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Early Australian shipwrecks

Wreck of the steamship Uuckland

Robert Bruce, Wreck of the A.S.N. Company's steamship Auckland on the Ninety-Mile Beach, 1871, engraving. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Shipwrecks offer us a unique insight into history. The locations of wrecked ships and items found on the sea floor tell us a lot about the life and times of the people on board. We can learn how, why and where they were sailing.

Australia's maritime history is particularly rich and interesting. Since the 1600s, European mariners made their way to our shores to explore and to trade. Some trading ships were going to the East Indies for spices and lost their way in high winds and seas—literally 'bumping' into Australia's west coast. From 1788, English ships brought convicts and settlers to the colonies.

Why did so many ships become wrecks? The answer lies in our coastal geography and the weather, the initial lack of lighthouses, as well as the huge number of vessels coming to the region from Europe.

The route through Bass Strait (shorter by 600 nautical miles than the voyage around the south of Tasmania) was studded with islands, shoals, reefs and un chartered rocks. It was not until 1841, the first of several inquiries, that navigational aids and the construction of lighthouses was recommended.

A difficult journey

European mariners sailed wooden ships, which were tiny by today's standards. For power, they relied on the wind to catch their sails. To navigate, they used the stars, sextants and the most up to date charts they had, which were often unreliable and inaccurate. Large sections of coastline were not mapped and blank spaces appeared on maps where we know islands, reefs and continents exist today. Lighthouses were an important part of navigating the often treacherous coastlines, especially around Australia.

A photograph of a reproduction of HMAV Bounty, 1988.

A reproduction of HMAV Bounty in 1988. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The route the ships often travelled from Europe took them down the north west coast of Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean to ports on the east coast of South America, such as Rio de Janeiro, where they could re-supply and repair their ships. From South America, they travelled back across the Atlantic to the southern tip of Africa, known as the Cape of Good Hope.

From the Cape, ships continued up the east of Africa before heading across the Indian Ocean towards the Islands of present-day Indonesia, which were known as the Spice Islands. Here the Europeans purchased spices such as cloves, nutmeg and pepper as well other items that were in demand at home.

The strong trade winds that helped ships make the journey from Africa to Indonesia were known as the 'roaring forties'. The roaring forties were both a blessing and curse. Their strong winds made wind-powered sailing fast, yet dangerous.

Later, ships carrying settlers and convicts to Australian penal colonies made the same journey, but let the winds of the roaring forties take them further east, along Australia's southern coast to Hobart and then around the eastern seaboard to Sydney, or further North.

Wreck of Edinburgh Castle

Wreck of Edinburgh Castle (1863-1888) at Lady Bay 1888. Image courtesy of the Heritage Victoria.

Often, these winds blew ships off course and into uncharted or dangerous waters. Lighthouses were not in place to warn ships of reefs, islands or our mainland coastline. Many of the people on board these ships drowned, as ships were not equipped with satisfactory lifeboats and passengers couldn't swim well. As a result, our vast coastline is a graveyard for over 6,500 wrecked ships. That's one for every nine kilometres of coast.

The transportation of convicts to the British penal colonies in New South Wales lasted many decades and increased both the number of ships and people en route to our shores.

The coast of Western Australia

Australia's first known shipwreck is of the Trial, a ship of the English East India Company that was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1622. But perhaps our most infamous early shipwreck is the Batavia.

The Batavia

the batavia approaching the abrolhos

Batavia approaching the Abrolhos (det), Jan-Janz 1647 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie. Image courtesy of the Western Australian Museum.

The Batavia was a ship of the Dutch East India Company who set out on her maiden voyage in 1629. Destined for the Spice Islands, she was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands.

The story of the ship is a shocking one, as it involved mutiny, murder and extremes of human behaviour. After an attempted mutiny on board, the ship ran aground and over 100 passengers and crew were offloaded onto a nearby island. A few of the crew left them and went to their company's headquarters in the city of Batavia (now known as Indonesia) for help in two of the ship's small boats. While the passengers waited for help, the mutineers, who were going to be hung before the ship was wrecked, killed 125 women, men and children. Trying to defend themselves, survivors built a fort on one of the islands. The remains of this fort can still be seen today.

