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.”
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.
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.
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.
 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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