The Mystery of the Peri

HMS Basilisk overhauls the Peri off the Queensland coast. Courtesy: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich London.

In February 1872 the crew of HMS Basilisk found fourteen men barely clinging to life on a derelict schooner adrift off the far north Queensland coast. The vessel’s name was not immediately apparent and none of the survivors spoke English. It was a mystery as to how the vessel came to be in those northern waters, and one that would be some time solving.

In February 1872 the side paddle steamer HMS Basilisk was steaming up the Queensland coast on a three-month cruise to Torres Strait. They were to deliver stores to the government settlement at Somerset, chart several recently reported navigation hazards and generally show the flag in that remote part of the continent.

When they were in the vicinity of Hinchinbrook Island, a lookout sighted a small fore-and-aft schooner off in the distance.   It was rare to come upon another ship in those waters, so Captain John Moresby called for his telescope and took a closer look.   It was immediately clear to the master mariner that not all was as it should be with the strange vessel.

He could see that the schooner sat heavily in the water as she sluggishly rode the long smooth swells.   His first thought was that the schooner might have been abandoned by her crew.   As the Basilisk drew closer, he could see that her weather-beaten sails were poorly set and flapping loosely in the light breeze.   The rigging was slack and there was no sign of anyone on deck.

Illustration of the Basilisk’s discovery of the Peri. Source: Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 29 Feb 1872, p. 53

When the Basilisk raised its ensign signalling to the strange vessel to identify itself, they got no response.   But as they drew nearer still a couple of Pacific Islanders armed with muskets staggered to their feet near the schooner’s stern.   Moresby then noticed several more men lying scattered on the deck.   He sent two boats across to investigate.

What they found is best summed up in Captain Moresby’s own words: “… they were living skeletons, creatures dazed with fear and mortal weakness.   As our crews boarded, other half-dead wretches tottered to their feet, fumbling too at rusty, lockless muskets. … They were dreadful to look at – being in the last stage of famine, wasted to the bone; some were barely alive, and the sleeping figures were dead bodies fast losing the shape of humanity, on a deck foul with blood.”1

The boarding party found several dead and decomposing bodies on the deck.    There was five feet of putrid water sloshing in the hold.   The helm was lashed down.   The cabin had been ransacked and the deck planking had been splintered by axe strokes in places and there were large pools of dried blood splashed about.   And, there was no fresh water or food anywhere to be seen.    All, Captain Moresby later recalled, pointed to a violent and tragic incident having taken place on board the schooner.

Moresby held a funeral service for the dead and buried them at sea.   He then steamed towards Cardwell, just 40kms away, with the schooner in tow to land the fourteen survivors.   None spoke English but for the word “Solomon” which Moresby concluded meant they were from the Solomon Islands.   He then continued North towards Torres Strait leaving a midshipman and several sailors with the schooner to be collected on his return to Sydney in a couple of months’ time.

HMS Basilisk commander – Captain John Moresby. Photo sourced from his autobiography Two Admirals.

The pieces of the puzzle would slowly come together over the next weeks and months.    Midshipman Sabben discovered that the schooner was named Peri after his men had scrubbed the headboards clean.    The Peri had recently been reported missing in Fijian waters.   On 27 December 1871 she had sailed from Viti Levu with about 90 “indentured” Pacific Islanders bound for a cotton plantation on Taveuni 100kms away, but she never arrived.  

About 30 of the men had been kidnapped in the Solomon Islands by the crew of the labour schooner Lismore and taken to Levuka in Fiji.   At the time, Fiji was in the midst of a cotton boom and the white plantation owners could not get enough field workers to tend their crops. Many Islanders fell victim to the more unscrupulous “recruiters” who stopped at nothing to fill their quotas.

At Levuka the men would be offloaded and sent to work on plantations for fixed terms contracts, usually three years. They were supposed to have been recruited willingly and at the end of their term, they would be paid out and returned home. However, that was not always the case.

