The riddle of the Rifleman
The Rifleman set out from Hobart on April 14, 1833, and was never seen again. The fate of the ship, her 12 crew and six passengers, remained a total mystery for 179 years. Only now, after re-examining artefacts collected in 1996 from the foot of Auckland Island’s uncompromising westerly cliffs, have experts finally solved the riddle. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack—the definitive piece of evidence measured just 14 millimetres across.
Robert Hutchinson cursed as he lowered the sextant. Another squall had overtaken them, and the brightening in the cloud had passed without offering a clear glimpse of the sun’s disc. Hail rattled on the deck.
It had been four days since he had managed a sight. With each day that passed, his position became more uncertain. The crew sensed it, and trod about him carefully. He supposed the strain was written clearly enough on his face.
The charts of this ocean were disconcertingly scant on detail. There was a superstition among sealers and whalers that these climes were haunted by reefs and islands that moved—here one day, someplace else the next. Indeed, their names reflected this suspicion: the Snares, the Traps.
The man at the rail called the speed, reading the marks on the log line.
Hutchinson nodded. His ship had been running at a canter this past week, ever since the weather blessed them with a fair wind from the south-west and then mixed the blessing with this damnable soupy overcast. They were 11 days from Hobart and their progress ought to have him in the vicinity of the most southerly group of the danger isles, Auckland Island, but according to Hutchinson, clear to the south.
Balancing on the balls of his feet, he gauged the motion of his vessel, feeling for the tug of current among the roll and pitch from the steep following sea and the yaw of his ship as she slipped down the face of each wave to meet the next. He had made allowance for the Rifleman’s leeway, for a current, and a little more as a margin of error. It was a safe course—as long as the islands were where they were supposed to be.
The weather, if anything, grew worse as the day wore on. The wind freshened and the hail turned to sleety rain, with flurries of snow now and again. In the thick of it, you could barely make out the topmasts from the deck. Not for the first time, Hutchinson cursed the ill fortune that had held them up in Hobart fully two months more than he had planned. Putting a cargo together had proven to be slow work—the runholders were dreamers and inclined to put a ridiculous price on their clip, and the whalemen appeared to be forming a monopoly. But Robert Hutchinson wouldn’t risk life and limb sailing all the way to the bottom of the world and return with anything less than a full hold.
Before he went below, he shortened sail, handed the sextant to Botley, the mate, and sent a lad aloft to double the watch. With a last, reproachful look at the skies, he stooped and stamped down the companionway. At the foot of it, the Royal Navy surgeon William Porteous stood aside to let him pass. The sawbones had served on His Majesty’s vessels and Hutchinson sensed the younger man’s cool scrutiny. It did nothing to improve his mood.
But no sooner had he shucked off his boots and settled with a pipe than there was a commotion overhead and the sound of seaboots on the companionway. One of the boys burst into the cabin.
“Beg pardon, sir,” he gasped. “Land.”
For a few minutes, there was reason to hope it was a mistake. The lookout aloft had fancied he’d seen the loom of land on the port beam, but no one else had seen it. It was gloomy, with a fine rain driven by the wind. Hutchinson called all hands on deck and had the ship hauled close to the wind to run as southerly as she might. It was a precaution. The wind that drove them eastward could force them upon the land, and the Rifleman, like other ship-rigged vessels of her day, could make little progress to windward. Finding a lee shore in a gale was a seaman’s worst nightmare.
If this was Auckland Island, they should pass clear to the south. If it were simply a trick of the light, or the figment of a scared youngster’s imagination, well, no harm done.
The next quarter hour passed tensely. Botley scanned the murk to port with the glass while the crew stood to their stations, their faces turned to the quarterdeck awaiting instructions. Hutchinson had ordered the lead be swung, but they’d found no bottom at 50 fathoms. The wind was blowing in gusts near gale force and further into the south, knocking them onto a more easterly course.
