in the tragedy was John Ireland, signed on as “boy.” A captain from
the Bengal artillery, D'Oyley by name, travelling with his wife, two sons, and a
Bengalese servant, and an English gentleman named Armstrong, were the only
The winter of that year closed
mildly, and the Charles Eaton enjoyed a run through warm, fine days and
calm nights until early on the morning of August 15 a fresh wind sprang up. By
ten o'clock in the day a light gale was blowing and the ship was nearing Sir
Charles Harding Island, with Captain Moore busily seeking an opening in the
Sails were shortened as the
Charles Eaton tried to tack into a break in the coral barrier, but the
wind and sea were too much for the ship, and the opening too narrow to promise
any degree of safety, so both anchors were loosed and fell close to the reef.
They held immediately and temporarily allayed the captain's fears; but he was
soon to learn that the very security of his mooring was a menace to the
With wind and waves swinging her
round on her anchor chains, she was soon bobbing dangerously near to the coral.
Suddenly a gentle shudder ran through the vessel from stem to stern: she had
grated on the submerged coral, which afterwards became marked “Detached Reef” on
Nothing happened immediately,
but the quietness of anxiety crept over the barque as the captain went below to
examine the damage. Captain D'Oyley and his family, clustered fearfully on deck,
could see no sign of land, only a line of creaming foam where the wind lashed
little waves against the coral of the Barrier. Presently Captain Moore returned
and announced that the boat was totally lost. The keel and rudder had been
dragged away by ragged arms of coral and the ship was fast in the reef, so that
there was no immediate danger unless the gale increased and the ship
commenced to break up. The boats were the only chance of safety.
As the weather showed no sign of
lifting and the captain was very anxious as to how much buffeting the hulk would
stand, an effort was immediately made to launch the long boat. They swung it
clear and commenced to lower. The water slid away beneath it so that it dropped
into a watery vale; in a moment a hissing green mountain towered above, bearing
down with a crash which swamped it and bore it away, bottom up, to be broken to
splinters against the coral.
Watching eagerly for a momentary
calm, they launched the smaller cutter. James Price, a member of the crew,
jumped into the boat to manage it when it was afloat on the treacherous sea.
Again the hand of Nature was against the attempt, and as another seething mass
of foam-crested green fell, it crushed man and boat together, and neither was
There was now only one more
boat, a large cutter. Upon the safe launching of this depended the lives of
thirty-two persons. So far nobody seemed to realise that even if the large
cutter lived in the fretful sea it would only carry seven or eight people at the
most, so that already the greater part of the ship's company were as good as
lost unless another course could be devised. This state of affairs was soon
driven home however: for the men, driven by fear that the Charles Eaton
might fall to pieces under them, seized the first opportunity of lowering
the remaining boat. As they did so, William Grindle, the third mate, and two
other sailors, jumped in. Their fortune was different, for they met the water on
an even keel, and in a few minutes were floating safely, well away from the
There is considerable
disagreement as to the third mate's motives just here. He has been accused of
abandoning the ship and those aboard, fearing that too many would crowd into the
boat and would swamp her. A record of the time says that Grindle seized the
cutter and put to sea, leaving the remainder of the crew to shift for
themselves. But an account of the wreck published in the early 1840s throws some
doubt upon this harsh suspicion. It says, “The captain and his officers thought
it impossible for the cutter to be saved, so stayed on the wreck . . . five
others were anxious to join the cutter, but it pulled away to have taken more
would have endangered the whole party.” Whether the seizure of the boat was as
callous and selfish as has been said or not, it is clear that with the
difficulty of standing by in the heavy sea, and the knowledge that no more could
safely be taken aboard, Grindle decided that those left on the wreck must shift
All through the night of the
15th, these men and women clung to the wreck and when the morning
broke, the cutter was still visible, floating idly on the other, side of
the reef. She appeared to be deserted, and two sailors decided to swim to
her, though the water was shark infested, and bring her back to the
They were eagerly watched as
they broke through the reef into the calm-water. beyond and reached the boat.
They found, however, that Grindle and his two companions were very much alive,
holding council of war in the boat. The two swimmers climbed aboard, and the
watchers on the wreck saw them join in earnest conversation with the other
three. Then gleaming oars were launched, bit into the bosom of the sea, and
began to flash rhythmically as the cutter began to move away. It grew smaller,
and smaller, and finally was lost in the hills and valleys of the sea. The
watchers on the wreck were plunged into the depths of despondency. Had they but
known they were watching the commencement of one of the small boat epics of the
Grindle and his men, had no
nautical instruments whatever with them, not even a mariner's compass or a
chart. Their provisions were one small ham, a four gallon keg of water, and 30
pounds of hard biscuit. All they knew was that
While they drifted into the
blue, ekeing out their biscuits and water, sailing daily with death, betting
every drop of sweat in their bodies on a one-in-a-million chance of life, things
went hard with the people they had left on the wreck. Boat-less, they could do
nothing while the dirty weather lasted but stick to the hulk and hope for the
When the sea was calm again, and the sun was shining, they set to work to build a raft from loose timbers of the ship. The good weather held, and they were in a far more optimistic frame of mind when on the sixth day after the vessel struck the raft was launched. Hope ran high as the captain sprang onto it, walked on it, and found it to float well. Here, bobbing before their eyes on the treacherous blue ocean, was their means of life.
Mrs. D'Oyley and her two boys were placed on it with the Bengalese woman servant (“women and children first!”). The others then climbed down; but as they did so the raft began to settle in the water. Very soon it became obvious that the raft would not carry all of the marooned men. Another raft as well would be necessary.
As the day was well advanced the captain suggested they should moor it to the wreck and wait for tomorrow, while those who were on it should stay there to make sure of its safety through the night if the weather should change.
When morning dawned there was no sign of the raft! The night had been calm and starlit; the sea was smooth and still. There could have been no tragedy caused by the treacherous weather of those regions. Had some of the passengers sleeping on the raft moved so as to endanger it, the commotion would certainly have awakened some of the sleepers on the wreck.
Did the captain cut the rope which held the raft and
allow it to creep stealthily away into the night, acting for the second time
upon the grim motto, “each man for himself!” Nobody will ever know, for reasons
all too soon apparent; but the morning of the seventh day saw another means of
safety gone, and a small, despondent, helpless body of men, almost resource
less, upon the partly dismantled hulk of the Charles Eaton.
On the fourteenth day a second raft was completed, and this was sufficient to take the whole remaining party. They pushed off from the Charles Eaton at length, and as they drifted to the horizon, left it, growing smaller minute by minute, to the mercy of the waves. No human eye saw the ill-fated barque again.
But the real story of the survivors was only now beginning. After two days and nights of drifting, on the early morning of the third day, they saw a tiny black speck far away on the sea approaching them. At first they took it to be the big cutter with Grindle and his four companions. As it drew nearer, however, it proved to be a long canoe full of naked black men.
Right out of sight of land, in a tractless waste of strange water, the two parties met on their ill-assorted craft. The canoe fearlessly drew alongside, muscular black arms seized the raft, and presently its four occupants were transshipped to the big canoe, while their late means of safety was turned adrift.
For all the savage reputation they earned among the early settlers and navigators, these blacks showed themselves friendly enough; and late in the afternoon, by the uncanny sense of direction the islanders possess, they came safely to the island of Boydang. The castaways were well enough received on the island, were taken to a grassy glade above the beach, and by signs which are universally understood they were invited to rest. Men who have been fighting Nature's wrath for a fortnight, who have endured disappointment and privation, and have finally drifted hopelessly for two days and nights, do not need a second bidding to sleep in safety. In a very few minutes the glade above the beach became one of Nature's dormitories.
John Ireland, the ship's “boy,” was awakened by sounds of industry, and some sixth sense warned him to jump up half asleep and run. Well that he did for the treacherous blacks had come down upon the sleepers with clubs and knives and were knocking them unconscious and chopping off heads, working steadily through the whole row of them. One native saw Ireland jump up, and ran after him, flourishing a huge knife. The two struggled in a grim wrestle for life, until Ireland, realising that the wild man would soon overpower him, broke away and jumped into the surf. He struck out for the open sea and swam until he was exhausted, preferring death from drowning or mutilation from sharks, to the terrible scene of carnage on the island.
When he was too tired to swim further, the “boy” floated. Bred to the sea, he was not frightened of it, nor panic-stricken to get out of it; and when he had thought things over, cradled in the waves, he decided to swim back and see how he was received. This he did; and when he struggled tired and naked from the surf, the native with whom he had fought came unarmed to meet him, and conducted him to the camp with every sign of friendship. There he found one of his comrades who had also escaped death, a sailor named John Sexton; and although the two spent a sleepless night, they apparently had no cause to fear, for no further attempts at treachery were made.
On the next morning the natives climbed into their big canoe and, taking Ireland and Sexton with them, paddled to another island. They had scarcely landed upon the beach when a small figure ran towards them. It was George D'Oyley, who was able to tell them that the captain's raft had grounded here, but its occupants - the captain and the D'Oyleys- had been overtaken by the same treachery. In the slaughter the boy George had been spared, and William, Mrs. D’Oyleys baby in arms, had been adopted by a native woman.
The next week passed uneventfully on the island, the two sailors and the boy George settling down among the blacks, learning stray words of the native dialect, and gradually gaining confidence in the men who had murdered the rest of their company, but who seemed to foster their friendship.
One morning the boy, George came running to Ireland. “A ship!” he announced, triumphantly; and hope, which proverbially springs eternal, sent Ireland running down to the beach.
The ship was quite close, and appeared to be a Dutch trader. There was no hope of attracting its attention, and Ireland pleaded in signs for the natives to row them out in a canoe. The request met with good-natured grins, and friendly but negative nods. It became plain that Ireland, Sexton and George were to consider themselves tribesmen.
To go native against one's will with the memories of home and comfort ever in mind, is a hard task; but it was more comfortable than the ever-present fear of death by clubbing. The three were just becoming reconciled to this life when a second vessel came close to the island, and passed. On the following day yet another vessel was seen. But these all slipped away, and with them hope. No further ships were sighted, and the three whites settled down to the island life.
They appeared to have fallen among Boydang and Murray Islanders, who are of a restless turn of mind, and spend their lives cruising from island to island of the little group. On these excursions the whites were taken; and at the end of one trip it appeared that the white men were not yet out of harm's reach, for Sexton was suddenly set upon and brutally killed. Soon afterwards the boy George met the same fate. The Boydang Islanders held council of war over John Ireland, seeking his skull to decorate the huts of their homeland. But for the more pacific purposes of the Murray Islanders, the young man would certainly have been killed as well. As it was he was married to a Murray Island girl, and finally accepted as a member of the tribe, running naked and quickly growing darker in the strong tropical sunlight.
So much like the natives did he become that when finally white sailors did catch sight of him they did not recognise him. The ship Mangles, under Captain Carr, dropped anchor off the Island and sent a boat ashore. The boat pulled within yards of the beach, saw the natives with Ireland among them, and then returned to the ship. Captain Carr remained at anchor all night. For some reason he suspected that whites might be on the island, and thought that with the ship at anchor not far away they might swim out, and thus make good their escape. John Ireland had very good reasons for not trying this plan; and when in the morning no whites had shown themselves, the Mangles weighed anchor and dropped slowly down to the western horizon.
The appearance of the ship, and the sight and sound of his countrymen, had roused in Ireland all the dormant homesickness of his early island days. He did the only thing possible if he were to remain sane and happy; he resigned himself to the lazy, sometimes exciting, never exhausting, island life.
It had taken the Charles Eaton seventeen days to sail from Sydney to the Straits entrance, where she met her fate. It took two years for the news to travel back. The next storm to blow up completely dismantled the wreck, so that there was not even a derelict hull for passing ships to notice. As has been seen, John Ireland, the only survivor on the island, was unable to make contact with the civilised world. It was only through the good fortune of the five men in the cutter that the story of the Charles Eaton ever reached the owners.
Things fared badly with the cutter. The meagre rations were soon used; the direction in which they rowed and drifted alternately was very vague and by no means uniform, and it was sheer good fortune that carried them ashore on the small island of Timor Laut. They had hoped to reach the larger island of Timor Koepang, where there was a Dutch settlement, and where ships often called; but the place where they landed was off the trade route, and they idled away thirteen months there before a trading prow from Amboyna called. They secured a passage on this native craft, and finally on October 7, 1835, fourteen months after the wreck, they arrived at Amboyna. There they told their story, and their passage to England was arranged.
Not only did the five men escape safely by the merest fluke, but they brought with them news of the others on the wreck; news which had then to beat round the Cape in a windbag, and finally arrived in Sydney in July, 1836. When Sir Richard Bourke, then Governor of the colony, heard of it, he decided that one could never tell what the issue might be. If the five men had managed to get back to London, the others might still be alive, so he sent the schooner Isabella in search of the wreck of the Charles Eaton.
The Isabella left Sydney on June 3, 1836, and made a good passage to the Straits, reaching Murray Island on the 18th of the same month. By this time Ireland was so definitely one of the natives that they had no qualms about taking him off in a canoe to the boat; and when he finally stood on the deck of the rescue ship, he was so confused by the white men around him that he appeared to be quite shy, and he seemed to have difficulty both in speaking and understanding English. Slowly and hesitantly he told his story to Captain Lewis, and presently the sailor went ashore with Ireland in one of the Isabella's boats. They found William D'Oyley, a little lad not yet three years old, with all the hardiness and independence, and a good deal of the savage spirit, of his native foster-mother. They took him off to the ship, and the natives seemed really sorry to see the last of the two. They did not display any hostility towards Captain Lewis or his men.
Following up Ireland's story, Captain Lewis put in at Boydang Island, and there in a native shed found a number of skulls with the hair still attached. Judging from the long locks of one it was the skull of a woman, and the comb which was still in the hair suggested strongly that it was all that remained of Mrs. D'Oyley. The grim relic he left, naturally, in its native shrine; but the comb which adorned the hair of it he brought back to Sydney. It was only a few years ago in the possession of a Queenslander, the only surviving relic of the ill-fated Charles Eaton, where an entire ship's company perished because the thought in every mind seems to have been “Each man for himself.”
“Stirling Castle” Wreck
There is a coral arm out-flung
from the Great Barrier Reef which is known as Swain's Reef. When it was
discovered and charted by Captain Swain, of the ship Eliza, it was
crowned with the masts and rigging of a sunken hulk.
These represented all that
remained of a vessel which can lay more than one claim to a lasting place in
Australian history, the brig Stirling Castle. This was the vessel that
brought to Australia that towering figure in the land's development, Dr. Dunmore
Lang. It arrived in Sydney with him, three other clergymen, and 59 mechanics, in
the year 1831, and the Sydney Gazette of the day after its arrival,
October 15, had a leading article on the subject. Five years later to the very
day, on October 15, 1836, the same paper included the following paragraph under
the list of shipping arrivals:
“From a coasting cruise, the
revenue cutter Prince George, Captain Roach, with Mrs. Fraser, second
mate, and 5 of the crew of the brig Stirling Castle, recently wrecked on
Between those two mentions of the vessel lay one of the
most amazing shipwreck adventures- which showed up Queensland natives as being
as inhuman and savage as the wildest American Indians, a story of a woman's
miraculous fortitude, a story of the miserable death of a gallant band of
In May, 1829, a small vessel, the Comet had been wrecked on the
Great Barrier, while under the command of James Fraser; but as the sea was
uncharted and dangerous, and Fraser's name for careful navigation was widely
known, he had not suffered by the loss of his ship. Immediately he had been
given command of the Stirling Castle, had brought it into Sydney safely
in 1831, and had handled it satisfactorily for the five years which followed. In
May 1836, he took it out of Port Jackson, in ballast for Singapore, and besides
his crew he had the care of his thirteen-year-old nephew and his wife, who was
expecting the arrival of a child in the near future. These circumstances have
entirely cleared Captain Fraser's name from any negligence in connection with
On the seventh day out from
Sydney the Stirling Castle ran upon a sweeping, semi-circular coral arm-
where Captain Swain later saw the remains of her- and heeled upon her larboard
beams. The clawing of the breakers very soon had its effect upon her timbers,
and the vessel began to crumble. The crew took to the only two boats on the
brig- a longboat, which took eleven people, and a pinnace, which held the other
seven. Fraser's nephew could not be found when the party was ready to leave the
derelict; he was discovered, at length, on his knees in the cabin, praying. With
Mrs. Fraser he was placed in the long boat, and closely following the pinnace,
they left the wreck.