In this instance, the kidnapped Solomon Islanders’ contracts were purchased by an Australian plantation owner on Taveuni Island. But while they were in transit they seized control of the small cutter and escaped.    Unfortunately, the cutter ran aground on a small island in the Yasawa group and most of them were recaptured a couple of weeks later.  

The other 60 or so Islanders had recently been kidnapped by the notorious blackbirder Captain McLever on the Nukulau.   By December 1871 both groups of men had been transferred to the Peri off Viti Levu to be sent to work on a plantation on Taveuni Island.

It is not entirely clear what happened next, but it seems the Islanders rose up, killed the captain and crew and seized the ship.    Over the next six weeks, they sailed or drifted nearly 3,500 kms west until just off the Australian coast where they were found by the Basilisk.    From the water in the hold and the general state of the ship, Moresby believed they had weathered at least one severe tropical storm during their passage.   And judging by their emaciated state, food and water had run out long before they were rescued.   The blood stains and axe marks led some to speculate that they may have resorted to cannibalism to survive but that was never conclusively proved and none of the bodies found showed signs of being butchered.  

Approx track of the Peri.

About 90 men were on board when the Peri left Viti Levu, excluding the crew.     Some may have taken the schooner’s boat and made it safely to land, but what happened to the rest is lost to time.   By the time the Basilisks crew boarded the schooner there were just 14 men still alive.   One more would succumb soon after landing at Cardwell.   

The remaining Solomon Islanders were taken to Sydney by the Basilisk on her return from Torres Strait and eventually put onboard HMS Cossack to be repatriated.   However, eight jumped ship when the Cossack stopped briefly at Matuku Island perhaps fearing they were returning to Fiji to be punished.     When the rest were questioned through an interpreter on their arrival in Levuka, they told the British Consul that they had been kidnapped.   They described how, when they paddled out to McLever’s ship expecting to trade, his men sank their canoes, dragged them onboard, beat them and locked them in the hold.  

McLever was arrested and the Solomon Islanders were returned to Sydney to testify at his trial but no one thought to send a translator and the case was thrown out for lack of evidence.      The Islanders were sent back to Fiji but who knows if they ever found their way back home.

1.Moresby. John RN, Discoveries and Surveys in New Guinea and D’Entrecasteaux Islands, John Murray, London, 1876, p.4.

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

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The Loss of the Sydney Cove – 1797

A barque caught in heavy weather. Source: Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, 1856.

In May 1797 a fishing party returned to Sydney with more than their daily catch. They had found three shipwreck survivors south of Botany Bay who told them that the merchant ship Sydney Cove had been wrecked somewhere far to the south.  The survivors had trekked over 600 kms seeking help for their crewmates who were still stranded with the ship.

On 10 November 1796, the 250-ton Sydney Cove had sailed from Calcutta with her hold full of speculative goods and produce the owners hoped to sell in Sydney.   The crew numbering close to fifty men were a mix of Indian and European seamen under the command of Captain Guy Hamilton.   About a month out, as she bore south through the Indian Ocean, she was caught in a terrible storm and began taking on water.    Initially the leak was easily managed with the pumps, so Hamilton continued on his course to round Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and head north again on to Sydney.  

By January 1797, as they sailed into the latitudes south of Tasmania they were hit by another powerful storm.   The leak began to worsen, and the pumps had to be worked continuously to stop the ship from sinking.   

As they headed up Tasmania’s east coast they encountered yet more wild weather and heavy seas.   By now water was pouring into the hold faster than the men at the pumps could clear it.   The barque was slowly sinking.    The captain ordered all non-essential gear to be jettisoned to lighten the load but that only put off the inevitable.

By now it was 9 February and the water was lapping at the lower-deck hatches.   Captain Hamilton saw he had no choice but to beach his ship to save her from foundering in deep water.    If that were to happen he would not only lose his ship and its precious cargo but much of his crew for they would not all fit on the longboat and small dinghy available to them. He found a sandy beach on what is today called Preservation Island in the Furneaux group and ran her ashore.    Although they had saved the ship from sinking, their troubles were far from over.

No illustration of the Sydney Cove exists but it likely looked similar to this example. Source: Nautical Dictionary by Arthur Young, published in 1863.