“Land! Land!” The cry came from for’d and aloft all at once, the voices breaking with fear.
“Where away?” yelled Hutchinson.
“Dead ahead!” shrieked the for’d hand, while the cry from aloft was a single, inarticulate wail. At that moment, the land loomed unmistakably through the mist, a wall of it, a sheer wall of unimaginably tall cliffs, their tops lost in the cloud and their feet in a maelstrom of white water. The flash of spray to starboard announced more land in that direction, cutting off hope of escape to the south.
Hutchinson ordered the helm put over so that they might run before the wind and perhaps wear off the coast to the north. He ordered the boats be made ready and sounded the bell to call the passengers on deck.
Although he judged they were little more than two miles off the cliffs, they still had no bottom. There was no hope of setting anchor. Running north was their only chance, and the wind favoured it. The seaway was nightmarish, with a heavy southerly swell quarrelling with a wind-driven chop from the west, further complicated by waves reflected from the cliffs.
The passengers were huddled miserably by the longboat. Hutchinson cast an eye over them, over Mr Tennant hugging his sobbing wife, at the surgeon Porteous standing at the starboard rail, his hands behind his back and maintaining perfect balance despite the lurching of the deck. Hutchinson noticed the surgeon had dressed for the occasion: he had put on his uniform jacket.
A great wave, 60 feet if it was an inch, picked the Rifleman up as she struggled gamely north and hurled her bodily toward the cliffs. She was too close now and, short of a miracle, could never go clear.
Hutchinson ordered the topgallants cracked on—it might give them some weather helm but otherwise it would speed them to safety or to perdition, as God willed it—but he had no real hope.
The lead found bottom at forty-five fathoms. The main anchor was catsheaded in the hold and no use to them, and the auxiliaries could never hold her on such a lee shore. He could not launch the boats to weather, and there would soon be no leeway left. The sound of the breakers could now be clearly heard.
The shadow of rocks ahead showed that the way was cut off, and the need to get the boats away was acute. Hutchinson ordered the gig cut free and streamed astern with a painter. The helm was put to starboard and the Rifleman swung her head to weather. The crew scrambled to launch the longboat. She was got in the water and pulled clear for two or three strokes of the oars, then a wave neatly tipped her over.
Hutchinson watched as three or four heads surfaced.
“Every man for himself!” bellowed Hutchinson.
Three or four dived over and swam for the gig; the others, three of them, stood on the ship’s main deck, their hair plastered on their faces, and stared, nonplussed.
Hutchinson turned to face his doom, and took out his pocketwatch, so that he could mark the moment when she struck. The waves and the wind were conspiring to crowd her toward a cleft in the rock into which the swell was surging. She would be soon dashed to pieces.
“Farewell, Mr Porteous,” he said.
The Navy man’s buttons gleamed as he grasped Hutchinson’s hand.
A wave broke alongside them, and the Rifleman struck by the starboard and shivered the length of her keel. Hutchinson stumbled, but looked at his watch. Another wave was gathering astern.
These—or a sequence of events not unlike this reconstruction—were the final hours of the British-flagged trading vessel Rifleman, which foundered in late April 1833 en route from Hobart to London, with the loss of all hands.
With the ship sank the cargo, and all details of the voyage but those that would survive immersion in salt water for nearly two centuries. The truth would remain submerged beneath the waves grinding on the west coast of Auckland Island, and further obscured by conjecture and simple mistakes of fact; the identity of the wreck and all those who went down with her would have remained unknown but for a single, shimmering clue stitched upon the jacket of an unlikely passenger.
The facts are few and fragmented. The Rifleman cleared Hobart on April 14, 1833. She was owned by Robert Hutchinson, her skipper, and carried 12 crew and six passengers. Her cargo was referred to as ‘colonial produce’—predominantly wool, hides and whale and seal oil. With her hold full, she was bound for ‘London direct’, which meant that instead of heading north and sailing for the Cape of Good Hope via the Indian Ocean, she would drop south to pick up the belt of westerly winds that girdle the globe in high latitudes and sail before them to Cape Horn and beyond, into the Atlantic and northward, home. This, and the outward leg from England to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope, was known as the Great Circle Route. It was the shortcut between Great Britain and her colonies in the South Seas, but like most shortcuts, it was not without its hazards.
