Off the Queensland coast in a swamp on Stradbroke Island, a Spanish galleon lies. That’s the romantic legend. It’s said that the truth is stranger than fiction, but sadly in this case it isn’t. However, there is a shipwreck, and there is a mystery around it.
What do we know of this mysterious wreck? From ‘The Queenslander’ in 1922, “A Spanish Galleon is said to be situated in a swamp on Stradbroke, and was located by Mr Matt. Hebe during a dry season. Mr Hebe took away an old anchor and some copper… Later… he again visited the place, only to find an immense swamp enclosed the ship, effectually blocking any close approach.”
There is no doubt that there is an unidentified shipwreck in the swamp on the island and there have been many eyewitnesses to it. I’ve personally spoken to an elderly chap who’d visited it in his youth, but could it be a Spanish galleon or Portuguese caravel pre-dating Captain Cook’s explorations? Possibly, but not likely. There is no evidence of European visits to the east coast of Australia prior to Cook.
What then is this mystery ship in the swamp? And as Isabel Hannah asks in a newspaper article of 1921, “If there was a wreck, what became of the crew?” To which I’ll add, and what became of all the artefacts? Any theory has to answer these questions.
Now we skip back to 1852, to Maine in the north east of the United States where a ship named Brownsville City was built. The ship sailed to Australia and in 1854 “The splendid Schooner Brownsville City has been purchased by Mr John Christian. jun, for the sum of £2350 cash. We believe she is intended for the Hunter River trade, for which she is well adapted.” The ship was renamed Jane.
In 1857 the Jane headed to the Richmond River to pick up a load of timber but in strong winds the captain took the ship further north, trying to keep the ship away from land. In spite of the crew’s efforts the vessel came close to the breakers and the Captain decided to beach her if possible. He steered for the bar at the south end of Stradbroke Island, “and though the bar is dry at low tide, and there is only four feet of water on it at high tide, the violence of the waves carried the vessel over it into comparatively smooth water. The Jane had no cargo on board, and to this circumstance must be attributed the fact of her getting across the bar.”
The Jane now lay aground with hopes of refloating her. Two attempts were made by the crew of the Breadalbane and after the second attempt the Jane was reported to be going to pieces. She’d “settled down too deep in the water, and the strain to which she was subjected proved too much for her already weakened state.” At this point the vessel was abandoned.
With the loss of the ship and the cost of trying to salvage her, everything of value was stripped from the ship, leaving an unseaworthy hulk sitting in the water at Swan Bay at the southern tip of Stradbroke Island. The eight or so crew would have returned to Sydney taking their belongings with them.
The geography and coastline of Swan Bay changed over the years and the ship, through either wave and storm action, and the silting up of the bay, found itself surrounded by the swamp. Over the next forty years it passed from memory.
When it appears again in the late 19th century with Matthew Heeb extracting copper rivets from it, no connection was made between a ship abandoned in an open bay to one rotting in a swamp. (It should be added that copper rivets weren’t generally used in ship building until about the time of Captain Cook.) No cargo or major finds of artefacts were found, because there had been no cargo, and everything of value stripped from the ship. The wreck became a thing of conjecture and romantic theory.
This doesn’t rule out the possibility that European mariners explored the east coast of Australia prior to Cook’s voyage in 1770. It seems odd that from the first European sighting of Australia in 1606, that in the subsequent 164 years no one thought to have a look at the east coast. However, there is no proof that they did, and the shipwreck in the Stradbroke Island swamp doesn’t provide any.