The saga of Skaubryn

The Camenzuli family in Paola, Malta, a few days before their departure for Australia on <em>Skaubryn</em>, 1958. From left: Lucy, Lina, Georgina, Zaren, Mary and Joyce. Reproduced courtesy Camenzuli family.

The Camenzuli family in Paola, Malta, a few days before their departure for Australia on Skaubryn, 1958. From left: Lucy, Lina, Georgina, Zaren, Mary and Joyce. Reproduced courtesy Camenzuli family.

It’s International Museum Day, an annual event that raises awareness about the role of museums in cultural exchange and the development of mutual understanding. This year’s theme of ‘hyperconnected museums’ focuses on how museums can make their collections accessible and connect with local communities. It’s a theme that is pertinent to our Remembering Skaubryn: 60 years on exhibition, which is drawn from an important collection of photographs documenting the fire and rescue on the Norwegian migrant liner Skaubryn in 1958. Skaubryn was carrying 1,080 passengers, mostly German and Maltese migrants, and was the only vessel lost at sea during the era of post-war migration to Australia.

We have been amazed by the public response to Remembering Skaubryn, with offers of material for our collection, oral history interviews, and visits from survivors, their families and descendants, as well as local community groups such as the Australian-German Welfare Society. It has been wonderful to hear from visitors who have found a personal connection to the exhibition, reminding us that immigration is lived history but also living history, where the impacts of life-changing migrant voyages resonate right down through the generations. Continue reading

Four ships, one lifeboat

<em>Skaubryn</em> survivors were transferred to Aden in one of <em>Roma</em>’s lifeboats, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[022]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Skaubryn survivors were transferred to Aden in one of Roma’s lifeboats, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[022]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

The 60th anniversary of the Skaubryn sinking

The Norwegian liner Skaubryn was the only vessel lost at sea during the era of post-war migration to Australia, when it caught fire in 1958 with 1,288 people on board, including more than 200 children. Two of the survivors, who were both eight years old at the time of their voyage, recently registered for the Welcome Wall and shared their stories with the museum.

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Migration and photography: The Skaubryn archive

Port bow view of the Norwegian liner Skaubryn on fire in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[002]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Port bow view of Skaubryn on fire in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[002]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Photography has always played a critical role in documenting the movement of people across borders. The photographs linked to the vast archive of Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test, for instance, put a face to those impacted by the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia policy) for the first half of the 20th century. In more recent times, the 2015 photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach brought the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis to a global audience. Photographs, as material (and now increasingly digital) objects, also cross borders to bear witness to the lived experiences of migration and diaspora.

The museum holds a rich archive of photographs relating to migration (many of which are in the process of being digitised), ranging from informal family snapshots to official portraits promoting government mass migration schemes after World War II. One of our most significant collections documents the fire and rescue on the Norwegian liner Skaubryn in the Indian Ocean in 1958. A selection of these photographs is now displayed in our Tasman Light Gallery to mark the 60th anniversary of the Skaubryn disaster.

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Rescue – the Australian surf boats

Black and white photo of wooden lifeboat on beach

Boofa at the North Curl Curl SLSC

Famous throughout Australia as a symbol of the surf, surf clubs and the surf lifesaving movement, the surf lifesaving boat is an Australian class of boat evolved to suit the coastal beaches. It has since found its way to other countries, such as New Zealand, which have also developed a strong surfing tradition. It is rowed by a crew under the command of the sweep, who stands aft steering with a long sweep oar over the transom.

The craft became a distinct vessel in 1913 when the Manly Club in Sydney acquired a boat that then became the standard model. Prior to this the other boats that had been used included vessels similar to the Royal National Lifesaving Society craft in the UK and a variety of other local craft such as butcher boats and whalers, with mixed success. Continue reading

Rescue at Coogee Beach

As this is the last week to see the Rescue exhibition, we thought we’d share a recent interview with Cassandra Scott, who experienced rescue first-hand at Coogee Beach, reiiterating the vital role our emergency services organisations play in keeping us safe.

Photo of Cassandra Scott

Cassandra was rescued by complete strangers at Coogee Beach in 2012.

Tell us about your rescue experience. What happened?

