Diving for the Gothenburg Gold

Wood engraving published in The illustrated Australian news for home readers. Photo courtesy SLV.

On 24 February 1875 the steamer Gothenburg ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and sank during a ferocious storm with the loss of over 100 lives.   A fortune in gold also went to the bottom.

That the Gothenburg had sunk with 3,000 ounces (93 kgs) of gold belonging to the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank did not go unnoticed when the ship was reported lost.   Brisbane salvage diver James Putwain partnered with the owner of the small coastal steamer and the two started steaming towards Bowen as quickly as they could.  

There, Putwain hired a small fishing boat and some local men to help with his air pump.   By noon on 7 March, they were at the wreck site, only six days after hearing of the disaster.  The steamer continued north, leaving Putwain and his team to bring up the gold. 

Putwain first tried diving from the fishing boat but a strong current prevented him from reaching the wreck.   He then built a platform attached to the wreck’s mainmast and set up his diving apparatus on that.   Donning his heavy diving suit and helmet, he climbed down the rigging to the sunken ship’s deck and soon made entry into the captain’s cabin.   On this first attempt his air hose became entangled in the wreckage.   Putwain had some anxious moments until he cleared it and returned to the surface to give more explicit instructions to his new and inexperienced assistants.  

S.S. Gothenburg docked at a wharf. Photo Courtesy SLQ

His third descent met with success.   Putwain found the safe containing the gold in the remains of the  cabin and had it hoisted to the surface.   Before leaving the wreck he tried descending further into the ship but only got a little way before running out of hose.   But there, he saw the haunting vision of two women suspended in the water seemingly embracing.   Unable to get close enough to identify the bodies, he returned to the surface with the macabre image burned into his memory. 

With the gold secured he returned to Bowen to report his find to the Harbourmaster and deposit the precious metal in the local bank.

Then the enterprise got mired in legal wrangling.   The English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank offered James Putwain and his partner £1,000 for retrieving the £9,000 worth of gold.   Putwain and his partner felt £4,000 was more appropriate compensation.   The case went to the Vice Admiralty Court in Brisbane, where Putwain claimed he had spent nearly £500 in the salvage operation, that it had been a risky endeavour and that the box was found in a precarious position where it could have easily plummeted into deeper, inaccessible, water to be lost for ever. 

The bank argued that the amount demanded by the salvors was excessive and Putwain’s account of the salvage operation was exaggerated.     Nonetheless, the judge found in favour of the salvors, awarding them approximately one third the value of the gold, £3,000.   

Not happy with the verdict, the bank appealed the decision before the Privy Council in London.    Almost two years after the Gothenburg sank the Privy Council found in favour of the salvors and upheld the original judgement, ordering the bank to pay Putwain and his partner.

A second salvage operation was mounted in the weeks after the Gothenburg was lost.     The diver Samuel Dunwoodie arrived on the wreck on 14 March, a week after Putwain, unaware that the gold had already been retrieved.    Nonetheless, Dunwoodie recovered much of the cabin luggage and many of the personal effects belonging to the passengers.   His team also removed the ship’s two steam winches before the weather turned foul, forcing them to abandon the wreck.

The tragic story of the Gothenburg shipwreck 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, 2022.

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The Countess of Minto’s brush with Disaster

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In 1851 two men pulled off a sailing feat few thought possible.   They had been the only hands on board the Countess of Minto when it vanished during a violent storm stranding the rest of the crew on a remote desert island.    Everyone thought the ship had foundered but four weeks later it sailed into Sydney Harbour.  To everyone’s astonishment, the two men had survived and saved their ship.

On 25 August 1851 the 300-ton barque was anchored off Lady Elliot Island on the Great Barrier Reef to collect guano, a valuable commodity at the time.    John Johnson and Joseph Pass had just returned to the ship having taken the captain and the rest of the crew ashore when the weather started to turn.  

By midday the wind was howling, high seas raged around them and torrential rain was lashing the deck.   It was now far too dangerous to take to the jolly boat to join their shipmates on the island.  They would have to ride out the storm as best they could. 

Johnson and Pass let out the anchors as far as they could and hoped they would remain firmly dug into the seabed.   The ship surged and the chains strained with each powerful swell, and for a time they held. 

Then, around 11.30 that night a very thick squall struck.   The force of the wind and the seas were too great, and the anchors started dragging.   The barque was swept out into the deep water of the Coral Sea, somehow missing the island and surrounding reefs.   Johnson and Pass could only pray they survived the night.

