The CSS Shenandoah: Victoria’s link to the American Civil War.

CSS Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

On 25 January 1865 a large foreign warship unexpectedly dropped anchor in Hobson’s Bay off Melbourne causing considerable consternation in the colonial government.    The ship proved to be the 1160-ton, eight-gun auxiliary steamer CSS Shenandoah of the Confederate States of America and had pulled in to make urgent repairs.  

Five years earlier the Southern states had ceded from the Union over the question of slavery and the country had been embroiled in a brutal civil war ever since.   The Shenandoah had been particularly busy in the three months before arriving in Australian waters.   It had captured or sunk no less than 11 merchant ships belonging to the United States and was holding some of the sailors prisoner.  

Britain and by extension, the colonies in Australia had declared strict neutrality in the hostilities between the North and the South.    The arrival of an armed warship posed a delicate diplomatic problem for the Victorian Governor, Sir Charles Darling and his administration.  

Some of the 12,000 visitors on the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Immediately on arrival the Shenandoah’s captain, James Waddell, sent an officer ashore seeking permission to make repairs to his ship’s propeller which had been damaged during a recent storm.   He also sought to take on coal and other supplies and to land his prisoners.   

One thing he did not ask permission for was to recruit replacement sailors though he was determined to do so while in port.

Governor Darling allowed the Shenandoah to undertake essential repairs and take on supplies thinking the ship would be gone within a couple of days.   However, after the propeller and shaft had been inspected, it was found the ship would have to be slipped to repair the damaged machinery and that would take time.

Conscious of their obligations of neutrality the colonial government decided that “no other work should be performed on the vessel than absolutely and necessarily required,” to allow the Shenandoah to safely go to sea.  

While the government struggled to meet the requirements of Britain’s proclaimed neutrality, the wider public was far less concerned.   The arrival of the Southern warship caused a sensation.   During the first weekend the Shenandoah was in port more than 12,000 people went out to visit it, which was around 10 per cent of Melbourne’s total population.    Captain Waddell and his officers were wined and dined and made as welcome as anyone possibly could be.    A ball was even held in their honour in nearby Ballarat.  

Ballarat Ball for the officers of the Shenandoah. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Meanwhile, as the bunkers were filled with coal, supplies loaded onboard and repairs were progressing, Waddell’s officers began surreptitiously recruiting seamen from Melbourne’s docks.    It was rumoured he was offering those willing to sign on £6 per month, an £8 sign-on bounty and a share of any prize money.  

When the authorities learned what was going on they had no choice but to act.   A warrant was issued to search the ship for British subjects that were alleged to be on board.   By now the repairs had been completed but the Shenandoah was still high and dry on the slip ready to be relaunched.  

A standoff ensued with Waddell refusing the police or any other government officials to board his ship while the police effectively barred it from being launched.     In correspondence to the Governor Captain Waddell denied that any British subjects were on his ship.   However, shortly after four men were discovered leaving the ship and promptly arrested by the police.   Waddell feigned ignorance of their presence and claimed they had been stowaways.  

The Shenandoah was soon after allowed to leave.  In a parting shot at the Victorian authorities, Waddell wrote that he felt he and the Government he represented had been insulted by the affair and he would be informing the Confederate Government of his ill-treatment at his earliest opportunity.2

Captain Waddell. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

Despite Waddell’s protestations, the Shenandoah sailed from Port Phillip Bay on 19 February with some 40 newly recruited sailors from the colony.  

In the final months of the American Civil War the Shenandoah ravaged the United States’ North Pacific whaling fleet before hostilities final came to an end with the surrender of the South.

Britain would later pay the United States millions of dollars (billions in today’s money) in compensation for losses to Union shipping caused by three Southern raiders.   It was proved they had received assistance from Great Britain despite its proclamation of neutrality.   One of those ships was the Shenandoah.

1.      The Herald, 31 Jan 1865, p. 2.

2.      See exchange of correspondence between the Shenandoah and Victorian officials published in the Argus 18 Feb 1865, p. 5.

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

To be notified of future blogs, please enter your email address below.

The Plague Ship Ticonderoga

Example of an American Clipper similar to the Ticonderoga.

In November 1852 a migrant ship dropped anchor in Port Phillip Bay with some 700 passengers, many of them gravely ill.   The 1,200-ton American Clipper Ticonderoga had been chartered to bring immigrants out to start a new life in Australia, but the three-month journey to their new home proved a nightmare for many of the mostly Scottish passengers.  