They had not been very long at
sea, however, before the longboat proved to be quite unworthy of the
responsibility, for the seams started to open, and every possible hand was soon
bailing continually to keep it afloat. Soon it became impossible to handle the
boat independently, and while the pinnace made every endeavour to tow it, it was
kept afloat by the bailing.
Up to her knees in water, Mrs.
Fraser was delivered of a child in this crazy little coracle; but it lived only
a few minutes, and was cast into the sea.
After five days of this
precarious progress, the two little craft made an island in the Cumberland
Group, and spent two days there repairing the boats, trying to make the longboat
seaworthy, and taking a badly needed rest. Mrs. Fraser, though weak from her
ordeal, seemed to be making remarkably good progress in health; she was a woman
of 37 at this time. From their temporary security on the island, Captain Fraser
took his bearings, and reckoned that Repulse Bay, on the mainland, would be
about fifty miles distant. Knowing the frailty of his craft, he believed the
only chance of reaching safety would be to make that voyage, and then despatch
walkers to try and reach Moreton Bay.
Accordingly, two days after
their arrival on the island, and seven days after the wreck, the longboat and
pinnace left the security of the Cumberland Island, and nosed in the general
direction of Repulse Bay.
Although the hand of Nature
went, against them in the days which immediately followed, they witnessed what
was little less than a miracle. The wind freshened and veered, they were driven
from the course they were trying to keep, and soon were tossing hopelessly on an
endless expanse of sea. Everybody expected, almost momentarily, that the long
boat would founder; but she lived in the choppy waters for two days. Then her
danger became so evident that the men in the pinnace cast off in the night. They
knew that if they remained until the actual perishing of the boat, they would
probably be lost themselves, for the eleven would try to clamber aboard the
smaller boat, probably swamping her as well. When the morning of the third day
dawned then, the pinnace was no longer in sight. And here came the miracle that
saved Mrs Fraser's life: the crazy longboat, full of starting seams, springing a
dozen little leaks, being constantly bailed, belted and bruised by the waves,
remained afloat. For a fortnight she drifted about, threatening disaster every
day, but never carrying the threat into practice, until finally land was
sighted, owing to Captain Fraser's expert knowledge of navigation, and the whole
party beached safely between Wide Bay and Sandy Cape.
For the last seven days at sea
the boat had been continually followed by sharks, and the landing came as a
double blessing- salvation at once from the waterlogged old hulk and from
voracious sea-monsters. Great excitement reigned, and before the longboat
beached the men were eagerly planning who should walk to Moreton Bay for
assistance, and what other measures should be taken.
The blacks, unfortunately, were
an obstacle they had not reckoned with. At first the natives seemed quite
friendly, and willingly bartered fish and other food in exchange for any little
thing the white people had to offer. But the trading supplies of eleven
shipwrecked people do not provide a very extensive backing for trade with a
tribe, and very soon the survivors were stripped of every possible article.
The mask of friendship then
dropped from the natives; they became sullen and suspicious. Finally, as the
whites drew into groups of twos and threes and commenced to walk south, the
natives cast aside all restraint. They fell upon them, stripped them of their
clothing, not excluding Mrs. Fraser, and scattered them among the tribe, fearing
that they might put up some resistance if they were left together.
They then became slaves to the
natives, and were subjected to the most vicious treatment, being knocked about
with clubs, pricked with spears, burned with fire-sticks, and continually
terrorised. Mrs. Fraser saw her husband speared to death because through
sickness he was too weak to work. She also saw the chief officer of the
Stirling Castle roasted alive over a slow fire.
For some reason no attempt was
made to take the woman's life. She was made by the natives to climb trees in
search of honey, and when at first she found the work almost a physical
impossibility, she was burned with fire-sticks, so that her only method of
escape was to climb. What she suffered at the hands of her captors may best be
understood by an extract from Lieutenant Otter's report, after a rescue had
finally been effected.
“The woman,” he writes, “was a
skeleton; the skin literally hung to her bones. Her legs were a mass of sores
where the savages had tortured her with firebrands. Notwithstanding her
miserable plight, it was absolutely necessary for us to start homewards, though
she had already come nine or ten miles, as there were about 300 natives in a
nearby camp. These would be likely to attack us at night. Graham, our guide, had
fortunately met with one of his former friends, a kind of chief, through whose
influence he had succeeded. So treacherous are the natives that it is impossible
to trust them for a moment. When we met her she had been for two days without
food and had subsisted the most part of the time on a kind of fern root found in
swamps. Now and then she would get the tail or fin of a fish when the savages
had a superabundance, and then she was obliged to earn it by dragging heavy logs
of wood and fetching water. She was not allowed in their huts, but, naked as she
was, she was obliged to lie out the whole night, even in the heaviest rains.
This is but a slight sketch of what she went through. When we had got about
halfway to our boats we were obliged to carry her. We did not arrive until next
morning, when she begged for hot water, as she was anxious to restore her face
and person to a natural colour. The natives had rubbed her body every day with
charcoal to darken her skin.”
Such was the treatment meted out
not only to Mrs. Fraser, but to all the unfortunate survivors of the wreck. The
story came to Moreton Bay through Lieutenant Otter, the rescuer; and it was
thanks to the men in the pinnace that he had come to know of the tragedy at
After they drew away from the
longboat in the night, the seven men in the pinnace landed on the coast
somewhere about Wide Bay, but here met aborigines who treated them in much the
same way as the other survivors. The blacks immediately demanded the clothes of
the white men, which they twisted grotesquely around their bodies, much to their
delight. Two sailors who refused to part with their garments were speared, and
the rest did not argue the point. When the first orgy of stripping and dressing
was over, the blacks enslaved the white men, setting them to cut wood with
native implements, and do odd jobs. They became literally the hewers of wood and
drawers of water for a couple of hundred hostile, grinning savages, who treated
the whole thing as a great joke and strutted masterfully about, proud of their
Finally, however, two of the
hardy spirits rebelled against this fate. One of them was a British sailor, and
the other a negro, who had been among the crew of the Stirling Castle,
and who had been treated like the white men by the aborigines, despite his
kindred colouring with themselves. These men set out to walk to Moreton Bay,
escaping from the camp by night. They met Lieutenant Otter, an officer of the
detachment stationed at Moreton Bay, and told him their story. (Incidentally,
Jeffery, in his Century of Our Sea Story, appears to be in error when he
reports that only one man escaped from the blacks and reached Moreton Bay, as
reference to Barton's Remarkable Wrecks will show. Jeffery also creates
the impression that it was one of the sailors with Mrs. Fraser who carried the
news to Moreton Bay; but it was the men from the pinnace).
When the news arrived at Moreton
Bay, Captain Fyans, the commandant there, was immediately informed, and he
detailed Otter to take two whaleboats and a party of men, and try to locate the
castaways. A convict named Graham, who had at one time escaped and lived among
the blacks, was sent as a guide and interpreter. It was this man's luck in
meeting a former black comrade, which Otter refers to in the excerpt above.
The whale boats were fortunate
in meeting with the survivors of the longboat, and took them aboard in the
manner described by Lieutenant Otter. They were taken to Moreton Bay and lodged
in the hospital there, where they made remarkable recoveries to health, and at
length, on the Prince George, were sent on to Sydney, giving rise to a
small official notice in the Gazette of October 15.
This closed one of the most
horrible chapters in the variegated story of the seven seas- a chapter which,
though it does not record a tremendous death-roll, holds as much of terror and
torture, ruin and risk, as is possible to cram into six months of life. Perhaps
no woman has even been called upon to endure more than Mrs. Fraser; certainly no
woman has emerged more remarkably from such a concatenation of tribulation.
Out of the eighteen who left
Sydney on the Stirling Castle, three were speared to death, two were
burned, four drowned (including Fraser's thirteen-year-old nephew), two were
left by the blacks to die of starvation and seven were saved.
The End of
Some of the old hands at Port
Macquarie, New South Wales, may still remember, as they blow the froth off a
pint of beer, a piece of wreckage which was washed up on the northern point of
the beach- “somewhere about nineteen-oh three or four as near as I can
Under the soothing influence of
another pint they may further recall that one Jacob Healy, scion of an old Port
Macquarie family, inherited from his forebears a picture which he afterwards
placed in the hands of the Sydney Yacht Club.
Furthermore, you may still get
definite remembrance of a sea-stained piano which tinkled in that desolate
settlement for many years after it was rescued from a wreck on the harbor bar,
in the days when Port Macquarie was an outpost whose beauty was still
undiscovered and unexploited.
If you are willing to stand
three pints for your old inhabitant, and if each has the quickening effect
indicated above, you will have touched a piece of flesh-and-blood history at a
nominal price. You will have threaded together probably the only three tangible
links with Sydney's gentleman adventurer, that business comet of the last
century, Benjamin Boyd.
Remarkably enough the end of
Boyd and his elaborate yacht Wanderer is subject of no little
controversy, though a careful sifting of the authoritative documents enables one
to piece together what seems to be a fairly accurate story- a story ending on
the island of Guadalcanal which has been raised to long remembrance by the epic
of the Pacific War. For it was in the Solomons that Ben Boyd met his death, and
it was on the bar of Port Macquarie that his yacht foundered after he died.
But the foundations of the tale
are laid in the year 1842 (not “1840-41” as Heaton has it) when the elegant
84-ton yacht Wanderer bore Boyd into Port Jackson for the first time on
July 18, flying the colors of the Royal Yacht Squadron and mounting ten guns.
Benjamin Boyd could afford to sail in that way, for with the Bank of Scotland
backing him he was going to organise various branches of the Royal Bank of
Australia, and exploit generally the wealth of the new continent. In the Sydney
of the 1840s, which but yesterday had been a convict settlement, there were
inviting prospects for an enterprising business man. Convict transportation to
Sydney had ended; the town presented a substantial picture of small stone
buildings regularly arranged; free immigrants had established businesses and
industries; Australia was on the way up.
Boyd the opportunist purchased
station property extensively in the Monaro district, in the Riverina. While he
was new in the colony Moreton Bay was opened up and property there made
available for founding a settlement. Boyd bought some. On the south coast of New
South Wales he opened a whaling station at Twofold Bay; he erected a large store
there to supply his own station properties on Monaro, so as to save the heavy
expense of transport from Sydney. He also erected premises for boiling down
sheep into tallow. He also speculated in whaling and made Twofold Bay the
rendezvous of his whale ships. He erected a lighthouse to direct his ships to
the wharf- then the New South Wales Government refused him permission to exhibit
the light because he could not (or would not) guarantee its constant
Boyd shipped cattle to Tasmania
and New Zealand. He tried to make Boyd Town a more important place than Eden,
which the Government recognised as the official settlement in the district. He
also took a leaf from the dirtiest chapter in American history, and tried to
bring colored labor to Australia: in his fertile, scheming brain an Australian
slave trade was born- one which developed to some dimensions and was nipped in
the bud, just in time. The slaving led Boyd to engage a large steamer and five
smaller vessels to bring natives from the New Hebrides. Several shiploads were
landed at Twofold Bay and employed at his Deniliquin and Ulupna properties, as
shepherds or hut-keepers at 6d a week plus a bonus of a new shirt and Kilmarnock
cap once a year. They proved unsuitable for the work, and many of them finally
made their way to Sydney where they were the cause of a teacup storm.
All of this activity was very
spectacular- but it caused discontent among the shareholders of Boyd's company,
and the trouble which followed led to Boyd's resignation. He was given three of
the whale ships, his yacht Wanderer, and two sections of land at Twofold
Bay as the pay-off.
At that psychological moment,
with Boyd's fortune at low ebb, something happened on the other side of the
Pacific. Boyd decided to leave Australia- behind him on the shores of Port
Jackson were two sites to remind the colony of his dreams, Great Sirius Bay (now
Mosman) was the home of his ships; and wool from the Monaro stations was scoured
where elaborate Neutral Bay flats now stand.
Boyd left Australia because, in
1849, big news broke in California. What Bret Harte called the “fierce race for
wealth,” the Californian gold rush began. Those were the glamorous forty-niner
days when the world believed that El Dorado was not far from San Francisco. The
sad ditty of “Clementine” (daughter of “a miner Forty-niner”), the famous tales
of Harte, and a wealth of gold-seeking legend, have sprung up around the famous
rush. There should be a few lines somewhere in that wild Californian story to
record that the Scottish-Australian Boyd, his enterprises failing and his
resources depleted, was one more member of the gold-thirsty mob that stampeded
over those diggings.
It was in the Wanderer
that he sailed out of Port Jackson, his dreams of Australia behind him, dreams
of America before him, hoping to gain the ore where he had lost the banknotes.
But California was even more disappointing than Australia, and Boyd soon
realised his mistake. On the Californian diggings men and women starved to death
as they awoke from the mirage of easy wealth. Boyd was still able to climb back
into his luxurious yacht and head back for Port Jackson once again. But Fate
decreed that he should never return to the scene of his non-success (it is a
fairer word than “failure” for Boyd's experiences).
George Crawford, one of the
officers of the Wanderer, has doubted that Boyd ever intended to return
to Sydney, and has been responsible for a wild idea that the Scot would have
founded a republic of his own somewhere in the Pacific. Such a thought might
have appealed to Boyd's vivid mind, but I have conscientiously searched, without
result, for any trace of documentary evidence that such an idea entered Boyd's
head. Even if some word or action of Boyd's while at sea on the Wanderer
gave some ground for the belief, it has not been preserved- nor would it have
had a chance to mature.
At the beginning of October
1851, the Wanderer sighted the Solomons. On October 14 it approached the
island of Guadalcanal and anchored in a little bay on the West Coast. The
following day Ben Boyd died.
On the morning of October 15, he
decided to go ashore and shoot game, taking with him only one native boy to
carry his guns. The crew of the Wanderer stood by, and quietly carried
out the ship's routine. The morning passed naturally enough; but as the day wore
on and there was no sign of Boyd, Captain Webster became uneasy. He sent a boat
ashore to make sure that everything was as it should be. But concrete grounds
for any uneasiness were immediately found; there were signs of native treachery
quite close to the beach.
So concerned were the search
party as to their leader's fate that nobody noticed the copper-skins peering
through the bushes. With a mad howl the foliage along the foreshore sprang to
life, and islanders dashed towards the strange white men, throwing spears and
stones. The party managed to gain the little boat, and put off to the
Wanderer, without damage being done. The attacking natives took a canoe
and paddled up the bay.
With Boyd still missing the
Wanderer's men felt that they could not leave the hostile place. They
were still at anchor when late in the day a small fleet of war-canoes
approached. The leading canoe was large and carried up to 50 fierce-looking men.
Smaller canoes carrying some half-dozen warriors each, attended.
Among the ten pieces of the
Wanderer's armament was a brass cannon, known, as were many of its kind,
as “Long Tom.” As the war-canoes approached Long Tom was stuffed with all the
scrap metal which could be readily found. When the islanders paddled into range
Long Tom gave a sudden vicious roar, and a shower of jagged metal hissed across
the low deck, raking the islanders' fleet fore and aft. Many of the canoes sank;
bleeding and groaning natives struggled in the water. With loud cries of terror
the luckier of the party paddled energetically away.
Captain Webster calculated that
this would be sufficient to scare the natives thoroughly. In this he was right.
By the next day there was no sign of them. He took a risk, and went ashore with
a party of men. They searched through the island unmolested by the natives. No
trace of Boyd could be found. But there was every evidence that he had fallen
prey to the uncultivated appetites of the islanders.
By the 20th of the
month it had been decided that Boyd would not be seen again. Webster wrote a
report on that day, setting out in detail the information summarized above. The
report was signed by William Ottiwell, Master; George
As nothing was to be gained by dallying further, the crew decided to
return to Sydney with the Wanderer. But this was one of those peculiar
cases in which the old man's treasured possession ends its usefulness with him.
Boyd had tragically made wreckage on Guadalcanal Island; on November 14 the
Wanderer's career ended on the bar of Port Macquarie Harbour.
Just before nightfall on the
13th the vessel reached the harbour mouth, and hove to for the night.
On the morning of the 14th an attempt was made to cross the bar. The
tide was not high enough; the Wanderer ran aground and was carried by a
strong tide to the south shore, where she became a wreck.