Exhausted from constant bailing and sailing so long through rough seas, the crew nonetheless unloaded much of the ship’s stores and cargo.   Hamilton found he had to remove the rum to a neighbouring island to prevent his men from pillaging it.  Captain Hamilton organised his crew for a prolonged stay for they had come ashore at a very remote part of the world. The crew built shelters using sails and spars to give them refuge from the elements.   They were each rationed to one cup of rice per day and though they sank a well and found water it proved barely drinkable.   However, their immediate needs were met.  Then thoughts turned to their rescue.  

If they were ever to leave Preservation Island they would have to send for help. It was agreed that the First Mate, Hugh Thomson would lead a group of 17 men north in the longboat intending to sail along the New South Wales coast until they reached Sydney.   Captain Hamilton and the remaining crew, numbering about 30, would remain with the ship.

Several days after setting off, the longboat was driven ashore on Ninety-Mile beach where it was smashed to pieces.    Thomson and his men escaped with their lives but little else.   With no way to return to the Sydney Cove, they had no option but to continue on to Sydney, 600kms away, on foot.   

Thomson hugged the coast knowing that as long as they kept the sea on their right, they would eventually reach the small settlement.   However, that meant crossing many wide river mouths and negotiating any number of rocky promontories along the way.   The journey was gruelling and took a heavy toll on the men.      Encounters with the indigenous peoples varied in nature.   Some provided the castaways with food and water while others were less sympathetic but allowed them to pass unhindered.   Yet others set upon the interlopers trespassing on their land. Their numbers dwindled as they fell victim to the harsh and unfamiliar terrain and attacks.

The Sydney Cove party as depicted by Smiths’ Weekly in 1939. Smith’s Weekly 30 Sep 1939 p. 8.

By late April, when they were finally found by fishermen about 20kms south of Botany Bay, there were just three men left.     The survivors were attended to and taken the rest of the way to Sydney by boat.   On learning of the loss, Governor Hunter ordered vessels to be sent to rescue the remaining Sydney Cove men and salvage what cargo they could.

After being marooned for some four months Captain Hamilton and the rest of the crew were in dire straits.   Winter was fast approaching. Their shelters had been battered by successive storms and now had gaping tears offering the men little protection from the bitter weather.    They had been able to supplement their rice ration with seabirds nesting on the island, but their diet still barely sustained life.    To add to their sense of abandonment, they had seen several ships pass in the distance but had been unable to alert any of them to their presence.   But rescue was finally at hand.

On 10 June the sloop Eliza sailed into view and dropped anchor.   A short time later the schooner Francis, under the command of Lt Matthew Flinders, joined her.   Both had left Sydney 10 days earlier under Governor Hunter’s orders.      The two small ships loaded as much of the salvaged cargo as they dared, leaving five volunteers behind to watch over the remaining goods until they could be collected at a later date.    Captain Hamilton and his men boarded the Francis and Eliza and they headed for Sydney.

The weather was no less kind to them on their final passage to Sydney.   It took 15 days of hard sailing through storms and high seas for the Francis to reach Port Jackson.   The Eliza never made it home and was presumed to have sunk in the terrible weather with the loss of her own crew plus eight of the shipwreck survivors.   In total, about half of the Sydney Cove’s crew lost their lives.

The shipwreck is historically significant for the trek undertaken by Thomson and the others.    They were the first Europeans to note an outcrop of coal in the Illawarra which would define the region until the present day.     Also, Captain Hamilton reported the presence of strong south-westerly currents during his time on Preservation Island suggesting there was a large body of water separating Van Diemen’s Land and the Australian mainland.   The existence of the strait would later be confirmed by Matthew Flinders and George Bass and named after the latter.

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

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Bligh’s Epic Open-Boat Voyage

The Mutineers turning Lieut. Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from his Majesty’s Ship the Bounty / painted and engraved by Robert Dodd, 1790 London

On 28 April 1789 Lt William Bligh was startled awake by the presence in his cabin of his first mate, Fletcher Christian, and several other HMS Bounty sailors threatening his life if he did not do as they ordered.   He along with 18 members of his crew who wanted nothing to do with the unfolding mutiny would soon be unceremoniously herded into a launch and set adrift.   So began one of the great open-boat voyages in maritime history.

