The 400-ton ship George the Third sailed from England on 12 December 1834 carrying 220 convicts bound for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). When less than 80kms from their destination at Hobart, tragedy struck with terrible loss of life.
On Sunday 12 April 1835 the George III made land at South Cape, the southernmost point of Tasmania around 11am. By early evening they had entered the D’entrecasteaux Channel to make the final run up the coast to the mouth of the Derwent River and then on to Hobart Town. She passed the dangerous Actaeon Islands around 8.30 that night. The moon was out, the weather mild and they were pushed along at 1 ½ to 2 knots (3-4kms/h) by a light breeze blowing off the land.
Captain William Moxey had a man in the chains sounding the passage as they made their way north. Repeated soundings were around 20 fathoms (36m) more than ample for safe passage. Then shortly before nine o’clock, Moxey was stunned to hear the man call out “quarter less four,” meaning they were in less than four fathoms (7m) of water. He ordered the helm put hard to port. But before the ship responded and even before another sounding could be made, the ship struck something and came to a stop where the chart said there was clear passage.
The captain had soundings taken around the ship and found they were stranded on an uncharted rock with just 3-5 metres of water surrounding them. The initial collision was not particularly violent but now that the ship was stuck fast the ocean swells started pounding the hull onto its rocky perch. Within minutes, the main mast came crashing down taking the top mizzen mast with it, strewing the deck with a tangle of rope, canvas and timber spars.
Those crewmen not on watch, along with the ship’s passengers and compliment of soldiers were soon on deck dressed in just shirts and trousers, most having already retired for the night. Captain Moxey started organising the evacuation which was hampered by the pounding of the ship and the mess of debris on deck and in the water surrounding them.
Meanwhile, the convicts remained locked below with armed guards standing over the hatchway. Cries from the convicts made it clear they were already waist-deep in freezing water and were in genuine fear of drowning to death. They begged to be allowed on deck as the water continued to rise. As some tried forcing the hatch cover up several shots were fired into them. At least one convict was struck and killed as testified by three of the survivors. Moxey disputed the claim in a later inquiry stating the guards were stationed there just to keep the panicked men contained below deck until the women and children had safely been got away. In fact, the inquiry reads like the minutes of a mutual appreciation society meeting, each praising the efforts of the other officers in saving so many lives.
Fifteen minutes after striking the rock the deck was awash with water. The longboat was finally got away carrying about 40 people. Moxey was among them having been pulled from the water after he became trapped between floating timbers.
By then some of the convicts had forced their way on deck but many others died in the hold. Some fifty or so were too ill to save themselves, suffering from scurvy after some of the ship’s provisions were destroyed in a fire earlier in the passage out. They drowned where they lay unable to flee the rising water.
That night Moxey and the other officers managed to save about 160 people. Shortly after the ship was stranded a cutter with seven occupants was ordered to make for Hobart to get help. Moxey made three trips in the longboat ferrying survivors to land near present-day Southport. By the time he had reached the George III for the third time a schooner had arrived and was taking off survivors. They were all taken on to Hobart cold, wet and thoroughly exhausted from the ordeal.
134 people lost their lives. Three were children, one a woman, and two were members of the crew. Convicts made up the remaining 128 fatalities. Most never had a chance, trapped in the hold as the water rose around them. The next morning a convict named John Roberts was found dead lashed to a ringbolt in the surgeon’s cabin. It seems he was unable to swim and had tied himself off hoping to be washed ashore as the ship broke up.
The inquiry found no one was to blame for the accident. No officer admitted to ordering the prisoners to be confined below deck as the hold flooded with water. The Corporal of the guard testified that the muskets were only used to “intimidate” the prisoners and only one shot was fired, and that into the air. No one was held accountable for the loss of so many prisoners.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.
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