The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 19

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 19. The calamity of Wreck Reef

Chapter XIX.

THE CALAMITY OF WRECK REEF.

There was some anxious discussion between King and Flinders as to the best course to follow for the expeditious completion of the survey of the coasts of Australia. The Investigator being no longer fit for the service, consideration was given to the qualifications of the Lady Nelson, the Porpoise, the Francis, and the Buffalo, all of which were under the Governor's direction. King was most willing to give his concurrence and assistance in any plan that might be considered expedient. He confessed himself convinced of Flinders' "zealous perseverance in wishing to complete the service you have so beneficially commenced," and cheerfully placed his resources at the explorer's disposal.

Flinders went for a few days to the Hawkesbury settlement, where fresh air, a vegetable diet and medical care promoted his recovery from the ailments occasioned by prolonged ship-life in the tropics; and on his return, at the beginning of July, determined upon a course of action. The Porpoise was the best of the four vessels mentioned, but she was by no means a sound ship, and it did not seem justifiable to incur the expense of fitting her for special service only to find her incapable of finishing the task. It was determined, therefore, that she should be sent to England under Fowler's command, and that Flinders should go in her as a passenger, in order that he might lay his charts and journals before the Admiralty, and solicit the use of another vessel to continue his explorations. Brown, the botanist,[1] and Bauer, the botanical draftsman. desired to remain in Port Jackson to pursue their scientific work, but Westall accompanied Flinders, who with twenty-one of the remainder of the Investigator's company, embarked on the Porpoise. She sailed on August 10th, in company with the East India Company's ship Bridgewater and the Cato, of London, both bound for Batavia. It was intended to go north, and through Torres Strait, in order that further observations might be made there; and Fowler was ordered to proceed "by the route Captain Flinders may indicate." Had not Flinders been so eager to take advantage of this as of every other opportunity to prosecute his researches—had he sailed by the Bass Strait and Cape of Good Hope route—the misfortunes that were soon to come upon him would have been averted. But he deliberately chose the Torres Strait course, not only because he considered that a quick passage could be made at that season of the year, but chiefly for the reason that "it will furnish me with a second opportunity of assuring myself whether that Strait can or cannot become a safe general passage for ships from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean."

He was destined to see once again the settlement at Sydney, whence had radiated the series of his valuable and unsparing researches; but on the next and final occasion he was "caught in the clutch of circumstance." His leave-taking in August, 1803, was essentially his farewell; and his general observations on the country he had served, and which does not forget the service, are, though brief, full of interest. He had seen the little town grow from a condition of dependence to one of self-reliance, few as were the years of his knowledge of it. Part of his early employment had been to bring provisions to Sydney from abroad. In 1803, he saw large herds spreading over the country. He saw forests giving way before the axe, and spreading fields of grain and fruit ripening for the harvest. The population was increasing, the morale was improving, "and that energetic spirit of enterprise which characterises Britannia's children seemed to be throwing out vigorous shoots in this new world." He perceived the obstacles to progress. The East India Company's charter, which prohibited trade between Sydney and India and the western coasts of America, was one of them. Convict labour was another deterrent. But he had vision, and found in the signs of development which he saw around him phenomena "highly interesting to the contemplator of the rise of nations."

Seven days out of Sydney, on August 17th, the Porpoise struck a reef and was wrecked.

The three vessels were running under easy sail, the Porpoise leading on what was believed to be a clear course. At half-past nine o'clock at night the look-out man on the forecastle called out "Breakers ahead." Aken, the master, who was on watch, immediately ordered the helm to be put down, but the ship answered slowly. Fowler sprang on deck at once; but Flinders, who was conversing in the gun-room, had no reason to think that anything serious had occurred, and remained there some minutes longer. When he went on deck, he found the ship beyond control among the breakers, and a minute later she struck a coral reef and heeled over on her starboard beam ends. "It was," says Seaman Smith, "a dreadful shock." The reef—now called Wreck Reef—was in latitude 22° 11' south, longitude 155° 13' east, about 200 miles north-east of Hervey Bay, and 739 miles north of Sydney.[2]) The wind was blowing fresh, and the night was very dark. The heave of the sea lifted the vessel and dashed her on the coral a second and third time; the foremast was carried away, and the bottom was stove in. It was realised at once that so lightly built and unsound a ship as the Porpoise was must soon be pounded to pieces under the repeated shocks.

Anxiety for the safety of the Cato and the Bridgewater was felt, as they were following the lead of the King's vessel. An attempt was made to fire a gun to warn them, but the heavy surf and the violent motion of the wrecked ship prevented this being done. Before any warning could be given the Cato dashed upon the coral about two cables' length from the Porpoise, whose company saw her reel, fall over, and disappear from view. The Bridgewater happily cleared the reef.

