Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Shipwreck Story

Many significant shipwrecks have occurred around our island and all are worthy of investigation.  There is much information known and recorded about the HMS Sirius and her wrecking on the reef off Norfolk Island, in fact 19 March 2015 marks the 225th Anniversary and already more than 150 people have booked to come to the island for this important day.

However, more than twenty other shipwrecks have occurred around the island and little is known or recorded about these.  It is an ongoing task of the Norfolk Island Museum to research and record these other shipwrecks and then as part of our Historic Shipwrecks Program obligations, to upload the details into the Australian National Shipwrecks Database (ANSDB).  Established by the Commonwealth’s Department of the Environment in 2009 the database includes all known shipwrecks in Australian waters.  It is an incredible information management system that not only stores the information but is also publicly accessible. 

 The link to the site is - http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/shipwrecks/database.html  Please go onto the site and click through to look at those listed for Norfolk Island and let us know if you have any stories or associated material that may support our listed shipwrecks.

 This week we have been researching the Fairlie, a 756 ton barque recorded and commonly believed to have wrecked between Phillip and Norfolk Island in February 1840. Our research has highlighted a major problem with this as it appears that this ship did not wreck here at all.  The Fairlie was built in 1811, chartered by the East India Company for voyages to India until 1833 when she made her first voyage to Australia from England with 376 convicts on board.  The Fairlie undertook two convict transport voyages to New South Wales then in 1866 she was sold for ‘breaking up’ or to be used as a hulk. This ship in fact, never came to Norfolk.

The ‘shipwreck’ that did happen in February 1840 was recorded in contemporary eye witness accounts and newspaper articles; the vessel was a ‘boat’, certainly not a ship of 756 ton!  The first reference to this boat being named the Fairlie appears to be in “The Norfolk Island Story”, by Frank Clune published in 1967.  The HMS Sirius Expedition Report of 1985 then records the Fairlie shipwreck in one of its Appendixes referencing the source material to Frank Clune.   From there it became  as a feature of the Norfolk Island “Shipwrecks” stamp issues of 1982 (Pictured here - I wonder if this makes the stamp collectible!).  And finally the story ends up being incorrectly recorded onto the official ANSD.

 The incorrect stamp issue caught the eye of the late Mr EJ Hogan who, according to the Ship Stamp Society in the U.K. is one of the best researchers of ‘ships on stamps’.  He wrote about it being incorrectly identified in the Ship Stamps Society’s magazine, Log Book Vol 16 page 14.   and it was by happening upon his post on this site that we were alerted to the error.

Frank Clune, references his information to Thomas Cook, Overseer and Clerk on the island at the time.  However when you read Thomas Cook’s account, he does not name the boat at all.
Thomas Cook describes the incident occurring on 14 February 1840 as the “event of a boat being capsized in attempting to cross the bar …… the morning part of the day was remarkably fine, and until within an hour of the boat nearing the land, the bar was perfectly favourable, but alas!”  Cook says “by the time the Coxswain had brought her convenient to the Bar the Seas rose, and with a fury seldom witnessed (although the Seas off that coast are allowed, with their ground Swells, to be as dangerous as any ever yet seen) a race of them followed and brought her too far in to admit of their returning to Phillip Island where they had been on a Shooting excursion, thus leaving the Coxswain no alternative but to face the Bar, and trust to the exertions of the Prisoners to save the passengers himself and crew from Watery Graves which then threatened them.  He therefore brought her up to the Bar, and in attempting to cross, his Boat was caught by the Seas and thrown up perpendicular, in which position she was again struck and thrown completely over.  A Pickup Boat, as on other similar occasions was employed with a view to save them, but so powerful were the Seas that they carried her high and Dry on the Beach.  The praise due to the exertions of the men on this perilous occasion in sacrificing their lives to the object of saving their fellow creatures surpasses any ordinary calculation.” Cook then refers to the Commandant of the island at the time, a Major Thomas Ryan as a humane ruler who was ill and confined to his bed.   He states, “our Worthy Commandant previous to his illness was particularly guarded against any accident in the occasion of a Boat crossing the Bar. He was generally in attendance at the Harbour himself, and in the event of there appearing  the least danger of a capsize, he would have two or three pickup Boats, well manned, in readiness to assist, also 200 or 300 men at his call to save the drowning;”  Thomas Cook is describing exactly the same place at Kingston that our freight is carried through today using motor launches and lighters, these boats all being of a similar size. A ship of 756 ton would not attempt to ‘cross the bar’. 
Other accounts of the incident featured in The Sydney Herald, The Australasian Chronicle and The Sydney Monitor are very colourful and graphic, vividly describing the dreadful circumstances and the deaths of the three men from suffocation, strangulation and drowning.    The graves of these three casualties are in our cemetery, being:  Honourable Captain John Charles Best, Mr. John McLean Esq. Superintendent of Agriculture, and Corporal McLauglin of the 50th Regiment.

The ANSD has now been updated to reflect the correct information.  The fact that this mix up in ships involved in this wrecking has lasted for so long as a result of inaccurate recording highlights the importance of programs such as the ANSD and the need for research to continue.