The Peruvian’s Lone Survivor

James Morrill. Source National Library of Australia 136099157-1.

There is a modest memorial standing in the Bowen Cemetery in North Queensland dedicated to James Morrill who died on 30 October 1865.  

The plaque credits him as a sailor who had survived the loss of his ship and subsequently lived with the local Aborigines for the next seventeen years.

The 22-year-old Morrill sailed from Sydney on the barque Peruvian in February 1846 bound for China.     But her voyage came to an abrupt and tragic end on Bellona Shoal far out in the Coral Sea.

One dark night the ship slammed into the reef at her top speed having all canvas out at the time she struck.   The Second Mate was swept into the ocean by a giant wave as he emerged on deck.   The First Mate was then lost when the longboat broke free as it was being lowered over the side.  He disappeared into the night seated in the wrecked boat with only a sheep as a final companion.   The only other lifeboat was also lost in those first minutes of confusion and turmoil.

Twenty-one people made it on to a makeshift raft and escaped the stranded ship.   But if they thought their ordeal was over they were wrong.  It had just begun.    The survivors endured 42 days of unimaginable hardship as they slowly drifted towards the Queensland coast.   

Two thirds died of starvation, thirst, or exposure.   Only seven were alive when the raft came to rest at Cape Cleveland south of present-day Townsville.   Two more died within days of landing.  

That left just James Morrill, the captain and his wife, a young apprentice and the sailmaker.   The sailmaker would shortly find an abandoned canoe and try to make his way down the coast towards Moreton Bay.   He only got as far as the next bay before exhaustion overtook him and he died a lonely death.

The castaways had come ashore on the traditional lands of the Bindal and Juru peoples in what is today the Lower Burdekin region.  In time their presence was discovered and one evening the Aborigines confronted the strange visitors.

   “At first they were as afraid of us as we were of them.   Presently we held up our hands in supplication to them to help us, some of them returned it; after a while they came among us and felt us all over from head to foot.  They satisfied themselves that we were human beings, and hearing us talk, they asked us by signs where we had come from.   We made signs and told them we had come across the sea, and seeing how thin and emaciated we were, took pity on us. …”  – James Morrill.

The four castaways were taken in and cared for.   According to Morrill, the captain and his wife never fully recovered from the ordeal and died a couple of years later, as did the apprentice.    

Memorial to James Morrill, the last survivor of the Peruvian shipwreck who lived with Aborigines for 17 years. Bowen Cemetery.

Morrill, himself, adapted to his new life.   He learned to hunt and fish, and speak the language. He fully immersed himself in the ways of his adopted family for the next 17 years.

But as the frontier of European settlement encroached into the Lower Burdekin, Morrill entertained the idea of making contact.   

One day he confronted a couple of incredulous stockmen introducing himself as a shipwrecked sailor and told them his story.    He eventually bade his Bindal friends an emotional farewell and stepped out of the bush and back into European society.

Morrill was uniquely placed to see the devastation European colonisation was having on Aboriginal peoples. Using his brief period of celebrity, he met with the Queensland Governor and urged him to allow Aborigines to coexist on their traditional lands with settlers, but his plea fell on deaf ears. 

James Morrill. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

He was given a job as assistant storeman at the Bowen customs house and soon became a popular and well-respected member of the small coastal community.   Morrill married, fathered a child but unfortunately the hardships he had endured had taken their toll and he died two years later.

James Morrill’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

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

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The Endeavour’s Crappy Repair

The Endeavour being towed off the reef into deep water by Samuel Atkins (1787-1808).

As the Endeavour famously made its way up Australia’s east coast in 1770, there was a moment when the success of Cook’s voyage hinged on a pile of animal dung, some wool fibre and a coil of old rope.    The incident took place shortly after passing Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook because that was where his troubles started.

Late in the evening of 10 June the Endeavour struck a submerged coral reef and stuck fast.   Cook was about to discover he had stumbled into a dangerous labyrinth of reefs and shoals pinching in close to the Australian mainland.    

After ditching many tons of stores over the side, including six of his cannons, they eventually hauled the barque into deep water at high tide the following night.   But not before the hull had succumbed to the sharp coral and began taking on water.  All three working bilge pumps were manned non-stop just to prevent the Endeavour from sinking.   A suitable place to beach the stricken vessel had to be found fast.   But at this point there was no guarantee they would reach safety before the ship foundered.

“The Endeavour on the Reef” Source: Picturesque atlas of Australasia, 1886.

Then, a young midshipman, Jonathan Monkhouse, suggested fothering as a means of plugging the leak and buying them some time.  He had seen it done with great effect on a ship he had once served on.   With nothing to lose, Cook set him to work aided by as many men as he could spare from other duties.  

