1. Outward bound to exile: A voyage of mutinous felons and disgruntled crew
THE OUTBOUND VOYAGE of the convict transport ship Royal Charlotte was an eventful one. The return voyage was a fatal one. The ship was undertaking a new charter, transporting convicts to the remote New South Wales colony where they would serve long sentences, in most cases never to return. Before embarking, convicts condemned to transportation were put aboard the hulk Justitia, a former slaving ship converted into a floating prison.1 It was moored in the Thames off Woolwich Warren, the docks and quays of the Royal Arsenal. Some convicts who had been found guilty of capital crimes and condemned to execution had been given another chance; reprieved from the public gallows they had been informed.
His Majesty being graciously pleased to extend the Royal Mercy … on condition of his being transported to the Coast of New South Wales or some other islands adjacent for life and such intention of Mercy having been signified to the Court by the Right Honourable Robert Peel one of His Majesty’s principal Secretaries of State the Court hath allowed to the said offender the benefit of a Conditional pardon And it is thereupon Ordered that the said [offender] be immediately transported to the Coast of New South Wales … for and during the term of his natural Life.2
Those other convicts with lesser sentences were in most cases also going to the other side of the world for the rest of their lives as few would ever be able to return there was no provision for repatriation when the term was up. The prisoners’ heads were shaved and their clothes taken away and replaced with convict dress. Irons were riveted about their ankles and they were chained to another prisoner. By day, chained together, the convicts laboured in the dockyards; at night they were herded into the gloomy prison deck. It was scarcely high enough to allow a man to stand upright, and it held as many as 250 prisoners at a time.3 Men and boys convicted of what today would be considered petty offences were thrown together with old lags, thugs, psychopathic criminals and lunatics.
It was usual for prisoners to be incarcerated in the hulks for months, occasionally even for years, awaiting transportation. One hundred and thirty six of these prisoners from the Justitia, however, were spared this delay. Barely before their hands had hardened to the heavy dockside labour they found themselves hurried into a longboat early on the morning of 12 November and embarked in the Royal Charlotte. This handsome, well-found vessel, newly commissioned to the convict transportation service, sailed that day.4 But she was not yet ready for the long voyage to New South Wales and put in at Portsmouth. The prisoners were put aboard one of the hulks in the port while the Royal Charlotte underwent conversions and repairs and took on stores.5 It was there nearly seven weeks.
After a blighted Christmas the prisoners were re-embarked in the Royal Charlotte, noisy with the bustle and shouts and hammering of a ship about to sail. On 5 January 1825 she hoisted sail and moved slowly out into the channel.
The Royal Charlotte was an Indian-built square-rigged British merchantman of 471 tons, sailing with Captain G. C. (Josh) Corbyn as master, with 136 convicts and government stores. Like other convict ships, she had not been built specifically as a transport for felons but had been chartered by the British Navy Board. This was her only voyage to New South Wales in the convict service; she was wrecked five months later within eight days of beginning her return voyage.
In charge of the prisoners was surgeon-superintendent George Fairfowl, a no-nonsense disciplinarian, but a good surgeon and a humane man. He had sailed on three previous convict transports and was well experienced in the duties he had to perform. These were not confined solely to medical matters, but under orders from the Navy Board he held primary responsibility for the convicts. His authority was at least equal to that of the master and the military guard commander, Major Edmund Lockyer. This latter, a distinguished officer who had served twenty years in India and Ceylon, commanded thirty-five soldiers of the 57th Regiment.6 Travelling with him were his wife and ten children.
The prisoners were convicted men from many parts of Britain. Fifty-four of them were ‘lifers’, and the others were to serve terms of seven or fourteen years.7 The prisoners were aged from fifteen to fifty-nine and the crimes for which they were being transported ranged from picking pockets to highway robbery, and from embezzlement to maiming a cow. They included three fifteen-year-old boys and six aged seventeen who were separated from the men to prevent their further corruption. It is unlikely that the prison in the Royal Charlotte differed much from the prison quarters of other merchantmen altered under specifications to accommodate convicts. In these it was normally in the ’tween-decks with a strong grated barricade, spiked or studded with iron, erected at the steerage bulkhead. There were two rows of sleeping berths, six feet square and one above the other, down each side of the ’tween-decks. Four convicts were allotted to each berth, with eighteen inches of sleeping space in each. Light and air were admitted through heavily-grated hatches. A barricaded section was known as the boys’ room.8
The men were allowed up on deck for two exercise periods a day except in rough weather, when they
were confined below for
days on end. The prison
was gloomy, damp and
oppressive. The floor was
scrubbed daily, but the
prison was ill-ventilated so
that the air, especially when
the hatches were battened
down, was stale and foetid.
The foul smells of close-
packed bodies, rotting
timber, the partitioned-off
tub that served as a
lavatory, and the stale sea
water in the bilge made conditions revolting. These were the prisoners’ living quarters for more than four months.
