The Tryall: Australia’s oldest known shipwreck.

Example of a fully rigged ship of the early 17th Century, similar to the Tryall. Source: Sailing Ships by Chatterton, 1909.

Some people might be surprised to read that the oldest shipwreck recorded off Australia dates back to 1622.   That is 148 years before Cook plied his way up the east coast.  Twenty years before Abel Tasman partially circumnavigated Tasmania.   Or just six years after the Dutch navigator Dirk Hartog nailed a pewter plate to a post near Shark Bay warning of a big lump of land in the vicinity.

The Tryall* was a 500-ton East India Company ship built in 1621.   Her maiden voyage was meant to take her to the East Indies to trade.  Captain John Brooke was given the honour of commanding the vessel on this important voyage.

They sailed from Plymouth on 4 September 1621 with about 140 men onboard.   Brooke made his way down the west coast of Africa and pulled into Table Bay.   There he learned that he was to sail across the Indian Ocean below 35 degrees South.   The newly favoured “Brouwer Route” made full use of the “Roaring Forties” which swept around the Southern Ocean cutting months of the passage to Batavia.

Brooke tried to hire a sailing master for this leg of the voyage for neither he nor anyone else on the ship had sailed the south route before.   His recruiting effort came to nothing and the Tryall set sail into the unknown on 19 March.   Six weeks later they were off the West Australian coast.

Map of Western Australia coast. Courtesy Google Maps.

Brooke likely sighted land in the vicinity of Point Cloates mistaking it for Barrow Island about 200kms further north.    He had sailed too far east across the Southern Ocean before veering north, something easily done with the navigation aids of the day.  But it was an error he would never admit he made.

For the next couple of weeks, the Tryall struggled to make progress against fresh northerly winds but when they swung around to the south again they got underway.     Then on the night of 25 May 1622 disaster struck.

The Tryall slammed into submerged rocks to the northwest of the Montebello Islands and quickly began breaking up.   Brooke and a handful of men, including his son, clambered onto a small skiff and escaped.    Another 35 men eventually launched the ship’s longboat and landed on one of the Montebello Islands where they stayed a week before heading north to Batavia.   Ninety-three men lost their lives.

Captain Brooke reached Batavia on 5 July where he wrote a letter to the ship’s owner explaining that he had followed the proscribed route precisely and had struck uncharted rocks thereby absolving himself of any blame in the loss of the ship, its valuable cargo and so many lives.   

Translates to read “Here the English ship Trial was wrecked in June 1622” from copy of Hessel Gerritsz’ 1627 map of the north west coast of Australia. Source: National Library of Australia.

When the longboat finally made it to Batavia, the trader Thomas Bright wrote his own letter to London scathing of Captain Brooke.   Bright blamed the wreck on Brooke’s poor navigation and the fact he had not posted a lookout.   He also claimed that Brooke had abandoned the wreck as quickly as he could in the partially filled skiff leaving the rest of the men to their fate.

Brooke had recorded the wreck site some distance further west than where it had occurred to mask his error in navigation.  For the next three centuries the non-existent rocks caused some confusion and uncertainty among navigators sailing those waters.   It was not until 1936 that the historian Ida Lee established the wreck site was likely to be off the northwest of the Montebello Islands.   Then in 1969 amateur scuba divers found the wreck site where Lee had said it would be.

* Tryall is also seen spelled as Tryal and Trial.

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

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