By Angus Britts
Angus Britts is a member and volunteer with the NHSA. He is a qualified historian and has authored two published books: ‘Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East 1922-42 (2017)’, and ‘A Ceaseless Watch: Australia’s Third Part Naval Defence 1919-42 (2021)’ in the United States, both by Naval Institute Press. In addition, he has authored a currently-unpublished work, ‘The Wide Dark Bosom of the Angry Deep: Twenty of Colonial Australia’s Deadliest Shipwrecks’. This paper is Chapter 7 from that work. It explores the life and eventual fate of the Royal Navy Brig HMS Sappho which disappeared in the vicinity of Bass Strait in 1858 while on her way to join the Royal Navy’s Australian Station. With 147 lives lost, Sappho was one of the worst shipwrecks in Australian waters during the colonial era. Her commander, Fairfax Moresby, was the son of Rear-Admiral John Moresby RN after whom the capital of Papua New Guinea is named.
HMS Sappho (1858)
No one factor contributed more to the eventual federation of Australia’s colonies than the fear of foreign invasion. Beforehand, the establishment of new settlements such as Hobart and the Swan River Colony was driven by the believed need to ensure that other foreign powers, most especially France, did not establish their own outposts on the continent. In 1854 the outbreak of the Crimean War caused anxieties within the colonies to reach new heights with the threat posed by Russian warships stationed in the Pacific. One leading political activist in Sydney, the Reverend John Dunmore Lang, warned that the Australia’s coastal centres were vulnerable to attack if Britain was unwilling or unable to supply the necessary warships to defend them. This was a conundrum which would come to dominate Anglo-Australian defence relations for almost a century to come. However in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict Whitehall allocated funds for improved coastal defences and commenced the upgrading of the Royal Navy’s Australia Station. As part of the reinforcement, the 428-ton armed brig HMS Sappho with 147 officers and crew under Commander Fairfax Moresby departed South Africa in early January 1858 for reassignment to Sydney, one of the most remote naval bases within the global expanse of the British Empire.
Built at Plymouth and launched in 1837 the Sappho was classed as a second-class brig with a main armament of sixteen guns. She was one of nine such ships designed by Sir William Symonds, Surveyor of the Navy, and like her compatriots she possessed the necessary speed and firepower to chase and apprehend the fast-moving slaving ships operating around the coastlines of the African continent. Her first captain, Commander Thos. Fraser, commented favourably on the Sappho’s pace when reporting the outcome of speed trials conducted when his ship first joined the West Indies and North America Station in November 1837:
The Sappho and the [brig] Champion, both under orders to proceed to the southward from Bermuda, weighed and made sail together from the anchorage at Spanish Point, on the 28th October, at 10:00am; the wind light, and though rather variable, nearly dead against us; the water smooth as a millpond. At 4:15 pm we came to in Murray’s Anchorage, preceding the Champion [by] one hour and a half; but I merely state this by way of beginning at the beginning; for although we had a decided advantage, the degree was not easily ascertained; occasionally bearing up, or luffing, as we were obliged to do, to avoid the coral reefs. Moreover, I must in honour confess, that we were favoured by a slant of wind. On the 30th we again got under way, and after the pilots had left at half-past 7:00am, made sail; single-reef topsails, topgallant sails, and courses; going from 6 to 6-and-one-eigth knots; wind fresh, with a head sea; the Sappho half a mile on the Champion’s lee beam. At 1:30, we tacked, at 2:10, we shortened sail, and telegraphed the Champion. ‘Acknowledge yourself beaten.’ The answer was, ‘Terribly;’ as indeed it was, we being 6 miles dead in the wind’s eye of her.
Much of the Royal Navy’s deployment beyond the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in peacetime was devoted to its lighter forces as they were less expensive to maintain and could fulfil a wide variety of tasks on overseas postings where there was usually little or no threat posed by superior foreign naval forces. This proved otherwise during Sappho’s first posting to the West Indies & North America Station. Visiting the French port of Martinique in March 1841, her discovery of numerous large warships briefly stoked then-existing tensions within Anglo-French relations:
The Jamaica Royal Gazette of 2nd March contains the following: “By the arrival of her Majesty’s brig Sappho we are put in possession of a circumstance which shows the duplicity and deceit of the French Government towards Great Britain under the administration of Thiers. The Sappho had orders to reconnoitre the several foreign ports on her way down to this island. In accordance with such orders she called at Martinique, where, to the surprise of the officers, they perceived sixteen broad pendants, six of which were double-banked frigates, at anchor. When the British Government was made acquainted with the different armaments equipping by the French at Brest, a demand was made for information as to their destination. The reply was, that they were intended to be sent to demand satisfaction for the insults the French nation had suffered from a Barbary state, and the other portion of the armament was to, proceed to reinforce the squadron acting against Buenos Ayres. The British Government was satisfied, but in consequence of the hostile feeling of the Thiers Administration, hostilities were contemplated against England, and the squadron which sailed to Buenos Aires carried with them instructions to the naval force there employed to return to Martinique, and at the same time to expect a war with England. One French vessel, partially dismantled, appeared off Barbados, supposed to have been sent to reconnoitre the British islands, but having been observed by Captain Leith, the officer, a steamer was sent out to ascertain who she might be; the Frenchman showed Spanish colours, and was supposed to be a slaver; but, on examination, proved to be a French vessel.”