It was common for nothing to be heard of a vessel for up to eight months after she set sail—it usually took between three and four months for a ship to reach her destination, and the same for a vessel bearing news of her arrival to reach her port of origin. This was doubtless a nervous time for those who had consigned something—or someone—precious aboard, but there would have been no real fears regarding Rifleman’s safety until early in 1834, when the first disquiet was expressed in a Hobart newspaper: the prison ship Southworth had arrived in the Derwent River in early January, the latest to arrive without news of the Rifleman.
Another weary month passed by before those awaiting word heard anything. Then in early February 1834, a vessel from England reported the Rifleman to have arrived safe and sound in London on the ninth of the previous October; and over the next three days, further reports had her arriving in London on October 11. The Hobart shipping agent Hewitt & Co had sent letters to British addressees per the Rifleman, and one of the new arrivals from London brought a reply dated October 12, 1833. Hewitt & Co, the Sydney house of John Gore & Co and their fellow Australian merchants who had consigned goods by the Rifleman must have collectively heaved a mighty sigh of relief.
The rejoicing was short lived, however: a month later, the newspapers had changed their tune. The Clarence had arrived from London, and upon enquiry, her master insisted that neither hide nor hair of the Rifleman had been seen in England. (Hewitt & Co had taken the precaution of sending a duplicate letter with another vessel, and the reply the company had received must have been prompted by this correspondence.) Rumours spread around the Hobart docks that the Rifleman was lost. Within a day or two, the Tasmanian and Sydney newspapers sadly agreed: it was now nearly a year since she had sailed, one noted. She must be presumed to have come to grief.
There were many ways in which a sailing vessel could disappear in the 1800s. The Great Circle Route traversed some of the most fearsome reaches of the world’s oceans, where storms of hurricane strength and monstrous seas are commonplace. A ship could founder and vanish without trace. Icebergs were far from rare, especially in the vicinity of Cape Horn, and these were a lethal hazard in low visibility. Wooden ships could—and did—burn.
And although there were relatively few landmasses between Hobart and the Horn, they proved to be brutally unforgiving to those who had the misfortune to stumble upon them.
The Auckland Islands were discovered by Abraham Bristow, the master of a British whaling vessel, Ocean, on August 18, 1806. The eroded remains of a colossal volcanic complex, they comprise four main islands, extending from the northern extremity of Enderby Island to the southern cape of Adams Island and wreathed with countless rocks, islets and shoals. They lie like a snare across the path of a vessel sailing the Great Circle Route from Australia’s east coast.
A chart published by James Imray in 1851 placed the Auckland Islands 35 nautical miles to the south of their actual position, which meant that they lay precisely on the course vessels would steer to avoid the archipelago. This error alone might account for a number of wrecks. (Ironically, Bristow had charted them almost exactly in their correct position.) Worse still, the weather patterns in these latitudes often produce sea fogs or squally storms that would render 19th-century navigation techniques, which relied upon sightings of celestial bodies, useless. A skipper who had failed to shoot a sight would be forced to rely upon dead reckoning—educated guesswork taking the vessel’s last known position and combining known factors such as her compass course, speed, the leeway she made (the tendency of a vessel to be pushed sideways by a wind on her beam) and any currents detected or known to exist into an estimate of distance travelled and direction. The longer the master went without a corroborating sight, the greater the uncertainty over his position.
