The Loss of the Maria: A Cautionary Tale

Wreck of the Brig Maria with the New Guinea Expedition. Source: Australian Town and Country, 9 Mar 1872, p. 17.

If ever there was a cautionary tale warning of the perils of going to sea ill-prepared, it is that of the tragic loss of the Maria in 1872.

The Marine Board inquiry blamed the captain’s poor navigation and equally poor character for the loss of the ship and so many lives.   But, the underlying causes went back to the purchase of the ship by a committee of young men from Sydney seeking adventure and fortune in the wilds of New Guinea.

The men, members of the New Guinea Gold Prospecting Association, purchased the brig Maria to take them to New Guinea so they could search for gold in that largely unexplored part of the world.    

The brig they bought was over 25 years old and its glory days were long gone.   It had been seeing out its time hauling coal from Newcastle to Sydney.  Its only redeeming feature was its price.  After a month of searching, it was the only ship they had found that they could afford.   One expedition member later mused, “it would, perhaps, have been difficult to find a more unseaworthy old tub anywhere in the Southern waters.”[1]

Things might have turned out differently had they heeded the warning of the port authorities when the Maria was refused clearance to sail under the Passenger Act because the ship was deemed overcrowded, unseaworthy and the 68 passengers (all members of the Prospecting Association) were not adequately provided for in terms of safety equipment and provisions.    Rather than address the problems, the committee chose to sign on all but a handful of the passengers as members of the crew so the Act no longer applied.

Expedition members onboard the Maria before sailing from Sydney. Photo Courtesy SLQ.

Alarm bells should have rung out loud and clear when, at the last moment, the captain they had hired refused to take the ship to sea.   Though he feigned illness it seems he had begun to doubt the wisdom of taking the overcrowded, unseaworthy tub on the 3,700kms passage through the Coral Sea at the height of the North Australian cyclone season. 

Then, rather than spend any time recruiting another qualified master mariner they accepted the First Mate’s offer to captain the ship.  It was put to a vote and he was immediately elected to the post with barely a moment’s thought given to whether he was actually up to the task.

The Maria finally sailed from Sydney on 25 January 1872 with 75 people on board.   The first few days passed uneventfully but for friction between the Prospecting Association’s members.   They broadly fell into one of two groups: well-heeled, well-educated adventurous young gentlemen from some of the colonies leading families, and working-class miners and labourers hoping to make money on the new goldfield.   It was probably the first time any of them had spent time with the others more or less as equals and the mix proved volatile at times.

Then when they were only days away from reaching New Guinea they were struck by a ferocious storm.   The Maria was tossed around for five days and sustained serious damage.   After one-third of the expedition members pleaded to be put ashore, the majority voted to turn around and head for Moreton Bay to make repairs and disembark those who had had enough.   

Wreck of the Maria. Image Courtesy SLQ.

But, in its damaged state the Maria could not make its way south into the prevailing trade winds so the captain decided to sail for Cleveland Bay (present-day Townsville) instead.   However, that would require him to find his way through the Great Barrier Reef.   He only had a general coastal chart with a scale of one inch to 50 nautical miles (approx. 1cm to 40km).   Such a small scale provided him with little detail and no doubt less comfort that they would reach Townsville unscathed.

With a lookout above watching for submerged hazards the Maria gingerly made her way west and soon became entangled in the massive maze of coral reefs and shoals.   Thinking they were approaching Magnetic Island and the safety of Cleveland Bay, the captain was unknowingly approaching the coast some 90kms further north.   Then, in the early hours of 26 February, their luck finally ran out.   The Maria ran onto Bramble Reef off Hinchinbrook Island and began taking on water.   A few hours later she sank with just her masts showing above the surface.

Before that happened, Captain Stratman, with a handful of others, had already left the ship in one of their three boats leaving everyone else to their fate.    The class divide among the expedition members made it almost impossible to coordinate their efforts.   No one would take orders from anyone else. Some eventually made it to Cardwell in the two remaining boats, others got ashore on makeshift rafts.   But of the 75 people who left Sydney, 35 lost their lives.  


There were several times when different decisions might have prevented the tragedy.  While determination to overcome obstacles is often applauded, it needs to be tempered with a degree of prudence.

[1] Forster. W, Nautical Magazine, Sept 1872, p. 809.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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No Charts, No Worries

A schooner of the early 1800s. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

When Captain George Browning sailed the small schooner Caledonia from Sydney in December 1831, he intended to follow the coast north as far as the Tropic of Capricorn.   There he was to collect salvage from a ship that had been wrecked in the Bunker Islands and return it to Sydney to be sold.   But on the way, he was to call in at the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement to collect a whaleboat the crew had used to escape the wreck.   That was where things began to go wrong for the young master mariner.

