Category Archives: Maritime History

A compass gimbal from Mermaid

Written by Carl Tanner, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

The final 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 shipwreck

HMCS Mermaid was built at the Howrah Dry Docks on the Hooghly River in Calcutta, India, in 1816, by the shipwrights Thompson (Phipps 1840:108, 123). Built out of Indian teak, it was iron-fastened and clad in copper sheathing along the keel (Hosty 2009:17). Designed as a cutter, it was originally rigged as a one-masted ship, but was refitted later into an armed, two-masted schooner (Hosty 2009:17; ANSD 2017). The ship displaced 83-85 gross registered tons, was 17m in length, 5.48-5.6m in beam and had a draught of 2.7m (Hosty 2009:17; Phipps 1840:123; ANSD 2017).

Bought off the vessel’s builders by the governor of the NSW Colony, Lachlan Macquarie, whilst the vessel was in Port Jackson/Sydney in 1817, the vessel was duly commissioned into the Royal Navy as the cutter HMS Mermaid. Its purpose whilst in service was to act as a survey vessel for the Navy, in its capacity within the British Empire’s far eastern colonies: the colony of NSW and the remainder of the continent of ‘New Holland’, as Australia was known at the time. It came under the command of Lt Phillip Parker King, RN, son of the former governor of NSW, Philip Gidley King. Born in 1791 on Norfolk Island, but raised in England, King was sent to NSW with a commission to survey the uncharted coast of New Holland for the British Government after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was deemed that, ‘consequent upon peace, it is most important to explore, with little delay as possible, that part of the coast of New Holland not surveyed or examined by the late Capt. Matthew Flinders (Hosty 2009:17). Between 1817 and 1820, King charted much of the coast of New Holland in Mermaid, of which he wrote much about in his accounts of the voyages. It ran aground in 1820 and was then refloated, limping back to Sydney, heavily damaged (King 1827). In 1823, the vessel was condemned for survey work and pensioned off, to be sold to the NSW colonial government.

Renamed HMCS Mermaid, the vessel was now used by the colonial government for business errands and trade between NSW and various colonies and destinations around the Empire and elsewhere, including New Zealand, India, Timor and to various outposts along the coast of New Holland. It was also used for exploration work. In 1823, under the command of the explorer John Loxley, Mermaid sailed north from Sydney to survey and explore the coast of the colony south of Port Curtis (now Rockhampton, QLD). Loxley discovered the Brisbane and Tweed Rivers during that voyage, as well as rescuing two stranded convicts from the Moreton Bay area, Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan, who guided Loxley along the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay. The latter become an explorer himself. In 1825, Mermaid brought the explorer Edmund Lockyer to the Brisbane River, in order to explore the upper reaches of the river for the purposes of founding a new colony. That colony became Brisbane, which subsequently became the capital of the new state of QLD on 6 June 1859 (Brisbane Courier 1869:6)

Unfortunately for Mermaid, its time as a working vessel was drawing rapidly to a close. After a number of other voyages, namely at the behest of the colony at Port Essington on Melville Island in the Northern Territory, Mermaid was on a return voyage along the QLD coast when tragedy struck. Under the command of Capt. Samuel Nolbrow, Mermaid left Sydney on 16 May 1829, bound for Port Raffles, with government dispatches and provision for the colony at King George’s Sound. Early on the morning of 13 June, Mermaid ran aground on an uncharted reef (Nolbrow reported the coordinates as 17º7’S, 146º10’E). The vessel was bilged and all on board survived, only to be rescued four more times on their way to Port Raffles, having run aground another four times on their way to the port (Hosty 2009:17)! They arrived back in Sydney five months later (Hosty 2009:17-18; Australian 1829:3). News of their wreckage and subsequent debacle back to Sydney has been written about in numerous newspaper accounts, for example Albany Advertiser (1935:3), Australian (1829:3), Brisbane Courier (1925:18), Cairns Post (1923:8) and Examiner (1909:4).

The artefact

MA9932 was found on the site of the wreck of HMCS Mermaid and appears to be a corroded, yet mostly intact, metallic ring approx. 230mm in diameter to the outer edge of the ring and 270mm in width across the two ‘lugs’ attached to the ring. It is 22mm high in profile and 5mm in width.

MA9932 a

The surface of the ring is corroded to depth, with small scale pitting and bubbling of the surface evident. The colour of the corrosion ranges from a whitish grey, tawny to dark brown with some black to various shades of green-blue. The predominant colour, though, is green-blue.

