The Maritime Archaeology Collection: Part 1 Shipwrecks

Written by Dr Maddy Fowler, Museum of Tropical Queensland

As the recently appointed Senior Curator Maritime Archaeology, I have faced the challenge of familiarising myself with the maritime archaeology collection, predominantly housed at the Museum of Tropical Queensland. The HMS Pandora artefacts are justifiably the most well-known of this collection, due to both their international value and significance, and their substantial quantity. The collection, however, also includes artefacts from at least 16 other named shipwrecks located across Queensland’s coast and rivers. The maritime archaeology collection can therefore be seen as a cross-section or a sample of the total shipwreck resource in the State, and a brief analysis of these sites can inform significance and research potential.

Vessel name Year built/launched Type of vessel Gross tonnage Registered port or owner Built Primary employment
Aarhus 1875 Iron barque 691 J.H. Christiansen Hamburg, Germany Transport, general cargo
Annie 1843 Wooden brig 645 Peterhead, Scotland Quebec, Canada Transport, general cargo
Brinawarr 1890 Wooden single screw steamer 119 Sydney, Australia Shoalhaven, NSW
Cato 1799 Wooden ship 430 London, UK Stockton, England
Channel Rock Lightship Marine Department, Brisbane Port services
Coolangatta 1843 Wooden brigantine 88 Sydney, Australia Shoalhaven, NSW Transport, cedar cargo
Foam 1882 Wooden schooner 164 Maryborough, QLD West Cowes, Isle of Wight Transport, indentured labour
Gothenburg 1854 Iron single screw steamer; barque 737 Melbourne, Australia London, UK Transport
Maida 1857 Wooden barque 519 Moulmein, Burma/Myanmar Coal hulk until 1930s
Mecca 1872 Iron single screw steamer Sunderland, England Sunderland, England Transport, immigrants
HMCS Mermaid 1816 Wooden schooner 84 London, UK Calcutta, India Transport, ore cargo
HMS Pandora 1779 Wooden ship 516 Royal Navy London, UK Naval defence, prisoners
HMS Porpoise Captured 1799 Wooden ship 308 Royal Navy Spain Naval defence
Scottish Prince 1878 Iron barque 850 London, UK Aberdeen, Scotland Transport, general cargo
Thomas King 1826 Wooden barque 346 London, UK London, UK Ballast cargo
Valetta 1821 Wooden ship 317 Calcutta, India Calcutta, India
Yongala 1903 Iron single screw steamer Adelaide Steamship Co. Newcastle upon Tyne, England Transport

The majority of ships represented in this collection were built in the 19th century. Pandora, Porpoise and Cato are therefore particularly significant for their pre-1800 construction. Many ships were built in the UK; however two, Coolangatta and Brinawarr, were built in Shoalhaven, New South Wales. Of the 2,786 colonial-built vessels wrecked in Australian waters, and the 271 that have been relocated (Nash 2004:95), published archaeological surveys are only available for 15 of these (Davison 2014:9). Coolangatta is particularly significant as it falls within the ‘early’ period of Australian wooden sailing vessels (Coroneos 1991:7). The collection represents both wooden- and iron-hulled vessels powered by sail or steam. Gothenburg, however, is a rare example of an early iron vessel – also barque-rigged – as the transition from wooden to iron shipbuilding only intensified in the mid to late 1800s.

Interestingly, only one of the ships, Foam, was registered to a Queensland port at the time of its loss (although, Channel Rock Lightship was owned by the Queensland Government). In addition, the port of origin or planned destination of roughly one-third of these ships for the voyage on which they wrecked was overseas, including the USA, UK, and a number of locations in the South Pacific, East and Southeast Asia and Oceania. This highlights the remarkable cosmopolitanism of vessels travelling in Queensland waters, particularly during the 19th century. This diversity is represented further through the people travelling on-board these ships, such as the South Sea Islander indentured labour on Foam and Chinese immigrants on Mecca.

