The Indian Queen’s Icy Encounter

Striking of the Indian Queen on an iceberg in the South Pacific, on the morning of April 1. Source: London Illustrated News.

The Indian Queen had a well-deserved reputation as a fast sailer on the England-Australia run.   So much so, that in Melbourne its captain had bet the master of the equally fast, and appropriately named, Greyhound, to a race back to England.   But the wager would cost Captain Brewer far more than he bargained for.

On 13 March 1859 the 1040-ton clipper left port bound for Liverpool with a cargo of wool, gold and 40 passengers, a day ahead of the Greyhound.    Once outside Port Phillip Heads, Captain Brewer bore south-east to pick up the strong westerly winds swirling uninterruptedly around the Southern Ocean.    

So intent on beating the Greyhound, Captain Brewer threw caution to the wind and took his ship below 60° latitude, much further south than was prudent.  

The ship sliced its way through the sea at 12 knots (22 km/h) and made as much as 200-270 nautical miles (300-500 kms) per day.   After a fortnight of good sailing, they were halfway to Cape Horn and many thousands of kilometres from land.

Then the weather turned foul.  

Black Ball clipper Marco Polo, sister ship to the Indian Queen.

It was already bitterly cold that far south.   But now the deck was being lashed by freezing rain and sleet.   Visibility was much reduced by the rain and a persistent fog, but Brewer kept all sail up in his quest to reach Liverpool before the Greyhound.   His only concession to the conditions was to post lookouts forward to warn of any impending dangers.

Then, about 2 o’clock in the morning on 1 April, when they were about 58° S and 151° W, the Indian Queen crashed into a towering mountain of ice.  It suddenly loomed from nowhere and the ship struck hard and came to rest broadside to the iceberg before anyone knew it was there.   The impact tore away the bowsprit and a long section of the starboard bulwark.  Tons of ice crashed down on to the deck, destroying the starboard lifeboat.

The collision also sheared off the foremast just above the deck, felled the upper portions of the mainmast and strew the deck with a tangle of rigging, timber spars and billowing clouds of canvas.    More debris hung over the portside into the inky black water.   Amid this scene of carnage, only the aft mast remained standing.

By the time the first of the passengers made it on deck to see what had so violently awoken them, they found a scene of utter devastation.   “So dark was it we could only see a spectral blueish white mass,” one passenger recalled, “and the black waves washing up its sides.”  

Approximate location of the collision. Google Maps.

Perhaps more alarmingly the poop deck was deserted.   The portside lifeboat was missing, as was the captain and most of the crew.

When the ship slammed into the iceberg the captain and most of his men rushed the only undamaged boat, fearing for their lives.   No one could live for long in those icy waters had the ship sunk.  Gone was any notion of getting women and children off first or the captain remaining with his ship.   It was every man for himself.

Captain Brewer, the first mate, 13 sailors and two stowaways immediately put off in the undamaged lifeboat and pulled away from the stricken vessel, expecting it to sink below the surface at any moment.   Brewer even left his own 16-year-old son, one of the ship’s apprentices, to his fate in his undignified haste to save his own skin.

When the ship’s carpenter, Thomas Howard, got on deck he immediately sounded the pumps and found they were not taking on any water.  The hull had not been breached by the impact.   Meanwhile, the Second Mate, Philip Syratt, took charge of the few remaining sailors and got them to work.     He and Howard then called out through the howling wind and murky mist for the captain and the others to return.

But, as the lifeboat appeared to draw towards the Indian Queen a large wave swept over its stern and filled it with ice cold water.   Panic overtook the crowded boat and they lost their oars in the confusion.    Ropes and life buoys were thrown towards them but to no avail.   The lifeboat with 17 souls onboard was soon swallowed by the mist and was never seen again.

Syratt organised the crew and passengers into work parties and cleared the tons of ice from the deck and cut away much of the rigging still dangling over the port side.   They then jury-rigged sails and bore north to get clear of the ice.   

Forty days later the Indian Queen limped into the Chilean port of Valparaiso with no further loss of life.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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Three Months in a Leaky Boat

As you sit down to Christmas lunch spare a thought for the Sapphire castaways who spent 25 December 1859 in a struggle for their lives.   Theirs is a remarkable story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardship served with a healthy measure of good luck.

Christmas Day saw William Beveridge and his men kedging their stricken barque off a sandbank near Cape Direction about 500kms north of present-day Cairns in North Queensland.      Their ordeal had begun three months earlier, and they would not reach safety for another two.