To say the launch was overcrowded is an understatement.   Measuring 23 feet (7 metres) in length there was room for just half those onboard.   But, in addition to Bligh and his men, space had to be made for their provisions.   

The mutineers allowed them 70kgs of sea biscuits, 10kgs of salted pork, 7 litres of rum, 6 bottles of wine, and 130 litres of water.   For navigation, they were given a quadrant, and a compass but no chronometer or charts of any kind.   A few clothes were thrown into the launch shortly before it was cut loose as were four cutlasses for personal protection should they venture onto any of the neighbouring islands.   Lastly, the carpenter had been allowed to take his toolbox, and the ship’s clerk had collected some of Bligh’s papers and belongings including a nautical almanac.    With the launch so heavily weighed down it was in danger of being swamped.  

Portrait of William Bligh By Alexander Huey – National Library of Australia, Public

As the Bounty sailed away, Bligh and the others found themselves adrift in the South Pacific Ocean far from any European settlements.   With no viable alternatives available to them, Bligh convinced his men that they should make for the Dutch settlement of Kupang on Timor Island some 3,500nm (7,000 kms) away.   But before they could get started they needed to add to theirs stores for the long voyage ahead.

At first glance the provisions might seem bountiful, but shared among so many people, they would last little more than a week without strict rationing.  

Bligh made for the nearest land, Tofua Island about 50 kms away to stock up on fresh produce. Initially, the Islanders seemed friendly and happy to trade. But after a couple of days the mood inexplicably changed, and they suddenly found themselves fleeing for their lives under a hail of hurled rocks.   One man was felled on the beach but the rest managed to get the launch away.

They continued to be pelted with rocks thrown from a pursuing canoe until they finally outdistanced their attackers.   Bligh noted in his journal that they had nearly all received injuries from the barrage of stones.   But they had escaped though at the cost of one life.

A page from William Bligh’s logbook. Courtesy State Library of NSW.

Bligh then set a course west through the South Pacific Islands towards New Holland (Australia), deciding not to risk stopping anywhere else along the way.      The carpenter’s chest was emptied of tools to make room for the sea biscuits to keep them out of the water sloshing around in their boat.   Spare clothes, ropes and anything else not essential were tossed overboard to lighten the load and make more room for the tiny boat’s occupants.        Those not seated on the thwarts found room where they could in between.   Conditions were so cramped no one had room to stretch their legs. 

Bligh organised the men into two watches as they sailed WNW towards the Fijian Islands and beyond. Beginning on 4 May they were battered by a powerful storm with gale-force winds and high seas.   Water poured into the boat and the men were kept busy continuously bailing.     That first storm raged until the following evening before the weather eased off for a short while.

Over the next several days and weeks they passed through the Fijian Islands and then the islands of Vanuatu as they steadily made their way west.   The nights were brutally cold but there was little let-up in the weather, and they remained soaked to their skins for days on end.  The only reprieve from their misery came in the form of a small daily ration of rum. 

Even though Bligh had no chart, he was able to compare his observations, when he could make them, with known landmarks recorded in his almanac.   Though they passed close by many islands there was no appetite to go ashore for food despite their growing hunger. Their recent experience on Tofua was still fresh in their minds.  

They began bearing more westerly as they crossed the Coral Sea and weathered more powerful squalls.   Mountainous seas and torrential rain again kept them bailing as hard as they could to remain afloat. 

Then, on 24 May they were bathed in full sunshine for the first time in nearly two weeks.   Over the following few days they caught several seabirds, which they shared and eagerly ate raw.   The birds also offered hope, for they heralded their approach to land.   

Route sailed by the Bounty’s launch. Courtesy Google Maps.

On 28 May they reached the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, clearly delineated by a line of breaking surf.   Bligh pointed the bow towards a gap in the reef and everyone hung on as they raced through the narrow passage. Once through they found themselves in calm water in the vicinity of Cape Melville.   They then bore north remaining close to the inside of the reef in hopes that they might catch some fish to supplement their diet.

