230 years ago, an event occurred which so calamitous in nature that it nearly changed the course of Australia’s history – the wrecking of HMS Sirius on 19 March 1790.
Originally named the Berwick, the ship had been built as a three-masted ship for the Baltic trade, but was bought by the British Navy in November 1781 to be fitted out as an armed store ship. The Berwick made a number of voyages to America and possibly the West Indies. Following plans by the British government to establish a penal settlement in New South Wales, the re-fit of the Berwick was ordered to become a high priority as the ship would be engaged on foreign service, and in October 1786 Admiral Howe directed the Navy Board to “cause His Majesty’s Storeship the Berwick to be registered on the List of the Royal Navy as a 6th Rate [naval frigate] by the name of the Sirius…”. Significant time and money were spent re-fitting the ship, to bring her up to the standards expected of the flag ship which was to lead the Home Office’s great experiment. HMS Sirius came in at 512 tonnes, and was significantly bigger than any of the other fleet ships – the HMAT Supply was only 170 tonnes in comparison.
The First Fleet left Portsmouth on 3 May 1787, comprised of eleven ships: six transport ships to carry convicts – Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Scarborough and Prince of Wales; three supply ships – Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove; and two British naval ships – HMS Sirius and HMAT Supply. The journey covered 25,588km and took 36 weeks to complete, with the fleet landing at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
Following the journey, Captain John Hunter and the Sirius mapped significant portions of the new coastline, and were sent to Cape Town for much needed supplies in October 1788. The Cape Town voyage took significant time and was a difficult voyage, with the Sirius suffering damage which took several months to repair after its arrival back at Port Jackson in May 1789. The situation became gradually more dire in Port Jackson, where the infant colony was slowly starving due to low provisions, and while favourable reports regarding agriculture were received from Norfolk Island (known affectionately as the “breadbasket” of Port Jackson), the reality was that they were only just barely able to sustain their own local population.
As conditions worsened in the new Settlement, it became increasingly obvious that a plan for obtaining regular supplies to the colony was required. HMS Sirius would again have to travel to obtain additional supplies, while HMAT Supply was to voyage back to England to report on the situation to the Home Office. Both ships would carry people from Port Jackson to Norfolk Island in an attempt to lessen the demand on the dwindling supplies. Not knowing the reality of Norfolk’s own supply shortages, 275 people were sent to Norfolk Island – 116 male convicts, 67 female convicts, 27 children and 65 marines.
The original plan involved the two ships offloading their passengers and associated cargo at Norfolk Island, before HMS Sirius was to sail to Cathay to obtain supplies for the two settlements, and HMAT Supply was to sail to to England. The wrecking of HMS Sirius was therefore a catastrophe for the two fledgling settlements, not only in terms of supplies, and the continued suffering of the early settlers, but also reputationally for the British government.
Having left Port Jackson on 5 March 1790 with HMS Sirius under the command of Captain Hunter, and HMAT Supplycaptained by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, the parties arrived originally at Cascade, due to conditions being too rough at Sydney Bay (Kingston). However, due to a shift in weather, the two vessels spent several days out at sea until conditions became more favourable, sailing around to sit just off Phillip Island. Wishing to make the most of the change, Captain Hunter moved HMS Sirius to the south point of Nepean Island and ordered the longboats lowered and supplies loaded ready to take to shore. It was after this process was finished that Captain Hunter noticed the ship was rapidly drifting shoreward, towards the reef and HMS Supply. HMAT Supply had already finished unloading and had made sail. Lieutenant Ball called out while waving his hat to indicate the close proximity of the vessels to the reef and also to each other. Both vessels set off windward on a port tack, with HMAT Supply ahead, but a change in wind direction hampered their efforts. HMAT Supply narrowly missed colliding with HMS Sirius and escaped to sea unharmed, but the combination of onshore wind and strong current pushed HMS Sirius towards the reef lying 100 metres off Slaughter Bay:
“The helm was again put down, and she had now some additional after sail, which I had no doubt would ensure her coming about. She came up almost head to wind, and then hung some time, but by her sails being all aback, had fresh stern way: the anchor was therefore cut away, and all the halyards, sheets and tacks let go, but before the cable could be brought to check her, she struck upon a reef of coral rocks which lies parallel to the shore, and in a few strokes was bilged”. (Hunter, Captain John, in Bach, John (ed.), Captain John Hunter, An Historical Journal 1787-1792 (Angus and Robertson, 1968), p61).
