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- December 1985 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Divers continue the search for Sirius remains
FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIVES in the wreck-strewn waters off Norfolk Island an Australian Bicentennial project is slowly piecing together the final chapter in the story of HMS Sirius, the ill-fated flagship of Captain Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet. Sirius was on a mission to land passengers at the penal station on Norfolk Island and forage food for the colony at Sydney when it sank. It is the only First Fleet vessel known to be in Australian waters.
Following a preliminary examination of the wreck site in December 1983, a team of 11 experts led by Graeme Henderson of the Western Australian Maritime Museum carried out a detailed search in March last year. Their findings have thrown valuable light on the state of the ship’s scattered remains. Material found on the outer reef wreck site was restricted to hull fittings and fastenings, a keel staple, sheathing nails, lead sheathing, iron ballast pigs and bronze rudder or sternpost fittings. There were also two smaller anchors, both with broken arms.
Cannon, reputedly belonging to Sirius, already form a significant part of Norfolk’s maritime treasury, but the number of wrecks in the area makes positive identification of some objects difficult. One of the items found by the Bicentennial project divers, however, was immediately identifiable as originating from the Sirius.
A spectacle plate uncovered in an area of wreckage west of Norfolk Island’s Kingstone Pier still had deep markings with the inscription ‘Berwick‘, the name of the ship when it was first commissioned on the Thames as an ‘East Countryman’ (for trading in the East Indies) in 1780. The plate is thought to have drifted to the spot supported by timbers of the rudder after the ship broke up.
The Berwick caught fire and was burnt to the ‘wales before it ever carried its first cargo. The British Navy bought the hull and patched it up with cast-off bits and pieces, for use as a storeship later to be fitted out as a man o’war carrying 20 guns and renamed after the Dog Star, Sirius, brightest in the sky.
The optimistic appellation, however, could not disguise the fact that the ship was a sixth rater, barely fit for active service, certainly not ideal for the First Fleet’s voyage across the world. Diaries of the journey to Australia were critical of the haphazard way in which the ship had been fitted. Among other complaints was the fact that it leaked so badly that constant recaulking was necessary.
After unloading its human cargo in Sydney Cove, most of the First Fleet sailed out of the colony, leaving Governor Phillip with only two ships, Sirius and Supply. With the threat of starvation hanging over the colony, the warship was soon back at sea, on a shopping expedition to the Cape of Good Hope. Again, it began to leak, but managed to make the round trip in seven months without serious mishap.
On its return it was declared unseaworthy, but chronic shortages of everything, including ships and the artisans to repair them left Governor Phillip with no alternative but to keep Sirius afloat.
While his people were going hungry, news reached the Governor that Norfolk Island was enjoying excellent harvests. He despatched his two decrepit vessels, crowded with convicts and marines, to the fledgling colony.
After withstanding a battering by fierce coastal storms, the ships arrived at the island’s Sydney Bay settlement in March 1790. Turbulent seas forced Captain Hunter to find a more sheltered spot at Cascade Bay on the north-east of the island, where he put ashore the marines and some of the convicts. Two days later, the remaining passengers were landed and Sirius returned to Sydney Bay.
On 19 March, with no sign of the seas abating, long boats were launched and loaded with cargo. But realising they were drifting dangerously close to a reef, both ships set sail. A sudden wind shift necessitated a quick change of tack. Supply achieved this, but Sirius, which was a little behind, missed the gusts and fell off the wind.
Hunter failed in another desperate tacking manoeuvre and his ship was blown backwards onto the coral and holed.
The passengers were saved from the wreck and most of the supplies were salvaged before two convict volunteers swam out to set free the livestock, most of which reached shore safely. To reward themselves, they decided to make a foray into the ship’s cellar. One drink led to another until totally sodden, they started a disastrous fire.