I have not been able to find any
accurate details of the wreck, or of what happened to the crew. There are
general indications that some of them were lost, probably carried away in the
sea, or knocked unconscious by wreckage. It seems certain, however, that a
fairly leisurely salvage was carried out, for the picture and the piano already
referred to were taken ashore, and were for many years in the Port Macquarie
John Webster was saved from the
wreck, and later in life settled at Hokianga (New Zealand). He presented the
Long Tom which dispersed the cannibal canoe fleet to the citizens of Auckland;
and the shining brass muzzle was mounted there to testify to the story of a
pioneer's pathetic end.
This seaman also contributed
towards the solution of the mystery by publishing in Sydney a narrative
entitled, “The Last Cruise of the Wanderer,” which can be perused in the
Mitchell Library, Sydney.
Evidently, however, the end of
the Wanderer did not quite close Boyd's story. He had been prominent in
Sydney; the news of his supposed murder by the blacks was not sufficiently final
for the citizens. A search was organised to visit Guadalcanal, and the documents
of the period relating to the Boyd tragedy are closed by one which records that
in 1857, six years afterwards, the Government paid the owners of a small vessel,
the Oberon, the sum of £300 to reimburse them for expenses incurred in a
search for Benjamin Boyd.
In the topography of modern New
South Wales there are but two monuments to the enterprising but unsuccessful
Scot. One is Boyd Town, which he founded; the other is Ben Boyd Road, Neutral
Bay, Sydney, which now runs close by the site of the old wharves and wool-wash
which represented some of Australia's earliest commercial enterprise.
The first aeroplane to fly from
England to Australia held the front pages of all newspapers for well over a
week, with streamer headings and black type. The first screw steamer to cross
the Pacific, from San Francisco to Sydney, received ten lines of six-point,
eye-straining type, without any heading at all, in the general shipping column
of the Sydney Morning Herald of April 25, 1853.
The 1000 ton Monumental
City, 475 horse power, “magnificently fitted, with very superior
accommodation for passengers,” deserved better, though her 65-day voyage
compares poorly with a modern steamer. She left San Francisco on February 17,
and made Otaheite (now Tahiti) in 20 days. After coaling here for 15 days she
put in at Tongataboo on April 6 for rudder repairs. It is worthy of note that
she had no trouble with her screw, which was at that time still something in the
nature of an experiment.
Port Jackson welcomed the
pioneer screw steamer on April 23, and two days later the papers mentioned her
arrival. On May 5 the Monumental City put out for Melbourne, arriving on
the 9th. Business was brief, and on the 13th she passed
through Port Phillip heads, bound for Sydney.
Six days later, on
19th, a small paragraph in the Herald shipping column
mentioned that “six large steamers are now overdue in Sydney, and at least three
of them may be expected in the course of the day.” The Monumental City
was on the list.
Actually the vessel had been
smashed to pieces on a rocky island near Gabo, four days before the notice
When the Monumental City
left Melbourne on May 13, she was carrying eleven cabin passengers, among whom
were three ladies, and 23 steerage passengers, as well as crew. The only cabin
passenger to reach Sydney was Mr. Gavin M’Harrow, who was able to tell the whole
terrible chapter of tragedy with that stark simplicity that belongs only to an
eye-witness. His story was published in the Shipping Gazette for June 4,
1853, and gave day by day details.
On the day after they left
Melbourne, Saturday, they were making 12 knots an hour, and “were pleased to
pass Cape Howe about midnight.” At four o'clock on Sunday morning “everyone
started from sleep at feeling a strong concussion.”
Passengers and crew hurried to
the deck. The morning was dark, bleak, and rain-lashed; it was impossible to
distinguish the very rocks against which the vessel had run, or to see whether
land was near. Some believed that the vessel had run on to the mainland.
Daylight showed otherwise,
however. Through the morning murk the shapeless mass of rock which held the
vessel could be seen a cauldron of seething seas roaring and spuming at the base
of a barren little island. Some distance away
First thought was for the three
ladies. One of the passengers proposed that they should be sent ashore
immediately in one of the vessel's boats. When the ladies saw, however, the
tearing, creaming waves which swirled around the wreck, they were frightened to
step into the boat, and so elected to remain as eye-witnesses- and later as
victims- of the cruelest of all deaths- death in sight of land and safety.
It would probably have been
impossible to land them in any case, for when attempts were made to launch the
boats, three of them were smashed in quick succession. Only one remained, and
Captain Adams chose to keep that one safely as long as possible.
It seemed that the infuriated
sea was mad with blood-lust; for grotesque arms of water tore at the timbers as
they were freed from their rigging, held them aloft, and drove them like
battering-rams against the side of the vessel. The noble Monumental City,
which had made Pacific history, could not stand against that. She was beginning
to shiver in her death-throes.
The remaining small boat was now
set adrift on the lee-side of the wreck, with a man who had volunteered to try
and get ashore with a line from the ship. Heroically and skilfully he played his
cockle against the cunning of the waves; a cheer went up from the anxious
passengers when the hero plunged into the lacy fringe of the surf, and
struggled, bruised and breathless, up the beach, But the cheer became a moan of
chill terror as the line became entangled in the rocks, and had finally to be
With no other boat- it was
manifestly impossible for the intrepid sailor to attempt a return- the task of
getting a line ashore seemed completely hopeless. A passenger volunteered to
swim with it; he was not allowed to do so; obviously no swimmer born of a woman
could live in that sea. There was a suggestion to tie the line about a
Newfoundland dog which was aboard, and to let him try to reach land. Finally,
however, a small piece of wood covered with spun yarn was secured, the line was
made fast to it, and hurled into the water. By sheer good fortune, this small
piece of wood saved the situation; it drifted to a rock, where the sailor who
had already landed could reach it.
As soon as the line was safely
ashore, Charles Palmer, the sailor on the beach, hauled the end of a hawser
through the surf by it, and made it fast among the rocks. Mr. Cutter, the second
mate, volunteered to go ashore on the hawser to test its strength. He was
successful, but was exhausted and severely bruised. The first officer was then
sent along the hawser with some provisions in a basket, and a small line, so as
to be able to haul passengers along the hawser, which was now literally the
thread by which all lives hung. But the first officer was unconscious when he
reached the shore; the small line became tangled by the sailor Palmer, in his
endeavour to rescue the basket of provisions.
The anxious passengers stood
lashed by rain and splashed by spray, torn by a howling gale now, and tossed
between the heights of hope and gulfs of despair. Safety, which at one moment
seemed within the reach of all of them, was snatched away; and so slender did
the chance of any collective action seem now that the line which was to haul
them to safety had been lost, that each turned his mind to devising some way to
personal safety. United efforts were abandoned.
By 11 o'clock all hope of reaching shore was gone; the vessel, battered by waves and by parts of her own wreckage washed overboard, was b ginning to fill with water. It was becoming apparent that at the best she could not last long.
The three ladies, who were
bearing their fate bravely, were given temporary sanctuary in the galley, but
were soon driven from it by fears that the vessel would fall to pieces beneath
them. The shadow of death lay heavily across the small party as they were driven
forward into the bows of the ship. Although this seemed the safest place, it was
extremely difficult to keep a footing. Every minute the ship's list increased,
until the deck was sloping so much that walking was impossible.
By this time the stern of the
vessel was beginning to break up; in a few minutes decks were buckling, and
planks were starting from the cross-members; no further attempt had been made to
get another line ashore. Passengers and crew were mastered by fear, broke into
open panic, and fought in a milling, slipping, struggling crowd to reach the
bowsprit, in an endeavour to reach safety along the hawser. One or two people,
blinded by fear to the cruelty of the sea, dived overboard to swim. They did not
see the surface again; swirling water sucked them into the depths.
That eternity of terror,
measured by human time, had been just one hour. Noon came; Captain Adams left
the Monumental City's wreck, and landed safely on the island, making his
way along the hawser.
The ship was completely broken
in two; most of the people had taken to the hawser; but not necessarily to
safety. One man commenced to swing himself along it, trusting to his hand-grip.
His benumbed hands could not hold the slippery thing, and he plunged into the
roaring water below.
People who had lost all
restraint now threw themselves, yelling, into the sea, or stood, death-white,
gripping a railing, a hatching or a spar, hoping that they would be washed
ashore, clinging to the wood.
Gavin M’Harrow kept his head all
through; he stood on the slippery deck, clinging to rigging for safety, and
watched the whole terrible tableau of destruction. Finally, well after midday,
he made his way to the hawser, tied his coat into a sling, and sitting in this,
suspended from the hawser, worked his way along with his hands. The rope was
almost horizontal, which made travelling difficult. Finally, however, he reached
the rocky little island. Later he discovered that every other cabin passenger
had perished during that fateful morning.
M’Harrow saw another man try to
follow him along the hawser; a piece of wreckage was picked up on the crest of a
wave, dashed against the unfortunate fellow's body, and drove him unconscious
and bleeding from his position. He was never seen again. Not more than one or
two left the vessel after him; at one o'clock, twenty people, including four
women and three children, were still on the wreck.
Shortly after that an immense
sea gathered itself and crashed down upon the bow of the vessel. It was split
clean in two. Men, women, and children were hurled into the water. So broken was
the boiling surf, so strewn with timber and all kinds of wreckage, that there
were no struggles. Death came with merciful swiftness; there were no prolonged
struggles to harrow the watchers on the rocks.
Out of 86 souls who had sailed
from Melbourne (including cabin passengers, steerage passengers, and crew) 53
had reached the shore; 32 had been drowned. On the most miserable Sunday
afternoon the survivors built a small fire on the beach, and sorted out their
provisions, reckoning on enough to last, with care, for 16 days.
Sunday night was spent
bivouacking under a cloudy sky, soaked with occasional showers of rain, and
stung by a biting wind from the south.
Monday morning's dawn revealed a
body-strewn beach. The first duty was to give crude rites to 27 bodies, some of
which were unrecognizable.
On Tuesday morning the captain
and 18 men took the boat, which Palmer had so gallantly brought ashore, and as
the sea had somewhat abated, they tried to bridge the gap between the island and
the mainland. He succeeded, but could not bring the boat back to the island, and
had to remain through the night. Wednesday morning brought definite action; the
captain decided it was futile to wait about the scene of the tragedy, and set
out to walk to Twofold Bay for assistance from whalers there. Thursday morning
was sunny and calm!
The remainder of the survivors
had not yet left the island. By Friday they were anxious to move. Six seamen
made a raft, and on it reached the mainland. The other survivors were
transported from the island, together with the provisions, and a second party
set out to reach Twofold Bay on foot.
On Sunday evening, seven and a
half days after the vessel struck, this second party staggered into Twofold Bay
township. Bearded and salt-encrusted, bleary of eye, and weary of limb, they
gasped their story, and sank exhausted where they stood. Sub-Collector of
Customs Moule assisted them, and helped them to reach Sydney.
No official reason was assigned
for the wreck. It was stated, however, that one of the passengers with a
knowledge of the coast had warned Captain Adams on the Saturday evening, a few
hours before the vessel struck, that he was hugging the shore too closely.
Otherwise, little was heard of
the wreck. The only full account of the gallant ship's death was published in
the Shipping Gazette quoted above. The first screw steamer to cross the
Pacific, the magnificently fitted Monumental City, was unsung in her
triumph, unmourned in her ghastly death.
This is the story of an American
ship that came to grief on the Australian coast. It is a story which would
present a brick-wall of illogicality to any rule-of-thumb detective, working on
the formula of motive means opportunity- clues. For in the first place, there
appears to be no motive for the shocking crime which took place… and from that
point onwards the story of the Junior is baffling. The weapon with which
the crime was committed was a whale-gun, a weapon probably unique in the grisly
history of murder. As for the rest of the usual procedure, as to clues and where
they led, no investigator need worry, for a full confession was signed and left
by the criminals- and it was genuine.
Such are the highlights of the
mutiny and murder which took place on the American whaler Junior on
Christmas night, 1857, while the vessel was at sea in the South Pacific, near
the New Zealand coast.
Captain Mellon took the
Junior out of New Bedford, U.S.A., some time in June 1857, for a whaling
voyage in the South Pacific, and for six months the ship cruised about. Her
company was, apparently, happy. No friction nor bad treatment marred the
peaceful summer months of the cruise, and when the men found themselves
celebrating Christmas on the high seas they seemed in the right spirit. Chief
Officer Nelson was in his cabin on Christmas Eve when, all of a sudden, he heard
a voice call “Fire!” A second later the whale gun mounted in the Junior’s
bow sent a ball howling towards the cabin. There was a moment of confusion, and
shouting of men in pain. Then, as smoke began to roll from the cabin, Chief
Officer Nelson rolled on his bunk in pain. He heard the groans of Captain
Mellon, and realised at the same time that the shot had set fire to the
Forgetting his own injury Nelson
dragged the helpless master mariner out of the fire. On the deck Mellon died in
the arms of the chief mate. All about was confusion. The second mate was
wounded, men were racing about the fire, Nelson realised that his own life was
in danger. Painfully he crawled across the deck and down the companionway to
find a place in the hold where he could hide until reason asserted itself.
Bewildered and hampered by his
injuries the chief officer kept his place of hiding. Sounds coming down from the
deck told him that the sudden madness had not yet righted itself. Days passed
into nights and nights into days…one, two, three, four, five. Five days without
food; five days under the stinging pain of his wounds; five days cramped in
darkness; it was a miserable time for Nelson.
But perhaps more miserable was
the moment when a shaft of light suddenly pierced his hiding place and members
of the crew he had once commanded hoisted him from his uncomfortable security.
The mutineers brought him on deck and before the new “commander” of the
Junior, a seaman named Cyrus Plumer, an Englishman. This man told Nelson
that he had previously been concerned with the seizing of three ships, and had
spent eighteen months in Australia. He also recounted to the chief officer how
the third mate had met a terrible fate: he had been beheaded on the
Junior's deck with an ordinary spade, his head literally being hacked
from his body by a series of sadistic strokes.
The first work that faced the
mutineers, Plumer said, was to put out the fire that had started in the cabin.
After that, having seen the captain dead, the second officer and the third dead
also, they took charge of the ship, but without sufficient knowledge of
navigation to handle her. It is interesting to remember in this connection that
both the Bounty and the Seringapatam were handled satisfactorily
by crews who had insufficient knowledge of navigation.
On the third day after the crime
the mutineers weighted the feet of the dead men who lay about the deck, and
threw them overboard. For two days more, until their discovery of the chief
mate, the ship drifted idly, a circumstance which makes it extremely difficult
to see what the Junior's crew found in, or expected as a result of, their
actions. Had Nelson not been discovered the mutineers would most likely have
starved to death or become castaways. Realising, under these circumstances, that
Nelson could save them and help them, they tried to bargain. They offered to
guarantee his safety on the condition that he took them to Cape Howe. This he
agreed to do. When the ship was within twenty miles of land the mutineers
indicated that they would row ashore in the ship's boat. First they dealt with
several preliminaries, the first of which was peculiar in more ways than
They wrote their confession in
the ship's log. This short statement said that they had been well treated during
the voyage, had no complaints at all against any of the ship's officers or crew,
but that they and they alone were responsible for the mutiny and murder. Five of
them- Cyrus Plumer, boat-steerer and ringleader, John Hall, Richard Cartha,
Cornelius Barnes and William Herbert- signed this confession and had two members
of the crew witness that it was true. It is difficult to say which is more
amazing- the fact that these callous killers should have so meticulously
confessed at all, or the fact that they should have so uncompromisingly
blackened themselves in their confession.
The next step in preparing to
abandon the Junior was to fill two small boats with food and general
objects which might prove useful. Next was to herd together all who were to
remain on board and strip them of their clothing, jewellery, watches, money. The
deserters then smashed the chronometer, judging that in this way they would make
it impossible for the Junior to reach port and recount their crime. They
took all firearms out of the ship, and anticipated American gang methods by
sawing the barrels off the muskets “for more convenient handling.”
The final step in abandoning the
Junior was to intimidate Nelson and the men with him by threatening that,
if any attempt were made to follow the small boats, the mutineers would come
aboard again and sink the ship, allowing the naked and intimidated sailors to
sink with her.
The boats then put off from the
ship. Each carried five men: Plumer and his gang of confederates went in the
first, and the five who followed in the second boat were evidently recruits- men
who had not been in the original scheme, but had later joined.
