The 4th of August 2020 will mark 175 years since the barque Cataraqui was wrecked on the jagged rocks on King Island’s west coast, an event which remains Australia’s worst maritime civil disaster.
King Island Council is planning a commemoration to honour the memory of those who perished and were buried in unmarked mass graves, and the few who survived.
Some of the passengers originated in our region at Woodborough; James Baxter, 24, labourer and his wife Sarah Baxter, 23.
British accounts of the wreck usually refer to the ship as Cataraque which is more consistent with the pronunciation of the original Canadian name. However, Australian references such as the point on King Island named after the ship spell the name Cataraqui, which is also consistent with Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.
Cataraqui was an 802-ton barque (a sailing ship, typically with three masts, in which the foremast and mainmast are square-rigged, and the mizzenmast is rigged fore and aft) built in Quebec in 1840 by the shipwrights Williams Lampson. The name Cataraqui comes from the French transliteration of “Katerokwi”, the original Mississaugas First Nation name for the area now known as Kingston, Ontario.
Cataraqui was purchased and registered in Liverpool, England by Smith & Sons, for the purpose of transporting assisted emigrants to Port Phillip (Melbourne) in the colony of Victoria, Australia.
On 20 April 1845, the ship sailed from Liverpool under the command of Captain Christopher Finlay. The ship’s manifest on departure included 369 emigrants and 41 crew (410 total) including the captain. The voyage was uneventful apart from the loss of a crew member overboard. By the time the vessel neared Australia, five babies had been born and six others had died.
As Cataraqui entered Bass Strait in the early morning of 4 August, she encountered a severe storm and at about 04.30am, the ship was cast suddenly onto jagged rocks just off Fitzmaurice Bay on King Island off the north-western coast of Tasmania. Attempts to evacuate the ship were hindered by the large waves and heavy weather which washed many of the ship’s occupants overboard. Eight crewmen managed to reach the shore by clinging to floating wreckage, where they encountered the only emigrant survivor, Solomon Brown. The nine castaways were stranded on King Island for five weeks until they were rescued by the cutter Midge and taken to Melbourne.
The commemorative plaque on King island reads:
Built Quebec 1840, 802 T. 138 x 30 x 22 ft.
Left Liverpool, England 20.4.1845 for
Melbourne – Capt. C.Finlay, 43 crew
367 assisted emigrants (173 under 15).
Enroute 5 babies born, 6 babies died,
1 seaman drowned thus 409 aboard when
wrecked 4.8.1845 off W. coast King Is.
1 emigrant, 8 crew survived, 400 lost.
Tasmania’s worst shipwreck