Written by Robyn Blucher, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler
This is Part 1 of a blog series written by undergraduate students at James Cook University, who undertook research on objects in the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s maritime archaeology collection as part of the 2017 topic AR3008 Boats and Beaches.
SS Yongala is a shipwreck that sank off the coast of Townsville on 24 March 1911. Yongala was a passenger and cargo ship headed from Mackay to Townsville when it met its end. There are conflicting reports of the number of persons aboard but no survivors were ever recovered and reports indicate approximately 121 or 122 people perished.
Yongala was last sighted on the evening of 23 March, after travelling five hours north of Mackay, by the lighthouse keeper on Dent Island. Yongala was not equipped with a radio, and neither was the Dent Island lighthouse so besides obvious signs of worsening weather, Yongala may not have known of the severity of the storm ahead. The ship was due to arrive in Townsville at 6:00am on 24 March but when Yongala did not arrive it was assumed the Captain had taken shelter from the storm along the coast. Concerns were raised when, on Saturday 25 March, Cooma, headed northbound to Townsville, arrived without any sighting of Yongala. A massive search was conducted but while wreckage, mail and other items from the ship were located the vessel’s final resting place remained a mystery for many years.
During World War II a minesweeper noted an obstruction, in what would later be known as Yongala’s location, as a shoal. In 1947, the Navy returned using an echo sounder and anti-submarine instruments concluded the obstruction was not a shoal but a wreck. In 1958, divers returned to locate the purser’s safe in an attempt to find documents inside that would confirm the vessel as Yongala. However, when the safe was opened the contents had degraded to sludge. The serial number was retrieved and forwarded to the London manufacturer who confirmed three years later that the serial number matched the safe installed on SS Yongala 55 years earlier.
The bottle recovered from SS Yongala is an earthenware bottle with an obscured impressed stamp. Clearly identifiable is the maker’s name reading ‘N. ANTOINE & FILS’, otherwise known as Antoine and Sons or the Antoine Ink Company. The obscured part of the stamp is intact enough to identify the type of ink which the bottle would have contained, which is known as encre japonaise or Japanese ink. This was the original ink made at the Antoine and Sons Company from the company’s inception until it branched out into further products. The Japanese ink was a violet-black coloured writing ink made of logwood. It was first marketed in 1853 as Encres Japonaise and sold in earthenware bottles until 1910 when Antoine and Sons branched out into glass bottles.
Antoine and Sons ink was sold in Great Britain and colonial British countries with retailers in Australia in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. It is unknown whether Yongala’s Antoine ink bottle was purchased in Australia or brought over by a passenger. Even though stores sold the inks in Australia, Yongala took on passengers in Brisbane who had recently arrived in Australia from London. So it is unknown exactly who owned the ink bottle and at which point it came to be on board the ship.
Antoine inks were considered good quality inks and were used by the Patent Office at Washington D.C. from 1853 until 1878 when the Faber ink company took over. Examples of Japanese ink Antoine bottles have been located in Christchurch, New Zealand, by archaeologists overseeing the Gloucester Street Bridge repairs after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. The bottom part of a broken bottle was identified by the impressed stamp and is also referenced in a New Zealand context in the Daily Southern Cross in 1874. Five more bottles were recovered by the Canadian government in Quebec; four are the standard dark brown glazed bottles and one has blue glazing.
Statement of significance
The artefact has historic and social value in the Townsville community based on the artefact’s association with the SS Yongala shipwreck. It is the only earthenware Antoine ink bottle recovered from the vessel and likely belonged to a passenger or crew member aboard the ill-fated ship. Yongala was a significant maritime disaster of its time and has pervaded the local community’s social memory initially through the mystery of its loss, then through its discovery, and subsequent use as a tourist attraction for diving. Yongala and its associated artefacts are historically and socially significant to the Townsville community.
This earthenware bottle and other objects from the Queensland Museum’s maritime archaeology collection can be viewed on Collections Online.