On January 7, the ship
Lochiel, from London, was off Cape Howe when she saw a ship flying
distress signals. The story of the plague-ship Surry and its discoverer,
the Broxbornebury found a parallel here. The Lochiel answered the
signals, and heard all of the forgoing details straight from the lips of the
wounded, hungry and near-naked chief officer.
It offered relief to the
Junior, and escorted it almost to Sydney Heads. Twenty miles
north-north-west of Port Jackson, however, the Lochiel lost sight of the
troubled whaler; it entered the port alone and its commander, Captain Haddon,
told the story. On the 10th of the month the Junior arrived to
bear out the tale, and to tell of its vivid adventure concealed behind a
half-column story in eye-straining type in the Sydney Morning Herald,
beside the little formal notice in the Arrivals: “January 10- Junior,
American ship, 460 tons, Captain Nelson, from the South Seas.”
The chief officer who arrived in
Sydney as “Captain Nelson,” was put under medical treatment at once. Four slugs
were removed from his shoulder.
What, then happened to
the mutineers? They managed their twenty-mile open-boat voyage successfully,
landed on a beach, and appeared at Merimbula. Walking boldly into the township
they swaggered about, drinking and making themselves undesirably prominent.
Rumors of this self-assertive team, headed by a man who called himself Captain
Wilson (this was Plumer) reached the Pambula police, who came to Merimbula, and
arrested the men, taking them to Twofold Bay and locking them up.
The primitive communications of
the day did not help matters at all, however, and there was very little the
Pambula police could do to ten men arrested on suspicion. Nothing was known of
the men; they had committed no crime in the district. The police decided to
release them on a bond that they would return to the police station to
When at the end of the first
day's parole the men quietly turned up at the station to claim their beds, and
no attempt at escape had been made, the police feared that they had
miscalculated and that the consequences might be serious.
Very soon, however, news of the
Junior horrors reached Eden by mail coach. Plumer was among the first to
hear it, and it was the signal for him to lead his men into the bush. The police
were watching, and immediately followed up the move by going in pursuit. When
they realised that their next fight would be against authority, a decidedly
dangerous fight when the police were well armed and to shoot back might have
meant a rope for each neck of them- they surrendered. Presumably they were
trading on the fact of their American citizenship when they did this, believing
that it protected them in a small colony of a foreign power.
They were, however, taken to
Sydney, and that they were not captured in one group is apparent from an entry
in the Herald of February 15, 1858, which stated that “Four more of the
mutineers from the Junior were captured near Albert Town, Gippsland, and
will be conveyed to Sydney by steamer.”
Records are rather quiet on the
exact proceedings hereabouts, but the fact emerges that all men were finally
taken to Sydney, where a fine point of law arose. The crimes of the company had
been committed on the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of the State in which
they were captured. The law of the sea said that they must be tried at the port
from which the vessel had sailed.
This gave rise to further
peculiar circumstance in a thoroughly unusual tale: the ship Junior which
had been the scene of their crimes was carefully fitted out to take them back to
New Bedford. A strong guard was selected to accompany them and prevent any
further mischief, and on April 25, 1858, they went through Port Jackson heads on
their way to justice, prisoners on the very deck which they had fired, on which
they had committed murder most brutal, and from which they had threatened to
sink the ship. The Junior's return voyage was uneventful. They were
committed for trial at Boston, and on October 11, 1858, stood in the dock
accused of mutiny, murder and piracy. The ropes were about their necks; the
trapdoors were ready to slide away, dropping them into eternity. Surely no men
were nearer death.
And yet here is a further
amazing point to the story. There is not one record of the death sentence having
been carried out on these, the most inexcusable of all criminals. What the court
did with all but Plumer is obscure. Plumer's fate sounds, more like jest than
justice: sentenced to death by the judge who heard the trial, his sentence was
commuted, and he was sent to gaol for life. There is no available record to show
whether he served the entire sentence, or whether he became free again.
That, probably, would be the
final heart-break for the rule-of-thumb detective who investigated the queer
case of the Junior murders. Disheartened by lack of motive, but cheered
by a complete confession- bucked up by the arrest of his men and their safe
transport through the shoals of international justice and the Pacific Ocean- his
bird in the bag…to escape.
With confession and eye
witnesses, not one thing was lacking to hang Plumer, at least. And if any man
deserved to take his last view of the world through a hempen noose, this was the
As was said at the outset, it's
a queer story from start to finish.
for the Timber Ship
a great deal of energetic campaigning Samuel Plimsoll saw his work
rewarded in 1876 by the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act in the
British House of Commons.
purpose of the Act was to limit the loading of ships to guarantee their
seaworthiness and safety; and the agitation which culminated in the passing of
such legislation arose because, with freight charged by the ton, shipowners did
not scruple to overload their vessels to the point of unsafety before sending
them to sea. There was a period when ships were lost wholesale in this way, and
nobody suffered but the seamen who sailed them. Insurance covered the lost
freight; insurance covered the lost and overloaded ship- only the lives of the
sailors were not redeemed by compensation. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that
while this practice was indulged in the ships
loaded down to the point of unsafety were the oldest and most ramshackle
ones- no loss, for the most part, as they were already due for scrap.
was because of these conditions which prevailed before the Merchant Shipping
Act, that the vessel All Serene was able to leave Victoria, Vancouver
Island, in a condition which would immediately in these days condemn the loading
and stowing of the cargo. For the All Serene was a wind ship carrying a
cargo of timber to Australia in the year 1864. Her deck was stacked six or seven
feet high with pine lumber some spars of which, according to accounts, weighed
tons each. This is a dangerous cargo; it upsets the balance of the ship should
it happen to shift; and it is a cargo which can shift easily unless it is
expertly handled. If it should break loose from its lashings such a cargo can
well bring about destruction. But on the All Serene it was more dangerous
than usual, for the lumber was so badly stacked that the vessel left port with a
dangerous starboard list, and there was no safety legislation to correct matters
before she put out to sea.
Puget Sound she ran into a gale. She had sailed on November 29, 1863; Christmas
and New Year were spent in the teeth of a tearing tornado which did not once
ease. After four weeks had passed and the new year 1864 had come upon them out
of the spindrift, the timber ship was still lowering her head under close
reefed topsails, limping through great seas, her lee cabin often right under
water, her masts making a dangerous angle with the surging surface of the
January 17 the All Serene limped into Honolulu. Every man on board could
think back to a dozen occasions when death had stared him in the face; to a
difficult voyage in which they had not sufficient seaway to run their ship into
the wind- a wind that would have blown them onto the American coast. The very
fact that their journey thus far had taken nearly seven weeks, which was an
“unprecedentedly long time” (says a contemporary account) for even those slow
old sail days, testifies to the battering they went through. And if any further
testimony be necessary it can be found in the four passengers of the eighteen
aboard who felt that, to leave Honolulu in the ship after having come safely
through that nightmare period, would be tempting providence. Accordingly they
stayed in Honolulu when the All Serene stuck her chin out to take the
second round of her battering.
sailed on January 25. The starboard list was still apparent but became less
threatening as the weather abated. But February 20 was a gloomy day, a Saturday,
and as it drew to its weary close there came to the sailors a premonition that
their early dangers might be repeated. Such premonitions have frequently been
claimed among seafaring men, and whether or not one regards premonitions as a
kind of superstition, it remains one of the phenomena of sea history that they
are recorded and their fulfillment has often come about.
three on Sunday morning with a gale blowing and in cloud-dense darkness, the men
scrambled into the rigging and held on to the wet and slippery shrouds while
they put the All Serene under close-reefed foresail and topsail. She was
running before the wind at great speed; the sea was growing angrier. Sunday
dawned thick and foreboding; during the day violent squalls commenced. The ship
was still carrying too much canvas and the captain asked for the royal and
top-gallant yards and masts to be sent on deck.
by the wind and showered incessantly by the salt spray, the men struggled aloft.
They started to dismantle the yards and masts, and succeeded in getting some of
them down on deck. Then the sea began lashing over them in sheets and they had
to abandon the work. The deck load which had caused the list now became
menacing, but they found it impossible to jettison. Some of the spars, says an
observer of the tragedy, weighed many tons, and could not be moved. If the
lashings had been loosened in any attempt to start the work of re-stowing them,
the sea and the movement of the ship would have picked up these great logs and
used them at battering rams against the vessel and the men. As it was, the sea
did not lack her weapons. Two water tanks had been fastened abaft the wheel, and
one of these broke loose under the steady battering of the waves. Swept across
the deck, it crashed into the bulwark, making a large hole through which green,
foam-marbled water began to pour. Sailors tried to stave in the tanks and get
them over the side, but without avail. The floating tank was hurled against the
wheel, smashing it; and thus freed from the control of her rudder the ship swung
round to wind, pitching crazily.
lee deck load broke loose and began to batter about the ship. The captain, whose
wife and two children were aboard with him, frantically tried to ease the ship's
burden and lessen the wind's grip by deciding to cut away the mizzen mast. He
busied himself by taking axe in hand and laying the first blows to the stout
mast; but as he did so the All Serene gave a violent lurch and lay down
on her bearings in the water. She heeled until her masts were buried in the sea,
the weight of her canvas, heavy in the water, dragging her down.
ship was capsizing.
the fate of the vessel became evident all hands scrambled into the rigging. They
hung on, with chapped, cracked, wet hands, swinging in the chains, bruised and
battered by the icy water that hammered them constantly, threatening to sweep
them away to a death which, if it seemed no more certain, would have been at
least quicker. The storm had reached a pitch it seemed impossible to excel; but
Nature was determined to call her every battery into action. The ship's
superstructure was torn away. It broke up in the maelstrom, floating through and
about the derelict, until the waves hurled broken spars at the men who clung to
the wreck. Presently the ship heeled back a little so that the bottoms of her
masts cleared the water. Her starboard bulwark gradually cleared the sea. That
was all she could do to right herself. But she stayed there, poised between life
and destruction. Thirty-one people lashed themselves to the weather rail and
counted their number. Eight had been already drowned. To walk the deck was
impossible. Since the superstructure had been destroyed there was no shelter.
The miserable men caught driftwood from the sea and made a rough platform in the
rigging on which they spent a night of horror.
though possibly they were safe, they were not helped. They had neither water nor
provisions. In the daylight of the following morning they collected what tools
they could and, hanging on to the sloping, slippery woodwork they tried to break
through the deck. It was a great task under the circumstances, and it took them
all day. Driven by the thirst that was already tormenting them, they persevered.
They cheered throatily when the treasured water below deck came in sight; and
they were plunged into the depths of despair when they found that the soaking,
burrowing, penetrating storm had salted even the drinking water in the
Wednesday it rained. They caught the rainwater in their oilskins and drank that.
On the following day they decided to try and lighten the ship in the hope that
it would further recover balance. They spent all day filing through the anchor
chains. This labor was rewarded when the vessel came a little higher in the
water; but they were now thirsty again, and desperately hungry. It was now
obvious, too, that the ship would never see land again, and that if they wished
to escape they would have to do something for their preservation. They started
to build a punt- but despite the danger of their condition the beating they had
already taken made many of the men quite unwilling to work for their own
interesting to note, in the survivor's account published by Alexander W. Douglas
(Atlas Office, Hunter Street, Sydney, 1864) which is the only eye witness record
of this ordeal, the attitude of the men who had been through so much.
next day being the Sabbath some objected to work on that account, but the
well-timed representation of the extreme urgency of our case had the effect of
overcoming their scruples and they worked all day.”
following day, Monday, was too bad for any work to be done; the bow of the
vessel broke loose and opened up, “opening and shutting like a great gate.” But
they finally completed the building of their strange emergency vessel while the
All Serene was still afloat. Certainly their creation was not a boat, and
with equal certainty it was not a raft. It is described as an “open box, 24 feet
long, 8 feet broad, and 41 feet high at the sides and ends.” Furthermore, the
workers had not enough nails to fasten its planking securely, and it was “badly
caulked” so that it leaked alarmingly. They had no oars, nor time to make them,
and they tried to pull it with heavy scantling.
contraption was launched not at the will of the men, but of the ship. For as the
construction was nearing completion the foremast began to sway and they feared
that it would crash upon them, injuring them and destroying the “open box” in
which lay their only hope of survival. So the crazy punt was launched and they
clambered aboard, trusting themselves to it against the slowly abating sea.
story of the Essex has shown
already the depths of horror which have been plumbed by open boat voyagers; the
men in the punt were saved those extremities- but they went through all those
tortures common to open-boat voyages and raft drifts under similar
circumstances. Hunger and thirst began to prey on them; when morning after
morning dawned and found them still surrounded by merciless sea, without any
sign of sail or land, their spirits sank.
Despondency seized them. Men drank salt water and went mad. The punt
leaked so badly that it had to be constantly baled out. They had to give up
rowing and allow themselves to be carried by the sea and the current. The
ever-present scavenger of the deep, the shark, scented the odors of approaching
doom and a school of triangular fins began to bob in their wake constantly. The
horrible alternative of cannibalism did not dawn on their minds; but hunger
drove them to catch one shark which they ate raw. They scrambled for its blood,
which they drank.
Colorful amid the tragedy was Shylock. For among the passengers on the
All Serene was a Jew who carried a bag of gold, his personal fortune,
with him. There was among the crew an Italian seaman who discovered the Jew's
secret. During one night the Italian stole the Jew's gold and hid it in his
boots. When day dawned the Jew discovered his loss and raised an immediate
alarm. A search was made for the gold, and it was discovered where the Italian
hid it. Contumely was heaped upon the wretched Italian who was “willing to risk
his never dying soul for the transient possession of paltry gold,” as Mr.
from that little drama the punt drifted aimlessly; and when it finally came in
sight of land, low on the horizon, it was evening.
many days they had looked for that land and what was their thrill on seeing it
at last! Yet it seemed the cruelest stroke of fate that they should see it just
before darkness robbed them of the sight, and abandoned them to a night of
feverish wondering. They could do nothing but drift- and hope in a half-mad
agony that morning would find them still in sight of land. All night they fought
the fear that they might drift out of that saving sight.
was kind. Morning found them gradually nearing the shore, and all day long, in
hope and anxiety, they saw themselves drift closer. In the evening the captain
died, his eyes fixed on the land which might have restored him to life. In the
moonlight, after midnight, the punt ran on a reef.
what little strength remained in them the men jumped overboard, and fought their
way through the surf to the shore. Such was the agitation of that supreme moment
that the Jew left behind his bag of gold. A Portuguese sailor discovered it and,
in his turn, tried to annex it. Scotch Douglas had a low estimate of gold: “the
glittering dross awakened the cupidity of him who handled it,” he wrote and
half-unmasked the wretched villain as “a Portuguese sailor- he is now in this
city.” (i.e., Sydney).
Jew got his money back.
Weakened and starved and agitated by the relief of being ashore, the
survivors of this terrible storm, the victims of the racket that opened up
Plimsoll's indignation and led to the Merchant Shipping Act, staggered
into the island, and found waiting to welcome them, a Wesleyan missionary named
Nettleton. They were on the island of Kandavu, Fiji.
the punt twelve men had died. Of the nineteen who reached the shore one died two
days later from the effects of his ordeal. The loss of ship, cargo, and so many
lives, was far too great a price to pay for a badly-stowed load; yet so common
in those days of developing trade were such occurrences that unnumbered ships
and lives suffered similarly; tales of All Serene horror seemed to cause
no special eye-raising when their survivors, haggard and weary, told them to
of the “Fiery Star”
On the night of May 11, 1865,
the ship Dauntless had almost completed a long and tedious voyage from
London to New Zealand.
Those were days when the
southern seas were only half charted, when the vagaries of Australian weather
were partly known and not understood, and when rocky death-traps at all points
of the southern coasts were claiming a steady toll of victims. Fine days and
nights were peppered with expressions of anxiety, and every storm was a
realistic struggle between men and Nature.
Through the end of April and in
the first days of May the Dauntless worked her way through the Roaring
'Forties, passed King Island- the Graveyard of Australian Ships- in safety, and
nosed into the Tasman Sea to a succession of fine days and calm nights.
The tension of the voyage was
relaxing, and the nearness of New Zealand was beginning to cheer the ship's
company when, on May 11, fresh excitement stirred aboard. The lookout man, after
long nights of uneventful blackness, saw blue distress signals breaking the dark
sky, and passed the word down. The Dauntless shaped her course to answer
the signals, and heard the distress cannon firing.
