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Titanic, Mary Rose, USS Arizona, Brittanic, Wilhelm Gustloff, and Lusitania. What do all these ships have in common? Well, they all sank! These are some of the most famous shipwrecks in history and their stories of loss are told and retold to each new generation.
We seem to be captivated by a shipwreck disaster and the desperate struggle of the crew and passengers to survive. It’s estimated that there are about 3 million shipwrecks lying on ocean floors across our planet. Over 8,000 of them are found in Australian waters.
One of these shipwrecks was discovered by the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2009 and involves an amazing story of escaped convicts, the circumnavigating of Australia, the discovery of two major rivers, links to Napoleon, and rescue and reunion.
Join me as we sail the seas on a voyage of discovery to find out more about this ship that was built in India, commissioned to the British Navy, carried out survey and exploratory work in Australia, and finally met its end on a jagged coral reef.
But the story doesn’t end there. This shipwreck is linked to a series of four other shipwrecks that are all involved in one of the most amazing family reunions of all time.
The ancient seaport of Whitby is a beautiful and picturesque seaside town clinging to the coast on the edge of the Yorkshire moors in England, just over 400 kms north of London. It’s renowned for many things, the finest British fish and chips, sandy beaches, an arch made of a whale’s jawbone, and Whitby Abbey ruins that were the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s well-known novel, Dracula.
But perhaps the Whitby area is best known because of its most famous son – Captain James Cook, who is considered to be one of the greatest navigators and explorers of all time. In 1770 Cook mapped the east coast of Australia and paved the way for British settlement in Sydney Cove in 1788.
26 years after British settlement in NSW, a lesser-known son of Whitby, a young sailor named Peter Richardson, ran away from home and joined the British Navy. He left behind a heartbroken mother. A mother’s love is unique and unconditional, and desperate to find her runaway son, she eventually contacted the Navy officials. Their response was not what she wanted to hear. Peter had left the Navy after serving his term and they had no idea where he had gone.
But she never gave up. After 14 long years of searching, the mother received news that her son may be in the new colony of NSW, at the other end of the earth. It was a long and dangerous voyage for a woman on her own, But undeterred, she booked a cabin for the four-month long trip on the City of Leeds passenger ship bound for Sydney – hoping to find her long-lost only son.
Meanwhile in NSW, the young run-a-way sailor Peter Richardson signed up to work on the ship, Mermaid, on a run from Sydney with stores and government dispatches for Fort Wellington in Raffles Bay, on Melville Island in the Arafura Sea, off the north coast of Australia in what is now the Northern Territory.
The ship became well-known when Lieutenant Phillip Parker King RN was commissioned to sail the Mermaid between December 1817 and December 1820. His job was to explore and survey the uncharted coastline of Australia missed in the Matthew Flinders circumnavigation survey.
Sailing north close to the coast, King conducted a survey of the Inner Route through the Great Barrier Reef to open it for commercial sailing ships. He continued his surveys around the top end of Australia until the Mermaid ran aground and was badly damaged.
King brought the ship into Careening Bay, in the Kimberley region of north west Australia for some makeshift repairs. While he was there in October 1820, King carved ‘H.M.C. Mermaid 1820’ into the trunk of a conspicuous Boab tree, that can still be seen there in the bay today.
With great difficulty, the ship was refloated and limped back the thousands of kilometers to Sydney. The Mermaid was sold to the Colonial Government in Sydney and changed to a two-masted schooner.
In 1823, under the command of the explorer John Oxley, the Mermaid sailed north from Sydney to survey and explore the coast of the colony south of Port Curtis, now Rockhampton, in QLD.
Oxley discovered the Brisbane and Tweed Rivers during that voyage, as well as rescuing two stranded convicts from the Moreton Bay area, Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan, who guided Oxley around Moreton Bay and along the Brisbane River and the site of a new colony that became Brisbane.
