The “Mahogany Ship” is one of Australia’s most intriguing and enduring shipwreck mysteries.
In 1836, two survivors of a capsized whaling boat reported sighting a large shipwreck in sand dunes between Warrnambool and Port Fairy. Shipwrecks were not unusual in the area at the time, but the reported construction of dark timber, possibly mahogany, and the ship’s hull design were vastly different from the vessels which sailed the local waters in the early 19th century.
More than 30 other accounts of the wreck were recorded until the 1880s.
Many people at the time, and since, believe the wreck to be a Dutch or Portuguese exploration ship from the 1500s.
Many others believe it is nothing more than an interesting local legend, as there have been no reported sightings since the 1880s and, in fact, no solid evidence of the wreck at all.
However, for more than 160 years shipwreck hunters have been searching for remains of the wreck, not only as it would provide a valuable relic of bygone maritime activities, but because it could alter official records of the first European visitors to this part of the Australian coast.
In July 1999, shipwreck enthusiast, Des Williams, discovered a sample of wood buried 3.1 m under the sand dunes between Warrnambool and Port Fairy.
It was identified by the CSIRO as Quercus species - White Oak. According to the CSIRO, "This wood is from a group of oaks and could have originated from the USA or Europe. It is a common shipbuilding timber."
The site of Mr William’s discovery was consistent with the first sightings of the legendary "Mahogany Ship".
Could this be the first evidence that the Mahogany Ship was more than local legend?
The fact that the sample was confirmed to be oak from the Northern Hemisphere meant that there was a significant likelihood that it relates to a shipwreck.
However, it doesn’t necessarily confirm the existence of the Mahogany Ship.
Oak was a common ship building material in Britain and Europe and there are a number vessels of this origin wrecked along the Shipwreck Coast.
As well, it is possible the wood is cargo from the wreck of Falls of Halladale. Built in Scotland in 1886, the Falls of Halladale was a magnificent four masted iron barque. It wrecked at Curdies Inlet near Peterborough in 1908. Much of the valuable cargo, including oak, was washed ashore on beaches along the coast.
It could also be the remains of sealing and whaling vessel. Historical records suggest that sealing and whaling activities were going on along the Victorian coast before official settlement of the area. Oak was a common ship building material used by sealers and whalers.
It is possible even the wood could be the remains of an attempted convict escape. There are a number of documented cases where convicts from Van Diemen's Land seized wooden vessels to escape across Bass Strait.
And it is just possible the wood came from Dutch ship, but wrecked much later. The Dutch were sailing to the "Spice Islands" during the 17th century and many reached the Western Australian coast. It is even possible that one may have come to rest at Warrnambool.
Why is it so important?
The discovery of the oak sample raised questions as to whether it could be the first hard evidence that Portuguese navigators discovered the east coast of Australia before Captain James Cook. Documentary evidence exists to confirm that the Portuguese were operating north-west of Australia at the time.
It is thought by some that three caravels departed from Malacca in 1521 under the command of Christovao Mendonca. At least one ship never returned. A theory has been put forward that on this voyage a map was made of the east coast of Australia.
Some also believe that a copy of this map was secretly made and in the hands of Captain James Cook when he explored the East Coast of Australia in 1770. The notion that this map depicts the east coast of Australia is the subject of some historical debate.
Until positive proof has materialised, the mystery of the Mahogany Ship will capture the imagination of ship enthusiasts and historians.