As the Dauntless
approached the vessel in distress everybody on board could see that they were
rushing to the rescue of one of those most pathetic tragedies, fire at sea.
The Back Ball line had bought a
ship named the Comet, altered the name to Fiery Star, and set the
vessel to work on the colonial run. On May 21, 1865, Captain Yule cast off from
Brisbane and put the Fiery Star to sea with a bad cargo and a ship's
company of seventy-eight souls- there being thirty-six passengers aboard in
addition to officers and crew.
Captain Yule's cargo was not a
comfortable one for a wooden ship. It consisted of 2,041 bales and three bags of
wool, 134 casks of tallow, 15 bales two bags of cotton, 1,519 hides, 9,013
horns, and a number of less dangerous articles, such as cases of arrowroot.
The weather was squally, but
gave no difficulty to the sturdy Fiery Star on her first days out of
port. A good spirit prevailed among the passengers, the crew was contented, the
ship behaved well.
Like a bolt from the blue, on
April 19, a seaman reported a strong smell of fire in the fore-castle. Captain
Yule and Mr. Sargent, his first officer, immediately ordered the fore-hatch
removed, to send down and ascertain the spread of the fire. There was no need to
send men down. As soon as the hatch was lifted thick smoke rolled out in a
suffocating cloud. The lower hold was ablaze.
There could be little doubt as
to the cause. The greasy wool, loosely stowed, swayed as the ship tossed through
the gales, setting up a friction. There was little hope of putting out the fire.
The fumes that came up from the bowels of the vessel showed clearly that the
fire had already caught the tallow and with this inflammable cargo burning
fiercely in a wooden hull, the Fiery Star was almost certainly lost.
Yule was not, however, the man
to give up without a struggle. The hatches were battened down to smother the
blaze as far as possible. All hands were called immediately to man the pumps,
and water was thrown on the hatches.
All through the night the crew
struggled in this way, without effect. The heat below deck became so intense
that the passengers (most of whom were women) were forced to abandon the cabins.
Through the night they huddled together on the deck, sleeplessly watching the
gallant tussle against the mounting fire.
The morning of April 20 found
the crew without hope. The smell of burning wool had become insufferable, and in
spite of a good breeze fumes hung about the ship choking the men and women,
whose eyes, already heavy with sleeplessness, were smarting from the acrid
Captain Yule considered the
position fully. No flame had been seen, but it was sufficiently in evidence
through the rapidly increasing smoke and smell. Knowing the nature of his cargo,
he had the night's wasted work to confirm his first impression- that
fire-fighting was hopeless. He calculated the ship's position. She had stood at
46 degrees 10 minutes latitude and 170 degrees west longitude when the fire was
reported, and had not made great headway since. Chatham Island was more than
four hundred miles away; New Zealand's rocky coast lay something less than a
hundred miles northward. Stewart Island and Auckland Island were even closer,
but to take refuge on them was to lessen the chances of rescue. They were off
shipping lines and uninhabited.
It was on Chatham Island that
Yule pinned his hopes when he decided to abandon ship. Yet he was still
pondering, as a desperate man will, whether by any freak of chance they might
make at least Chatham Island in the Fiery Star when, at six o'clock in
the evening, the first red tongues of flame burst mockingly through the port
Dreadful as was the sight, it
finished any vain hopes the captain might have entertained.
An earlier occurrence which had
not been taken very seriously when it happened suddenly assumed grave
proportions. Since leaving Brisbane the Fiery Star had lost two lifeboats
in a squall on the 17th of the month- possibly in the very squall
that started the friction which led to the fire. Captain Yule's problem was,
therefore, to fit his company of seventy-eight people into four small
The passengers were put into the
boats-“women and children first”- but one steerage passenger, a Mr. Omand, was
odd man out. All the boats were filled. Still on the burning ship were Omand,
the first mate, Mr. Sargent, three members of the crew, and thirteen apprentice
boys. The rest of the crew were at the oars of the small boats; Captain Yule was
forced to take charge of the boats for the safety of the passengers.
A suggestion was put forward
that those remaining on the fire-ship should make a raft, climb on to it, and
share the journey of the boats. But Sargent said that he was prepared to stick
to the Fiery Star in a last desperate bid to save her, if the men who
were unable to get place in the boats would stay with him. Inspired by the
mate's courage, they all agreed- a decision for which they were later to be
thankful; to which, in fact, they owed their lives.
Darkness had fallen. The ship
was lit by the ruddy glow of the flames that now spurted continuously from the
burnt-through bow. Captain Yule ordered the boats away from the ship, and
promised to stand by through the night, in case any sudden spread of fire should
make Sargent's plan impossible.
Desperately the skeleton crew
worked, putting in order a steam pump with which the ship was fitted, and
pouring continuous streams of water into the holds. All night they endeavored to
put out the grim light by which they worked. The coming dawn brought a double
disappointment: the fire was still raging, the boats were out of sight.
Then it was that Sargent and his
men realised fully that their only hope of salvation lay between a burning ship
and a clumsy raft. Anticipating that the fire might at any moment break out with
renewed fury to drive them completely from the hulk, the fighters split into two
crews, one of which continued the struggle against the flames while the other
built a raft.
The raft ready on deck, to be
launched when it became necessary, the men were able to work with a free mind,
knowing that they had escape from death by fire, even if it were to the agonies
of being abandoned with very little food and water on an open and desolate sea
at the beginning of the storm-season.
And here they seemed to reach a
stalemate. Day after day and night after night they fought the flames. The fire,
whatever it was doing below deck, showed no outward sign of becoming worse. But
it was all too evident that they were not gaining on it. They were keeping the
ship afloat by a desperate effort of will and work, doing with short snatches of
broken sleep and insufficient food. The fire was not making any advance- nor
Night after night a ruddy glow
lit the sky and the surrounding sea with a glare which, lurid and fierce though
it was, could not be seen far enough away to attract attention.
Sargent had the signal gun
removed to the safest part of the ship, and stationed a man to fire rockets and
signals at the first sign of a possible rescuer.
The desperate men lost count of
time; but as they fought what was to be an epic battle of the sea, hours turned
to days and days to weeks. Hope and despair chased each other as night followed
day and day the night; and in the back of all minds was the hope that Captain
Yule's little boats would either fall in with a merchantman which would come to
their rescue, or would land on the New Zealand coast in a place whence a rescue
ship could be sent.
When the exhausted men of the
Fiery Star saw the lights of the Dauntless, the fire was
temporarily smouldering, the flames were not intense. Immediately danger lights
were fired, and the signal cannon set off. The men paused in their struggle to
watch the floating lights.
In an agony of uncertainty they
saw the lights bobbing here and there, slowly drawing nearer; and when it became
certain that the Dauntless had understood the position and was really
bringing help, they abandoned their fire-fighting, and standing on the scorched
deck cheered as best a band of hoarse and exhausted men can.
The fire stirred into new life,
and flames again lit the water. The Dauntless hove to and sent boats
Never did such a band of men
stand on a ship's deck as the sixteen who were ranged before the captain of the
Dauntless when those boats returned to their ship. Weary beyond sleeping,
with long growth of beard on faces, blackened with soot and sweat, with arms and
backs blistered from the sun, and bodies wasted from overwork and
under-nourishment, they were a pitiful crowd of men indeed.
And a lucky crowd. It seemed that the fire in the bowels of the Fiery Star had been playing with its intended victims for three weeks as cat plays with mouse, and lashed itself to sudden fury on that night of May 11 when the Dauntless arrived.
Angry at missing its human
victims, the fire suddenly mastered the ship. Fierce tongues of flame thrust
through the decks and through wooden sides charred with the constant heat. The
survivors stood on their rescue ship and watched the Fiery Star cloaked
in flame. They watched the dark masts gilded with the ruddy light, burst into
columns of flame, bend like matches, and snap with a report like a cannon to
fall hissing into the sea. One after another the masts went down. The
superstructure was a glowing skeleton, the hull a sheet of flame. Within a few
hours while the Dauntless watched, the Fiery Star burnt to the
waterline, and plunged slowly, hissing and seething with steam and smoke, into
When the Dauntless moved
away a few blackened spars and twisted pieces of wood swayed idly in the waves,
quickly perishable monuments of one of the greatest fire-fighting epics of the
The Dauntless carried
with it every man who bravely agreed to stand by Sargent, in the fight. Sargent
himself, steerage passenger Omand, three seamen and thirteen apprentices. The
Dauntless came into Auckland harbor on May 15, four days after the
rescue, to bring first, news of the Fiery Star's tragedy to the world.
For Captain Yule had not yet been discovered.
Immediately on receiving the
news the commander of H.M.S. Brisk put to sea in the hope of picking up
the boats. It combed the sea to southward, going to Chatham Island and beyond,
but the people who put off in the boats were never found. All that remained of
the Fiery Star and its company were the gallant men who stayed to face
what appeared to be certain death. The explanation was adopted that gales which
sprang up soon after the Fiery Star was abandoned had taken the escapees
from the fire as victims of the water.
Auckland was stirred by the
gallantry of the survivors, and marked its appreciation by a public meeting
which presented to Sargent a proud trophy- a testimonial of his gallant efforts
to save the ship.
The Australian Encyclopedia's
summary of the Fiery Star fatality is at fault at one point and obscure
in another. It sets down the date of the fire as: “took fire April 20, 1865.”
Actual accounts of the day show that the fire was detected on the
19th, had then been in progress some time, and that the vessel was
abandoned by Captain Yule at 6 p.m. on the 20th. The Encyclopedia
adds that “the Chief Officer, four seamen and thirteen apprentices” fought the
fire: the “four seamen” were actually Mr. Omand, the passenger, and three
members of the crew. These are small points; but to correct them now may save
On February 7, 1872, says a
historical record, the Government ship Basilisk boarded the forty-ton
schooner, Peri, as it rolled in the swell of the tropical Pacific off
Rockingham Bay, on the Queensland coast. The journal of Captain Moresby of the
Basilisk says the event took place on February 5, 1871.
Much more important than the
actual date (though if Captain Moresby were a clear-minded man his own date
might naturally be taken as the correct one) is the condition in which the
Peri was found. In the first place, she was in a filthy condition. She
was waterlogged, with five feet of sea-water in the hold. About her decks
fourteen Solomon Islanders were starving to death, and there were three black
corpses. There were no white men aboard. The sails were bent and the helm was
lashed on a course. Her identity was not known until, by dint of hard scrubbing
at her head boards, the name Peri became distinguishable.
The story of this strange and
deplorable vessel was briefly told in the Illustrated Sydney News of
March 19, 1872; its inaccuracies are not a tribute to the journalism of the day.
This account claims that Mr. Sheridan, police magistrate of Cardwell,
Queensland, went aboard the Peri with a Polynesian interpreter, but the
interpreter could not make himself understood to the islanders.
Captain Moresby, however, tells
a different story. He says that there were originally 80 islanders on the
Peri, men who had been purchased from another “blackbirder,” the
Nukulow, for £10 to £15 a head, tribesmen from the Rewa River, Fiji, who
were destined, when captured, to be taken to other Fijian islands to work for
pioneer planters there (these were the days of the notorious Stewart and men of
his ilk in the then primitive Fiji Islands). After the sale was completed and
the islanders were transshipped to the Peri, they were starved. Believing
that they were to be treated as “indented” laborers, and not as slaves, the
colored men asked for food. A little rice was given them in answer to this
request, but there was no attempt made to be nice about the giving of it. The
islanders found the ration insufficient for their needs and asked for more. One
of the white crew came up to the cook, snatched a bowl of half-cooked rice from
him, and threw it into the sea in full view of the natives.
“If you ask for food again you
will go the same way!” he stormed, and left them.
But the white man was
The islanders, knowing only
their own laws of retaliation, driven by hunger and anger, rushed forward,
grabbed the man, and heaved him after the rice. Then, to let the full force of
their anger expend itself, they threw the other two white men after the first,
and sat down to grin over the speed and efficiency of the black man's
But there was another kind of
twist they did not anticipate, a terrible, automatic retaliation which cannot be
called “justice” or “punishment,” but is simply the working of a blind fate. In
the heat of their anger they did not recall a most significant factor. Since
childhood these dark-skinned children of the sun had been accustomed to water-
to swimming and diving and fishing and sailing their canoes. Professor
Henderson's excellent book on the Polynesians tells how much at home they were
at sea in open canoes; how they could sail for hundreds of miles from one island
to another without losing their way; how they knew every current and every wind
that blew; how they had their own crude navigating instruments made from coconut
Yes, these islanders were as
much at home in the water as they were on the land- on their own conditions. But
they were at sea now in a strange craft. The Peri was a schooner and the
handling of a schooner was quite beyond them. They had no paddles; the schooner
had a bewildering maze of ropes and pulleys and canvas, and it meant no more to
them than the use of fish knives and fingerbowls at a cannibal feast.
So the Fijians drifted hither
and yon on the open sea, unable to control the strange, big, un-wieldy, white
man's ship at all, gradually experiencing the far keener pangs of hunger than
those they had known under the cruel white masters, gradually dying of
starvation. When the Basilisk found them they were in a pitiful state of
weakness and emaciation. The fate of the Peri from this point overlaps
with that of another vessel, the Maria.
The Peri was one of many
vessels discovered carrying on the same trade- exploiting the idea which Ben
Boyd conceived when he brought the first natives from the New Hebrides to work
on his stations in the Monaro- the idea which was grabbed and extended to
Queensland on the pretext that it was not a “white man's” country and that only
colored men could do the work: but at a pitiful fraction of the pay necessary to
keep white laborers! The local name for this particular chapter in Australian
history is “blackbirding,” and men like the notorious “Bully” Hayes are
associated with it. The Government, foreseeing a devastating development of the
position, prepared legislation; the pioneers of the north to a large extent
fought the matter out, advancing through the press specious arguments as to why
a slave trade should be permitted. The Russian pioneer of New Guinea, Nicolai
Nicolaevitch Miklouho-Maclay, saw evidences of the trade spreading in that
territory, and advised both the Dutch Government and Sir Arthur Gordon, British
High Commissioner of the Western Pacific, of the potential dangers.
“De retour de mon second voyage
en Nouvelle Guinea j’ai eu l’honneur en automne 1874 de presenter a son
Excellence, M. le Gouverneur-General James Loudon une note sur l’etat social et
politique de ces contrees. Cette lettre mentionnait en autre l’existence d’une
veritable traite d’esclaves que l’on exporte de la Nouvelle Guinea, et dont les
Isles Ceram Laut sont le depot…” he wrote.
Sir Arthur Gordon assured him, "I agree (that the trade
should be suppressed)…I also agree as to the importance of recognising titles to
land of discouraging the importation of spirits and firearms…” But while there
was fairly general agreement about the evils of traffic in spirits, firearms,
and slaves, no definite action was taken. Finally, however, the Government
passed timely legislation which altered affairs considerably. The
Anti-Kidnapping Act put an end to the lawless grabbing and ill-treating of
islanders, hundreds of whom worked for less than a pittance on the Queensland
While the story of the
Peri instances the brutal treatment meted out to the unfortunate natives,
another encounter of the Basilisk with small schooners gives the rest of
the bad story of blackbirding. When this complementary half
In 1873 the Basilisk, on its way to
continue explorations of the southern coast of New Guinea, ran into two other
vessels. The Basilisk herself was of 1031 tons, an auxiliary which was
rigged for sail and also fitted with a 400 horsepower engine and paddlewheels.
She was carrying five guns, a personnel of 178 officers and men, and was still
under Moresby's command.
On December 8, 1872, she left Sydney, having
finalised the affaire Peri. She called at Cardwell on the
Queensland coast, and three days later, on January 5, 1873, she fell in with two
small schooners which scurried for safety. A brilliant sea-race followed in
which the Basilisk, with her superior power, quickly overhauled the
schooner Melanie. She then pursued and caught up with the
Challenge. Both vessels, when they realised they were being overtaken by
the paddle steamer, hove to without resistance, and the Basilisk took
them in charge.
Below decks the Melanie was found to have 55 islanders, the
Challenge 33. Both vessels had been warned by the Marquis of Normanby
himself that the Anti-Kidnapping Act was coming into operation, so that they had
nobody but themselves to blame when they were caught red-handed in a flagrant
disregard for the new legislation. The actual situation demanded, however, that
each of the 88 natives on board be subject to separate inquiry as to the
circumstances under which he came aboard the blackbirders- a long business
indeed, and the Basilisk accordingly ordered the vessels to anchor off
Fitzroy Island. Within a short time the Basilisk caught another ship, the
Crishna, which was also ordered to anchorage.
