Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum


The SSXantho was the first coastal steamer to ply the Western Australian coast. The ship has an interesting history and as one of the first iron ships to be excavated has provided new directions in maritime archaeology and maritime archaeological conservation. The Xantho left Port Gregory 16 November 1872, heavily loaded with a cargo that included 100 tonnes of lead ore. It sprang a leak soon after leaving port and sank at the mouth of the harbour. This wreck incident has given rise to speculation about a possible contact painting at Walga Rock, near Cue. This painting has not been dated positively but seems to have been in existence from at least the turn of the century, according to newspaper reports . It was initially thought to be a representation of the Zuytdorp (1702-1711), which may point to it having been drawn by a Zuytdorp survivor, by an Aboriginal who had either seen the Zuytdorp, or spoken to survivors, or to other Aborigines who may have had contact with survivors or may have seen the ship. One story in 1968 says the painting was done by an Aboriginal girl with fair hair. This is just one of several reports that surfaced in the late 1800’s that mention Aboriginal tribes with distinctive European colouring and features. This conjecture continued during the late 1960s and early 1970s when investigation was done by the WA Museum to attempt to determine the age and origin of the painting. However, Dr Ian Crawford has suggested that the painting could be of the SS Xantho. Looking at a drawing of the Xantho and comparing it with the rock painting, similarities become apparent, including the funnel and gun-ports. Some writing can be seen below the ship, which has been described as both Arabic, and imitation writing. There are other stories about the origin of this painting. It is said to be painted by Sammy Hassan around 1917. Sammy was a Malay pearl diver who lived with Aboriginals and had an Aboriginal wife. He was illiterate and ‘drew writing as he remembered it’ which may be linked to the description of the writing as being ‘imitation’. He is said to have accidentally shot himself in the leg in 1920, just a few miles from Walga. He was found a few days later and taken to hospital, but he died from his injury. A similar story exists about Sammy in which he has a leg taken by a shark. At the time he was camping on Dirk Hartog Island, at an outcamp known as Sammy’s Well. According to the story he dragged himself ashore but died in the camp. Another suggestion is that the painting was done as a hoax, and is the copy of an illustration of the Batavia printed in the Western Mail in 1897 . The painting itself does overlay older paintings and the evidence is in favour of Sammy being the artist. Charles Broadhurst, owner of the Xantho, brought over 200 Malays as divers in the 1870’s, so Sammy may well have been employed by Broadhurst. He would therefore be familar with steamships and could have been a crew member of the Xantho at some time. It is not possible to say at this time who painted this ship, or how long it has existed but it is interesting that such a painting should exist where it does, 300km from the coast.

Contact Evidence Contact Art

Type of contact Unknown

Year 1872

Location Port Gregory

Source Aboriginal