On March 28th 1841, brothers Henry and Robert de Burgh, aged 24 and 18 respectively, sons of Thomas de Burgh, Dean of Cloyne, Oldtown, County Kildare set sail for the Swan River Colony in Western Australia. Although well-educated, their father had not been able to set them up in business, so they decided to try their luck in the new colony where land was freely available. With the help of their mother who had independent means, they purchased equipment and goods to enable them to begin farming in the new world. Taking a mortgage on the brig the ‘James Matthews’, they filled the cargo hold with all manner of goods that could be sold on arrival in Fremantle on the Australian West Coast, including 7,000 slates and farming implements. They departed from London – on board were three passengers, including the 2 de Burgh brothers plus a crew of fifteen.
During the voyage, Henry kept a journal, noting that on April 13th they were off Lisbon, Portugal. On the 19th they crossed the tropic of Cancer and launched a boat in pursuit of a turtle, instead of which they captured many Portuguese Men of War! By April 22nd, nearing the Cape Verde Islands off the West Coast of Africa, they landed on Saint Nicholas Island to meet the natives. Sailing on southwards they met with vessels sailing north back to England and sent letters to family members. On May 8th they ”passed under the bows of the ‘Ellen’ laden with emigrants for Adelaide…In the evening of the same day we came close under the ‘Christina’ to the same port and Robert and I accompanied the captain on board to supper”
Having stopped in Cape Town for 7 days, they set off across the Indian Ocean arriving safely off the coast of Western Australia on July 20th. The voyage from London had taken 3 months and 23 days. (See previous post To Australia, with love - modern-day journey by air takes 33 hours!) Some on board landed on Garden Island and caught some fish. They then anchored in nearby Cockburn’s Sound and the Fremantle Harbour Master brought them in to Owen’s Anchorage where everyone was busy packing up to leave ship. Owing to a strong breeze they were unable to put away the cargo boats, so they remained on board until conditions improved. However, the breeze became a violent storm and the ship was thrown up on the rocks and sank on July 22 1841. Fortunately all hands, with one exception, were taken to safety.
Henry and Robert de Burgh went on to become successful farmers. Henry had to return to Kildare on the death of his father in 1845. Robert stayed on and eventually bought a substantial property at Cowalla on the Moore River where he lived with his wife and children. Sadly in 1865 their three youngest children, aged 7, 5 and 3 years died of diphtheria within 3 days of each other – that they were so far from medical help may have been a factor in the loss of the children. The family then bought an estate of several hundred acres at Caversham in the Swan Valley, an area renowned today for its many wineries and vineyards. Active in public life until his health failed, Robert died in 1884 at the age of 62. Robert de Burgh’s grandson,Walter de Burgh, still owns land and lives nearby. The earlier holding at Cowalla remained in the family until 1972 and part of it that contained the family home has now been classified by the National Trust.
The story of these migrants may have ended there but for the fact that in July 1973, 132 years to the very day that she was wrecked, divers discovered the wreck of the ‘James Matthews’, lying in 2 to 3 metres of water and covered in sand. Over several seasons archaeologists from the Western Australia Maritime Museum recovered a large number of artifacts. Items of cargo loaded in London for the use of settlers were brought to the surface – thousands of stone roofing slates, glass window panes, heavy door hinges, carpenters tools, stoneware, clay pipes, bottles of wine, cooking pots and a chess set carved by Henry de Burgh during the voyage. After rescuing some 3500 artefacts the hull was once again filled with sand to protect it from the elements.
When the wreck was first discovered, not much was known about the ‘James Matthews’. However, Lloyds Register of Shipping in London showed that the ship had an earlier ‘life’ as she had been seized either as a pirate or slaver or in wartime. The Board of Trade transcripts for Dominica in 1837 stated as follows:
… Prixe to H.H brig Griffon No 6 of 1837. Brought into this port for a breach of the Treaty for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Built in France around 1800 and originally known as the Voltigeur, she was purchased by a ruthless slave trader Don Francisco Felix de Souza who converted her into a slave runner and renamed her the Don Francisco. She was captured near Dominica in 1836 with 439 West African slaves on board. It was the custom to put captured slave ships beyond use by setting them ablaze or breaking them up . The Don Francisco however avoided this fate and was ultimately resold and renamed the ‘James Matthews.’
The real archaeological value of the brig ‘James Matthews’, may rest in its earlier history as a slave ship – for it is the only slave ship known to still exist! It is hoped that one day the entire hull may be excavated and raised to the surface. If this happens and an exhibition is mounted, it would be the first of its kind of a slave ship anywhere in the world.
And who better to undertake this work than the excellent Western Australia Maritime Museum? Visitors to the Fremantle Maritime Museum, south of Perth in Western Australia are astounded by the Batavia exhibit – a shipwreck from 1629. Lost on her maiden voyage, a huge part of her is on display at the Museum.
A similar breathtaking exhibit of the ‘James Matthews’, slave ship would indeed be a wonderful and unique attraction.
The last Voyage of the James Matthews , W.J DeBurgh and Graeme Henderson, Museum of Western Australia
Museum of Western Australia, Maritime Archaeology