Vessel name Year wrecked Location of wreck Port of origin Destination Cause of loss Number of records*
Aarhus 1894 Smith Rock, off Cape Moreton New York, USA Brisbane, Australia Foundered 41
Annie 1853 Cockburn Reef Hobart, Australia Singapore Stranded 3
Brinawarr 1918 Pioneer River, Mackay Foundered (cyclone) 65
Cato 1803 Porpoise Cay, Wreck Reefs Sydney, Australia Batavia/Jakarta, Indonesia Stranded 11
Channel Rock Lightship 1899 Channel Rock, near Cape Melville Violent storm (cyclone) 8
Coolangatta 1846 Tweed River Brisbane, Australia Tweed River, NSW Broken up, gale 1
Foam 1893 Myrmidon Reef Dungeness, QLD Solomon Islands Stranded 227
Gothenburg 1875 Old Reef, entrance to Flinders Passage Darwin, Australia Melbourne, Australia Stranded 3
Maida 1900 (possibly 1949) Bishop Island, Moreton Bay Burnt and dumped 2
Mecca 1878 Mecca Reef, Torres Strait Hong Kong Sydney, Australia Foundered 68
HMCS Mermaid 1829 Flora Reef, Great Barrier Reef Sydney, Australia Port Raffles, NT Stranded 32
HMS Pandora 1791 Pandora entrance, Great Barrier Reef Tahiti Portsmouth, England Foundered 5500
HMS Porpoise 1803 Porpoise Cay, Wreck Reefs Sydney, Australia England Stranded 10
Scottish Prince 1887 Southport bar, Stradbroke Island Glasgow, Scotland Brisbane, Australia Stranded 55
Thomas King 1852 Cato Reef Sydney, Australia Manila, Philippines Stranded 5
Valetta 1825 Long Island, Whitsunday Islands Sydney, Australia Manila, Philippines Deliberately beached 10
Yongala 1911 Off Cape Bowling Green Brisbane, Australia Townsville, QLD Foundered (cyclone) 68

*The ‘number of records’ refers to the number of individual entries recorded against each shipwreck in the Museum’s database. It does not quantify the number of individual artefacts, as some records relate to more than one object.

The majority of ships also wrecked in the 19th century. All 17th-century shipwrecks in Australia occurred on the western coast. Pandora, as the Museum’s only 18th-century example of shipwreck is comparable on the east coast with the loss of HMS Sirius in 1790 at Norfolk Island. Maida, Yongala and Brinawarr wrecked in the 20th century; however, the absence of Second World War shipwreck artefacts is conspicuous. The majority of wrecks are also located at sea, with Brinawarr and Coolangatta being the only riverine examples. Recent investigations into river and lake networks (particularly in NSW and SA) are beginning to redress the lack of archaeological knowledge regarding Australia’s navigable rivers. Of those ships wrecked on the coast, the majority stranded on reefs foregrounding the impact the Great Barrier Reef has had on shipping casualties in Queensland waters. It also reflects the archaeological bias in shipwreck investigations towards those accessible within recreational diving limits. Channel Rock Lightship, Brinawarr and Yongala were all wrecked due to cyclones, again revealing the unique conditions which hampered maritime activities on the Queensland coast. This collection is therefore characteristically ‘Queensland’, however exposes the State’s role in global maritime systems.

If you are interested in learning more about the artefacts from the shipwrecks listed here, please contact the Museum of Tropical Queensland +61 (0) 7 4726 0600 or Look out for The Maritime Archaeology Collection: Part 2 Islands and Reefs blog coming soon.


Australian National Shipwreck Database

Coroneos, C. (1991) One interpretation for the short working lives of early Australian wooden sailing vessels in Victorian waters. Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 15(2):7-14.

Davison, L. (2014) Picking up the pieces: The story of a shipwreck. Master’s thesis, Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, Adelaide.

Nash, M. (2004) The Australian-built schooner Alert (1846-1854). Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 28: 91-96.