Victoria was experiencing a labour shortage and had started offering assisted passage for workers to come and settle in the colony.   Most of the passengers comprised of farmhands and their young families.  But, not surprisingly, there was an incentive to get the most people out at the lowest cost to the Government.

When the Ticonderoga left Liverpool she was overcrowded, even by the standards of Victorian England.    Not long into the voyage passengers, many of them young children, started developing a red rash, high fever and sore throat.   At the time the disease was sometimes called scarlet fever or Scarlatina, but it is generally thought today that it was Typhus that wreaked so much havoc on the passengers.    Easily treated with antibiotics today, it had a devastating effect on those trapped onboard the ship.

The Embarkation, Waterloo Docks. Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850.

It was impossible to separate the sick from the healthy passengers in the overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unsanitary passenger accommodation spread across two decks.    Consequently, the disease spread unchecked.  

Passengers died in such numbers that as many as ten would be bundled together into a sheet of canvas for burial at sea.   By the time they reached the port city of Melbourne more than 100 people had lost their lives.   Another 150 were sick and in desperate need of medical attention, for they had long run out of medical comforts and the ship’s surgeon had been felled by the disease while attending to his patients. Many of those, 82 to be precise, died in the days and weeks that followed.

Port Phillip Bay. Source: Google Maps.

The passengers and crew were quarantined at Point Nepean just inside the Port Phillip Bay heads for the newly formed Victorian Government had already earmarked a parcel of land there to build a quarantine station.   Tents were hastily erected using spars and ship’s sails and two nearby houses owned by lime burners were used as makeshift hospitals and staffed with medical men brought out from Melbourne.   A ship was also dispatched to the Quarantine Station to serve as a hospital for the more serious cases.   

The quick response contained the highly infectious disease and kept it from spreading to the general population.   By January 1853 the epidemic had run its course.   The surviving passengers were taken to Melbourne and the Ticonderoga was released to go on its way but not before being thoroughly fumigated. 

Empire, 15 Nov 1852 Page 2.

The Emigration Commissioners who had chartered the ship in the first place were roundly condemned for allowing so many migrants, especially families with young children, to be sent out in such unhealthy conditions.    The Ticonderoga was just the last and worst of several recent migrant ships coming to Australia to suffer such an appalling loss of life.    

Between the Bourneuf, the Wanota, Marco Polo, and Ticonderoga, 279 passengers had died at sea as a result of infectious diseases on the passage out to Melbourne.    The lesson was learned and future migrant ships were reduced to carrying no more than 350 passengers.

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

To be notified of future blogs, please enter your email address below.

Von Mucke’s Great Escape

The Emden shore party at Cocos Island with the Ayesha moored in the distance. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial.

Before the German Cruiser Emden was engaged by HMAS Sydney, a fifty-strong party was sent ashore at Cocos Island to destroy the telegraph station linking Australia to South Africa.   As the two ships exchanged shells in a battle that lasted ten hours, the shore party could do little but watch on and hope for the best.  

On 9 November 1914 Lt von Mucke had been ordered to lead a party ashore to disable the cable station on Cocos Island.   But shortly after the Germans had disabled the station and rounded up the telegraph operators, the Emden signalled for them to return to the ship.   Then von Mucke saw the Emden raise its battle flag and fire a salvo at a target then hidden from his sight.  

The Emden then steamed off leaving the shore party stranded on the island.   They had no chance of catching up to the fast-moving cruiser then fighting for its life.    As the Emden continued to engage HMAS Sydney, von Mucke immediately declared Martial Law over the island and deployed his four machine guns and 30 or so sailors to defend against any landing.

Lt. Hellmuth von Mucke. Photo by Oscar Brockhus, Novitas Verlag Berlin.

At one time German sailors and Australian telegraph operators stood together watching the naval battle play out in front of them.   But eventually, the two ships disappeared over the horizon, the Emden clearly the worse for the ongoing encounter.  

Von Mucke held out little hope that his ship would return for them victorious.   The mortally damaged Emden was deliberately run aground the next day and the survivors surrendered to HMAS Sydney.   Von Mucke also realised that he and his men would eventually have no choice but to surrender should they remain on the island.   He decided to leave while they still could, seizing the schooner Ayesha.

