Shipwrecks: Images and Perceptions of Nineteenth Century Maritime Disasters (II)



Figure 1          Loss of the Amphitrite, Captain Hunter, August 31st -

In the nineteenth century just five vessels vanished on the voyage to Australia with the loss of everyone on board. These were the Iowa (1854) Ultonia (1857) and Lord Raglan (1863), Guiding Star (1855), and Great Queensland (1876).. The Guiding Star is believed to have become embayed by ice in the Southern Ocean while the Great Queensland is suspected to have been lost through an explosion in her cargo of patent gunpowder. No credible theories have been advanced to explain the disappearance of the other vessels. The death toll in these disasters was sometimes immense; 481 passengers were lost in the Guiding Star, 289 passengers on board the Lord Raglan, 129 passengers and 50 crew were lost in the disappearance of the Ultonia, 85 passengers on board the Iowa and 71 lives were lost when Great Queensland sank including 34 passengers. In these five shipwreck events more than a thousand passengers lost their lives which represents nearly one third of all the passenger deaths through shipwreck for the entire century.

Figure 2          Loss of the Tavleur Australian packet ship off Lambay

The vast majority of passenger ships were wrecked through running ashore in one form or another; 29 ships ran ashore whether this was striking an isolated, uncharted rock or being driven onto the beach. As a consequence these events usually happened near land and, except in the most catastrophic cases, there were usually at least some survivors from amongst the passengers. There were ten shipwrecks in each of which more than 100 passengers lost their lives. The total passenger death toll involved in the loss of these vessels was more than 2,200 or nearly two thirds of the total. There were another seven wrecks in which some passengers lost their lives. A total of just 141 passengers lost their lives in these wrecks.

Figure 3 :The sunken ship British Admiral as seen from the deck of the Cygnet

There were a total of 22 ships wrecked in the nineteenth century which resulted in some deaths among the passengers on the voyage to Australia; there were also at least twenty passenger ships which sank without loss of life. These wrecks resulted in 3,396 deaths out of approximately 1,600,000 passengers who made the voyage. Statistically, in terms of the numbers embarked compared to the numbers who lost their lives in shipwreck events, an individuals chances of becoming a shipwreck victim were fairly low; less than 0.25%. However, no matter what the figures actually were as the Titnes put it: 'no average can make such calamities . . . appear less appalling'.

Figure 4 :The Burning of the Barque India of Greenock

Overall there is a gradation from the 'vanished without a trace' kind of shipwreck event to simply running ashore in terms of the chances of dying. Spatial effects such as remote locations particularly mid-ocean, environmental effects such as extreme cold, timing effects such as night time, psychological effects such as panic and the type of shipwreck event such as collision all increased the mortality rates of particular shipwreck events.

The means of preventing shipwreck can, in part, be traced to British Government regulation which required the inspection of convict and emigrant ships. Emigration agents were appointed in each major port to ensure that the ships were sea worthy and not overloaded. A series of Passengers Acts culminating in the long-lasting Passenger Act of 1855 provided the legislative basis for State regulation of emigration from Great Britain. Government involvement was an important feature in regulating Australian immigration during the nineteenth century. It resulted in better quality vessels being involved in the carriage of people to Australia unlike the situation on the North Atlantic route where leaky, overcrowded ships were a serious problem.
One area in which government regulation had some effect in increasing safety was the provision of standards for the registration of ships and the certification of ship's masters and officers. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 was an attempt to provide regulation across a wide spectrum of maritime activity including the appointment of Marine Boards, the examination and certification of masters and mates, the provision of lifeboats for sea-going ships, the survey of ships, pilotage and lighthouses. However, the Act was never effectively enforced and serious problems remained within the maritime industries. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 provided more extensive and workable solutions to some of the problems including the provisions for life-saving appliances on board and the marking of a load (Plimsoll) line. Another factor which improved safety at sea was the charting work done by the Royal Navy particularly in the more remote regions of the world including the accurate charting of the Australian coastline much of which was completed by 1850. This was intended to reduce the number of the 'uncharted dangers' which claimed at least one of the earlier shipwrecks -the male convict transport George III which struck an uncharted rock in the D'Entrecasteaux  Channel when bound for Hobart in 1835 .
Ships could be wrecked at any point in the journey but the most dangerous times were while leaving European waters, at ports of call en route and again on arrival in Australian waters. The colonies recognized that the arrival in local waters had considerable dangers associated with it. The solutions were seen primarily in three areas. Two of these were preventative, namely, navigation marks particularly lighthouses, and pilot services, while the last was curative - lifeboats which were intended to save lives if the worst happened.

Lighthouses were established both for coastal navigation as well as for making a first landfall after the long voyage from Europe. Lighthouse services were the responsibility of the colonial administrations during the nineteenth century.

