Was The Mahogany Ship Ever Seen?

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A recent research paper delivered at the Australian Maritime Archelogy Association Conference offers a detailed summary of the people that have claimed to have seen the Mahogany Ship.

Researching The Mahogany Ship
by Jenny Williams Fawcett

The Mahogany Ship is a legend, a narrative of myths and facts. Disassemble the legend and the anomalies become apparent: people lied about seeing the wreck, others exaggerated their accounts; no purported remnants can be substantiated nor any two accounts align her position and description. Claimants had convictions for dishonesty, searches had hidden agendas and many claims are linked to a specific want of an ancient ship of discovery.

Painting of Mahogany Ship - TJ Clarke circa 1860

To establish the truth it becomes essential to know people's stake in the legend and to examine the myths that give its' rise. One foundation myth is commonly termed the ‘1836 Hopkins River Incident' and is accepted as the formative European sighting of a mystery wreck, buried in dunes below Tower Hill. The main themes of the myth include a boat wrecked at the Hopkins River, survivors who stumbled upon a buried vessel when returning to Port Fairy and their commander Captain J.B. Mills visiting the wreck shortly after, en route to the Hopkins river. Both the Incident and the myth later seem authenticated by public accounts.

But in 1843 there was a second Incident with comparable themes and events that can impact the accepted narrative of the legend. (1), A boat with a crew of five men landed in distress near the Hopkins River, two survivors returned overland via Port Fairy and this incident coincides with James Lynar's statement that Captain Mills first visited the wreck in 1843 -

"...I took a lively interest in listening to (Mills') reminiscences of the old Whaling days and the old wreck in particular - he explained how her existence first became known, Viz, two men coming Eastward from the Hopkins chanced to find her during their walk to Port Fairy, and informed him and his brother Charles of the fact...A few weeks afterwards on their way to Look Out Hill... they visited the locality and from the bearings the men gave had no difficulty in finding her...Between ‘43 and ‘44 he twice stood on her deck but never knew her to be exposed since that ..." Lynar, to Joseph Archibald, 20th March 1890 (2):

The three published versions of the 1836 Incident were by John Brabyn Mills (1810-1877), David Fermaner (1816-1893) and Hugh Donnelly (1821-1903). But are their accounts credible, and evidence of a buried wreck? (3)

Hugh Donnelly claimed a part of the 1836 Incident but he did not arrive in Australia until 1841, aboard the Westminster, an Irish ‘bounty' immigrant, accompanied by his wife and children. He moved to Port Fairy and surrounds from 1843 till 1852 before moving near Geelong. After serving time for horse theft he returned in 1860 to Tower Hill, before moving to Nullawarre and finally Laang. It is evident he was a consummate storyteller and craved attention; for him a validation of his existence. Over the years he had failed at several business ventures, was deserted by two wives, jailed for horse theft, lost properties and was sued severally. He based his version of the 1836 Incident on those already in the public domain. The truth Donnelly did provide, in 1881,was a newspaper letter (4) clearly stating he had never seen the wreck, a fact ignored by subsequent enthusiasts. (5)

Captain John B. Mills was at Port Fairy in 1836, as commander of the whaling station there, and Fermaner went too as whaling ‘hand'. Mills had a couple of years whaling experience but despite Fermaner's claims, he was not among the first colonial crews. Henry F. Gurner (1819-1883) in his Chronicle of Port Phillip tells Mills' version of the Incident. The respected Crown Solicitor of Victoria from 1851 till 1881 Gurner was a noted book collector. He had travelled with Mills aboard the Seahorse in 1841, from Sydney to Melbourne, when appointed deputy registrar and clerk of the Supreme Court for the Port Phillip District. Published in 1876 the scope of his book included first hand accounts of European settlements in Victoria. Mills provided information about Port Fairy, which only incidentally includes the Incident, but not a wreck

"Dec. (1835)....About this time, Smith, who had been sent to Port Fairy early in the year, in charge of Messrs Raby and Penny's whaling party, left that place in a whale boat, with a crew of five men, intending to enter the river Hopkins. The boat was capsized in the surf at the entrance of the river, and all hands drowned with the exception of a man named Gibbs. He swam to shore in a state of nudity, and made his way back naked and on foot to Port Fairy. Messrs Raby and Penny sold the boats whaling plant and etc to Messrs Griffiths and Connolly..."

Mills' account of the Incident should essentially be correct: he did take command of the Port Fairy station shortly after the Incident and should have been familiar with recent events. It is evident he was a factual, dutiful man. A native of Tasmania, he was a mere boy when his father, an incautious man of public office, abandoned the family (6). Mills proudly passed on the respected Brabyn surname of his maternal grandfather. He dutifully cared for his mother after his father's desertion and through her relationship with the incorrigible convict, James Tait. He supported his brother Charles, sister Eliza Glare and his "half" brother and sister - George (Mills) Tait and Isabella Stonehouse. All four siblings made Port Fairy their home, the men were mutually involved in Mills' undertakings, and he brought to visit there his maternal relatives from Sydney. He doted on his wife and son, had especial close relationships with his in-laws and raised his wife's niece even after losing his only daughter in infancy.
Mills spent a couple of years in the colonial sealing trade before joining the whaling industry. A conscientious leader and diligent worker he was soon entrusted with the command of vessels. A very private man he wrote publicly only on two occasions and then a furious response to allegations that an incident, whilst in command of the Essington, could affect insurance imposts at Port Fairy. Despite the loss of nearly all vessels he commanded, unshakeable testimonials to his courage, character and conduct continued throughout his life and after his death. (5)