The three-masted schooner was the property of John Clunies-Ross, who also happened to own the Cocos Islands themselves.   His Great Grandfather had claimed the uninhabited islands in the 1820s and began a coconut plantation using workers brought from Malaya.

Von Mucke requisitioned provisions to last his men 8 weeks at sea and had them loaded onboard.    The departure had an oddly festive quality to it.   Residents asked for autographs from the Germans, and also had them pose for photographs.   Then, as the sun set in the west, von Mucke bid the residents “auf wiedersehen” and sailed out of the harbour to three resounding cheers.

Schooner Ayesha.

Before leaving he hinted they were bound for East Africa to throw any pursuers off his scent.   However, his real intention was to head north to the Dutch port of Padang on the island of Sumatra.    Von Mucke and his men arrived at Padang on 26 November after 17 days sailing.   There, he hoped to get help from any German ships in port while he planned the next leg of his return to Germany.    While the Dutch were neutral during the First World War, that meant they would neither hinder nor aid any of the combatants.   “The master of the port declined to let us have, not only charts, but also clothing and toothbrushes,” as he rigorously enforced the port’s neutrality, von Mucke later lamented.    The Dutch authorities asked von Mucke and his men to surrender themselves to internment but the German officer declined and 24 hours later they left the harbour.   

For two weeks they remained close to the Sumatran coast hoping to cross paths with a German ship while avoiding Allied naval vessels patrolling those waters.       Their luck held out and on 16 December the German merchant ship Choising, which had been undergoing repairs at Padang, came into sight.   

Map showing von Mucke’s escape route. Source: The Story of the Great War, Vol 3.

Von Mucke and his men transferred onto the ship and with heavy hearts, they scuttled the schooner which had been their home for the past six weeks.     The Choising to the port of Al Hudaydah in the Red Sea.   From there the men made their way to Damascus and then on to Constantinople in Turkey.   Von Mucke finally reported to the German Embassy there on 9 May 1915.    For his efforts, he was awarded an Iron Cross.

Source: The Story of the Great War, Vol III, Chapter 31, “Story of the Emden.”

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

To be notified of future blogs, please enter your email address below.

HMCS Protector 1884 – 1924

HMCS Protector at Heron Island during low tide. Photo: C.J. Ison.

There lie the remains of an old ship on the Southern Great Barrier Reef which holds a fascinating story spanning almost 140 years.    The rusting hull now serves as a breakwater protecting the entrance to the boating channel accessing Heron Island, but its history goes back to 1884.

Her Majesties Colonial Ship (HMCS) Protector was launched at Newcastle on Tyne in 1884 to see service in South Australian waters.    The colonial government had sought the ship at a time when there were heightened fears of a Russian invasion.    The 55metre long F1 flat-iron gunboat displaced 920 tons and had a top speed of 14 knots (26km/h).   Originally she was crewed by about 90 men.   

South Australian gunboat Protector circa 1885. Photo Courtesy SLV.

Her armaments included one 8-in breech-loading gun on the bow, as well as five 6-in guns, four 3-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns and five Gatling machine guns.   From 1914 that was changed to three QF 4in MkIII guns, two QF 12-pounder guns and four QF 3-pounders.  

HMCS Protector regularly patrolled the South Australian coast for the next fifteen years and not surprisingly made an uneventful time of it.   Then, on the eve of Federation, she was called upon to join the international force assembled to suppress the “Boxer Rebellion” in China.  

HMCS Protector. Courtesy State Library of South Australia, B18116.

In August 1900 she farewelled Adelaide and was commissioned as HMS Protector for the duration of her overseas service.   She arrived in Shanghai in late September but was not needed for combat operations.   She spent a few weeks carrying out surveys and running despatches between Shanghai and forces in Pechili Gulf further north.  Then, in November she was released to return home to Australia.   

In January 1901 HMCS Protector was transferred to the Commonwealth Government and stationed in Sydney where she mainly functioned as a training ship for Naval Militia Forces.    Then, with the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1913, she was renamed HMAS Protector and for a period served as a tender to HMAS Cerberus stationed at Williamstown in Port Phillip Bay.

With the outbreak of the First World War, HMAS Protector was sent to Sydney and served as a depot ship to Australia’s two submarines, AE1 and AE2.   In August 1914 she and her submarines were sent to help capture the German colonies in New Guinea.   HMAS Protector remained based at Rabaul until October when she was ordered to return to Sydney. 