Johnson was the ship’s carpenter and Pass the steward.   Neither were part of the regular sailing crew but it is clear that one or perhaps both men possessed a wealth of sailing experience.  And, at least one of them could navigate using sextant and chronometer.

The next morning, Johnson and Pass found nothing but deep blue ocean extending from horizon to the horizon.   By now the wind had eased and the men took stock of their situation.  

The two men were relieved to find the Countess of Minto had survived the storm with only superficial damage.    The hull, masts, and sails were intact, but they were now drifting aimlessly under bare poles at the mercy of the wind and current.  

Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Sept 1851, p. 2.

Both anchors were still dangling at the ends of their 45 fathoms (90 metres) of chain.   The deck was littered with ropes and other gear that had broken loose but escaped being washed overboard.   The longboat had been swept off the forward hatch and was now being dragged along behind the ship, full of water.   The jolly boat, likewise, was trailing behind.

They let go the anchors being unable to haul them up by themselves.   They set up a boom with block and tackle and retrieved the two boats.   Then they tidied up the deck.   At midnight they pumped eight inches of water from the bilge and continued working through til dawn.

They finally hoisted some canvas and bore towards the south-east.   For the first time since being swept from their anchorage nearly 36 hours earlier, they had control of the ship.     

On Wednesday evening, 27 August, the winds picked up having dropped off for most of the day.   They now tried to set a north-westerly course to return to Lady Elliot Island and rescue their shipmates.  But in the face of contrary winds and hampered for want of manpower, they struggled to get back.  

For over a week the pair battled to return.    But despite their untiring efforts the ship continued drifting southward and away from the coast.    By the following Friday, 5 September, the men were utterly exhausted and further away than ever from their shipmates.

Approximate course of the Countess of Minto.

They finally decided to go with the wind and make for Sydney to get help.   Four days later they were off Port Macquarie and only 300 kms from their destination.    There they met with another ship who lent some hands to help the exhausted duo the rest of the way.

On 20 September the pair sailed into Sydney Harbour to be greeted by their captain who had just arrived and reported his ship lost.   Johnson and Pass were commended for their “meritorious conduct” and each rewarded with £10 by the insurance underwriters.

The Countess of Minto’s incredible 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, 2022.

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HMS Guardian: All Hands to the Pumps

In September 1789 H.M.S. Guardian sailed from Portsmouth, England with much needed supplies for the newly established penal settlement in New South Wales.    But its voyage was cut short when it struck an iceberg in the Southern Ocean and began filling with water.

After an uneventful passage south, the Guardian had stopped at Table Bay for a fortnight in early December to take on plants and livestock for the colony before setting off across the Southern Ocean for Australia.   

The sea was calm and there was a gentle breeze blowing on 24 December.   They were at 44°S 41°E and, but for a few isolated islands, the nearest land was nearly 2000 kilometres away.    Then late in the afternoon the fog lifted revealing an iceberg about six kilometres away.  

After two weeks at sea the ship’s water supply had been much depleted by the additional animals and plants they were carrying.   The captain, Lt. Edward Riou, decided to use the opportunity to resupply.   He brought the Guardian to within 500 metres of the towering white mountain and sent two boats out to gather blocks of ice floating in the sea.   

Captain Edward Riou, commander of the Guardian.

It was about 7 o’clock in the evening when the heavily laden boats returned and the fog had once again descended.   By quarter to eight Riou could barely see the length of his ship.  

Then, without warning, the Guardian crashed stern first onto a submerged iceshelf projecting from the berg.   The force of the collision violently shook the vessel and broke off the rudder.   Riou backed off the ice and for a moment it seemed that crisis had been averted.

But on sounding the wells, the carpenter reported they were taking on water, a lot of water.   The ship had sustained serious damage.   Riou ordered the pumps manned and the ship lightened starting with the livestock on deck.   The animals were thrown into the sea, followed by stores brought up from below. 

By ten o’clock it was clear their hard work was not going to save the ship.   The water was gaining on the pumps and the ship was sitting so low in the water that waves swept over the deck threatening to pour into the hold through the open hatchways.

Efforts to save the ship continued through the night and the next day.   By now the weather had turned foul.   A gale was blowing and mountainous seas rose around them.   The crew were exhausted from continuous labour at the pumps and jettisoning stores.   Lt Riou finally accepted the inevitable and gave the order to abandon ship.    

