The capstan of the Cataraqui
The 710 ton barque Cataraqui was built at Quebec, Canada, in 1840. Measuring 138' x 30' x 22' the vessel was registered at Liverpool and owned by the firm of William Smith and Sons. The ship had originally been used as a cargo vessel but was refitted during early 1845 to take advantage of the emigrants trade. On 20 April 1845 the Cataraqui left Liverpool, England, with 367 passengers and a cargo of slate bound for Melbourne under a British government scheme to encourage immigration to the colony. The vessel was commanded by C. Finlay and carried a crew of 44. By early August the Cataraqui was approaching Bass Strait and on the night of the 3rd the vessel was hove to west of King Island as bad weather had prevented accurate navigational observations. With increasingly poor conditions the Cataraqui resumed its eastward track and at around 4.30 am on the following day the vessel struck rocks on the south-western coast of King Island. The Cataraqui began to immediately break up under the heavy seas, sweeping passengers and crew overboard. Less than an hour later the vessel tipped over to port and remained there despite attempts to cut away the masts. Despite the close proximity to land the surrounding reefs and high seas prevented most of those on board from reaching shore as the Cataraqui broke up.
By mid afternoon only nine of the 409 passengers and crew had reached safety; these were the chief mate Thomas Gutherie, seven seamen and a lone passenger Solomon Brown. The survivors were assisted by the 'Straits Policeman' D. Howie, who was hunting on the island. It was not until six weeks later that they were finally taken onto Melbourne on the cutter Midge. Howie eventually buried over 340 bodies in a number of large graves and was subsequently rewarded by the colonial government for his efforts.
News of the wreck caused a sensation in Melbourne, where the emigrants were headed. Several public events were organised to raise funds to assist the survivors and reward their rescuer. The wreck was initially sold for salvage to builder Alexander Sutherland for £86. Sutherland managed to recover a good deal of material but became insolvent later that year and the salvage rights to the wreck were sold again for £6.
Wreck of the Cataraqui
(State Library of Victoria)
In 1848 an iron memorial commemorating what remains as Australia's worst civil disaster was erected near the site by the order of Governor La Trobe. This eventually rusted away and was replaced in 1956 by a stone cairn. In 1995 the King Island community with the assistance of the Parks and Wildlife Service placed permanent information markers near the historic grave site and a point overlooking the wreck location.
Due to the exposed nature of the Cataraqui site lying in 4 metres of water, little remains of the ship except part of the capstan, an anchor and chain, and fragments of the slate cargo. A number of items removed from the wreck by divers may be seen at the King Island Museum, Currie.
Lemon, A, Morgan, M., 1986. Poor Souls They Perished - The Cataraqui Australia's Worst Shipwreck, Hargreen Publishing Co. North Melbourne.