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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