In 1843 the Sappho redeployed to the Cape of Good Hope and after a further four years on the African Station she returned to Britain for a general refit. Once again despatched to the Caribbean the ship grounded on a shoal off the coast of Honduras in 1849 with subsequent repairs required. The following year she proceeded to the waters off the Yucatan Peninsula as part of British efforts to mediate a settlement in a local indigenous conflict, and remained in the Caribbean until 1852. Thereafter the Sappho was transferred back to the African Station in 1856, and it was in the course of this stint that she came to find herself immersed in considerable action and controversy. While searching for slaving vessels along the west coast of Africa in May 1857, she seized the American ship Panchita near the mouth of the Congo River. When the Panchita was returned to New York with a prize crew from the Sappho the American authorities briefly threw the prize crew in prison after it was determined that the seized vessel was not involved in slave trading. The owners initiated legal action against the British government, the incident was raised in the United States Congress and the American press made a few pointed remarks about high-handed British behaviour on the high seas:
The arrival of the American barque Panchita at this port in charge of a British officer and prize crew, she having been seized on the coast of Africa by the commander of the British brig-of-war Sappho, on suspicion of being engaged in the slave trade, brings up again the question of the seizure of American vessels at sea or in the ports of non-civilised nations by British cruisers. We have no wish to countenance or defend the abettors of the African slave trade, but we cannot consent to the exercise of a police of the sea by British officers over American vessels. The commanders of English ships-of-war have never been noted for their nice discrimination between right and wrong whenever a question of interference with traders competing with their own has come up; and the increasing trade on the coast of Africa is jealously regarded by England…The subjecting of our vessels trading on that coast to a continued surveillance and interference by English men of-war must have a prejudicial effect upon them, and seriously diminish their profits and ability to compete with those of England…The policy of recognising the right of British ships to capture our vessels Is a most dangerous one, as a great injury may be inflicted upon our trade.- New York Herald.
As yet unaware of the international rumblings they had created, Commander Moresby and his crew enjoyed much greater legitimate success some four months later. Near Loanda on 10 September the Sappho came across a 150-ton slaving schooner close inshore and after a short chase she captured the vessel and freed its slave crew. As the schooner was judged to be unseaworthy it was used for target practice by the Sappho’s gun crews. Eight days later Moresby hit the jackpot in the form of the 1080-ton ship Charles from New Orleans. The circumstances of the following chase were dramatic, but its immediate aftermath starkly portrayed the basest evil of the slave trade as recounted in subsequent correspondence from one of the Sappho’s company to The Times in London:
Directly our boats returned we made all sail in chase, the ship making all sail to avoid us, and the chase became very exciting. The captain said we were gaining, and so they must have thought on board the ship, as he tacked in shore and we after him; then he bore away, running along the edge of the surf, and by help of his large sails was drawing ahead. By this time we were sure he was one of the large American slave ships, and we feared he would escape if he got sea room, so the captain took a boat well manned and armed and pulled to windward to cut him off, when he would be obliged to tack off shore; another boat was sent to leeward, the master, the only officer on board, being left in charge. The ship was not more than a mile and a half distant, close to the surf. Seeing the trap laid for him, and that he could not escape, he ran his ship ashore. We anchored in four fathoms; the master took the whale-boat close to the ship, and was soon joined by the other boats. The ship was rolling in the breakers with all her sails flapping about, and appeared to be full of slaves; the master and crew had abandoned her with their boats, leaving the American colours flying. Then we all beheld a dreadful scene; the slaves forced their way from below, jumped overboard, and soon disappeared in the rollers; it was terrible to see them. Our officers and men, regardless of their own lives, pulled through the surf to leeward of the ship, but her heavy lurching for some time prevented their boarding; when they succeeded the scene was horrifying, the slaves still forcing their way up from the slave decks with loud yells, running to and fro, and continuing to throw themselves overboard.