The story told in the journal of
Captain John Moresby is typical of the methods used by the blackbirders, and
represents the entire trade of the time.
Fourteen of the natives then in
the Melanie had worked for a period of between four and six years,
receiving no wages nor any form of remuneration. Necessary clothing, sufficient
food to keep them healthy for their work, and chewing tobacco, was all that was
given them over the entire period.
Fourteen other natives had undergone similar treatment for periods of three to four years. One of them, luckiest of an unlucky bunch, had been victimized for only a year.
Among the islanders on the
Melanie were seventeen who had been shipped by another vessel and
transferred to the captive ship later. These too, had been kept without an
agreement. The other nine were on the books as being legally shipped.
Commentators on blackbirding practice point out that it was quite a common
practice to book a few men and ship, in addition, a large human cargo of
illegally carried kanakas, the apparent honesty of having booked legally some of
the men being a sufficient blind, the blackbirders, thought, to put them beyond
Most of the natives had gone
voluntarily aboard the Melanie- which is a nice way of saying that they
had been tricked. The natives themselves said so in pidgin.
“Captain gammon me- say I go
back- I never go back.”
Such was the testimony of one
native to Captain Moresby. It was simple but damning evidence, and it was
exactly the evidence of the others, for one after another told the same
pitifully simple story, “Captain gammon me.” It was sufficient description of
what the captain had done in each of the seven cases. The men had been lured
aboard on one pretext or another, and once on deck had been overpowered and
thrown into the hold. The seven odd cases were those of men who, refusing the
bait thrown out to lure them aboard the ship, had been violently kidnapped on
the island and then taken aboard against their will.
There were, apparently, other
ways as well of taking kanakas into the unwholesome trade that then threatened
Australia. One native told how he had been on a reef when the schooner had come
past, and a party of sailors had put off and seized him, carrying him aboard and
into slavery. Two others had been sailing at sea in a canoe- the Melanie
had run it down, smashing it and spilling the natives into the water. They had
then been “rescued” and added to the slaves-to-be.
The Melanie's crew, as a
measure of self-protection, had drafted an agreement with certain natives. The
agreement even mentioned wages, and arranged for certain natives to act as
pearl-shellers, but it was not acceptable evidence of honesty of purpose on the
part of the Melanie's men, for it had never been put into operation.
Challenge and Crishna were sent to Sydney as prize ships, and
condemned. But the slave-traders had no idea of being so easily beaten- nothing
is so tenacious as crime. A court case was rigged out of the events, and it was
fought all the way to the Privy Council. At this highest court of Empire appeal,
amazingly enough, they won their case! The defence was simply that the
Anti-Kidnapping Act had not been passed when those natives were taken aboard-
therefore they had not actually broken the law at the time of taking on those
natives. That defence was accepted, nothing could be done about it, the
Melanie and the Challenge went free. The Crishna, however,
was sold for £3,900, half of which sum the Government claimed as a fine, and the
balance of which was eaten up in legal expenses over the Crishna's
The Anti-Kidnapping Act referred
to, under which the Melanie and the Challenge were taken in control, was the
death blow to what might easily have been a terrible stain on Australia's
escutcheon. The foundations of a savage slave trade were already laid; and it
was owing to the foresight of the men of the time that the thing was nipped in
Actually, it was the enslaving
of kanakas that they aimed to stop. Their employment, and their recruiting from
islands continued, but under very different circumstances. Recruiting vessels
carried a Government official, who signed natives up at a reasonable agreement;
the recruits were given “trade” (beads, bolts of cloth, tomahawks, knives, etc.)
when they made the agreement, their chiefs in the tribal grounds were recognised
with presents, and an arrangement to pay them for their labor was properly drawn
The Young Dick
represented the recruiting vessel as opposed to the blackbirder. Hers was not
the story of a blackbirder who met with his fate, but of a recruiter which met
sad and drastic misfortune. It will be discovered in that story that the
Government officer was engaged in actually signing an agreement with a native at
the time of his murder; and when his body was later found, the paper,
bloodstained, was spread on the desk before him.
This does not mean that all
official recruiters were “lily white”- but their sins are another and a
is something about Dame Fortune maybe it is her “figure”- which makes her as
perennially attractive as a show girl, hence she has always a long, long queue
of suitors, each of whom is certain that, sooner or later, he will enjoy her
embrace. She must be a singularly delightful wench, for none of her lovers
counts any work too hard or any burden too great to win her. And this is not
Particularly does this serious piece of moral philosophy apply to the
crew of the Maria, and thereby hangs the tale.
in the 1870s the Maria had already seen twenty years of knocking about
the seven seas, finally being shelved on to the Newcastle (New South Wales) coal
trade, and described as “a leaky and ill-found craft- totally unseaworthy.” She
was a brig of 167-ton burthen, in respect to cargo, and of incalculable burden
in respect to anything else; and when she was bought by sixty-seven suitors of
Dame Fortune, who subscribed £10 each for the purpose, her captain gave her one
long, piercing glance, and refused to take her to sea.
No sane man would have wanted to take her to sea, anyhow. But the
sixty-seven (or, according to Jeffery seventy-five) men who bought her were
blinded by the above- mentioned peroxide glint of Fortune, and believed that she
was good enough to take them as far as New Guinea, then Australia's El Dorado;
for it was gold they sought. Nothing can make a man so determined as the scent
of gold, and when the captain turned down his job, a Mr. Stratman, who had been
signed on as first mate, stepped readily enough into the vacant shoes. Although
general opinion censored Stratman as “unfit to command,” the gold-seekers were
satisfied; but another obstacle presented itself when the Customs Department
refused to give clearance to the Maria. That small hitch was soon
untangled, however, and on January 25, 1872, she cleared Port Jackson, bound for
the Promising Land of the north.
Two unusual points of divergence
occur in the records of what happened here. Mr. R. L. Jack, in his complete and
accurate work, Northmost Australia, gives the number of souls aboard as
65, and consistently throughout his notes, uses the date 1871; but Mr. Cumbrae
Stewart read a paper before the Queensland Historical Society some years ago in
which he numbered a ship's complement of 75, and gave the date as 1872. As one
of the Maria's survivors was present when Mr. Stewart read his paper, and
he had made personal contact with others, his details may be preferable, and are
confirmed by the date given in the history of the investigation ship
Basilisk, which enters into the story, and which completed its trip in
1872, the time when the Maria's adventure occurred.
The voyage was uneventful at
first- how many fatal voyages from the Bounty to the Waratah
commenced pleasantly! - and the Maria passed Solitary Islands on February
1; sighted Cooktown on February 13, and sailed into a north-west monsoon on the
same day. The maintop-gallant mast was rotten; and on the afternoon of the
13th it went over the side; later on the same fateful day a heavy sea
stove in eight or nine feet of bulwark. These minor damages were righted, and
even then the voyage was continued; but the bad weather held, and on the
17th a heavy sea carried away the tiller. Repair was effected with
some difficulty, but the ship's condition had grown so serious by now that it
was decided to abandon the trip and make for Moreton Bay.
Fate began to play its deadly
trumps quickly now. No sooner had the vessel been put about than the wind
changed; the going was difficult, and Stratman changed his course to try and
make Cleveland Bay. Evidently by this time he was seriously alarmed.
It could hardly be said that the
Maria was sailing now- she was drifting, almost helpless; and when a
break in the Barrier Reef was sighted, an effort was made to run the vessel
through, and, wonderful to relate, was successful.
On the night of February 25 the
growing concern of those aboard eased; for the Barrier was passed, and land was
not far away. But before the light of the 26th dawned, the Maria ran upon
Bramble Reef, on the south side of Rockhampton Bay.
Stratman immediately selected the largest boat which the brig carried, loaded it with a crew of six, although it had capacity for twenty, and made for the shore before daylight. It has been charitably said that he crept away from the wreck in this fashion to avoid panic; but more hardheaded critics believe that if anything would cause panic on a helpless ship it would be the mysterious absence of its skipper, and charge Stratman with having taken sufficient men to get him safely ashore, and deserted.
His pretence to the six men he
selected was that he would make with them for Cardwell, some 30 miles to the
west of the wreck; but they landed at Tam o’ Shanter Point, drew the boat up
among the bushes which skirted the shore, and started to walk along the coast to
Almost immediately a party of
blacks showed up. They left no doubt as to their intentions. Soon Stratman and
three of his men were sprawled lifeless and bloody on the sand, and the three
who had managed to escape a barbarous end were trembling in concealment. After
the brutal murder they had witnessed, they were frightened to show themselves
again in the daylight, and after travelling at night for some time (seven
nights, according to the Australian Encyclopedia) they arrived at the settlement
and told their story.
The Basilisk has already
been mentioned. She was a Government investigation vessel of 1031 tons, and had
left Sydney ten days before the Maria to chart the Cape York Coast. Not
far from the scene of the Maria's wreck the Basilisk had run
across the Peri, a small fore-and-aft schooner in the “blackbirding”
game, had captured it and sent it back to Cardwell under the direction of Mr.
Sabben, navigating-lieutenant. He took over the Peri on February 9, and
arrived in Cardwell in time to receive the three derelicts from the Maria
and to hear their adventure.
By this coincidence the tragedy
was quickly passed on to Captain Moresby of the Basilisk, and he sent
Sabben on a second unexpected expedition, to take a gig to Tam o' Shanter
Sabben took the three
Maria survivors, two of the Basilisk's men, and six volunteers,
and true to the story he had heard, found the Maria's boat drawn up in
the scrub. The rescue party had been without food for twelve hours, and was just
preparing a meal on the beach when, without warning a crowd of about 120 natives
sprang from the mangrove bushes and ran yelling across the beach, waving their
weapons. After a serious hand-to-hand encounter the white men succeeded in
felling a number of the blacks: the others, surprised at the resistance of so
small a party, fell back and retired. The beach was ploughed up by the struggle,
and was strewn with bodies. It was found that eight blacks had been killed;
eight more had been seriously wounded. Sabben at once secured the Maria's
boat from its hiding place, and attaching it to the gig returned to
In the meantime Mr. F. Brindsley
Sheridan, police magistrate at the settlement, had chartered the small steamer
Tinonee and had gone in search of the wreck of the Maria. By the
time he reached Bramble Reef, however, nothing was to be seen of the brig. Even
the tips of its masts had disappeared from view, and nothing in the
spume-flecked blue water suggested this as the graveyard of a tottering ship and
What then had happened to the
remaining 68 men of the Maria's ill-fated company?
When the story finally came to
light it appeared that they, too, had been caught in sanguinary toils. When the
absence of the captain was discovered, the mate had ordered the construction of
two rafts. These had been completed and duly launched; hardly had they been
found seaworthy when the ship heeled over and slipped from her resting-place on
her reef, sinking beneath the waves as far as her lower yards.
The larger of the two rafts had
been able to accommodate 13 men, the smaller 12. Of the other unfortunates, some
crowded into one of the two remaining boats and rowed in quest of the other,
which had come adrift. The terror-stricken residue clung to the rigging of the
ship. The second boat recovered, it, too, was filled with men, and rafts and
boats made towards the land which was 15 miles away. Nine men were left clinging
to the rigging: when the Maria later sank to her last resting-place, she
took them with her.
The boats were fortunate in
making land safely, and some five days later the occupants, foot-weary but safe,
arrived in Cardwell.
In the following six days
nothing further was done. A number of the disillusioned suitors of Fortune were
waiting in Cardwell for the arrival of the Basilisk. When that vessel
arrived, Mr. Brindsley Sheridan at once went aboard and claimed Captain
Moresby's assistance in punishing the natives along the coast for the murder of
Stratman and his three comrades. Sheridan feared that Cardwell itself would
sooner or later be threatened by these natives, and was anxious to safeguard his
settlement as well as to mete out justice. Fourteen of the Basilisk's men
were detailed with a detachment of native troopers. Lieutenant Francis Hayter
led the marines; Sergeant Johnstone led the black police. They surprised the
natives' camp before daylight, and the bloody slaughter that ensued became a
Parliamentary matter before that grim chapter in Queensland's early history was
Captain Moresby, in the
meantime, took his vessel in search of the rafts which had become separated from
the two boats. At Cooper's Point he found eight naked and emaciated white men,
all who were alive of the 13 on the larger raft. Their story was the terrible
chronicle to be expected from such circumstances. They had lost their only oar,
and later the sail. Two men went mad; two were drowned; a third man commenced to
rave, and died. When they landed on the beach they were exhausted, and fell in
with a party of natives, who, marvelously, were friendly and had allowed them to
share the native gunyahs.
These unfortunates were
discovered on March 12. On the same day, Lieutenant Sydney Smith, in the
Basilisk's cutter, found the survivors of the smaller raft on the beach
six miles further north. Two bodies were found; two days later
In the meantime the terrible
news of the fate of the Maria had been carried to Sydney, and the
Governor Blackall had been sent north to pick up the survivors. It left
Sydney on March 10, and as soon as it arrived in Cardwell the survivors were
Of the 75 souls who originally
sailed in the Maria only 40 remained. According to R. L. Jack's
computation there were only 34. But Jeffery makes up the following list: 12
drowned on the wreck; 14 killed by blacks; 9 drowned off rafts- total survivors,
Perhaps in no other instance has
such a trail of misery and bloodshed followed any search for Australian gold.
From the first change of weather the rotten little Maria heaped
misadventure and shipwreck, selfishness and desperation, struggle and murder, in
a ghastly heap of grisly remembrances.
on the Mast
Sailors have their own ideas
about ships. You may hear them casually recalling a vessel they know and, “She's
a nice ship to sail in,” they will tell you, quite sincerely; but then again
they may say, “I never liked her.” And they mean that they did not like the ship
in question. “Superstition,” such sentiments were called; they were very
prevalent in the old days, in sail days. Even today they survive, and the belief
in bad ships survives. Yet no shipwright designs a bad ship, no shipyard builds
one, no country registers a ship that seems likely to be unsafe. But safety is
not always the question: and some ships are harder to handle than others- but
that is equally true of some automobiles.
There is in the story of
Australia's coast of tragedy a notorious vessel of this class- a genuine trouble
ship which seemed to have ill fortune built into it like one of the permanent
strakes of its structure. It was the Young Dick. When Captain Rogers took
her out of Brisbane on April 7, 1886, he was engaged in a trade which seemed to
hold little enough danger, if any, and which was the safe and ordinary course of
livelihood to many mariners in Australian waters in the 1870s and 1880s. This
means of livelihood was the recruiting of kanaka labor for the Queensland
canefields, as distinct from blackbirding.
Labor recruiting is a two-part
story in Australian history. There is the “blackbirding”- sordid kidnapping of
blacks from their island home, their starvation and ill-treatment during
transport, and their slavery when they reached their destination and were
employed- the kind of trade in which the Peri, Melanie, Challenge, Crishna
were engaged. But there was the legitimate importation of black labor, the
legal and fairly-conducted recruiting of natives “indented” under Government
supervision, offering contracts to natives who were willing to leave their
village and work, on a stipulated time limit and a fixed scale of payment.
“Bully” Hayes and those of his ilk belonged to the former: they were the
blackbirders. The latter class included Captain Rogers of the Young Dick,
a vessel which sailed with a Government representative, a Mr. Popham, aboard to
supervise the recruiting of the kanakas. There were aboard as well a man named
Marr, first officer of the ship, Hornidge, second mate, and a crew of whites
including a seaman named Crittenden who was cast for an important role in the
unsuspected drama which lay ahead of the 162-ton vessel.
On April 24 the Young
Dick hove to off the now world-renowned, then almost unknown, island of
Guadalcanal, in the Solomons- an island which has more than one link with the
history of Australian ships. On May 1 arrangements were made for six labor
recruits from the village of Mabo to be taken aboard and on May 2 two more
natives were recruited. The chief of the village was paid (as the law demanded)
for the services of those members of his tribe who expressed themselves as
willing to sail away to work in a strange land.
Then news came aboard the
Young Dick that some bush natives had come down to the coast- news which
seemed to provide an excellent promise of speeding up the enlistments which had
hitherto been slow.