On 23 January 1825 the Royal Charlotte dropped anchor off Tenerife in the Canary Islands to take on fresh water and supplies. For security, the convicts were not allowed to exercise on deck while the ship was in harbour. In the prison, the convicts were keeping a wary eye on one man who was showing increasing signs of madness. Charles Horton, at forty-three a lifer convicted at Warwick Assizes of robbing a house, muttered incessantly either about the lost state of his soul or his certainty of salvation. While Fairfowl was aboard the Asia convict ship signing vouchers for fresh beef and vegetables, Horton slashed his throat.9 He lingered for four days before dying; to Fairfowl’s credit he was the only man lost on the voyage.
As the Royal Charlotte sailed into the Southern Ocean and rode the Roaring Forties towards the south of Van Diemen’s Land, an informer passed word to Fairfowl on 8 March that a mutiny plot had been brewing in the ’tween decks. Fairfowl and Lockyer were taken by surprise, for the convicts had given little trouble. Indeed, until the plot was disclosed, Fairfowl noted, ‘their conduct was regular and praiseworthy’. His report to Governor Brisbane later in Sydney states:
Information was received that certain of [the prisoners] had formed a conspiracy to murder the officers, guard, & ship’s company and seize the ship; which on inquiry proved to be corr and that no less than 43 had joined in it. The plan was sufficiently feasible and well digested to inspire them with sanguine hopes of success although too contemptible in my opinion to give me a moment’s anxiety about the fate of the ship had it been put in execution. As however it was to have begun in the murder of one or two soldiers, and must have terminated in a horrible slaughter of the convicts, it became my duty to guard against the occurrence of an incident so revolting to the feelings of humanity. I therefore secured ten of the ringleaders in triple irons & confined them apart from the others under the forecastle further secured by a chain during the night and fed them upon bread and water: the others I double ironed confined eighteen in the boys room and ten in the main prison, they were allowed their usual rations and the enjoyment of air & exercise upon deck in common with the other convicts but I withheld the indulgence of wine [issued as an anti-scorbutic]. But I inflicted no punishment, for when I reflected upon the enormity of their offence, which had for it’s object the murder of every individual on board who would not join them, I was of opinion that the paternal chastisement of such flogging as I could take upon myself the responsibility of inflicting was not adequate to such a crime, and I determined to reserve them untill I should receive Your Excellency’s commands respecting them.10
It was the intention of the ringleaders to throw one of the mates or a soldier overboard during an exercise period on deck, and in the confusion of the moment to secure the guards’ arms from the weapons store abaft of the mainmast. It was a desperate plan that held almost no chance of success, but, as Fairfowl commented, would have led to a slaughter of many prisoners. Fairfowl reported that forty-three prisoners were involved, although he had only thirty-eight of them ironed. A muster list records in pencil that ‘those marked M were mutineers on board’.11
There was another serious threat to discipline, this time from several of the ship’s officers and crew, whose conditions at sea were almost as harsh as those of the convicts. The captain received word that the victualling stores had been plundered and asked Fairfowl to investigate. He discovered that the second mate, the acting bursar and several crewmen had for a long period been pilfering small quantities of the ship’s rum and wine. They had given or sold some to other members of the crew. Fairfowl had the two officers confined, but this mild action was resented by the sailors. The rumblings of discontent and
insubordination threatened to erupt into something more serious, so the two guilty officers were removed to the transport ship Asia, then sailing in company with the Royal Charlotte. The 492-ton Asia, making her third voyage to New South Wales with 199 convicts on board, had sailed from Portsmouth the day after the Royal Charlotte’s departure. removed to the transport ship Asia, then sailing in company with the Royal Charlotte. The 492-ton Asia, making her third voyage to New South Wales with 199 convicts on board, had sailed from Portsmouth the day after the Royal Charlotte’s departure.
On Friday 29 April 1825 the Royal Charlotte and Asia sailed through the tall headlands of Port Jackson and berthed in Sydney Cove. The prisoners had been at sea for 140 days; they had to wait a few more days before filing ashore to begin their exile. Early on 4 May, as the Royal Charlotte bobbed at anchor, a government official came on board with Dr Fairfowl and set up a table on the quarter-deck. Here during the day the muster was held; each convict was questioned and his answers were compared with details given in the indents forwarded from the hulk. Not one complaint was made by the prisoners about the treatment they had received on the voyage. ‘On the contrary,’ Fairfowl reported to the Admiralty, ‘they all expressed in lively terms their grateful sense of the care and humanity shewn them, and they said unanimously that they were treated much better than their conduct deserved.’ 12
Two days later, dressed in their new-issue convict clothing (known as ‘slops’), the prisoners were landed from the Royal Charlotte and Asia, inspected by the Lieutenant-Governor and marched off to the Hyde Park Prisoners’ Barracks. The Sydney Gazette reported that they exhibited ‘as fine a set of healthy and active men as have been imported for several years past’.13
Sydney Town was now a colonial capital of some substance. Rows of stone and whitewashed houses, warehouses and government buildings were ranged along the bays and headlands of the harbour. More than 30,000 people now lived in the colony of New South Wales—free settlers, government officials, soldiers, emancipated convicts and prisoners serving their sentences as assigned workers or in chain gangs. In the town the government gangs could be seen marching to and from their work in single file, straggling here and here, with their white woollen Parramatta frocks and trowsers, or grey or yellow jackets with duck overalls (the different styles of dress denoting the oldness or newness of their arrival,) all daubed over with broad arrows, P.B.’s, C.B.’s, and various numerals in black, white, and red; with perhaps the jail-gang straddling sulkily by in their jingling leg-chains.14
The stencilled letters designated the barracks in which the prisoners were housed until they were assigned to settlers. Newly arrived convicts were called canaries ‘by reason of the yellow plumage in which they are fledged at the period of landing’.15