Only able to save a handful of the slaves before nightfall, the brig stood off until the following morning when Moresby led an armed force ashore to rescue the remaining Africans aboard the wreck of the Charles. They encountered resistance from the slaver’s crew which was quickly overcome, and in total liberated some 300 men, women and children. An estimated 200 slaves had lost their lives. Though the Admiralty subsequently awarded prize money for the capture, its attitude towards the Sappho’s activities off West Africa proved to be anything but congratulatory. Moresby was reprimanded for his conduct towards the Panchita, and the Sappho was to be transferred to the Australia Station. This deployment was, however, welcomed in the Australian colonies where the reassignment of British garrison troops was causing some alarm. In a motion debated by the New South Wales Legislative Assembly on 13 April 1858, which sought to oppose the sending of a Royal Artillery corps to India, a government member defended the decision by citing the expected arrival of the Sappho as a more effective means of defence than that provided by coast artillery. In making his statement the member concerned was apparently unaware that the ship had been on-route to Sydney for just over three months; a somewhat lengthy passage from the Cape of Good Hope which she had departed on 8 January.
Five months later the Sappho had still to arrive in Sydney and on 10 September a short news item in The Sydney Morning Herald confirmed that the authorities feared for her safety, she being so long overdue. On 16 October Captain William Loring, the commander of the Australia Station aboard the 16-gun brig H.M.S. Elk, advised the Governor of New South Wales of a major development. A merchant in Sydney had informed Loring that the Sapphohad been sighted by a coastal trader on 18 February, and it was believed that the warship subsequently founded in the vicinity of King Island. In a subsequent account supplied to the Herald, William Bellther, the first mate aboard the brig Yarrow, described the exchange of greetings between both vessels:
When about twenty miles to the westward of Cape Otway, there or thereabout, as near as I can remember, we spoke to the Sappho, brig, from the Cape of Good Hope bound to Sydney, or looking for the senior officer. All well on board. She was then under all plain sail. Fine weather. Wind from the eastward, and she was standing in for the land on the starboard tack. She tacked off the land at 8am, and at the time we passed, about 7:30am, had just piped up ‘steerage hammocks.’ I think it was the captain who hailed. He appeared to have sandy whiskers and complexion, and a pale face, and I think he was stout, and not very tall, and apparently about thirty years of age. He asked where we were from and where bound, and had we seen the senior officer. We told him that we had not seen a man-of-war for this three months. He might find one in Melbourne. Probably at this time the Sappho was going four knots…The weather remained fine until about noon. It then came round to the westward. The breeze increased during the night and the next day; thick at times in the squall, and we had a quick run through the Straits and went to Newcastle.
Almost a full year since the last sighting of the Sappho separate expeditions were mounted by the Elk and HMCS Victoria in February 1859 to scour Bass Strait for wreckage from the vessel. By this time the colonial authorities were largely convinced that all 147 officers and men aboard the missing ship had likely perished at the moment she met her mysterious fate. The Victoria’s search pattern included the coastline along Wilson’s Promontory together with a number of island groups and isolated shoals in the vicinity of the eastern entrance to Bass Strait, only to return to Hobsons Bay on 7 March having found no trace of the missing vessel. Similarly bereft, the Elk had arrived at Port Phillip three days earlier after a fruitless cruise of the strait’s western entrance including a careful examination of the King Island coastline and its offshore reefs. In late March however, several gratings were found by a local resident on Flinders Island which were of similar construction to those fitted aboard Royal Navy vessels. A few days later a lifebuoy with the initials B.O. of the same type employed on warships was also located in the area. Then in mid-April the master of the schooner Little Pet reported that subsequent to 18 February 1858 he had observed two black topmasts “in deep water between Cape Liptrap and Glennie’s Island.” None of the recovered wreckage was ever to be positively identified as coming from the Sappho and a subsequent inspection of the site where the topmasts had been identified failed to find any evidence of them.