A couple of days later they stepped ashore on what Bligh would name Restitution Island.   After being confined to the boat for so long, they were all barely able to walk.   Nonetheless, a fire was started using Bligh’s magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays and a stew of sea biscuit and salted pork was augmented by berries, oysters and other shellfish foraged from their surrounds.  

After several days recuperating, they reboarded the boat and island-hopped north until they reached Torres Strait.   They then bore west again across open seas until Bligh estimated they were off the southern coast of Timor Island.    On 14 June 1789, they sailed into Kupang Harbour 47 days after the Bounty mutineers cast them adrift.   Bligh noted they were, “nothing but skin and bones; our limbs were full of sores; [and] we were clothed in rags.”   But they had survived a voyage few would have thought possible.

The Dutch authorities tended to the survivors and arranged passage back to England, however, five would never see home, dying in their weakened state probably after contracting malaria.  

Bligh arrived back in the United Kingdom in March 1790 and faced a court martial at which he was exonerated for the loss of his ship. The incident had no lasting impact on his career and he would rise through the navy to the rank of Vice Admiral. He also served a tumultuous two years as the Governor of New South Wales until he was deposed by officers of the NSW Corps.

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

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The Loss of HMS Sirius – 1790

“The melancholy loss of H.M.S Sirius off Norfolk Island” by George. Raper. Courtesy: National Library of Australia 136507434-1

The loss of a ship is always a tragedy, especially so if there is also loss of life.   But sometimes a shipwreck can have a profound effect beyond the actual loss of the vessel.   Such was the case in 1790 when HMS Sirius was wrecked off Norfolk Island.

HMS Sirius sailed from Portsmouth on 13 March 1787, as part of the “First Fleet,” a social experiment to rid England of its most troublesome and unwanted folk.   They arrived in New South Wales in January 1788 and in February HMS Supply transported a small number of convicts and guards to Norfolk Island to establish a settlement there.   By October of the same year, it became clear to Governor Phillip that Sydney was facing starvation unless something was urgently done.   He ordered Captain John Hunter to take HMS Sirius to Cape of Good Hope for livestock, grain and other provisions.

Some months after her return, the Sirius in company with HMS Supply, were ordered to sail for Norfolk Island with provisions and additional convicts and marines.

First Fleet entering Sydney Heads January 1788. By E. Le Bihan, Courtesy State Library of NSW.

They reached Norfolk Island on 13 March 1790 and over the next few days they disembarked their passengers, but the sea conditions were such that neither ship was able to land stores.  On 15 March they were forced to leave the island by an unrelenting southerly gale.   By the 19th the wind had moderated and shifted around to the southeast so Captain Hunter made landfall again hoping to begin unloading the desperately needed stores.

As Sirius neared the island Captain Hunter saw the Supply already anchored in Sydney Bay and there were signals flying on shore that longboats could land without danger from the surf.   Hunter took his ship in as close as he dared, loaded the boats and sent them away, but then the wind freshened.

“Part of the Reef in Sydney Bay, Norfolk Island, on which the Sirius was wreck’d. 19 March 1790.’ by William Bradley.

Hunter ordered his men to haul up the anchor and make for open water but in trying to do so the Sirius was driven onto the rocks.   Powerful surf crashed around the stricken ship.   Soon after they struck, the carpenter reported that water was pouring into the hold.   The masts were cut away in the hope the lightened vessel might be driven higher onto the reef where the crew might have a chance of saving their lives.  

By now it was about 11 AM.   The provisions were brought up from the hold and stored on deck so they might be floated ashore if the opportunity arose.   But the conditions just kept getting worse.   Towards evening Hunter received word from shore urging him to abandon ship as it would be too dangerous to remain overnight.      A rope was tied to an empty barrel and floated through the surf to waiting hands ashore.   Then a 7-inch-thick hawser was sent across the narrow stretch of reef and surging seas and tied to a tree which enabled the crew, about three or four at a time, to be hauled ashore.   Many sported cuts or bruises from being bashed against the rocks on the perilous passage.   The operation stopped only when it became too dark to continue safely, and the remaining crew were taken off the following day.