1 Home Office 13/43 (Public Record Office, London)
2 Assizes 2/30 (PRO).
3 W. Branch-Johnson, The English Prison Hulks, London, 1957, p. 13.
4 H.O. 13/43 (PRO).
5 Indent Royal Charlotte, 4/4010 (State Records New South Wales).
6 Lockyer was later to explore the Brisbane River from the penal settlement
of Moreton Bay.
7 Convict Transportation Register, H.O. 11/5, reel 88 (PRO) .
8 Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales, vol. 2, London, 1839, p. 215. 9 Admiralty 101/65/4 (PRO).
10 Colonial Secretary (NSW) Inward Letters 4/1782 bundle 25 (SRNSW).
11 Muster, Royal Charlotte, Colonial Office 207/2 reel 57 (PRO).
12 Adm. 101/65/4 (PRO).
13 12 May 1825.
14 Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales, vol. 1, p. 46.
15 Ibid., vol. 2, p. 117.
2. The last voyage of the Royal Charlotte
THE Royal Charlotte sailed out through Sydney Harbour’s Heads on 7 June 1825 on the return voyage, on a route north up the coast towards a dangerous passage through the Coral Sea and on across the north of Australia. She was bound for India (where she had been built), with civilian passengers, a contingent of seventy-one soldiers with wives and fourteen children, a doctor, ship’s officers and crew. The convict quarters must have been upgraded somewhat for paying passengers. An advertisement on page one of The Australian of 19 May 1825 had advised readers:
FOR CALCUTTA, TOUCHING AT BATAVIA
The fine fast sailing Ship Royal Charlotte, Capt. Corbyn,
will sail from this Port in all [sic] this month. Has
superior accommodation for passengers. For freight or
passage apply to the Commander on board; or at the
Counting-house of Pain and Ramsay.
But the master had faced trouble from the start of this voyage. As the Sydney Gazette reported on 11 August, ‘Captain Corbyn was unpleasantly situate at the time of his departure with regard to his seamen, who conducted themselves insubordinately’. The Gazette provided no reason for the dispute, but a report in The Australian suggested the crew were having too good a time of it in Sydney Town. It recorded on 18 June: ‘Most of the seamen belonging to the Royal Charlotte not liking to quit the harbour on Sunday last, refused to comply with the orders of their Commander, to get the ship under weigh. They all skulked below; and the Master of the ship got the assistance of the detachment of troops, proceeding in her to Madras. The anchor was weighed, and the sails set, chiefly by the soldiers, in tolerably good style.’
However a soldier on board, Lance-Sergeant Samuel McRoberts of the 41st Regiment, who was to write a narrative of the voyage, pointed out that as a result of ‘several of the ship’s seamen absenting themselves, there only remained a few good hands on board, the rest exclusive of the petty officer being either landsmen or boys who had never been to sea before and consequently not much to be depended on in a perilous voyage, Captain Corbyn having resolved to sail through Torres Strait which is probably one of the most dangerous passages in the world as it abounds with rocks and shoals and are infested with savage islanders who never fail to attack a ship on the least appearance of distress on board. These considerations induced the seamen to refuse their duty, and when the order was repeated to heave up they went below in spite of the demands of Mr Parks the chief officer and the entreaties of the pilot and boatswain.’
With help from the soldiers, and with the the ship’s doctor at the wheel, and the boys sent aloft to unfurl the sails, Captain Corbyn was able begin the Royal Charlotte’s last voyage. Ahead was disaster, described in detail in Sergeant McRobert’s account, the faded manuscript of which survives.1
An edited version of this manuscript was published in the Indian magazine Oriental Herald and Journal of General Literature (Vol.10, 1826) as follows: 2
NARRATIVE OF THE SHIPWRECK OF THE
ROYAL CHARLOTTE, IN THE EASTERN SEAS
Written by Serjeant McRoberts of H. M.’s 41st Regiment,
who was a Passenger in this ill-fated vessel.
The ship Royal Charlotte, of London, commanded by Captain Joseph Corbyn, with male prisoners on board, arrived, after a pretty favourable passage in Sydney Cove, where the convicts were landed; and the ship, after undergoing the necessary overhaul, was commissioned by the Colonial Government to carry detachments of his Majesty’s 20th, 41st and 46th regiments to India in order to join their respective corps in that country.
