The Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and the non-profit Silentworld Foundation have embarked on an archaeological journey to unveil the secrets of the South Australian shipwreck. Recent findings, presented in the journal Historical Archaeology, shed light on the ship’s historical significance and the pressing need for its preservation.
The South Australian shipwreck, dated back to 1837, stands as South Australia’s oldest known European shipwreck. Originally named the Marquess of Salisbury, this English barque began its journey by delivering mail between England and far-flung outposts of the British Empire starting in 1820. Later, it transformed into the British naval packet HMP Swallow before being acquired by the South Australian Company, leading to its renaming as the South Australian.
Despite its role in transporting approximately 80 immigrants to the budding colony, the ship’s primary function was within the shore-based whaling industry at Encounter Bay. Serving as a “cutting-in” vessel, the South Australian was involved in the removal of blubber from harpooned whales.
Tragedy struck on December 8, 1837, when the ship was caught in a fierce south-easterly gale, ultimately leading to its wreck in Encounter Bay near present-day Victor Harbor.
The ship’s existence remained forgotten until the 1990s when archival information and data from earlier expeditions helped in its rediscovery. Guided by this information, the research team identified a new search area and revealed remnants of the ship, including timber framing, hull planking, copper keel bolts, and fragments of glass and pottery.
However, the site’s preservation faced a hurdle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which interrupted visits for two years. Nevertheless, maritime archaeologists from ANMM, accompanied by an archaeological conservator from the Silentworld Foundation and volunteers, resumed their efforts in 2022.
The team carried out photogrammetric 3D recording and meticulous site mapping, in addition to conducting a comprehensive conservation assessment to determine the site’s state and develop strategies for protection.
Dr. James Hunter, ANMM’s Curator of Naval Heritage and Archaeology, stressed the paramount importance of the South Australian wreck. He noted that beyond being South Australia’s oldest recorded European shipwreck, it serves as a window into the state’s colonization period, revealing interactions between European settlers and the Aboriginal community.
While adverse weather and limited underwater visibility affected the 3D photogrammetric survey in 2022, imagery from earlier surveys facilitated the creation of a digital 3D model of the wreck site. This model will be employed for a virtual reality experience in development at Germany’s University of Applied Sciences.
Additionally, a graphic novel is being crafted to share the South Australian’s story using research and archival sources, including the original logbook.
Plans for further archaeological investigation and the completion of the photogrammetric survey are on the horizon for the latter part of 2023. However, the urgency of stabilizing the site is underscored by recent seabed changes that have exposed the wreck at an alarming rate.
Source: Australian National Maritime Museum
More information: James W. Hunter et al. (2023). Unearthing South Australia’s Oldest Known Shipwreck: The Bark South Australian (1837), Historical Archaeology. DOI: 10.1007/s41636-023-00403-5