On the morning of the following
day, May 3, Hornidge took two boats ashore. An interpreter and an old man met
him and invited him up to the village, which was exactly what Hornidge expected.
He left his men in charge of the boats, and with the interpreter, he started on
the pleasant and picturesque walk.
Under the graceful palms, while Hornidge was contemplating the beauty of the wild and fertile island, the interpreter turned without warning and struck with a hatchet. Taken unawares, Hornidge went down, but before the death-blow could be dealt he was on his feet again, and struggling for his life. A second blow from the treacherous native's bloody hatchet sent him down again, but he managed a second time to gain his feet, to break free from the assassin, and to run, screaming and streaming blood, to the boats.
At Port Adams on May 6 the
little patrol vessel R.M.S. Opal found the Young Dick. Lieutenant
Wright of the Opal came aboard the labor ship, examined the ship's papers
and found them all in order, heard the story of the treacherous attack on the
second mate, and took him back on board the Opal for medical attention.
Wright had a further duty to do- and that was to make the white man's justice,
the “eye for an eye” in a civilised sense, plain to the dark-skinned
hatchet-wielder of the Solomons. Accordingly he towed the Young Dick back
to the mouth of the river, landed on Guadalcanal, and demanded of the natives
that the interpreter and the old man (believed to be implicated together in the
treachery) be delivered to him for punishment.
To this demand an unsatisfactory
reply was received; so the Opal stripped the covers from the breeches of
her guns, heated up her firing pins, and slapped nineteen cannon balls into the
village of Mabo. Wright realised that, however just this might seem to anybody,
the wrecking of a village and the agonizing death of many villagers, could do no
more than arouse bitter resentment without being justified either morally or by
results: so the nineteen cannon balls that crashed ashore in this first
bombardment of Guadalcanal did damage in the total of bringing down one coconut
tree, making 18 holes (not suitable for golf) in the ground, and striking stark
terror into the hearts of the natives. But nobody was hurt, either in his person
or property. Having given the natives this really terrifying lesson, the Opal
felt that it had made a lasting impression. Accordingly the Opal took
Hornidge permanently aboard (he had been back on the Young Dick for a few
days) and left the islands. Thanks to this Hornidge recovered from his wounds.
Thanks to this, too, he also escaped a very nasty experience; for on May 11 the
Young Dick was back at the recruiting work on Malaita's east coast when a
small boat from the ship was showered with spears.
On May 20 the big show came off,
the event of which the two previous mishaps had been but mild foretastes. The
Young Dick lay at anchor in Sinerago Bay while Captain Rogers took two
small boats along the bay leaving first officer Marr in charge of the ship. Marr
saw the captain's boats disappear round a rocky point, and shortly afterwards
was hailed by a canoe which had brought six natives off from the shore to tell
him there was a boy on the beach who wanted to go to Queensland.
“Fetch the boy aboard,” Marr
said to the natives, “and bring the king of the tribe.” In the captain's absence
he was willing to complete the deal on the ship- which he could do without
deserting his post of duty.
The natives accepted the idea,
and the boy and the chief duly arrived on board. While Popham, the Government
agent, spoke to the boy about the conditions of labor in Queensland, the native
king went with Marr to the store room to select the goods that would pay for the
boy's services- this was done, not instead of paying the boy, but as an,
additional tribute to the chief, recognising his right as the boy's ruler and
incidentally keeping most chiefs in a receptive frame of mind for future
Everybody aboard was thus
peacefully engaged when it was suddenly recognised that the vessel was
surrounded by native canoes-dozens of canoes, each one packed with natives, many
of whom climbed aboard and came along the deck carrying bundles of native
fruits, as though they had come to trade. But the king, who was standing in the
door of the store room talking to Marr, suddenly turned and gave a signal to his
subjects. From the innocent-looking bundles of vegetables there appeared, as if
by magic, axes and clubs, which the natives waved as they rushed forward yelling
The king himself drew a tomahawk
from the folds of his robe and swung it at Marr; but the first mate was quick.
He drew a revolver and emptied it into the royal body. Then, sheltered in the
doorway of the cabin, he picked off the wild islanders who rushed forward.
Several of them fell. Others leaped over the bodies of their fallen friends and
pressed the attack.
Marr's revolver was empty, but
he managed to get a Snider rifle from the store room and with it, still standing
in the doorway, he continued to fire into the seething welter of black bodies
which twisted and cavorted over the now bloodstained deck. The cook and the
carpenter, caught unarmed, were being hacked to pieces in his sight, and he was
powerless to help them. Sounds behind him made him glance over his shoulder to
see that the store room was being invaded by natives who were trying to climb
through a porthole. He had only one course of action- to secure his back by
locking himself in the store room, and to protect the porthole with a
When the attack began Mr.
Popham, having interviewed the decoy recruit, was about to fill in the necessary
form when natives burst into the cabin, battered him with an axe, and seeing him
go down unconscious they proceeded to mutilate his face and body with their
axes. Out on the deck the sailmaker was meeting a similar fate.
The seaman named Crittenden,
already specially mentioned as a leading actor in this drama of savagery, had
been asleep in the forecastle. Hearing the noise he rushed on deck in a singlet,
and seeing the commotion just as two of the natives saw him, he turned and beat
a retreat. The natives grabbed him by the singlet and held on and that was the
salvation of Crittenden and of the ship. For the singlet tore free, and while
the blacks held the remnants of the tattered garment in their hands the naked
sailor made good his return to the forecastle. Hastily he dragged on a pair of
trousers, filled the pockets with bullets, and picked up a rifle.
Firing to clear a path before
him he scattered the natives and managed to reach the foot of the foretopmast.
He climbed quickly up the ratlines and nestled in the foretopsail yards. Thence
he sniped the natives. The couple who tried to follow him up the rigging crashed
to their death. Then Crittenden settled down to serious work. Every bullet he
fired told the story of a native's death. The natives began to realise what was
being done to their number. They had a special fear for the white devil in the
rigging because he was well beyond their reach, yet doing deadly damage to them.
They had no spears, having come aboard without a weapon so difficult to conceal.
Superstitious fear, combined with the realization that they could do nothing to
meet the new menace, got the better of them. Fifteen natives had become victims
of Crittenden's marksmanship before they turned and fled over the side,
The deck was a shambles.
Grotesquely postured dead, bodies strewed it. It was slippery with blood. The
wood was splintered with bullets. The dead white bodies, cut about in a most
ghastly manner, were mutilated in the face beyond recognition, and lay like
something inhuman and hellish in the sun. The scuppers literally ran blood.
Crittenden believed, as he
cautiously descended the mast, that he was the only live thing in the ship. But
as he picked his way through the welter he heard a sound in the store room.
There he found Marr. The first mate was safe. He was sitting with his rifle on
his knee, having held the fort as long as possible, and successfully.
Together they explored the ship.
They found Popham in his cabin, sprawled against the wall, his skull broken with
a hatchet, his pen still in his hand. There was an overcoat hanging behind the
door, and from behind it a black man suddenly sprang. But for a piece of
quick work on the part of Crittenden and Marr, the hidden savage might have
even at that late stage gained a kind of post-script victory on behalf of his
defeated tribesmen. Thirteen black recruits were found hiding down a hatch-
knowing their countrymen they knew only too well- what to expect of the
raid, and made themselves safe from the beginning. They were terrified when
Crittenden and Marr were still inspecting the damage done to the ship when Captain Rogers returned with his boats. Until the moment he threw his leg over the gunwale he had no idea of the tragedy enacted so speedily and ruthlessly in his absence.
He was doubly amazed when he learned what had happened, for he had spent a pleasant morning of happy experiences. He had traversed the bay, had landed and been well received by the natives, recruits had been promised, hospitality shown him, and everything possible done to keep him in the village and to impress him favorably. A review of the events, a postiori, leaves little doubt that this geniality ashore was part of the whole plan of campaign, previously mapped out, whereby the ship was to be in the hands of the natives before Rogers and his men knew it. What special kind of terror had been devised for Rogers and the other whites ashore must, like “what song the sirens sang, remain forever a matter of conjecture”- but the happenings aboard the Young Dick may provide a clue for the perspicacious.
It became fairly evident, too, that only the captain's timely return to the ship saved a second attack, for which the natives appeared to be mustering on the beach. This attack, however, did not come off. The Young Dick left Malaita, and buried white and black victims alike in the blue waters of the Pacific. On June 1 the Young Dick's cruise ended with a safe entry into Maryborough, Queensland, after being fifty-six days out. The losses they reported were: four white men (cook, carpenter, sail-maker and Mr. Popham) and the death of twenty natives. It may be as well to remark that when the Australian Encyclopedia notes the losses “3 of the crew” that figure is quite accurate as far as crew goes, but does not indicate the loss of Popham, who gets no mention in the Encyclopedia’s summary.
If this were the whole story of the Young Dick it would be bad enough and sad enough, with its triple-trouble cruise ending the way it did, and it might even seem like a silver lining to the cloud that she returned to Maryborough in safety. But the superstitions of the sea-going folk justified themselves once again: trouble was built into the structure of the Young Dick- trouble enough to spell the end of so small a vessel. A month after the return from the bloody Malaita recruiting cruise she put to sea again with about 170 souls aboard.
That is the end of the story.
After the Young Dick dropped down over the tropical horizon she was never seen again. What happened can never be told, for all hands were lost.
Among the ships that disappeared some, like the Waratah, never sent back to the world a single clue; some sent back enough to half-settle the question. The Young Dick sent back from beyond her watery grave enough identifiable wreckage to indicate that she met shipwreck so bad that all hands were lost. The wreckage that was washed up on Hinchinbrook Island was enough to confirm that. But the questions how? when? why? are questions which remain forever among the secrets of the sea.
Map Was Wrong
The shipwrecks of Australian
history have not been confined to the days of early history- nor is all the
horror of them to be found in the days of sail ships. It was as late as the year
1902 that a truly tragic wreck occurred- one the full tragedy of which can only
be realised as the story is followed to its conclusion. That conclusion is so
remarkable as to be almost unbelievable, and but for this tragedy, that of the
Elingamite in 1902, many another tragedy might have followed from the
same cause. If there can possibly be a silver lining in such a story as this, it
is in the fact that the captain of the ship, before his death, was given the
assurance that the death of thirty people aboard his ship was not chargeable to
him- but with that assurance came the bitter realisation that he had borne
disgrace for years and had lost his master's ticket unnecessarily.
Some years elapsed, however,
between the wreck of the Elingamite and the discoveries which unfolded
The ship was a steel screw
steamer of 2585 tons. She was in the inter-colonial passenger service for
Huddart Parkers, and on the fatal voyage she sailed from Sydney at 4.55 on a
Wednesday afternoon under the command of Captain Attwood, a thirty-nine-year-old
master mariner who had held his certificate since he was twenty.
With a fresh westerly wind
behind her the ship had a fair and uneventful voyage until Sunday morning. Then,
at nine o'clock a.m., a dense fog gathered round her. At 10.30 a.m. the captain
was on the bridge with the third officer, look-outs had been posted, and the fog
siren was being sounded regularly- precautions which had been observed since the
moment the fog began to thicken. Out of the grey blanket came no answering
siren, no warning, no sound in the accentuated stillness which always comes with
fog at sea. Then without warning that anything was amiss the Elingamite
crashed suddenly, ran on a rock that tore a jagged hole in her hull, and began
to fill with water. In a short time she had settled down in the sea to her deck
Although it was a most serious
position there were no signs of panic on the doomed vessel. Boats and life rafts
were launched and filled with people in a quiet and orderly manner. High tribute
was paid to Captain Attwood for his conduct at this critical time.
“I could not say enough of
Captain Attwood's pluck,” said a survivor, an eyewitness of the entire tragedy.
“No words could describe his bravery. He was the last to leave the wreck, being
washed overboard. He stood on two pieces of wreckage, one foot on each, as they
rocked about in the open sea, and there he blew his whistle, the sound which
brought up a boat. In this way he must have saved forty or fifty lives.”
As the ship settled in the water
the boats and rafts pulled away. The experiences in store for one of the rafts
were among the most harrowing in the story of Australasian ocean tragedy.
This raft was in sight of land
at 11 a.m. on the Sunday, half an hour after the ship struck when it first took
to the sea. On it were fifteen men and one woman, the Elingamite's
stewardess. It was too great a load for the raft, and the situation was
rendered the more difficult because the air cylinders of the rafts were more
than half awash and the decking was actually under water. Its occupants were
The only means of propelling the
raft were a launch oar and a skiff oar. With these the survivors, could not
reach land before nightfall, though they paddled hard all day. During the night
they drifted, and on Monday morning the land had disappeared. Between these
sixteen people there were two apples and no drinking water at all. During the
day they cheered each other with the thought that help would quickly be sent
from Auckland, for it had been surmised then that the Elingamite had gone
ashore on the Three Kings, rocky islands to the north‑west of New Zealand, and
consequently that they were not very far from assistance.
By nightfall, however, no sign
of a rescuer had been seen, and they settled down to a night much worse than the
first. On Sunday night, with land in view, hope welled high within them; but
now, drifting they knew not whither, passing the day out of sight of ships and
land, and with little idea how far Or in what direction they drifted, knowing
that possible rescuers could be rapidly losing any idea of where the raft might
be found- it was a bad night for sixteen hungry, thirsty, almost hopeless
The night was made worse by the
first tragic happening- the event which impressed upon their minds the reality
of their danger and the nearness of terrible things. For that second night a man
died from exhaustion. They decided to keep his body until daylight, hoping
against hope they would see some sign of land or of a rescuing ship, and be able
to give the poor fellow a decent burial. The night wore on, sultry and trying.
The sea washed constantly over the raft, and amid the constant uncomfortable
wetness their throats swelled with thirst. In the morning three men were dead;
and as no hope of rescue came with early daylight the bodies were pushed into
the sea. The survivors turned away from the ugly sight as the bodies of their
late companions floated out on the current.
If any emphasis more than this
was necessary to bring home the seriousness of the position, Tuesday brought it.
The day, starting with the “burial” of their three friends, wore on into endless
hours of thirst- thick throats, cracked lips, swollen tongues, and hungry
gnawing pains in empty stomachs. The sharp contrast of agonizing thirst while
the cool seawater actually washed over their bodies, was a potent factor among
these terrified people, and under this mockery some of the men broke down,
trying to ease their burning thirst by drinking seawater, though urged by the
stewardess and by others with more control, not to do so.
On Tuesday night they saw a
ship. The ship came close and they stood watching its lights, hope rising. They
mustered all the strength that hope could give them, and shouted lustily and
repeatedly. The cry rang out over the dark water, dying without an echo. They
shouted again, and the sound carried well. The ship stopped. They could see her
lights riding up and down as she wallowed, stationary, in the sea, their
reflections making a beautiful picture on the water, as the squeaking and rattle
of tackle told them that a boat was being lowered. Against the dull haze of
light from the ship they could see the boat, coming towards them. Again and
again they hailed it. Though they could not possibly have been visible to the
searching boat, they waved their arms frantically, joyfully, appealingly. But as
they stood and knelt on the raft, salvation within their sight, the boat
returned to the ship. Perhaps there has been no more dreadful sound in man's
ears than the significant rattle of the tackle that brought the boat back to the
deck, empty…and perhaps no more exquisite torture has been experienced than that
of men who, floating in desperate plight upon the ocean, watched the lights of
comfort and safety begin to slide until their reflection was a blurry golden
streak across the waves, and they were growing duller and dimmer as they faded
into the hopeless night.
This disappointment was no doubt
the torturous turning point for one of the passengers who had been drinking salt
water. He began to speak wildly, deliriously presently; then shouted that he
would jump in the water. Either because they pitied what might happen to him if
he were spared, or because they feared the consequences of having a madman in
their midst, the others made no attempt to stop him, and he added to the horror
of that wretched night.
Daylight on Wednesday brought
them nothing new, unless it was a new depth of despair, a new aspect of horror-
and no comfort in the fact that, since the deaths of some of their company, they
were no longer so cramped on the raft. The fate of their five dead comrades was
simply a constant reminder of what was likely to happen, one by one, to them
This day they cut up an apple
which had been kept as long as possible. They divided it into twelve pieces, and
ate one piece each.
Lightened though the raft had
been with the passing of the victims, its deck was still awash, so that in this
third morning of agony their legs were chafed with the water and their shoulders
blistered with the sun. The desire to drink the sea-water was becoming
irresistible, and another passenger, who had already given in to the temptation,
felt its full effects during the day, light-headedly jumping from the raft,
apparently indifferent to the fate that awaited him.