These troops, commanded by Lieutenant Henry Clinton of the 20th, embarked on the afternoon of the 7th of June, and on the Sunday following, the pilot proceeded on board and got the ship underweigh with a fine leading breeze down the river. The sun was fast sinking in the western horizon, as she passed between Port Jackson’s Heads, but the appearance of the weather in the offing was gloomy, and the light vapours, as they scudded rapidly to the eastward, and the hoarse murmur of the surf, as it broke on the jutting rocks seemed to presage an approaching storm. The light sails were taken in; and the topsails, as the breeze was increasing, single reefed, while the ship left the land at the rate of seven or eight knots per hour.—By seven o’clock, the reflecting light on the promontory, which at intervals peered over the increasing waves, was all that was visible to us of the far-famed land of New South Wales; this too was soon lost in the distance, and nought but the white foam of the swelling waves and the dark scud over our heads could be seen from the ship.
At eight bells the fore and main topsails were double reefed, the mizen topsails and main course handed, and every other necessary preparation made for a stormy night, which we had now every reason to expect. The ship ran before the wind under this snug sail, till about half past ten o’clock, when she unfortunately broached to in a squall, and split every sail fore and aft then set; the gale soon increased to a perfect hurricane, and blew the canvass out of the bolt ropes, while the shreds that remained pendant to the yards cracked dreadfully in the wind, and reminded us of the independent firing of a body of Infantry. The ship ran at the rate of ten knots an hour, and rolled tremendously: both quarter-boats were washed away from the davits, and several other articles were washed overboard, which it was impossible to prevent. Heavy showers of rain at intervals, accompanied by squalls of wind, added considerably to the horrors of the night, which was uncommonly dark and cold.
About half past twelve o’clock we had an opportunity of witnessing a phenomenon, which has frequently attracted the attention of mariners, In a heavy squall of wind and rain, a luminous appearance, apparently about the size of a forty-two pound shot, attached itself to the main-topmast head, where It remained about half an hour, when it lost its globular appearance and seemed to melt into a stream of liquid fire, which, gradually descending the mast, ran out on the lee main yard-arm, and in a few minutes totally disappeared. These phenomena, though common in southern latitudes in stormy weather, are considered by superstitious seamen as sure indications of approaching evil, and the fate of the Royal Charlotte was foretold with that serious positiveness that admits of no contradiction, and completely evinces the readiness of the ignorant to attach importance to whatever is wonderful or strange.
The gale continued with unabating violence till the morning of the 14th, when I gradually ceased, and a new suit of canvass was bent in the course of the day; the sea yet ran very high, and as the wind continued to blow in a direction favourable to the course of the ship, she made so much progress that on Sunday the 10th, immediately alter divine service, we made Cato’s Reef. 3
At day-light in the morning the breeze again increased, the top-gallant sails were handed, and a single reef taken in each top-sail, which were double reefed in the afternoon. While running under this sail at the rate of nine knots, the ship struck, at a quarter before ten o’clock, on a reef of rocks with great violence; the sails were immediately thrown aback, but without effect; she continued still on the rocks, and at length fell down on her larboard beam-ends, still continuing to strike violently, while the water rushed rapidly into her hold.
All hands were immediately ordered to the pumps, but the depth of water in the hold increased in spite of every effort. The mizen-mast was cut away for the purpose of lightening the ship, as a faint hope was entertained that she might beat over the reef, and in a short time afterwards the main and foremasts were consigned to the waves, without producing the desired effect.
Vivid flashes of lightning, which at times illumined the whole horizon round,were succeeded by loud peals of thunder, while the roaring of the surf, the crashing of the ship on the rocks, and the dismal cries of the women and children, who crowded on deck as the rain fell in torrents, added to the uncertainty of the fate that awaited us, and can only be conceived by those who have been in the like unfortunate predicament, and who, after witnessing the vessel carrying them over the foaming billows in all the pride of her glory and her strength, with the crew fearless of danger, and exulting in their fancied security, have in a moment found themselves dashed against a fatal shoal or rock, and the ship, which they fondly dreamed was bearing them to fame, fortune, or the shores of a long lost home became a dismal wreck, with no prospect but instant death before them. By these only can be conceived the dreadful tumult of our minds in these awful moments of suspense, when the portals of eternity seemed open to receive us; but who can describe, or what language convey an adequate idea of our mental agony, as we clung to the wreck, and looked to the darkly brooding sky as a sight we were soon to lose for ever?
Lieutenant Clinton, Dr. Nisbett, Captain Dick, and the Chief Officer of the ship, were seen every where on deck, encouraging the men to direct all their efforts to the pumps as the only means of escape; while Captain Corbyn remained on the poop, watching every possible chance of relieving his ship, and issuing the necessary orders for her preservation in that calm collected manner, which bespeaks a mind superior to danger and death, and is a distinguishing trait in the character of a British seaman.