Prior to the news of the sighting of the brig in Bass Strait reaching London the Admiralty was of the opinion that she may have encountered a hurricane off Africa and made for the Seychelles or the East Indies in a damaged condition. As a result, naval search vessels were dispatched from South Africa and India to follow Sappho’s likely eastern track. In early December 1858 the Lords of the Admiralty were forced to deny an unsubstantiated report that some of the crew had been rescued, the narrative of the claim being eventually published in the 12 September 1859 edition of The London Times. “Tidings have reached the New Zealand papers of Her Majesty’s brig Sappho, which was supposed to have been lost on her voyage to Australia. She stranded off an uninhabited island some distance from Sydney and became a total wreck. The portion of her crew that was saved formed an encampment on the island. A merchant ship, when passing, found them in a very distressed condition. The few who had survived the exposure were living on the wild cats and seeds which they found on the island. Commander Moresby, from grief at the loss of his brig, had become insane.” Unfortunately for the grieving family members of the missing crew this account proved to be sheer bunkum. Not through lack of effort the various searches mounted in Bass Strait had failed to turn up any concrete evidence of the ship’s fate. Over a century later in the late 1980s, remains possibly belonging to a warship (including cannon) were supposedly located to the northeast of Eden by divers, however to date there has apparently been no further investigation of the discovery.
So in framing a credible explanation for the loss and subsequent whereabouts of the Sappho, the only solid lead is that she exchanged greetings with the Yarrow just after sunrise on the morning of 18 February 1858 approximately twenty miles to the west of Cape Otway. Within the account provided by the Yarrow’s first mate there exists no indication that anything was amiss aboard the warship with both vessels going their separate ways in fair weather. The sole reference to any potential hazard was William Bellther’s recollection that the wind changed to the west in the afternoon and thereafter the weather became thick and squally over the next two days. Given the lack of wreckage and bodies it can be reasonably assumed that whatever befell the Sappho did so with considerable haste, and most likely at night when the majority of the ship’s company would have probably been below deck. A capsize brought about by severe wave activity or a broach may well have been sufficient to sink the ship whole, and unlike an impact with a reef or shoreline the amount of flotsam stood to be considerably less, especially if the hatches had been battened down due to heavy weather. Location-wise, current opinion amongst maritime historians and enthusiasts remains divided. Both the Otway and Gippsland coastlines lay separate claims to being the Sappho’s last resting place, yet if the supposed discovery off Eden is considered to be a legitimate alternative, the remains of the vessel could lie anywhere between Cape Otway and the southern coastline of New South Wales.
Beyond the few facts already outlined, one available source of information does provide some possible clues. The memoirs and private papers of Sappho’s designer Sir William Symonds were first published in 1858 and contain a number of accounts of the ship’s sailing performance in the years prior to her loss. Symonds’s fundamental approach to warship design was that the combination of a wide beam and sharp hull lines were “the root of all other qualities in a good warship.” With these principles, “he endeavoured (as he says) to unite stability, capacity, velocity, and strength, without sacrificing beauty.” In his 1837 report regarding the ship’s sailing qualities, Commander Fraser recalled how the vessel dispelled his fears that she would prove to be a skittish performer:
I expected to find her a fast vessel, certainly, but also a most uneasy one…I did not at first attempt to have a cot in my cabin, fearing that my head would be pitched through the aft bulkhead, and my feet through the fore one. A cruise in the Gulf of St Lawrence has long since convinced me of the fallacy of my original impressions…No vessel can strain her rigging less; and if it be objected to her that she is wet, my answer is this: If in a head sea, by carrying a press of sail, you drive a vessel through the green seas, some of the spray must find its way on board; but reduce the sail, lay her to, and she bows and walks over the seas in the easiest and most beautiful style.
Symonds’s views on the subject of naval design did not however enjoy universal support amongst his peers, the press, and within the upper echelons of the Admiralty. His critics charged that he designed brigs and corvettes which “if pressed with sail, shipped many sprays, and even whole green seas; on which account they required to be judiciously handled.” When addressing this issue during the course of the 1847-48 Naval Estimates Committee process the First Lord noted that while Symonds’s ships were considered by their crews to be roomy and comfortable, there were also fears expressed as to their instability in strong winds. Such criticism had existed since the early 1830s and a number of the senior officers who commanded the ships he built were quick to rebuff the detractors as Commander Fraser had done. An example of this is to be found in the comments of Lieutenant-Commander Dacres of the 323-ton brig Pantaloon in 1832. After the ship had weathered a severe gale which caused other warships to head for shelter, Dacres stated that “I dare say the rascals in the papers lost us, for all the vessels that started the same day put back, which I have great objection to; as it gives prejudiced people an opportunity of talking nonsense.” The remarks of Admiral Sir Robert Stopford in January 1836 regarding his son’s service aboard the Pantaloon did, however, contain an intriguing postscript. “I have never known the same ship to be pre-eminent in every point of sailing; but a great point is gained by having hit on a mode of construction which enables them to excel in one point, and upon the whole, the most desirable one.”
