A local tourist information sign gives an intriguingly false
story of the past
the far south of Tasmania verbal history of the State’s third
worst shipwreck, fostered by opposition to the convict
challenges official versions 166 years on. The
shows links to known facts, and some possibility exists that the
official version is less than the whole truth. As the story
unravels, this is a fascinating example of how history transforms into
A Southport local, descended from
a convict forefather when asked about it, defended the truth of a
tourist sign which describes a massacre of convicts during the wreck of
the George 111,
saying "politicians were corrupt then and they are still corrupt
However it is also highly
unlikely that during a shipwreck soldiers could have fired on convicts
in the sea, let alone even load their weapons.
I originally exposed inaccuracies
in the tourist information in an article in the region's Huon News
10/9/1998. Recently revisiting the area it became apparent to
me that rather than being merely wrong, the local version was a verbal
The sign on
the changing rooms at the beach describes local attractions and states:
reef lies south of Southport Island and was named after the convict
ship George 111 which
was wrecked there whilst on her way to Port Arthur. The
convicts were released into the sea but were shot by the ship's
"A ten year old cabin boy was
saved by the captain's wife who hid him under her dress. He
was the only convict who survived the wreck."
part of the report in the
Hobart Courier, April 17 1835
By contrast The Hobart Courier of
April 24, 1835 reports the results of the Board of Inquiry appointed by
Governor Arthur to inquire into the wreck. The report states
that 81 convicts survived, and lists their names.
naturally to be expected
that on the striking of the ship, the prisoners would endeavour to
extricate themselves from a situation which must have appeared to them
one of imminent peril, and it appears they broke down a barricade of
the prison with a view to get on deck.
"It was at this period that the
sentries over the main hatchway, in obedience to the positive orders
they then received, to keep the men below … fired - and
painful as it is for us to report upon a subject of such a distressing
that, at such a crisis, man should feel himself compelled, through a
sense of duty, to add to the desolation of the scene and fire upon his
fellow creatures, yet it is gratifying to observe, from the concurring
opinions of all the officers, according to the then existing state of
circumstances, it was absolutely necessary that the prisoners should be
kept down, for had they at that time got on deck, the long boat upon
which alone the survivors could look with any hope of rescue, would
have been rendered useless, and thus to all human appearances a much
greater loss of life would have ensued." The report
concluded: "The conduct
of all was most praiseworthy and entirely free from blame of any
The Hobart Courier reported
evidence from convicts including James Elliott: "I was in the
hatchway several minutes before I could get up. The soldiers
kept me down and threatened to fire; I heard two shots fired:
first shot killed Robert Luker, and about three or four minutes after
another shot was fired and I saw another man fall."
Following newspaper reports that
four bodies had been washed ashore near the wreck with gunshot wounds
and sabre cuts, the Coroner had 17 bodies disinterred. It was
concluded that the wounds were caused by the rocks. These
rumours, still being passed on, are most likely the basis for the
verbal history on the Southport sign.
The gentleman I met said his
forefather was one of the last convicts sent to the Colony, and arrived
1850's, which is nearly two decades after the wreck.
part of the legend
relates to: "A ten year old cabin boy was saved by the captain's wife
who hid him under her dress. He was the only convict who
survived the wreck." Forty Juveniles were among the 220 convicts,
but the Captain's wife was not on board the ship. More than
likely this part of the
legend relates to a painting by H. E. Dawe, which was also
produced as a lithograph, "The power of maternal affection when George
the Forth convict ship was wrecked in April 1835 near Van Diemen's
land" (Tasmania). The painting depicted a soldier's wife, Mrs
"She contrived to secure herself
on the forechannel of the ship among the Laniards and although the sea
ran mountains high with frost and rain the poor creature was exposed
for 48 hours to the weather with two babes suckling at her bosoms and
her elder child held between her knees.."
In fact Mrs Martin
endured only 8
hours on the wreck until the ship's long boat returned at 6am
for its second load. Not to mention that, although the date
the wreck is correct Dawe got the name of
the ship wrong, calling it the "George the Forth" not "Third" (Forth
presumably being a variation of spelling at the time).
