Written by Tia Eagleson, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler
Part 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.
The site of the Gothenburg wreck is in Flinders Passage, North QLD (Latitude: -19.37 Longitude: 148.06). Gothenburg was built in the UK in 1854 by Mr. John Scott Russel. The vessel, a twin-screw steamer, has numerous features in view at the site of the wreck which are indicative of the build of the ship. These consist of two compound single screw engines each with 60 individual horsepower, two decks and three masts and a female figurehead with an elliptical shaped stern. The dimensions of the ship were 59.92m in length, 8.6m in width and 3.23m in depth. Overall, the vessel weighed approximately 737 tonnes. This shipwreck is identified as number 2563 (Australian National Shipwreck Database; Central Queensland Herald 1931:13).
The vessel was used for the transportation of passengers and goods, mainly mail. Gothenburg was officially registered in the port of Melbourne, registration number 23071 (Australian National Shipwreck Database; Central Queensland Herald 1931:13).
The route Gothenburg was taking when it sank was from Port Darwin to Melbourne. On 20 February 1875, the vessel lost its chains and one of its anchors, however it continued on route as planned. On 23 February, Cape Cleveland was in sight however this destination was never reached as the ship hit the reef and sank. A total of 103 people died and 22 survived (Australian National Shipwreck Database; Central Queensland Herald 1931:13).
Gothenburg was officially discovered in 1971 by a group of divers and identified in 1978. The site has been described in detail by divers as sitting approximately 16m below the surface; the wreck’s bow and stern can be spotted during a low tide event. Four sections of deck beams stand vertically and the stern has collapsed to the rear. Two rectangular boilers are situated near the stern and what remains of the oscillating engines close to the boilers. There is also a donkey boiler on the upper deck in front of the funnel; between the bow and front boiler are iron tanks. The propeller and shaft are missing from the site. Gothenburg now provides an environment for flora and fauna to live in, and is protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 as the responsibility of the Australian Federal Government. The protected zone around the wreck has a radius of 200m and an area of 2.6 hectares (Australian National Shipwreck Database; Central Queensland Herald 1931:13).
The Gothenburg shipwreck porthole is officially registered under the number MA5251. Although the location of the creation of this particular porthole is unknown, it is known that the ship from which this object was retrieved was constructed in the UK in 1854. Therefore, it can be said that it was created before or during 1854, although may have been added later if the vessel was refitted or repaired.
The porthole is made from iron and contains three iron bolts on the outer radial plane, and a raised glass centre pane or window which would have swung outwards due to the large hinge on the side of the object. The thickness of the object is approximately 65mm; the diameter of the inner window is 230mm whilst that of the outer edge is 340mm.
The object has numerous distinguishing features, the most outstanding of which is the weathering of the object which has resulted in various colourings to the metal and only approximately a third of the original outer edge still extant. In addition to this, the three bolts and hinge are still in place, as is the glass in the centre window pane however this glass is heavily cracked. This porthole was like others of the time and therefore can be considered as a mass-produced item, most generally used as a window aboard a ship.
Statement of significance
MA5251 can be considered as historically significant as it is associated with the wrecking of Gothenburg which was an event that is important to both the area and certain peoples whom had relatives on-board. The porthole is not necessarily aesthetically significant in terms of colour, texture or detail; however it does have the potential to evoke strong feelings or special meanings to certain peoples. MA5251 has scientific significance as further research into the site does hold the potential for new findings. Finally, in terms of social and spiritual significance, the artefact is synonymous with Gothenburg, and where it sank can be considered a local marker as part of history which contributes to the community identity. The place this artefact was found is important to certain peoples given the large loss of life which occurred.
The artefact has little provenance as the exact date and place of creation is unknown, only that it was most probably created in the UK prior to 1854. This porthole can be considered a rare item as it is one of a few retrieved from Gothenburg; however portholes themselves were mass produced and not generally considered a rarity. The artefact is not in the best condition and cannot be considered as complete due to harsh weathering.
This porthole and other objects from the Queensland Museum’s maritime archaeology collection can be viewed on Collections Online.
Australian Government: Department of Environment and Energy. Australian National Shipwreck Database – Gothenburg. Retrieved from https://dmzapp17p.ris.environment.gov.au/shipwreck/public/wreck/wreck.do?key=2563
Central Queensland Herald “Junius”. (1931, October 8). Gothenburg, pg. 13.