Mahogany Ship – Coningham’s burial conspiracy

Somewhere in the future I plan on doing some more work on the Mahogany Ship, which is perhaps the best known mystery artefact relating to secret visitor theories in Australia.  This is the wreck of a ship, which was seen by various people in the 19th century, and then lost, believed covered over by shifting sand dunes near the town of Warrnambool, on the western coast of Victoria.  Vague descriptions imply it was exotic in form, timber or artefacts found nearby.  Various more modern theories have put it as a Spanish or Portuguese ship, or perhaps even Chinese.

Today I just want to deal with a small claim that came to my attention, and I’ll leave my bigger project on Mahogany Ship wrangling to some time in the future.

On 20 September 2005 the Melbourne Age published a short article built around the claims of Dr Frank Coningham, a Canberra mathematician [Cauchi 2005].  Coningham said that during research in the National Library of Australia he had uncovered a document, since missing, that explained that a Portuguese ship had been found at Warrnambool in the 19th century, and that the British Government had ordered that it be buried.  The wreck was, of course, the Mahogany Ship, and its deliberate burial, Coningham believed, was because its discovery would allow the Portuguese to launch a claim to the title of the land.  Coningham said ‘the document, British Parliamentary Papers — Colony of Australia, was published by the Irish Free Press about 1849.’  As to the absence of the dcouments, Coningham said they were no longer able to be found in the Library, and would possibly require a trip to Britain.

Soon afterwards, another article, this time in the local newspaper made reference to Dr Coningham’s research.  A group of wreck hunters thought that they had found remains of more than one ship including Phoenician, Egyptian, Chinese and Portuguese wrecks.  A spokesperson for the group, Mark Rawson’ said that

[h]e believed one of the sites was related to claims made recently by Canberra mathematician Dr Frank Coningham that the British government ordered the burial of a Portuguese wreck in Kelly’s Swamp near Levys Point.  “We think Coningham was right (and) we’ve located the position of where the boat was dumped.  [Neal 2005]

Just think on that for a moment.  Leave aside Rawson’s findings and speculation that the Portuguese may have only been the fourth ship to run into the beach, which seems somewhat unlikely, if not massively careless navigation.  Coningham is asking us to believe that the Portuguese claimed Australia as Portuguese, even though they never told anyone about it, and even though it was well into the Spanish side of the line that separated the Spanish and Portuguese claims on the far side of the globe.  Normally the act of claiming something for Britain or Portugal or Spain or whoever was a rather special occasion, as public as it was possible for it to be.  It was important to show that this was a sovereign act, done with the full authority of the King or whoever was in charge, rather than on the whim of some ships’ captain who had not seen land or non-dugong women for 18 months.  Any attempt to claim land was a big deal and was intended to be made public; keeping it secret was simply not a feasible option.  On these grounds alone Coningham’s logic is suspect because it has no reference to the reality of 16th-20th century international law and practice.

A second concern would come from the missing note in the National Library.  According to Coningham someone wrote a note about something supposed to have been kept secret.  Not only that, it was later published.  Firstly, why would you do it, especially if the intention was to not tell anyone what you did?  After that you might wonder why its publication in 1849 did not cause the stir Coningham thought it might.  And is the loss of this document from the National Library of Australia part of some conspiracy or simple incompetence?

Well, fortunately for Dr Coningham and others interested in this extraordinary claim we can sort this out pretty quickly.  The document he cites – British Parliamentary Papers — Colony of Australia – was published, by the Irish Academic Press, not Irish Free Press, and not in 1849 but much more recently in 1969.  It is part of a series of volumes that the IAP has already published – a vast array of British Parliamentary Papers from the 19th century, a mind-boggling 1000 volumes in all [IAP 2011 ].  They include 34 volumes that are specifically concerned with reports about and from the Australian colonies.  Does one of these volumes have the secret note?

Narrowing this down to ‘about 1849′ gives us one of the following volumes:

  • Volume 10 – Reports, correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1847–1848 [696 pages 1 folding coloured map], ISBN 7165 0637 8
  • Volume 11 – Correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1849–1850 [656 pages], ISBN 7165 0638
  • Volume 12 – Correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1850 [720 pages, 3 folding coloured maps], ISBN 0 7165 0639 4.

Wow, maybe somewhere in more than 2,000 pages is buried the evidence that could blow Australia’s history apart.  If the set in the National Library in Canberra was missing, where could I go?  Well, fortunately the full set also lives at the University of Sydney, and doubtless other libraries closer than Britain.  I could go there – its just down the road!