David Fermaner was not of the calibre of Mills. He exaggerated in saying his family in Lewisham (Kent) was a "long line of mariners" though just laborers and tradesmen. He lied on his third marriage certificate and said he was born in Sydney, altered his age and deliberately misspelled his surname, and though he stated his second wife was deceased, her death is not established. His siblings commonly used the surname Farmaner but he took ‘Fermaner', probably to cover up his arrival in Australia; he claimed he first arrived via Sydney, in 1833 aboard the Lady Nugent but that vessel only made its maiden voyage to Australia in April 1835. He claimed to have been at Portland whaling before the Henty's arrived but he is not in trade crew lists, nor can be found in other contemporary sources until September of 1835, when he joined the Bass Strait trade aboard the Elizabeth, as a seaman (never as commander, as he later claimed) (5)

He is regularly recorded as "Fermanoy" in official crew lists, and after his first four voyages aboard the Elizabeth (between Launceston, Western Port and Sydney) he recruited a runaway who took the alias of ‘Robert Fermanoy'. They remained on the Elizabeth until March 1836 then David went as seaman on the Sarah Ann, to Port Fairy for the whaling season. When she was wrecked there Mills took command of the Thistle and Fermaner went as Mate, or as he claimed, as a "nurse" to Mills. Fermaner continued in 1837 aboard the Thistle and whaling at Port Fairy but in October, when they docked at Launceston, he committed the unforgivable gaffe of publicly embarrassing Captain Mills. Left in charge he had hired James Reed to guard the vessel, but failing to pay him the drunken Reed refused to leave, and Mills was summoned back to forcibly remove him. Reed later confronted Mills at Griffiths' yard, ‘in a boxing stance' but was struck down by the captain, who was furious at the public insult.

Captain Mills was charged and fined for the assault. Fermaner's claims that he then continued with Mills on the Thistle are not substantiated; nor is he found working again with him or on any Griffiths' owned vessel. It was around this time, he said, he went ‘on a sojourn' to Adelaide. Then in June 1838, at Launceston, he entered a hellish marriage to the convict Ann Welles. Shortly after he was employed at Williamstown, as a boatman, when he was charged with an unprovoked attack upon a fellow employee. His wife was charged the following year with deserting her employer there. Fermaner retreated to Port Albert about 1841 and there planted himself, first as a boatman before later accepting the positions of Pilot, then Harbour-Master. His brother Joseph Farmaner (7) briefly stayed with him in 1848 and one family tradition says the brothers had a "falling out". After his divorce Fermaner remarried first a Sunday school teacher, then the widowed daughter of a naval man. In 1888 he wrote "Garryown" with accounts of colonial events in which he partook, which do not tally with established facts.

George Dunderdale (1822-1903) published in 1898 Fermaner's version, in his ‘Book Of The Bush'. Born in Lancashire Dunderdale arrived in Victoria in 1853, from the American West. After a brief period at the goldfields he settled in Colac before transferring in 1869 to Port Albert, where he met Fermaner. He worked variously in both places in government office, which rarely occupied his time, and became known through some thirty stories published in the Austral Light (1893 to 1897). His Book of The Bush was "...many truthful sketches of the early colonial life of squatters, whalers, convicts, diggers and others who left their native land and never returned." Chapter 4 tells the "Discovery of the Hopkins River", with Fermaner as informant:

"In January 1836, Captain Smith, who was in charge of the whaling station at Port Fairy, went with two men, named Wilson and Gibbs, in a whale boat to the islands near Warrnambool, to look for seal. They could find no seal, and then they went across the bay, and found the mouth of the river Hopkins. In trying to land there, their boat capsized in the surf, and Smith was drowned. The other two men succeeded in reaching the shore naked, and they traveled back along the coast to Port Fairy, carrying sticks on their shoulders to look like guns, in order to frighten away the natives, who were very numerous on that part of the coast. On this journey they found the wreck of a vessel, supposed to be a Spanish one, which has since been covered by the drifting sand. When Captain Mills was afterwards harbour master at Belfast, he took the bearings of it, and reported them to the Harbour Department in Melbourne. Vain search was made for it many years afterwards in the hope that it was a Spanish galleon laden with doubloons..."
There are seven key issues in Mills' and Fermaner's versions which do not align (see handout). The reliable Mills did not write then of a buried wreck, or any time afterward. Perhaps Dunderdale added in the wreck, for by that time an 1836 sighting, from another (unreliable) source, was already in the public domain. And the mysterious wreck was so intriguing that few questioned the validity of sightings.


From 1890 the common perception has continued that it is a government's responsibility to manage an unconfirmed wreck and an unidentifiable heritage site "somewhere" in some five miles of dunes. Searchers clamor for public funding and for uncontrolled access to the dunes, regardless of the impact on the fragile and culturally sensitive locale. Research can determine the wreck's existence, if the truth is wanted.


(1) 1843 Hopkins River Incident, by J. Fawcett
(2) Lynar to Archibald, (courtesy Philip G.Latimer, M.S. Collection, original in G.G.McCrae Colletion, S.L.V)
(3) Donnelly, Hopkins River Revisited, Warrnambool Standard, July 1901
(4) Donnelly, Letter, Warrnambool Standard, 29 Nov.1881
(5) Donnelly, Mills and Fermaner biographies, by J. Fawcett
(6) Peter Burnett Mills left Hobart 1816 for New Zealand aboard the Adamant, where he jumped ship and sought work from the missionary Thomas Kendall . www.myancestorsstory.com/shiplist_01.html
(7) Joseph Farmener, 51st Regt, arrived W.A 1840 per Runnymede; next sailed to Port Albert where he spent a short time with his brother David Fermaner, but returned to W. A where he became a successful merchant, in conjunction with his brother George Farmaner, before returning home to England.