Loss of La Astrolabe and La Boussole: a 40 Year Mystery

19th Century lithograph of the sinking of La Astrolabe at Vanikoro by Louis Le Breton. Courtesy Public domain, Wikimedia commons.

One of the great maritime mysteries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the disappearance of the French ships La Astrolabe and La Boussole under the command of La Perouse.   They were last sighted leaving Botany Bay in 1788 but it would be another 40 years before the world discovered what became of them.

In 1875 Louis XVI appointed Jean Francois Comte de La Perouse to lead an expedition of discovery to the far reaches of the world.    The objectives were primarily scientific, but La Perouse was also to look out for economic opportunities that might benefit France.    He was given two ships, La Astrolabe and La Boussole with a total complement of some 220 men.  The expedition included a botanist, geologist, physicist, astronomer, and several naturalists and illustrators – ten men of science in all.   Even the ships’ two chaplains had received scientific training.    Rarely had such a body of learned men been assembled for such a voyage.    

Louis XVI giving La Pérouse his instructions on 29 June 1785, by Nicolas-André Monsiau – Chateau de Versailles, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The La Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed from Brest on 1 August 1785 and bore south into the Atlantic Ocean to round Cape Horn. They stopped briefly in Chile and then went on to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).   From there they continued north to Alaska and then traced the North American coast south as far as Monterey in California.   From there they crossed the Pacific Ocean to the Portuguese colony of Macau and then headed north again.   La Perouse arrived at the Russian outpost of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula in September 1787 to find orders for him to investigate the new British settlement being established at Botany Bay.   

La Perouse made it to Botany Bay on 24 January 1788, only days after the first fleet under Governor Phillip had arrived from England.    The French mariners spent six weeks there resting and taking on food and water.   Before sailing, La Perouse left a package of letters, journals and charts with the captain of a returning British convict transport to be forwarded to Paris.   In his correspondence, La Perouse wrote that he intended to make for New Caledonia and the Santa Cruz Islands before turning for home.   He hoped to be back in France by June the following year.   On 10 March 1788, the two French ships set sail and were never seen again, at least not by any Europeans.

French frigates La Astrolabe and La Boussole in Hawaii. Image courtesy State Library of NSW.

Then, in 1826 an Irish mariner, Peter Dillon made a startling discovery.   While at Vanikoro he came into possession of some artifacts clearly of French origin.   He learned that relics from the French ships had been circulating among the inhabitants of Santa Cruz and neighbouring islands for years.   On inquiring about the origin of the pieces he was told that they had come from two large ships that had been wrecked there many years earlier.   

Dillon was sure the artifacts, one of which was a sword guard of French design, had come from La Perouse’s expedition.   On returning to India he reported his discoveries to the East India Company which provided him with a ship so he could return to explore the waters around Vanikoro more closely.   

In 1827 Dillon found the wreck site and retrieved a ship’s bell of French manufacture along with several other artefacts.   He also learned from the older villagers on Vanikoro that the two French ships had run aground on a coral reef during a violent storm with great loss of life.   The survivors had built a new vessel from timbers salvaged from the wrecks and sailed away. They had probably tried making for Kupang in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).   That would have been the closest port where they might find passage back home.   It would, however, require them to cross the Great Barrier Reef and pass through Torres Strait.   Most of the French seamen left in the new ship but a few men opted to remain on Vanikoro where they lived out their days.   By the time Dillon visited the island they had all since passed away.

Map showing Vanikoro and Murray Island. Courtesy Google Maps.

There is a final clue as to what may have happened to La Perouse’s men who left Vanikoro by sea.   In 1818 an Indian seaman was found living among the inhabitants of Murray Island (Mer).   Shaik Jumaul had been shipwrecked on the Morning Star in Torres Strait four years earlier, on a voyage from Sydney to Batavia.

He said that he had come across many items of European manufacture including muskets, cutlasses, a compass, and even a gold watch while visiting nearby islands.   When he asked where they had come from, he was told that about 30 years earlier a large ship had been wrecked near Murray Island.   Several boat-loads of men came ashore but a fight ensued, and most were killed.   Some fled to other islands where they met the same fate, all except one young boy whose life was spared.   He lived for many years with the Islanders and rose to be held in high esteem in his adopted community.  

