Between 1788 and 1868 something like 162,000 convicts were put on transport ships and banished to the colonies to serve out their sentences. Such were conditions onboard some of these ships and the hazards and vast distances travelled, perhaps as many as one in one hundred perished without ever setting foot on Australian soil. When the Neva struck a reef in Bass Strait, she added nearly another 150 souls to that grim figure among her 226 casualties.
The 337-ton barque Neva sailed from the Irish port of Cork on 8 January 1835 bound for Sydney, New South Wales with 153 female prisoners of the crown. Joining them were 55 children and nine free female emigrants. The crew, under the command of Captain Benjamin H. Peck, numbered 26. Three people died and one baby was born on the passage out so by the time they were nearing their destination the ship’s complement numbered 241, passengers and crew.
By 12 May the Neva had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, stopped briefly at the island of St Paul for fresh supplies and was about to enter Bass Strait. At noon Captain Peck calculated they were about 90nm (170kms) west of King Island. As daylight faded into night, he posted a lookout to warn of any dangers lying in their path. He would remain on deck through the night, but for a two-hour break, as his ship negotiated that dangerous stretch of water.
A stiff breeze was blowing and the ship was being pushed along under double-reefed topsails. Around 2 o’clock in the morning the lookout sighted the dark silhouette of land against the night sky in the distance. Peck ordered the course altered a little to the north to ensure he safely cleared King Island.
Then about two or three hours later the lookout called “breakers ahead” as a line of white water emerged from the pre-dawn gloom.
Captain Peck immediately gave orders to tack but the order came too late. As the Neva was turning into the wind she struck a rock and unshipped her rudder. With the wheel unresponsive the stricken ship was now at the mercy of the wind and current. They had likely struck Navarine Reef about 3kms northeast of Cape Wickham, the northernmost point of King Island.
Suddenly she struck ground a second time. The port bow struck first and the Neva was swung broadside against the reef and began taking on water. Below decks, the prison cages collapsed under the violent force of the collision and the terrified female convicts rushed on deck.
The Gig was lost as it was being lowered. Peck then ordered the pinnace over the side and he, the ship’s surgeon several sailors and some of the female passengers climbed aboard. But before they could put away it was overwhelmed by a deluge of frightened women franticly trying to escape the ship. The boat sank under their weight, and everyone was spilled into the churning water. Only Peck and the two seamen made it back to the ship alive.
On climbing back aboard the captain set about having the longboat launched. However, as he boarded this time he made sure that the panicking passengers were kept at bay. Unfortunately for the captain, the boat was swamped by the surging seas crashing around the ship spilling him and everyone else into the water. Only Captain Peck and his First Mate made it back to the ship.
With the loss of three of the ship’s boats, they were left with just the cutter as their final lifeboat. It is not immediately clear from reading survivor accounts why it was never launched. The most likely reason is that the ship began to break up before it could be launched. Even if it had been, it would likely have met the same fate as the longboat. Regardless, Captain Peck had no recourse now but to share his passenger’s fate. Then, under the relentless pounding of the waves, the Neva began to break apart.
The deck broke away from the superstructure and then parted into at least two sections effectively forming rafts. Captain Peck, some of the seamen and several women made it onto one of them while the First Mate and several other people were lucky enough to find themselves on the second. The two rafts drifted clear of the wreckage leaving the remaining convict women clinging to the few other parts of the ship’s remains still jutting above the surging seas.
The rafts and several other pieces of wreckage with people clinging to them drifted with the currents for several hours before they came to ground in a sandy bay at the northern end of King Island. The Mate’s raft rode the surf in and was deposited high on the beach and most of the people who had clung to it survived.
The captain’s raft was not so lucky. The timber platform had come away with a large section of the foremast protruding below the surface. As they entered the shallows the mast caught on the bottom some distance from the beach. Waves swept everyone from the raft drowning anyone who could not swim. Only the captain, a seaman and one woman made it ashore alive. The rest perished in the pounding surf.
Twenty-two people made it onto King Island, but seven of them died within 24 hours either from exposure or from injuries sustained during their escape from the wreck. The remaining fifteen survivors used sails and spars washed ashore to build makeshift shelters and collected what provisions they could that had been washed ashore. About one hundred bodies were found scattered among the debris which were quickly buried in several mass graves.
Having resigned to waiting some time to be rescued by a passing ship, Peck and the others began foraging for food to supplement what was washed ashore from the Neva. However, they would soon learn they were not alone. They were discovered by another party of castaways who had earlier been wrecked on the south-eastern end of King Island. They had noticed wreckage drifting down the coast and had gone to investigate eventually coming upon the Neva’s survivors. They were also given some assistance from a sealer and his aboriginal wife who lived on King Island.
After being marooned for about a month both parties were found by Charles Friend, the master of the schooner Sarah Ann. He had touched at King Island on his way back to Launceston after delivering provisions to a Bass Strait whaling station. Everyone, except two of the Neva’s sailors and a convict woman, were taken off the island and delivered to Launceston. The three left behind had been away from camp foraging for food at the time and the captain of the Sarah Ann could not risk losing his ship waiting for them to return.
The survivors reached Launceston on 27 June and a cutter was immediately dispatched to King Island to collect the remaining three castaways. In all, just fifteen of the 241 passengers and crew who were onboard the Neva when she sank, survived making it one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.
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3 thoughts on “The Loss of the Convict Ship Neva – 1835”
Hello, would you mind posting your sources? I’d like to read more about the investigation and aftermath. I’m confused about the breakup of the ship after hitting the rocks- the captain tried to abandon his crew and passengers at least twice, with assistance from other officers? You describe Peck as “gallant”- was that meant to be sarcastic?
Hi Sarah, Thanks for taking an interest in my blog. The main sources were two contemporary newspaper articles which appear to have been based on a statement or statements made by Peck. They are “Melancholy Shipwreck”, The Launceston Advertiser, 2 Jul 1835, p. 4, and “Particulars of the Wreck of the Prison Ship Neva,” The True Colonist Van Diemen’s Land Political Despatch, 10 Jul 1835, p. 115. There is also an account in “Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea”, William Mark Clark, London, 1846, with a little more detail but it does not include sources. I could find no record of an inquiry and suspect there may never have been one. His statement of the event may have been sufficient and the loss chalked up as an unfortunate accident while navigating dangerous and inadequately charted waters. Peck is recorded as sailing from Launceston to Sydney in August but then vanishes. As for his conduct. Yes the term “gallant” I applied to him was used sarcastically. He did not appear to try and justify taking each of the boats to find somewhere to land the passengers or to assess damage to the ship. His statement, as recorded in the newspaper articles suggest he was saving his own skin. As for the 6 convict women who survived, they went on to live unassuming lives in Van Diemen’s Land, several married soon after arriving there and received tickets of leave within a few years. If you find anything else regarding the Neva I would like to know. Regards Chris
HI Sarah. I dug a little deeper and have found the report on an inquiry held in Launceston in July 1835 which exonerated the captain for the loss of his ship. witness statements include six of the convict women who all state the captain and crew dealt with them fairly. Make what you will of that. They can all be found in Historical Records of Australia Vol 18, 1923 starting around page 137. Regards Chris