Monday, March 21, 2011

221st Anniversary of the Wrecking of HMS Sirius

Saturday 19 March is the anniversary of the wrecking of the Sirius at Sydney (Slaughter) Bay on Norfolk Island. The Sirius’ story is now very much a part of Norfolk Island’s story – from the impact her wrecking had on the fledgling First Settlement here in 1790; to the recovery of her artefacts particularly throughout the 1980s; to the daily display of those artefacts at the Norfolk Island Museum today.

Her role as the flagship of the First Fleet places the site and artefacts as Australia’s most important shipwreck. The artefacts on display at the Pier Store Museum are the most significant display of First Fleet cultural heritage held anywhere in Australia and her Territories.

National Library of Australia: Raper, The Melancholy Loss of HMS Sirius
 The circumstances of the wrecking are as follows. The Sirius and Supply had arrived at Norfolk, prior to the Sirius continuing on to China to collect much needed supplies for the settlements here and in Sydney NSW. Both ships arrived on the 13th March in foul weather. Because of the conditions they could not risk the usual anchorage position off the settlement at Sydney Bay and sailed around to Cascade Bay. By 15 March all the people had been put ashore but the weather worsened. Captain John Hunter wrote: “These people were no sooner on shore than the wind shifted to the eastward and the weather became hazy and blew strong so that I had no prospect of being able to land any part of the provisions… I knew the exhausted state of stores there … and considerations gave me much anxiety and uneasiness”. While the convicts and marines who had been put ashore made their way by foot from Cascade to Sydney Bay, the ships were both scattered and driven out of sight of the island and would not re-appear for three long days.

By morning 19 March the Supply had completed unloading. As the Sirius returned from the southeast, Hunter then brought the Sirius across from Phillip Island to the south point of Nepean and in to Sydney Bay. He brought the ship’s head to the wind – that is facing out to sea. Just as the loading of the longboats had been completed, Hunter noticed that his ship was rapidly drifting towards the shore.  The Supply was already under sail and her Captain Lieutenant Henry Lidgard Ball called out to Hunter, waving his hat towards the reef to warn that both vessels were coming perilously close to it. Immediately Captain Hunter gave the order to sail windward on a port tack. At this point the Supply was ahead, but leeward of the Sirius. Just at the critical time as they sailed off – the wind shifted direction two points to the south. This wind shift was to spell disaster for the Sirius. It was now impossible for the ships on their port tack to clear the rocks off Point Ross.

The Supply was able to pass just clear under the Sirius’ weather bow by taking a starboard tack. Desperately, Hunter tried to do likewise. The ship failed to tack and fell off the wind – this would head her straight back again towards the rocks off Point Ross. Hunter now had no option. He had to change to a starboard tack by turning the ship’s head away from the wind, endeavouring to sail east past the landing point and off between Nepean Island and the eastern point of Sydney Bay. Hunter took this action, no doubt knowing that it was a forlorn hope. The wind and current were dead against him. Again, he desperately tried to change tack then frantically cut away the anchor, halyards and sheets in the hope that would slow them down. But the wind just blew the ship backwards until, as he describes in his Journal “she struck upon a reef of coral rocks which lies parallel to the shore, and in a few strokes was bilged”.

Today, standing on the water front at Slaughter Bay and looking out across the waves it is not hard to imagine the distress that would have gripped the entire community as they watched this disaster unfold. Amongst those watching on the shore was Norfolk Island’s Commandant, Philip Gidley King. King would return to Sydney Cove on the Supply to deliver the news to Governor Arthur Phillip. So critical was the loss Phillip thought seriously of closing both settlements and heading back to England. He wrote “You never saw such dismay as the news of the wreck occasioned amongst us all; for, to use a sea term, we looked upon her as our sheet anchor”. Luckily there had been no loss of life from the wrecking, however the Sirius had been the main means of contact with the outside world for both Settlements. Without her they must have felt hopelessly marooned on an alien shore far from the Old World and home.

On Norfolk Island the effects were felt immediately. With an ‘overnight’ doubling of the population, food and other supplies were seriously short. Starvation was a real possibility. Within a week martial law had been enforced. Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the Royal Marines had been on board the Sirius for the journey to Norfolk Island, and had been put ashore at Cascade before the wrecking. His diary entry expresses their fears: “Gracious God what will become of us all, the whole of our provisions in the ship, now a wreck before us. I hope in God that we will be able to save some if not all but why do I flatter myself with such hopes – there is at present no prospect of it except that of starving”. Starvation was averted by the arrival of over 200,000 migratory birds nesting on Mount Pitt in the following four months. Eventually hunted to extinction in Norfolk Island these birds were christened the Providence Petrel.

Immediately the Sirius ran aground as much as possible was thrown overboard with the hope it would float ashore. To rescue the crew a rope was fastened to a barrel and floated ashore, then fastened to a pine tree allowing the men to scramble to shore. Convicts who volunteered to rescue the livestock broke into the rum supply and caused a fire, resulting in a further loss of precious supplies. In the following weeks it was decided to strip the ship of hardware so desperately needed on the island. Sails, hawsers, masts and spars, fittings and the timbers of the ship itself were removed until she was down to the waterline. It took two years to do this, finishing with fifteen cannons being removed in 1792. Before long all trace of the Sirius disappeared from view.

The title of the printed image by George Raper sums up the feeling at the time: “The Melancholy Loss of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island March 19 1790” (National Library of Australia).

A special invitation is made to all today, Saturday 19 March to come and visit the artefacts from the Sirius at the Pier Store on the 221st anniversary of her wrecking.

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