Their ship, the Sapphire, had run aground on the Great Barrier Reef north of Raine Island on the evening of 23 September 1859.    The crew abandoned the ship in two lifeboats and made for Sir Charles Hardie Island.   There they decided they would return to Port Curtis (Gladstone) where they had sailed from.

Unfortunately, they found they could not beat a course south against the prevailing south-easterly winds.   So, they turned about and sailed north past Cape York and on to Booby Island.   By the time they arrived it was mid-October and they had been roaming the seas around Torres Strait for almost one month.   They found barrels of food put aside for shipwrecked sailors at Booby Island [See my blog The Post Office in the Middle of Nowhere] but it would not last indefinitely.

Illustration of Booby Island, Torres Strait – Otherwise, Post Office. From the Illustrated Sydney News, Fri 16 Dec 1864, Page 9.

It was now cyclone season and they had not seen another vessel since becoming marooned.   They would likely not see another until April the following year as few captains would venture into these dangerous waters until then.

They determined to make another attempt to return to Port Curtis despite their recent failure.     After spending two weeks at Booby Island, they set off but immediately ran into the winds that had so plagued them earlier.  

About now they also lost half their number.   The captain and more than half the crew were killed by Aborigines off Hammond Island in an encounter that turned deadly.   The Mate, William Beveridge, and the rest of the men escaped and eventually passed back through Torres Strait.   Then, for the first time, their luck changed for the better.

They spotted a ship in the distance.   But, as they drew near they found it was deserted.  The vessel proved to be the Barque Marina, which had run aground during foul weather back in September.   It too had been abandoned by its crew.   Miraculously, the Marina floated off during a spring tide to drift around Torres Strait.   Meanwhile the crew made for Sir Charles Hardie Island, arriving only hours after the Sapphire’s crew had left.  

Sapphire survivors route through Torres Strait from leaving the Sapphire and finding the Marina.

After preparing their boats for the long voyage ahead of them the Marina crew set off for Port Curtis, then the most northerly settlement on Australia’s eastern seaboard.   After 43 days of arduous sailing, they made it safely to port and notified the authorities of the loss of the Sapphire and her crew.

HMS Cordelia was despatched north to search for them but only steamed as far as Cape Upstart thinking the lost sailors could not still be any further north.   But, they were wrong.   It was now late January 1860 and the Sapphire’s crew were anchored off Lizard Island in the Marina, 500 kms further north.

Beveridge had decided to sail the barque to Port Curtis rather than continue in their small lifeboat.   Setting off on 26 November, they battled the same contrary winds and currents that had plagued them previously.

Marina’s course down the Queensland Coast. Source Google Maps.

For the next two months they made painfully slow progress.   They anchored for days and weeks at a time waiting for the south-easterlies to fall off.   In the first month alone, they travelled just 180kms.

They spent Christmas Day dragging the stranded barque off a sandbar and got aground twice more in the weeks that followed.   Her hull was so damaged that water flowed freely into the hold.   The only thing keeping them afloat was her cargo of tightly packed Kauri logs which gave her buoyancy.

On 9 February they were anchored off Palm Island.   In the past two and a half months they had covered a little more than half the distance to Port Curtis.   All seemed lost.   They were slowly starving to death.   

At first, the men were rationed to one sea biscuit per day.   Even that meagre diet would be reduced as their stores dwindled.   If they did not reach port soon, they never would.

Finally, their luck changed again.   The wind started blowing from the north.      They put to sea and arrived outside Port Curtis eight days later.   Their ordeal was over, and they had survived.

The Sapphire’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available as an eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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The Spanish Silver of Torres Strait

Example of a mechant brig, similar to the Sun. Source: “L’Album De Marine Du Duc D’Orleans,” 1827.

Sometime around 1891 a group of beche-de-mer fishermen stumbled upon a huge hoard of Spanish silver coins on the eastern entrance to Torres Strait. The men had been out searching for trepang in the shallow waters around Ashmore Reef when they made the discovery.

It was low tide and much of the reef was exposed, when one of them came across a coral-encrusted anchor fluke jutting from the surface.  He and his mates began chipping away to uncover the relic, never imagining what they might find.

The anchor finally broke free from the surrounding coral, revealing a pile of silver coins fused together by time and salt water.   Buoyed by the find they kept searching and in time uncovered a staggering 450 kgs (900 pounds) of silver.    It took them two trips to carry it all back to Somerset, the fishing and cattle station owned by Frank Jardine, the boat’s owner. 