On 12 December 2012 complete strangers worked together at Coogee Beach to rescue me, to bring me back to life after I had drowned and was without a pulse for 15 minutes. A stranger, Neil pulled me out of the surf at Coogee beach where I was floating face down, with no pulse, blue and bloated with lips of deep purple. Olivier, another stranger came to help assisted by another and they worked together, laying me on my side, clearing my mouth and pumping my lungs. Continue reading

Rescue – early Australian Lifeboats

The coastline of Australia has some particularly exposed and dangerous areas, and a notable graveyard of accidents is the southwest coastline of Victoria and across to South Australia. Here the westerly winds of the roaring forties and the south westerlies that come in when a low develops bring gales and big seas hitting a landform of cliffs, headlands, islands, outcrops and hidden dangers. Increasing the danger further an arduous voyage was nearing its end, and a tired crew was trying to navigate to safety in testing conditions.

In response to the inevitable shipwreck situations that had occurred, lifeboat stations were set up at some of the safe havens along this coastline, following a pattern employed in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Three of the craft that have survived and are featured on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV), they show the standard technology of the period. A fourth lifeboat on the ARHV shows how ideas ahead of their time failed to meet expectations.

Wooden lifeboat on water full of people

Portland lifeboat and crew.

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Frank Beaurepaire: Shark Rescue Hero

Photograph of Albert Park State School champions, including Frank Beaurepaire. ANMS1031[081] ANMM Collection Gift from Michael Williams

Photograph of Albert Park State School champions, including Frank Beaurepaire. c 1902 ANMS1031[081] ANMM Collection Gift from Michael Williams

The young school boy standing at the back left of this image would one day grow to be Sir Francis Beaurepaire; Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Olympian, politician and successful rubber goods manufacturer. However in a life that was packed with civic achievements and sporting glory, it was Beaurepaire’s role in a daring shark rescue in 1922 that, for a time, propelled him into the spotlight and captured the public’s imagination. Continue reading

Raine Island: it never Raines, it pours…

Hey, it’s Oli here again to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern here at the museum: research!!

Early next year (2013), the museum plans on making a trip to the tip of Northern Queensland in the hope of investigating, surveying, and possibly excavating some endangered artefacts from the reef-riddled waters surrounding the infamous Raine Island. Perhaps the word ‘infamous’ is a little strong these days, but if there is one thing this research has taught me, it’s that Raine Island was absolutely treacherous for sailors during the 19th century, with around 40 known shipwrecks in the area immediately surrounding the island (one article I found stated that there had been 51 wrecks in the area in 1854 alone).

“Disaster at Sea”, Woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, concept by Murray Walker, Ausrtalia, 1989. ANMM Collection

From the late 1700s onwards, Raine Island represented an opening in the Great Barrier Reef, and the start of the passage through Torres Strait for ships attempting to voyage from the East coast of Australia to Asia, India, and Europe. Once past the island, ships could enjoy the protection of the reef, and relatively calm waters safe from the furious surf of the Pacific Ocean. However, before ships could take advantage of this calm, they had to navigate waters riddled with small and large reefs, and if a crew failed to properly identify a certain landmark, or else allowed themselves to deviate slightly from the established path, they were almost guaranteed to spend the rest of their voyage in a lifeboat (if they were lucky).

Alongside attempting to discover various facts about the ships’ destination and cargo, I am looking for accounts of the actual wrecking events in the newspapers of the period. This has exposed me to some amazing stories of death and survival, the like of which I would not otherwise have imagined were possible in the Australian context.

One of the most morbidly interesting is the story of the Charles Eaton, which was a barque out of Sydney bound for Singapore with around 40 people on board. On 15 August 1834, the barque mounted a reef and stuck fast under the heavy surf of the Pacific Ocean. Five members of the crew, including the ship’s carpenter and boatswain, immediately abandoned ship on the only boat that was still usable, but the others refused to join them because it seemed utterly hopeless for the little boat to get away. The five managed to survive and navigated their way right across the top of Australia to Timor where they were immediately robbed, and were almost murdered, but for the kindness of an elderly man, who nevertheless held them captive for over a year.

