Pirates of the Coral Sea

Note: When this article was originally published, the story was sadly obscured by the background. It is re-published here to allow better enjoyment of the tale’s twists and turns.

By Bob Halstead, Research by Leigh Paine

It is said that people in the Northern Territory of Australia drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world. I only mention this because on Feb 28, 2010, the Northern Territory News reported that a town there had witnessed fish falling from the sky.
“The freak phenomena happened not once, but twice, on Thursday and Friday afternoon about 6pm at Lajamanu, about 550km southwest of Katherine. Christine Balmer, who took the photos of the fish on the ground and in a bucket, said, “They fell from the sky everywhere. Locals were picking them up off the footy oval and on the ground everywhere. These fish were alive when they hit the ground.”
Fantastic claims have a long tradition in these parts, as I found out one day recently while perusing the local newspaper archives. More than one hundred years previously in the ‘Late Mail News’ section of the Northern Territory Times and Gazette of Friday, April 24, 1891, a sea monster was reported. The animal was described as:
“. . . consisting of three sections, roughly resembling an immense coloured carpet snake with a fish’s tale [sic], with a ‘great domed carapace’ amidships. The animal is . . . evidently an hybrid between a sea-serpent, a turtle, and a whale, and is stated to be 36 feet long, 5 feet high when standing up and possesses feet like a crocodile.”
Further down the same column, even more fantastic perhaps, was the news I was searching for:
The Torres Straits Pilot of March 7th records the following singular discovery of a heap of old Spanish dollars on the Great Barrier Reef. “Capt. Sam Rowe, who has been fishing for beche-de-mer in the schooner Lancashire Lass, on the Barrier Reef, dropped into a novel patch of wealth . . . a heap of Spanish dollars . . . now in the possession of Mr Frank L. Jardine of Somerset.”


Frank Jardine was the consummate adventurer. He and his brother led one of Australia’s great cattle drives, an eight-month trek from Charters Towers to their father’s station at Somerset on Cape York. www.samdcruz.com

When a beautiful 16-year-old Samoan princess, Sana Solia, pledged to a life as a missionary, called in to Somerset after the mission’s vessel had been damaged in a storm, Jardine declared his intention to marry her. Alarmed, the missionaries sailed while he was off the station. On his return he chased them, took the girl from them and duly married her. If that sounds like the act of a pirate, it should be said that the couple went on to have a long, happy marriage which produced two sons and two daughters. john@traveltheearth.net

Frank also owned the lugger Lancashire Lass and was involved in the pearl and beche-de-mer fisheries. His captain, the above-mentioned Sam Rowe, described a sudden storm that drove the ship over the top of what they called Boot Reef, part of the notoriously perilous entrance to Torres Strait, into a lagoon. The next day, failing to find a passage, the crew attempted to escape over the reef at high tide. While freeing their vessel they discovered an old anchor on the reef – and, nearby, piles of silver coins. In all they salvaged treasure weighing 726kg (1,598lb).

Government ‘pirates’ ordered Jardine to hand the silver over but he rebuffed them, demonstrating that it came from a reef outside of Queensland’s jurisdiction (in those days). He gave 299kg (657lb) to be shared by the crew and had much of the rest sent to Sheffield in England and made into a silver dinner service that still exists, safe with Jardine’s descendants, today.

Captain Rowe took off with his share in the Lancashire Lass. The lugger was later found abandoned in the Gulf of Carpentaria with a bloodstained deck. Rumour had it the crew had mutinied and Rowe murdered, but not before he had managed to bury his treasure. It is notable to me that Jardine felt obliged to share his treasure with the crew that actually found it. This contrasts significantly with today’s Australian shipwreck law that seizes everything for the Nation.

The Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 aims to protect wrecks for their heritage value and maintain them for recreational, scientific and educational purposes. Divers can use wrecks for recreational purposes, but relics must not be removed from the site and the physical fabric of the wreck must not be disturbed, unless a permit has been obtained.

The legislation further states that “Anyone who finds the remains of a ship, or an article associated with a ship, needs to notify the relevant authorities, as soon as possible but ideally no later than after one week, and to give them information about what has been found and its location.” And, to make it perfectly clear: “Historic shipwrecks and associated relics do not belong to the individuals who find them.”