Spanish silver coins as circulated in the early days of New South Wales.

At the time it was supposed the coins had been carried on a Spanish ship on its way to Manilla to pay the wages of the civil and military staff stationed there.   Either that, or it was to be used to purchase spices from traders in the Indonesian Archipelago further to the west.    Regardless, it had ended its voyage on that remote coral outcrop many years earlier, for the ship’s timbers had long rotted away.

But, it was not a Spanish Galleon they had discovered.    It was the remains of the English brig, Sun, which was lost in Torres Strait in May 1826.   Earlier in that year it had delivered a cargo of Chinese tea to Hobart and Sydney.   In Sydney it took on a cargo of 30-40,000 Spanish silver dollars belonging to a local merchant. 

At the time one Spanish dollar was worth 4 shillings and 4 pence.   It was valued at about £2,000 at the time.   In today’s money the silver content alone would be worth nearly half a million Australian dollars.

The Sun sailed from Sydney on 7 May bound for Singapore by way of Torres Strait.   But it never made it there.   Its voyage was cut short three weeks later when it struck a submerged reef as it tried to navigate those dangerous waters between Cape York and New Guinea.

Torres Strait. Source: Google Maps.

The ship started breaking up almost immediately.   The crew took to the longboat and jollyboat and started making for Murray Island about 60kms (30 nm) to the west.    They didn’t have time to grab any food or water, but fortunately it took them only two days to sight land.  

As fate would have it, just as their safety seemed assured, the longboat struck a reef and was swamped, spilling all the occupants into the water.   The first and second mates plus 22 lascar sailors drowned.

The jollyboat with the ship’s captain plus 11 others reached Murray Island and were cared for by the Islanders until a passing ship took the castaways off three days later.

The silver went down with the ship and lay there undisturbed for 65 years.    Frank Jardine took the lion’s share of his fishermen’s find.   He reportedly had some of the coins melted down and made into a silver serving plate for the Jardine Homestead.

© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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The Macabre case of the Mignonette

Illustration of the yacht Mignonette.

Authenticated acts of cannibalism among shipwreck survivors are remarkably rare.   But when they have taken place, those involved have often been met with revulsion and sympathy in equal measure.

Such was the case with the survivors of the small yacht Mignonette which foundered on its way to Australia in 1884.

The Mignonette was a small yacht of about 33 tons. It had been purchased in England by Sydney barrister and Commodore of the Sydney Yacht Club, John Want. He hired Captain Thomas Dudley and a crew of three to sail the vessel to Australia for him while he returned by a regular steamer service in more salubrious surrounds.

The Mignonette sailed from Southampton on 19 May 1884 and briefly stopped at Madeira off the Moroccan coast around the middle of June.   Nothing further was heard of it until 6 September when Dudley and two of his crew returned to England having been rescued at sea by the German barque Motezuma.

Six weeks after leaving England they were over 3,000 Kilometres south of the equator and 2,500 kilometres off the Namibian coast. By now the weather had turned foul. The seas ran high and they were running further south before a strong wind. On the afternoon of 5 July a gigantic rogue wave rose from nowhere and crashed into the side of the yacht stoving in the hull.

As the Mignonette went down, The Illustrated London News, 20 Sept 1884, p. 268.

The mate, Edwin Stevens, was at the wheel and only had time to call out a warning before the monster wave struck.   Fortunately Dudley grabbed hold of the boom and held on as a wall of water swept across the deck.

The Mignonette immediately started filling with water.   Dudley ordered the men to prepare to abandon ship.   They got the lifeboat over the side while he went below to gather provisions.   By then seawater was already swirling around the cabin interior.

The captain grabbed two tins of what he thought was preserved meat, raced back on deck and leaped into the dinghy as the Mignonette sank below the waves.

Dudley, Stevens, Edward Brooks, and seventeen years old Richard Parker spent a frightening night in the tiny four metre dinghy as the storm raged around them.    To make matters worse, they had no fresh water and discovered their tinned provisions consisted of just one kilogram of preserved turnips.

“Sailing Before the Wind.” The Illustrated London News, 29 Sept 1884.

For the next five days they subsisted on small morsels of turnip and small quantities of rainwater, but it was never enough.  Then their luck improved, at least for a short while.   They captured and killed a turtle which had been basking on the sea’s surface.

