The barque South Australian was integral to initial colonisation efforts in South Australia, as well as the colony’s early economic development. After serving in British waters in both merchant and military capacities, the vessel was purchased by the South Australian Company and converted for the purpose of transporting goods and people to the fledgling colonial outpost at Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. After serving the new colonial enterprise for just over a year, South Australian was wrecked at Encounter Bay (near present-day Victor Harbour) in December 1837. The vessel’s loss was significant not only because it was South Australia’s first documented shipwreck, but also because it directly affected a number of individuals who played prominent roles in the foundation and development of both the new colony and its capital city.

Early Years

South Australian’s life began as the Falmouth packet Marquis of Salisbury. It was built at Little Falmouth (Flushing), United Kingdom by shipbuilder Richard Symons. Falmouth packets were small vessels specifically designed to transport mail, passengers and freight within Europe’s near-shore and inland waters. The Royal Packet Service, which operated out of Falmouth between 1689 and 1850, also frequently engaged packet ships to transport mail to colonies throughout Great Britain’s expanding overseas empire. Marquis of Salisbury’s keel was laid down in 1817, and the vessel was ready for service two years later. As completed, it had a displacement of 236 tons, an overall length of 87 feet (26.5 metres), and a beam and draught measuring 25 feet (7.6 metres) and 6 feet (1.8 metres), respectively. Its rig is not stated, but was very likely a brig, as this was the most common rigging configuration for Falmouth packets. Sources disagree as to the identity of Marquis of Salisbury’s first owner, but it appears Symons built the vessel for either a Captain Baldock or a Captain Sutton.

Royal Navy Service

In July 1824, Marquis of Salisbury was purchased by the Royal Navy, converted into a 10-gun brig-sloop, and renamed HMS Swallow. Brig-sloops were a special category of two-masted warship that were utilised by the Royal Navy during the first half of the nineteenth century as a more economical alternative to frigates. On account of their smaller size, they were cheaper to build, and required far less crew to operate. When armed with carronades, they also had the highest ratio of firepower-to-tonnage of any vessel in the Royal Navy’s fleet. Swallow entered service in September 1824 under the charge of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Baldock, RN, resumed its role as a packet—this time in the exclusive employ of the military—and continued to operate out of Falmouth. Baldock commanded Swallow until November 1831, when he was replaced by Lieutenant Smyth Griffith, RN. In September 1836, Swallow was sold to the South Australian Company, which registered the vessel as South Australian in London one month later.

South Australian Company Service

By December 1836, South Australian was re-rigged as a barque, and its hull adapted to its new role as a colonisation vessel. It departed Plymouth on 22 December under the command of Alexander Allan, Jr., and stopped in the South Atlantic island archipelago of Tristan de Cunha and the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa before arriving at Kingscote on 22 April 1837. Aboard was a contingent of primarily British and German emigrants, including David McLaren (who would act as the South Australian Company’s second colonial manager), John and Samuel Germein (alternately credited as the discoverer(s) of Port Germein), and ship surgeon Dr. William H. Leigh (who would later author an account of his time in South Australia entitled Reconnoitring Voyages and Travels, with Adventures in the New Colonies of South Australia, &c.). Those travelling aboard South Australian were predominantly skilled labourers, and included among their ranks ‘five fishermen, four shipwrights, a butcher and salter, a smith and farrier…two German vine-dressers [and] a flax-grower’. The vessel also carried breeding stock for the new colony, including two Devon bulls, two Devon heifers, twenty pigs, and twenty Cashmere goats.

Following its arrival at Kingscote, South Australian undertook three voyages to transport provisions, supplies, cargo, personnel, and the occasional passenger between Kangaroo Island and the shore-based whaling station at Encounter Bay. The colony of South Australia was founded on commercial expectation and the enterprising activities of its population of free settlers. As the driving force behind the colony, the South Australian Company engaged in a variety of initiatives that exploited natural resources. Of particular interest to the company were pelagic and shore-based whaling. As part of this enterprise, a shore-based station was established at Rosetta Harbour (on the western end of Encounter Bay) in February 1837. The Encounter Bay facility’s remote location necessitated that it be resupplied by sea, and it was for this purpose that South Australian embarked from the South Australian Company’s headquarters at Nepean Bay in May 1837. Aboard the vessel was a cargo of whaling equipment and provisions for the station’s crew.

Shooting Incident and Loss

South Australian arrived at Rosetta Harbour as the whaling season commenced, and its cargo was quickly offloaded. However, rather than return to Kangaroo Island, Captain Allan was ordered to remain at the whaling station and re-fit his ship as an offshore whale oil processing platform, or ‘cutting-in’ vessel. Rosetta Harbour’s shoreline is rocky, and characterised by large expanses of exposed reef at low tide. These attributes made it nearly impossible for whale carcasses to be dragged ashore and processed for their oil, thereby necessitating the use of South Australian for that purpose instead. Yet another of Rosetta Harbour’s natural features proved its fatal flaw as a whaling station: its anchorage was—and still is—frequently buffeted by westerly swells, and completely exposed to southerly and easterly winds during the summer. Further, a reef (known today as Black Reef) is located immediately north of the anchorage and extends in an almost unbroken line between Wright Island and the harbour’s western shoreline. This meant that vessels servicing the whaling station had very little room to manoeuvre in the event they were caught in storms originating from the south, east or west.