But on the morning of the 10 May 1829, the Mermaid with a crew of 18, including Peter Richardson and 3 passengers under the command of Captain Samuel Nolbrow, left Sydney for Port Essington. Nolbrow was under strict instructions to follow the safer, but longer passage through the hazardous Barrier Reef to the Torres Strait, but he decided to risk the more dangerous route.
On the morning of 13 June 1829, during a storm, the Mermaid struck an uncharted coral reef. Captain Nolbrow gave the order to abandon ship. The crew and passengers swam from the shipwreck to a large rocky outcrop about 60m, or 200 feet, from the wreck.
All 21 men huddled on the rock for 3 miserable days until the brig, the Swiftsure, rescued the stranded men.
Now the Swiftsure had a very interesting history. It was built in France and launched in 1811 for the French Navy under the original name Inconstant, which played a crucial role in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte more than 200 years ago.
Napoleon Bonaparte, regarded by many as one of the greatest military commanders in history, was the emperor of France from 1804-1814. After losing more than 350,000 men in his march on Russia in 1814, Napoleon abdicated as Emperor of France and was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.
On 26 February 1815, Napoleon escaped the island on the ship, the Inconstant, and with 700 loyal men marched to Paris where he ruled for 100 days. It is believed that the ship, Inconstant, was taken as a prize by the British in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, renamed the Swiftsure and eventually used on the England-to-Australia run.
So by 1828, the Inconstant, now named the Swiftsure, was sailing the waters around Australia. And on its way from NSW to Mauritius, it rescues 21 men from the Mermaid on a rocky outcrop and continues its way north.
On the fifth day after the rescue, on 4 July 1829, the ship was caught in a powerful current and swept broadside onto rocks along the shore. As the Swiftsure begins to break up, the captain orders all to abandon ship.
Fortunately, all 14 crew from the Swiftsure, along with the 18 crew and 3 passengers from the Mermaid, safely made it to shore where later that day they were gratefully picked up by a third ship, the schooner, Governor Ready with its own crew of 32, and continued sailing north.
Now the Governor Ready had been built at Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1825. She was bought by a British owner and was registered in Lloyd’s Register in 1826 for trade. The ship made two voyages transporting convicts from England and Ireland to Australia.
Now, these convicts were men and women who were found guilty of a petty crime in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally, they were sent to the American colonies, but after the American Revolutionary War it was no longer possible to send English criminals there as servants. So the British Government looked to the newly discovered east coast of Australia as a new colony for the prisoners to relieve the overcrowding in the English prisons.
The First Fleet of convicts sailed for Botany Bay in 1787. They were used as free labour on public works or assigned to private individuals as domestic servants or rural workers. The transportation of convicts to Australia lasted for 80 years and ceased in 1868. In all, about 164,000 people were sent to Australia in 806 ships, to start a new life.
The Governor Ready’s first convict voyage in 1827 transported 131 male prisoners from England to Tasmania. The ship’s second convict voyage left from Cork in Ireland with 200 male prisoners, and sailed for Sydney in late 1828.
But now, on the 2 April 1829, the Governor Ready records show that it left Hobart with 32 crew bound for Batavia, present-day Jakarta in Indonesia, with a stopover in Sydney. As it sailed up the coast towards Cape York, it came across the stranded men and rescued the entire crew of 18 men and the 3 passengers from the wrecked Mermaid, and the 14 crew of the Swiftsure.
Although it was crowded on the vessel, all 67 crew and passengers were relieved to now be sailing in such a trustworthy ship. But unbelievably about 3 hours later, the schooner, the Governor Ready, caught fire and the flames roared through the wooden ship.
Everyone on board was forced to abandon ship and climb into the lifeboats. Fortunately, they were found drifting in the Coral Sea by the government cutter, the Comet who had also been blown off her course by a storm.
Now when the crew of the Comet heard the story of the three shipwrecks, they didn’t welcome their newly rescued passengers aboard. They were very suspicious and expected trouble. They feared a calamity would befall them also!