The Batavia wreck was recovered and is now in the Western Australia Museum, along with a number of artefacts it was carrying and a skeleton of one of those who was murdered. In 2009, The Government of the Netherlands offered to transfer to Australia its portion of artefacts recovered from the Batavia and three other Dutch shipwrecks found off the West Australian coast. The Batavia Shipwreck Site and Survivor Camps Area was included in the National Heritage List in 2006.

The Shipwreck Coast

Photograph of the Twelve Apostles limestone stacks, Victoria.

The Twelve Apostles limestone stacks, Great Ocean Road, Victoria. Image courtesy of the Department of the Environment.

The Limestone coast of South Australian and the south west coast of Victoria is known as the Shipwreck Coast. This section of coastline is made up of cliffs, reef, islands and outcrops of rocks. In combination with the winds of the' roaring forties' and the often stormy seas, sailing these waters could be very dangerous. Along a 130 kilometre stretch of the Victorian coast from Port Fairy to Cape Otway alone there are over 80 shipwrecks.

'I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline', wrote Matthew Flinders, the explorer who first mapped the coast of Australia.

Limestone Coast, South Australia  the wreck of the SS Admella

the Admella

James-Shaw-(1815-81), The Admella, 1858, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Many ships were wrecked along this part of the Australian coast, both before and after the wreck of the SS Admella, but this wreck is arguably the most famous. The loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure, makes the wreck one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history.

The SS Admella was a steam ship of 209 tons (212 tonnes fitted with three masts and sails. Her length was 55.6 metres. She left Port Adelaide at 5.30am on Friday 5 August 1859 bound for Melbourne. Early the following morning she ran onto Carpenter Rocks a few kilometres offshore, almost due south of the current town of Millicent.

The ship's lifeboats were wrecked or washed away, the signal cannon had sunk, and a number of failed attempts to reach the shore had been made before two sailors succeeded; almost 3 days after the wreck.

The wreck of the SS Admella in the early hours of 6 August 1859 was only the beginning of a horrific week for survivors who remained on board, in sight of land, while authorities struggled to rescue them from the stricken steamer.

Early attempts to reach land were fruitless; people were swept out to sea or drowned in the boiling surf. It was nearly two days later when two seamen, Knapmann and Leach, made it to shore and made a 20-mile walk to Cape Northumberland lighthouse to raise the alarm...The lighthouse was without telegraph and so lighthouse keeper Mr Germain, whose own horse had died a few days earlier, had to trek to a nearby farm to borrow a horse in order to reach Mount Gambier and to inform authorities in Adelaide 450km north east and Portland 150km west.

Meanwhile the wreck was battered by the heavy swell. Captain McEwan shared out what little food remained and had to prevent survivors from drinking salt water, which had begun to take the lives of those who drank it. Others, exhausted by their ordeal, simply slipped into the sea to their death.
SS Admella project

Over the next few days, several rescue attempts were made by the Corio and Ladybird rescue boats. 'Rockets were fired to try to get lines aboard but mountainous seas and severe storms continually drove the rescuers back and lives were lost as the lifeboats were swamped.' By Saturday, eight days after the wreck, the Admella's lifeboat and the Corio's boat were launched from the beach and managed to crash through the surf and reach the wreck. Eventually three people made it to shore in one boat, but the second boat capsized, drowning a man saved from the wreck.

Alice avage in front of lifeboat that rescued survivors of SS Admella

Alice Maude Avage, daughter of Bridget Ledwith, only female survivor of the SS Admella, posing in front of the lifeboat that rescued the survivors in 1859. Courtesy of SS Admella project gallery.

The lifeboat Portland was finally successful in coming alongside the wreck and the remaining nineteen survivors jumped and fell into the boat. They were transferred to the Lady Bird which returned to Portland.

The lifeboat is now housed in the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre. A model of the SS Admella is housed at the Port MacDonnell and District Maritime Museum.

Following the commission of inquiry into the wreck of the SS Admella, the loss was attributed to the effects of a current which pushed the vessel off course, although investigations were also held into a magnetic disturbance in the area of Cape Northumberland which may have affected the compasses on iron hulled ships. The inquest also resulted in the installation of the telegraph at the Cape Northumberland lighthouse.