A couple of days later two convicts volunteered to go aboard the Sirius to get the livestock ashore.   They managed to get a number of pigs and some poultry over the side to be taken ashore by the current.   However, as evening turned to night the two men remained on the ship.   They had discovered a supply of rum and were by then getting thoroughly drunk.   They ignored instructions to return to shore and lit two fires, presumably to keep themselves warm.   Unfortunately, the fires got out of hand and did significant damage to the ship.   The pair were forcibly returned to shore the following day and clapped in irons for their troubles.

When the weather finally eased, Hunter sent some men across to begin ferrying the remaining provisions ashore using the hawser.   Other stores, sealed in timber casks, were thrown over the side hoping they would wash ashore through the surf.     Some made it.   Some sank to the bottom.   The Supply managed to unload its provisions on the other side of the island but with the additional mouths to feed, rations for everyone on the island were cut in half.   

The Settlement on Norfolk Island, May 16th 1790 / George Raper. Courtesy State Library of NSW, FL541331.

Captain Hunter and his crew would remain on Norfolk Island for several months before returning to Sydney.   Meanwhile, Governor Phillip was stunned to learn of the Sirius’ loss.    His problems just kept mounting.   The second fleet had recently arrived delivering 800 extra mouths to feed, many of whom were already in poor health when they landed.   They were in no fit state to help cultivate crops or contribute in any other meaningful way.   One of the fleet’s two supply ships, HMS Guardian had been wrecked in the Southern Ocean placing a greater strain on the settlement’s already meagre provisions.

The Governor had intended to send Captain Hunter on another resupply mission on his return from Norfolk Island, but now that idea had to be abandoned.   He had little choice but to further reduce rations.   Each person was provided just 1.5 lbs (700gms) of flour, 2 lbs (900gms) of salt pork, 1 lb (450gms) of rice and 1 pint (500ml) of pease to sustain them for a week.

Private boats were requisitioned and put to use fishing.  Hunting parties went out in search of game and guards were placed around the public vegetable gardens to prevent theft.   HMS Supply was sent to Batavia for supplies leaving Sydney without a single ship at its disposal.   143 people died of sickness or malnutrition in Sydney that year.    There was probably no other time when the existence of the settlement looked so tenuous.  

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

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The Life and Loss of HMSC MERMAID

HMSC Mermaid off Cape Banks, Dec. 4, 1820, by Conrad Martens. Image Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Between 1818 and 1820 the small cutter HMSC Mermaid played an important role in charting Australia’s vast coastline.   So, it is perhaps ironic that her last voyage should have been cut short on an uncharted reef off the north Queensland coast.

The Mermaid was an 84-ton cutter launched in Calcutta in 1816.   She arrived in New South Wales the following year and was soon purchased by the Government to undertake survey work requested by the British Admiralty.

Lt Phillip Parker King RN was dispatched to Australia to carry out a detailed survey of the Australian coastline, particularly those areas bypassed by Matthew Flinders.   The son of former NSW Governor Phillip Gidley King, he had been born on Norfolk Island in 1791.   On the family’s return to England and completion of his schooling, the young King joined the Royal Navy.    He was given command of the Mermaid and got to work.

Lt Phillip Parker King. Unknown artist. Courtesy State Library of NSW,

HMSC Mermaid made three extensive voyages under King.  They sailed from Sydney on 22 Dec 1817 bound for Australia’s northern and northwest coasts via Bass Strait and Cape Leeuwin.      The crew included two sailing masters, twelve seamen and two boys.   On board were also the botanist Allan Cunningham and Bungaree, a Kuring-gai man from Broken Bay who had also circumnavigated the continent with Matthew Flinders on the Investigator.   