He had already decided to remain with his ship to the end, but he felt not everyone needed to perish. There were 123 souls on board including the crew, 25 convicts and several overseers and their families. He encouraged anyone who wished to do so, to take to the boats to save their lives. The five lifeboats could accommodate only half those on board, but the captain thought at least some of The people might reach safety if their luck held.

One boat was lost immediately on being lowered, but the other four got away and were soon lost to sight.    Sixty-two people chose to remain with the ship, including 21 of the convicts.

Illustration titled “Part of the crew of his Majesty’s Ship Guardian endeavouring to escape in the boats.” Courtesy: State Library of NSW.

To everyone’s great surprise the Guardian remained afloat but only just.   It was sitting very low- the deck awash with frigid water – but it sank no further.   They discovered barrels trapped in the hold were lending enough buoyancy to keep the stricken vessel afloat.  Also, the ship had lost most of its ballast through the rent in the hull.

Riou had a sail draped under the ship to stem the inflow of water.  The pumps were manned around the clock, and they slowly made their way back to Table Bay.   The relentless cold and wet conditions and sheer physical effort made the passage brutal.   However, nine weeks later they made it.     Of the sixty who took to the boats, only fifteen survived.   Nine days after being at sea, one boat was rescued by a passing ship.    The other three lifeboats were never heard of again.

Map courtesy Google Maps.

Lt Riou was cleared of blame in the loss of his ship and later promoted to Captain.    He praised the performance of his officers and men and sought pardons for the convicts who had worked so resolutely to save the ship.    But, by the time the recommendation reached Port Jackson, one had already been executed for stealing, six others had gone on to commit additional crimes.  But fourteen received pardons.  H.M.S. Guardian eventually broke apart at False Bay.

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

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The Peruvian’s Lone Survivor

James Morrill. Source National Library of Australia 136099157-1.

There is a modest memorial standing in the Bowen Cemetery in North Queensland dedicated to James Morrill who died on 30 October 1865.  

The plaque credits him as a sailor who had survived the loss of his ship and subsequently lived with the local Aborigines for the next seventeen years.

The 22-year-old Morrill sailed from Sydney on the barque Peruvian in February 1846 bound for China.     But her voyage came to an abrupt and tragic end on Bellona Shoal far out in the Coral Sea.

One dark night the ship slammed into the reef at her top speed having all canvas out at the time she struck.   The Second Mate was swept into the ocean by a giant wave as he emerged on deck.   The First Mate was then lost when the longboat broke free as it was being lowered over the side.  He disappeared into the night seated in the wrecked boat with only a sheep as a final companion.   The only other lifeboat was also lost in those first minutes of confusion and turmoil.

Twenty-one people made it on to a makeshift raft and escaped the stranded ship.   But if they thought their ordeal was over they were wrong.  It had just begun.    The survivors endured 42 days of unimaginable hardship as they slowly drifted towards the Queensland coast.   

Two thirds died of starvation, thirst, or exposure.   Only seven were alive when the raft came to rest at Cape Cleveland south of present-day Townsville.   Two more died within days of landing.  

That left just James Morrill, the captain and his wife, a young apprentice and the sailmaker.   The sailmaker would shortly find an abandoned canoe and try to make his way down the coast towards Moreton Bay.   He only got as far as the next bay before exhaustion overtook him and he died a lonely death.

The castaways had come ashore on the traditional lands of the Bindal and Juru peoples in what is today the Lower Burdekin region.  In time their presence was discovered and one evening the Aborigines confronted the strange visitors.

   “At first they were as afraid of us as we were of them.   Presently we held up our hands in supplication to them to help us, some of them returned it; after a while they came among us and felt us all over from head to foot.  They satisfied themselves that we were human beings, and hearing us talk, they asked us by signs where we had come from.   We made signs and told them we had come across the sea, and seeing how thin and emaciated we were, took pity on us. …”  – James Morrill.

The four castaways were taken in and cared for.   According to Morrill, the captain and his wife never fully recovered from the ordeal and died a couple of years later, as did the apprentice.    

Memorial to James Morrill, the last survivor of the Peruvian shipwreck who lived with Aborigines for 17 years. Bowen Cemetery.

Morrill, himself, adapted to his new life.   He learned to hunt and fish, and speak the language. He fully immersed himself in the ways of his adopted family for the next 17 years.

But as the frontier of European settlement encroached into the Lower Burdekin, Morrill entertained the idea of making contact.   

One day he confronted a couple of incredulous stockmen introducing himself as a shipwrecked sailor and told them his story.    He eventually bade his Bindal friends an emotional farewell and stepped out of the bush and back into European society.