After the first moments of confusion had passed, Flinders ordered the cutter and the gig to be launched. He informed Fowler that he intended to save his charts and journals, and to row to the Bridgewater to make arrangements for the rescue of the wrecked people. The gig, in which he attempted to carry out this plan, was compelled to lie at a little distance from the ship, to prevent being stove in; so he jumped overboard and swam to her. She leaked badly, and there was nothing with which to bale her out but the hats and shoes of the ship's cook and two other men who had taken refuge under the thwarts. Flinders steered towards the Bridgewater's lights, but she was standing off, and it was soon seen to be impossible to reach her. It was also unsafe to return to the Porpoise through the breakers in the darkness; so that the boat was kept on the water outside the reef till morning, the small party on board being drenched, cold under a sharp south-easter, and wretchedly miserable. Flinders did his best to keep up their spirits, telling them that they would undoubtedly be rescued by the Bridgewater at daylight; but he occupied his own mind in devising plans for saving the wrecked company in case help from that ship was not forthcoming.

Meanwhile blue lights had been burnt on the ship every half-hour, as a guide to the Bridgewater, whose lights were visible till about two o'clock in the morning. Fowler also occupied time in constructing a raft from the timbers, masts and yards of the Porpoise. "Every breast," says Smith's narrative, "was filled with horror, continual seas dashing over us with great violence." Of the Cato nothing could be seen. She had struck, not as the Porpoise had done, with her decks towards the reef, but opposed to the full force of the lashing sea. Very soon the planks were torn up and washed away, and the unfortunate passengers and crew were huddled together in the forecastle, some lashed to timber heads, others clinging to any available means of support, and to each other, expecting every moment that the stranded vessel would be broken asunder. In Smith's expressive words, the people were "hanging in a cluster by each other on board the wreck, having nothing to take to but the unmerciful waves, which at this time bore a dreadful aspect."

At dawn, Flinders climbed on to the Porpoise by the help of the fallen masts. As the light grew, it was seen that about half a mile distant lay a dry sandbank above high-water mark, sufficiently large to receive the whole company, with such provisions as could be saved from the ship. Orders were at once given to remove to this patch, that gave promise of temporary safety, everything that could be of any service; and the Cato's company, jumping overboard and swimming through the breakers with the aid of planks and spars, made for the same spot. All were saved except three lads, one of whom had been to sea on three or four voyages and was wrecked on every occasion. "He had bewailed himself through the night as the persecuted Jonah who carried misfortune wherever he went. He launched himself upon a broken spar with his captain; but, having lost his hold in the breakers, was not seen afterwards."

The behaviour of the Bridgewater in these distressing circumstances was inhuman and discreditable to such a degree as is happily rare in the history of seamanship. On the day following the wreck (August 18th) it would have been easy and safe for her captain, Palmer, to bring her to anchor in one of the several wide and sufficiently deep openings in the reef, and to take the wrecked people and their stores on board. Flinders had the gig put in readiness to go off in her, to point out the means of rescue. A topsail was set up on the highest part of the reef, and a large blue ensign, with the union downwards, was hoisted to it as a signal of distress. But Palmer, who saw the signal, paid no heed to it. Having sailed round the reef, deluding the unfortunates for a while with the false hope of relief, he stood off and made for Batavia, leaving them to their fate. Worse still, he acted mendaciously as well as with a heartless disregard of their plight; for on his arrival at Tellicherry he sent his third mate, Williams, ashore with an untrue account of the occurrence, reporting the loss of the Porpoise and Cato, and saying that he had not only found it impossible to weather the reef, but even had he done so it would have been too late to render assistance. Williams, convinced that the crews were still on the reef, and that Palmer's false account had been sent ashore to excuse his own shameful conduct, and "blind the people," left his captain's narrative as instructed, but only "after relating the story as contrary as possible" on his own account. He told Palmer what he had done, and his action "was the cause of many words." What kind of words they were can be easily imagined. The result of Williams' honest independence was in the end fortunate for himself. Though he left the ship, and forfeited his wages and part of his clothes by so doing, he saved his own life from drowning. The Bridgewater left Bombay for London, and was never heard of again. "How dreadful," Flinders commented, "must have been his reflections at the time his ship was going down."

On the reef rapid preparations were made for establishing the company in as much comfort as means would allow, and for provisioning them until assistance could be procured. They were 94 men "upon a small uncertainty"—the phrase is Smith's—nearly eight hundred miles from the nearest inhabited port. But they had sufficient food for three months, and Flinders assured them that within that time help could be procured. Stores were landed, tents were made from the sails and put up, and a proper spirit of discipline was installed, after a convict-sailor had been promptly punished for disorderly conduct. Spare clothing was served out to some of the Cato's company who needed it badly, and there was some fun at the expense of a few of them who appeared in the uniforms of the King's navy. With good humour came a feeling of hope. "On the fourth day," wrote Flinders in a letter,[3] "each division of officers and men had its private tent, and the public magazine contained sufficient provisions and water to subsist us three months. We had besides a quantity of other things upon the bank, and our manner of living and working had assumed the same regularity as on board His Majesty's ships. I had to punish only one man, formerly a convict at Port Jackson; and on that occasion I caused the articles of war to be read, and represented the fatal consequences that might ensue to our whole community from any breach of discipline and good order, and the certainty of its encountering immediate punishment."