Auckland, the main island in the group, presents towering basalt cliffs to the west and slopes away rather more gently to its deeply indented east coast. A vessel sailing before the prevailing westerly risked blundering into the broad embayment of the main island’s west coast where, should she approach closely enough, her plight would be altogether hopeless, her escape to the south cut off by Cape Bristow and to the north by Disappointment Island. Since the seabed shelves sharply from the foot of the western cliffs into very deep water, there would be little hope of setting an anchor, even supposing time and sea conditions permitted this to be attempted. Barring miracles, nothing could prevent a wind-powered vessel in this situation from being wrecked.
Though it appeared increasingly likely that the Rifleman had been lost, there was little certainty until the Caroline, a sealer out of Sydney, arrived at the Bunn & Co shore whaling station in Preservation Inlet, Fiordland, fresh from a run to the Auckland Islands. The Caroline’s captain, William Anglim and his crew described a beach strewn with wreckage and an upturned ship of American construction—the hull sections appeared to be black birch fastened with copper bolts. The trans-Tasman traders Sydney Packet and Lucy Ann—which had shared the Fiordland anchorage—doubtless raced each other to be the first to bring the news back to Australia.
On Monday, November 14, readers of the Sydney Herald read a detailed description of the material washed on the shore from Captain Joss of the Sydney Packet: “keelson bolts of copper 4 feet 3 inches, 35 or 40 timbers, wool and oil staves in abundance, several pieces of cabin furniture all cedar, one anchor stock, one swinging boom, one top-gallant yard, some part of blankets, ﬂoor timbers 20 inches by 14, spars of pitch pine, cedar plank and part of a wool-press”.
While nothing was found on that cruel beach that could provide a diagnostic match with the Rifleman or her cargo, the prevailing opinion was that this was where the hapless vessel had fetched up. Perhaps most significant was the intelligence provided by Edwin Palmer, a sealer from the Caroline, who had previously worked the Aucklands and could attest that there had not been any wreckage there as late as February 1833, when he was taken off. The wreck must have occurred some time between that February and the following August, when he returned aboard the Caroline and discovered the flotsam.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Examiner declared on May 27 that “no doubt exists” about the identification, and soon afterward, John Gore & Co was paid out its insurance in respect of the cargo it had consigned on the Rifleman.
The abundance of wool and oil staves among the flotsam of the ‘mystery wreck’ of 1833 makes a port of final lading on the east coast of Australia virtually certain for the hapless vessel. The fact that she fetched up on the west coast of the Aucklands is tantamount to proof that she was sailing eastward for Great Britain. Of the vessels that departed Australian ports in the 12 months prior to August 1833, when the wreckage was found, only the Rifleman was unaccounted for, and nothing more would have been known of her fate had it not been for the lure of gold.
In 1866, the Auckland Islands claimed another ship in very different circumstances. The General Grant was becalmed when she came ashore but nonetheless smashed to matchwood by the swell upon the merciless cliffs of Auckland Island. Her cargo manifest showed that she carried 2576 ounces of gold, and a few tons of spelter, a zinc alloy. Many of the passengers were miners returning to England, and at least some of the “170 sundry packages” deposited in the captain’s safe are likely to have contained gold, so the amount is probably larger than this. But it was widely rumoured that the spelter was in fact gold as well—indeed, the cargo had been insured for £165,000, a veritable fortune amounting to more than NZ$20 million today, and the equivalent of four times the estimated value of the hull and cargo.
Since news of the General Grant’s wreck reached Invercargill along with the ten survivors from her complement in 1868, no fewer than 19 expeditions have been mounted to locate the wreck and its precious cargo.
A wreck was located a little to the north of Cape Bristow in 1976 by an expedition led by Commander John Grattan, RN, who announced the Grant had been found, though pioneering Kiwi treasure diver Kelly Tarlton, who was a member of Grattan’s crew, doubted that this was the General Grant as there were indications—an abundance of rivets, a steam winch—to suggest that the wreck was that of a steel ship, and more modern. Grattan’s vessel was not equipped to work sand, so little more could be discovered.
