The Loss of HMS Sirius – 1790

“The melancholy loss of H.M.S Sirius off Norfolk Island” by George. Raper. Courtesy: National Library of Australia 136507434-1

The loss of a ship is always a tragedy, especially so if there is also loss of life.   But sometimes a shipwreck can have a profound effect beyond the actual loss of the vessel.   Such was the case in 1790 when HMS Sirius was wrecked off Norfolk Island.

HMS Sirius sailed from Portsmouth on 13 March 1787, as part of the “First Fleet,” a social experiment to rid England of its most troublesome and unwanted folk.   They arrived in New South Wales in January 1788 and in February HMS Supply transported a small number of convicts and guards to Norfolk Island to establish a settlement there.   By October of the same year, it became clear to Governor Phillip that Sydney was facing starvation unless something was urgently done.   He ordered Captain John Hunter to take HMS Sirius to Cape of Good Hope for livestock, grain and other provisions.

Some months after her return, the Sirius in company with HMS Supply, were ordered to sail for Norfolk Island with provisions and additional convicts and marines.

First Fleet entering Sydney Heads January 1788. By E. Le Bihan, Courtesy State Library of NSW.

They reached Norfolk Island on 13 March 1790 and over the next few days they disembarked their passengers, but the sea conditions were such that neither ship was able to land stores.  On 15 March they were forced to leave the island by an unrelenting southerly gale.   By the 19th the wind had moderated and shifted around to the southeast so Captain Hunter made landfall again hoping to begin unloading the desperately needed stores.

As Sirius neared the island Captain Hunter saw the Supply already anchored in Sydney Bay and there were signals flying on shore that longboats could land without danger from the surf.   Hunter took his ship in as close as he dared, loaded the boats and sent them away, but then the wind freshened.

“Part of the Reef in Sydney Bay, Norfolk Island, on which the Sirius was wreck’d. 19 March 1790.’ by William Bradley.

Hunter ordered his men to haul up the anchor and make for open water but in trying to do so the Sirius was driven onto the rocks.   Powerful surf crashed around the stricken ship.   Soon after they struck, the carpenter reported that water was pouring into the hold.   The masts were cut away in the hope the lightened vessel might be driven higher onto the reef where the crew might have a chance of saving their lives.  

By now it was about 11 AM.   The provisions were brought up from the hold and stored on deck so they might be floated ashore if the opportunity arose.   But the conditions just kept getting worse.   Towards evening Hunter received word from shore urging him to abandon ship as it would be too dangerous to remain overnight.      A rope was tied to an empty barrel and floated through the surf to waiting hands ashore.   Then a 7-inch-thick hawser was sent across the narrow stretch of reef and surging seas and tied to a tree which enabled the crew, about three or four at a time, to be hauled ashore.   Many sported cuts or bruises from being bashed against the rocks on the perilous passage.   The operation stopped only when it became too dark to continue safely, and the remaining crew were taken off the following day.

A couple of days later two convicts volunteered to go aboard the Sirius to get the livestock ashore.   They managed to get a number of pigs and some poultry over the side to be taken ashore by the current.   However, as evening turned to night the two men remained on the ship.   They had discovered a supply of rum and were by then getting thoroughly drunk.   They ignored instructions to return to shore and lit two fires, presumably to keep themselves warm.   Unfortunately, the fires got out of hand and did significant damage to the ship.   The pair were forcibly returned to shore the following day and clapped in irons for their troubles.

When the weather finally eased, Hunter sent some men across to begin ferrying the remaining provisions ashore using the hawser.   Other stores, sealed in timber casks, were thrown over the side hoping they would wash ashore through the surf.     Some made it.   Some sank to the bottom.   The Supply managed to unload its provisions on the other side of the island but with the additional mouths to feed, rations for everyone on the island were cut in half.   

The Settlement on Norfolk Island, May 16th 1790 / George Raper. Courtesy State Library of NSW, FL541331.

Captain Hunter and his crew would remain on Norfolk Island for several months before returning to Sydney.   Meanwhile, Governor Phillip was stunned to learn of the Sirius’ loss.    His problems just kept mounting.   The second fleet had recently arrived delivering 800 extra mouths to feed, many of whom were already in poor health when they landed.   They were in no fit state to help cultivate crops or contribute in any other meaningful way.   One of the fleet’s two supply ships, HMS Guardian had been wrecked in the Southern Ocean placing a greater strain on the settlement’s already meagre provisions.

The Governor had intended to send Captain Hunter on another resupply mission on his return from Norfolk Island, but now that idea had to be abandoned.   He had little choice but to further reduce rations.   Each person was provided just 1.5 lbs (700gms) of flour, 2 lbs (900gms) of salt pork, 1 lb (450gms) of rice and 1 pint (500ml) of pease to sustain them for a week.

Private boats were requisitioned and put to use fishing.  Hunting parties went out in search of game and guards were placed around the public vegetable gardens to prevent theft.   HMS Supply was sent to Batavia for supplies leaving Sydney without a single ship at its disposal.   143 people died of sickness or malnutrition in Sydney that year.    There was probably no other time when the existence of the settlement looked so tenuous.  

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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