The surf beat over her bows in a dreadful manner, and frequently knocked the men away from the pumps, which were wrought with little intermission as long as any hopes remained of keeping her free; hut when it was found that the water increased in spite of all our efforts, and that it was impossible for the ship to heat over the reef, or be otherwise got off, the men, who were now all nearly exhausted, were ordered to desist. Each sought for himself a resting place, and, like the mariners in St. Paul’s ship when they threw the anchors over the stern, all “earnestly wished for the day”.
Day at length dawned, and the increasing light soon showed us the horrors of our situation. Various conjectures had been made in the course of the preceding night relative to our situation, but none had approached the truth. The ship lay on her larboard beam ends with her head nearly N. N. E ., about her own length from the edge of the reef, which appeared from the ship to be nearly perpendicular, and of great height. The breakers, as they rolled in unremitting succession over the precipice, broke close to the ship’s forefoot, and covered her as far as the waist, while we expected every moment that her bows would be stove in, and that she would soon go to pieces. The reef, as nearly as we could judge it from the tremendous surf, formed a sort of crescent, or rather horse-shoe, and swept in a circular line to about fifteen or twenty miles on each side of the ship. As the title decreased, a number of shoals and rocks appeared; within the surf, about a mile to the eastward of the ship, was a sand-bank, rather higher than the other shoals,and over which the tide apparently did not rise.
About eleven o’clock, while the hands were engaged in clearing the decks, an emu, which Captain Corbyn had brought from Sydney, lay in the way, and was thrown overboard ; the poor bird, on clearing the surf, made for the bank, sometimes walking over the tops of the detached pieces of rocks, and at other times, when in deep water, aided by a current which set him towards the shoal, his motions were watched from the ship, and confirmed an idea that it would be practicable for a person to wade on shore at low water. Private Hugh Murnane of the 20th, and James Murphy of the 41st, volunteered to go to the bank, and on receiving permission, lowered themselves down to the wreck of the foremast, which still remained alongside, and watching an opportunity when the surf rolled in, committed themselves to its fury with the good wishes of all on board for their success and safe return. They were thrown a considerable distance from the ship towards the bank; but the receding wave, unwilling to part with its prey, brought them as rapidly back; no human strength could cope with its violence, or stem the back draught that threatened to carry them out to sea, but they had scarcely passed the ship when they were met by another mountain wave, and thrown so far up on the bank, that they were able to gain and preserve their footing on the rocks before it returned; after breathing a few minutes they again set out, and partly by swimming, and partly by wading, in about half an hour they reached the bank.
In the interim, as it was the opinion of everyone on board that the ship would go to pieces in a few tides, the carpenters had constructed a sort of small raft or catamaran for the purpose of conveying to the bank a few of those articles of provisions, &c. which would be most wanted in the event of our being obliged to abandon the ship; but this piece of mechanism proved unserviceable, as it was suddenly overturned, on being lowered into the surf, and every thing on board lost. The boatswain of the ship, who had gone overboard to superintend the management of the catamaran, was knocked away from alongside by the surf, and anxious to ascertain whether the bank would afford us a temporary shelter, made the best of his way ashore, and showed us the extent of the bank, by walking from end to end and across it, with a handkerchief tied to a stick, which he had picked up; he then returned on board with the two soldiers, and reported that the tide did not entirely overflow the bank, as he had observed a large junk of timber, and the remains of a ship’s mast, on the top of the bank, which appeared, from its dry and decayed state, to have lain there a considerable time.
In consequence of the favourable report made by the boatswain, it was thought expedient to allow as many of the troops to leave the ship that afternoon as could be spared from assisting the seamen in getting provisions, &c. out of the hold. About twenty men and a few women and children accordingly took possession of the bank, where they busied themselves in making preparations for passing the night. They succeeded in making a fire to cook the small quantity of provisions which the women had been provident enough to carry with them; and while this operation was going forward, the men drew round the fire, and canvassed the events of the preceding night, or calculated the probable chance of escape from their miserable situation.
As this is the season of winter in these latitudes, the nights are consequently long, and though the heat in the day is much the same as in England in the months of July or August, the air, after sun-set, becomes extremely cold; and when the fire on the bank died away for want of a supply of fuel, the people found themselves very uncomfortably situated, they had no covering but the gloomy canopy of the heavens; a long and moonless night was fast approaching, and the flood-tide rapidly advancing on the bank, while they were uncertain whether or not it would be overflowed and every soul swept into the deep. For the better security of the women and children, the men dug holes in the shingle, and raised ridges of sand and stones on their weather-side, to defend them from the inclemency of the night air, which was now getting damp and chill. About half-flood, a heavy shower of rain came on, and continued till nearly half-ebb; at high-water, the tide was almost level with the top of the bank, and the surf being entirely over it, so that the adventurers were for nearly four hours almost constantly up to the middle in water; they stood in this wretched manner, holding each others hands, the poor women clinging to their husbands, and the children to them, till the tide began to ebb.
Mrs. M’Donnel, wife of Lance Serjeant M’Donnel of the 20th, had been delivered of a fine child, only four nights before the ship was cast away, and in this night almost perished with cold and anxiety; but youth, and a good constitution, prevailed against the omplicated evils that assailed her, and enabled her to bear up against them with a degree of fortitude seldom equalled in women; her infant child, however, fell a victim to the inclemency of the night, and left its sorrowing and unfortunate mother childless and nearly unprotected on the rough and inhospitable rocks of Frederick’s Reef.