While anchored in Moreton Bay his ship was seized by a band of convicts who sent the crew ashore and ordered Browning to take them to the tiny South Pacific Island of Rotuma some 1,500 nautical miles or 3,000 kilometres away over open ocean.   See my blog “The Caledonia’s perilous last voyage,” for a more detailed account.

Among the many challenges he faced, he had no charts covering the South Pacific.  Yet, Browning had to find a way to deliver his unwanted passengers to their destination if he was to have any chance of saving his ship and preserving his own life.   He consulted his “Epitome of Practical Navigation,” a book all master mariners kept close at hand.   The regularly updated volume was considered the standard text on maritime navigation and was packed with charts and tables to help mariners navigate the world’s oceans.   

Example from The American Practical Navigator, 1837. There were several such books used by master mariners.

Browning referred to a table of South Pacific Islands with their corresponding geographic coordinates.  With this information, he flipped over one of his coastal charts and drew a grid labelling the key lines of longitudes and latitudes for the waters he would be sailing and marked the various known islands and features identified in the table, albeit with many reefs, shoals and other hazards left unrecorded.   Notwithstanding its limitations, he could now take observations and plot his whereabouts and relate that to his destination – Rotuma – and any other islands in the course of his travels.   

Using his makeshift chart, Browning navigated from Moreton Bay to New Caledonia where they stopped to collect fresh drinking water.   From there he charted a course to Rotuma and when he was directed to leave that island at a moment’s notice and make for Wallis Island he did that too.  

Perhaps the chart’s greatest value came as they sailed towards Wallis Island.   A couple of the convicts warned Browning that their leader intended to scuttle the Caledonia and do away with its captain once they had arrived.   He knew Wallis Island lay a short distance over the horizon and they would likely arrive late that afternoon.  

He shaped the sails to slow the ship’s progress until nightfall.   Then, during the hours of darkness, he picked up speed again and was able to slip by Wallis thereby prolonging his life a little longer.   A couple of days later they pulled in at the Samoan island of Savai’i.   There the Caledonia was scuttled but Browning was befriended by a local chief and escaped the convicts’ clutches.  He eventually returned to Australia to tell his amazing story.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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Mutiny on the Ariel

Hong Kong circa 1840s

In 1845 the trading schooner Ariel was seized off the coast of China while carrying a valuable cargo worth millions of dollars in today’s money.   This act of piracy was unusual because it was not carried out by a band of desperate cutthroats but by two of the ship’s own officers.

The schooner Ariel was owned by the powerful trading company Jardine Matheson and was a fast-sailing coastal merchant vessel, probably around the 100-ton class.   She was also well-armed with cannons to ward off marauders in those dangerous waters.   The Ariel was crewed by British officers comprising the captain, first mate, and gunner.   The only other Englishman on board being a young apprentice.   The sailing crew were all Filipino, or “Manila men” as they were called at the time.  A young Chinese woman was also on board who was likely the captain’s mistress although she was variously described as his cook or cabin steward.

Amoy from the outer anchorage, circa 1845.

The Ariel regularly cruised between Chinese ports carrying all manner of goods.   This time she was sailing from Xiamen (then called Amoy) bound for Hong Kong with a very valuable cargo.   One account had the ship carrying $100,000 in Spanish silver Reales, the currency of trade at the time.     Another had her carrying a shipment of opium plus a quantity of gold and silver coin.  Either way, the value of the cargo was substantial, probably equivalent to many millions of dollars today, and it proved a temptation too irresistible to the mate and gunner.

The evening they sailed from Xiamen, Wilkinson, the first mate, called Captain Macfarlane to come up from his cabin.   They were now off Nan’ao Island 160kms south of Xiamen and about one-third of the way through their passage to Hong Kong.   When Macfarlane came on deck he was confronted by Wilkinson and the gunner both armed with cutlass and pistols.   Wilkinson told Macfarlane they had seized the ship and they would be making for Singapore.    The pair offered to make Macfarlane an equal partner in their crime, for there were more than enough riches to go around.   But the captain refused to have any part in it and tried to persuade the men to give up their brazen heist.   

Map of China showing coast between Amoy and Hong Kong, circa 1850s.

Meanwhile, the crew was gathered on the forecastle and though they appeared not to be participating in the mutiny, Wilkinson said they were on his side.   The threat was obvious.   Captain Macfarlane was on his own.   Macfarlane was locked in his cabin with the assurance he would be released unharmed as long as he did nothing to disrupt their plans.   

The next morning the captain asked to be let go in the longboat but the mate refused, telling him they were too close to Hong Kong and he would not risk capture should the captain raise the alarm before they were well out to sea.   A little later the Chinese girl went forward and spoke with the Filipino crew and learned they wanted nothing to do with the mutiny.   They armed themselves with knives and the cannon’s ramrods on the captain’s command and attacked the mate and gunner.   Meanwhile, several men smashed open the cabin skylight to rescue the captain.

