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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The Appalling loss of the Grimeneza

Artist’s impression of the Grimeneza lost on Brampton Shoals. Courtesy: State Library of Queensland.

On 3 July 1854, the Peruvian ship Grimeneza struck a reef at Bampton Shoals in the Coral Sea.    The Captain, first mate, ship’s surgeon, and four sailors immediately abandoned the ship leaving the rest of the crew and about 600 Chinese passengers to their fate.

Twenty-eight days later Captain M.H. Penny and five others reached safety at New Ireland after a gruelling 4,000kms passage in an open boat.   They had suffered severely from hunger, exposure, and disease, but they had survived their ordeal. The first mate was not so fortunate for he had been killed at New Britain when they stopped seeking food.

Captain Penny reported that the Grimeneza had been sailing from Shantou in China bound for Callao (present day Lima) in South America when its voyage was cut short. The night his ship crashed onto the reef it was blowing a gale. He claimed to have done all that was possible to ensure the safety of everyone on board before he and the others were forced to abandon the ship.   Justifying his hasty departure, Penny said the Chinese passengers panicked and had tried to attack him and the rest of the crew.   And had no one else made it off alive, that is all anyone would have known of a disaster that claimed over 600 lives.

The Courier (Hobart), 5 Mar 1855, p. 2, Shipping News.

But others also survived.   One was the second mate, who later reported that the captain fled the ship immediately after she struck the reef stopping only to secure the hatch’s leading to the hold where the passengers were accommodated.    After the captain’s departure, the remaining crew tried to back the vessel off the reef but when that failed, they too left in the remaining two lifeboats leaving the passengers to their fate.   After six days at sea without food or water the castaways contemplated killing a 12-year-old cabin boy for food to keep the rest of them alive.   Fortunately, they were discovered by a passing ship and the boy’s life was spared.

Back on the Grimeneza, the Chinese passengers eventually broke out of the hold to find they had been deserted.    Sometime after that the ship slipped off the reef on the high tide and immediately started filling with water.    The passengers manned the pumps and baled for all they were worth to keep the vessel afloat.    For three days they toiled as they sailed before the wind towards the Queensland coast.   They could have come within a few hundred kilometres before disaster struck.   After three days of unrelenting effort, everyone was exhausted, and some began giving up.   They could not or would not keep going.   The sense of common purpose that had got them thus far broke down.   A few began plundering what they could from the ship as water filled the hold.  Others made preparation for the inevitable.

Map showing Grimeneza’s likely sailing route. Courtesy: Google Maps.

The Grimeneza soon foundered.   A few men took to small rafts they had hastily built, others jumped into the sea with nothing more than a single timber plank to keep themselves afloat.    According to one of only six Chinese passengers to survive, most drowned or were soon taken by sharks.   The lucky few were rescued by a passing ship after several days in the water.   They were cared back to health and taken on to Madras where their appalling story came to light through the aid of an interpreter.

Captain Penny briefly touched in Melbourne on his return to South America but was never held to account for his callous actions.    Years later it was revealed that the Chinese “coolies” had boarded the Grimeneza believing they were being taken to the Californian goldfields.   Instead, they had been bound for Peru to work in the Chincha Island guano mines as indentured labourers.

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

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The May Queen’s Long and Lucky Life

The May Queen is Australia’s oldest sail trading ketch. Photo C.J. Ison

Launched in 1867, the May Queen is Australia’s oldest sailing ketch still afloat.   During her century long working life she twice sank, survived several collisions and a myriad of other mishaps that could have been her demise.

The 36-ton May Queen was purpose built for carrying timber, but over her long career she transported all manner of cargos between Hobart and settlements along the Derwent River and Tasmania’s east coast.  But she was more than a simple workhorse.   She could sail and won her class in the annual Hobart Sailing regatta nine times over the years and placed in many more.

May Queen competing in the Annual Hobart Regatta.

One night in June 1883 the May Queen found herself becalmed off Cape Raoul with a load of timber from Port Arthur bound for Hobart.    Then, out of the dark they saw the Sydney bound steamer Esk bearing down on them.   As she got closer and showed no sign of deviating from her course the captain and crew yelled “LOOK OUT AHEAD” at the top of their lungs.   The steamer’s lookout only saw the stationary vessel when they were about 50 metres away.   The helmsman pulled the wheel over but it wasn’t quite enough and the steamer struck a glancing blow and took away the ketch’s bowsprit.   The May Queen was otherwise undamaged and limped into Hobart once a breeze picked up.  

Six weeks later while sailing off Bruny Island her mizzen mast snapped off at deck level during a powerful storm.   She came close to being driven ashore during another fierce gale the following year when her anchors started dragging.  Only the addition of a third anchor prevented disaster.   On a separate occasion, another vessel dragged its anchors and crashed into the May Queen punching a hole in her bulwark and caused other serious damage.

Trading Ketch May Queen. Photo C.J. Ison

Her worst accident happened on 4 February 1888 when she sank in the Huon River.   It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the May Queen had just taken on extra ballast in readiness for a deck cargo of long timber piles.   A squall blew out of nowhere.  The ketch heeled over.  The ballast in her hold shifted and she foundered in 16 fathoms (30 metres) of water.

That could have been the end of her for there was no air pump available that could get a salvage diver down to that depth.   HMS Egeria had diving equipment but it could only operate at half that depth.    Somehow, the May Queen’s owner managed to hook a line onto his vessel and dragged it into shallower water.  From there she was raised, pumped dry and towed back to Hobart where she received extensive repairs.

Then in 1940 she sank again, this time in Port Esperance south of Hobart.   While about to deliver a cargo of timber, the May Queen struck Dover Wharf and started taking on water.    At low tide her deck was awash but at high tide only her masts broke the surface.   

The ketch May Queen tied up at Constitution Dock, Hobart. Photo C.J. Ison.

She was again raised, repaired and continued working until she was finally retired in 1973.   So ended a working career spanning 106 years.   She was gifted to the Tasmanian Government and has since been maintained as a reminder of Tasmania’s maritime heritage.   As of 2022 she is 155 years old and can be seen tied up at Hobart’s Constitution Dock.

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

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