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.
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.
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.
To receive notifications of future blog posts please enter your email below.