Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

January 8th 2009
Islander's eight year quest completed

A team diver Lee Graham with the anchor from the Memaid News is now out that the wreck of HM Schooner, the "Mermaid", a ship with a huge and relatively unsung role in Australia's maritime exploration history, has just been located after it foundered and sank on Flora Reef, 13 km east of the Frankland Islands off Cairns, 180 years ago. And, while the news of the Australian National Maritime Museum expedition has raised national interest, credit for much of the discovery belongs to a Magnetic Island resident and wreck buff, Peter Illidge of Nelly Bay.

"I'm ecstatic!" said Peter when we contacted him following the discovery.

Peter Illidge, who operates Oceania Maritime Consultants, has been researching and searching for the wreck for eight years. Peter had already gotten very close - within 1.9kms in 2004 - when, on one of two a self-funded expeditions, he recorded "an anomaly" with a magnetometer - an instrument which measures the strength or direction of a magnetic field and, in wreck locating, metal objects on the seabed.

But, this time, with a well funded expedition sponsored by Australian Shipping company Silentworld, the Museum team were able to hire the very well-appointed, Spoilsport dive boat.

On Sunday (Jan 4) archaeologists from the Museum scanned the seabed with magnetometers and located a site "of interest" in 2.0 metres of water. They then dived and identified a length of anchor chain, rigging components, part of a magnetic compass and some copper-alloy hull fastenings, all apparently from a vessel of the early 19th century.

Peter Illidge (file photo)

On Monday Peter Illidge made a further discovery - an iron anchor, now believed to belong to the Mermaid. "Finding the anchor was a total buzz after all these years," he said.

"This is fairly strong evidence," said the Museum's maritime archaeologist and curator, Kieran Hosty earlier in the week.

"In the official inquiry that followed the shipwreck, it was recorded that the crew threw an anchor overboard when the vessel was in trouble and tried to pull Mermaid off the reef. and they did this just a half a cable (150 metres) from the site where the ship finally ran aground and broke up,"

For Peter Illidge the discovery most importantly shines much deserved light onto a hero of his, who he describes as, "The man who put the meat on the sandwich of Australian cartography." He was Lieutenant (later Admiral) Phillip Parker King.

Phillip Parker King

Phillip Parker King was born on Norfolk Island and was the son of Governor Philip Gidley King, who named him after Australia's first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip.
"He was a great cartographer and mariner," says Peter Illidge.

Parker King mapped vast lengths of coastline from Arnhem Land to Cape Leeuwin and King George Sound to the Great Barrier Reef between 1817 and 1822.

'He circumnavigated Australia twice in the Mermaid and was able to look after his crew for eight months in a small boat where there were no maps. He was a survivalist. He navigated the inside passage of the Great Barrier Reef where both Cook and Flinders failed."

According to Peter Illidge, "King went in right close to the coast to fill in what was in between. He did some very brave charting."

"It's just an incredible story. He should be taught about at school and be a household name, like Cook."

It is important to note that the Mermaid was wrecked under the command of another sailor, who, it seems, had few of King's qualities.

Mermaid left Sydney for Port Raffles (Cobourg Peninsula) on 10 May, 1829. When it reached North Queensland its Captain, Samuel Nolbrow, had strict instructions to follow the safer inshore passage, inside the Barrier Reef.

For some unknown reason Nolbrow elected to take a shorter, more dangerous route through the reef which was (and still is) incompletely surveyed. In this he acted against the active advice of other officers on board.

Mermaid ran aground and was wrecked on an unidentified reef on 13 June 1829. The captain and crew took to the ship's boats and were rescued 11 days later by a passing merchant ship, the Admiral Gifford.

A fine watercolour of the Mermaid off Cape Banks 1820 was painted by the famous Colonial artist Conrad Martens after a drwawing by Parker King and, as we have yet to gain copyright permission to reproduce it, can be seen (here).

For Magnetic Islanders King is also important. He passed by this way in the Mermaid and actually landed on Cape Cleveland in the company of botanist Allan Cunningham. In King's journal we find mention of a rare sighting of a coconut in northern Australia, a huge over-wintering of butterflies, and a "remarkable observation" that may be the only other evidence which corresponds with the reason Captain Cook named the Island "Magnetical".

Because it is a fascinating read, we have reproduced, below, the segment related to Magnetic Island and express thanks to the Project Gutenburg which has made this material available for all to read online (here)

Extract from: Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia Performed between the years 1818 and 1822

