The Brig Amity’s Amazing Career

Brig Amity replica at Albany Western Australia. Photo: C.J. Ison.

All Australian school children learn of the Endeavour’s role in the history of Australia.   Some people may have heard of the First Fleet’s flag-ship Sirius or the Investigator which Matthew Flinders used to chart much of Australia’s coastline.   But, I wager few, outside Albany WA, have heard of the Amity or know of her contribution to our colonial past.  

During the brig Amity’s six years as a colonial government vessel, she was employed to establish two new settlements in what would one day become Queensland and Western Australia.   She went to the rescue of the Royal Charlotte survivors after that ship ran aground on Frederick Reef in Australia’s dangerous northern waters.   She regularly transported convicts, soldiers and stores from Sydney to outlying settlements and circumnavigated the continent at least twice.  

The Amity was built in New Brunswick, Canada and launched in 1816.   She was a modest sized vessel even by the standards of the day at 148 tons, measuring a fraction over 23 metres (75 feet) in length.   But she was a sound ship and could handle rough weather.  

Officer’s stateroom with tiny individual sleeping cabins leading off the main room. Photo: C.J. Ison.

The little brig spent the first few years of her life hauling cargo back and forth across the North Atlantic between North America and Britain.    In 1823 a Scotsman named Robert Ralston purchased her, having decided to emigrate to Van Diemen’s Land with his large family.   He fitted the vessel out for the long voyage and filled its hold with cargo and livestock for the colony. 

After a five-month voyage the Amity sailed up the Derwent River and dropped anchor in Hobart Town on 15 April 1824.   Ralston and his family purchased land and established several business enterprises in Hobart and Launceston and a few months after their arrival he put the vessel up for sale.

The New South Wales colonial government purchased the Amity in August 1824.    The brig’s first assignment was to establish a new settlement at Moreton Bay.   Two years earlier the Bigge Report had recommended establishing a place of secondary transportation somewhere far north of Sydney for convicts who had committed additional crimes in the colony.

The Moreton Bay Penal Settlement about 10 years after its founding. Photo Courtesy SLQ.

On 1 September the Amity and her crew sailed with a military officer, 20 soldiers plus wives and children, a hand-full of civilian administrators plus 30 convicts. The journey took 11 days and was marked by severe storms. Accommodation between decks measured just 1.5 Metres (5 feet) high. Here the seasick soldiers, wives, and convicts spent a miserable time along with the new settlement’s pigs, goats and poultry. None-the-less they arrived at Moreton Bay and her passengers and stores were disembarked at Redcliffe where John Oxley decided the new settlement was to be established.

Later in the month the ship was nearly blown ashore during a violent storm. Dropping a third large anchor was the only thing that averted disaster. She soon after left the new settlement and returned to Sydney for more stores. On her third trip to Moreton Bay, in mid-1825, she helped relocate the settlement from Redcliffe to the north bank of the Brisbane River which proved a far more suitable and enduring location.

While anchored in Moreton Bay the crew noticed an unfamiliar longboat coming towards them.   This proved to be the first mate and some of the survivors from the ship Royal Charlotte which had run aground a month earlier on Frederick Reef some 720 km (almost 400 nautical miles) north in the Coral Sea. 

The first mate reported that there were still nearly one hundred souls, many of them women and children, stranded on a small sand cay which was almost awash at high tide.   The Amity was immediately sent to rescue the castaways and arrived off the reef on 28 July.   Getting close to the survivors proved a dangerous operation with powerful breakers crashing into the reef threatening any vessel which got too close.   The Amity eventually anchored several miles from the reef and its whaleboat was sent to evacuate the people and salvage what they could from the wreck.   She then sailed directly to Sydney arriving there ten days later.

A view of the encampment of the shipwrecked company of the Royal Charlotte on Frederick’s Reef. Illustration by Charles Ellms (circa 1848)

For the next 18 months or so the Amity was in constant use ferrying convicts and supplies between Sydney and the outlying settlements at Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Port Macquarie.   But, in late-1826 Governor Darling, who had recently replaced Brisbane, had another important mission for the Amity and her crew.

She was ordered to take three officers and a small detachment of soldiers, 23 convicts plus a handful of civilian officials under the overall command of Major Edmund Lockyer to establish a new settlement.   This one was to be located in the remote south west of the continent at King George Sound (Albany).  

Convicts and other passengers were accommodated between decks which measured just five feet in height. Photo: C.J. Ison.

Until then Australia’s southern coast from Bass Strait to Cape Leeuwin was little known outside its indigenous peoples and the haunt of sealers who lived largely outside the law.   Darling was increasingly concerned that the French, who had recently visited the area, might try to establish a permanent presence there. 

The small brig weighed anchor on 9 November 1826 but she soon ran into a severe storm which saw her put in to George Town on the Tamar River in Van Diemen’s Land for repairs.    She finally anchored safely in King George Sound on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day she began disembarking her passengers and cargo.   A month later the Amity returned to Sydney and resumed her regular re-supply duties.

In May 1827 she accompanied HMS Supply and the brig Mary Elizabeth on a voyage via Torres Strait to Fort Dundas on Melville Island not too far distant from present day Darwin in the Northern Territory.   Fort Dundas had been established three years earlier to facilitate trade with visiting Malay fishermen but it was eventually abandoned due in part to the determined resistance put up by the Tiwi people whose land it was.

Sketch of Fort Dundas – 1824 by JS Roe. Picture courtesy State Library of Western Australia.

Leaving Fort Dundas and the other two ships, the Amity continued circumnavigating the continent stopping to drop off supplies at King George Sound before returning to Sydney via Bass Strait.

In 1828-29 she paid another visit to the remote Northern and Western settlements when she dropped off stores before returning to her home port of Sydney thereby completing a second circumnavigation.

The following year, December 1830, the New South Wales government sold the brig off.    She made her way back to Hobart and passed through several hands over the next decade.   A couple of owners tried whaling while others employed her as a cargo ship but all seemed to struggle to turn a decent profit.  

In 1842 the Amity was now 26 years old and no doubt past her prime.    Her new owner, a Hobart butcher named Gilbert, used her to transport livestock across Bass Strait from the mainland to Van Diemen’s Land.  

On 18 June 1845 she was driven onto a shoal off Flinders Island during one of the ferocious storms Bass Strait is rightly known for.   The ship was destroyed but fortunately the captain, owner and crew, numbering 11 in all, survived.

In 1976 a full-size replica of the Amity was completed in Albany to celebrate that town’s 150th anniversary since its founding.   The replica provides a fascinating close-up look at an early 19th century sailing ship.

Brig Amity replica at Albany Western Australia. Photo: C.J. Ison.

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

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