Remembering the Past Australia

Loss of the Neva Convict Ship

14 May 1835

As published in Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, by Landells and Others. 1846.

The ship Neva, of eight hundred and thirty-seven tons, commanded by Captain J. H. Peck, left Cork on the 8th January, 1835, bound to Sidney (sic), having a crew on board of twenty-six men, a surgeon, a superintendent of the convicts, Dr. R. Stevenson, R.N., one hundred and fifty female convicts, fifty-five children, and nine free emigrants. Three of the passengers, it appears, died on their passage, and one child was born, so that at the time the vessel struck, she had on board no less than two hundred and forty souls!

For some weeks the voyage was pursued under the most favourable circumstances; the wind was tolerably fair, and though there was some sickness among the passengers and convicts, everything seemed to prognosticate a speedy and propitious voyage. Alas! how soon was that assurance of safety changed to horrors of the most awful description. Danger lurked in their path, and Death, with all his terrors, stood, unseen before them. However, little deeming that their existence was so rapidly drawing to a close, they thought not of the future, till warned by the terrors to which they were subjected.

At about noon on the 13th of May, according to the ship’s reckoning, she was ninety miles from King’s-Island, at the entrance of Bass Straits, and everything wore a favourable aspect. A good look-out was now kept for land, which was accordingly made on the 14th of May at two o’clock in the morning. In about two hours after breakers were suddenly discovered right ahead, and immediate orders were given to tack by Captain Peck, who was then busily engaged in his various duties on the deck. Without the loss of a single moment, the vessel was then placed in stays; but, to the consternation of all on board, she immediately struck, unshipped her rudder, and become quite unmanageable. At this moment of terror the wind was very strong, and the ship was under double-reefed topsails. Scarcely had the crew and passengers recovered from the alarm into which they had been thrown by this astounding fact, when the vessel again struck most violently on the larboard bow, swung broadside heavily on the reef and directly bilged.

Horror now succeeded to the consternation and alarm into which all the parties on board had been thrown by this unexpected and melancholy event. Self-preservation seemed to be the one prevailing feeling that actuated every breast, and the captain was loudly called upon to render what assistance he could to rescue those who were under his care from the perils and dangers in which they were involved. He endeavoured to soothe and console them under their misfortunes, and earnestly besought them to restrain their terror as much as possible under these trying circumstances; but the imminent danger of their situation rendered them desperate, and their cries of deliverance rose louder and louder, as the danger of the ship became every moment but more apparent.


Loss of the Neva Convict Ship, Captain J. H. Peck, 14th May 1835. Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea. 1846

By whose orders we know not, but the pinnance was now lowered, and the captain, the surgeon, the superintendent of the convicts, and two of the crew, got into her, and endeavoured to make off from the now evidently sinking vessel. At this period of dismay and confusion, the doors of the prison were burst open by the violence with which the ship had struck, many threw themselves over the side of the vessel, and clinging to the boat, quickly swamped her, when, horrible to relate, all, except the master and the two sailors, perished amidst one wild cry of horror and despair.

With the greatest difficulty the captain contrived to regain the ship, when, without losing a moment of time, he ordered the long-boat to be launched, and that care should be taken to prevent a similar accident to that which had just befallen them, by too many endeavouring to force their way into her. After having taken the utmost caution to secure, as they believed, their own deliverance from a dreadful death, the long-boat was at length pushed off; but scarcely had they got away from the ship, when the boat was upset by the violence of the surf, and the whole of the party precipitated into the sea.

The master and the chief-mate, being good swimmers, once more succeeded in saving themselves from the death which appeared, even to themselves, to be inevitable. With extreme difficulty they managed to reach the ship, but scarcely had they got on board, when a new horror awaited them – the vessel went to pieces, and every hope of preservation vanished like an unsubstantia dream.

The scene at this moment was most awful and wholly indescribable. The vessel had been divided into four parts, each of which was covered with the terror-stricken females in the light dress in which they had just before simultaneously rushed from their beds, and with the remaining part of the crew, were clinging wildly to all parts of the wreck, and screaming for help in the most piteous manner. This was, indeed, a moment of terror, which would have appalled even the boldest. Situated as they were upon a frail and shaking wreck, not one gleam of hope broke in upon to cheer or inspire them. Beneath, and all around, were the lashing waves, roaring aloud as if eager to engulf them. Above, the winds howled in hideous triumph over the work of devastation and death which they had caused, and rocking the frail and disjointed wreck, so that each moment seemed to the terrified creatures as if it would be their last in this world. Every plank and joist creaked as the contending elements quailed lest it should sink and bury them in the yawning abyss of water. Nor was it long before their worst apprehensions were verified. The vessel, parted as it was, soon afterwards went to pieces, the final work of destruction was completed, and the whole of those on board, were precipitated, shrieking with horror, into the raging ocean! 

In this perilous situation, nearly the whole of the unfortunate sufferers were consigned to an untimely death. About two-and-twenty persons, however, consisting of some of the crew, and a few of the convicts, were carried, by clinging to various disjointed portions of the wreck, to King’s Island, which was situate at the distance of about nine miles from the spot where this distressing accident had taken place. But their struggles to gain the shore were desperate and severe, and it was not till after they had been in the water for a period exceeding eight hours, that they at last succeeded in attaining the much-desired land. Of these twenty-two suffering creatures, seven shortly afterwards died, from absolute exhaustion and the excessive fatigue to which they had for so long a period been subjected.