HMAS Protector after being rearmed in 1914. Photo Courtesy SLV.

Then, in October 1915 she was dispatched to report on the wreck of the German cruiser Emden which had been destroyed by HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands almost a year earlier.   See my blog Australia’s first “ship on ship” naval action.

On 1 April 1921, the Protector was briefly renamed HMAS Cerberus, before being decommissioned three years later.    Her guns and engines were removed and she was sold off.   In November 1829 she was converted to a lighter and renamed Sidney.    But her military service was not quite over yet. In July 1943 the Protector was brought back into service as a lighter for the U.S. Army in New Guinea.   However, as she was being towed north she collided with a tug off Gladstone, Queensland.  The wreck was abandoned on a beach until a local businessman bought it reputedly for £10.   He floated it off and towed it to Heron Island where it was used as a breakwater.   HMAS Protector’s rusting hull is still there today.

HMCS Protector at Heron Island. Photo: C.J. Ison.

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

To be notified of future blogs, please enter your email address below.

William Bryant’s Great Escape – 1791

1930s era illustration of the 1791 convict escape led by William Bryant. Source: The World’s News 9 Sep 1931 Page 9.

It is an odd piece of Australian history that the first people to repeat Captain Cook’s voyage up Australia’s east coast were not other intrepid navigators or explorers, but a motley band of prisoners bent on escaping penal servitude.

On 28 March 1791 William Bryant, a fisherman by trade, his wife Mary and two children with seven other convicts stole a six-oar whaleboat and made their way out of Port Jackson.   They then bore north on a 5,000km odyssey following the coastline to the top of Australia, through Torres Strait, and across the Arafura Sea to the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island.  

In the weeks and months leading to their escape, they had stashed away provisions to see them through their voyage.    Bryant also purchased a couple of muskets, a compass, a quadrant and a chart from the captain of a Dutch ship then in harbour.  He likely paid for these by selling fish on the black market, otherwise meant for the Government store.

Map showing their approximate route from Sydney to Timor. Source: Google Maps.

Their venture was fraught with hazards, especially considering the size of their craft and there was nowhere they could stop for help until they reached the Dutch East Indies.   Many times when they went ashore to collect water or food they were met with varying degrees of resistance by local Aborigines protective of their land.  

One time they were caught in a ferocious storm that blew them far out to sea.   The seas were so rough that Bryant and the others did not think their fragile craft would survive it.   Two of their number were kept busy continuously bailing with buckets as waves crashed over the sides.    After the storm finally abated, it took them several days to return to the mainland.     

They continued north putting ashore for water when they could and supplementing their rations with shellfish collected from reefs and rocky headlands.   Eventually, they rounded the tip of Cape York.    

They crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria in four and a half days reaching East Arnhem land.   Bryant then followed the coastline for several days looking for a place to refill their water casks.   Unable to find anywhere they decided to head out to sea and make directly for Timor.   36 hours later they arrived off the island and then pulled into Kupang.   It was now 5 June.   They had completed their 5,000km voyage in 69 days.    That was no mean feat of seamanship and tenacity.   Unfortunately, things would soon turn against them.

William Bryant and the convicts in the six oar Governor’s cutter which they sailed from Sydney to Kupang. Source: Smith’s Weekly 23 Oct 1937 Page 18

Bryant and the others passed themselves off as shipwrecked sailors to the Dutch authorities, and for a while, they were treated as such.   But then it seems someone blabbed about who they really were and the Governor locked them in gaol.   Shortly after Captain Edwards of HMS Pandora arrived in the settlement having gone in search of the Bounty mutineers.   He and most of his crew had survived the loss of their ship on the Great Barrier Reef and were returning to England.   When they left Kupang they took Bryant and the others with them. 

William Bryant and his son would die in a Batavia gaol.   Three other convicts plus the Bryant’s daughter perished on the voyage back to England.    Mary Bryant and the four remaining prisoners were put on trial.   They could have been sentenced to death or returned to New South Wales for the rest of their lives.   Rather, their story had engendered considerable public sympathy and the judge allowed them to serve out their original sentences in England.   By Nov 1793 Mary Bryant and the four other convicts had all been pardoned and allowed to walk free. 

The long and perilous voyage remains one of the great feats of seamanship in an open boat.

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

To be notified of future blogs, please enter your email address below.