MA9932 b

Given that this object was found in saltwater, the corrosion seen would suggest that the object is made out of copper metal, the corrosion of the copper to green-blue being due to a combination of oxidation from dissolved oxygen in the seawater, as well as dissolved salts (NaCl2, Na2OH, etc.) attacking the copper. Some oxidation of the copper metal would lead to various copper oxides forming (CuO, CuO2, etc.), giving the more red/tawny brown patches, whereas copper salts would show as whitish-grey and other colours.

MA9932 g

On opposite sides of the ring, perpendicular to the site of the ‘lugs’, are two holes that appear to be attachment points. One hole has been broken apart, with the bottom of the ring having corroded off. From the size and shape of the ring, the position of the lugs and the two holes, and the metal the ring is made of, although no identifying marks could be traced anywhere on the ring’s surface, it is believed the ring is a support, or gimbal, for a ship’s compass.

MA9932 c

Highly valued pieces of ship’s equipment, the gimbal compass was designed to remain in a horizontal plane, despite the vessel it was on board pitching about, thereby keeping an accurate determination of the ship’s bearing. Usually, the compass and gimbal was built into a metal or wooden casing, with the manufacturer’s stamp on the case. The compass bowl would sit inside the gimbal, attached through the two holes via pins and screws, with the lugs acting as rocker arms, sitting inside another ring assembly or supports. Other than the gimbal, no other pieces of the compass were found.

MA9932 f

 Statement of significance

The importance of the cutter HMCS Mermaid to the annals of Australian maritime, coastal and exploration history cannot be understated. Though only a small vessel and with a relatively short career spanning 13 years, from its launch to its eventual wrecking upon Flora Reef in Far North QLD, Mermaid contributed significantly to opening up of the northern part of Australia. The compass gimbal which was once part of the ship’s equipment, is now also a part of that history and worthy of inclusion within it. MA9932 found at the wreck of HMCS Mermaid not only formed a part of a very important piece of equipment on board the vessel, it is also a part of the ships’ and also of QLD and Australia’s maritime tradition and history. Though it is but one part of the ship, its importance to the ship’s function is a part of the overall story of Mermaid and of how that vessel became a wreck, far from home.

This compass gimbal and other objects from the Queensland Museum’s maritime archaeology collection can be viewed on Collections Online.


ANSD, 2017. Australian National Shipwrecks Database, Australian Government: Dept. of the Environment and Energy, Canberra

Hosty, K. 2009. We find the missing Mermaid. Signals 86:14-20, 30-31.

King, P.P. 1827. Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia, Vol 1 & 2. John Murray: London.

Phipps, J. 1840. A Collection of Papers Relative to Shipbuilding in India. Scott and Co: Calcutta.

A porthole from Gothenburg

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 shipwreck

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 artefact

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.

MA5251 a

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.

MA5251 e

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.

MA5251 c

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.

MA5251 d

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

Central Queensland Herald “Junius”. (1931, October 8). Gothenburg, pg. 13.

Copper-alloy sheathing from Coolangatta

Written by Caroline Mercer, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

Part 3 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 shipwreck

Coolangatta was built by John Brinksell in 1843 in Shoalhaven, New South Wales (NSW) (Davidson 2014). It was commissioned and owned by Alexander Berry, who named the brigantine sailing vessel after his property in the area (Potts 2010). The boat’s life was largely spent transporting goods up and down the eastern coast of Australia, bringing materials such as coal to the north and most often returning to Sydney with a cargo of timber (Potts 2010). At the time of the wrecking of Coolangatta, it had recently delivered coal to Brisbane and was starting its return trip back to Sydney when it was wrecked. On 19 August 1846, Coolangatta was driven ashore during a gale as it attempted to enter the Tweed River (Davidson 2014). The ship was abandoned by the crew and Captain Steele, after it was stripped of any removable gear and rigging (Davidson 2014). A couple of months later there was an attempt to repair the vessel, with Brinksell being brought up from NSW to repair the damage on the port side (Davidson 2014). However, shortly after the wreck was lifted onto rollers, another gale forced it into a worse position and the keel broke, ending any hopes of repairing the ship (Potts 2010).

After this, there was little mention of the wreck for quite some time, until 1973 when erosion exposed the ribs of the wreck believed to be Coolangatta (Davidson 2014). Several members of the public were injured in collisions with the wreck while swimming and surfing in the area, and so the exposed portions of the wreck were demolished, leaving only what remained below the sand intact (Davidson 2014). Shortly after, remains of the wreck were further exposed, and local souveniring resulted in the removal of the ship from the beach (Potts 2010). The remains were then used in numerous ways, such as presents for visiting dignitaries, art, memorials and trophies, and as such little of the wreck remains intact (Davidson 2014).

