Writers and researchers Pat Connelly and Marten Syme like a good yarn. Particularly one that's steeped in history and mystique, ripe for investigation.
One of Australia's all-time maritime mysteries, set right on our doorstep, is at the heart of a new book, The Tamar Opportunists. Mahogany Ship Mysteries and the Port Fairy Adventurers, co-written by Marten Syme and Pat Connelly.
In it, the pair put the foundation story of the early whaling days on which the Mahogany Ship legend was built, under the microscope. Entwined with the mystery is the Griffiths Island whaling station and the stories of five early Port Fairy settlers, largely now lost to history.
Although the authors find plenty of discrepancies in the shipwreck tale, they remain confident there's more than enough evidence to keep the legend alive. As detailed in the book, there have been 180 reported eyewitness sightings of wreckage related to the Mahogany Ship. Oral folklore of the Gunditjmara people of the 19th century also tells of ship landings in the area well before British settlement.
The pandemic may have slowed the momentum of the Mahogany Ship search, but efforts continue behind the scenes with at least three separate teams maintaining an active interest.
The local Mahogany Ship committee, chaired by Connelly since 2004, is advocating for the reinstatement of a state government reward similar to the $250,000 one that drew a flurry of wreck hunters in 1992. It is also embracing the use of new technologies in the next generation of searches.
Where shovels and metal detectors once scoured the sand dunes between Warrnambool and Port Fairy for the elusive shipwreck, less invasive aerial searches are now the norm amid stricter controls on digging permits and greater awareness of sacred Aboriginal sites.
Connelly says sophisticated drone-borne ground penetrating radar may provide the best chance yet of a breakthrough.
"Some of the new technology can go about 10 metres below the ground. If anything is found, it would have to be preserved and sealed away from oxygen. It could be below the water table in the silt," he explains.
The latest venture, partnered by Mahogany Ship scholar Ruurd Snoekstra, researcher Brendan Byrne and Deakin University Associate Professor of Marine Science Daniel Ierodiaconou, has its sights set on a piece of state-of-the-art drone-mounted GPR equipment.
Negotiations are continuing with a state government organisation to access the unit, believed to be the largest and only one of its kind in Australia. In his tenure at the helm of the local committee, Connelly has become used to people dropping by with bits of old timber unearthed in the hunt for evidence of the wreck.
But none of the samples have yet proven to be the hoped-for mahogany timber mentioned in various eyewitness accounts.
"People lob up with pieces of wood," says Connelly who ensures they are sent off to Melbourne for scientific testing. Results so far have identified Australian eucalypt or oak from the northern hemisphere.
"Even if it's oak, there's no telling what part of Europe or north America it may have come from."
As Connelly says: "We don't want the wood, we want the ship the wood came from." Hunters have been searching for the ship since 1890. According to the 'foundation story' of the Mahogany Ship, of which there are several versions, a whaleboat was rowed from Port Fairy to Warrnambool in January 1836 in search of a seal seen near the mouth of the Hopkins River.
The boat capsized, the skipper drowned and two survivors, Gibbs and Wilson, came across the shipwreck in the sand hummocks on their walk back to Port Fairy. And so were laid the foundations of a legend.
The last reported sighting was in the 1880s, but speculation about the wreck's origins and the implications for Australian history, persists today. Theories range from a 1500s Portuguese caravel and Spanish galleon, pre-dating French, Dutch and British exploration, to a wrecked whaleboat, convict escape vessel or a Chinese junk. Some theorize that the sightings may have actually been several different wrecks.
In a letter to the editor in June, 1890, Warrnambool resident William J Murray told The Standard readers about his own experiences of the wreck.
"Thirty-six or 37 years ago, I visited the spot where the so-called mahogany ship lay. At times it was impossible to see her and she was only visible at low tides," Murray wrote. "I have not only seen her, but have boarded her, but at very great risk. I remember not only boarding, but also chopped a piece off her stanchions."
Murray also tells of conversations with Aboriginal Elder, King Billy, supporting accounts of Dreamtime stories of the wreckage.
Whaling had begun at Port Fairy in 1835 on Rabbit Island (later to become part of Griffiths Island), just a year before the first 1836 Mahogany Ship sighting attributed to the survivors of the capsized whaleboat.
For Port Fairy resident, maritime history buff and whaleboat enthusiast Marten Syme, the story of bay whaling in the town was one that had long been on his research radar. It was fast-tracked when he was asked to provide a paper for a Maritime Museums' conference in 2015 on sealing and whaling on the southern mainland.
Syme, whose 10 historical publications include three volumes of Shipping Arrivals and Departures for Victorian Ports, found little local material available.
He eventually struck gold in the form of the John Griffiths' ledger.
The 370-page hand-written journal kept by the influential ship owner, whaler and trader provided a valuable source of information on the activities of the fledgling settlement and those who played a pivotal role in its development from August 1836 to March 1841. Curiously, Griffiths himself left no written record of his presence on Griffiths Island.
Syme spent a week pouring over the precious journal at Hobart's Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office (TAHO), piecing together the stories of the five whalers, farmers, sailors and traders who came from the Tamar Valley region of what was then Van Diemen's Land in search of greener pastures and the promise of opportunity in the Western District.
In telling the stories of John Griffiths, his partner Michael Connolly and their whaling station supervisor Alexander Campbell, John Cox and his brother-in-law Walter Glas Chiene, Syme hopes to shine a light on their contributions to Port Fairy, which he believes have been largely overlooked until now.
All, unfortunately, succumbed either to the economic collapse of the early 1840s or early death.
Of the five, Scottish immigrant Alexander Campbell survived to old age, achieving much in his 85 years for little recognition. The 6 foot 7-inch highlander, affectionately known as "Port Fairy Campbell", was a master mariner, whaler on Griffiths Island, farmer and landowner in the area.
He later became the chief harbour master at the Port of Melbourne, a position he held until his retirement aged 64.
In a curious coincidence, Syme's research led him to Campbell's final resting place in Melbourne's Brighton cemetery, only to discover its location just one grave removed from that of his own grandfather and great-grandfather.
The Tamar Opportunists: Mahogany Ship Mysteries and Port Fairy Adventurers is available from bookstores or from Marten Syme, PO Box 113, Port Fairy, 3234 or email@example.com
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