Well, can you believe it, 5 days later a violent storm snapped off the Comet’s mast and ripped away her sails. When the ship began to sink, the 18 crew and 3 passengers from the Mermaid, the 14 crew from the Swiftsure, the 32 crew from the Governor Ready and now the 21 crew from the Comet, were all facing shipwreck together.
The only long boat or lifeboat on board was launched, but it was not large enough to fit all the crew in it, so the rest of the passengers kept afloat by clinging to driftwood and the ship’s wreckage.
For 18 long hours the men in the water drifted in the ocean, worried about getting separated from each other in the dark of night or being taken by sharks. Then, just as the group of now 88 crew and passengers felt there was little chance of rescue, along came a small vessel called a cutter and they were rescued again for the fourth time, and not a single life had been lost.
The fifth ship, the Jupiter, with a crew of 38 men, was sailing to Western Australia when she rescued the 88 crew and passengers. It was a small ship, and so now was truly reaching its capacity with all the extra men onboard. The men were just settling down for a warm night on deck when, unbelievably, disaster struck yet again.
The ship hit a small coral reef near Cairncross Island that tore a hole in her keel and made her unseaworthy. Dismayed, the now 123 men of each crew, including the five captains of the ships and the three passengers, a total of 126 men, found themselves in the water again.
They managed to find safety on a small sand island, and all the castaways huddled together on the sandy outcrop. That’s five shipwrecks in a row!
Fortunately, the passenger ship, the City of Leeds, on its way from London to Sydney was sailing nearby and saw the stranded men. Five ships had been lost, and the crew of the Mermaid, including Peter Richardson, had been shipwrecked five times and yet not one life had been lost.
So, here’s a short review of the amazing sequence of events: in 1829 a ship called the Mermaid was caught in a massive storm that struck the ship and drove it into a reef. All 21 people on board survived and were able to swim to safety. Three days later, the Swiftsure rescued them. Five days later the Swiftsure sank.
Crew and passengers from both ships, the Mermaid and the Swiftsure, were rescued by the schooner Governor Ready. Three hours later, the Governor Ready caught fire and sank. The Comet rescued everyone and brought them aboard. Five days later the Comet sank. 18 hours later the mail boat Jupiter pulled everyone out of the ocean. In under 12 hours the Jupiter sank. Everyone was rescued by the passenger vessel the City of Leeds that was sailing to Sydney, where it docked four days later.
What an incredible sequence of events!
What an amazing story! The basics of this story were first published in the Sydney Gazette and other publications on 26 November 1829, only a few months after these events took place, and so the story of the five shipwrecks was considered accurate, and was believed by everyone. But recent research raises questions regarding the accuracy of some of the dates and details….
EQUALLY INCREDIBLE RENDEZVOUS
Now even more amazing than these shipwreck facts, is the story of one of the passengers aboard the City of Leeds. Remember the English woman who was travelling from Whitby to Sydney? Well, her name was Sarah Richardson, and before she fell ill she had told her fellow travellers on the ship that she was going to Australia in the hopes of finding her son.
She was searching for her son, Peter, who had run away from home and joined the Navy, fifteen years ago. Now as the survivors of the five shipwrecks were describing their harrowing experiences to the passengers on the City of Leeds, the Captain and the doctor on board heard some Yorkshire accents.
Suddenly the doctor on the ship interrupted, “I need a Yorkshire man about 35 years old to come with me and visit a sick lady. She has prayed for weeks to see her son again, but this morning she lapsed into unconsciousness for a while. But just now she is calling her son’s name again.”
The doctor continued, “I think if one of you could just hold her hand and tell her you are her son, she might rally enough for us to get her to Sydney.”
One of the deckhands from the Mermaid ship said, “There be Yorkshire men and Yorkshire men, and each area has a different accent. Unless you get the right accent, the old lady will know it is not her son.”
“She is from Whitby.” replied the ship’s doctor. “Then I may be able to help,” offered a young man. “I am 34 years old and I am from Whitby.”