Embellishment of the story occurred almost
immediately. The powerful image of the woman protecting
children has merged with the rumours of a massacre in the legend that
Two years after the wreck in 1837, a lithograph was produced
for sale to the public with
typical Victorian era melodrama, and convicts also built their own
legend, no doubt passed on verbally inside prisons and after they were
released. The wreck was also politicised by opponents of
transportation within the Colony, it immediately took on a life beyond
events as a result of the aspirations, and resentments of those
involved. (Image reproduced with permission Mitchell
State Library of NSW)
After my first
visit to the area I wrote a story about the wreck, and contacted G.A.
Mawer, author of
“Most Perfectly Safe” as part of my
had not heard the local story but commented:
is hard to see how (they) could have got it so wrong.
The convicts were not released but freed themselves. Some
were shot, but before release, and by the military, not
ship’s officers. I
have never seen reference to a cabin boy, but Major Ryan had his 6 year
old son with him. Mrs.
Martin was not the Captain’s wife, who if he had one, was not
could the cabin boy be a convict? There
were 81 convict survivors."
concluded: "I suspect it
is a classic example of the distortions of oral history.”
recently visited the area
again I sought out a local opinion, finding the local identity who
averred to the truth of the tourist sign, and also sought out local
historians. Subsequently I wrote another story for the Huon
on the significance of the oral history
Bruce Poulson researched
the history of the area between Southport and Recherche
Bay. He commented: "I have read a dozen or so
accounts of the wreck and aftermath and the topic has come up a couple
of times in interviews with old-timers (although there are only six
over-90 left from the original families).
sign at Southport
Beach was erected either by the old Esperance Council or the State
Government during a minor historical revival about the time of the
commemoration of D'Entrecasteaux's visits. "The new plaque was put
last year as part of "The Huon Trail" tourism initiative, a joint
project between the Huon Kingborough Tourism Association and the two
Councils (Huon and Kingborough). The sign near the George
itself at Southport Bluff belongs to the TPWS (Tas. Parks and Wildlife
Service). It is the best of the three and gives a balanced report on
the disaster mostly from original sources.
"There have always existed two
views ... right from day one, so to speak: (1) those who believed that
unnecessary killings had occurred and (2) those who accepted the
Coroner's findings, even though the inquest, when it adjourned to
Southport, was probably held too late to tell whether the disinterred
bodies contained gunshot etc. One old timer, still alive,
the grave-diggers told his father of foul play. This view has been the
majority one in this largely ex-convict district for generations."
Mr. Poulson said.
the facts and various opinions, despite the fact that it would be
easy to reject the legend as erroneous, which was my first
reaction, there is possibly a
level of insincerity in the official version at least with the
conclusion of the Inquiry: "the conduct of all was..
entirely free from blame of any description".
During the time before it was decided to release the
flooded leading to loss of life; other convicts succumbed no doubt due
to the poor diet; and inadequate clothing. Old oatmeal had
loaded on the ship as a cost cutting measure, clothing was thin and
only overcrowded conditions would have protected the convicts from the
chill of the Southern Ocean in Autumn. Poor winds had delayed
ship and many convicts were suffering from scurvy which resulted in the
ship's doctor urging the Captain to take a shortcut through the
D'Entrecasteaux Channel rather than the seaward side of Bruny Island,
the usual approach to Hobart. And the infirmary flooded in
wreck killing the sick and dying, but 81 convicts, barely more than a
third of those embarked, did survive.
This much at
least is true, that
the possibility of a "massacre" tags onto rumours of the time, and the
"cabin boy" connects with the lithograph of Dawes' painting ("..her
elder child held between her knees..")
Two major well
researched sources on the wreck are "The Convict Ships" by Charles
Bateson (1959), and
"Most Perfectly Safe" by G. A. Mawer (1997).
Bateson gives as full a description of the events of the wreck as
adds valuable circumstances both before during and after the voyage,
which give a context into events.