Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum

Mercury (1833/10/12)

Between Calcutta and King George Sound

Mercury (1806–1833)
Where built: Bombay
Year built: 1806
Registered: Calcutta, India
Rig type: 3-masted barque
Hull: Wood
Length: 86 ft (26.2 m)
Breadth: 22 ft (6.7 m)
Depth 10 ft (3.1 m)
Tonnage: 255
Port from: Calcutta, India
Port to: King George Sound
Date lost: Late 1833
Location: Not known but some evidence it may have been near the mouth of the Greenough River
Chart number: Aus 333, Aus 752 & WA 963
Protection: When found the site will be protected under the general provisions of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
Significance criteria: 1
Little is known of the vessel and the dimensions above are those given by Henderson (1980) for a barque called Mercury that was probably the Mercury that disappeared in 1833. This barque had a standing bowsprit, single quarter gallery and a bust figurehead. It was owned by Charles Bell of Calcutta and carried fourteen guns.
The Mercury was carrying members of a company that had been formed to buy land and settle in Western Australia. There were at least 80 people on board.
The Mercury left Madras on 3 October 1833 (Moore, 1884), Calcutta on 8 October 1833 (Totty, 1979) or Calcutta on 3 October 1833 (Henderson, 1980) under the command of Captain Beadle (Totty, 1979) or Captain C. Cowles (Henderson, 1980). With no news of the ship by early 1834 concern was expressed, as the normal passage time was only one month. It was thought that it may have been wrecked on the Cocos Keeling Islands and HMS Hyacinth was sent to search there, but without success.
In mid 1834 rumours reached Perth of a shipwreck somewhere about 30 days walk to the north. Two Aborigines, Tangin and Weemat, brought down the story that a considerable amount of silver coinage lay on the beach near a wreck. All the crew were dead. The informants also said that the wreck had three masts standing, and that the masts still had sails on them. The wreck was supposed to have been seen some six months earlier. Tangin and Weemat had not themselves seen the wreck, but received the information from the Wayl men or Weel men in whose territory the wreck was lying. It is possible that the story referred to the earlier wreck of the Zuytdorp on the cliffs north of the Murchison River, as the times and distances described were very vague and open to interpretation. Playford believes that the name Wayl derives from an Aboriginal water well called ‘Wale’ situated 50 km north of the Zuytdorp wreck site (Playford, 1996, 213).
A few days later another Aboriginal informant, Moiley Dubbin, arrived in Perth and stated that some of the crew and passengers had in fact survived, and were living on the shore in five tents. These survivors included several white men of very large stature, and women with children. He reported that there were coins lying around on the beach and that the Weel men had also collected them from the surf. Moiley had not seen the wreck either, but was passing on information he also had received from the Weel men. Tangin, Weemat and Moiley said that they were afraid to travel in the territory of the Weel men, as they were cannibals.
George Fletcher Moore in his diary stated that Aborigines from the north had brought some British coins, including crowns and half-crowns, to Perth. On his suggestion an Aborigine named Weeip was sent north with a letter to any survivors. Weeip’s reward was to be that when he returned his son, who was in prison, would be set free. Moore believed that the wreck must be in the vicinity of Shark Bay because the Aboriginal informants described it as being ‘30 days journey’ north of the Swan River. In due course Weeip returned but without any contact having been made with survivors. He still persisted with the story of the coins on the beach, but perhaps he also may have been afraid of the Weel men and so repeated the coin story told by them to Tangin, Weemat and Moiley.
The Dutch colonial schooner Monkey was sent to search for survivors but without success; however, a considerable quantity of timber from a wreck was found in South Passage at the southern end of Dirk Hartog Island. This timber was described as ‘teak with some fir full of worm’. A further expedition was dispatched in November 1834 aboard the Colonial Schooner Ellen under the command of Lieutenant Derbishire, who had previously searched the Cocos Keeling Islands in HMS Hyacinth. This search was also unsuccessful.
In 1851 Aborigines from the Champion Bay area told of a shipwreck near the mouth of the Greenough River about sixteen or seventeen years earlier. Again the Aborigines spoke of a wreck with many drowned. Some doubt was therefore raised about the Shark Bay location that had been searched in 1834. It was reported in the Perth Gazette of 26 August 1851:
He [the captain of the Monkey] was sent to Shark Bay, the locality strangely believed to be indicated by the native description of its distance from the Swan, rather blundering calculation of 30 days native walk or 10 days white man’s ride, 500 miles!
As a result of the fresh report Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Helpman in the brig Saucy Jack was sent to investigate. Although nothing could be seen on the beach in 1851, the Aborigines said that much wreckage had been covered by sand. Helpman found some burnt wreckage a little to the south of that river and this may have come from the Mercury. Pieces of wreckage were also picked up in Champion Bay. There is no evidence that these incidents and reports concern the Mercury, but it was conjectured at the time to be associated with the loss of that vessel.
While the non-arrival of the Mercury caused much anxiety and speculation in the colony, no formal inquiry was held.
During the very early years of the Swan River settlement, there were strong links formed with the British in India. Swan River was seen as a sister colony outside of the Indian sub-continent, a place where furlough could be taken amongst English speaking people and a place where children could be educated rather than sending them home to England.
To Europeans Australia was Terra Nullius and as such was seen as a place where land could be acquired and fortunes made, using cheap Asiatic labour. The Mercury was carrying a group of speculators who hoped to settle in Western Australia and establish trading ventures. Among the people on board were seventy natives of India destined to supply cheap labour.
In 1839 Grey discovered the river running into Champion Bay just north of Bluff Point and called it ‘Greenough’; by early in the 1850s Gregory’s identification of it as the ‘Chapman’ had become established. Owing to this confusion the wreckage referred to as possibly being from the Mercury may have been found a few kilometres north of Geraldton and not at the mouth of the present day Greenough River.
Bateson, C., 1982 (1972), Australian shipwrecks: including vessels wrecked en route to or from Australia, and some strandings, Volume 1, 1622–1850. A.H. & A.W. Reed Pty Ltd, Frenchs Forest, NSW (Reprinted 1982).
Henderson, G., 1980, Unfinished voyages: Western Australian shipwrecks 1622–1850. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.
Henderson, G. and K., 1988, Unfinished voyages: Western Australian shipwrecks 1851–1880. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.
Moore, G.F., 1978 (1884), Diary of ten years of an early settler in Western Australia. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands. (Facsimile Edition 1978.)
Perth Gazette, 26 August 1851.
Playford, P., 1996, Carpet of silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.
Totty, D., 1979, Wrecks of WA’s central mainland coast (Jurien Bay to Port Gregory). Unpublished manuscript.

Ship Built

Master Captain C. Cowles

Country Built India

Port Built Bombay

Port Registered Calcutta

When Built 1806

Ship Lost

Gouped Region Mid-West

Crew 74

Deaths 80

When Lost 1833/10/12

Where Lost Between Calcutta and King George Sound

Port From Calcutta

Port To Swan River

Cargo General

Ship Details

Engine N

Length 26.20

Beam 6.70

TONA 255.00

TONB 198.00

Draft 3.00

Museum Reference

Unique Number 1502

Sunk Code Unknown

Protected Protected Federal

Found N

Inspected N

Confidential NO