Jean Francois Comte de La Perouse. Image: public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org.

More recently ANU academic Dr Garrick Hitchcock came across the original newspaper article published in the Madras Courier in 1818.    Jumaul’s story was later republished in the Sydney Gazette in July 1819.    The Sydney Gazette article even speculated that the ship might have been one of La Perouse’s, but it appears that possibility was never seriously followed up.

Hitchcock thinks the vessel might have been the one constructed from salvage on Vanikoro.   The timing certainly fits.   After a bit of detective work, Hitchcock found that a boy named Francois Mordelle had accompanied the expedition and it might have been he who lived with the Torres Strait Islanders for all those years.

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

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The Long Search for the Yongala

Postcard showing the SS Yongala, circa 1905. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.

In March 1911 the SS Yongala sank during a powerful cyclone with the loss of 122 lives making it one of Queensland’s worst maritime disasters.   Despite efforts to locate the wreck, the ship’s final resting place would remain a mystery for almost half a century.

The Yongala departed Brisbane on 21 March bound for Townsville.   On 23 March she stopped briefly at Mackay to disembark passengers but by now the weather was rapidly deteriorating.   When she got under way again, she unwittingly carried 50 passengers and 72 crew towards a powerful storm brewing somewhere to the north.    

Later the same day the Dent Island lighthouse keeper noted the Yongala passing through the Whitsunday Passage.     She soon faded from sight, enveloped by a curtain of rain and sea mist, as she ploughed towards Townsville.

When the Yongala failed to arrive as scheduled there was no immediate concern.   It was assumed the captain had sought shelter to escape the cyclone and the ship would soon make its appearance.   But then reports reached Townsville of wreckage washed ashore on Palm and Hinchinbrook Islands 50 and 100 kilometres to the north.

“The Missing Steamer Yongala” The Australasian, 1 Apr 1811, p. 41.

It was clear the debris, including hatch covers, parts of lifeboats, ornate cabin fittings and other miscellanea, had come from the Yongala.   It spoke of a terrible tragedy having befallen the passenger steamer and all those onboard.   Oddly, not a single body was ever recovered.

The waters and coastline between Townsville and the Whitsunday’s were scoured in hopes of finding survivors or the wreck but nothing but more debris was found.  A Marine Board Inquiry investigated the loss of the ship as best it could under the circumstances. With no eyewitnesses to what happened and no wreck to inspect, they had little to go on.   The Inquiry concluded that rumours about the ship’s stability were groundless and it found no fault with the ship’s construction or the competency of its captain.    A £1,000 reward was even offered for anyone who could pinpoint the wreck.

In October 1911 Dr Cassidy believed he and his crew on the salvage schooner Norna had located the Yongala in deep water about 20kms off Cape Bowling Green.   They had discovered traces of oil bubbling up from the depths and believed that marked the resting place of the lost ship.   However, owing to the depth of the water and strong currents, they were unable to put a diver down to confirm the find or collect the reward.  

Map showing location of the Yongala wreck. Courtesy Google Maps.

For decades mystery surrounded the disappearance of the ship.   There were even far-fetched sightings of a “ghost ship” steaming through North Queensland waters periodically reported in the tabloid press.  

Then in 1947, the navy survey ship HMAS Lachlan located the wreck using “anti-submarine instruments,” more commonly known today as sonar.    Three years earlier a minesweeper had snagged something they thought to be a reef rising steeply from the seabed in the middle of the regular shipping lane south of Townsville.   They had marked the spot on their chart as an unknown obstruction and reported it to Naval Headquarters.   They were about 20kms east of Cape Bowling Green where the Norna had found the oil slick all those years ago.

After HMAS Lachlan made several passes over the “obstruction” the sonar operators were convinced they had found the remains of a “fair-sized steamer.”   It was thought to be the Yongala for it was the only such vessel to have been lost in the vicinity.  

HMAS Lachlan. By Allan C. Green, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

However, it would be another 11 years before anyone visually confirmed that what the Lachlan had found was in fact a shipwreck.   In 1958 a diver named George Konrat finally descended into the deep and found the ship sitting on its keel in 30 metres of water with a distinct list to starboard.   He recovered a Chubb safe with part of the serial number still evident which would later prove to have been installed in the Yongala during her construction.

