The Cataraqui: Australia’s deadliest shipwreck – 1845.

Cataraqui wrecked off King Island in Bass Strait. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Australia’s deadliest civilian shipwreck occurred on 4 August 1845 when the 803-ton barque Cataraqui slammed into rocks near Fitzmaurice Bay off King Island during foul weather.   On board were some 366 migrants and a crew of 43.    Of those 409 people, only nine made it ashore alive.  

The Cataraqui sailed from Liverpool on 20 April carrying assisted migrants escaping poverty in England, hoping to make a better life for themselves in Australia.   Many of the passengers were women and children accompanying their menfolk who were all but guaranteed work in the labour-strapped colonies.  

The voyage was largely uneventful until they were passing to the south of St Paul’s Island about halfway between Cape of Good Hope and Australia’s west coast.  On 15 July they were struck by a powerful gale accompanied by heavy seas.   For the next fortnight, they steadily made their way east along the 40th degree latitude not for one moment getting any respite from the atrocious weather conditions. They were not called the “Roaring Forties” for nothing.

By Sunday 3 August, they were within one or two days sail from Melbourne and still being lashed by strong winds and powerful seas.     At 7 o’clock in the evening, Captain Charles Finlay estimated their position at 39° 17’S 141° 22’E or about 100kms south of Cape Nelson on the Victorian coast.   At 3 o’clock the next morning, the gale moderated a little and Captain Finlay bore northeast expecting to soon see the distinctive profile of Cape Otway off their port bow.   That would have given Finlay his first accurate position since passing St Paul.

Report of the loss of the Cataraqui. Source: Port Phillip Patriot, 14 Sept 1845, p. 5.

Unfortunately, the strong winds had pushed the Cataraqui along faster than he had calculated.   Unbeknownst to him, he was further east and further south than he thought.   So, rather than making towards Cape Otway with deep water ahead, they were sailing towards the rugged west coast of King Island unseen in the thick weather and inky darkness.

At 4.30 AM the ship struck rocks near Fitzmaurice Bay.   First Mate, Thomas Guthrie provided a harrowing account of the first few hours while they waited for dawn:

“Imagine 425 [actually 409] souls,” he began, “of which the greater part were women and children, being suddenly awakened from a sound sleep by the crashing of the timbers of the ship against the rocks. The scene was dreadful, the sea pouring over the vessel—the planks and timbers crashing and breaking—the waters rushing in from below, and pouring down from above—the raging of the wind in the rigging and the boiling and hissing of the sea—joined to the dreadful shrieks of the females and children, who were drowning between decks.”

“The attempts of so many at once to get up the hatchways blocked them up, so that few got on deck uninjured, and when there, the roaring noise, and sweeping force of the sea was most appalling.   Death stared them in the face in many forms— for it was not simply drowning, but violent dashing against the rocks which studded the waves between the vessel and the shore.”

“When day broke they trusted to find a way to the shore, but no, the raging waves, and pointed rocks, rendered every attempt useless.   The sea broke over the vessel very heavily, and soon swept away the long boat and almost everything on deck.”1

Cataraqui wreck site. Courtesy Google Maps

In those few desperate hours it was estimated that some 200 people lost their lives.   Another 200 were faced with the stark reality that even though land was so tantalisingly close, there was no safe way to reach it.   The ship had struck a rocky reef running parallel with and a short distance off the coast.   Captain Finlay ordered the masts cut away.   He hoped the powerful waves might then carry the lightened ship over the rocks and closer to shore where the survivors might stand some chance of reaching land.   Unfortunately, it had no effect.   The ship remained firmly stuck on the jagged rocks. He then tried floating a buoy ashore, but the rope became entangled in kelp long before it could be used as a lifeline.  

In mid-morning Captain Finlay ordered their only remaining boat over the side.   He, the boatswain, the ship’s surgeon and four seamen boarded her hoping to run a line ashore.   However, the boat was quickly overturned in the tumultuous seas.   Finlay was the only one to get back to the ship alive.

At midday, the Cataraqui broke apart amidships and the aft sank taking about 100 terrified people with it.   By now there were only ninety people still clinging to life.   By midnight, twelve hours later, they were down to fifty.   Overcome by fatigue and cold, the remaining survivors dropped from the wreck into the sea.

Thomas Guthrie clung on until the end, then he was finally swept from the last vestige of the wreck as it sank below the surface.   Somehow, he avoided being dashed against the rocks and the surf deposited him on the shore.   He found only eight other survivors.   One was Solomon Brown, a 30-year-old labourer who had boarded the ship with his wife and four daughters.   He was the only passenger to survive.   The other seven, like Guthrie, were members of the crew.

Memorial to the Cataraqui shipwreck on King Island. Source: Australasian Sketcher, 29 Dec 1887, p. 197.

The next day, 6 August the survivors were discovered by David Howie and his party of sealers who had a camp some distance away.  They built a hut, got a fire going, brought provisions from their own camp, and generally tended to the needs of the castaways for the next four weeks.   On 7 September the cutter Midge arrived at King Island with fresh provisions for Howie and his men and when it left with a cargo of seal and wallaby skins, they had on board Guthrie and the rest of the Cataraqui survivors and took them on to Melbourne.

1 Thomas Guthrie quoted in the Port Phillip Patriot, 14 Sept 1845, p.2.

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

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2 thoughts on “The Cataraqui: Australia’s deadliest shipwreck – 1845.

  1. Really enjoy reading the historic stories about the sailing adventures and tragic shipwrecks. This is a sad and terrible reminder of how treacherous it was to make such a long journey to our shores.


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