Early in the morning some of the soldiers went ashore, and reported the ship to be in such a crazy state that she could not hold out much longer together; this determined those on the bank to remain, and as the day-tide rose only about half way up, they preferred their chance on the shoal to that of being crushed to pieces in the ship when she would part. The number on the bank was increased by volunteers in the course of the day, and the men set about erecting a tent for the women and children, which they effected by placing pieces of timber and fragments of cedar planks (the remains of the catamaran which had drifted ashore) upright in the sand, covered with a piece of sail-cloth, which was brought from the wreck for the purpose; but this hurricane-house, though it sheltered them from the air, admitted the water, and they were obliged to abandon it at high-water for fear the surf would sweep it away.
The tide, as on the preceding night, flowed over the bank, destroyed the foundation of the tent, and swept away most of the provisions and necessaries brought ashore. A few of the troops yet remained on board, and were employed in hoisting provisions and water out of the hold while those on the bank were told off in working parties, and relieved each other. The conveying of the casks of provisions and water ashore, was however no easy task, as it was extremely dangerous to disengage them from the surf alongside; and so difficult to roll them over the rocks of the bank, that a single water cask sometimes required the united efforts of eight men; but when the people had made a few trips on board, and became acquainted with the roughness of the way, the casks were lowered over the side at about half ebb, and hauled out to the surf with ropes, as in many places there was water enough to float them, or at least to facilitate the operation of rolling.
As it was now become apparent that the only hope of our being rescued from our deplorable situation rested on the possibility of our being able to make our distress known, it was determined by the Captain to fit out the longboat, the only one now remaining, and endeavour to make some port on the coast of New Holland, where it was possible relief might be found, should she meet no vessel at sea. She was accordingly overhauled, and, when the necessary preparations were completed, eight seamen and four soldiers were selected to man her, under the superintendence of Mr. Parks, chief officer of the ship, and Dr. Nisbett, who volunteered his services for this perilous undertaking, and whom we found particularly active and useful on many trying occasions.
On Thursday the 23d, the launch was parbuckled over the side, having Mr. Parks and two seamen on board, Mr. Parks having previously received instructions in writing from Captain Corbyn, drawn up with every precision, requiring him to proceed to Moreton Bay, and charter a ship for the relief of the Charlotte’s passengers and crew; or, in the event of not being able to succeed in that port, to try every other he could make. Dr. Nisbett and the remainder of her crew afterwards got into her, when she dropped astern. On leaving the ship, they endeavoured to force her through the surf, but after a fruitless effort of nearly two hours, they were obliged to bear away, and search for a passage farther to the westward, which they soon found, and we had the satisfaction to see them outside of the breakers with a fine breeze and all sail set.
A number of cedar-planks and other spars, had by this time been drawn ashore by the working parties, a few of which were driven end-down in the sand, and a platform laid, about five feet from the top of the bank, on which a tent was erected for the married people; a small space of this was screened off at the north end, for the accommodation of Lieutenant Clinton and his family, who had signified their intention of joining those on the bank next day; accordingly, at low-water, the officer, with his lady and child, accompanied by Miss Tyghe, Mrs. Clinton’s sister, reached the bank, and took possession of their crazy abode. All the empty casks were procured from the ship, and a kind of breakwater erected on the most exposed side of the tent, by sinking them end-down in the sand, and filling them with shingle, which was brought from the lower part of the shoal in a kind of rude hand- barrow, constructed for that purpose, by nailing two short spars horizontally on the sides of an old box. These casks were again fenced with a double row of billet- wood, driven deep in the sand, and an embankment of shingle raised outside, for the purpose of breaking the violence of the surf before it reached our inner fortifications. These precautions, we considered, would contribute greatly to our protection at the return of the spring-tides, and we ceased to regard their approach with that degree of terror we felt only a few days before. The carpenter, with his crew, had erected a stage, on which they were busily employed in building a flat-bottomed boat, as a dernier resort in the event of no vessel coming to our relief; and, although our situation was desperate, we were not entirely without hope.
Hitherto no lives had been lost; but, on the afternoon of the 27th, while corporal John Hughes, and Thomas Neal of the 41st, were engaged in taking a cask of water ashore, they kept too far to the eastward, and were drawn into a current, which sets rapidly to the northward of the bank, and swept out to sea. Neal, on perceiving his danger, quitted his charge, and with considerable difficulty reached the shore; but poor Hughes, after struggling nearly an hour, sank to rise no more. We survey the dissolution of our relatives and friends, when disease or age has ripened them for the grave, with a portion of that calm resignation to the will of the Almighty, which the mild precepts of Christianity so strongly inculcate, and consider them as having completed the ends for which they received existence; but when death approaches us by any unnatural means, and suddenly snatches from us the young and vigorous, we feel the futility of reckoning on a length of days, and probably consider that we ourselves may next fall beneath the dart of the grim king of terrors. Such was the nature of our reflections as we gazed in melancholy groups on the green waves that rolled over our unfortunate companion, and considered his exit from the cares and troubles of this world as a prelude to that of our own.
