The Mystery of the Peri

HMS Basilisk overhauls the Peri off the Queensland coast. Courtesy: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich London.

In February 1872 the crew of HMS Basilisk found fourteen men barely clinging to life on a derelict schooner adrift off the far north Queensland coast. The vessel’s name was not immediately apparent and none of the survivors spoke English. It was a mystery as to how the vessel came to be in those northern waters, and one that would be some time solving.

In February 1872 the side paddle steamer HMS Basilisk was steaming up the Queensland coast on a three-month cruise to Torres Strait. They were to deliver stores to the government settlement at Somerset, chart several recently reported navigation hazards and generally show the flag in that remote part of the continent.

When they were in the vicinity of Hinchinbrook Island, a lookout sighted a small fore-and-aft schooner off in the distance.   It was rare to come upon another ship in those waters, so Captain John Moresby called for his telescope and took a closer look.   It was immediately clear to the master mariner that not all was as it should be with the strange vessel.

He could see that the schooner sat heavily in the water as she sluggishly rode the long smooth swells.   His first thought was that the schooner might have been abandoned by her crew.   As the Basilisk drew closer, he could see that her weather-beaten sails were poorly set and flapping loosely in the light breeze.   The rigging was slack and there was no sign of anyone on deck.

Illustration of the Basilisk’s discovery of the Peri. Source: Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 29 Feb 1872, p. 53

When the Basilisk raised its ensign signalling to the strange vessel to identify itself, they got no response.   But as they drew nearer still a couple of Pacific Islanders armed with muskets staggered to their feet near the schooner’s stern.   Moresby then noticed several more men lying scattered on the deck.   He sent two boats across to investigate.

What they found is best summed up in Captain Moresby’s own words: “… they were living skeletons, creatures dazed with fear and mortal weakness.   As our crews boarded, other half-dead wretches tottered to their feet, fumbling too at rusty, lockless muskets. … They were dreadful to look at – being in the last stage of famine, wasted to the bone; some were barely alive, and the sleeping figures were dead bodies fast losing the shape of humanity, on a deck foul with blood.”1

The boarding party found several dead and decomposing bodies on the deck.    There was five feet of putrid water sloshing in the hold.   The helm was lashed down.   The cabin had been ransacked and the deck planking had been splintered by axe strokes in places and there were large pools of dried blood splashed about.   And, there was no fresh water or food anywhere to be seen.    All, Captain Moresby later recalled, pointed to a violent and tragic incident having taken place on board the schooner.

Moresby held a funeral service for the dead and buried them at sea.   He then steamed towards Cardwell, just 40kms away, with the schooner in tow to land the fourteen survivors.   None spoke English but for the word “Solomon” which Moresby concluded meant they were from the Solomon Islands.   He then continued North towards Torres Strait leaving a midshipman and several sailors with the schooner to be collected on his return to Sydney in a couple of months’ time.

HMS Basilisk commander – Captain John Moresby. Photo sourced from his autobiography Two Admirals.

The pieces of the puzzle would slowly come together over the next weeks and months.    Midshipman Sabben discovered that the schooner was named Peri after his men had scrubbed the headboards clean.    The Peri had recently been reported missing in Fijian waters.   On 27 December 1871 she had sailed from Viti Levu with about 90 “indentured” Pacific Islanders bound for a cotton plantation on Taveuni 100kms away, but she never arrived.  

About 30 of the men had been kidnapped in the Solomon Islands by the crew of the labour schooner Lismore and taken to Levuka in Fiji.   At the time, Fiji was in the midst of a cotton boom and the white plantation owners could not get enough field workers to tend their crops. Many Islanders fell victim to the more unscrupulous “recruiters” who stopped at nothing to fill their quotas.

At Levuka the men would be offloaded and sent to work on plantations for fixed terms contracts, usually three years. They were supposed to have been recruited willingly and at the end of their term, they would be paid out and returned home. However, that was not always the case.

In this instance, the kidnapped Solomon Islanders’ contracts were purchased by an Australian plantation owner on Taveuni Island. But while they were in transit they seized control of the small cutter and escaped.    Unfortunately, the cutter ran aground on a small island in the Yasawa group and most of them were recaptured a couple of weeks later.  

The other 60 or so Islanders had recently been kidnapped by the notorious blackbirder Captain McLever on the Nukulau.   By December 1871 both groups of men had been transferred to the Peri off Viti Levu to be sent to work on a plantation on Taveuni Island.

It is not entirely clear what happened next, but it seems the Islanders rose up, killed the captain and crew and seized the ship.    Over the next six weeks, they sailed or drifted nearly 3,500 kms west until just off the Australian coast where they were found by the Basilisk.    From the water in the hold and the general state of the ship, Moresby believed they had weathered at least one severe tropical storm during their passage.   And judging by their emaciated state, food and water had run out long before they were rescued.   The blood stains and axe marks led some to speculate that they may have resorted to cannibalism to survive but that was never conclusively proved and none of the bodies found showed signs of being butchered.  

Approx track of the Peri.

About 90 men were on board when the Peri left Viti Levu, excluding the crew.     Some may have taken the schooner’s boat and made it safely to land, but what happened to the rest is lost to time.   By the time the Basilisks crew boarded the schooner there were just 14 men still alive.   One more would succumb soon after landing at Cardwell.   

The remaining Solomon Islanders were taken to Sydney by the Basilisk on her return from Torres Strait and eventually put onboard HMS Cossack to be repatriated.   However, eight jumped ship when the Cossack stopped briefly at Matuku Island perhaps fearing they were returning to Fiji to be punished.     When the rest were questioned through an interpreter on their arrival in Levuka, they told the British Consul that they had been kidnapped.   They described how, when they paddled out to McLever’s ship expecting to trade, his men sank their canoes, dragged them onboard, beat them and locked them in the hold.  

McLever was arrested and the Solomon Islanders were returned to Sydney to testify at his trial but no one thought to send a translator and the case was thrown out for lack of evidence.      The Islanders were sent back to Fiji but who knows if they ever found their way back home.

1.Moresby. John RN, Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and D’Entrecasteaux Islands, John Murray, London, 1876, p.4.

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

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