This is all very noble, but almost every other country in the world does allow for a significant proportion of maritime treasure to be shared with the finders, and many of these countries are just as concerned that the history be preserved. Yes, we should protect against looters, but disregarding the romance and traditions of treasure lore speaks of bureaucratic envy, mean-spiritedness, and even, United Nations-style Socialism in my opinion. The law inhibits dedicated private (as well as pirate) investment in searching for lost ships while the Government itself has no money to do so.

Someone said (I think it was me) that if you find it in your backyard it is rubbish but if you find it underwater, it is treasure. Nevertheless, when guiding dives I am always insistent that nothing be removed from wrecks. One time, on surfacing from a dive on a deep, well-preserved aircraft wreck in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a guilty face pleaded with me to keep a small souvenir, a scrap of alloy that had lain detached from the wreck on the sand. I demanded to see it. As he pulled the scrap from his pocket we were both surprised to see that it was in fact one half of a husked coconut. The narcosis produced by the deep diving had deluded the diver. On the spot, I proclaimed a special by-law, and allowed him to keep it.

Jardine sent Lancashire Lass out to the wreck site several times. He surely would have recovered all the treasure, and he reportedly salvaged two of the guns and brought them back to Somerset – certainly two cannons can be found there to this day. I also guess that he invented all sorts of misleading stories to make it difficult for others to find the wreck.

Evidence possibly comes from Frank Jardine’s son, Bootle. About seven years old when the wreck was first discovered, he must have been thrilled to join a later expedition. When older, he made a sketch of the wreck site showing cannon, anchors, chain and mounds of silver coin in a coral garden. There is no date on the sketch, and it was drawn after the silver and two cannon had been removed so it was a reconstruction, but it gives us a clue as to what the wreck may look like today.
*    *    *
One afternoon in February 2009, I was polishing the dome port on my underwater camera and contemplating a two-month (and too long) surface interval before my next dive trip, when the phone rang.

Fellow PNG adventurer and liveaboard captain, Craig de Wit, was calling from his dive boat MV Golden Dawn. De Wit, whose eyes light up every time a particularly well-laden cargo ship passes, is descended from a real Dutch pirate who was eventually captured by the British Navy and executed. So far, he has managed to escape this fate.

He and I have shared many diving exploits together. He sounded exuberant – he had just found the remains of an old shipwreck at the northeastern corner of the Ashmore Reef system in the Coral Sea. He described two huge anchors, two slightly smaller anchors, two cannon, heavy anchor chain, ballast stone and metal forms. The wreck was in Australian waters. What should he do?

This seemed to me to be a silly question. Romance and adventure rules! Find and salvage the treasure, sail to a corrupt tax haven, pay bribes, melt the silver and gold down to create an elegant dinner service, and flog the rest for a fortune. Obvious. I’ll bring the dynamite. Alas, I had second thoughts. Instead I advised him to avoid rather large fines and a jail term and report the find to the Queensland Historic Shipwrecks Officer, Ed Slaughter. Slaughter was thrilled to be able to confirm that the wreck was not on their records and de Wit, although not entitled to any treasure that may be aboard, could certainly be in line for a reward from the State if the wreck did turn out to be significant.

Such rewards come with strings attached though. Ben Cropp, a filmmaker and self-styled pirate who has discovered dozens of historic wrecks in Queensland waters, and a rival, Steve Domm, both received A$5,000 (approx US$4,800) for co-finding the important historical wreck of the Pandora. But as soon as they had reported the wreck, they were ordered off it, and it was six years before another diver saw it again. The reward did not even cover their expenses and to add further slight, the pirates at the tax office demanded half of it back. It took a three-year battle before they were finally repelled.

Cropp is not bitter about the reward money, but he did resent his treatment at the gala dinner celebrating the find where the guests of honour were politicians and Government officials. He was shunted to a back table and told not to talk to the press. Subsequently it turned out that the South Pacific artifacts collected by the crew of the Pandora (with a view to selling them on their return to England) are extraordinarily rare and valuable.

That all happened before Ed Slaughter became the man in charge of such things, and happily, Slaughter was fair, enthusiastic and cooperative when de Wit reported his find, giving him authority to make survey dives with the understanding that nothing be disturbed. De Wit sent me a photo of one of the huge anchors (three metres across the flukes) and I wrote a short piece describing the find in Dive Log, an Australian dive periodical. Soon after it was published I received a phone call from Cropp. He had dived this wreck in 1980, and has a photograph of one of the cannon in his gripping autobiography ‘Blood in the Water’.