In 1986, New Zealanders John Dearling and Malcolm Blair took the necessary equipment and a team of divers to the site in order to settle the matter one way or the other. Eventually a small plaque bearing the legible word “Nantes” was discovered—the name of what was the largest port in France. This seemed to confirm Tarlton’s suspicion that this was the Anjou, built in Nantes and known to have been wrecked in that vicinity in 1905.
Nevertheless, part of the team continued to dive at the site, in case two ships had been wrecked at the same location; the rest proceeded to ‘swim the coast’—putting divers down at likely sites to perform a visual search for further evidence of shipwrecks. Soon afterward, debris from another wreck was found at 50˚41’33.49”S, 166˚3’39.82”E, lying in 18–20 metres of water in a narrow cove headed by a sea cave.
Bill Day, who was a junior member of that team, was sitting in an inflatable shadowing the diver below, Willie Bullock. Day had just completed a 50-minute stint—one of many in strong currents and very cold water that day—and was resting. It was a rare calm in those parts, sunny and warm; the boat idled ahead of Bullock’s bubbles, which took them through an archway and into a small cove, where a waterfall fell from the heights into still, turquoise water. Day looked about himself appreciatively.
“This is nice,” he said to the boatman. “Isn’t it a pity that ships don’t go down in places like this?”
At that moment, Bullock surfaced alongside the inflatable.
“I’ve found metal,” he said. “There’s anchors down here.”
Day had some air left: he rolled in and, with Bullock, investigated the find. There were anchors, chain and the breech of a cannon visible among the boulders.
The Invercauld had been wrecked nearly ten nautical miles to the north. The only other known shipwreck on this stretch of coast was the Anjou, which Dearling’s crew felt they had identified nearly five nautical miles to the south. The physical appearance of the wreck site they had just discovered—the presence of a sea cave in a small cove—roughly corresponded with the descriptions given by survivors of the surroundings in which the General Grant struck and sank. Little wonder Dearling and his crew were excited. This simply had to be the General Grant.
Such excavation as could be accomplished turned up encouraging results. One of the pair of small cannon found was raised, as was an anchor. Copper sheathing and iron structural members indicated a ship of ‘composite’ construction—a wooden hull reinforced with iron. Tantalisingly, the rim of a ship’s bell was found. Ship’s bells generally featured the name of the vessel and the year of launching, but nothing besides the blank rim was located.
The expedition was called off before a comprehensive survey could be conducted, as word reached the party that their services were required in the salvage of the Mikhail Lermontov, a Soviet cruise liner that had sunk near Port Gore in the Marlborough Sounds. It was a further ten years before another expedition could return to work the site. Bill Day took the dive support vessel Seawatch and a handpicked team of divers, along with a photographer and a documentary film-maker, and set about what they confidently expected to be the salvage of the General Grant.
Six anchor points were established on the seabed and on the rock walls of the cove in which the wreck was located, so that the Seawatch could be moored directly above the divers as they worked. She could be manouevred about the site simply by working her winches, and if the weather turned—which it was apt to do—she could quickly slip her moorings and put to sea. A seventh anchor point was established outside the cove, both to assist her in manoeuvring onto the site, and also as a precautionary measure so that she could be winched out of the cove in the event of engine failure. The site was, after all, desperately exposed to some of the world’s worst and most capricious weather. As Day puts it, “We were putting our ship in harm’s way every day we went to work.”
Meanwhile, her lifting gear could be used to assist in the work of clearing boulders from the site, an airlift could feed smaller debris to a conveyor belt on the deck, where it could be examined, and a Venturi pump could be established to ‘vacuum’ areas where it was considered there was a high probability of making an important discovery. Just as importantly, the divers working in the frigid subantarctic water could be supplied with hot water alongside the umbilicus supplying air to their helmets. This system worked famously and the dive team maintained they were warmer than those on the surface.
