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The Mahogany Ship: An Australian Maritime Mystery

One of Australia's most enduring maritime mysteries is a shipwreck known as the “Mahogany Ship”. It was first spotted in 1836 by a party of three whalers who themselves had got shipwrecked on the south-western coast of Victoria, close to the modern town of Warrnambool. While walking along the coast back to Port Fairy, the sailors discovered the wreck of a large ship half buried in the sand dunes. They described the ship to be made of hard dark timber, like mahogany. What’s unusual about this wreck was that it appeared to be very old and of Portuguese origin. This was important because popular history dictates that Australia was first visited by the Dutch in the early 17th century, and later colonized by the British. No Portuguese ship had ever made it to the shores of Australia before that, or had they?

Mahogany Ship

A 16th century Portuguese caravel similar to the one identified as the Mahogany Ship. Image credit: Michael Rosskothen/Shutterstock.com

The history of human occupation of Australia goes back by at least 65,000 years, when the first inhabitants, the ancestors of the aboriginals, came out of Africa walking across Europe, through India and then through the Southeast Asian countries before they were confronted by an ocean that separated Australia from the rest of the world. How they crossed the ocean to Australia is uncertain. They most likely arrived there by accident, drifting on debris or on small rafts they built to explore the numerous islands cluttering the edge of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, before they were swept away by the waves and deposited on this vast unexplored territory.

There is evidence that fishermen and traders from Indonesia, India and China visited the aboriginals for thousands of years, although it is unlikely that these early visitors had any knowledge of the vastness of Australia. They might have thought it was just another one of the many islands in the area.

Europeans didn’t start exploring the oceans until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, that led to the closure of overland trade routes to India and China, forcing European traders to find an alternative sea route around the Cape of Good Hope. Venturing far and wide in search of spices, Portuguese sailors first bumped into the island of Timor, located just 700 km from Australia, in 1515. Given the proximity of Timor to the vast continent of Australia, it is plausible that they might have sighted the coastline and even sailed along it that time.

Nearly a century later, a Dutch sailing ship captained by Willem Janszoon first came ashore and met with the aboriginal people. They named the island continent “New Holland”. Throughout the 17th century, the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines contributing a great deal to Europe's knowledge of Australia's coast, but made no attempt at settlement because they found the land empty and barren and of no commercial benefit.

Mahogany Ship

World map of Nicolas Desliens (1566) prepared in Dieppe, France, shows a large landmass to the south of Indonesia, half a century before Australia was discovered.

When the British lost its American colonies after the American Revolutionary War in 1783, they sent a fleet of ships to the newly discovered land down under in order to establish a new penal colony there. On 26 January 1788, a date which became Australia's national day, a camp was set up on the far east coast of Australia. In time, this camp would grow to become the most populous city in Australia and Oceania—Sydney.

This is as far as known historical timeline goes. However, if the Mahogany Ship was truly of Portuguese origin, it could rewrite Australia's history books.

The fact that there was indeed a shipwreck on Armstrong bay in the 19th century is true. There are many reports from various people who said to have seen the ship between 1836 and 1881, when the wreck was last seen. All these reports implied that the wreck was of unknown identity and predated European colonization of Victoria. However, the position of the wreck in relation to the sea differed from observer to observer. Some placed the wreck on the sea, some on the beach and some on the dunes further inland. The uncertainty about the ship’s location has prevented any serious expedition for the missing wreck. Nevertheless, for the past 150 years an endless parade of wreck-hunters has marched up and down those dunes looking for clues without success. Even the State Government of Victoria, in 1992, offered a reward of A$250,000 to anyone who could locate the wreck.

Mahogany Ship

A map of the Warrnambool and Port Fairy districts showing the three areas in which unidentified wrecks have been reported as well as the sites of three known wrecks nearer Port Fairy. Map courtesy: Dr. Murray Johns

Without the rediscovery of the wreck it is difficult to establish the ship’s country of origin. In 1847, when John Mason recalled seeing a wreck in the dunes high above sea level to the west of Warrnambool, he speculated that the wreck might have been of an unknown Spanish or Portuguese ship from very early times. He commented that the timber of the wreck resembled either cedar or mahogany. But later, he withdrew his statement saying that the wood was not mahogany at all, but might have been an Australian hardwood.

Several people reported that they had cut pieces of the Mahogany Ship, and some of these samples are still in the hands of their descendants and in museums. Scientific examination of these pieces of timber have produced disappointing results. All of them were identified to be from trees of Australian origin. Two pieces, now at the National Library in Canberra, are from Eucalyptus. There is nothing to prove the wreck is of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or even Chinese origin.

The theory that the Portuguese landed in Australia before the Dutch was first floated by the Scottish geographer and hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple in 1786 in his Memoir Concerning the Chagos and Adjacent Islands. Dalrymple put forward many evidences to support his theory, including the existence of the so-called Dieppe maps made by the Portuguese that showed extensive knowledge of the eastern and southern coasts of Australia before James Cook. Dalrymple believed that Coaste Herbiage (coast of vegetation) on the 16th-century Dauphin map was in fact Cook’s Botany Bay.

Mahogany Ship

A 16th century Dieppe map thought by many to represent Portuguese charting of the western coast of Australia.

This theory was progressed further by Melbourne-based lawyer Kenneth McIntyre through his 1977 book, The Secret Discovery of Australia. McIntyre hypothesized that in 1521-2 the Portuguese explorer Cristóvão de Mendonça commandeered a voyage to the east coast of Australia. McIntyre suggested that the voyage was kept secret because it would violate the ambiguous Treaty of Tordesillas, under which Portugal agreed that Spain would have exclusive rights to exploration in most of the Americas and the regions between the Americas and Asia. Even if there were any documents mentioning the discovery of Australia, McIntyre argued that they could have been lost in a disastrous Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

An alternative explanation put forward by Dr. Murray Johns, an Australian geologist, is that the Mahogany Ship was a vessel built or stolen by escaped convicts. Between 1805 and 1835 some forty ships were reported stolen or missing by authorities. Some of these ships were reported to have reached distant lands, others presumably lost at sea. Often escaped convicts stole a ship and deliberately beached it so the escapees could claim to be shipwrecked sailors. They then built another ship from the timbers of the wreck hoping to sail away to freedom. Murray Johns believes the Mahogany Ship was such a beached ship built using local timber, which would explain the Australian provenance of the timber samples allegedly taken from the Mahogany Ship.

Mahogany Ship

A General Chart of New Holland including New South Wales & Botany Bay with The Adjacent Countries and New Discovered Lands, published in 1786.

Any theory developed to explain the Mahogany Ship will be difficult to prove because of lack of concrete evidence, aside from eyewitness reports made more than one hundred and fifty years ago about a vessel presumably more than three hundred years old at that time.

Nevertheless, the Portuguese connection is much celebrated by the Portuguese speaking communities of Victoria, who come to the city of Warrnambool every two year during the Warrnambool Portuguese Cultural Festival to celebrate what they believe to be the discovery of Australia by Portuguese navigators.

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