The Dunbar Tragedy – 1857

The Dunbar shipwreck, by Samuel Thomas Gill, courtesy the State Library of New South Wales.

The loss of the Dunbar in August 1857 was one of the more tragic and distressing shipwrecks to occur in Australian waters.   On the morning of Friday 21 August people living in Sydney’s East awoke to find wreckage and mutilated bodies dotted along the rugged coast and inside the harbour mouth.   A large ship had come to grief, but its identity would remain a mystery for much of that day.

The weather on the night of 20 August was thick with heavy rain, strong winds and a powerful swell creating mountainous waves.    The Dunbar had sailed from London 81 days earlier and was making its way up the New South Wales coast nearing the end of its voyage.  

She passed Botany Bay around 8.30 in the evening.  Then Captain James Green headed out to sea on a starboard tack under closely reefed sails.    They then changed course again heading towards the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   The captain sent the Second Mate to the forecastle and asked him to keep a good lookout for the North Head.  

By Day and Son; Thomas Goldsworth Dutton; William Foster –, Public Domain,

Suddenly the Mate called out “breakers ahead,” as churning white water at the base of the cliffs materialised out of the inky gloom.   It was now a little after midnight.  Captain Green ordered the ship round but the surging seas drove her broadside onto the rocks before she could respond.  

Passengers were jolted awake by the violent impact and streamed on deck in panic, most still dressed in their night attire.    But before any thought could be given to getting them into the lifeboats another wave smashed the Dunbar into the cliffs and she immediately started breaking up. 

Passengers and crew alike were swept into the surging sea and dashed against the rocks.  Others were crushed between heavy timbers and splintering wood.  

There were 122 people on the Dunbar as she neared Sydney Harbour.   She had a crew of 59 and was carrying 63 passengers.   Most of the passengers, including families with young children, were residents of Sydney returning home after spending time in England.  

Incredibly, one of the crew managed to survive.    As the ship broke apart John Johnson grabbed hold of a plank with three other men to keep themselves afloat as they were tossed around in the turbulent white water.   Two of their number soon lost their hold but Johnson and the ship’s Boatswain were dumped high on the rocks by a large wave.    Johnson scrambled higher but before the other man could do likewise, he was caught by another wave and sucked back out to sea.    Johnson continued climbing until he reached a narrow ledge and could go no further.   

The Sailor Rescued. Courtesy the National Library of Australia 211620415-22

The next day he heard people on the clifftop above him and saw several ships pass by but failed to attract anyone’s attention.   He remained a second night on the ledge before a young lad spotted him from near Jacob’s Ladder.  The boy, Antonio Wollier, volunteered to be lowered down to the ledge by a rope to rescue the survivor.  

Meanwhile, the grim work of recovering bodies began.    Some brave souls were lowered over the cliff at the Gap where as many as 20 bodies had collected among the rocks.   They had been so badly battered that none were ever identified.    Other bodies were found inside Sydney Harbour where they had been swept by the current.   Most were buried in a mass grave in the Newtown Cemetery.

Sydney Harbour. Courtesy Google Maps.

An inquiry concluded that Captain Green, hampered by the foul weather, had either thought he was approaching the North Head or mistook the Gap for the entrance to Sydney Harbour.   As a result of this catastrophe and another similar shipwreck nine weeks later a lighthouse marking South Head was built.       

John Johnson was later employed as a lighthouse keeper in Newcastle and in 1866 he rescued the only survivor of the steamer Cawarra when it sank trying to enter that harbour.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The Mystery of the Zuydorp

Illustration of the Dutch ship Zuytdorp, 1712. Western Australian Shipwreck Museum.

In August 1711 the Zuydorp sailed from the Netherlands bound for Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).   However, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship vanished without a trace.    For more than 200 years the fate of the ship and all those on board her remained a mystery. 

The Zuydorp was a large merchant ship around 30 to 50 metres long carrying 200 or more people and cargo including a large quantity of freshly minted silver coins.   Unlike other ships to come to grief on New Holland’s dangerous coast, no survivors made it to Batavia to tell what happened.