Morrill was uniquely placed to see the devastation European colonisation was having on Aboriginal peoples. Using his brief period of celebrity, he met with the Queensland Governor and urged him to allow Aborigines to coexist on their traditional lands with settlers, but his plea fell on deaf ears. 

James Morrill. Photo courtesy State Library of Queensland.

He was given a job as assistant storeman at the Bowen customs house and soon became a popular and well-respected member of the small coastal community.   Morrill married, fathered a child but unfortunately the hardships he had endured had taken their toll and he died two years later.

James Morrill’s full story is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters.

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

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The Endeavour’s Crappy Repair

The Endeavour being towed off the reef into deep water by Samuel Atkins (1787-1808).

As the Endeavour famously made its way up Australia’s east coast in 1770, there was a moment when the success of Cook’s voyage hinged on a pile of animal dung, some wool fibre and a coil of old rope.    The incident took place shortly after passing Cape Tribulation, so named by Cook because that was where his troubles started.

Late in the evening of 10 June the Endeavour struck a submerged coral reef and stuck fast.   Cook was about to discover he had stumbled into a dangerous labyrinth of reefs and shoals pinching in close to the Australian mainland.    

After ditching many tons of stores over the side, including six of his cannons, they eventually hauled the barque into deep water at high tide the following night.   But not before the hull had succumbed to the sharp coral and began taking on water.  All three working bilge pumps were manned non-stop just to prevent the Endeavour from sinking.   A suitable place to beach the stricken vessel had to be found fast.   But at this point there was no guarantee they would reach safety before the ship foundered.

“The Endeavour on the Reef” Source: Picturesque atlas of Australasia, 1886.

Then, a young midshipman, Jonathan Monkhouse, suggested fothering as a means of plugging the leak and buying them some time.  He had seen it done with great effect on a ship he had once served on.   With nothing to lose, Cook set him to work aided by as many men as he could spare from other duties.  

Monkhouse took a spare canvas sail and spread it out on deck.   He gathered up a large quantity of oakum and wool and had his assistants chop it up finely.    The short fibres were mixed together with dung from the animals kept on board, to form fist-sized sticky balls of odorous matting.   These were stuck on to the sail six to eight centimetres apart until a sizeable portion of the canvas had been covered.   

The sail was then lowered over the side of the ship forward of the hole in the hull, and then drawn back along the side.   As the fother – the particles of oakum and wool – were sucked in through the rents in the hull they caught on the edges, and in a short time formed a seal slowing the in-flow of water.

“In about half an hour, to our great surprise, the ship was pumped dry and upon letting the pumps stand she was found to make very little water, so much beyond our most sanguine expectations had this singular expedient succeeded.”   – Joseph Banks.

Map showing Endeavour Reef when the ship went aground. Source: Google Maps.

The Endeavour was out of immediate danger for the first time since striking the reef which had so nearly ended the voyage.   It was now taking on less than half a metre of water per hour and was easily managed with just a single bilge pump.  

They sailed a little further up the coast until they reached what is now named Endeavour River.   There Cook found a suitable place and, after several days delay waiting for safe conditions to enter the river mouth, he ran the barque onto the beach to examine the damage.

The Endeavour beached for repairs. Photo courtesy SLQ

“At 2 AM [on 23 June] the tide left her, which gave us an opportunity to examine the leak, … the rocks had made their way thro’ 4 planks, quite to, and even into the timbers, and wounded 3 more.   The manner these planks were damaged – or cut out, as I may say – is hardly credible; scarce a splinter was to be seen, but the whole was cut away as if it had been done by the hands of man with a blunt-edged tool.”   – Lt James Cook.

Cook and the others, with the aid of lanterns, also found a fist-sized lump of coral lodged in the hull along with pieces of matted wool and oakum which so successfully stemmed the leak.   

During low tide the next day the carpenters began replacing the damaged planks and the armourers got to work fashioning bolts and nails to secure the new timbers in place.   In all they spent six weeks there making repairs and re-provisioning.  They also made the acquaintance of the local Aboriginal people but that is a story for another time.

HMB Endeavour. Photo Courtesy SLV.

With the hull repaired, Cook put to sea on 4 August and gingerly made his way north.   But it would be several more days of intricate and nerve-wracking sailing before he escaped the dangerous labyrinth of coral shoals surrounding him.

The full story of the Endeavour’s stranding on the Great Barrier Reef is told in A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters.

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

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