Monkhouse took a spare canvas sail and spread it out on deck.   He gathered up a large quantity of oakum and wool and had his assistants chop it up finely.    The short fibres were mixed together with dung from the animals kept on board, to form fist-sized sticky balls of odorous matting.   These were stuck on to the sail six to eight centimetres apart until a sizeable portion of the canvas had been covered.   

The sail was then lowered over the side of the ship forward of the hole in the hull, and then drawn back along the side.   As the fother – the particles of oakum and wool – were sucked in through the rents in the hull they caught on the edges, and in a short time formed a seal slowing the in-flow of water.

“In about half an hour, to our great surprise, the ship was pumped dry and upon letting the pumps stand she was found to make very little water, so much beyond our most sanguine expectations had this singular expedient succeeded.”   – Joseph Banks.

Map showing Endeavour Reef when the ship went aground. Source: Google Maps.

The Endeavour was out of immediate danger for the first time since striking the reef which had so nearly ended the voyage.   It was now taking on less than half a metre of water per hour and was easily managed with just a single bilge pump.  

They sailed a little further up the coast until they reached what is now named Endeavour River.   There Cook found a suitable place and, after several days delay waiting for safe conditions to enter the river mouth, he ran the barque onto the beach to examine the damage.

The Endeavour beached for repairs. Photo courtesy SLQ

“At 2 AM [on 23 June] the tide left her, which gave us an opportunity to examine the leak, … the rocks had made their way thro’ 4 planks, quite to, and even into the timbers, and wounded 3 more.   The manner these planks were damaged – or cut out, as I may say – is hardly credible; scarce a splinter was to be seen, but the whole was cut away as if it had been done by the hands of man with a blunt-edged tool.”   – Lt James Cook.

Cook and the others, with the aid of lanterns, also found a fist-sized lump of coral lodged in the hull along with pieces of matted wool and oakum which so successfully stemmed the leak.   

During low tide the next day the carpenters began replacing the damaged planks and the armourers got to work fashioning bolts and nails to secure the new timbers in place.   In all they spent six weeks there making repairs and re-provisioning.  They also made the acquaintance of the local Aboriginal people but that is a story for another time.

HMB Endeavour. Photo Courtesy SLV.

With the hull repaired, Cook put to sea on 4 August and gingerly made his way north.   But it would be several more days of intricate and nerve-wracking sailing before he escaped the dangerous labyrinth of coral shoals surrounding him.

The full story of the Endeavour’s stranding on the Great Barrier Reef is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon Australia.

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

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The Tragedy behind the Gothenburg Medals

L-R Robert Brazil, John Cleland, and James Fitzgerald. Photo: Adelaide School of Photography, 1876.

In September 1875 three men were honoured by the South Australian Government for the courage they displayed when the Gothenburg sank with fearsome loss of life.     James Fitzgerald, John Cleland and Robert Brazil risked their lives to save themselves and the remaining survivors from the ill-fated steamer.    

While steaming from Darwin to Adelaide, the Gothenburg ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef 65 kms north of Bowen, on 24 February 1875. It was early evening and at first no one was particularly concerned. The impact had been slight, and the captain thought his ship would float off at high tide. He was sure they would be on their way again before morning.

Illustration a the Human Society medal awarded to survivors of the Gothenburg shipwreck. Source: The Illustrated Adelaide News 1 Sep 1875, page 8.

However, that was not to be.   When high tide came he ran the engines in reverse at full speed but the ship would not budge.   Meanwhile, the weather, which had been foul as they made their way down the Queensland coast, just kept getting worse.   Unbeknown to them, a powerful storm was fast approaching the stranded vessel with 122 people onboard. 

As the night wore on the stricken ship was lashed by high seas, torrential rain and a gale force wind.    The hull succumbed to the continuous bumping on the hard coral reef and the ship started taking on water, a lot of water.

In just a few short hours the situation had become dire.   Captain Pearce began preparations to abandon the ship starting with women and children first.   It was now the early hours of the morning and pitch black.   Most of the passengers were already milling around on deck despite the atrocious weather for few wished to remain below.   

The wreck of the Steamer Gothenburg. Source: Australasian Sketcher, 20 Mar 1875, p. 13.

Pearce only had four lifeboats at his disposal and he lost half of those before he got a single passenger off the ship.   A third boat capsized and broke apart immediately after it was put in the water.    Then the ship heeled over and a mountainous wave swept most of the passengers from the deck into the turbulent sea.  

Almost all drowned in the maelstrom of white water churned up by the powerful storm.   A handful managed to swim back to the ship and were rescued by those who had already climbed into the ship’s rigging before the wave struck.     There they stayed hoping to ride out the storm.    Fitzgerald, Cleland, both passengers, and Brazil, a seaman, were among them.

