Possible discovery of Columbus’s flag ship SANTA MARIA (1492)

1892 replica of Santa Maria photographed in 1904 possibly by Edward H Hart. Source: United States Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

1892 replica of Santa Maria photographed in 1904 possibly by Edward H Hart.
Source: United States Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Many years ago when I was attending primary school we were taught The Columbus Day poem in order to remember the momentous events of 1492. The opening stanzas of the poem went something like:

In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue

He had three ships and left from Spain
He sailed through sunshine and he sailed through rain

These three vessels, sponsored by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I Queen of Castile and Leon – made up a great voyage of exploration lead by Christopher Columbus – also known Cristofora Colombo in his native Genoa and as Christobal Colon in Spain – who had managed to convince the joint sovereigns of Spain that he had found a short cut to the famous spice islands of the Orient.

These famous ships were, of course, the caravels Pinta and Nina and the larger Galician nao (ship) Santa Maria and with them Columbus discovered, although the Native Americans would have been a bit bemused by the term, not the Orient but in fact the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti – before returning to Spain with the Pinta and the Nina – the Santa Maria having been wrecked in Caracol Bay, Haiti in on Christmas Day, 1492. Columbus lead several other voyages of discovery to what became known as the Americas and the rest as they say is history. Continue reading

Ferguson Reef archaeology expedition – Monday 25 March

Over the last few days the weather conditions on site have started to deteriorate as as the effects of a new monsoonal trough comes into play.

Photo of

Peter Illidge with charts.

With a substantial surf breaking over the southern and eastern edges of Ferguson Reef and with limited space in the boats we decided to send only single teams of snorkelers onto the reef-top searching for the magnetometer hits that John and Frits had detected on the previous day. Continue reading

Ferguson Reef archaeology expedition 21 – 24 March

Thursday 21 March

Before departing Lizard Island this morning the team took advantage of the early start by climbing Cook’s Look the iconic hill on Lizard Island. The same hill climbed by Lieutenant James Cook and some of the crew of HMB Endeavour in 1770 shortly after that vessel had run aground on a coral patch now known as Endeavour Reef, south of Lizard Island. Cook used this vantage spot to find his way out of the ‘labyrinth’ which had so nearly claimed his vessel.

Photo of

Expedition team at Cooks Look

After climbing Cook’s Look our expedition vessels departed Lizard Island bound for the Flinders Group, 50 or so miles north.

After a smooth passage the two vessels anchored in the channel between the cluster of islands that make up the Flinders Group just south and east of Princess Charlotte Bay. In March 1899 a cyclone destroyed a pearling fleet anchored in the Bay, with the loss of over 400 lives including at least 100 local Aboriginal people who were swept away and drowned as the result of a huge tidal surge associated with the cyclone. Continue reading

Ferguson Reef archaeology expedition – the lead up

Our maritime archaeology team were set for a three week expedition to Ferguson Reef, off the coast of north Queensland to locate and survey shipwrecks Ferguson and Morning Star until the forces of nature threw some obstacles in their way – a couple of cyclones to be exact! Here, Kieran Hosty our maritime archaeology manager brings us up to speed with the expedition, the cyclones and the new plan.

We’ll be posting more of Kieran’s updates as the expedition continues, so keep an eye out.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Over the last week or so a number of factors have come into play which forced the Silentworld Foundation and the Australian National Maritime Museum to cancel or at best postpone the proposed Ferguson Reef Project.

Towards the end of last week a tropical low developed in the Gulf of Carpentaria and over last weekend formed into Severe Tropical Cyclone Sandra. Whilst TC Sandra has not caused any damage to the Queensland coast the formation of the cyclone in the Coral Sea has prevented one of the expedition vessel’s Nimrod Explorer from reaching Cairns from the Solomon Islands where it had been engaged in charter work. Cyclone Sandra has also whipped up the seas between Sydney and Cairns delaying the arrival of the second expedition vessel Silentworld II. 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!

Dunbar: Dun and Dusted

Hi, it’s Oli again. This time I’m going to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern at the museum in the curatorial department, which is writing about the infamous Dunbar wreck.

As one of the most significant wrecks in Sydney’s waters, it is important for the museum’s history of the wreck to be complete and accurate. To this end, I found myself reading Kieran Hosty’s book Dunbar 1857, Disaster on Our Doorstep, which paints a fascinating history of the wreck, according to the archaeological discoveries from the wreck site (just south of The Gap, near South Head, Sydney). I am tentative to admit the fact that I didn’t get much work done that day was on account of the book, which is complete with hundreds of images of various artefacts salvaged from the wreck, and provides a vivid insight into a tragic page of Sydney’s past.

Here are some highlights from the story of the Dunbar:

After a fast voyage from England to Australia, Dunbar approached Port Jackson on the night of 20 August 1857, in a rising gale and bad visibility. The Macquarie Light could be seen between squalls, however the night was very dark and the land almost invisible. Shortly before midnight the veteran Captain Green estimated the ship was six miles away from the harbour’s entrance and ordered the vessel on, keeping the Macquarie Light on the port bow.

Buckles removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

Shortly afterwards breakers were sighted ahead, and Captain Green, believing the vessel had sailed too far towards North Head, ordered the helm hard to port. Dunbar struck the cliffs just south of the Signal Station at South Head, and the ship immediately began to break up. All 63 passengers and 58 of the crew perished in the disaster.