Konrat speculated that the steamer had struck another vessel during the storm and sank for he also saw the remains of an old sailing ship nearby.   However, with the passage of so many years and no survivors to recount what happened, the actual reason why the ship foundered during the cyclone will likely never be known.

Yongala Bell, Courtesy wikimedia commons.

Today, some artifacts collected from the wreck and other memorabilia can be found in the Townsville Maritime Museum which is well worth a visit.   The Yongala, itself, is a popular dive site.

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

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Matthew Flinders and the loss of HMS Porpoise – 1803

Loss of the Porpoise & Cato. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Shortly after Matthew Flinders completed his historic circumnavigation of Australia he was farewelled from Sydney to return to England as a passenger onboard HMS Porpoise.   To everyone’s astonishment, he returned a month later to report the loss of that ship and another on a reef far out in the Coral Sea.

HMS Porpoise, under the command of Lt Fowler, along with the merchant ships Cato and Bridgewater departed Port Jackson on 10 August 1803 intending to sail together as they made their way north and traversed the dangerous waters through Torres Strait.  

On the afternoon of 17 August, they passed by a small island marked on the chart which confirmed their position about 160nm (300kms) NE of Sandy Cape at the northern end of Fraser Island (K’gari).    The chart showed no other obstacles in their path until they were ready to pass through the Great Barrier Reef much further to the north.

As night descended the three ships continued bearing NNE under reduced sail pushed along by a southerly breeze.   The Porpoise was out in front with the Cato and Bridgewater off her port and starboard quarters respectively.   Then around 9.30 pm the lookout called “breakers ahead.”    The Porpoise tried to veer off but without success, striking the uncharted reef.    Likewise, the Cato tried to avoid the line of white water but ran aground about 400m from where the Porpoise struck.   

The 430-ton Cato by Thomas Luny cira 1800.

Fortunately, the Bridgewater avoided the reef and spent the rest of the night and the following morning trying to get back to render what assistance it could to any survivors.   Hampered by contrary winds and large seas the Bridgewaters captain could not get close to the reef without risking his own vessel.   He reluctantly continued on his way leaving the other ships to their fate.

Meanwhile, the men on the stranded ships waited out the night.   HMS Porpoise had gone aground broadside to the reef with her hull facing the crashing waves offering some protection to those onboard.   The Cato was not so lucky.   She had run aground with her deck exposed to the full force of the powerful waves and soon started breaking up.    Her crew spent an anxious night clinging for dear life to the inner forechains.  

The next morning the Porpoise’s small gig and a six-oar cutter were used to ferry the crews of both ships to a small sandy islet a short distance away.   Over the next several days they salvaged as much as they could from the two stranded vessels.    Casks of water, flour, salt meat, rice and spirits along with live sheep and pigs were all brought ashore, sufficient provisions to last the 94 castaways for three months.  

Captain Matthew Flinders, RN, by Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE Chamerel. Courtesy Wikipedia.

On the morning of the 19th of August Captain Matthew Flinders took command as the most senior naval officer present.   Flinders, in consultation with Lt Fowler and the Cato’s captain, John Park, decided he should take the largest cutter and sail for Sydney to get help.    They also agreed on a contingency plan should Flinders and his party fail.   The ship’s carpenters would begin constructing two new boats from materials salvaged from the wrecks.  If, after two months they had not been rescued, Lt Fowler and the rest of the men should try and make for Sydney in them.  

The cutter was fitted out with a deck to make it more seaworthy for the long voyage ahead of it.   She was christened “Hope” and, on 26 August, nine days after striking the reef, Flinders, Park and twelve sailors set off to three loud cheers from their shipmates on shore.    They took sufficient provisions to last them three weeks and bore towards the Australian coast.   On the evening of 28 August they made land near Indian Head on K’gari and headed south following the coast until they reached Sydney ten days later.

Map showing Wreck Reefs where the Cato and Porpoise were wrecked in 1803. Courtesy Google Maps.

Meanwhile, the carpenters got to work building the first of the two new boats.   The first boat, named Resource, was completed in a couple of weeks.  However, as they were working on the second boat their supply of coal for the armourer’s forge ran out, halting construction.     The Resource was dispatched to the small island they had sighted the day they ran aground.  There they were to make a supply of charcoal from the low scrub and return so the second boat could be completed.   

