Allan Robinson was a pioneering scuba diver and shipwreck hunter in Western Australia during the 1960s and 70s, involved in the discovery of some of the seventeenth century wrecks including the Tryal , Verguelde Draeke  and Zuytdorp  . By all accounts, including his own, he was a controversial figure and his activities were a catalyst for the introduction for laws to protect maritime heritage. His methods of recovery of material included explosives, earning him the name of the ‘Gelignite Buccaneer’. For our purpose it is not his colourful or unethical activities but his claim to have found three pre-Dutch wrecks – a Phoenician trireme, a Chinese merchant ship and a Spanish wreck – that draws our attention. This post will look at Robinson and the first of these three claims. The others will be dealt with at some later date.
Allan / Alan / Ellis Alfred Robinson
Robinson was born in 1928 as Ellis Alfred Robinson, but went by Allan [most common spelling] in the period relevant here. He was an early exponent of scuba diving. In 1957 he claims that he found the remains of the Vergulde Draek shipwreck from 1656, but lost the location. He was one a party that relocated it in 1963 and proceeded to remove large amounts of coin from the wreck. At the time only marine salvage laws applied to such wrecks, but it was partly his activities and lobbying from the maritime archaeological community that encouraged the Western Australian government to change the law in 1964. This resulted in him losing his salvage rights. Over the next decade he had numerous run-ins with the law personally and in challenging the legal basis for the new shipwreck legislation.
In this period Robinson continued to look for wrecks but was extremely hostile to any dealings with the Western Australian authorities. His own account of his diving career is told in his autobiographical and self-published In Australia, treasure is not for the finder . This sets out what reads like a very self-serving account of a man who, while he was impatient and didn’t suffer fools, was always the victim of a bureaucracy and police force that was out to get him, illegally if necessary, and to thwart his independence. If he did anything illegal himself its because it the goal posts had been moved, or because he had been pushed beyond the limits.
Others found him to be violent and erratic in character, willing to turn on friends where he stood to gain [Niekerk 1993]. A fictionalised version of Robinson is the central character in Robert Drewe’s Fortune . Drewe knew and followed the career of Robinson while working as a journalist in Perth and Sydney.
In response to the WA Government’s removal of his salvaged relics he appealed the state law in the Australian High Court, where he won a significant victory in a 1977 judgement. The court determined that the WA law was not valid, as it extended state control into non-territorial [Commonwealth] waters beyond what was permitted in the Australian Constitution. Foreshadowing the court’s decision, the new Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act  created effective coverage beyond the state waters.
Robinson eventually was forced to leave Western Australia and spent some time in northern Queensland. Police harrassment continued but he continued to dive and made a further claim for Spanish shipwrecks along the Queensland coast.
Robinson hanged himself in a cell at Sydney’s Long Bay Gaol on 2 November 1983 while on trial on charge of conspiracy to murder his former wife.
Former journalist Robert Drewe published a lightly fictionalised account of Robinson in the guise of Don Spargo, a wreck diver who finds a Dutch shipwreck, in the novel Fortune [Drewe 1986]. Spargo is self-serving, volatile and dangerous to both friends and foes. In 1994 Prospero Productions made a documentary about Robinson’s shipwreck activities called The Gelignite Buccaneer [not seen]. He is also the subject of this brief podcast from northwestern Australia local radio.
The Phoenician ship claim
The story unfolds in Chapter 9 of the book when, at the beginning of 1969, Robinson was passing through Derby on the northwest coast of WA. An old prospector called Shallow-well Charlie paid him a visit one night and told a tale that immediately got Robinson’s attention. Charlie was a water diviner and well-digger, and had prospected since the Great Depression. By the time of their encounter Robinson estimated that he may have been 90 years old. Charlie’s tale was that in about 1930 he had found a deposit of galena [lead ore] on the Buccaneer Archipelago, north of Derby. Charlie never did anything with the find, commenting ‘[y]ep, no-one has found it since, but someone sure was there before me. Great big hole dug in the side o’ the hill. All overgrown round there with bush now. Must’ve been a long time ago, ay.” [p. 67]. It was located on the coast, and Charlie speculated that whoever had dug it had come by ship and thought that there was something buried in the mud visible at low tide.
Next, Charlie pulled a small object wrapped in dirty paper from his pocket. It was ‘a piece of material about nine inches in diameter and three eighths of an inch thick. It was a dirty green-brown colour with the edge broken and chipped.’ [p. 67]. There were markings on the side of the bronze object, which to Robinson did not look like Chinese characters as Charlie had supposed they were. Charlie described the location as on the edge of the Buccaneer Archipelago, just to the north of where they were. So enthused was Robinson that he arranged a charter flight for the following morning and as they flew over the site they saw the old mine, ‘a hill which had been burrowed away for hundreds of yards along one side as if a bomb had been exploded there at some time in the past. Vegetation covered the huge scar.’ From the air they also the outlines of a long narrow sunken vessel sticking out of the mud. ‘There in the mud was a strange outline. Small pips of mud seemed to project above the surroundings to form a shape more like a banana than a ship. It was only about one sixth as wide as it was long but the contour was quite plain.’ [p. 68]
After their return to Derby Robinson posted the artefact to ‘America’ to seek an identification. After his return to Perth he obtained a response by registered letter. A passage from the letter is quoted, but Robinson does not name the institution to which he sent the artefact.