The artefact

MA5331 is a remnant of a piece of copper-alloy sheathing believed to be from the Coolangatta shipwreck. Coolangatta was sheathed with copper alloy commonly referred to as Muntz metal, which was invented in 1832 by George Frederick Muntz and was manufactured in Birmingham (McCarthy 2005). The original patent of the alloy had a composition of 60% copper and 40% zinc, though in 1846 the patent expired, opening up the market to new competition (McCarthy 2005). Muntz’s attempt in 1846 to regain control over the yellow metal market (as Muntz metal was often referred to) included a new patent, which changed the composition of the alloy to include lead, at a ratio of 56% copper, 40.75% zinc, and 3.25% lead (Davidson 2014). Therefore, while Coolangatta was certainly built in a time in which Muntz metal would have been used as sheathing, it was unlikely to contain lead in the composition of the sheathing, as it was built before the expiration of the patent (Davidson 2014).


The ship was refit in May of 1846, and again repaired in July of the same year, but there is little information as to the nature of these repairs and whether they involved the sheathing. With the timing of the new patent of Muntz metal, it is unlikely that sheathing with the new composition including lead would have been available in Australia at the time of the wrecking of Coolangatta (Davidson 2014). Therefore, it’s surprising that lead was identified within the composition of the sheathing that was taken from the site believed to be that of the Coolangatta shipwreck (Davidson 2014). This identification, as well as the doubts of historians who believed Coolangatta went down on another beach, causes confusion over the identity of the shipwreck MA5331 originated from.

MA5331 g

There has been suggestion that the shipwreck identified as Coolangatta in fact belongs to another ship. Heroine was built in 1894 in Nambucca River, NSW, by Edward Davis, and was a wooden carvel-built schooner (Davidson 2014). The ship was built for W.S. Preddy and was used for commercial purposes, with the primary route being to New Zealand until it was sold after being damaged in storms and repurposed for coastal trade by a Mr. Langley (Davidson 2014). This placed Heroine on its route up the east coast carrying 150 tons of coal for a destination up the Tweed River in 1897 (Davidson 2014). On 25 July, the ship dragged its anchors and ended up beached just north of Point Danger (Davidson 2014). The ship was named a total loss, and was sold at auction with little information found as to its fate afterwards (Davidson 2014).


Studies of what is believed to be the Coolangatta shipwreck have recently supported the idea that it may actually be that of Heroine (Davidson 2014). They both were beached in a similar area, and with mentions of the wreck appearing in the early 20th century through to the present, it’s possible that what has been identified as one is actually the other. Davidson’s (2014) Master’s thesis postulated that due to the presence of lead in the copper-alloy sheathing found in the wreck as well as the identification and geographical origins of the timber species used in its construction, it’s more likely that the wreck is that of Heroine. Therefore, perhaps the identity of MA5331 as originating from the shipwreck of Coolangatta should be reconsidered, or its composition tested for further details regarding the artefact itself. It certainly arises from a mysterious past that may be difficult to rediscover due to the scattered nature of the artefacts associated to the same wreck.


Statement of significance

The significance of MA5331 is largely based in its historical context. It does not have unusual qualities for a piece of copper-alloy sheathing, neither is it a perfect example of this material, as it’s in partial condition. While interesting to look at, it does not have aesthetic value, nor does it have any social or spiritual significance. This piece of copper-alloy sheathing has a historical significance in its connection to a shipwreck with a long history. While there’s much mystery regarding the site, and its condition is very poor, there is the ability for interpretation and further research of the original ship through study of the sheathing. The composition of the sheathing itself and its identity as Muntz metal reveals much of the time of creation of the sheathing and/or re-metaling of the ship it belonged to. Therefore, the significance of this particular artefact lies in its historical background and the potential for interpretative use and research in the identification of the shipwreck it originated from. The composition of MA5331, if analysed, could provide information on the identity of a wreck that has been disputed for years. As is the case with many historical artefacts, there is much hidden beneath the surface of such a seemingly simple object.

This copper-alloy sheathing and other objects from the Queensland Museum’s maritime archaeology collection can be viewed on Collections Online.


Davidson, L. (2014). Picking up the Pieces: The Story of a Shipwreck [Master’s Thesis]. Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

McCarthy, M. (2005). Ships’ Fastenings: From Sewn Boat to Steamship. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press.

Potts, A. (2010, May 27). When Coolangatta was a shipwreck. Gold Coast Sun.


A sperm sewing machine oil bottle from Aarhus

Written by Tate Devantier-Thomas, compiled by Dr Madeline Fowler

This is 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. Continue reading A sperm sewing machine oil bottle from Aarhus

An earthenware bottle from Yongala

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. Continue reading An earthenware bottle from Yongala