But, before they set off their rescuers came into sight.   The fully-rigged ship Rolla along with the colonial schooners Cumberland and Francis had arrived to take the men off.    Captain Flinders, who had returned with the rescue ships had spent a couple of anxious days trying to find the uncharted reef.    Most of the men were taken onto the Rolla which sailed on to China while Flinders returned to Sydney on the Cumberland.   Much of the stores and salvage from the ships was also taken back to Sydney on the Francis and Resource.   Unbelievably, only three men were lost during the ordeal.   The site of the disaster is now known as Wreck Reefs.

Captain Flinders’ adventures did not end there.   By the time he next left for England, Britain was at war with France.   When his ship stopped at Mauritius he was placed in detention until the end of hostilities.    Flinders did not arrive back in England until 1810.   His book “A Voyage to Terra Australis” detailing his voyages was published in 1814.

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

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The Tragic Loss of George III – 1835

The Wreck of George III, by Knud Bull, wikimedia commons.

The 400-ton ship George the Third sailed from England on 12 December 1834 carrying 220 convicts bound for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).   When less than 80kms from their destination at Hobart, tragedy struck with terrible loss of life.  

On Sunday 12 April 1835 the George III  made land at South Cape, the southernmost point of Tasmania around 11am.   By early evening they had entered the D’entrecasteaux Channel to make the final run up the coast to the mouth of the Derwent River and then on to Hobart Town.   She passed the dangerous Actaeon Islands around 8.30 that night.   The moon was out, the weather mild and they were pushed along at 1 ½ to 2 knots (3-4kms/h) by a light breeze blowing off the land.   

Captain William Moxey had a man in the chains sounding the passage as they made their way north.   Repeated soundings were around 20 fathoms (36m) more than ample for safe passage.   Then shortly before nine o’clock, Moxey was stunned to hear the man call out “quarter less four,” meaning they were in less than four fathoms (7m) of water.   He ordered the helm put hard to port.   But before the ship responded and even before another sounding could be made, the ship struck something and came to a stop where the chart said there was clear passage.    

Southern Tasmania. Google Maps.

The captain had soundings taken around the ship and found they were stranded on an uncharted rock with just 3-5 metres of water surrounding them.     The initial collision was not particularly violent but now that the ship was stuck fast the ocean swells started pounding the hull onto its rocky perch.   Within minutes, the main mast came crashing down taking the top mizzen mast with it, strewing the deck with a tangle of rope, canvas and timber spars.     

Those crewmen not on watch, along with the ship’s passengers and compliment of soldiers were soon on deck dressed in just shirts and trousers, most having already retired for the night.    Captain Moxey started organising the evacuation which was hampered by the pounding of the ship and the mess of debris on deck and in the water surrounding them.    

Meanwhile, the convicts remained locked below with armed guards standing over the hatchway.   Cries from the convicts made it clear they were already waist-deep in freezing water and were in genuine fear of drowning to death.   They begged to be allowed on deck as the water continued to rise.    As some tried forcing the hatch cover up several shots were fired into them.    At least one convict was struck and killed as testified by three of the survivors.   Moxey disputed the claim in a later inquiry stating the guards were stationed there just to keep the panicked men contained below deck until the women and children had safely been got away.   In fact, the inquiry reads like the minutes of a mutual appreciation society meeting, each praising the efforts of the other officers in saving so many lives.   

The Colonist, 7 May 1835, p. 5.

Fifteen minutes after striking the rock the deck was awash with water.   The longboat was finally got away carrying about 40 people.   Moxey was among them having been pulled from the water after he became trapped between floating timbers.  

By then some of the convicts had forced their way on deck but many others died in the hold.    Some fifty or so were too ill to save themselves, suffering from scurvy after some of the ship’s provisions were destroyed in a fire earlier in the passage out.   They drowned where they lay unable to flee the rising water.

That night Moxey and the other officers managed to save about 160 people.  Shortly after the ship was stranded a cutter with seven occupants was ordered to make for Hobart to get help.   Moxey made three trips in the longboat ferrying survivors to land near present-day Southport.   By the time he had reached the George III for the third time a schooner had arrived and was taking off survivors.   They were all taken on to Hobart cold, wet and thoroughly exhausted from the ordeal.

View of Hobart Town by Samuel Davenport, circa 1835.