It is of Phoenician origin possibly from a period 200 – 700 B.C.
At present, we are not able to translate fully, the text of the writing on the plate. This is being investigated by Professor Mason of our archaeological section, who will forward his findings at a later date. [Robinson 1980: 68]
No further correspondence from the unnamed institution or Professor Mason is noted in Robinson’s book.
Robinson mentioned the wreck to Dr Ian Crawford, then Curator of Anthropology at the WA Museum, when he was in Derby, but was ignored by him [p. 133]. Then says he went to the WA Museum and told the Director, W.D.L. Ride of the find. Ride was dismissive, perhaps because of their earlier volatile encounters, and Robinson walked out. ‘Today that record does not exist’ he says, and this can be read in a number of ways.
After failing to convince anyone at the WA Museum Robinson went to the WA State Library, researching the Phoenicians and their far-flung maritime expeditions, including to China and circumnavigating Africa. The descriptions of the long narrow triremes were just what he thought was marked by the shadowy submerged remains on the coast. Given their maritime prowess he asked ‘should it be impossible for one of their ships to be on the Australian mainland’? [Robinson 1980: 69].
No further evidence is presented regarding what he and Charlie found, and there is no mention of him revisiting the site. Shallow-well Charlie died within a year of their previous meeting. In particular there is no mention of whether there was ever further information from the unnamed institution or its Professor Mason that had received the bronze artefact with the mysterious writing.
It is not clear when the first public mention was made of the wreck. An article in the West Australian quoted Rex Gilroy arguing that discovery of ‘the wreck of a Phoenician trireme off King Sound’ indicated that pre-Dutch maritime civilisations had reached Australia in the past [West Australian 17.7.1974]. Robinson’s 1980 book had minor impact as it was self published. Newspaper reports of Robinson’s death in 1983 did not make mention of the book specifically, but they do say he had authored more than a dozen books. The National Library of Australia and Western Australian Library only list the one.
Elsewhere Robinson’s story has been picked up byDavid Hatcher Childress [1986: 130]. The claim is reproduced in a number of secret visitor websites, and also more generally on diving and shipwreck websites.
Testing the claim
Obviously any analysis of the claim has to accommodate the concern that both the finder [Shallow-well Charlie] and the advocate [Robinson] are dead. The information presented is limited to Robinson’s book, which elsewhere I note is written from the perspective of self-justification, making him out to be a victim of everyone else’s incompetence or maliciousness. Robinson provides a number of clear statements about what he saw and what he thought in his book. As he wrote and published it himself we should reasonably expect that he was asking us to believe the text as written. Does that mean he was not telling the truth? And how much of it was the truth – did Shallow-well Charlie exist, and did he participate as told in the published account? What if he changed a few details to preserve the secret of the location? Would that count as lying [yes, pretty much], but perhaps with a reasonable and understandable justification. Robinson first presented the details of the discovery in his 1980 book, supposedly after holding on to it for eleven years. He said that he did not want to report anything earlier to the authorities because of his distrust of them. In the meantime Charlie had died. Does this indicate a desire to come clean, big-note a tantalisingly untestable story or is it a flight of fancy? Based on the information we have no clear judgement on this can be made. One issue is that Robinson is not merely a second-hand reporter of Charlie’s account, but a first hand observer. Any questions about the detail of the account cannot be dismissed as happening during retelling. Neither can we use the other excuse of the erratic editor twisting the story around, as does happen in newspaper reportage. Robinson wrote and published the book himself, so we have to accept that the story we read is the story he wanted to tell.
Firstly, there is the close association of the galena mine on the hill, ‘burrowed away for hundreds of yards along one side’ with the ship. Does galena occur in the area? According to a mine information site the nearest lead mines to have operated near Derby were Narlarla, now closed, and Wagon Gap, both about 125 kilometres east of Derby. Three of the islands in the archipelago are currently being mined for iron ore and the area has been geologically well surveyed. The lack of any silver, lead or zinc deposits being identified draws a question over Shallow-well Charlie’s initial story associating the find with ancient galena mining.