Fitzgerald would later recall, “we had seen illustrations of shipwrecks, but on this frightful morning … before daybreak we saw the dreadful reality of its horrors.    The ship was lying over on the port side awfully listing, a hurricane was blowing, rain was coming down as it does in the tropics, and unmerciful breakers were rushing over the unfortunate vessel, seldom without taking some of the people with them.”

The Gothenburg. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

John Cleland, a gold miner returning to Adelaide, noticed the fourth lifeboat floating upside down still attached to its davits.   He knew that if they were to have any chance of survival, they needed that boat.   He climbed down from the rigging, tied a rope around his waist and swam through the breaking waves to better secure it.  

His first attempt failed and he returned to the relative safety of the main mast.   James Fitzgerald then joined him and together they swam out repeatedly and cut away the tangled mess of ropes attaching it to the davits.   Finally, they cut it free and tied it off with a length of rope but they were unable to right the craft by themselves.

Seeing them struggling, Robert Brazil swam out and joined them and with their combined weight they righted the lifeboat and were gratified to see that the oars were still lashed in place.

The trio then returned to the mast and tied themselves in high up where the waves could not reach them.   There they stayed for the next 24 hours or more as the storm raged around them.    They spent a second night in the rigging and the following morning the weather began to abate.   

The boat was bailed out.   Cleland, Fitzgerald, Brazil and eleven others climbed in and eventually made it to safety.    In all only 22 people survived.   One hundred people lost their lives in the disaster which claimed all the women and children.

The full story of the Gothenburg shipwreck is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as a Kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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The Indian Queen’s Icy Encounter

Striking of the Indian Queen on an iceberg in the South Pacific, on the morning of April 1. Source: London Illustrated News.

The Indian Queen had a well-deserved reputation as a fast sailer on the England-Australia run.   So much so, that in Melbourne its captain had bet the master of the equally fast, and appropriately named, Greyhound, to a race back to England.   But the wager would cost Captain Brewer far more than he bargained for.

On 13 March 1859 the 1040-ton clipper left port bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wool, gold and 40 passengers, a day ahead of the Greyhound.    Once outside Port Phillip Heads, Captain Brewer bore south-east to pick up the strong westerly winds swirling uninterruptedly around the Southern Ocean.    

So intent on beating the Greyhound, Captain Brewer threw caution to the wind and took his ship below 60° latitude, much further south than was prudent.  

The ship sliced its way through the sea at 12 knots (22 km/h) and made as much as 200-270 nautical miles (300-500 kms) per day.   After a fortnight of good sailing, they were halfway to Cape Horn and many thousands of kilometres from land.

Then the weather turned foul.  

Black Ball clipper Marco Polo, sister ship to the Indian Queen.

It was already bitterly cold that far south.   But now the deck was being lashed by freezing rain and sleet.   Visibility was much reduced by the rain and a persistent fog, but Brewer kept all sail up in his quest to reach Liverpool before the Greyhound.   His only concession to the conditions was to post lookouts forward to warn of any impending dangers.

Then, about 2 o’clock in the morning on 1 April, when they were about 58° S and 151° W, the Indian Queen crashed into a towering mountain of ice.  It suddenly loomed from nowhere and the ship struck hard and came to rest broadside to the iceberg before anyone knew it was there.   The impact tore away the bowsprit and a long section of the starboard bulwark.  Tons of ice crashed down on to the deck, destroying the starboard lifeboat.

The collision also sheared off the foremast just above the deck, felled the upper portions of the mainmast and strew the deck with a tangle of rigging, timber spars and billowing clouds of canvas.    More debris hung over the portside into the inky black water.   Amid this scene of carnage, only the aft mast remained standing.

By the time the first of the passengers made it on deck to see what had so violently awoken them, they found a scene of utter devastation.   “So dark was it we could only see a spectral blueish white mass,” one passenger recalled, “and the black waves washing up its sides.”  

Approximate location of the collision. Google Maps.

Perhaps more alarmingly the poop deck was deserted.   The portside lifeboat was missing, as was the captain and most of the crew.

When the ship slammed into the iceberg the captain and most of his men rushed the only undamaged boat, fearing for their lives.   No one could live for long in those icy waters had the ship sunk.  Gone was any notion of getting women and children off first or the captain remaining with his ship.   It was every man for himself.

Captain Brewer, the first mate, 13 sailors and two stowaways immediately put off in the undamaged lifeboat and pulled away from the stricken vessel, expecting it to sink below the surface at any moment.   Brewer even left his own 16-year-old son, one of the ship’s apprentices, to his fate in his undignified haste to save his own skin.

When the ship’s carpenter, Thomas Howard, got on deck he immediately sounded the pumps and found they were not taking on any water.  The hull had not been breached by the impact.   Meanwhile, the Second Mate, Philip Syratt, took charge of the few remaining sailors and got them to work.     He and Howard then called out through the howling wind and murky mist for the captain and the others to return.

