The Bourneuf’s Tragic Last Voyage

Cross section of emigrant ship Bourneuf. From Illustrated London News 10 July 1852.

On 3 August 1853, the 1500-ton emigrant ship Bourneuf sank in Torres Strait as she was returning to England after bringing a human cargo of migrants to Australia. It proved a tragic end to a grim final voyage.

The Bourneuf had sailed from Liverpool in mid-July 1852 with more than 800 impoverished migrants keen to start a new life in Australia.

Convict transportation to New South Wales had ceased two years earlier, and the recently constituted Victorian Government had introduced an assisted migration program to alleviate the colony’s chronic labour shortage at a time when England still grappled with the social dislocation brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Emigration Depot at Birkenhead, Liverpool. A ship, possibly the Bourneuf, about to depart for Australia in 1852.

The migrants, many of them families with young children, were crammed in to two tiers of tiny cabins. Good hygiene was impossible to maintain from the outset in the overcrowded confines below deck. Passengers were required to prepare their own food in tightly packed common areas. Toilet arrangements were rudimentary. And it was not long before people started coming down with dysentery. The close fetid conditions below deck proved ideal for the spread of communicable diseases. By mid-voyage measles and scarlet fever was sweeping unchecked through the ship taking a terrible toll.

Isolating the sick proved impossible and for much of the passage ten or more people, mostly children, died each week. By the time the Bourneuf dropped anchor off Geelong in Port Phillip Bay on 20 September, disease had claimed 83 lives, or about 10% of the passengers. The ship was immediately placed in quarantine while twenty passengers were still recovering from illness.

The loss of so many lives on this ship and similar numbers on a couple of other vessels around the same time would lead to limits being placed on the number of passengers migrant ships could carry.

Example of immigrant accommodation on the 1874 James Craig barque at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Photo C.J. Ison.

The Bourneuf remained in Port Phillip Bay for ten months eventually setting sail on 18 July 1853 bound for Bombay before continuing back to England.

Captain Bibby made his way up the east coast of Australia pushed along by a south-easterly trade wind. He anticipated crossing through the Great Barrier Reef and into Torres Strait at the Raine Island entrance.

At 1 AM on 3 August 1853 the ship slammed into the Detached Reef north of the entrance in the pitch dark of night. Unrelenting swells from the Pacific Ocean pounded the stranded vessel. Captain Bibby gave the order for the crew and few passengers to abandon ship. Thirty-nine people took to three life-boats that night.

Two boats got away safely and the survivors were later picked up by the Dutch ship Everdina Elizabeth. The captain, his wife, sister-in-law, and five crew drowned when the third boat was capsized by huge waves while they tried escaping the stricken ship.

The Bourneuf is just one of 37 ships known to have been lost near the Raine Island Entrance during the 19th Century.

© C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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The Loss of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3

The rusting remains of Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was washed ashore at Vrylia Point on Cape York in January 1979 during Cyclone Greta. Photo C.J. Ison.

With an estimated 8,000 or more shipwrecks in Australian waters you could be mistaken for thinking the country’s foreshores would be littered with the remains of long-lost vessels standing silent testament to the dangerous waters they sailed.    In fact, there are surprisingly few recognisable shipwreck remains dotting Australia’s coastline.   

One I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago was the old unmanned Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 which was driven ashore on the remote west coast of Cape York.

Three Carpentaria Lightships moored in the Brisbane River near Peters Slip, Kangaroo Point circa 1924. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The Carpentaria Lightship CLS3 was one of four built at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney between 1916 and 1918.  

They were designed by the Scottish naval architects Charles and David Stevenson, and measured 22 metres in length, 7.8 metres breadth and 2.7 metres draft and displaced 164 tonnes.     The hull was constructed of riveted steel plates.  

An acetylene powered gas light sat atop a mast amidships and was visible 18.5 kilometres (10nm) away.   The vessels carried sufficient acetylene to keep the light burning for six months so there was no requirement for them to be manned.  

There were also mechanisms to switch the light off during the day and for them to flash their distinctive codes when operating.   The lightships were also fitted with a bell which rang as the ship rolled to warn nearby vessels of impending danger.

They were the first lightships to be built in Australia and most of their long careers were spent in Queensland waters.  

Two were always on station, one in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the other at Breaksea Spit north of Fraser Island.   The other two were held in reserve undergoing maintenance and ready to be rotated with those at sea.  One of the Carpentaria Lightships, CLS4 was later used in Bass Strait before being retired in 1985.

Carpentaria Lightship CLS4 at the National Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, New South Wales. Photo C.J. Ison

The Carpentaria CLS3 was moored at Carpentaria Shoal off the north west coast of Cape York when in January 1979 Cyclone Greta struck. The lightship broke free and was driven south-east towards Cape York beaching a little north of Vrilya Point about 65 kilometres south of Thursday Island. Attempts to haul the vessel off the beach failed and she has remained there rusting away ever since.

Carpentaria Lightships CLS2 and CLS4 can now be seen at the Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane and the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

© Copyright C.J. Ison/Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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HMS Boomerang 1891-1904

HMS Boomerang was a Sharpshooter-class torpedo gunboat which served at the Australia Station between 5 September 1891 and 22 August 1904.

She was originally named HMS Whiting when construction began but renamed Boomerang shortly before sailing for Australia.   The Boomerang was 74 metres long, 8.2 metres beam, 2.59 metres draft and displaced 735 tons.  

Crew on the deck of the HMS Boomerang firing a torpedo. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

She was armed with five torpedo tubes and carried 15 torpedos, two quick firing 4.7 inch guns and four three-pounders. The Boomerang had a tops speed of 35 km/h (19 knots) and had a crew of 91.

The Boomerang was part of the Royal Navy’s Australian Auxiliary Squadron which comprised 5 cruisers and two torpedo gunboats.   While there was no immediate or specified threat to Australia there was an underlying fear in this country of invasion from Russia dating back to the Crimean War.

Sailors during training exercise on HMS Boomerang in 1892. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The Boomerang returned to England in August 1904 and was sold off in Plymouth the following year.

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

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