Dreadful loss of The Amphitrite

Drowned convict women and children captured by JMW Turner

Seeing the recent Turner from the Tate exhibition I was captivated by the artist’s large rendition of "A disaster at sea". This two-part blogpost will tell the sorry tale of the shipweck and its relationship to the National Library's collection.

A Disaster at Sea, painting by Turner

A Disaster at Sea, J.M.W. Turner c.1835, Tate collection N00558

This unfinished painting of a large group of people overwhelmed by the sea is believed to be a dramatic retelling of the gripping story of the wreck of The Amphitrite, a convict ship bound for New South Wales.  The female convict cargo was bound for Botany Bay under the command of a Captain Hunter. 108 female convicts, 12 children and a crew of 16 left Woolwich and, several days after departing, having initially encountered very light winds, the ship was inexorably driven by a tremendous gale towards the shore off Boulogne.  

On the 31st of August 1833 the ship ran aground on a sandbank in sight of Boulogne and it was apparent to locals that the ship was in grave danger as it was low tide and the locals knew that it would soon be swamped by the massive tide. Attempts were made by the French to save the passengers and crew.  Indeed a sailor named Pierre Henin attempted to assist by swimming out to the ship but only after another sailor, Francois Heuret, had taken a pilot boat to the ailing vessel to warn them and to offer assistance. Such assistance was refused by Captain Hunter. It was alleged that the Captain and Forrester, the ship’s surgeon and his wife had discussed the idea of removing the convicts but that the idea was dismissed. The Captain apparently believed, flying in the face of common sense, that he didn’t have the authority to release the convicts on French soil. Pierre Henin was the thwarted hero of the day, bravely swimming out to the ship in terrible conditions and asking for a line to take to the shore. However, on his return swim Captain Hunter stopped the line before it met the shore. Again, Henin swam out to the vessel and asked the Captain and Surgeon to release more rope. They refused. He tried to climb aboard but was too exhausted and somehow made his way back to the beach.

image of newspaper clipping

One of the many reports of the disaster, "Loss of the Amphitrite" in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 1834

Meanwhile the female convicts battened down below broke out and demanded to be shipped to shore – tragically they were refused. One of the survivors, a sailor named Owen, related how the women and children remained on deck for about an hour and a half “uttering the most piteous cries”. As The Amphitrite was only ¾ of a mile from shore the spectacle had a terrible auditory as well as visual element to it. Soon the ship broke in two and all but three lives were lost. These were all sailors who clung to wreckage.

The following description is from an article I sourced through the NLA’s amazing search engine Trove (from the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser - Tuesday 28 January 1834). 

“These are the facts of the awful case. The French Marine Humane Society immediately placed hundreds of men on the beach and...as soon as the corpses were picked up they were brought to the rooms , where I assisted many of my countrymen in endeavouring to restore them to life. Our efforts were fruitless, except in the case of the three men, Owen, Rice and Towsey. I never saw so many fine and beautiful bodies in my life. Some of the women were the most perfectly made; and French and English wept together at the sight of such a horrible loss of life ... Body after body has been brought in. More than 60 have been found; they will be buried to-morrow. But, alas! alas! after all our efforts only three lives are saved out of 136!!”  

More on this sad debacle, and its relationship to the National Library's collections, in my next post.

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