“You’ll do perfectly,” said the doctor, “now just get the name right. It’s Peter Richardson.”
Well, the young man’s face turned white and pale. He braced himself against the wall. “What’s wrong with you?” said the doctor.
Tears started to run down his cheeks as he stammered, “I am Peter Richardson. Please take me to see my mother.”
When the ailing mother heard the voice of her long-lost son, her eyes fluttered open and with joy looked into the face of her son, the son she loved and had prayed to see for 15 long years.
After five shipwrecks and what seemed like a series of terrible misadventures, the rescue ship was the very one that the praying mother was travelling on in her quest to find her son.
How true and accurate the story is, I don’t know. But this I do know, each of us has a mother whose unconditional love has made an impact on our lives. A mother’s love for her child is one of the deepest and strongest forces in the world. Its impact cannot be measured.
ANOTHER MOTHER’S LOVE
There’s another story of a mother’s love, of the hopelessness and despair when a son is lost. It happened many years ago in the small town of Nain in Israel. Back then the town of Nain was known for its beauty, but this mother could not see any of it because her heart was broken and filled with sadness.
Now the village of Nain then only had one approach, up a narrow and rocky road from the east. On this day, two groups of people met on this road. First there was a large and excited crowd who were following Jesus and His disciples from Capernaum. Now as this jubilant group neared the village gate, a hush fell over the crowd as they met another group of people – a funeral procession – heading in the opposite direction. Heading towards the cemetery.
As the sorrowing group emerged from the town onto the road you could hear the weeping and wailing of those in the group. This poignant sentence tells the sad story. ‘The dead man was the only son of his mother and she was a widow.’ Luke 7:12. At this time, in this culture, parents depended on their children and especially sons, to care for them and support them in their old age.
Now this grieving mother certainly had plenty to weep about. The death of her much-loved son meant that not only would she be lonely, but also possibly destitute because now she had lost both her husband and her son. She had lost her sole earthly income, support and comfort. She had lost everything.
As the mother moved on blindly and weeping, she did not even see the other group approaching until Jesus spoke to her. Here’s what the Bible says in Luke 7:13, ‘When Jesus saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, do not weep.’
Can you sense the gentleness, the understanding, the tender sympathy and personal interest in this mother that these words reveal? Jesus was about to change her immense grief to immense joy.
Jesus then reached up and touched the bier, the open coffin, and signalled for the pallbearers to halt. In a clear, authoritative voice, He said this, “Young man, I say to you. Arise.” The dead man opened his eyes, sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
Can you imagine the joy of this reunion? Jesus watched as the mother and son unite in a long and loving embrace. Overwhelmed, the two crowds looked on in silence.
There is no greater love on earth than a mother’s love. It’s enduring, steadfast and unremitting. Just as we’ve seen in the experience of Peter Richardson, his mother’s love followed him wherever he went. This kind of love helps us to understand how much God loves us.
THE LOVE OF GOD
The Bible tells us that God likens His love to a mother’s love. Here’s what it says in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you.”
No matter what has happened in your life or where you have been – even if you’ve runaway from God, His love will always follow you. He’ll never leave you or forsake you. In Deuteronomy 31:6, God promises us this, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God will never give up on us. His love is forever.
It can be hard for us to comprehend that kind of love, a sacrificing eternal love. A love that led to Calvary and endured the cross to ensure our salvation. It is the kind of love that can sustain us through trials, give us hope, give us long-lasting peace and give us assurance of a better future.
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If you have enjoyed our voyage involving five shipwrecks and the story of the widow of Nain and our reflections on the unconditional nature of a mother’s love and how it echoes the depth of God’s love, then be sure to join us again next week, when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray to the God who cares for us and always loves us.
Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for your unconditional love that follows us in our journey through life. Please continue to sustain us through the challenges we face and give us the assurance that You will never leave us or forsake us. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The facts of the shipwreck story can be verified in the archives of the Maritime Office of the Australian Commonwealth in Canberra.