The stores available,[4] with the periods for which they would suffice on full allowance, consisted of:

Biscuit
Flour
940
9644
GullBrace.svg
lbs.
 "
83 days
Beef in four pounds
Pork in two pounds
1776
592
GullBrace.svg
pieces
 "
94 days
Pease 45 bushels 107 days.
Oatmeal 50  " 48 days.
Rice 1225 lbs. 114 days.
Sugar
Molasses
320
125
GullBrace.svg
 "
 "
84 days.
Spirits
Wine
Porter
225
113
60
GullBrace.svg
gallons
 "
 "
49 days.
Water, 5650 gallons at half a gallon per day.

In addition there were some sauer kraut, essence of malt, vinegar, salt, a new suit of sails, some spars, a kedge anchor, iron-work and an armourer's forge, canvas, twine, various small stores, four-and-a-half barrels of gunpowder, two swivels, and several muskets and pistols, with ball and flints. A few sheep were also rescued. When they were being driven on to the reef under the supervision of young John Franklin, they trampled over some of Westall's drawings. Their hoof-marks are visible on one of the originals, preserved in the Royal Colonial Institute Library, to this day.

As soon as the colony on the reef had been regularly established, a council of officers considered the steps most desirable to be taken to secure relief. It was resolved that Flinders should take the largest of the Porpoise's two six-oar cutters, with an officer and crew, and make his way to Port Jackson, where the aid of a ship might be obtained. The enterprise was hazardous at that season of the year. The voyage would in all probability have to be undertaken in the teeth of strong southerly winds, and the safe arrival of the cutter, even under the direction of so skilful a seaman as Flinders, was the subject of dubious speculation. But something had to be done, and that promptly; and Flinders unhesitatingly undertook the attempt. He gave directions for the government of the reef during his absence, and ordered that two decked boats should be built by the carpenters from wreckage, so that in the event of his failure the whole company might be conveyed to Sydney.

By the 25th August the cutter had been prepared for her long voyage, and on the following day she was launched and appropriately named the Hope. It was a Friday morning, and some of the sailors had a superstitious dread of sailing on a day supposed to be unlucky. But the weather was fine and the wind light. Flinders laughed at those who talked of luck. With Captain Park of the Cato as his assistant officer, and a double set of rowers, fourteen persons in all, he set out at once. He carried three weeks' provisions. "All hands gave them 3 chears, which was returned by the boat's crew," says Seaman Smith. At the moment when the Hope rowed away a sailor sprang to the flagstaff whence the signal of distress had been flying since the morning when help from the Bridgewater had been hoped for, and hauled down the blue ensign, which was at once rehoisted with the union in the upper canton. "This symbolic expression of contempt for the Bridgewater and of confidence in the success of our voyage, I did not see without lively emotion," Flinders relates.

Leaving the Hope to continue her brave course, we may learn from Smith how the 80 men remaining on the reef occupied themselves:

"From this time our hands are imployd, some about our new boat, whose keel is laid down 32 feet; others imployd in getting anything servisible from the wreck. Our gunns and carriadges we got from the wreck and placed them in a half moon form, close to our flag staf, our ensign being dayly hoisted union downward. Our boats sometimes is imployd in going to an island about ten miles distant; and sometimes caught turtle and fish. This island was in general sand. Except on the highest parts, it produced sea spinage; very plentifully stockd with birds and egs. In this manner the hands are imployd and the month of October is set in. Still no acct. of our Captn's success. Our boat likewise ready for launching, the rigging also fitted over her masthead, and had the appearance of a rakish schooner. On the 4th of Octr. we launchd her and gave her name of the Hope.[5] On the 7th we loaded her with wood in order to take it over to the island before mentiond to make charcoal for our smith to make the ironwork for the
Page 381 view (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

WRECK REEF ISLAND.
{Reproduced from the engraving in Flinders' Journal, after Westall's drawing.)

next boat, which we intend to build directly. She accordingly saild."

A letter by John Franklin to his father[6] gives an entertaining account of the wreck and of some other points pertaining to our subject:

"Providential Bank,
"August 26th, 1803,

"Latitude 22° 12', longitude 155° 13' (nearly) E.