The wreck of the Loch Ard

An image of the wreck of the Loch Ard near Sherbrooke River.

The wreck of the Loch Ard near Sherbrooke River. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Near Port Campbell, part of the 'shipwreck coast', is the wreck the Loch Ard. The ship was wrecked on the sheer cliffs off Muttonbird Island on 1 June 1878. It was carrying over fifty people on board when it hit rocks and broke up just a few days short of its three month voyage from Europe. Only four bodies were ever recovered and just two people survived.

The survivors were Tom Pearce (a member of the crew) and Eva Carmichael. Both just 18 at the time, Tom's account brings the terrifying experience alive:

The ship commenced to roll, and was fast sinking, the sea breaking aboard her on both sides... The ship went down within 10 minutes or quarter of an hour after striking the bluff.

Shipwreck discovery

The SS Glenelg between Lakes Entrance and Melbourne

SS Glenelg

SS Glenelg, c 1900. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

The Scottish-built Glenelg carrying wool, timber poles and paying passengers was en route between Lakes Entrance and Melbourne on 25 March 1900 when the vessel encountered hurricane conditions about six hours after leaving port. A 1901 Marine Court inquiry was unable to find reasons for the Glenelg's sinking and a number of explanations have been suggested. (Terry Cantwell, 'Divers find wreck of 100-year-old schooner', Canberra Times, 4 July 2009)

Nobody knows why she sank, but we suspect that some timber poles broke free in the extreme conditions and pierced the hull. Another theory is that the ships's stern plate cracked under extreme pressure.
Martin Tozer, team researcher, Southern Ocean Exploration

TSS Kanowna

TSS Kanowna. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Southern Ocean Exploration worked with CSIRO data, naval surveys and historical anecdotes about the SS Glenelg to ascertain the likely co-ordinates of the wreck. The team works closely with Heritage Victoria to maintain maritime archeological sites. Relics are rarely removed from the vessels. Approval was obtained to retrieve a dinner plate from the wreck for the purpose of verifying the wreck's identity.

TSS Kanowna, hospital ship and the passenger trader SS Queensland

In 2006, Southern Ocean Exploration won the Heritage Council Victoria award for the discovery of the TSS Kanowna, a World War One hospital ship that sank in 1929, and the passenger trader SS Queensland that sank off Wilson's Promontary in 1876.

In August of 1876, the Queensland was on passage from Foo Chow, China to Australia. After docking in Melbourne she then resumed passage to Sydney with 107 crew and 17 passengers. The Barrabool, on a passage from Sydney to Melbourne collided with the Queensland south-east of Wilsons Promontory on 3 August 1876.

The Queensland sunk stern first within 35 minutes. All passengers and crew made it to the Barrabool except for one crew member from the Queensland. There were no losses on the Barrabool.
Southern Ocean Exploration, SS Queensland

damage to the Barrabool

The steamer Barrabool in Duke's Dock after collision, wood engraving, Australasian Sketcher, September 1876. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

At the Court of Inquiry, the Barrabool was found to have caused the collision. These findings were published in The Age on 10 August 1876. The Barrabool's Second Officer was charged with recklessly causing the collision.

In 2007, the team found the coastal trader SS Alert, which sank off Cape Schanck on 28 December 1893. Three passengers and 12 crew perished. Only the ship's cook, swept onto Sorrento beach, survived.

Protection and maintenance

maritime archeologists diving

Maritime archaeologists recording Mountain Maid (1841-1856) wreck site. Image courtesy of Heritage Victoria.

Under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 , all shipwrecks that are over 75 years old are protected by Australian law. Details on all of these are listed in the National Shipwreck Database. Today, maritime archaeologists explore, research and preserve the sites of shipwrecks.

State bodies like the Maritime Heritage Unit of Heritage Victoria manage maritime archaeological sites in Victorian coastal waters. As part of this work they maintain a register of all Victorian shipwreck sites, and a catalogue of shipwreck relics.


Useful links

Look, listen and play

More information on early shipwrecks

Later shipwrecks, including World War II

Museums and maritime history organisations

The Trial

The Batavia

The Mahogany Ship

The Shipwreck Coast

Story last updated: 7th August 2008
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.

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