Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

ANMM’s James Hunter on SA’s oldest shipwreck

A 3D recreation of the South Australian, which sunk in Encounter Bay in 1837. Photograph: Holger Deuter/University of Applied Sciences, Kaiserslautern.

Tory Shepherd, South Australia’s oldest European shipwreck at risk from the forces that uncovered it, The Guardian, 27 August 2023

Researchers call for urgent stabilisation efforts so the ship, which brought settlers to the state in 1836 and was used in whaling, can be studied.

The wreck of a ship that brought immigrants to Australia, served as a whaling platform and was used as a makeshift prison for the first Aboriginal person to kill a European in South Australia is at risk.

The South Australian, originally named the Marquess of Salisbury, started out carrying mail across the Atlantic before embarking on a more chequered career.

It was wrecked in a storm in 1837 and lies in Encounter Bay near Victor Harbor, a town now known as a whale watching hub.

For the first time a 3D image of the ship has been produced, as new research details the condition of the wreck, fleshes out its history and warns that seabed changes are uncovering the site “at an alarming rate”.

The project leader, Dr James Hunter, said the site’s significance “cannot be overstated”.

“That wreck has a special place for me. I was interested in it before we found it,” said Hunter, who is the curator of naval heritage and archaeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

“As SA’s oldest recorded European shipwreck and one of its earliest immigration vessels, it has the potential to enhance our understanding of the state’s initial colonisation and occupation – including the establishment of extractive mercantile activities such as shore-based whaling and interactions between European colonists and Aboriginal people.”

A team from the maritime museum, the Silentworld Foundation and Flinders University began exploring the wreck after finding it in 2018. The investigation was paused during the pandemic but restarted last year. The team is hoping to continue mapping the site later this year, but they are concerned about exposure and erosion.

Hunter said an expedition in December 2017 in the same location had not spotted the wreck, meaning it was still covered by sediment at that point. But natural processes exposed it, allowing it to be found in April 2018 – at which point the team was surprised to realise almost the entire hull was preserved, right up to the first deck.

They found the stumps of deck beams, planking hewn from English elm covered by thick Swiss pine sacrificial plankingfuttocks (frame), along with iron fasteners and fragments of copper sheeting. There have also been numerous “small finds”, including dozens of glass bottles, flint artefacts, and ceramics with a “brilliant underglaze cobalt blue hand-painted decoration” and blue willow pattern.

Hunter’s archaeological and archival work on the site was published this month in Historical Archaeology.

The 26.6-metre Marquess of Salisbury was launched in 1819, transporting mail, top-secret government dispatches and treasury funds between Falmouth, Nova Scotia, New York and Bermuda. The Royal Navy bought it in 1824, armed it and renamed it Swallow. It continued as a “packet ship” and spent time travelling in the Caribbean.

Archaeologists conduct studies of the South Australian wreck. Photograph: Dr James Hunter/ANMM.

The ship was nearly written off in a hurricane and was the worse for wear when the South Australian Company bought it in 1836, giving it its final name.

That year it set sale from Plymouth with 70 British and German free settlers and crew that included harpooners. After a stop on Kangaroo Island, it set up in Encounter Bay as the Company’s “cutting-in vessel” – a shore-based whaling station.

Dead whales were brought alongside, where crew would cut 1.2-metre-wide strips of blubber (called “blanket pieces”) from the carcass, before pulling it up on deck.

“The oil-rich tongue and a thick piece of blubber from the underside of the whale’s jaws were removed, and finally baleen [the filter-feeding system] was cut from the gums,” Hunter’s journal article notes.

The blubber was taken to shore for rendering. In the four months before the South Australian was wrecked, the crew removed the blubber from 24 whales.

Hunter also relates the story of Reppindjeri and his historical significance as “the first killing of a European by an Aboriginal person following the establishment of the colony of South Australia”.

Reppindjeri, also referred to as Reppeenyere, Elick, Alick and Ronculla, allegedly murdered European whaler John Driscoll.

“At the time he was killed, Driscoll was reportedly living with one of Reppindjeri’s wives, Popalbe, in an arrangement to which the Aboriginal man consented,” the article notes. A report found “Driscoll had apparently molested [Reppindjeri’s] wife”.

Reports at the time said Reppindjeri “assented” to being put in irons after being enticed onboard with food and was given “plenty to eat and to drink”, even though he had chains around his neck and waist.

He was moved to Kangaroo Island in early November 1837, eventually escaped and his fate is unknown.

In December 1837, the South Australian was hit by a strong gale. It dragged anchor before hitting a reef and going to ground in shallows. Those onboard escaped and goods were salvaged. The hull was abandoned and all remains disappeared from view by the 1850s.

Now, it is at risk again just as it is being excavated. The process that uncovered the wreck so it could be studied is the same process that could lead to its destruction.

“We know there was a die-off of seagrass and that occurred throughout SA. We could see evidence of that,” Hunter said.

“That’s what was holding all the sediment on the wreck. That would explain how it uncovered so quickly, so dramatically.”

That, Hunter wrote in the journal article, has “reinforced the need for additional investigation and inquiry and underscores the urgency with which site stabilisation efforts should be adopted and enacted”.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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