Shipwreck and Coastal Views

Shipwreck and Coastal Views – John Henry Harvey (1855-1938). State Library of Victoria.

After having buried the bodies of their unfortunate companions in misery, and having, in some degree, recovered from the cold and fatigue they had endured, the remaining fifteen succeeded, after considerable difficulty, in erecting a temporary tent of the few things that were occasionally washed ashore from the wreck of the Neva. In this dreadful situation they were not suffered to perish by the Providence who had hitherto preserved them from the fate that had befallen their late companions in misery – a few provisions were washed ashore from the vessel; and upon the scanty supply thus afforded, they contrived, with economy, to subsist for about fifteen days.

At this period, most singularly, and as events now make it appear, most fortunately for the survivors of the Neva, a small vessel, the Tartar, belonging to Hobart Town, and the property of Mr. C. Friend, was wrecked on another part of the same island. The whole of the crew had been saved, and, like the others, had erected a tent as a place of shelter, till a vessel should arrive to take them from that cheerless spot. Whilst they were thus waiting for the anticipated succour, their attention was excited by the numerous portions of a wreck which they found on the sea-shore.

Actuated by curiosity, and a desire to ascertain whether any of the crew of the ill-fated vessel had escaped, the men, belonging to the Tartar, commenced a journey round the island, in order to satisfy themselves upon the subject. In this expedition they encountered perils and fatigue of no ordinary kind, and after a search of two or three days, arrived at the tent which had been erected by the survivors of the unfortunate Neva. The meeting between these fellow-victims at adversity, was most affecting. Their hearts at once yearned towards each other as if they had been brothers, and uniting themselves in one association, they resolved to remain together until they should be relieved from the solitary island upon which they had been thrown.

The crew of the Tartar had been accompanied by a sealer, a passenger in that vessel, who had luckily saved several of his hunting dogs. With the assistance of these sagacious animals they soon afterwards succeeded in taking a wallaby, upon which the persons on the island lived until the period of their release from this scene of desolation and despair. Each day men were placed upon the loftiest eminences near the sea-coast, in order to discover whether any vessels passed within view, and in the event of a ship, being seen, to hail her by whatever signals they could make. Whilst some of the party were thus employed others were engaged in fishing and hunting, whilst the remainder busied themselves in increasing the comforts of the tents which they had erected for their shelter, from the inclement season, which had just set in, in those latitudes.

The sufferings, both mental and bodily, to which these poor creatures were subjected, it would be impossible to describe. A thousand thoughts of home and distant friends, were ever flitting through their minds. They remembered with regret, the happiness that had once been theirs, and constrasting it with the misery to which they were at present doomed, despair at last yielded to the hopes they had once formed of escaping from the wretched situation in which their lot was cast. Day after day passed wearily by, and still no succour came to these heavily afflicted creatures, till at last they almost began to regret that the raging elements which had destroyed so many of their companions, had not involved them in the same dreadful fate. 

Shipwreck Survivor

Shipwreck Survivor – W. H. Hardy. State Library of Victoria.

At last, on the 15th of June, exactly one month from the time of the wreck taking place, Mr. Friend arrived at the island, in the Sarah Ann, another of his vessels. It happened, by chance, that Mr. Friend was passing King’s Island for the whaling station at Portland Bay, and went on shore, the signals made giving him reason to suppose that there were some persons there in distress. Upon landing, he was immediately surrounded by nearly the whole number of the shipwrecked persons, who hailed him joyfully as their deliverer from misery and death. Mr. Friend assured them that he would do all in his power to alleviate their distress, and consoled them with the promise of landing them, at Launceston as speedily as possible. They then collected together all the bodies that they could find of the unfortunate creatures who had been washed ashore from the wreck, and pronouncing over them the solemn rites of Christian burial, consigned to the grave no less than one hundred of their fellow human beings.

This melancholy duty performed, the whole of the ship-wrecked persons, with the exception of two seamen, and one female convict, who, at the time, were at the other side of the island, the survivors of this awful calamity were got on board the Sarah Ann, preparatory to their departure from this sterile island. A fair wind befriended them, and on the 27th of June they arrived in safety at Launceston, in New Holland. 

As soon as the local government was made acquainted with the disastrous affair, the cutter Shamrock was despatched to King’s Island, for the purpose of taking off whatever persons might have been left there, and to pick up any portion of the wreck, or government stores, which might have floated on shore. On arriving at the place of destination, the two sailors and the female convict were found, who, on discovering that their fellow-sufferers had left the island, were reduced to a state of absolute despair. Upon seeing the cutter their confidence once more returned, and they joyfully hastened on board the vessel that was to bear them from that land of inhospitality and horror. The crew of the cutter then collected together what portions of the wreck of the Neva and her stores they could find, and having buried a few more bodies that had been drifted on shore, they quitted the island and landed them in safety at Launceston, where the whole of the survivors received that care and protection they so much needed in their deplorable condition.

Had there have been proper attention paid by those whose duty it was to attend to the shipment and safety of the convicts, in all probability the catastrophe might have greatly ameliorated, if not avoided.

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