Hong Kong circa 1840s

By the time Macfarlane was hauled out through the skylight, the mate was lying bashed, stabbed, and bleeding to death on the deck while the gunner had taken refuge in the cabin just vacated by the captain.

Captain Macfarlane, now back in command of his ship, found a fowling piece (shotgun) belonging to the gunner and ordered him to surrender.   When the gunner opened the hatch leading to the ship’s gunpowder magazine and threatened to blow everything up, Macfarlane shot him in the leg.   He was then quickly overpowered and taken to Hong Kong to stand trial.   Wilkinson died from his wounds before they reached port.   The gunner, whose name is not recorded, was found guilty of piracy and sentenced to transportation for life.

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

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The Orete’s Robinson Crusoe-like Castaway

Schooner Orete (left), Donald Mackenzie (right)

In January 1918, Donald Mackenzie found himself marooned on a tiny uninhabited island after his schooner sank during one of the most powerful cyclones to hit Central Queensland.  

The tough 56-year-old Scott was a seaman on the Orete which had sailed from Maryborough bound for Mackay with a cargo of sawn timber.    They had no sooner got underway when the weather began to deteriorate.   As they bore north it got progressively worse.   Little did they know a massive cyclone was forming ahead of them.   By the time they reached the Percy Islands, less than 200kms from their destination the barometer plummeted and the heavily laden vessel was being pummelled by huge seas.   The captain dropped anchor in the lee of Pine Islet to ride out the encroaching storm.  

But as the cyclone approached the coast, the wind shifted around and the anchors started dragging.   The Orete was blown from her anchorage under bare poles and later foundered sank with the loss of five lives.   Mackenzie was plunged into the heaving sea with a life belt tied around his waist.    He climbed onto a cabin door floating nearby and held on as the storm raged around him.    After about four or five hours he was washed up on a beach to join other flotsam from the wrecked ship.

Orete survivor, Donald Mackenzie (right) holding his life preserver. Source: The Queenslander Pictorial Supplement, 9 March 1918.

When the weather subsided Mackenzie took stock of his situation.   He had no idea where he had landed, he would later learn it was Tynemouth Is. The foreshore was littered with timber and other debris.  He found a few onions and pumpkins which he would eat in the coming days, He also emptied a crate of kerosene cans and filled them with drinking water.   A quick search of the island revealed it was uninhabited but, about 2kms away Mackenzie could see another island with what looked like buildings on it.    That would later prove to be Iron Islet.

Without the means to make a fire or attract attention, Mackenzie resolved to build a raft to cross the expanse of water.   He broke apart the kerosene crate to salvage the nails and used them to fix planks together to form a raft.    

That time had not come soon enough.   Hunger and the harsh conditions were taking their toll on him.     He had eaten the last of the raw vegetables days earlier and had been subsisting on oysters smashed from the rocks ever since.   During the day there was little respite from the searing tropical sun.   And, at night he was tormented ceaselessly by mosquitoes and ants making sleep all but impossible.

Donald Mackenzie’s raft. Source: The Queenslander Pictorial Supplement, 9 March 1918.

After ten days Mackenzie was ready to leave.   He dragged his raft into the water and started towards Iron Islet using a broad timber plank to paddle.   But he was soon caught in a strong current ripping through the passage.   He was swept away and the current threatened to take him away from land.  Mackenzie made the difficult decision to abandon his raft and swim back to Tynemouth Island before it was too late. 

Disheartened as Mackenzie was, he knew he was growing weaker by the day.     If he was ever going to survive he had to build another raft.    This one took him eight days to complete.   The next morning, Sunday 10 February, he dragged his cumbersome craft into the water, straddled it, and started paddling away from shore.

Again, he was caught in the strong current.   He used every ounce of strength his fatigued muscles could give him inching the raft across the passage.    After an almost super-human effort, Mackenzie reached the southern end of Hunter Island.    There, he rested before setting off again to cross the one-kilometre channel that now separated him from Iron Islet.  

Again, he was caught in another powerful current.   This one was even stronger than the last.   He paddled furiously but it was hopeless.   He had no control over the craft.   He looked back only to see the Iron Islet buildings disappearing into the distance behind him.

Mackenzie’s approximate course,

At one time or another most people experience that sinking feeling when success – so close at hand – slips away and all seems lost.   This was Mackenzie’s moment.   He had survived the wreck which had claimed the lives of his five shipmates.   He had been cast away, Robinson Crusoe-like, on a deserted island for 19 days suffering from hunger and exposure.   He had built two rafts with his bare hands and escaped but it was all for nothing.   Mackenzie was rocketing out into the vast Pacific Ocean and there was nothing he could do to stop it.    He was mentally exhausted, and the most recent frenzied paddling had left him physically spent.   But as he exited the channel separating the islands the current slackened and the raft’s headlong progress slowed.