The rest of the crew on board the Charles Eaton set about making a raft from the components of the ship (after the storm had subsided) and finally succeeded in making a vessel large enough to carry around 10 people including three young boys: George and Willy D’Oyley, and William Sexton. The raft was set adrift, and the crew paddled for some days before meeting a man in a canoe, who invited them onto a nearby island, where he promised them turtle meat. Upon landing, the group were attacked by a large number of men, who decapitated all of them, except for the three boys, who were to be assimilated into the community (George D’Oyley and William Sexton were, however, beaten to death around two months later). Meanwhile, the rest of the crew still aboard the Charles Eaton had constructed another raft which would be capable of holding them all. This final vessel was cast off, and paddled around for a full week before also landing on an island at the direction of a man in a canoe. As the crew collapsed, exhausted upon the sand, they were attacked and butchered, and all were decapitated save another young boy who was also subsequently adopted into the community (the very same people who dealt likewise with the other raft).

The cover of a book in the museum’s collection, which is a narritive written by William Sexton some time after the shipwreck ordeal. It tells of his adventure, and some fond memories of his time on the island.

The fate of the Charles Eaton was an utter mystery for many months, before the five remaining crew managed to escape from their captivity in Timor, and sail to Batavia to alert authorities to the wreck. At this point, a rescue ship was sent out, but failed to discover the whereabouts of the survivors until the captain of another vessel reported sighting a white child in an indigenous family. The rescue vessel located them, along with a number of skulls identified as belonging to the crew of the Charles Eaton. The two boys were taken back to Europe, and provided witness to the whole event some two years after it had occurred (despite now having a slightly limited grasp on the English language).

Another interesting (and somewhat shorter) story was that of the Norna, which left for Hong Kong from Newcastle in 1861 under a cloud of controversy surrounding the murderous behaviour of the previous captain. The Norna was wrecked on a reef described merely as being 14 miles away from the wreck of the Constant. The ship and crew had been missing for some time before a search was sent out in the form of the Sphinx, which started searching islands around the Coral Sea, and managed to find a note in a glass bottle buried on a tropical island under a tree with a plaque reading “NORNA”. The note was written by the Second Officer of the Norna, and described the wreck event, and the subsequent months of being marooned on the island. The captain and his family had left after a week on the island, never to be heard of again. The rest of the crew intended to make for the ‘Pellew Islands’ in the remaining boat, but were not found there by the rescue vessel.

After further searches were made of the surrounding islands, the crew of the Norna were located on an island, but in the captivity of the indigenous people who refused to release their captives or negotiate with the would-be rescuers. As a result, the crew of the Sphinx burned down all the villages on the island, and held the the local chiefs hostage until eventually the surviving crew of the Norna were handed over.

These accounts, and others like them, provide an amazing insight into the extraordinary stories emanating from Australia’s maritime history, and the fact that many of these vessels are yet to be properly investigated (let alone discovered) convince me that the maritime archaeologists here at the museum have some of the most remarkable jobs in Australia!

The sinking of TAHITI – a disaster captured on film

Passengers peer through windows on the deck of the liner VENTURA and hang over the ship’s railings, completely engrossed in the scene in front of them. Some are still climbing ladders up the side of the vessel, while others wait in lifeboats below. Several hundred metres away a ship, their ship, RMS TAHITI is sinking before their very eyes – set to become a relic at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA. ANMS1122[018] ANMM Collection Gift from Shirley Eutrope

It is 18 August 1930 and the passenger liner TAHITI, two days after its starboard propeller shaft first fractured and then smashed through the side of the hull, is finally succumbing to the irreparable damage. Continue reading

Heroic deeds and the humble lighthouse keeper

Engraving of a lighthouse keeper

The Lighthouse-Keeper, Australasian Sketcher 1880s
ANMM Collection

What was life like for a lighthouse keeper? I spotted this engraving, ‘The Lighthouse-Keeper’, which was published in the Australasian Sketcher in the 1880s. The sense of solitude and contemplation is striking and it occurred to me that there is often much emphasis on the lighthouse as a sturdy, dependable symbol of navigational safety, but less on the figure of the lighthouse keeper. Earlier this year, I wrote about the story of the ‘heroic maiden’, Grace Horsley Darling. It was only until I revisited her fascinating story that I realised she was able to rescue nine people after she spotted them from Longstone lighthouse. All accounts, paintings, ballads and poems written about her, seemed to view her connection to the lighthouse as an inherent part of her identity. This engraving and Grace’s story illustrate a common motif, one in which the lighthouse keeper is perpetually depicted as the silent, unwavering guardian of the seas.
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