The location was typical of a wreck site on the weather coast of the Aucklands. By contrast with the romantic notion of a shipwreck as an intact hull sitting upright on the sea floor, little remained but a debris field, liberally strewn with large rocks and boulders. The boulders were shifted first: the largest was estimated to weigh around 28 tonnes. Then the painstaking work of sifting through the sand and gravel beneath was carried out. Daylight hours were from 5:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night, but weather and sea conditions ensured that work was possible on only one day in four. With no safe harbour within easy reach, the Seawatch was run a couple of miles out to sea to hold station under power at night.
As work proceeded, more artefacts arrived on the deck of the Seawatch: two bronze decklights, one of them still glazed; a cast-iron woodstove door; a deformed lead cistern, a lead pipe and what were subsequently identified as parts of a toilet flushing mechanism; bronze scale weights, of the type a gold assayer might use; the head of a tenon hammer along with parts of the handle; hinges, bolts, hull spikes and fasteners in abundance, cutlery and ceramic shards, parts of the rudder assembly.
Some of the items were intriguing: a lead object that resembled a cake decorator; a small pewter case containing a folding blade; a brass disc with a design upon it, resembling a button.
And as the divers worked their way deeper into the strata of sand and gravel, coins began to be found. More than 60 silver half-crowns were found, some of them apparently in a stack. This caused a flicker of excitement, as the orderly stack suggested a bank consignment such as the one the General Grant was carrying. Rupees were recovered and, deeper still, gold.
“It’s always a thrill finding gold,” Bill Day says. “Every other metal tarnishes with exposure to seawater. Silver rapidly goes black, but gold sparkles the day it is put into the sea, and when it is uncovered over a hundred years later, it is still sparkling for the lucky diver who finds it.”
But the gloss was taken off these finds by the dates that the coins bore. None of those that could be discerned was later than 1832, and many were older still. These preceded the General Grant’s voyage by more than three decades. This seemed unlikely in a vessel carrying over 80 souls and a bank consignment. Other clues emerged that were equally discouraging: the rudder components seemed too small for a vessel the General Grant’s size. The woodstove door was stamped with “Molyneux L.Pool”, which seemed to indicate British manufacture (the General Grant was built in Bath, Maine, in the United States). When the decklights were analysed, one was found to bear the name of a Sheffield brassfounder, Chadburn Brothers, and the toilet cistern was stamped with a broad arrow, indicating that it was built for the British Government. It seemed that Day and his team were working the wreck of an unidentified vessel, smaller than the General Grant, probably of British build and wrecked not long after 1832.
In light of the information gleaned from the wreck—which Day and others had taken to referring to as the “half-crown wreck”—it was now possible to look at the site and see the ways in which it differed from the survivors’ accounts of the place in which the General Grant went to her doom. This was not the General Grant after all. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
“We was robbed,” says Day.
The Rifleman had her run in the sun in the days before British shipping records were tightened. Survey reports, beyond the barest information in Lloyd’s Register—tons gross burden, draught, general construction—were not kept. Crew musters, if recorded prior to the 1840s, have not survived. Records of master mariners were not kept until 1845. Such details as can be discovered may only be pieced together from shipping registers and contemporary newspapers.
The 303-ton Rifleman was built at Young’s shipyard in Montreal and launched on November 1, 1825, as was noted in the Old Quebec: “A beautiful ship of about 400 tons, called the Rifleman, was launched from Young’s Ship-yard at Montreal, on the 1st inst.” Since captured from the French at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Quebec had become a satellite of the British shipbuilding industry. Unlike in England, timber abounded there, and by the 1820s it was common for British shipowners to commission vessels to be built in Montreal and sailed across for final fitting-out in England.