He is convinced that the Ashmore wreck is of a fast brig called a ‘Snow’, a vessel favoured by pirates, and named the Sun which had sailed from Sydney bound for Batavia (now Jakarta) on May 10, 1826. On June 1, 1826, it was wrecked in the Coral Sea approaches to the Torres Strait, with Captain Gillett and most of the crew rescued by the brig Industry.

The Sun had a single deck, was carvel planked and sheathed in copper. More importantly she was carrying a cargo that included 30-40,000 Spanish silver coins. Mysteriously though her registered gross tonnage is listed as only 185 tons. She was a small ship – possibly far too small for the anchors that Cropp and now de Wit had discovered. I began to wonder about the identity of de Wit’s wreck. The Sun was initially reported as going down at Eastern Fields, a Coral Sea reef system situated about 90 nautical miles southwest of Port Moresby. There are other reef systems nearby to the west and southwest, now marked as Boot, Ashmore and Portlock reefs, but in the 1820s the whole area was known as Eastern Fields.

Rowe and Jardine placed their 1891 discovery at Boot Reef, now Boot Reefs, and indeed this fits their story well as that reef has a lagoon with no distinctive lagoon pass. Ashmore Reef on the other hand, just to the south of Boot Reefs, has been discovered relatively recently – even some modern maps do
not have it named – and is a wide atoll, with many passes. Could Jardine have intentionally muddied the waters after making his find? It was clearly time to get my camera wet again, so I called de Wit and set up an expedition to his wreck for April 2009.

Joining the Golden Dawn in Port Moresby, we cruised into the Coral Sea, diving at Eastern Fields and Boot Reef, en route to the wreck site at Ashmore. No sooner had we arrived than an Australian Custom’s Coastwatch patrol aircraft buzzed us and radioed asking us what we were up to. De Wit assured the officers that we were not fishing and had no illegal immigrants aboard.

Looking at the site it was clear that the ship had been unlucky; it had run aground on the northern tip of the reef. Had it sailed just a few metres further north, it would have missed the reef completely.

The water was very clear but a southeast swell was breaking on the reef. Since the wreck is in the turbulent surf zone, and quite shallow at 2-5 m, we found it was only possible to dive at high tide.

We were able to enter in calm water at the back of the reef round the northern point, but then had to work into the strong current caused by the breaking waves. We pulled ourselves along the bottom towards the scattered wreck remains. As we got closer we used the surge from the waves to carry us forward – and hung on tight when it tried to suck us back away.

Coral gardens at the edge of the reef gradually morphed into barren, pounded reef-top. Suddenly, as the froth of a crashing wave dispersed, a huge anchor appeared before us. It was one of the most exhilarating scenes I have ever seen in 40 years of diving. With sparkling sunlight radiating the breaking surf, the view was rapturous and I experienced a fit of total photographic ecstasy.

After just a few minutes I had to return to the boat to reload (yes I still happily shoot with film – I believe digital would not have captured those piercing rays illuminating the wreck). I would have been even more exhilarated if I had discovered a coin or two, but it appeared that someone – Frank Jardine? – had picked it clean.

There were the anchors and cannons though, and strange iron forms difficult to define. There was chain and ballast and other stuff partly buried in the coral. A leisurely search was not possible as we were continuously being tossed by the surging waves. I enjoyed the sensation, but it made photography a challenge, and detailed searching impossible.

It would be great if the Ashmore wreck were the Sun as Cropp believes, but I have my doubts. A ship wrecked in the 1820s would be likely to have cable rather than chain, and the anchors are huge if the Sun was only 185 tons. If the tonnage was net rather than gross then that could explain things, as no other dimensions have been recorded.

The cannon on the reef are of a different type than those at Somerset too, but then ships often did carry different cannon salvaged or pirated from other vessels. There was no sign of the hull’s copper sheeting which usually survives, though this could be buried in the coral.

Bootle’s sketch shows similarities to the Ashmore wreck site – but also some inconsistencies. We will just have to return to the site and search some more. The Sun is there somewhere, and – just possibly – Frank Jardine did not get all its treasure . . .

Our sunken treasure expedition ended on a jolly note. With tales of pirates in the air, we drew into port under a mischievously hoisted Skull and Crossbones. Unfurling in the sea breeze, our flag saluted swashbucklers past, present and future.

Whatever and wherever that original treasure ship was, the silver was real. As for who are the pirates, you can take your pick. The author would like to thank the following for their help with this story: Hubert Hofer, Grahame Jardine-Vidgen, Kim Ivey, Ed Slaughter, Ben Cropp, Craig de Wit.