- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Immediately 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 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.
Given her stripping, it is surprising that some 200 years later a team of Australia’s best maritime archaeologists would find over 3,000 artefacts at the wreck site. Five official expeditions occurred between 1983 and 2002, established by the Australian Bicentennial Authority leading up to the 200th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet. In stark contrast to the emotions of 1790 their story is one of excitement and discovery, investigation and recovery.
Prior to the 1980s other items had been occasionally recovered. Some were washed ashore others retrieved from the reef by locals. An anchor which had remained visible at low tide was blasted off in 1905 and now sits in Macquarie Place in Sydney. In 1965 a film crew from the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) arrived on the island. Jack Doyle filmed a story which aired on 31 October 1965 in the Weekend Magazine segment. This was the first underwater footage ever seen of the Sirius site and it sparked a desire by locals to recover an anchor seen in the story. It was finally raised in 1973 with the assistance of SS Holmburn, a New Zealand registered ship. Apparently she nearly came to grief during the exercise and her master was reported to have been dismissed on return to New Zealand.
Diving on the wreck site is dangerous. The ever-pounding surf causes rapid shifts in the sand and rubble cover in the lagoon and areas between the inner and outer reefs. Standing on the seawall at Slaughter Bay and looking out to sea across the wreck site, is to be looking straight down the Tasman Sea. The surf and the swell are nearly always from the southwest so there is rarely a calm sea. This makes exploration in this area very difficult and necessitated very experienced archaeological divers being involved in the official expeditions.
Personnel from the Maritime Archaeology and Conservation departments of the Western Australian Museum led four of the expeditions. These ‘fathers’ of maritime archaeology in Australia had gained their experience recovering artefacts found in two seventeenth-century Dutch trading ships, discovered off the Western Australian coast in 1963. Amongst others, Graham Henderson, Myra Stanbury, Ian Mcleod and Patrick Baker became well known names on Norfolk Island.
On the six days of the first 1983 expedition the weather and sea conditions resulted in only two snorkel and one scuba dive occurring. However even with these limited diving opportunities they were able to identify wreckage some 150 metres from the shore and confined to an area less than 200 metres across.
The second expedition in March 1985 went on to locate and identify five sites littered with artefacts. Items recovered in this and the next three expeditions (1987,1988, and 2002) included an 1.7 tonne anchor, two carronades, cannon balls, nails, lead sheathing fragments, sternpost fittings, hull fastenings and fittings, shingle and iron ballast, case bottle fragments, stoneware fragments, lead sheathing, musket balls, copper fastening bolts and delicate decorative items from the Officers cabins. Finds such as a sextant, pantograph and a stone hatchet head of Aboriginal origin were totally unexpected.
Of course the excitement of these finds towards the end of the 20th Century would have been lost on poor Lieutenant Ralph Clark. His concern was for his trunks containing all his personal belongings. In his diary he wrote “A great deal has come on shore but as yet nothing of mine… one of the convicts found my best coat laying on the reef which was brought to me – I got another of my shirts in the same way”. Then finally “my trunk came on shore with the bottom out and I am afraid the greatest part of the things which were in it are lost… no body that came in the ship has lost so many things as I have… all I can say is I am a child of bad luck”.