This reference which referred to the Pantaloon’s sailing qualities to windward was indicative of a lengthy period in the mid-nineteenth century when the Royal Navy was grappling with how the new technologies of steam and iron would be incorporated within its enormous fleet of wooden sailing-ships. The new breed of fast brigs with lines similar to pilot boats and the future clippers were informally described as ‘Experimental’ and it is clear from the majority of similar reports that Symonds’s designs favoured high speed as the most desirable outcome. Yet in seeking to achieve a pronounced advantage in one aspect of performance meant a trade-off with others and the cycle of criticism which accompanied his builds over two decades was consistent in its reference to the stability issue. Research of the Royal Navy’s ship losses in peacetime indicates that two other brigs of similar design to the Sappho, namely the Heron and Camilla, foundered at sea in 1859 and 1860 respectively; in both instances it appeared that the vessels were overwhelmed by inclement weather with no survivors. If the Sappho could have become unstable due to carrying too much sail in the subsequent squally weather described by William Bellther aboard the Yarrow, then a sudden broach in a following breeze may well have been sufficient to rapidly send her to the bottom with little or no chance of escape for Commander Moresby and his crew. For the Royal Navy, building ‘breakthrough’ vessels was certainly fatal on occasion, most notably in the case of the 7700-ton steam-sail hybrid battleship H.M.S. Captain which capsized in a heavy gale off Cape Finisterre on 6 September 1870 with only twenty-seven survivors from her 500-strong crew. However, with no location of the Sappho following her disappearance, any conclusions regarding the ship’s stability cannot be expanded beyond the circumstantial.
If the warship did indeed meet her untimely end within the confines of Bass Strait then she joined what was to become a lengthy queue of unexplained disappearances there. Of the approximate total of 155 ships which were lost in the strait over the course of the colonial era, forty-three of these disappeared, many without any trace whatsoever. In more recent times the label ‘Bass Strait Triangle’ has been applied due to other events in the area including the disappearance of a light aircraft in 1978 in which the pilot insisted over the radio that he was being followed by strange lights immediately before he and his plane vanished. What Bass Strait does share in common with its more infamous counterpart in the vicinity of Bermuda is that both bodies of water are prone to frequent dangerous weather systems that are capable of sinking vessels ranging in size from outboards to large cargo ships. In many cases the sea has offered up enough clues for the fate of a missing ship to be deduced with reasonable certainty. Yet events such as the loss of the Sappho, like the much-publicised mystery of the U.S.S. Cyclops almost sixty years later, retain their ability to encourage ongoing interest in their stories because they are either puzzles that will remain unsolvable, or instead they possess solutions which remain tantalisingly just beyond our reach.
 S. Ward, ‘Security: Defending Australia’s Empire’ in D.M. Schreuder & S. Ward, Australia’s Empire (NYC: Oxford University Press, 2008), 232-233.
 ‘H.M.S. Sappho’, Victorian Heritage Database (Government of Victoria). http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/shipwrecks/result_detail/605?print=true.
 J.A. Sharp Memoirs of the Life and Services of Rear-Admiral Sir William Symonds, Surveyor of the Navy from 1832 to 1847: With Correspondence and Other Papers Relative to the Ships and Vessels Constructed Upon His Lines, as Directed to be Published Under His Will (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1858), 620-621.
 The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, 11/08/1841. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/32190236 .
 Love, Shipwrecks on the South Gippsland Coast (Meerlieu VIC: Don Love, 2005), 21.
 The Argus, 30/10/1857. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/7141242.
 The London Times, 03/2/1858.
 The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 17/04/1858. Trove, NLA.
 The Sydney Morning Herald, 10/09/1858. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/7303439.
 The Argus, 27/10/1858. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13018239.
 The Sydney Morning Herald, 28/01/1859. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13018239.
 The Argus, 08/03/1859. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/5677538.
 Bendigo Advertiser, 29/03/1859. Trove, NLA. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/87987994.
 The London Times, 13/10/1858. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/archive/article/1858-10-13/8/9.html?
 The London Times, 12/09/1859. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/archive/article/1859-09-12/7/3.html?
 Loney & Stone, EOAS: New South Wales.
 Sharp Memoirs of the Life and Services of Rear-Admiral Sir William Symonds, 127.
 Ibid, 202-203.
 Ibid, 395.
 Ibid, 436.
 Ibid, 440.
 ‘Royal Navy Loss List Searchable Database’, Marine Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST), United Kingdom. https://www.thisismast.org/research/royal-navy-loss-list-search.html.
 Loney & Stone, EOAS: Victoria. http://oceans1.customer.netspace.net.au/vic-main.html.