While functioning as a cutting-in vessel, South Australian was the scene of one of two shooting incidents that transpired between Encounter Bay whaling station crewmen and employees of the South Australian Company. On 23 June 1837, the overseer of the whaling station, Captain John William Dundas Blenkinsop, and a whaleboat crew rowed out to the South Australian Company cutter William to follow up a rumour that the cutter’s crew was offering refuge to five deserters from the station. Upon going aboard William, Blenkinsop was met by the cutter’s Master, William Wright. After a brief verbal exchange, Wright aimed a pistol at Blenkinsop and pulled the trigger, but the weapon misfired. Blenkinsop then ordered his crew to row to South Australian so that he could discuss what had just transpired with the acting manager of the South Australian Company, Samuel Stephens. After hailing the barque’s crew multiple times and receiving no response, Blenkinsop attempted to go aboard. In doing so, he encountered Stephens, who fired a pistol at the whaleboat’s helmsman, Thomas Mead. The shot missed its intended target, but penetrated the whaleboat’s hull ‘a few inches’ away from Mead’s thigh. Stephens then pulled two more pistols, demanded Blenkinsop and his crew leave South Australian, and threatened to ‘blow [Blenkinsop’s] brains out’ if his order was refused. The whaleboat crew departed, and Blenkinsop ultimately brought charges against Stephens and Wright in South Australia’s fledgling criminal court.

During the latter half of 1837, South Australian returned to Kangaroo Island, but was soon outfitted for another voyage to Encounter Bay. On 23 November 1837, the vessel departed Kingscote on what would be its last voyage. At its helm was a new commander, Captain J.B.T. MacFarlane, who had taken charge following Allan’s death in September. South Australian arrived at Rosetta Harbour a few days later, and the crew immediately began preparing the whaling station’s takings for the season—200 barrels of whale oil and 10 tons of whalebone—for shipment aboard another South Australian Company vessel, the ship Solway. On 8 December 1837, while awaiting Solway’s arrival, the ship was caught in a severe south-easterly gale, parted its mooring lines, and struck Black Reef stern first. Heavy seas ultimately pushed the vessel over the reef and into shallows near shore, but the hull damage it sustained proved fatal, and the hold rapidly filled with water. No injuries or fatalities occurred as a result of the wreck and most of the crew and passengers—including David McLaren, John Hindmarsh, Jr. (son of the colony’s first Governor Sir John Hindmarsh), and South Australia’s first Chief Justice Sir John Jeffcott—were able to save their personal belongings. Captain MacFarlane and his crew spent the next several weeks salvaging South Australian’s rigging, fittings, equipment and cargo, although the deepest part of the hold remained largely inaccessible, and items within it unrecoverable.

Epilogue

Approximately two weeks later, on 21 December, Solway was wrecked at Rosetta Harbour in circumstances almost identical to those that led to the loss of South Australian. Charles Mann, who was aboard Solway at the time, aptly captured the violence wrought on the Rosetta Harbour anchorage by the severe southerly gale:

I was literally awed. From the Bluff to the nearest island [Wright Island], from thence to shore, and again to the Seal Rock and Granite Island, there was one mass of whitened foam. The heavy roll of the sea was so tremendous that it was frequently impossible, from the decks of the [John] Pirie, although lying near the Solway, to see the lower masts of that vessel…I am sure that no one who witnessed the awful scene which I have described would at such a moment been mad enough to have deemed that anchorage a place of safety.

Shortly after South Australian’s loss, Sir John Jeffcott departed Rosetta Harbour in the company of Captain Blenkinsop to join an expedition then exploring the River Murray. On 12 December, one of the expedition’s boats attempted to exit the river for the return voyage to Encounter Bay and overturned as it crossed the sandbar at the river’s mouth. As a result, Jeffcott, Blenkinsop, and two of the boat’s crew drowned. Their bodies were never recovered.

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References: 

Coroneos, Cosmos, ‘The Solway (1837): Results of the 1994 test excavation’, Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 20(1), 1996, pp. 19-38.

Notes regarding the wreck of South Australian, Ronald Temme Collection, Vol. 1 (1836-1845), D 8161/1(T) OUTSIZE 1, State Library of South Australia, Adelaide.

Parsons, Ronald, Shipwrecks in South Australia, 1836-75 (Adelaide: Ronald Parsons, 1981).

Parsons, Ronald, Southern passages: A maritime history of South Australia (Netley: Wakefield Press, 1986).

Sexton, Robert, Shipping arrivals and departures: South Australia 1627-1850 (Adelaide: Gould Books, 1990).

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 11 November 1837, ‘Charge of Capital Felony against S. Stephens and W. Wright’, p. 1.

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 20 January 1838, ‘Shipwrecks’, p. 3.

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 24 February 1838, ‘Affidavit of Captain Blenkinsop’, p. 4.

South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, 24 February 1838, ‘Affidavit of Sylvester Freeman’, p. 4.

The Colonist, 20 January 1838, ‘South Australia’, p. 3.