By day 19 the remaining can of turnips and the turtle meat had long gone and the young cabin boy, Parker, had started drinking seawater to alleviate his burning thirst.   He was now lying in the bottom of the boat in a delirious state.

Wracked with hunger and despair, that night Thomas Dudley suggested they should draw lots to see who should be killed to provide food so the rest might live. Brooks wanted no part of it and told the others he thought they should all live or die together.

Dudley and Stevens discussed their options and felt as they were both married men with families to support, Parker should be the one as he was already close to death.   The matter was settled.

Dudley prayed for forgiveness for what they were about to do, then as Stephens held Parker down, Dudley slit his throat with his knife.   Brooks turned away covering his eyes with his hands but he could not block out the lad’s feeble cries for mercy.

As Parker’s blood drained from his body, they caught it in an empty turnip tin and drank it.   Brooks, despite his horror, was unable to resist taking his share.

The three men fed on Parker until they were rescued by the passing barque Montezuma, five days later.

Newspaper illustration showing the “terrible tale of the sea. and the horrible sufferings,” of the shipwrecked sailors.

When Captain Dudley returned to England he reported the loss of his vessel and the hardships they had endured afterwards, including the death of the delirious Parker.

As abhorrent as his actions were, he did not believe he had committed a crime. In his mind he had sacrificed one life to save three.

But, he and Stephens were remanded in custody to stand trial for the capital crime of Murder.  

There was huge interest in the tragic story both in Britain and in Australia.   Many people appeared sympathetic towards the Captain and his first mate.  But there were also those who felt the pair acted prematurely in killing Parker who was already close to death anyway.

At their trial, Dudley and Stephens pleaded not guilty, their barrister arguing they acted in self-defence.   He used the analogy that if two shipwrecked men were on a plank that would only support one, one or the other could be excused for pushing away the other man to drown.   For, he argued, were both men to remain on the plank, both would perish.

FEARFUL SUFFERINGS AT SEA. LAD KILLED AND EATEN. Courtesy State Library of Scotland.

The judge didn’t see things that way.   In summing up the case, he told the jury:

“It was impossible to say that the act of Dudley and Stephens was an act of self-defence. Parker at the bottom of the boat was not endangering their lives by any act of his.  The boat could hold them all, and the motive for killing him was not for the purpose of lightening the boat, but for the purpose of eating him, which they could do when dead, but not while living.   What really imperilled their lives was not the presence of Parker, but the absence of food and drink.”

The jury found the pair guilty and the judge sentenced them to death but it appears there was little likelihood that the death sentence would ever be carried out.    Even Parker’s family had forgiven the two men on trial.

After waiting on death row for six months, both sentences were commuted to time served and they were released from custody.  

It was generally agreed that they had acted as they did under the extreme duress of being lost at sea for so long without food or water.   No one felt that justice would be served by punishing the two men any further, for they had already suffered enough.  

Copyright © C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.

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The Bogus Count and Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya, Indonesia, 1868. Photo Courtesy: Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

Some things you just can’t make up.    This is the story of the bogus Count von Attems and Hamlet’s Ghost.

In May 1868 a dashing young man stepped ashore in Sydney claiming to be Count Ignaz Von Attems, a blood relative of Archduke Albert of Austria.   The Von Attems family could trace their aristocratic lineage back to the 12th Century, and to Australia’s class-conscious and pretentious squattocracy, he was a man to be feted.

Von Attems knew how the game was played for he was already a master far beyond his 25 years might suggest.   He dressed extravagantly, splashed money around with abandon, hinted at a lavish monthly stipend and courted attention.   He was a man to be seen and more importantly to many in colonial society, a man to be seen with.

No social engagement would be complete without the attendance of the aristocratic Count.  He would often dress in the full uniform of an Austrian cavalry officer, complete with sword, even when wandering about town.

But, after spending just four weeks in Sydney he departed for Brisbane, promising to return once he had done a spot of hunting in the new colony to the north.  

“The Gallant Count Von Attems” newspaper article from the 1940s. Source: Trove.

His reception in Brisbane was no less exuberant. 

The Colonial Secretary hosted a champagne lunch in Von Attem’s honour attended by the colony’s leading citizens, for no other reason than he had deigned to visit their humble domain.

As in Sydney, he borrowed heavily on lines of credit with the colonial banks and convinced local merchants and new acquaintances to cover his debts, usually claiming his monthly allowance had yet to catch up with him.

