Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Norfolk Island Museums #4, June 26th 2018

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 28, 2018

The Sirius Museum is the smallest of the Norfolk Island Museums, and really, there’s not much to see, but it’s the most poignant.

Sirius shipwreck signage 3 (excerpt)

‘What will become of us God only knows’… was surely what the unlettered among the ‘500 souls’ were also thinking when they found themselves stranded on Norfolk Island after HMS Sirius was wrecked on the reef.

L to R HMS Supply & HMS Sirius

At the entrance to the museum there are scale models of the HMS Sirius and its much smaller companion, the HMS Supply. While the Supply was the smallest (and fastest) ship in the fleet of 11 vessels bound for Botany Bay to establish a penal colony there, the Sirius was the flagship. Armed with 14 cannon, 6 carronades and 8 swivel guns, its length on deck was 118 ft (almost 36 m) and it had a tonnage of 512 tons. Almost as soon as he arrived at Port Jackson in January, Governor Arthur Phillip despatched the Sirius to take control of Norfolk Island and set it up for commercial development of its timber and flax. After the other ships in the fleet returned to England, the Sirius was to become the Sydney settlement’s insurance against starvation and their only link to the rest of the world.

replica of HMS Sirius

The Norfolk Island Pine turned out to be too soft for masts and spars, and the flax was the wrong species for cordage and sailcloth, but the small settlement at Kingston became an essential source of food supplies for the Sydney settlement because the soil and climate were more benign. The original 15 convicts and seven free men under the leadership of Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King were soon supplemented by more convicts and soldiers to reduce pressure on provisions for the colony at Sydney. So though the Sirius was actually en route to China to buy some much needed tools and other hardware and was only intending to drop off more convicts and personnel en route, the fatal voyage was not the only one between the two settlements.

The Supply landed first and unloaded, moving out of the way so that the Sirius could dock. But when the weather worsened, it was the more nimble Supply that could manoeuvre to safety, while the Sirius came to grief on the reef before unloading.

cannonballs

HMS Sirius anchor

Disastrous as it was, the loss of the Sirius could have been worse. Signage tells of the ingenious methods used over two days to winch those on board to safety and to salvage provisions and weaponry. Signage also relates the escapade of convicts Dring and Branagan who discovered the grog supply on board, got drunk, and set fire to the ship. Another convict unnamed in the signage swam out, put out the fire and returned the two convicts to justice – which could easily have been the gallows but they were spared that (though not severe punishment).

The ship finally broke up two years after wrecking.

ship’s bow

What the signage doesn’t explain (or if it did, I missed it), is what the Supply was doing after it had manoeuvred to safety on the day of the disaster. I think she must have continued on to Batavia where she was bound and then returned to Sydney with fresh supplies without calling in at Norfolk Island. (But why didn’t she hang about a bit, to be sure that Sirius survived the hazardous landing on that fateful day? I bet their respective captains had a ‘bit of a tense chat’ when they were reunited, because Hunter and the crew were marooned on Norfolk for eleven months before the Supply eventually returned. In the interim martial law had been declared and it was in this period that the ‘Providence Petrel’ was almost hunted to extinction in an effort to feed the stranded population. It was not until the following March that King and 22 of the crew returned to Sydney on the Supply and only then did Governor Phillip find out about the disaster.

What must it have felt like, each time their sole remaining ship the Supply set sail out harbour on Norfolk and at Sydney? Everyone must have been well aware that if disaster befell her too, then they were wholly alone until a new ship arrived from England…

2 Responses to “Norfolk Island Museums #4, June 26th 2018”

  1. Four museums in a day. That’s good going. Your last sentence really reminds us how so very isolated they were. Almost impossible for us to imagine now – and museums like this help remind us that it can be easy to judge people of those days but we have no idea how we’d behave in a situation like that.

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