S.S. Gothenburg's Tragedy

In the early 1800s, the navigator, Matthew Flinders first used the term "Great Barrier Reefs" which now describes the vast complex of reefs and islands off the Queensland coast, extending 2000km from the Capricorn-Bunker coral cays to Torres Strait. From the early days of European colonization, vessels have plied these reef waters on the trade routes to Asia and beyond and to harvest the region`s resources.

Captains had 2 main choices when sailing north. To sail within the outer reefs to Cape York gave some protection from the Pacific swells but required careful navigation. The alternative was to pass seaward of the barrier reefs to reach Torres Strait via the Great North-East Channel or via Raine Island entrance and Blackwood Channel. Vessels wishing to traverse the Barrier Reef elsewhere had to risk passages through narrow gaps in the reefs. Sailing craft were particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and currents, and to thread the maze of uncharted reefs required great skill and courage.

The Gothenburg built in London in 1854, was a 197 foot steamer of 501 tons. She was originally built as the S.S Celt, and in 1866 she was lengthened and renamed the Gothenburg. She was carrying 84 passengers including various dignitaries and miners who were carring gold-laden money belts, also cargo which included gold to the value of 40,000 pounds from Darwin to Adelaide. In February of 1875 she hit Old Reef and ran aground south of Townsville. Later that day a storm hit smashing her against the reef and sweeping her passengers and crew overboard. A few survivors were picked up, but the death toll reached 102 people. A month later gold worth 9,300 Australian pounds was salvaged but nothing else of value was recovered.

The malevolence of natural forces was tragically demonstrated to Darwin's new settlers in 1875 when the ship Gothenburg, en route from Darwin to the east coast, sank off north Queensland during a cyclone. About one quarter of Darwin's tiny population was aboard the ship - many of them travelling south on their first furlough since coming to the Territory. The Gothenburg wreck cost 102 lives, and the news of the disaster plunged the town into a deep gloom from which it only slowly recovered.