But, as the lifeboat appeared to draw towards the Indian Queen a large wave swept over its stern and filled it with ice cold water.   Panic overtook the crowded boat and they lost their oars in the confusion.    Ropes and life buoys were thrown towards them but to no avail.   The lifeboat with 17 souls onboard was soon swallowed by the mist and was never seen again.

Syratt organised the crew and passengers into work parties and cleared the tons of ice from the deck and cut away much of the rigging still dangling over the port side.   They then jury-rigged sails and bore north to get clear of the ice.   

Forty days later the Indian Queen limped into the Chilean port of Valparaiso with no further loss of life.

For more interesting stories from Australia’s maritime past check out  A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available now as a Kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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Three Months in a Leaky Boat

As you sit down to Christmas lunch spare a thought for the Sapphire castaways who spent 25 December 1859 in a struggle for their lives.   Theirs is a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardship served with a healthy measure of good luck.

Christmas Day saw William Beveridge and his men kedging their stricken barque off a sandbank near Cape Direction about 500kms north of present-day Cairns in North Queensland.      Their ordeal had begun three months earlier, and they would not reach safety for another two.

Their ship, the Sapphire, had run aground on the Great Barrier Reef north of Raine Island on the evening of 23 September 1859.    The crew abandoned the ship in two lifeboats and made for Sir Charles Hardie Island.   There they decided they would return to Port Curtis (Gladstone) where they had sailed from.

Unfortunately, they found they could not beat a course south against the prevailing south-easterly winds.   So, they turned about and sailed north past Cape York and on to Booby Island.   By the time they arrived it was mid-October and they had been roaming the seas around Torres Strait for almost one month.   They found barrels of food put aside for shipwrecked sailors at Booby Island [See my blog The Post Office in the Middle of Nowhere] but it would not last indefinitely.

Illustration of Booby Island, Torres Strait – Otherwise, Post Office. From the Illustrated Sydney News, Fri 16 Dec 1864, Page 9.

It was now cyclone season and they had not seen another vessel since becoming marooned.   They would likely not see another until April the following year as few captains would venture into these dangerous waters until then.

They determined to make another attempt to return to Port Curtis despite their recent failure.     After spending two weeks at Booby Island, they set off but immediately ran into the winds that had so plagued them earlier.  

About now they also lost half their number.   The captain and more than half the crew were killed by Aborigines off Hammond Island in an encounter that turned deadly.   The Mate, William Beveridge, and the rest of the men escaped and eventually passed back through Torres Strait.   Then, for the first time, their luck changed for the better.

They spotted a ship in the distance.   But, as they drew near they found it was deserted.  The vessel proved to be the Barque Marina, which had run aground during foul weather back in September.   It too had been abandoned by its crew.   Miraculously, the Marina floated off during a spring tide to drift around Torres Strait.   Meanwhile the crew made for Sir Charles Hardie Island, arriving only hours after the Sapphire’s crew had left.  

Sapphire survivors route through Torres Strait from leaving the Sapphire and finding the Marina.

After preparing their boats for the long voyage ahead of them the Marina crew set off for Port Curtis, then the most northerly settlement on Australia’s eastern seaboard.   After 43 days of arduous sailing, they made it safely to port and notified the authorities of the loss of the Sapphire and her crew.

HMS Cordelia was despatched north to search for them but only steamed as far as Cape Upstart thinking the lost sailors could not still be any further north.   But, they were wrong.   It was now late January 1860 and the Sapphire’s crew were anchored off Lizard Island in the Marina, 500 kms further north.

Beveridge had decided to sail the barque to Port Curtis rather than continue in their small lifeboat.   Setting off on 26 November, they battled the same contrary winds and currents that had plagued them previously.

Marina’s course down the Queensland Coast. Source Google Maps.

For the next two months they made painfully slow progress.   They anchored for days and weeks at a time waiting for the south-easterlies to fall off.   In the first month alone, they travelled just 180kms.

They spent Christmas Day dragging the stranded barque off a sandbar and got aground twice more in the weeks that followed.   Her hull was so damaged that water flowed freely into the hold.   The only thing keeping them afloat was her cargo of tightly packed Kauri logs which gave her buoyancy.

On 9 February they were anchored off Palm Island.   In the past two and a half months they had covered a little more than half the distance to Port Curtis.   All seemed lost.   They were slowly starving to death.   

At first, the men were rationed to one sea biscuit per day.   Even that meagre diet would be reduced as their stores dwindled.   If they did not reach port soon, they never would.

Finally, their luck changed again.   The wind started blowing from the north.      They put to sea and arrived outside Port Curtis eight days later.   Their ordeal was over, and they had survived.

The Sapphire’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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