It was not until 1927 when the head stockman at Tamala Station, Tom Pepper and his family discovered relics from the long-lost ship about 60kms north of Kalbarri on the Murchison River.   Some of the artefacts were silver coins minted in 1711 which helped identify the wreck.   By 1954 the site where the survivors had landed was examined in more detail, and a decade later divers finally found the wreck site and its trove of silver coins.

Looking north from the mouth of the Murchison River towards the rugged coast where the Zuydorp was wrecked. Photo CJ Ison.

At the time the Zuydorp was on her way to Batavia, ships were using the “Roaring Forties” to push them across the southern Indian Ocean before bearing north following the coast of New Holland to reach the East Indies.    It seems the captain misjudged his position and the Zuydorp struck the reef at the base of cliffs that now bear the ship’s name.

The accident probably happened at night, the captain unaware of how close he was to land.   The archaeological evidence suggests that an unknown number of people survived the wreck and managed to get ashore.   The remains of what may have been signaling fires have been found on top of the cliffs but apart from a scattering of other artefact nothing remains to hint at what befell the survivors.    The place is devoid of fresh water for much of the year and no one could have lived long without the help of the local Nhanta people who inhabit that stretch of coast.    

Interestingly in 1834, an Aboriginal man told settlers in Perth that there had been a ship wrecked far to the north of Perth.   From his description, it was thought to be somewhere in the vicinity of Shark Bay, a bit further north than where the Zuydorp was ultimately discovered, but they also thought the wreck he was referring to was recent.   A search party was dispatched to investigate but no wreck or survivors were found.   It is quite likely he was drawing on oral history passed down the generations which had recorded the loss of the Dutch ship.

Courtesy Google Maps.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The CSS Shenandoah: Victoria’s link to the American Civil War.

CSS Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

On 25 January 1865 a large foreign warship unexpectedly dropped anchor in Hobson’s Bay off Melbourne causing considerable consternation in the colonial government.    The ship proved to be the 1160-ton, eight-gun auxiliary steamer CSS Shenandoah of the Confederate States of America and had pulled in to make urgent repairs.  

Five years earlier the Southern states had ceded from the Union over the question of slavery and the country had been embroiled in a brutal civil war ever since.   The Shenandoah had been particularly busy in the three months before arriving in Australian waters.   It had captured or sunk no less than 11 merchant ships belonging to the United States and was holding some of the sailors prisoner.  

Britain and by extension, the colonies in Australia had declared strict neutrality in the hostilities between the North and the South.    The arrival of an armed warship posed a delicate diplomatic problem for the Victorian Governor, Sir Charles Darling and his administration.  

Some of the 12,000 visitors on the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Immediately on arrival the Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, sent an officer ashore seeking permission to make repairs to his ship’s propeller which had been damaged during a recent storm.   He also sought to take on coal and other supplies and to land his prisoners.   

One thing he did not ask permission for was to recruit replacement sailors though he was determined to do so while in port.

Governor Darling allowed the Shenandoah to undertake essential repairs and take on supplies thinking the ship would be gone within a couple of days.   However, after the propeller and shaft had been inspected, it was found the ship would have to be slipped to repair the damaged machinery and that would take time.

Conscious of their obligations of neutrality the colonial government decided that “no other work should be performed on the vessel than absolutely and necessarily required,” to allow the Shenandoah to safely go to sea.  

While the government struggled to meet the requirements of Britain’s proclaimed neutrality, the wider public was far less concerned.   The arrival of the Southern warship caused a sensation.   During the first weekend the Shenandoah was in port more than 12,000 people went out to visit it, which was around 10 per cent of Melbourne’s total population.    Captain Waddell and his officers were wined and dined and made as welcome as anyone possibly could be.    A ball was even held in their honour in nearby Ballarat.  

Ballarat Ball for the officers of the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Meanwhile, as the bunkers were filled with coal, supplies loaded onboard and repairs were progressing, Waddell’s officers began surreptitiously recruiting seamen from Melbourne’s docks.    It was rumoured he was offering those willing to sign on £6 per month, an £8 sign-on bounty and a share of any prize money.  