Rifleman appears on the Canadian register as number 9026105, ship-rigged and 302 tons burthen—an old measure of tonnage based upon the number of barrels of wine that a ship could carry in her hold. She was single-decked, with a long hatchway, square-sterned, built of hazel and cedar and copper-sheathed (the “American construction” noted by sealers among the wreckage) and carried two guns. She sailed on her maiden voyage on June 23, 1826—soon after the North Atlantic shipping season got under way—under the command of one J.C. Grave and carrying a cargo of “pot ashes and pearl ashes” (useful alkaline salts produced as a by-product of burning hardwoods, and a staple commodity in the trading dawn of Canada, where there was no shortage of hardwood to be cleared and burned). She was bound for Liverpool, and reached there on August 11. She was re-flagged as an English vessel on October 14, 1826, and entered service with Liverpool shipowner William Porter, who seems to have made his fortune in the twilight of the British trade in African slaves.
The Rifleman’s subsequent career was typical of a tramp trader, and her itineraries a reflection of the eddies in the flow of British imperial trade. Her first commercial voyage, under the command of a man named J. Hawkins, was to the British East Indies, via Mauritius, for which she departed Liverpool on February 18, 1827. She reached Mauritius on July 17, and sailed for Bengal a little over a month later on August 27. She was a month in reaching Calcutta and another month in loading. She sailed for home on November 7 via Mauritius again, reaching Gravesend in April 1828.
There is no record of how she was employed in the next year. She may well have visited Brazil under the command of a man named Gibson, returning with a cargo of cotton (the master of another vessel claims to have spoken to her at Maranhão in September 1828, but this report may have been a mistake: there are problems with the timing). Perhaps she was extensively refitted, or simply laid up for sale, as it is not until January 18, 1829, that she definitely reappears, bound for Bombay under the command of Liverpool master mariner Adam Bleasdale. This second voyage seems to have been eventful: newspaper reports noted that she was caught in a gale off the Cape of Good Hope and sprang a leak, and was saved only by jettisoning 40 or 50 tons of iron. This may have been ballast, although the nascent Indian ship-building industry was furiously consuming iron at the time and it is equally likely to have been cargo. The rest of her unspecified cargo, it was feared, was likely to be water-damaged. She reached Bombay safely in May, and was back in London (via Mauritius and the Isle of Wight) in July 1830.
She sailed from London on October 20, 1830, bound for Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) with a cargo of luxury items (after stopping at the Isle of Wight, where two of her intended passengers were left behind after leaping at an opportunity to join a hunt ashore) and reached Hobart on April 3, 1831. Her outward passage seems to have been very slow but uneventful, although one item in her cargo, a “ready made Brussels carpet”, was put up for auction by a Hobart house and described as “more or less damaged by sea water”. If the reason for her slow passage was her reputation for leaks, the fact wasn’t allowed to disturb her passengers, who offered the customary vote of thanks to Bleasdale in Sydney newspapers for a safe and comfortable voyage. But soon after her arrival, she suffered a sad mishap: while she was lying in the Derwent for loading, a drunk seaman, John Anderson, fell overboard and drowned.
On May 8, 1831, she sailed from Hobart for Sydney. Bleasdale was doubtless hoping to find a cargo there, but he was disappointed: when she sailed for Java on May 29, it was in ballast with “stores” aboard. She leaked on passage to Mauritius, and when struck by a southerly gale off Scilly in Britain was reported to have lost her “boats and bulwarks, etc”—that is, sustained moderate damage, in the code of the day. Her next port of call was Texel on the Netherlands coast, where she may have sought repairs.
Her final voyage saw her loading at London in early 1832 under the command and ownership of Robert Hutchinson, about whom few details can be discovered, given how common his surname was in the mercantile marine. Hutchinson may have originally planned a Mediterranean trading voyage: at the time the Rifleman was surveyed in late 1832, her stated destination was Turkey. If so, his plans changed. She sailed from The Downs off the east coast of Kent on June 25 bound for Van Diemen’s Land with a typical cargo of “sundries”—textiles, hardware, furniture, crockery and other domestic accoutrements and items that were scarce in frontier Australia—and with 21 adult passengers and seven children aboard. She called in at the Cape of Good Hope, from where she sailed on September 20, and arrived at Hobart on November 8 with five cabin passengers and three children, and a further 16 men and women and as many children travelling in steerage.
