An Australian newspaper carried a fascinating story yesterday of a mystery shipwreck, a team of nautical archaeologists, and a ocean-going expedition that may end up rewriting a crucial chapter in Australian history. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a team of archaeologists led by Kieran Hosty, a curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, sailed this morning for Wreck Reef in search of debris from a ship that may have carried American whalers to Australia before James Cook claimed the continent for Great Britain.
Very quickly, here’s the (slender) evidence. In 1803, more than 30 years after James Cook sailed the Australian coast, a British sloop under the command of Lieutenant Robert Fowler slammed at night into an uncharted reef some 700 miles north of Sydney. Fowler remained aboard, but some of the crew explored the sandy reef. They discovered to their amazement pieces of wooden nautical wreckage. They later reported that the debris likely came from the stern of large 40- ton ship and that it had been there for a long time.
The crew must have been sopping wet and cold, because they built a roaring fire with the ship’s timber, thereby disposing of the prime evidence. But the Australian archaeologists hope to find other clues on the reef. Hosty himself thinks its unlikely that the wreckage came from a Dutch or British ship. The Dutch sailed further north and British maritime records make no mention of such a shipwreck from the area during this period. So Hosty now suspects American whalers, who did sail west to South Pacific waters in search of prey.
I will be following this story with great interest. Nautical archaeology is exceptionally expensive, which is why serious researchers encounter real difficulties raising funds to conduct important underwater exploration. (We mainly see newspaper reports of finds made by treasure hunters looking for gold and silver). And this is an inherently fascinating story.
But I would like to point out that the newspaper headlines miss a critical point. While James Cook may have claimed Australia for Great Britain, the ancestors of the Australia’s indigenous people landed on the shores of the continent some 50,000 years earlier. To get there from mainland Asia, they crossed at least 10 ocean straits: one of these crossings was greater than 44 miles. As Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon and one of the world’s experts on coastal archaeology once told me, it would have been “a real exercise to get across, and the magnitude of that is illustrated by the fact that, before anatomically modern humans make the leap, no large-bodied animal ever gets all the way across.”
I wish the Australian team the best of luck in their search for the mystery wreck. But I sure would like to see more researchers turn their attention to the real discovery of the Australian continent.