134 people lost their lives.   Three were children, one a woman, and two were members of the crew.   Convicts made up the remaining 128 fatalities.   Most never had a chance, trapped in the hold as the water rose around them.     The next morning a convict named John Roberts was found dead lashed to a ringbolt in the surgeon’s cabin.   It seems he was unable to swim and had tied himself off hoping to be washed ashore as the ship broke up.

The inquiry found no one was to blame for the accident.   No officer admitted to ordering the prisoners to be confined below deck as the hold flooded with water.   The Corporal of the guard testified that the muskets were only used to “intimidate” the prisoners and only one shot was fired, and that into the air.   No one was held accountable for the loss of so many prisoners.   

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

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The Windjammer Grace Harwar 1889 – 1935

Grace Harwar. View aft from the main crosstrees, 1929. Courtesy: National Maritime Museum Greenwich.

The 1750-ton steel-hulled fully-rigged ship Grace Harwar was launched in Glasgow in 1889 and for the next 45 years, she crossed the world’s oceans carrying all manner of bulk cargoes.    She was well known to Australian mariners and dockworkers regularly taking on coal, grain and other goods bound for distant ports. 

Despite her majestic lines and presence, she gained a terrible reputation as a cursed ship.   On her 1889 maiden voyage, the bosun was lost when an upper yard was carried away in a gale off Cape Horn.  

On a passage from Cape Town to New Zealand in December 1901, she was slammed by a powerful storm as she neared her destination.   Heavy seas broke over her sweeping the lifeboats away.  The ballast shifted and the ship took on a dangerous list which saw the lee rail submerged three feet under water.   The captain was swept overboard but fortunately, a wave washed him back on deck where he scrambled to safety.   A crewman was not so lucky and drowned.   But, the Grace Harwar survived limping into Gisborne for repairs.

GRACE HARWAR CREW circa 1920s by A.C. Green, Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

While sailing from Australia to Tocopilla Chile in 1907, the captain’s young wife died from tuberculosis off the South American coast.   Captain Hudson returned his wife’s body to Sydney in the hold and then left the Grace Harwar, never to go to sea in her again.

Then in July 1910, a seaman was killed when the Royal Yard came crashing down on deck just as the men were congratulating themselves on making it around Cape Horn unscathed.  

The following year, 1911, she was anchored at Coquimbo in Chile when a freak storm blew out of nowhere causing havoc with the ships anchored in the bay.   The Grace Harwar lost her figurehead and bowsprit when she collided with another ship as they both swung on the end of their anchor chains.   Then her anchors started dragging and she ground against a German barque causing yet more damage.    During the same year, one of the mates was injured and later died during an operation to recover a lost anchor at the Chilean port of Iquique.

The Grace Harwar under sail. Photo by Allan C. Green , Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

During a ferocious hurricane, while anchored at Mobile Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico a seaman was knocked overboard by a loose spar where he drowned before anyone could go to his aid.   That was in 1916.

By 1929 the number of fully-rigged sailing ships still operating commercially was dwindling.   Increasingly, vessels moving cargo and people across the world’s oceans no longer relied on wind to power them along.   Two young Australian journalists wanted to record the passing of the era.   They joined the Grace Harwar’s crew in South Australia to film the old windjammer’s voyage as she delivered a cargo of wheat to England via Cape Horn.   One of the reporters, Ronald Walker was struck by a falling yard while aloft during foul weather and died.   The footage he and his partner, Allan Villiers shot was edited together to make the 1930 feature-length film “Windjammer.”

Photo of Allan Villiers on the Grace Harwar taken by Ronald Gregory Walker. Courtesy: National Library of Australia.

The Grace Harwar was a regular at the annual “Great Grain Race” through the first half of the 1930s carrying wheat from ports in the Spencer Gulf, South Australia to England.  Strictly speaking, it was not an official race but the captains of the windjammers that carried the annual grain harvest were known to wager bets on who would deliver their cargo in the quickest time.   And of course, there were bragging rights at stake.

In 1935 the Grace Harwar’s career came to an end.   She made one last 40km voyage from Falmouth to Charlestown in the UK where she was broken up for scrap.

Seas sweep over the Grace Harwar’s deck. Source: The Daily Telegraph, 4 Nov 1929, p. 13.

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

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