In an eerie repetition of the misfortune that befell her on her previous voyage—and doubtless much to the discomfort of superstitious sailors among her crew—she lost a man overboard during Christmas Eve revelry, and he, too, drowned.
The Rifleman sailed from Hobart for ‘London direct’ on April 14, 1833, after a few minor delays, probably while Hutchinson scratched around to fill her hold. She was carrying what Australian newspapers described as a “valuable cargo of colonial produce”: 360 bales of wool, five casks of kangaroo skins and a puncheon of seal skins, 642 ‘tuns’ of whale oil, 382 bundles of whalebone, a case of books and “sundry cases of curiosities” dispatched by a Mr Wood, likely to have been Thomas Wood of the Tasmanian Mechanics’ Institute, who maintained a lively correspondence with learned societies and individuals back in England.
Besides her master, the Rifleman had aboard 12 crew, most of them likely to have been with the vessel since she left England. An exception was William Curlett, who arrived aboard the Gulnare a month before the Rifleman sailed: he was probably signed on to replace the man who drowned. Most of them are likely to have been young British lads: no fewer than half of them had ‘William’ for their Christian name—William IV, the ‘sailor king’ and reigning monarch, was born in 1765.
There were also six passengers. Thomas Chalcroft and George Hemmings may well be the pair of the same name who arrived in Hobart in 1826 along with 118 others aboard the convict ship Earl St Vincent. If so, both men had just finished their sentences of seven years; they may have become friends aboard their convict transport or subsequently. Thomas Fawcett was travelling alone, and cannot be traced through Australian convict or immigration records. There was a married couple—Mr and Mrs Tennant—aboard, who may have been ex-convicts, too: Tennant was not an uncommon surname in the nascent colony. And there was Dr William Porteous, RN, returning to England after travelling out to Australia as surgeon-superintendent aboard the convict ship Circassian.
These details are important, because while the wreckage thrashed upon the cliffs of Auckland Island could be considered a reasonable match to the cargo and departure date of the Rifleman, and the dates of the coins, the presence of rupees and the British componentry discovered by Day circumstantially correlate, it is the presence of just three anomalous items among the artefacts that make it a near certainty. All three could have been expected to be among the belongings of Porteous.
The lancet in its case was the instrument of a surgeon. The pewter “cake decorator” that flummoxed the salvage crew of Seawatch was subsequently identified as a vaginal syringe, for administering medication following miscarriage or childbirth. And the humble brass bead, embossed with the serpent of Asclepius entwined with an anchor, could only be the distinctive button of the Royal Navy surgical corps. While it wasn’t unheard of for whaling or sealing skippers to take surgeons aboard—indeed, the Nancy, a whaler sailing out of Sydney in January 1833, boasted a sawbones on her muster—it is unlikely they had served in the Royal Navy.
The metallic artefacts discovered by Day and his team lie about halfway down the precipitous coast of Auckland Island, while the bulk of the buoyant wreckage described by the crew of the Caroline was strewn on the beaches further north. It now seems likely that the Rifleman fetched up on that ironbound coast in a gale and was swiftly broken up.
You almost hope it were so swift. The site in which the wreck lies would afford opportunity for survivors to get ashore in calm weather: had some or all of the Rifleman’s complement survived, they would have faced similar privations to the castaways from other wrecks on the Aucklands, which are among some of the great stories of dogged survival in the annals of the sea. If some hapless soul did stagger ashore from that disaster, it was to suffer a lingering death every bit as bad as drowning. But no trace of survivors from the Rifleman has ever been found.
After 179 years, the riddle of the Rifleman can finally be put to rest, along with the iron still resting on the sea floor, the timber and bones long ago ground to sand. Bill Day, Malcolm Blair, John Dearling and others were searching for three tons of gold, but their most significant find may have been a single brass button.