By now, Count Von Attems, or Curt Oswald Schmulz as he was better known to his family back in Austria, had perfected his craft.   He was charismatic, urbane, and exceedingly generous with “his” money.    He was everything one would expect from a well-bred aristocrat.

The man dressed in white is likely Curt Schmulz AKA Count von Attems on board Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya 1868. Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

Born to a middle-class family in Saxony, the young Schmulz had attended a Commercial Academy and worked in what today would be an accounting firm as he completed his studies.  

He also began to cultivate a lifestyle he could not quite afford.   Unfortunately, by the time he had turned 20 he had amassed debts neither he nor his father could pay.

He quietly left Europe and headed to the United States which was then embroiled in the Civil War.   He joined the Union Army and seemingly served with some distinction for when he mustered out at the end of hostilities in 1865 he had risen to the rank of Captain.

For the next two years or so he travelled through South America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.   He held fake letters of introduction and drew on bogus lines of credit with banks far from where he currently was.   No doubt his earlier employment at the counting house stood him in good stead.  He never stayed in any one city for long and assumed the personas of many different people real and imagined.   He also became adept at putting on the airs of the European aristocrat.  

When he left Sydney he had no intention of returning.     To do so would have courted disaster, for it would only be a matter of time before his elaborate scam caught up with him.   On leaving Brisbane, he planned instead, to make for Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia).   

And, one day he found the ideal vessel to carry him north.   He purchased a luxurious pleasure craft enigmatically named Hamlet’s Ghost.

It had a story just as interesting as the bogus Count’s.   A clue to its origin, for students of Shakespeare, can be found in the yacht’s name.    Hamlet’s Ghost had once been the whaling schooner, Prince of Denmark.

Example of an 1860s whaling Schooner.

The Prince of Denmark had run aground on one of the Chesterfield Islands far out in the Coral Sea during a heavy storm in 1863.   To escape the island the captain had his men build a boat from the remains of his ship.     Captain Bennett and his crew of Solomon Islanders then sailed it to Moreton Bay where he sold the vessel and continued on to Sydney.

It first saw service as a lighter transferring cargo from ships to shore.  Then, three years later George Harris, a well heeled merchant, purchased the craft.   He had it remodelled into a fine pleasure yacht he could use to cruise the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay.

Hamlet’s Ghost was a schooner-rigged vessel of about 8-10 tons with an elliptical stern and an overhanging bow.   The hull was sheathed in cedar and copper-plated to ward off seaworms.   She had a spacious cabin amidships with a large skylight to provide full headroom and plenty of light. 

“The vessel’s cabin is splendidly fitted up,” wrote one reporter. “The panellings are of grained maple mounted with gold mouldings, and a large pier glass fills up one end of the cabin.” 

Hamlet’s Ghost at Surabaya, 1868. Photo courtesy: Walter B Woodbury Photograph Collection, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.

She also carried on deck three brass swivel guns to ward off any threats in remote or dangerous waters.

It was perfect.   Count Von Attems purchased it for £500 and said he intended to cruise along the Queensland coast, perhaps, as far as Cleveland Bay (present-day Townsville) before returning to port.    He crewed it with a captain, chief officer, three seamen, a cook/steward and a manservant. 

Three weeks after arriving he bid Brisbane “Auf Wiedersehen,” leaving another mountain of debt in his wake.

Von Attems did not leave Brisbane too soon, for a month later a warrant for his arrest had reached the stunned city.   By then he was rounding Cape York Peninsula but not before some drama enveloped the small schooner.      

By the time he had reached Somerset on Cape York the captain had had enough of the arrogant Count. An argument escalated to the point where both men brandished their pistols about before some order was restored.  

The Captain and the steward left the yacht at Somerset but the rest of the crew were induced to remain by the promise of more money. They then set off for the Dutch East Indies.

Count Von Attems, AKA Curt Schmulz’s, luck finally ran out at Surabaya.   There he was arrested after he passed a couple of fraudulent bank bills.   While waiting his day in court Von Attems escaped the prison hospital and almost managed to flee the East Indies before being recaptured.

He was tried, found guilty and served 10 years in a Batavia prison for his crimes. Hamlet’s Ghost was reportedly sold for £100 and never returned to Queensland.

Original post edited to include photos of Hamlet’s Ghost, 5 Mar 2022.

(C) Copyright Tales from the quarterdeck / C.J. Ison 2021.

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