After the melancholy event last recorded, nothing of’ moment occurred till the evening of the 1st of July; when, about seven o’clock, one of the sentinels called out, “A light, a light!” Everyone started up, and gazed in the given direction, which was nearly due west, where they saw, to their inexpressible satisfaction, the light apparently of a vessel within the reef; a loud cheering instantly commenced, and a piece of junk was lighted, to guide our supposed deliverers to the bank; but, alas we were doomed to experience, in the most acute manner, that sickness of the heart which ariseth from hope deferred, as the light proved only to be the evening star setting. which, as the night was hazy, loomed large as it approached the horizon, and had every appearance of a signal-light on board some ship.
Most of the provisions and water were now got ashore, besides a great number of cedar planks, &c for the boat; so that, by the 10th of July, little more remained in the wreck than was sufficient for the subsistence of those who remained on board, —viz. Captain Corbyn, Captain Dick, of the Hon. East India Company’s service, Mrs. Dick, with her infant child, Mr. Scott, second officer of the Royal Charlotte, and a few boys; the boatswain and a few of the men having been sent ashore to alter sails for the boat, which, it was expected,would soon be ready for launching. On the morning of the 25th, a cask of bread that had been buried in the shingle, was raised, and broached; but was completely spoiled with salt water; and on this afternoon the surf was very high, and beat so heavily on the ship that she frequently heeled over as though she would upset. We were thus in considerable pain for those
on board, although we were in a desperate situation ourselves, the waves running high over the bank, and threatening destruction to our breakwaters and stages. Notwithstanding the exertions made to save our provisions, a tierce of beef, a tierce of pork, and a cask of water, were swept away, and several other articles of private property, and consequently of minor importance, however severely the loss might be felt by the owners at the time.
In this way we continued, till, on the afternoon of the 28th of July, about two o’clock, a heavy squall of wind and rain came on, and continued for about an hour and a half. As it cleared away, we observed the people on the wreck crowding to the weather-side, waving their hats, &c., and otherwise signifying that something unexpected either had taken, or was about to take place; and some of the people, who had ascended the stage, sang out, “A sail, a sail! “ We had so often been deceived by fallacious appearances, that we were now become slow of belief; and it was not till the ensign was reversed on board, that we would believe there was a sail in sight; in about half an hour, however we made out a sail steering down on the reef.
It is impossible to describe the joy that took possession of all hands. The vessel proved to be a brig, and ran so near the edge of the reef, that the people on the wreck could plainly distinguish a whale-boat on her quarter, and her crew on the rigging gazing at the wreck. She ran a few miles to the westward, and we could see her standing off and on as long as day lasted. We kept up a blazing fire at night, and at day-break we again saw her hove-to, a great way to the eastward; she shortly made sail, and steered for us, but the surf ran so high that she could not send a boat ashore: we were certain that she had come to our relief, yet we felt mortified and depressed that we could hold no communication with our deliverers.
We had frequently seen whales and other large fish playing within the reef to the northward of the settlement; and as we could see no breakers in that direction we were confident there existed a passage for a vessel, but we had no means of making this known on board the brig. We watched her motions all day, and at night again lighted our fire as a beacon-light to her; but about nine o’clock the tide rose over the bank, and swept it away, and in fact every thing that was buried in the sand or otherways secured. The carpenter’s sawpit and tool chest were washed away about ten o’clock, and it was with the greatest difficulty that we saved our lives. The situation of the ladies and the rest of the women in the tent was dreadful in the extreme as the surf shook the frail beams of their crazy apartment with a violence that threatened instant destruction, and as it broke under their feet, dashed through the tent, and wetted them to the skin. Four hours of dreadful suspense rolled heavily away, and the tide began to leave us. Night too wore away, and the dawn surprised us all anxiously looking out for the brig, which we could nowhere see in the direction of yesterday, but on looking to the northward, she was seen inside the reef, at the distance of about four miles from the bank, steering towards us; she soon came to, and in a little time a whale-boat, having on board Mr. Parks, Dr. Nisbett, and the master of the brig, pulled to the bank; we received them with three cheers, which they returned as they leapt ashore.
After mutual congratulations and inquiries had passed between these gentlemen and Mr. Clinton, they made a short visit to the ladies in the tent, and set out for the wreck; when they returned on board the brig, the women and sick men accompanied them, while the rest of the men were employed in assisting the carpenters in laying skidds for launching the boat, which was done as soon as there was water enough to receive her, and she moored to a rock about 15 or 20 fathoms from the bank, Mr. C., the carpenters, and several men, remaining on board.