"Dear Father,
"Great will be your surprise and sorrow to find by this that the late investigators are cast away in a sandy patch of about 300 yards long and 200 broad, by the wreck of H.M.S. Porpoise on our homeward bound passage on the reefs of New South Wales. You will then wonder how we came into her. I will explain: The Investigator on her late voyage, was found when surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria to be rotten, which obliged us to make our best way to Port Jackson; but the bad state of health of our crew induced Captain Flinders to touch at Timor for refreshment; which being done he sailed, having several men died on the passage of dysentery. On our arrival she was surveyed and condemned as being unfit for service. There being no other ship in Sydney fit to complete her intended voyage, Governor King determined to send us home in the Porpoise. She sailed August 10th, 1803, in company with the Bridgewater, extra Indiaman, and Cato, steering to the north-west intending to try how short a passage might be made through Torres Straits to England. On Wednesday, 17th, we fell in with reefs,[7] surveyed them, and kept our course, until half-past nine, when I was aroused by the cry of breakers, and before I got on deck the ship struck on the rocks.[8] Such boats as could be were got out, the masts cut away, and then followed the horrors of ship-wreck, seas breaking over, men downcast, expecting the ship every moment to part. A raft of spars was made, and laid clear, sufficiently large to take the ship's company in case the ship should part; but as Providence ordained she lasted until morning, when happy were we to see this sandbank bearing north-west quarter of a mile. But how horrible on the other hand to see the Cato in a worse condition than ourselves, the men standing forward shouting for assistance, but could get none, when their ship was parting. All except three of them committed themselves to the waves, and swam to us, and are now living on this bank. The Bridgewater appeared in sight, and then in a most shameful and inhuman manner left us, supposing probably every soul had perished. Should she make that report on her arrival consider it as false. We live, we have hopes of reaching Sydney. The Porpoise being a tough little ship hath, and still does in some measure, resist the power of the waves, and we have been able to get most of her provisions, water, spars, carpenter's tools, and every other necessary on the bank, fortunate spot that it is, on which 94 souls live. Captain Flinders and his officers have determined that he and fourteen men should go to Port Jackson in a cutter and fetch a vessel for the remainder; and in the meantime to build two boats sufficiently large to contain us if the vessels should not come. Therefore we shall be from this bank in six or eight weeks, and most probably in England by eight or nine. Our loss was more felt as we anticipated the pleasure of seeing our friends and relations after an absence of two years and a half. Let me recommend you to give yourselves yourselves no anxiety, for there is every hope of reaching England ere long. I received the letters by the Glatton and was sorry to find that Captain F. had lost his father. He was a worthy man. You would not dislike to have some account of our last voyage, I suppose. We were 11 months from Sydney, and all that time without fresh meat or vegetables, excepting when we were at Timor, and now and then some fish, and mostly in the torrid zone, the sun continually over our head, and the thermometer at 85, 86, and 89. The ship's company was so weakened by the immense heat that when we were to the southward they were continually ill of the dysentery; nay, nine of them died, besides eight we lost on our last cruise. Thus you see the Investigator's company has been somewhat shattered since leaving England. Our discoveries have been great, but the risks and misfortunes many.

"Have you got the prize money? I see it is due, and may be had by applying at No. 21 Milbank Street, Westminster; due July 22, 1802. If you do not, it will go to Greenwich Hospital. I had occasion to draw for necessaries at Sydney this last time £24 from Capt'n F.

"John Franklin." 

  1. Brown, in the preface to his Prodromus (which, being intended for the elect, was written in Latin), made but one allusion to the discovery voyage whereby his botanical researches became possible. Dealing with the parts of Australia where he had collected his specimens, he spoke of the south coast, "Oram meridionalem Novae Hollandiæ, a promontorio Lewin ad promontorium Wilson in Freto Bass, complectentem Lewin's Land, Nuyt's Land et littora Orientem versus, a Navarcho Flinders in expeditione cui adjunctus fui, primum explorata, et paulo post a navigantibus Gallicis visa: insulis adjacentibus inclusis."
  2. Extract from the Australia Directory Volume 2 (Published by the Admiralty): "Wreck Reef, on the central portion of which the ships Porpoise and Cato were wrecked in 1803, consists of a chain of reefs extending 18½ miles and includes 5 sand cays; Bird Islet, the easternmost, is the only one known to produce any vegetation. Of the other four bare cays none are more than 130 yards in extent, or exceed six feet above high water; they are at equal distances apart of about four miles, and each is surrounded by a reef one to one and a half miles in diameter. The passages between these reefs are about two miles wide...On the northern side of most of them there is anchorage."
  3. Flinders' Papers.
  4. Sydney Gazette, September 18th, 1803.
  5. Smith was in error. The boat built at the reef was named the Resource. The Hope, as stated above, was the cutter in which Flinders sailed from the reef to Sydney. See A Voyage to Terra Australis II., 315 and 329.
  6. MS., Mitchell Library.
  7. Cato Islet and reefs.
  8. Wreck Reef.