In a panic to save the vessel, heavy items were thrown overboard and one of the masts cut to lighten her, but HMS Siriuswas stuck firm and unable to be freed. More belongings were thrown overboard in the hopes that they would be washed ashore, but the strong currents caught them and took them out to sea. Many people at the time could not swim, so barrels were tied together to act as buoys to assist those aboard to get ashore, as well as a flying fox system. Remarkably, not a single life was lost during the evacuation. Many people lost all their belongings, and the situation with supplies was dire. HMS Sirius didn’t break up straight away however, and items were able to be salvaged from her before she finally disintegrated several years later. Despite this, a number of items were not removed, and sat under the waves for almost 200 years, before four archaeological projects, funded by a Bicentennial grant, enabled the site to be properly excavated between 1983 and 1988.
The excavated items, along with some artefacts which had been previously salvaged or found, form the HMS SiriusCollection, and is one of the most significant collections of artefacts from the First Fleet. Falling into three rough categories – scientific, military and personal items, the collection also provides a unique snapshot of the technologies available in Georgian England.
Along with the other ships of the First Fleet armada, HMS Sirius was equipped with scientific equipment on loan from the Board of Longitude in London. The Board, together with the Royal Society, was the body to which the British Admiralty turned when planning and fitting out scientific or exploratory expeditions. According to Admiralty instructions, ships’ officers, in particular the master, were expected to provide their own navigation instruments, charts and nautical books. The only navigational equipment supplied as naval stores were logs, compasses and sandglasses. In preparation for the First Fleet voyage, both Captain Arthur Phillip and Lieutenant William Dawes requested and were granted loans of navigation and astronomical instruments. One of the instruments recovered from the wreck was Kendall’s Chronometer – a clock that is precise and accurate enough to be used as a portable time standard. It is able to accurately time celestial observations to determine longitude. Made in 1766 by Larcum Kendall, the chronometer was named K1 and was one of the first items to be saved. It is now housed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Also recovered were brass sextant and parts, a brass pantograph (scientific instrument used to make accurate scale copies of charts, maps and plans) and depth sounding lead.
To help protect the Fleet on its voyage to Botany Bay, the Sirius was equipped with four 6 pounder cannons, six 18 pounder carronades and eight swivel cannons. On the First Fleet voyage she also carried an additional ten 6 pounder cannons for the settlement. This may seem like an exaggerated level of fire-power, but there were a number of nationalities exploring and settling in the Pacific region and the risk of military aggression was a real possibility. Upon arriving in Sydney, several of the Sirius’ guns were also unloaded alongside those earmarked for the new settlement, however the exact number is unknown – this means that there is no record of how many guns were onboard when she wrecked. Aside from two carronades (now on display at the HMS Sirius Museum), all other guns were removed from the wreck by January 1791 and returned by various means to other ports or transferred to other ships. One 6 pounder cannon believed to be from HMS Sirius is situated at Macquarie Place in Sydney alongside one of her anchors. The two carronades which are on display at the HMS Sirius Museum were raised in the 1980s and early 1990s, and despite sitting underwater for almost 200 years, are excellent, intact examples of military technology available during the Georgian era. Even more important is the artefact which was found inside one of the carronades – an intact tampion, which had helped to prevent corrosion within the inner barrel.
While most personal belongings were able to be removed from HMS Sirius prior to it breaking up, many small artefacts have been recovered from the wreck site, and are an invaluable link to those who sailed on her. Many of the artefacts belonged to officers in the Royal Marines, which were a unique army of ground troops skilled in the use of personal weapons such as swords and firearms. A detachment of Marines under the command of Major Robert Ross was on board HMS Sirius when she was wrecked. Items which have been found include Shoulder Brass Belt Plates, Pewter Buttons, a stone hatchet, a small copper coin (the only one recovered from the wreck site), and a name plate.
The wrecking of HMS Sirius was nothing short of a catastrophe, exacerbating the precarious supply position faced by both fledgling settlements at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island. The wreck has, however, provided a veritable treasure-trove of Georgian-era artefacts which assist historians and archaeologists to learn more about the scientific and military technologies available at the time, and a snap-shot into the lives of those who sailed on her. The challenge for heritage professionals now is to continue to interpret these items and to share the story of HMS Sirius not only with those who travel to Norfolk Island, but across the globe using new virtual and augmented reality technologies.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 04 Issue 01, 2020. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.