When the authorities learned what was going on they had no choice but to act.   A warrant was issued to search the ship for British subjects that were alleged to be on board.   By now the repairs had been completed but the Shenandoah was still high and dry on the slip ready to be relaunched.  

A standoff ensued with Waddell refusing the police or any other government officials to board his ship while the police effectively barred it from being launched.     In correspondence to the Governor Captain Waddell denied that any British subjects were on his ship.   However, shortly after four men were discovered leaving the ship and promptly arrested by the police.   Waddell feigned ignorance of their presence and claimed they had been stowaways.  

The Shenandoah was soon after allowed to leave.  In a parting shot at the Victorian authorities, Waddell wrote that he felt he and the Government he represented had been insulted by the affair and he would be informing the Confederate Government of his ill-treatment at his earliest opportunity.2

Captain Waddell. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Despite Waddell’s protestations, the Shenandoah sailed from Port Phillip Bay on 19 February with some 40 newly recruited sailors from the colony.  

In the final months of the American Civil War the Shenandoah ravaged the United States’ North Pacific whaling fleet before hostilities final came to an end with the surrender of the South.

Britain would later pay the United States millions of dollars (billions in today’s money) in compensation for losses to Union shipping caused by three Southern raiders.   It was proved they had received assistance from Great Britain despite its proclamation of neutrality.   One of those ships was the Shenandoah.

1.      The Herald, 31 Jan 1865, p. 2.

2.      See exchange of correspondence between the Shenandoah and Victorian officials published in the Argus 18 Feb 1865, p. 5.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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The Plague Ship Ticonderoga

Example of an American Clipper similar to the Ticonderoga.

In November 1852 a migrant ship dropped anchor in Port Phillip Bay with some 700 passengers, many of them gravely ill.   The 1,200-ton American Clipper Ticonderoga had been chartered to bring immigrants out to start a new life in Australia, but the three-month journey to their new home proved a nightmare for many of the mostly Scottish passengers.  

Victoria was experiencing a labour shortage and had started offering assisted passage for workers to come and settle in the colony.   Most of the passengers comprised of farmhands and their young families.  But, not surprisingly, there was an incentive to get the most people out at the lowest cost to the Government.

When the Ticonderoga left Liverpool she was overcrowded, even by the standards of Victorian England.    Not long into the voyage passengers, many of them young children, started developing a red rash, high fever and sore throat.   At the time the disease was sometimes called scarlet fever or Scarlatina, but it is generally thought today that it was Typhus that wreaked so much havoc on the passengers.    Easily treated with antibiotics today, it had a devastating effect on those trapped onboard the ship.

The Embarkation, Waterloo Docks. Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850.

It was impossible to separate the sick from the healthy passengers in the overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary passenger accommodation spread across two decks.    Consequently, the disease spread unchecked.  

Passengers died in such numbers that as many as ten would be bundled together into a sheet of canvas for burial at sea.   By the time they reached the port city of Melbourne more than 100 people had lost their lives.   Another 150 were sick and in desperate need of medical attention, for they had long run out of medical comforts and the ship’s surgeon had been felled by the disease while attending to his patients. Many of those, 82 to be precise, died in the days and weeks that followed.

Port Phillip Bay. Source: Google Maps.

The passengers and crew were quarantined at Point Nepean just inside the Port Phillip Bay heads for the newly formed Victorian Government had already earmarked a parcel of land there to build a quarantine station.   Tents were hastily erected using spars and ship’s sails and two nearby houses owned by lime burners were used as makeshift hospitals and staffed with medical men brought out from Melbourne.   A ship was also dispatched to the Quarantine Station to serve as a hospital for the more serious cases.   

The quick response contained the highly infectious disease and kept it from spreading to the general population.   By January 1853 the epidemic had run its course.   The surviving passengers were taken to Melbourne and the Ticonderoga was released to go on its way but not before being thoroughly fumigated. 

Empire, 15 Nov 1852 Page 2.

The Emigration Commissioners who had chartered the ship in the first place were roundly condemned for allowing so many migrants, especially families with young children, to be sent out in such unhealthy conditions.    The Ticonderoga was just the last and worst of several recent migrant ships coming to Australia to suffer such an appalling loss of life.    

