Wreck may hold clue to nation's discovery (Australia)





DID American whalers discover the east coast of Australia before Captain Cook?

That is the intriguing question a crack team of maritime archaeologists, divers and marine scientists hope to answer when they sail tomorrow for a remote reef 450 kilometres off the coast of Queensland.

The expedition leader, Kieran Hosty, describes the 200-year-old mystery of Wreck Reef as one of the great untold sagas of our maritime history.

The story began in 1803, after Matthew Flinders had completed his epic circumnavigation of Australia and was returning to England. He was a passenger on HMS Porpoise, a 10-gun sloop under the command of Lieutenant Robert Fowler. The ship was travelling in convoy, accompanied by Cato, an armed cargo ship, and Bridgewater, a cargo ship owned by the East India Company.


But disaster struck close to midnight on August 17 when Porpoise hit an uncharted reef in the dark. Fowler ordered a cannon to be fired to warn the other ships. In the confusion Cato and Bridgewater were heading for a catastrophic collision until Captain Park, on the Cato, changed course, even though that meant hitting the reef about 400 metres from the Porpoise.

To his shame, the captain of the Bridgewater made no effort to rescue the two shipwrecked crews, ignominiously sailing on to India. ''The Bridgewater's captain did the dirty,'' says Hosty. ''His crew were so revolted by his actions that some of them jumped ship in India, refusing to sail with him.''

Flinders and Fowler stayed on board the Porpoise that night, rescuing those still in the water - only three men out of 98 died - and salvaging whatever might aid their eventual survival.

But on the treeless sand island itself, other crew members made a startling discovery: the timber remains of a previous wreck.

Sadly for science, they immediately burnt the timber as firewood. But among their number were the master's mate and a ship's carpenter, both expert witnesses with an intimate knowledge of marine technology.

''They knew what they were talking about,'' says Hosty. ''They said the timber came from the stern of a 400-ton, sturdily built ship … It had clearly been on the reef a long time.''

When Flinders heard of the discovery he deduced the wreckage must be the remains of La Perouse's Astrolabe or Boussole, which had gone missing after leaving Botany Bay in 1788.

However, we now know La Perouse's ships came to grief on the Santa Cruz islands. So who did the mystery wreck belong to?

Not the Dutch, says Hosty: they confined themselves to Australia's west and north coast. Possibly the Portuguese, or the Spanish who had settled Espiritu Santo, part of modern day Vanuatu, in 1606. It might have been British, though no suitable ship is recorded missing.

''I think it is most likely to have been American,'' Hosty concludes. ''There were certainly American whalers in that area around that time.''

He is confident they will find it: ''Our trip is to continue to explore the Porpoise, confirm the wreck of the Cato and, hopefully, locate the pre-1803 wreck.

''We presume it did the same thing as the Porpoise and Cato: came up on the southern side of the reef - where the wreckage was found - then sank in between 10 and 20 metres of water.''

The best case scenario is that they find a wreck which predates Cook's voyage along the east coast of Australia in 1770. But Hosty says it won't rival the Duyfken, the first known vessel to anchor in Australian waters in 1606. ''The guys from the Porpoise would have recognised if the wreckage was that old.''



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