For many nineteenth century immigrants their first sight of the Australian coastline after months at sea was a lighthouse. The provision of lighthouses to aid night navigation began with the Macquarie Lighthouse in 1818, though the South Head of Sydney harbour had been marked at night by a fire since about 1790. Navigational marks were also established - in 1820 an iron post was erected on the Sow and Pigs, a rocky reef which was the only significant hazard in Sydney Harbour, and later in 1834 the lightship Rose was placed near the Sow and Pigs. By the 1830s other lighthouses such as the Iron Pot lighthouse (1832) in the approaches to the Derwent River and the Cape Bruny lighthouse (1838) were assisting arriving vessels to make a safe landfall on the coast of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Lighthouses did not provide a total answer as bad weather such as fog or low cloud could obscure the beam. This almost certainly happened in the case of the wreck of the Dunbar where the ship ran ashore in restricted visibility directly below the Macquarie lighthouse, the oldest in the Australian colonies. The two most important lighthouses for the arriving passenger ships from Europe were the Cape Otway lighthouse (1848) on the Victorian coast and the Cape Wickham light (1861) on King Island. Between these two lights was the entrance to Bass Strait, the main shipping route to both Melbourne and Sydney. A total of five passenger ships were wrecked between 1835 and 1874 in this region including four on King Island.

Another significant danger point was the narrow entrance to Port Phillip Bay where six immigrant ships were lost. Fortunately only 10 passengers lost their lives in these wrecks though many immigrants were left destitute when all of their belongings went down with the ship. The loss of the Sacramento was witnessed by Harriet King who was on board the Wacousta which arrived at Port Phillip Heads shortly after the Sacramento went ashore. She wrote that:
. . . we witnessed a sight which ought to have made our hearts overflow with gratitude to the Almighty for our own preservation whilst we lamented the sad fate of the Sacramento a ship to all appearance as good as our own wrecked on the very spot our Captain had dreaded - we saw the poor creatures creeping up the shore, thank God, all lives saved, but everything else lost. The next day, beds, pillows, casks etc were floating around us where we had thrown out our anchor to wait for a Pilot (King 1853).

Pilot services had their earliest beginnings in the Australian colonies in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) where the first, self-employed sea pilot was officially appointed in 1803. In 1833 it was made compulsory to use a pilot in Sydney Harbour and in March 1838 a pilot was appointed for the port of Adelaide. In the same year a private service was established to pilot ships through the notorious Rip entrance to Port Phillip which later became the Port Phillip Pilot service. Pilots were responsible for navigating the ship the final miles to its port of destination or in the case of the Queensland and Torres Strait pilot service through the dangerous waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

Lifeboats also made their appearance in Australia in the 1830s.

Unfortunately, the first lifeboat constructed in Australia proved to be a costly failure. When it was tested by filling it with water to find out how many people it would carry in that condition - it sank.19 Shipwrecks were closely associated with the development of the lifeboat service. A lifeboat service was established at Queenscliff near the Rip in 1856. In spite of, or in some cases because of, the efforts of the Port Phillip Pilot service the Queenscliff lifeboat attended the wrecks of more than twenty vessels including the immigrant ship Sussex in 1871.

Today the loss of vessels like the Ultonia, lowa and Lord Raglan often go completely unacknowledged in the historiography, even that extensive body of material which is devoted to Australian shipwrecks. This is perhaps due to a parochial division between those ships which made it to our shores only to be wrecked and those which were simply heading in this direction. Somehow shipwreck events which occurred on the Australian coastline have engendered wider public knowledge of the events surrounding their occurrence than those lost 'en route'. Events like the loss of the Dunbar, where 63 passengers lost their lives, and even the Loch Ard, with just 25 passengers lost, loom larger in the modern Australian consciousness than catastrophes like loss of the the Tayleur, Guiding Star, London, Kapunda or Northfleet.


Books and Published Reports
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Nash, M. (n.d.). A Maritime Archaeological Survey of South East Tasmania, Department of Lands, Parks and Wildlife Occasional Paper No.17.
Piggin, Stuart. 1987. Disasters. In D.H. Borchardt (ed.), Australians: a Guide to Sources. Fairfax Syme and Weldon. Sydney.
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Parliamentary Acts and Papers
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British Parliamentary Papers (BPP). BPP 1834 XLVII BPP 1840 XXXIII Appendix M. p.285-341. BPP 1873 XXXVI
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vic. c. 120). The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 (57 & 58 Vic. Ch. 60).
The Passengers Act, 1855 (18 & 19 Vic cap 119).



Shipwrecks: Images and Perceptions of Nineteenth Century Maritime Disasters

Mark Statuforth