The sole survivor was James Johnson, an able seaman on watch at the time of the wreck. He was hurled into the surging ocean, where he was thrust by the waves into the cliffs and onto a rocky ledge – he climbed as far up the cliff-face as he could, and managed to get out of the reach of the waves. Johnson would remain there for two days, before being hauled up by a rope lowered over the cliff-face.

Many Sydneysiders knew the people on the ship and large crowds were drawn to the scene of the wreck to watch the rescue of Johnson, the recovery of bodies, and the salvage of cargo – newspapers were filled with graphic descriptions of the wreck for weeks after.

A small selection of the vast number of coins removed from the Dunbar wreck, now preserved at the museum.

The victims of Dunbar were buried at St Stephens Church in Newtown, and an estimated 20,000 people attended. Banks and offices closed, every ship flew their ensigns at half-mast, and minute guns were fired as the procession went past. Later, there was an outpouring of letters demanding the upgrade of the lighthouses, and the issue was raised in Parliament and recommended by the jury of the Dunbar inquest. This recommendation was followed in 1858 when Hornby Lighthouse was constructed.

The museum has a fascinating collection relating to this disaster and my job has been to proof the entries in our collection management system to ensure all the information is correct.

NB. Many of the artefacts in the museum’s Dunbar collection were removed from the wreck by hobby divers during the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of laws protecting significant historical maritime sites.

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.
Continue reading

Object of the Week: The many lives and deaths of the tug HERO


Tug HERO towing PAMIR, Max Dupain. Reg #00038310 ANMM Collection Gift from Brambles Australia

If ever there was a little tug whose adventures could have graced the pages of a children’s book, it would be the Aussie tug HERO.

Arriving in Australia in 1892, as the Australian towing industry was coming into its own, HERO remained a feature on (and at the bottom of) Sydney Harbour for nearly 70 years. Continue reading

Monday 12 January off Endeavour Reef

As the expedition winds down for 2009 the weather has been winding up – the wind and the seas have been gradually increasing over the last three days. Whilst its still possible to dive on Endeavour Reef an expected wind shift to the south and east will making diving on the HMB Endeavour stranding site very difficult.

The first dive teams were in the water quite early this morning trying to finish off the Endeavour Reef research prior to the wind shift.

Nigel had tracked down archival information on the early salvage work on the site. This information indicated that the early salvor’s had recovered most of the stone ballast from an area 26 meters at 080 degrees from the tripod. The records also indicated that most of the iron kentledge was recovered from an area 28 meters at 105 degrees from the tripod.

The stone ballast team consisting of Peter, Nigel, Lee and Warren and the kentledge ballast team, consisting of Xanthe, Ed, Grant and myself located the railway iron tripod and ran out tapes on the designated bearings. Luckily for us the salvor’s information proved accurate and the two teams quickly located the areas.

Visual surveys of the two areas indicated that the reef areas still showed signs of the explosives with a large depression 10 meters in diameter and 1 meter deep marking the area where the kentledge had been recovered. This depression, devoid of any coral, was stripped back to bare coral rock. A metal detector survey of this area produced no magnetic anomalies however Ed Slaughter did locate a significant anomaly about 14 meters away from the tripod.

The stone ballast team did not see evidence of blasting but did not locate several other ballast stones and more lead sheathing.

Following this dive the decision was taken to close down the work on the Endeavour Reef and prepare to head down the coast in Spoilsport to Flora Reef and the team from Nimrod / Silentworld.

Nigel Erskine, ANMM, inspecting possible HMB Endeavour ballast on Endeavour Reef

Nigel Erskine, ANMM, inspecting possible HMB Endeavour ballast on Endeavour

Its the Mermaid

Dr. Nigel Erskine , ANMM, surveying a cluster of anchor chain on site.

Dr. Nigel Erskine , ANMM, surveying a cluster of anchor chain on site.

I hope you have been following Alice and Megan’s blogs on the 2009 Mermaid Project over the last six days. Over the last couple of days the dive team have made a number of significant discoveries on Flora Reef. Two days ago during a magnetometer survey on the southern side of the reef the team picked up a small but impressive magnetometer signal about 150 meters offshore from what was then Flora Reef Unidentified shipwreck No 2. A team of divers were sent in and after only a short search located a 5 foot long, wrought iron kedge anchor sitting on top of a coral bommie in 7 meters of water. We know from historical accounts of the wreck that the crew of the Mermaid dropped a small kedge anchor about half a cable length from the stern of the vessel in an attempt to kedge (pull) the Mermaid off the reef. Their attempt failed and the kedge anchor and its coirfibre cable were abandoned.

Lee Graham from the Museum's Fleet section next to the Mermaid's anchor.

Lee Graham from the Museum’s Fleet section next to the Mermaid’s anchor.

Paul Hundley, ANMM surveying in the schooner's pump.

Paul Hundley, ANMM surveying in the schooner’s pump.

In itself the discovery of the anchor did not proove that that the wrecksite was HMCS Mermaid and the team continued to survey the site looking for additional information. Yesterday a metal detector survey uncovered a series of anomlies scattered amongst coral rubble on the southern side of the site. These anomlies have now been identified as being casement or cannister shot (packets of ball bearings contained within a small canvas bag of small wooden cannister) the team have also found fragments of copper sheathing, sheathing nails, ship’s fastenings, lead patches and several large magnetic anomalies on the wrecksite. This information along with the position of the wreck and the size of its remains has meant that we are now quite positive that the site is that of HMCS Mermaid wrecked off the Frankland Islands in 1829.

Archaeologists, scientific divers and volunteers divers and snorkellers are continuing their investigation of the site hoping to reveal more information about this fascinating vessel.