At Northwest Cape, King surveyed and named Exmouth Gulf before continuing north along the coast until they reached Van Diemen’s Gulf and Cobourg Peninsula.    From there they sailed to Kupang on Timor Island to resupply where they remained for two weeks.   They then set sail for Sydney returning down the West Australian coast.   The return trip was marred by rough weather and a shortage of manpower.   Several of the crew had became seriously ill shortly after leaving Timor, one of whom died.       Despite the hardships, the Mermaid arrived back in Sydney on 29 July 1818 after an absence of seven months and seven days.

Between December 1818 and January 1819 King sailed to Van Diemen’s Land and surveyed Macquarie Harbour which would soon become the site of one of the convict era’s most brutal places of punishment.   Their work done there, the Mermaid was back in Sydney in late February and in May she was off again.

Lt King’s survey cutter ‘Mermaid’ Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

The third voyage, and King’s last in the Mermaid, saw them sail up the east coast of Australia on a circumnavigation of the continent.    On 20 July, while sheltering in a bay he named Port Bowen at latitude 22.5 S (not to be confused with present-day township of Bowen) the Mermaid ran aground and became stuck.  It was only after considerable effort that the crew were able to warp the vessel into deep water, but she sustained serious damage to her hull in the process.   The full extent of the injury would only become apparent months later.

She continued north, sailing through Torres Strait and again began making a detailed survey of the north-west coast.   However, the cutter had been taking on water ever since leaving Port Bowen.   By September she was leaking so badly that King was compelled to careen the vessel and attend to the leaking hull.      With repairs completed as best they could, he then cut short his survey and ran down the west coast, across the Great Australian Bight returning to Sydney in December.   However, the Mermaid was very nearly wrecked within sight of her home port.

As they passed Jervis Bay the wind was blowing strongly from the east-south-east and visibility was much reduced by heavy rain.    Lt King steered a course that he thought would find them off Sydney Heads the following morning.   Then around 2 AM, King thinking they were still 30kms from land, was surprised when a bolt of lightning revealed they were sailing directly towards Botany Bay’s south head.   The Mermaid  just cleared that hazard but lodged on a rock off the northern head before being lifted off by a large wave.   She ploughed through breakers within metres of the rocky promontory with the sea surging and foaming around them.   It was a very close call but they were soon safely inside Sydney Harbour without further incident.

Lt King made his fourth and final survey in the Bathurst while the cutter underwent repairs.   But that was not the end of the Mermaid’s adventures.   She was decommissioned from the Royal Navy and taken over by the NSW colonial government where she continued to give valuable service.  

Mermaid being repaired during King’s voyage. Engraving by John Murray 1825. Image courtesy National Library of Australia.

In 1828 the Mermaid received a major overhaul including re-planking, new copper sheathing and most importantly, she was re-rigged as a two-masted schooner.   Then in early 1829, she was tasked with helping dismantle the failed settlement at Raffles Bay on the Cobourg Peninsula.   Once done there, they were to make for the remote settlement of King George Sound (present-day Albany) to deliver stores and dispatches.   Under the command of Captain Nolbrow the Mermaid departed Sydney on 16 May and headed north keeping to the inner passage inside the Great Barrier Reef.  

Tragedy struck at 6 o’clock in the morning on 13 June when, about 35 kms south of present-day Cairns, the Mermaid ran grounded on a reef not recorded on King’s recently published naval chart.     At 8 PM captain Nolbrow and his crew, 13 men in total, took to the lifeboat with the hold bilged and water already over the cabin deck.    

Twelve days later, as they continued north towards Torres Strait, the castaways were picked up by the Admiral Gifford.  The Admiral Gifford was a 34-ton schooner on a speculative voyage through Australia’s northern waters and was ill-equipped to carry so many additional passengers.   On 3 July Nolbrow and his crew were transferred to the much larger Swiftsure possibly in the vicinity of Pipon Island.     Unfortunately, the Swiftsure was wrecked two days later near Cape Sidmouth and her crew, along with the Mermaid’s were rescued by the Brig Resource.

Captain Nolbrow and his men eventually made it back to Sydney via the Swan River settlement (present-day Perth) in November 1829.   The remains of the Mermaid were discovered on Flora Reef in 2009.

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

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