But I don’t even have to do that!  With the arrival of the internet I can be as lazy as I like.  Now that various libraries and institutions have paid big bucks to purchase the IAP series, the British Parliament has placed all of its historical papers online as well.  Their website which is accessible via library links boasts more than 200,000 sessional papers, all accessible by keyword search.  So I started to search.  I first typed in keywords such as “Portuguese”, ‘shipwreck”, “bury” and “secret”, all delimited to 1845-1850 with “Australia” as the joint keyword.  Lots of hits, but nothing relevant.  More searching, using more and more abstract word combinations.  Nothing.  Eventually I wandered into Sydney University and just browsed the full set of IAP volumes.  I found lots of fascinating stuff, but sadly no secret blockbuster documents.

At the end of this search I am comfortable in saying there is NOTHING in those British Parliamentary Papers that fits the description given by Dr Coningham.  Did the journalist report him wrong?  Perhaps, but there was clearly attention paid to getting the title of the publication right.  Maybe Dr Coningham got it wrong – badly?

In conclusion, there is, and was, no conspiracy.  No credible evidence has come forward that a Portuguese [or any other nationality's] wreck was found on the Victorian coast and buried.  Dr Coningham was either mistaken about what he read or the reference was to some other publication, which has never previously been brought forward.  I think the idea that the British would have concealed anything because they feared a territorial claim is ridiculous and cannot be justified by either logic or actual practice.  The saddest part of the story is that its publication gave false hope to the dowsers hunting for the Mahogany Ship wreck.

References

Cauchi, Stephen 2005
‘”Cover-up’ deepens Mahogany Ship mystery’, The Age [Melbourne], 20 September 2005.  This article can be found here.

Great Britain, Parliament
Parliamentary Papers, Irish University Press

Volume 10 – Reports, Correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1847–1848
Volume 11 – Correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1849–1850
Volume 12 – Correspondence and papers relating to the Australian Colonies, 1850.

Great Britain, Parliament
House Of Commons – online archive.  Access here.

Irish Academic Press 2011
British Parliamentary Papers catalogue.  This can be accessed here.

Neal, Matt 2005
‘Myth deepens’, Warrnambool Standard, 25 September 2005.

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3 Responses to Mahogany Ship – Coningham’s burial conspiracy

  1. Iain Stuart says:

    My first archaeological excavation was at Armstrong Bay where the Mahogany Ship was reportedly found. We were digging a midden and the excavation had been dug through about a 1 or more of wind blown sand to get to the midden. There were only one or two of us digging when suddenly an old bloke turned up out of the blue and after watching us said:
    “Your digging for the Mahogany ship aren’t you. Well I can tell you you are digging in the wrong place:”

    He then left us without waiting for a reply…

    Mind you parts of a shipwreck “the Speke” wrecked near Peterborough were also found in New Zealand having been washed there by currents so it is possible that remains of Portuguese ship from somewhere like the Cape of Good Hope washed up on Australian shores.

    There is no doubt that something was there – BTW didn’t Governor La Trobe see it? It is what it was that’s the issue my guess is that it was part of a ship and was burned to get the fastenings and that we will never know. I seem to recall when the reward for finding it was offered the Minister suggested that any ship wrecked before 1835 (the official date of the settlement of Victoria) be the criteria for claiming the reward. Surprisingly there were quite a few wrecked before then and we had to work hard with the Minister’s advisors to tighten the criteria..

    • Thanks Iain

      Murray Johns re-evaluated all of the eye-witness accounts for the ship in a detailed analysis in 2005. He concludes that the only way to make the observations fit required a number of separate remains successively being exposed by dune movement. His paper also proposes that that section of coast catches drifting hulls. Johns’s paper is available online and makes for very interesting reading. Not sure I am convinced by his proposed identification of what the ship was, but his review of the evidence is compelling.

      Brett Hilder, who was a master navigator and maritime historian, also suggested that a drifting wreck was possible for the Mahogany Ship and whatever vessel carried the Tamil Bell, an Indian metal bell found in the mid 19th century in a New Zealand Maori village. More recently there has been the work of Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who traces the appearance of particular kids bath toys and brands of shows as flotsam from lost containers to establish ocean currents. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_Floatees

  2. Nickm57 says:

    Very interesting! As an aside, I have never been convinced by the Treaty of Tordesillas argument put by advocates of Portuguese priority. It was signed in 1494, but was only relevant to new lands of the Americas. It didnt have an antimeridian until the end of the 1529, when much of (unknown) Australia would have fallen into the Portuguese sphere. So why continue to keep it secret if it had already been discovered by the Portuguese ? It’s a key weakness in the McIntyre’s argument.

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