Archives For Australian Shipwrecks

New Zealand Shipwreck

On May 4, 1866, the American built barque General Grant departed Melbourne, Australia for London with 58 passengers and 25 crew. Among the passengers were several miners returning home and the cargo manifest listed an official load of 2,576 ounces of gold. Nine days out of Melbourne, the General Grant came upon the Auckland Islands, however, weather conditions prevented the ship’s crew from rounding the islands. Late in the evening, the ship collided with the island’s cliffs and drifted into a large cave where it eventually sank from the main mast being driven through the ship’s bottom from being tossed into the roof of the cave.

Despite the ship’s being beaten against the roof of the cave by a rising tide, the passengers and crew chose to spend a perilous night aboard the vessel and try to escape in the morning. Only fifteen souls of the 83 aboard were able to leave the vessel safely and they soon found themselves on the aptly named Disappointment Island before rowing on to Port Ross. For the next nine months the survivors watched and waited for a passing ship to rescue them, but none came. Exasperated, four of the fifteen attempted to sail for New Zealand but were never heard from again after leaving Port Ross on January 22, 1867. Nearly eight months later the survivors were finally rescued by the brig Amherst.

The General Grant was not done taking lives, though, as 29 salvors died in their vain attempts to locate the ship and its cargo of gold. To this day the ship remains undiscovered with her $3,000,000+ gold cargo lying somewhere at the bottom of a treacherous cave on Auckland Island.

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Royal Navy

HMS Exeter Sinking

In the months following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese juggernaut swept through the Pacific in an all out quest to secure natural resources and eliminate its opponents. A prime target in the Japanese crosshairs was the Dutch East Indies – modern-day Indonesia. In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy dispatched a task force consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 14 destroyers to escort an invasion force of ten transports. Opposing the IJN task force was a motley assortment of Dutch, US, British and Australian naval assets including two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers.

The Allied force was outmatched in numbers and firepower as the Japanese heavy cruisers possessed more heavy caliber guns than their Allied equivalents. Additionally, they were also hampered by communication and coordination issues stemming from trying to integrate ships from four navies into a single task force. In a desperate attempt to destroy the Japanese invasion force before it offloaded its troops, the Allied force sailed into the teeth of the Japanese task force late in the afternoon on February 27, 1942.

The Allied force tried vainly to close within gunfire range of the Japanese transports, but each time they were rebuffed by a hellish rain of gunfire from the Japanese escorts. As the afternoon progressed the Japanese advantages began to tell with Allied ships succumbing to torpedo attacks, gunfire and even mines. By midnight, three destroyers and two cruisers, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, had been lost along with the Dutch admiral in charge of the Allied task force.

Later the next day, two of the surviving three cruisers were annihilated in a follow-on battle in Sunda Strait. Only a day later, on March 1, in the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the remaining Allied cruiser, HMS Exeter, and her two destroyer escorts were sunk. In just three days, the Allies had lost five cruisers and another six destroyers while the IJN had suffered the loss of only a few escort vessels and transports sunk or damaged.

With Allied naval power in the region either destroyed or driven off to Australia, the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was virtually assured. Not only did the battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait represent a stinging defeat for the Allies, but it also signaled the beginning of the end of Dutch colonial power in Indonesia.

kublai khan

Ha Long Bay
CC Image Courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman on Flickr

Australian news site The Age reports that Australian archaeologists are continuing to assist Vietnamese cultural authorities in the development of their maritime archaeological program. Every month Australian advisers from various universities spend time in Vietnam holding seminars on the tools and best practices techniques necessary for excavation of wrecks located off the Vietnamese coast. Additionally, the advisers are assisting with two specific projects – the porcelain shipwreck found earlier this year off Quang Ngai and the search for Kublai Khan’s 1288 invasion fleet.

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, founded China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1279 and set off on a campaign of expansion. Khan set his sights on northern Vietnam and in 1288 dispatched an army and fleet to subjugate Vietnam’s Dai Viet dynasty. The Yuan fleet arrived off Ha Long Bay with the aim of re-supplying the Yuan army and maneuvered up the Bach Dang River. Unfortunately for Khan’s fleet, the Dai Viet had prepared for such a contingency. The Dai Viet had placed wooden stakes in the riverbed and prepared fire ships to attack Khan’s fleet. As the tide began to ebb, the Dai Viet released their fire ships in the narrow confines of the river. In an attempt to avoid the fire ships, the Yuan fleet fled down the river and holed themselves on the wooden stakes which had been exposed by low tide.

The destruction of the Yuan fleet effectively ended Khan’s designs on Vietnam and preserved the Dai Viet dynasty. Archaeologists have located some of the wooden stakes and ships from the battle and efforts are underway to excavate and preserve artifacts from Khan’s fleet.