About seven o’clock the surf began to beat over the bank, and by nine the provision casks were all washed up; we divided ourselves amongst them, and when the awful rush of the remorseless breakers amongst our breakwaters announced the moment of danger, we closed in and clung to the casks till the receding wave left them again on the bank. Towards high water every surf buried us for a few seconds, and we could scarcely regain our breath when it left us, before it was over us again. The tent that had been abandoned by the women in the forenoon was washed away with all the other stages, carrying along with them nearly all the knapsacks, arms, and accoutrements and several other things that from time to time had been brought ashore. By eleven o’clock nothing remained but a few casks of water, which were knocked about with great violence, and between two of which a young man belonging to the ship, of the name of William Banks, had his right knee so dreadfully jammed as to occasion his death a few days after he arrived at Sydney.
The moon shone very bright, and Lieutenant Clinton, who had watched our situation from the boat with the greatest anxiety, ordered her to be sheered towards us for the purpose of receiving us on board; this, owing to the current, was found impracticable, and we must have perished had not Serjeant O’Donnel, of the 20th, leapt out of the boat, and swam to us with the end of a small line, with which he endeavoured to haul the boat to us, but when she came broadside to the current, all our strength, though desperately exerted was in vain. Corporal Baker, of the 46th, at this moment sent us the end of a hawser, by the line on which we hung, when the surf knocked us off our feet. As the tide began to ebb, the boat’s mooring gave way, and she must have gone among the breakers, had we not held her on by the hawser so providentially sent to us till she grounded on the bank.
On the morning of the 1st of August every thing that could be brought from the wreck was sent on board the brig, and all the people embarked in the course of the day. She got underweigh at four in the afternoon, and cleared the reef as night set in, and after a pretty favourable passage of ten days, landed us in Sydney, to the wonder and astonishment of all acquainted with our misfortunes.
SOME of McRoberts’ narrative was also published in Sydney, in The Australian on 18 August 1825. Writing of the last day on the sandbar, when the survivors from the Royal Charlotte began to board their rescue brig Amity, he commented:
The appearance of the troops was now truly deplorable—the cloathing was nearly all lost or destroyed. Many were without shoes or stockings, and the whole miserably reduced in their appearance from bad living, fatigue, and frequent transitions from heat to cold.—The dysentry too had not been idle among us, and we had all the appearance of prisoners worn down with confinement, sickness, and famine.
The fortitude and collectedness of Capt. Corbyn, from first to last on this trying occasion, were observed and admired by everyone. In the moment of greatest danger his presence of mind never forsook him. Indeed the chief officer and all on board acted with the greatest fortitude.
The survivors had spent forty days and nights on the reef and sandbar. The longboat (launch) had taken twenty-one days to reach Moreton Bay. According to notices in The Australian, the Amity with survivors aboard reached Moreton Bay on 10 August; and on 15 October, ‘the cutter Mermaid, Capt. Penson, returned from the settlement at Moreton Bay. … Passengers—Major Lockyer, 57th regt. and Lieut. Miller, 40th regt. late commander at Moreton Bay, Mrs Miller and family, and all the rest of the crew from the wreck of the Royal Charlotte’. A board of claims examined the soldiers’ losses and assessed compensation. For his ordeal, as a sergeant McRoberts was awarded three pounds and ten shillings; the other ranks received two pounds and two shillings.
Shipping reports in the Colonial Times and Hobart Town Gazette declared the brig Dragon had been dispatched to Frederick Reef to attempt to recover the wreck, which had been sold by the owners, the English East India Company, for 160 pounds. The attempt seems to have been unsuccessful, but two visits to the site by the schooner Governor Sorell to recover material from the wreck had more success. Ship News in The Australian on 27 October reported that the schooner, under the command of Captain D. Forbes, had returned to Sydney with ‘a full cargo of cables and other valuable articles from the wreck’. Captain Forbes, part-owner of the wreck, had succeeded so well, the newspaper commented, ‘that it is expected the purchasers will net by the speculation, at least, a thousand pounds’. It was not easy money: the schooner and crew faced keen dangers in winning their rewards from the coral reef. The logbook recorded, ‘the tide running and boiling at a frightful rate amongst the coral pods, and surrounded with breakers—we expected to part every moment’.
In later years, further visitors to the reef recorded the wooden-hulled ship still stuck fast, and there her remains lay awkwardly for half a century buffeted by the elements before crumbling down into the depths. In 2012, the Australian National Maritime Museum led an underwater archaeology expedition to Frederick Reef where divers located what was left of the Royal Charlotte—very few relics of that 471-ton ship remained on the seabed to mark the end of her final disastrous voyage.
1. Samuel McRoberts, A Narrative of the Wreck of the ship Royal Charlotte of London, Captn Josh Corbyn RN, on Frederick Reef in the South Pacific Ocean on 20th June 1825, National Library of Australia, MS 4006, Rex Nan Kivell Collection, ID2875895.
2. The version reproduced here varies in insignificant details from the original as it has been lightly edited with less idiosyncratic capitalisation and punctuation, and makes easier reading.
3. Roberts left the position of this reef blank, to be filled in later.
Photo page 7 credit: NLA.pic-vn3299637. No illustrations are known to exist of the Royal Charlotte: all of the ship illustrations in this monograph are generic.
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