June 15.
On the afternoon of the second day, I landed with Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Roe to ascend one of the hills that overlooks the bay. After two hours' climbing over huge rounded masses of granite, and penetrating through thick bushes of underwood, we arrived only at a summit considerably beneath the one we wished to reach; but as it was too late in the day to proceed further we halted; and I took a set of angles and made some memorandums for the sketch of the bay. A remarkable observation was here made upon the magnetic influence of this land; the variation was observed to be 10 degrees 32 minutes West, but on removing the compass eight yards off, it only gave 2 degrees 50 minutes East. This in some degree
corresponds with Captain Cook's record of the irregularity of his compass when he passed near this part of the coast, in consequence of which he called the peaked island to the westward of the cape, Magnetical Island: this irregularity, however, was not noticed by me in my observations near the same spot; and the difference observed by him may very probably have been occasioned by the ship's local attraction, which in those days was unknown. The view obtained from this station was neither so useful nor so extensive as I had expected: the coast for six miles back is low and occupied by a large body of water; beyond which is a range of flat-topped and precipitous rocky hills that appear to be inaccessible, and to form almost an impenetrable barrier between the sea-coast and the interior. From the hazy state of the atmosphere the Palm Islands were not visible: sunset being near at hand we were obliged to hasten our descent, which, by following the course of a torrent-worn gully, proved to be much shorter and easier than, from our rugged and difficult ascent, we were led to apprehend.

At the bottom of the hill the small stream that was trickling down the gully, by which we descended, joined another of larger size running over the beach into the sea, at about a quarter of a mile to the southward of that from which we watered. At the junction of these streams we discovered a native path winding among the high grass, which speedily brought us to our boat.

June 16.
We remained at the anchorage the following day in order to obtain some lunar distances; and in the evening Mr. Bedwell sounded across the bay towards the south end of Magnetical Island, and also the channel between that island and the main. The soundings therefore laid down are from his report, from which it appears that there is a good and clear passage through, and excellent anchorage upon a muddy bottom all over the bay.

No natives were seen during our visit, but the remains of nine huts were counted in different parts of the bay, near the edge of the beach. The inhabitants were not however far off, for the tracks of human feet as well as those of a dog were noticed very recently imprinted on the gravelly bed of the fresh-water stream; and we were probably watched by them in all our proceedings. Near the extremity of the Cape some bamboo was picked up, and also a fresh green coconut that appeared to have been lately tapped for the milk. Heaps of pumice-stone were also noticed upon the beach; not any of this production, however, had been met with floating.

Hitherto, no coconut trees have been found on this continent; although so great a portion of it is within the tropic and its north-east coast so near to islands on which this fruit is abundant. Captain Cook imagined that the husk of one, which his second Lieutenant, Mr. Gore, picked up at Endeavour River, and which was covered with barnacles, came from the Terra del Espiritu Santo of Quiros;* but, from the prevailing winds, it would appear more likely to have been drifted from New Caledonia, which island at that time was unknown to him; the fresh appearance of the coconut seen by us renders, however, even this conclusion doubtful; Captain Flinders also found one as far to the south as Shoal-water Bay.**

(*Footnote. Hawkesworth volume 3 page 164.)

(**Footnote. Flinders volume 2 page 49.)

Several kangaroos were started by our wooding party but none were taken. In the gullies Mr. Cunningham reaped an excellent harvest, both of seeds and plants.

Here as well as at every other place that we had landed upon within the tropic, the air is crowded with a species of butterfly, a great many of which were taken. It is doubtless the same species as that which Captain Cook remarks as so plentiful in Thirsty Sound; he says, "we found also an incredible number of butterflies, so that for the space of three or four acres, the air was so crowded with them, that millions were to be seen in every direction, at the same time, that every branch and twig were covered with others that were not upon the wing."* The numbers seen by us
were indeed incredible; the stem of every grass-tree (xanthorrhoea) which plant grows abundantly upon the hills, was covered with them, and on their taking wing the air appeared, as it were, in perfect motion.

(*Footnote. Hawkesworth volume 3 page 125.)

It is a new species, and is described by my friend Mr. W.S. Macleay, in the Appendix, under the name of Euploea hamata.

June 17.
On the 17th we left the bay and passed round the north end of Magnetical Island. Several natives were seen on a sandy beach at the north end, where deep gullies indicated the presence of fresh water.


Story: George Hirst

Attention Magnetic Times News Club readers. Many News Club readers are presently experiencing repeated emailed alerts to our stories in their in-trays. This is a problem with our server which we are presently working to resolve. In the meantime we hope that you will accept our apologies for this annoying glitch. Ed.

To add your comment,
or read those of others, see below

Islander's eight year quest completed
sylvia hayes
January 8th 2009
what a wonderful story of the Mermaid and Phillip Parker King. I learned so much and the links to painting etc are fabulous. Many thanks. Great work.
Chris C
January 9th 2009
And all this time I though that Pete just liked mucking around in boats.
Great story george
Norfolk Islander
January 9th 2009
Amazing Story, it so great to find out information that build's knowledge which school curriculum missed out on. Coming from Norfolk Island myself, it amazing to find out information about one of our own especially when I had never heard of him myself. After his father founded the settlement on Norfolk Island 1788, I
Peter le Grand
January 9th 2009
Congratulations to Peter Illidge for keeping and promoting such a strong focus on regional maritime history.
And he is quite correct,
More attention to those who actually gave substance to the body of work more generally attributed to the 'icons' of history ought prove an essential in our educational system rather than being simply footnotes in history.
Thanks also to MT for both the story and its presentation.

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