The Bourneuf’s Tragic Last Voyage

Cross section of emigrant ship Bourneuf. From Illustrated London News 10 July 1852.

On 3 August 1853, the 1500-ton emigrant ship Bourneuf sank in Torres Strait as she was returning to England after bringing a human cargo of migrants to Australia. It proved a tragic end to a grim final voyage.

The Bourneuf had sailed from Liverpool in mid-July 1852 with more than 800 impoverished migrants keen to start a new life in Australia.

Convict transportation to New South Wales had ceased two years earlier, and the recently constituted Victorian Government had introduced an assisted migration program to alleviate the colony’s chronic labour shortage at a time when England still grappled with the social dislocation brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Emigration Depot at Birkenhead, Liverpool. A ship, possibly the Bourneuf, about to depart for Australia in 1852.

The migrants, many of them families with young children, were crammed in to two tiers of tiny cabins. Good hygiene was impossible to maintain from the outset in the overcrowded confines below deck. Passengers were required to prepare their own food in tightly packed common areas. Toilet arrangements were rudimentary. And it was not long before people started coming down with dysentery. The close fetid conditions below deck proved ideal for the spread of communicable diseases. By mid-voyage measles and scarlet fever was sweeping unchecked through the ship taking a terrible toll.

Isolating the sick proved impossible and for much of the passage ten or more people, mostly children, died each week. By the time the Bourneuf dropped anchor off Geelong in Port Phillip Bay on 20 September, disease had claimed 83 lives, or about 10% of the passengers. The ship was immediately placed in quarantine while twenty passengers were still recovering from illness.

The loss of so many lives on this ship and similar numbers on a couple of other vessels around the same time would lead to limits being placed on the number of passengers migrant ships could carry.

Example of immigrant accommodation on the 1874 James Craig barque at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Photo C.J. Ison.

The Bourneuf remained in Port Phillip Bay for ten months eventually setting sail on 18 July 1853 bound for Bombay before continuing back to England.

Captain Bibby made his way up the east coast of Australia pushed along by a south-easterly trade wind. He anticipated crossing through the Great Barrier Reef and into Torres Strait at the Raine Island entrance.

At 1 AM on 3 August 1853 the ship slammed into the Detached Reef north of the entrance in the pitch dark of night. Unrelenting swells from the Pacific Ocean pounded the stranded vessel. Captain Bibby gave the order for the crew and few passengers to abandon ship. Thirty-nine people took to three life-boats that night.

Two boats got away safely and the survivors were later picked up by the Dutch ship Everdina Elizabeth. The captain, his wife, sister-in-law, and five crew drowned when the third boat was capsized by huge waves while they tried escaping the stricken ship.

The Bourneuf is just one of 37 ships known to have been lost near the Raine Island Entrance during the 19th Century.

© C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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5 thoughts on “The Bourneuf’s Tragic Last Voyage

  1. My great great grandmother came out on the Bourneuf with her family as a 14 year old. There is plenty of info about Captain Bibby . I have been writing an historical Fiction about my family members. It’s not completed yet but I hope to publish one day. If you are interested I can forward you the section relevant to the Bourneuf.
    Ann Dennis

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good luck with the book. It looks like you will have plenty of good raw material. I can only barely imagine the ordeal people faced on that voyage. As for Capt. Biddy, thanks for the offer but the Bourneuf was peripheral to a project I was working on but I thought it was a story worth sharing. Cheers.


    2. Hello Ann,
      My GGgrandparents and their family came out in this ship in 1852 from Scotland. They eventually settled in Uralla which is in the New England district of northern NSW.
      Any information would be greatly appreciated.


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