Mackenzie looked back towards the island and to his astonishment, he saw sheep grazing.    With renewed spirit, he drew on his last reserves of energy and paddled towards shore.   As he got closer the distinctive outline of a cottage roof stood out among the trees.     He kept paddling until the raft ran onto the sandy beach where he waded ashore on unsteady legs.   Mackenzie had survived and in time he would be returned to civilisation.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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The Caledonia’s perilous last voyage

A schooner of the early 1800s. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

On a stormy December night in 1831, eleven desperate convicts seized a small ship at Moreton Bay and forced its captain to take them to a South Pacific Island.   But as the prisoners turned pirates climbed aboard the vessel, little could they have imagined that most of them were escaping one reign of terror for another far worse.  Three of them would soon be dead.   Another would be abandoned to his fate on an inhospitable island and others would flee in fear for their lives at the earliest opportunity.   What the convicts didn’t know when they made their bid for freedom was that their leader was a tyrant far worse than any they had encountered in the penal system.

William Evans was unique among his fellow convicts, for he had come to New South Wales a free man – a seaman onboard the Australia.   He had been sent to the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement for stealing from the ship’s captain.    Though his crime was not violent, he would later prove to be a murderous psychopath.   Now, after serving four of his seven-year sentence, a rare opportunity to escape his living hell was within his grasp.  Anchored in the bay was the small trading schooner Caledonia.

Sydney Herald, 20 Feb 1832, p. 3.

Captain George Browning had brought the Caledonia from Sydney to Moreton Bay to collect a whaleboat before continuing north to salvage the wrecked ship America.   However, he had to wait at anchor near the pilot station for it to be brought downriver from the main penal settlement.  

That night as a thunderstorm raged overhead, Evans and a couple of others tunnelled under the pilothouse wall, stole the keys to the boat shed and armed themselves with muskets and pistols.   Then they took the pilot boat out to the Caledonia and overwhelmed the crew before they had fully awoken.    Everyone except the captain was forced into the boat to return to shore as the schooner put to sea.   Browning was needed to navigate the ship across the 3,000 kms of open ocean to reach their destination, Rotuma Island.   By dawn they were heading out to sea, as the crew returned to shore to raise the alarm.

Newspaper illustration of Evans and others throwing convict over the side of the Caledonia. The Argus, circa 1950s

After a week at sea, tensions emerged among the convicts.   The common purpose that had brought the men together to make their escape was shattered.   One night William Evans with two of his most trusted colleagues gathered outside the crew’s cabin where the rest of the men slept and ordered one of them to come on deck.   As he emerged, Evans shot him point-blank in the head.   He then ordered three others to come out.   Two of them were also killed but the third was spared after he pleaded for his life.   It turned out that they had been planning to seize the ship and do away with Evans, but Evans got in first.   

About a week later the Caledonia stopped at New Caledonia for water.  Evans’ right-hand man, Hugh Hastings was sent out with a couple of others to fill the water barrels.   But, while they were away the schooner was visited by a large number of Islanders.   They left only after shots were fired over their heads.   Fearing they might return that night, Evans had the schooner taken out to sea.    Hastings thought he had been abandoned.  In a fit of rage, he swore to kill Evans and everyone else on the Caledonia for their treachery.   They spent an uncomfortable night in the boat, but in the morning the ship returned for them.   When Evans learned of Hastings’ threats, he told his mate he could stay on the island and take his chances with the hostile natives, or he would be shot.   Hastings remained on the island when the Caledonia sailed away.

They finally reached the tiny island of Rotuma where it was said whaling vessels periodically stopped for water and fresh supplies.   Evans passed themselves off as being on a trading voyage through the islands, however, one of the convicts bragged that they had escaped from Moreton Bay.   When Evans found out he was furious and vowed to kill the man but he took off before Evans got his chance.   It was no longer safe to stay on Rotuma so Evans order Browning to set sail.

Likely route taken by the Caledonia from Moreton Bay to Savai’i Island

They eventually made it to Savai’i Island in Samoa.    Testifying to Evans’ reign of terror, three more of the convicts fled taking with them three women they had kidnapped from Rotuma, as soon as they arrived.  

When Evans was told that whaling ships regularly called in for supplies, he decided to scuttle the Caledonia and await the next ship.   Browning finally escaped Evans when a local chief took a liking to him.   When, a fortnight later, the whaler Oldham dropped anchor, Browning told its captain what Evans had done and they soon detained the man.   But while at sea, Evans jumped overboard still in chains preferring to drown himself than face the hangman in Sydney.  The other convicts evaded capture and remained on Savai’i.   

Browning, much to everyone’s surprise, made it back to Sydney to tell his amazing story.

The full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters available through Amazon.

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

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