On Wednesday night another man
jumped and with the strangely inconsistent behaviour of desperate men, the
survivors who had let others jump to death, threw this man a life belt. It
landed quite close beside him in the water. He looked at it, then with his hand
he pushed it away, signifying his desire to die. The current bore him, too, away
out of their sight.
Sheer exhaustion caused the
stewardess's death on Thursday morning.
Four times that day the second
saloon steward was prevented from drinking sea-water, and several times he was
held back from following the other desperate men into the sea- again, the
inconsistency of desperate men allowed the first few to jump, and made
determined efforts to save this man. But later in the day he died, and was
There was one detail in which
the drifters had not been mistaken. In Auckland people were not slow to efforts
When the news reached Auckland
the Union Steam Ship Company immediately sent the Omapere to look for the
survivors. The Northern Steam Ship Company also sent a vessel. An auxiliary
schooner put out to sea together with a Government auxiliary schooner. When
Lieutenant-Commander Dawson of the Government survey ship Penguin, heard
the news, he decided to join the search as soon as possible; but as some of his
crew were on liberty leave, he had to wait for them to return to the ship, and
left port as soon as they did so.
The Omapere met the Huddart
Parker ship Zealandia, which was on the same route as the
Elingamite, and passed on the news. The Zealandia hurried straight
to the wreck, and found one boat and two rafts, which it took back to Auckland,
breaking the journey to Sydney to do so. A muster of the rescued, however,
showed that 38 passengers and some of the crew were not as yet accounted for.
The Penguin cruised about the vicinity of the wreck until Thursday. On
that afternoon the lookout saw some wreckage and the bottom boards of small
boats floating in the water, and later descried a small white object on the
skyline. Through his telescope he was able to see that this was a raft, and that
some of the people on it were still alive. The ship's course was accordingly
altered, and at seven minutes past four the Penguin came abreast of the
raft. One of the occupants was standing, three others were kneeling.. Four
others were crouching in painful positions. The Penguin had arrived about
four hours after the second saloon steward's death- he was the last to die- on
that tragic raft the story of which has been told. Later on it transpired that
the Omapere had passed on it within ten or fifteen miles of the raft
without seeing it, and that in the four and a half days of unbroken horror the
raft had floated about sixty-six miles north by east from the Three Kings,
which, as suspected, was the scene of the wreck.
With the care and attention
given them on the Penguin, the survivors regained strength, and when they
arrived in Auckland the Penguin's company was lined up on the after deck
and Mr. Weatherilt, who had “captained” the raft, thanked them on behalf of the
survivors, for their efforts.
In spite of the high praise
given Captain Attwood by the survivors, the official inquiry in Auckland found
that the ship was off her correct course. The captain's certificate was
suspended, and he was ordered to pay fifty pounds towards the cost of the
enquiry. He was ruined by the event, for he could not receive another
One of the factors that went
against him at the enquiry- the proof, in fact, that he was off his course, was
that his vessel had foundered on the Three Kings.
In the following years Captain
Attwood lived under a cloud. Then a great discovery was made. The Three Kings'
position was wrongly shown on the Admiralty charts, and Captain Attwood's loss
had not been due to his bad seamanship, but to the fact that the wrongly marked
islands were actually across the course he steered. His ship, and his career,
had been wrecked by a mistake on the map!
Captain Attwood's certificate
was restored to him at once, and he received compensation from the New Zealand
Government for the losses he had sustained as a result of the wreck. But the
Captain had gone through worse suffering mentally than any he might have endured
from the wreck, and he died very soon after he learned that the tragedy of years
before was not his fault.
A remarkable circumstance was-
and the fact was brought up again at the Attwood inquiry- that this was the
first wreck recorded on the grim Three Kings. But four years later, in 1906, the
ship Elberland went to her fate on the same rocks. And in spite of the
mistake in the charts these are the only two recorded tragedies on the islands;
nevertheless they have given ground enough for the islands to have been named
“the Three Kings of Death.”
Graveyard of Ships
There was one wreck on the
Australian coast from which a cat was the only survivor. With what ship the cat
sailed has never become known; but evidence of its tragedy was discovered on
March 18, 1802, by a sealer named Campbell.
Beating through Bass Strait in
his small ship Harrington, Campbell dropped anchor off the coast of a
small, desolate island which was not on his chart and was not named, as far as
he knew. He went ashore. Along the beach he found scattered pieces of sodden
wood which wrote on the sand the age-old story of the sea and the ships that do
business in great waters- the story of shipwreck.
There was nothing on any wood to
indicate the name of the ship from which it came. Campbell went into the island
looking for fresh water for the Harrington's depleted tanks: he
discovered what was, he believed, the only survivor of an unknown vessel- an
English cat. The nameless vessel from which this nine-lived creature escaped
represents the first recorded shipwreck on the island which, unknown to
Campbell, had been officially discovered the year before by Captain Black in the
Harbinger and named after the Governor of New South Wales at the time,
“Not even the name is known of
the first vessel ever wrecked on King Island," writes Thomas Dunbabin,
Australian journalist and historical authority, in his account of the “cat
crusoe.” And in that phrase he sums up the persistent and relentless toll of
life and shipping that the island has taken. Not without cause is King Island
called the “Graveyard of the South.” Today, with two lighthouses, a happy little
town on its west coast, and a well-developed industry in mutton birds, its
aspect is far less grim. Yet King Island's record is clean of shipwrecks only
What tragedies were enacted on
this inhospitable little coast before the discovery of the island nobody will
ever know; but a list of all recorded wrecks on the island places the total
number of ships lost at 42. This list counts the Neva, which went ashore
in 1835, as among the first, and the barquentine Rio, lost in 1915, as
the last. In the forty-two wrecks which took place in those eighty years, over
2,000 lives were lost, and only two ships in steam are on the list- the City
of Melbourne which, wrecked in 1853, was refloated and salvaged, and the
less fortunate Shannon, wrecked in 1906. In 1927 Mr. G. R. Leggett
published in the Australasian a list of King Island tragedies, which
included only forty-one ship-victims. The vessel not included in his list is the
Tartar, whereto hangs a tale.
Mr. C. Friend of Hobart Town,
Van Diemen's Land, despatched the Tartar to the mainland on a trading
expedition in 1835, and did not hear of it again for a long time. So Friend set
out to look for his ship, and landing on King Island, he heard a remarkable
story of coincidence.
In one of the treacherous storms
that inflict Bass Strait the Tartar had been carried ashore and wrecked.
No lives were lost and the crew, having come safely onto terra firma, made their
way across the island. They knew it by repute for what it was- an inhospitable
and cheerless place, uninhabited but for a few Tasmanian wallabies and bush
kangaroos, and in the early summer months by a host of mutton-birds. They were
amazed, therefore, to find a small party of ragged and weary whites marching
across the island towards them.
The Tartar's folk found
themselves in company with fifteen unkempt and hard-bitten fellows, most of whom
looked like gaol-birds, as, indeed, they were. They were English and Irish
convicts who had been shipped to the penal settlement of Van Diemen's Land on
the convict transport Neva.
When she left Cork, Ireland, the
Neva had carried 240 persons. Her fate, in that furious storm in Bass
Strait, had been just that of the Tartar, but with far more devastating
results. Of the 240 on board only 22 were able to get ashore through the raging
surf; and the fifteen men found by the Tartar's crew were of that number.
Incidentally, Henniker Heaton (in his Dictionary of Dates) is once more
open to correction, as he lists the Neva's loss at over 300.
The two parties joined force and
lived together on the island. They had no prospect of escape. The only vessels
which came to King Island were those which, like their own ill-fated ships, were
driven to their last sleeping place by hostile
But Mr. Friend's attitude toward
the Tartar is one well to be understood- one of anxiety and of curiosity;
and it is only natural that, not having any Admiralty to institute a search (as
in the later case of the Acacia in near waters) he himself set out on the
errand. After a month of the Crusoe life the survivors of both wrecks were found
when Friend landed on King Island, and all were taken back to Hobart.
To these men King Island had
been kind. But today there stand three tablets on the island, each marking one
of its harsher moods. One of these reads:
of the Emigrant Ship
Liverpool to Port Phillip
C. W. FINLAY,
Terse enough, but it tells the
story of the Cataraqui but for one detail- that the ship left its home
port with 408 people aboard, and of this number only nine survived the
The wreck occurred at night and
was a scene of unparalleled horror. The greatest number of people to die at one
time on the King Island coast, and one of the heaviest losses of life in the
whole history of Australian shipping disasters, as far as human life goes.
There is a fearful wealth of
meaning in that line which reads “on these reefs,” for King Island is itself no
more than an outcrop from a treacherous series of submarine mountain-tops.
Measuring 45 miles from north to south and fifteen miles from east to west, it
is described by Spencer Baldwin
“The whole island is low-lying,
but rises gradually towards the south. Its highest peak is Mount Stanley, 700
feet high. There is a long stretch of sandhills along the west coast…the surf is
heavy, and landing on this shore difficult. The inland country is swampy, with a
series of lagoons and some eucalyptus. Here ti-tree rises straight from the
water of the swamp…The Tasmanian wallaby and brush kangaroo abound, as do
muttonbirds, cormorants, and gulls. The muttonbird, which is the burrowing
petrel, arrives between November 22 and 24 and burrows here to lay its
Quite a suitable site, on the
whole, for a graveyard of ships, and linked by under-sea structure of
jagged-rock with Three Hummocks Island, 50 miles south, and with the
sharp-toothed Reid Rocks, visible just above the high-water mark. Geologists
hold that Tasmania and the mainland of Australia were once joined by a
land-bridge of which Tasmania was the southern peak, and of which these islands
were mountain-tops. The land-bridge sank, but the mountain-tops did not sink far
enough. That is why the island is almost entirely surrounded by submerged reefs,
the Harbingers, and other dangerous rocks being just awash.
In those days of sail when Bass
Strait was known but uncharted and the masters in sail had but scant knowledge
of the Australian coast and had to trim their sails to vicious winds, it was not
hard for them, by getting a little too far to the south, to get tangled up in
this vicious system of natural traps, which lies only forty eight miles
south of Australia's most southerly point in that part, Cape Otway. This
explains largely why only two of the forty-two King Island victims were
steamships, while major sailing vessels have gone onto the rocks as late as
south of Australia's most southerly point in that part, Cape Otway. This
explains largely why only two of the forty-two King Island victims were
steamships, while major sailing vessels have gone onto the rocks as late as
Although the danger of King Island had been amply
demonstrated in the earliest days, and immediate steps were taken to erect a
warning, the attempt was, not successful. Cape Wickham Lighthouse was built on
the north peak of the island, a bluestone structure with walls twelve feet thick
at the base- in 1845. But as has been said, Cape Wickham and Cape Otway, on the
mainland, are only 48 miles apart, and many a sea-dog beating through a thick
and sleety night mistook the Wickham Light for the guide on the mainland and
steered south of this light, to pile on the rocky shoals
along the coast. It is largely for this reason that the west coast is thick with
The failure of the Wickham Light has been marked by a long series of
fatalities, such as that of the Brahmin, which is the subject of another
tablet still standing on the island, and perhaps the most pathetic relic to be
seen on the coast.
Sacred to the memory of CAPTAIN
Late of the ship Brahmin
who was drowned on 21st May,
age 39 years.
The story of the Brahmin
is neither long nor new. Of its company only one passenger and the ship's
carpenter survived the raging surf that ran that night. The tablet to the memory
of the ship's captain, which stands on the island today, is of marble and was
placed below Whistler Point the year after the wreck. This may well be termed
the most pathetic of relies, for it was carved by the ship's carpenter as a last
tribute to the comrades he lost on that terrible 21st of May. The
only member of the crew to escape, he found that labor of love and respect
fraught with significance, as may be well imagined.
It was after the Cape Wickham
light had been erected, too, that the Loch Leven was wrecked in 1871. She
was outward bound from Geelong with a cargo of wool and hides which was worth,
it is estimated, more than £170,000. Shaping her course southward she went too
far and ran right on to the island very near the light. No lives were lost, for
ready assistance from the now inhabited island helped the crew to
But one incident in the loss of
the Loch Leven ranks among the heroic gestures of the coast of tragedy.
On the day following the wreck the captain, knowing that most important papers
relating to the ship and her cargo were aboard, tried to visit the wreck and
rescue the papers. He was drowned in the attempt, perishing in the course he
conceived to be his duty after he had escaped the perils of the night.
Incidentally, the Lock Leven was the only vessel wrecked on King Island
while outward bound from Australia: all others were incoming vessels with the
exception of a few coastal traders like the Tartar.
Another major wreck was to add
to the terrible toll of this treacherous coast before a second lighthouse was
built. This tragedy is commemorated by the third of the tablets mentioned as
standing on the island today. This reads:
To the Memory
WILLIAM DALZELL NICHOLSON
3rd son of Hon. Wm.
who along with 78 others
perished in the
wreck of the British
23rd May, 1874,
Aged 25 years.
After the wreck another light
was added to King Island. This was the Currie Harbor light, built in England,
transshipped to King Island in the S.S. Rosedale by Captain Molland, and
erected at Currie in 1879.
The Currie light is half way
down the west coast, and with the Wickham light about seven miles north of it,
it represents a clear marking of the danger zone.
Although there have been other
wrecks on the island since the erection of the Currie beacon, it has done more
than anything to make Bass Strait safe and to end the appalling list of King
Island's tragedies. The total tragedy toll is, as has been said, over 2,000
souls- and of that number over 400 perished at once in the Cataraqui and
almost 300 in each of two other wrecks. It is an unenviable record; yet, with
Currie flourishing as a cheerful little township today, and with a clean sheet
since 1915, it looks as though King Island's black page has been finished and
But the Island is not alone in its grim history beside it stand other small areas which have seen large numbers of wrecks, notably the Great Barrier Reef in north, the Torres Straits Islands, the reef seas along the central Western Australian coast‑ but around Tasmania's southern shores, not very far by sea from King Island, there is a near neighbor to the graveyard of ships in the D'Entrecasteaux Straits.
Admiral Bruni D'Entrecasteaux,
was given, in 1791, two ships, the Recherche and L'Esperance, and
told to go look for Jean Francois Galup de la Perouse, the explorer who had
started out to claim the Great South Land for France, and had
D'Entrecasteaux Channel is narrow, with a treacherous bottom and high, rocky shores. It lies on a treacherous and rocky coast- and was in the early days of settlement in the south, right in the line of shipping.
Two of this channel's worst tragedies occurred within two months of each other.
There was despatched from England in the first weeks of the year 1835- the year of the Neva wreck on King Island- a convict ship called after the king, George III. Below deck it carried 208 male convicts, hand-picked, because of their desperate character, to be broken on the rack which was Port Arthur, in the island which had yet eighteen years to go before it was finished with transportation. The George III, bearing this unsavory cargo, was literally within sight of its destination. It entered D'Entrecasteaux Channel and ran on the rocks, at once commencing to settle down. The crew, and the soldiers who were policing the ship, were not in a bad position. But for the 208 convicts it was a very different tale.
The soldiers on the ship became immediately scared that panic would break out among these men- and to forestall such a contingency the marines fired muskets amongst the prisoners to intimidate them into acceptance of their fate, or to frighten them into a sort of discipline of death. Thus it was that the loss of the George III entered a death roll of 120 against the name of the D'Entrecasteaux Channel in the first major tragedy it saw; and the total is made the more horrible by one chronicler's detail: “There some panic among the unfortunate beings below deck, and some attempt on their part to preserve their lives or to commit themselves the mercy of the water, shots were fired among them- to deter them from this course and they were given the choice of dying by drowning or by musket fire.”
As if such a baptism of blood were insufficient for the Channel, two months later another vessel piled up there. Captain Roxborough was bringing a company of free settlers to Van Diemen’s Land on the ship Enchantress- passengers who were coming as a result of the formation of the Van Diemen's Land Company in Britain for the exploitation of the island. When the Enchantress piled up on the treacherous rocks her bowsprit was carried away, and the three escapees from the debacle were three whose names, according to the strictest traditions of the sea, should definitely not have been on the list of rescued- Captain Roxborough, the chief officer, and the ship's surgeon; a list of survivors which suggests that the principles employed on the Charles Eaton were repeated.