Aerial survey of the mine and wreck
A second issue is the visibility of the wreck. According to Robinson’s account it was readily visible and even slightly exposed at low tide, but inaccessible at high tide. One rainy afternoon therefore I spent a few hours using the wonderful Google Map coverage to do my own close aerial search of the Buccaneer Peninsula. According to Robinson both the mine and the wreck had been visible at low tide from 500 feet up. Satellite coverage over the Buccaneer Archipelago is now excellent, with the highest level of magnification being formed by sub-metre pixels. On my monitor a 20 metre length on the ground measured 40 mm or a notional scale of 1:500, so individual cars, trees or shrubs were readily visible. The imagery would be comparable to or better than a light plane flying at 500 feet, with the added advantage of being able to zoom in or out and to then exactly geo-reference any likely locations. The air photos were taken at low tide, although whether at the minimum is not clear. I checked a margin extending 100 metres back from the low tide mark into the water, which also covered about the same distance towards high water. Any evidence of something that was not mud or sand under water or mangroves was carefully examined. On a second run I examined the country bordering the coast inland from the shore for about 1 kilometre. Careful attention was paid to any linear or angular breaks in the natural run of the geology. It may seem unusual or even inadmissable to be conducting an archaeological survey using Google Maps. It is however being used to great effect in places like Iraq where large expanses of desert can be examined remotely for archaeological remains – see stories here and here for example.
Here are the results of the survey, which tracked the coast of the mainland, and all of the islands in the archipelago, from Derby to the mouth of the Calder River.
- Number of possible sunken non-natural remains at or below low water within 100 metres from shore – 0
- Number of possible quarrying areas on hillsides within 1 kilometre of water’s edge – 0.
Given the excellent high quality and clarity of the photography, the size and visibility of the target objects, the ability to re-check and zoom in to examine locations in more detail and so on, the coverage of the Buccaneer Archipelago has to be considered comprehensive and close to definitive. In short, evidence in support of the shipwreck or mine was not found because there was none to be found.
Identification of the finds
Shallow-well Charlie suggested that the writing on the object could be a form of Chinese. Robinson [or Charlie] sent the piece or a copy of it to an unidentified place in the United States for analysis [p. 68]. The only clue as to where is that a reply came back referring to passing it on to ‘Professor Mason in our archaeological department’. Unfortunately the ‘Phoenician artefact’ has never been published and we do not know what institution it was sent to, or what response Professor Mason had, or even which Professor Mason it was.
A quick googling found a number of possible Professor Masons in archaeology. Initially I was quite excited as I thought it may have been Professor Revil J. Mason, the eminent South African archaeologist from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He retired in 1989, after a long career in which he fought a long, noble and probably pretty lonely struggle against the apartheid regime’s reworking of prehistory, which favoured and encouraged the explanation that the impressive structures of Great Zimbabwe and other stone-built settlements represented Phoenicians and other travellers rather than the indigenous people. He was someone who was familiar with the mythologisation of history and the need for proof of Phoenician claims. Unfortunately it was not him, but an American professor. But which one?
Next stop was the various editions of the International Directory of Anthropologists and the Archaeologists Year Book. There are only scrappy holdings of these in Australian universities, and they are not gripping reading. However, for our purposes they are an excellent way of finding a Mason in a haystack.
Contenders are listed below from the IDA, 3rd edition  and 5th edition . Unfortunately the 4th edition is not held in Australia.
- J. Alden Mason, University Museum, University of Philadelphia Retired 1958, died 1967
- Leonard E Mason, Science Museum, St Paul Minnesota Retired 1969, died 2005
- Ronald J Mason, Lawrence University, Wisconsin Retired 1995 – North American archaeology specialist
- WA Mason, Dept of Psychology, University of California at Davis Retired 1996 – Primatologist
None of these Masons really seems to be an appropriate person to whom to send the artefact. Another candidate – Carol I Mason, a North American archaeology specialist of the University of Wisconsin at Lawrence, is excluded as the letter clearly says that Mason was male.
In summary, Robinson’s account of his find raises a number of problems when tested. Firstly, there is no independent visible evidence of either the galena mine or the shipwreck or possible sites that could have been interpreted as such. We do not find galena in this area, although that could have been a question of misidentification. Neither is there any evidence of a Professor Mason who is likely to have been the expert who identified the artefact. As a result it has to be said that Robinson’s account of his encounter with Shallow-well Charlie and the identification of a mine and shipwreck are highly likely to be fabricated. On this basis there is no justification for assuming that Robinson found any evidence relating to Phoenicians, either on land or sea.
Drewe, R. 1986
Fortune, Pan Books, Sydney.
International Directory of Anthropologists
3rd edition 
5th edition 
Mineralogical Research Company [MRC] 2011
Narlarla Mine, http://www.mindat.org, accessed 29 January 2011.
Robinson, A. 1980
In Australia treasure is not for the finder, Vanguard Service Print, Perth.
van Niekerk, M. 1993
‘Tarnished treasure: tempestuous tale of “Robbie”, WA’s rogue wreck-hunter’, West Australian Big Weekend supplement, 22 May 1993, p. 12.
West Australian 1974
‘Discoveries point to early sea explorers’, West Australian 17 July 1974.
Australian Broadcasting Commission 2010
Short feature on Allan Robinson, 5 February 2010