Between the Bourneuf, the Wanota, Marco Polo, and Ticonderoga, 279 passengers had died at sea as a result of infectious diseases on the passage out to Melbourne.    The lesson was learned and future migrant ships were reduced to carrying no more than 350 passengers.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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Von Mucke’s Great Escape

The Emden shore party at Cocos Island with the Ayesha moored in the distance. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Before the German Cruiser Emden was engaged by HMAS Sydney, a fifty-strong party was sent ashore at Cocos Island to destroy the telegraph station linking Australia to South Africa.   As the two ships exchanged shells in a battle that lasted ten hours, the shore party could do little but watch on and hope for the best.  

On 9 November 1914 Lt von Mucke had been ordered to lead a party ashore to disable the cable station on Cocos Island.   But shortly after the Germans had disabled the station and rounded up the telegraph operators, the Emden signalled for them to return to the ship.   Then von Mucke saw the Emden raise its battle flag and fire a salvo at a target then hidden from his sight.  

The Emden then steamed off leaving the shore party stranded on the island.   They had no chance of catching up to the fast-moving cruiser then fighting for its life.    As the Emden continued to engage HMAS Sydney, von Mucke immediately declared Martial Law over the island and deployed his four machine guns and 30 or so sailors to defend against any landing.

Lt. Hellmuth von Mucke. Photo by Oscar Brockhus, Novitas Verlag Berlin.

At one time German sailors and Australian telegraph operators stood together watching the naval battle play out in front of them.   But eventually, the two ships disappeared over the horizon, the Emden clearly the worse for the ongoing encounter.  

Von Mucke held out little hope that his ship would return for them victorious.   The mortally damaged Emden was deliberately run aground the next day and the survivors surrendered to HMAS Sydney.   Von Mucke also realised that he and his men would eventually have no choice but to surrender should they remain on the island.   He decided to leave while they still could, seizing the schooner Ayesha.

The three-masted schooner was the property of John Clunies-Ross, who also happened to own the Cocos Islands themselves.   His Great Grandfather had claimed the uninhabited islands in the 1820s and began a coconut plantation using workers brought from Malaya.

Von Mucke requisitioned provisions to last his men 8 weeks at sea and had them loaded onboard.    The departure had an oddly festive quality to it.   Residents asked for autographs from the Germans, and also had them pose for photographs.   Then, as the sun set in the west, von Mucke bid the residents “auf wiedersehen” and sailed out of the harbour to three resounding cheers.

Schooner Ayesha.

Before leaving he hinted they were bound for East Africa to throw any pursuers off his scent.   However, his real intention was to head north to the Dutch port of Padang on the island of Sumatra.    Von Mucke and his men arrived at Padang on 26 November after 17 days sailing.   There, he hoped to get help from any German ships in port while he planned the next leg of his return to Germany.    While the Dutch were neutral during the First World War, that meant they would neither hinder nor aid any of the combatants.   “The master of the port declined to let us have, not only charts, but also clothing and toothbrushes,” as he rigorously enforced the port’s neutrality, von Mucke later lamented.    The Dutch authorities asked von Mucke and his men to surrender themselves to internment but the German officer declined and 24 hours later they left the harbour.   

For two weeks they remained close to the Sumatran coast hoping to cross paths with a German ship while avoiding Allied naval vessels patrolling those waters.       Their luck held out and on 16 December the German merchant ship Choising, which had been undergoing repairs at Padang, came into sight.   

Map showing von Mucke’s escape route. Source: The Story of the Great War, Vol 3.

Von Mucke and his men transferred onto the ship and with heavy hearts, they scuttled the schooner which had been their home for the past six weeks.     The Choising to the port of Al Hudaydah in the Red Sea.   From there the men made their way to Damascus and then on to Constantinople in Turkey.   Von Mucke finally reported to the German Embassy there on 9 May 1915.    For his efforts, he was awarded an Iron Cross.

Source: The Story of the Great War, Vol III, Chapter 31, “Story of the Emden.”

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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