Her name was Jane Gordon. I like Gordons – they’re some of the best people I know and there’s no reason to think she wasn’t amongst them either back then. It was the name that drew my eye to her out of those listed. She was from County Cork. She had stolen a pair of scissors – supposedly. She was only nineteen.
I’ve lived in ignorance of this story of my island for all these years. Others haven’t. A book has been written about it, several artists have constructed works in commemoration of it – but they have passed me by. Imagine what the repercussions would be if an event of its nature occurred today on our shores. Two hundred and forty one souls perished, of which 157 were women and 55 were children. It was that figure that shocked – all those women and kids. The horror of it. And it is also sobering to think that, in terms of loss of life due to a maritime catastrophe, this has not been the worst one in our history. It occurred ten years later, tellingly in the same area. I was aware of the sad story of the barque Cataraqui.
The bare bones of this story came to me via my friend Steph, a traveller to places near and far. From her adventures I usually receive generous mementos in the mail. A recent excursion had been to a near place – King Island. Among the material that arrived, in my resulting package, was a pamphlet entitled ‘The Wrecks of King Island’. In it I read something of the Cataraqui, but also of the one that was news to me – the floundering of the Neva. All those poor women and children! I took to the ether to find out, as much that source would allow me, as to exactly what happened to the vessel; to try in fill in those bare bones of the pamphlet.
In the 1830s most Irish were living a hardscrabble life, to say the least, even in that era before the potato famines; the Great Hunger commencing in 1845. I have no idea how tough it would have been for Jane Gordon, but it was very dire for many parents. So dire that they concocted crimes themselves for their children to be charged with once they reached an age where, in normal circumstances, it could be reasonably assumed they could stand on their own two feet. There was no future for young people in Ireland, so parents dobbed them into the authorities for crimes they may have or may not have committed. Get it right and they would be transported, to a potentially better future, for seven or fourteen years. Why, they’d all heard tales of felons shipped off to New South Wales, or some such place, who’d received their pardons and went on to make fortunes. It did happen, of course, in rare cases, but anything was better than the desperation of life on the Emerald Isle. Imagine that. Imagine that Jane’s parents presented her to the local authorities in their county with a purloined pair of scissors, a crime for which she could reasonably expect to escape the death penalty. The wretched girl, in reality or otherwise, had to be taught a lesson – or at least that would be their excuse. Perhaps, in their own misery, they welcomed the chance of some hope of betterment for Jane. Perhaps they only aspired to one less mouth to feed. Surely, though, there was the possibility of some escape from the existence that would befall her if she remained. If she became an enforced part of the Irish diaspora, who knew? In reality, unfortunately, they signed her death warrant.
On board the Neva, as it sailed from the Cobh of Cork, under the sure hands of Captain Peck and a crew of twenty-six, would be a range of women. A few would have committed despicable crimes and have escaped the hangman’s noose by a hairsbreadth for a variety of reasons. Others would be there as they had stolen from a toff, or from their masters, items to onsell, so as to put food on the table. Many were prostitutes. Also afloat would be their children as well, mostly babes in arms or wee toddlers. There were also a few free ladies, sailing to join their felon husbands in and around Sydney Town, the destination of the boat. I wonder, on the eighth day of the new year of 1835, if many truly waved farewell to Ireland with bountiful hope in their hearts. Did Jane?
In the wash up of the events that were to follow, in the wake of the calamity that occurred in fifth month of the ship’s voyage, an inquest was held in Launceston into what happened. Captain Peck was exonerated of all blame and he returned to England. In most accounts he is paraded as a hero, bravely attempting to save as many as possible – but there is also one that portrays him as a coward, only concerned with his own survival.
Some say that he, as well as those other crew members who survived, attempted to cover up the true goings-on on board the Neva on that fateful date, 13.05.1835, to protect their own skins. Most accounts state all was as it should be as the vessel, unawares, approached its doom. Some, though, give a version that revolves around the same excesses of grog and debauchery that occurred on many ‘floating brothels’ at the time. Why should the Neva be any different? Was there a party, of sorts, going on, distracting the crew from navigating through some of the world’s most treacherous waters?
There has also been conjecture in the past as to which of the reefs, off the island, the Neva floundered on. Was it the Navarine or the Harbingers; the latter being the latest thinking. The foul weather; the women, most likely already addled by breaking into the grog store, as well as the distance from shore, made survival for the convicted on board most unlikely. This notion was enhanced when several of the life boats, under the control of the captain, swamped immediately on launching. Imagine the scenes of horror on deck, before it disintegrated, as those trapped by the swirling sea, took stock and realised their fate. Perhaps it was lucky that many were so exceedingly inebriated before their bodies were flung into the maelstrom, as has been recorded. Consider, for a moment, the pitiful wailing of the children. Many of the survivors, those few who did make it to shore, died due to exposure, during that first night in the thin bush of that part of King Island. Seven skeletons have been found since the wreck; ninety-five bodies, washed up, were buried in shallow graves. Eventually the fourteen souls remaining – eight men and six women (not including Jane Gordon), under the leadership of Peck, set about making the next night and the ones to follow more conducive for enduring the ordeal that they all knew was coming. They constructed a tent of sorts, fortified by a keg of rum washed up on the beach. Scouting parties were dispatched regularly to seek habitation. After a fortnight’s subsistence on salt pork their luck turned.
Two survivors of another wreck further south, the Tartar, were encountered. They led the Neva’s victims to the hut of sealer John Scott and his native wives. They were fed on wallaby meat and soon felt sustained enough to join Scott and his kangaroo dogs in hunting and a spot of fishing. Eventually a small boat, searching for the Tartar, came across them and Peck sailed off to raise the alarm and seek rescue. He returned and began the process of getting them all back to Launceston. This was not aided by some being away hunting, requiring another trip. One woman, Rose Hyland, terrified of the sea, claimed she would not board and raised a pistol to emphasise her determination to be left to the comforts of the barren coast. She was overpowered, so off they sailed to their futures.
Fast forward to Catherine Stringer, a Hobart psychiatrist. On a trip to the island at the western entrance to Bass Strait, she, too, came across the tale of the Neva. The loss of all those women affected her deeply. Catherine was particularly stung when she counted that twenty-eight of her namesakes had perished; 28 Catherines. One, Catherine Brooks, was only six years old. She resolved to make the woeful historical event wider known.
On several excursions back to King Island she started to collect seaweed from the beaches where those, whom the sea had given up up 175 years ago, were found. Transporting her gatherings home she converted the algae into a thin paper. From this product she cut the makings of 42 dresses. One, her gown for Catherine Reilly, a little baby, stunning in its simple beauty, can be viewed on-line. They were framed and exhibited at the Moonah Arts Centre back in 2016. She succeeded in alerting this true story to the attention of many.
Tasmania’s is, these days, a tranquil place, but in the past it has been shattered by terrible events – the genocide of the first islanders during the Frontier Wars, the incarcerations on Sarah Island, Port Arthur, bushfires – to name just a few. Surely the wreck of the Neva should be held up as another and not lost to the past. I’ll remember it now – and continue to think on Jane Gordon. She was only nineteen.
The Irish Times Looks Back at the Story of the Neva = https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/worst-shipwreck-you-ve-never-heard-of-1.1373988
ABC News item on Catherine Stringer’s exhibition = https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-09/seaweed-1835-shipwreck-site-transformed-to-honour-lost-convicts/7312804