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.

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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.

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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.

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The Tryall: Australia’s earliest recorded shipwreck.

Example of a fully rigged ship of the early 17th Century, similar to the Tryall. Source: Sailing Ships by Chatterton, 1909.

Some people might be surprised to read that the oldest shipwreck recorded off Australia dates back to 1622.   That is 148 years before Cook plied his way up the east coast.  Twenty years before Abel Tasman partially circumnavigated Tasmania.   Or just six years after the Dutch navigator Dirk Hartog nailed a pewter plate to a post near Shark Bay warning of a big lump of land in the vicinity.

The Tryall* was a 500-ton East India Company ship built in 1621.   Her maiden voyage was meant to take her to the East Indies to trade.  Captain John Brooke was given the honour of commanding the vessel on this important voyage.

They sailed from Plymouth on 4 September 1621 with about 140 men onboard.   Brooke made his way down the west coast of Africa and pulled into Table Bay.   There he learned that he was to sail across the Indian Ocean below 35 degrees South.   The newly favoured “Brouwer Route” made full use of the “Roaring Forties” which swept around the Southern Ocean cutting months of the passage to Batavia.

Brooke tried to hire a sailing master for this leg of the voyage for neither he nor anyone else on the ship had sailed the south route before.   His recruiting effort came to nothing and the Tryall set sail into the unknown on 19 March.   Six weeks later they were off the West Australian coast.

Map of Western Australia coast. Courtesy Google Maps.

Brooke likely sighted land in the vicinity of Point Cloates mistaking it for Barrow Island about 200kms further north.    He had sailed too far east across the Southern Ocean before veering north, something easily done with the navigation aids of the day.  But it was an error he would never admit he made.

For the next couple of weeks, the Tryall struggled to make progress against fresh northerly winds but when they swung around to the south again they got underway.     Then on the night of 25 May 1622 disaster struck.

The Tryall slammed into submerged rocks to the northwest of the Montebello Islands and quickly began breaking up.   Brooke and a handful of men, including his son, clambered onto a small skiff and escaped.    Another 35 men eventually launched the ship’s longboat and landed on one of the Montebello Islands where they stayed a week before heading north to Batavia.   Ninety-three men lost their lives.

Captain Brooke reached Batavia on 5 July where he wrote a letter to the ship’s owner explaining that he had followed the proscribed route precisely and had struck uncharted rocks thereby absolving himself of any blame in the loss of the ship, its valuable cargo and so many lives.   

Translates to read “Here the English ship Trial was wrecked in June 1622” from copy of Hessel Gerritsz’ 1627 map of the north west coast of Australia. Source: National Library of Australia.

When the longboat finally made it to Batavia, the trader Thomas Bright wrote his own letter to London scathing of Captain Brooke.   Bright blamed the wreck on Brooke’s poor navigation and the fact he had not posted a lookout.   He also claimed that Brooke had abandoned the wreck as quickly as he could in the partially filled skiff leaving the rest of the men to their fate.

Brooke had recorded the wreck site some distance further west than where it had occurred to mask his error in navigation.  For the next three centuries the non-existent rocks caused some confusion and uncertainty among navigators sailing those waters.   It was not until 1936 that the historian Ida Lee established the wreck site was likely to be off the northwest of the Montebello Islands.   Then in 1969 amateur scuba divers found the wreck site where Lee had said it would be.

* Tryall is also seen spelled as Tryal and Trial.

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

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The Wanderer and a Miraculous Rescue

Schooner Wanderer. Painting by Oswald Brierly From the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, a128927.

Far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a seaman on board a small schooner thought his imagination was getting the better of him.     It was daybreak on 5 February 1850.   His ship, the 140-ton schooner Wanderer was en route from Sydney to San Francisco and still under storm canvas having just survived a powerful storm.  

They had sailed from Sydney three months earlier and were slowly island-hopping across the Pacific.   The ship’s owner, Scottish entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd, was in no great hurry.   He was still licking his wounds after the spectacular failure of his grandiose enterprises centred around Boydtown at Twofold Bay (near present-day Eden on the NSW south coast).   He now hoped to turn his luck around on the booming California goldfields.     

Most recently the Wanderer had departed Papeete in the Society Islands (French Polynesia) bound for Hawaii.  It was on this leg of their voyage that they weathered the cyclonic conditions and performed a miraculous rescue.

Benjamin Boyd portrait. Source: Australian Town and Country Journal 29 Aug 1906 Page 28.

The sailor reported that he thought he had glimpsed something bobbing in the mountainous seas even though they were hundreds of miles from land.   A man was sent aloft with a telescope and after a few minutes he called down that there was a whaleboat in distress several miles to windward.   The Wanderer bore down on the stricken craft and discovered it contained six occupants.     

The seas were still running high and it was not until their third attempt that a line was got across to the boat.   The only words the men on the Wanderer could discern were plaintive cries for water.   Then all six passengers, three men, and three women were hauled across and safely got aboard the schooner, very lucky to be alive.

It turned out the whaleboat belonged to Jose Davis, “a Brazilian man-of-colour”1 who had since resided in Hawaii for the past 17 years.   With his wife and four others, (all South Pacific Islanders) he had set off from Oahu nine days earlier intending to reach Maui.    They were only about 50kms from home when disaster struck.

The whaleboat was caught in a severe storm that raged for days.   The sail was ripped to shreds and they lost their rudder during the tempest which made the whaleboat uncontrollable.   What’s more, the planking had sprung so they were also taking on water.    The boat drifted at the mercy of the wind and waves for nine days and it was ultimately pushed some 600kms south.   They had no drinking water and the only food Davis and his comrades had was a few pumpkins.  

Map of the Pacific Ocean showing where the whaleboat was found.

But Jose was not one to give up hope.   Once the weather abated, he planned to use the women’s dresses to make a new sail and then bear east towards the South American coast using the sun and stars to guide him.  

With the new passengers on board and being cared for, the Wanderer continued north to Hawaii.   The whaleboat sank shortly after it was abandoned.   In time Jose and the others were landed at Maui to be reunited with their astonished and grateful families and friends who had since given them up for dead.

The Wanderer continued on to San Francisco, but Boyd failed to strike it rich on the goldfields and decided to return to Australia.   On the homeward voyage, they stopped at Guadalcanal where he vanished while out hunting.   His body was never found.

1.      Colonial Times, 31 May 1850, p. 4.

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

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