Victorian Shipwrecks – The Mahogany Ship

Most of the shipwrecks I have presented so far and the ones still to come are fact, recorded, eye witnessed and even physical evidence or salvage as proof. There is one shipwreck which for Australians has been raised to the level of Urban Myth or Folklore……… it real of not? There are many tales and stories; even books tell tales of this mysterious ship half buried in sand dunes near Port Fairy, a few vague eye witness accounts, but never any proof. I thought it deserved it’s own post.

Even in the early 19th Century it was considered an ancient wreck, how long had it been there, where did it come from? Some believe it is a 16th century Portugese caravel to an early American sealing vessel. Many theories state that is real or not real, that it is anything from Portugese, to Chinese; there are rumours and thoughts of secret mission, government cover ups and espionage. It was a very different world back then and the hunt for gold, spices, and new territory was a battle fraught with danger and intrigue.

In many of the accounts written in the late 19th century, the Mahogany Ship was described as Spanish. According to local writer and antiquarian Jack Loney, several theories supporting the Spanish connection were advanced. One theory was that the ship was the galleon “Santa Ysabel”, which had sailed from Peru in 1595.

Today, a popular theory suggests that the vessel is a missing ship of voyage of Portuguese exploration, wrecked in 1522. Kenneth McIntyre advanced this theory in 1977, as part of his theory of Portuguese discovery of Australia. According to McIntyre the Mahogany Ship was part of a secret expedition, under Cristóvão de Mendonça, that set out from the Spice Islands in 1522 to look for the Isles of Gold. McIntyre argued secrecy would have been essential because the mariners were entering waters deemed Spanish under the Treaty of Tordesillas. He suggested that, after discovering the north coast of Australia, they followed and chartered it and continued down the east coast and around Cape Howe, before one of the caravels was wrecked at Warrnambool. The other ships turned back and returned to the Spice Islands and then Portugal. Maps and documents of such a voyage were kept locked away in Portugal so as to avoid antagonising Spain and to keep the discoveries from her or other nations. McIntyre suggested that all of the original documents have since been lost or destroyed, except for references to Jave la Grande, which appear on the French Dieppe school of maps. Lawrence Fitzgerald also supported McIntyre’s theory connecting the Mahogany ship to a Portuguese voyage in his 1984 book, Java La Grande. However, Peter Trickett’s 2007 book on the theory of Portuguese discovery of Australia, Beyond Capricorn, found fault with McIntyre’s interpretation of the Mahogany ship as a caravel, and noted that until the wreck is found, “all theories must remain to some degree speculative.” Bob Nixon (2001) and Murray Johns (2005) have both criticised McIntyre’s account for adding confusion to the story of the Mahogany ship through his identification of the wreck as a caravel.

In 2002 English writer Gavin Menzies speculated that the ship was a modified Chinese junk. He pointed to the reports that it was made of a ‘dark wood’ and was ‘of an unconventional design’. He also cited claims that local Aborigines had a tradition “yellow men” had at one time come from the wreck. The claims of Chinese origin have not been well received in academic circles. Many notable historians have dismissed the notion as fanciful at best.

In 2005, The Age newspaper reported Canberra mathematician Dr. Frank Coningham’s claim that in the 1980s he had seen a document in a collection of British Parliamentary Papers showing British authorities “dismantled the wreck to prevent an Australian land claim by the King of Portugal.” However, Sydney archaeologist Denis Gojak has also investigated the claim and searched British Parliamentary papers. He has been unable to find such a document and doubts its existence as reported.

Dr. Murray Johns’ theory is that the Mahogany Ship was an incomplete vessel probably built by escaped Tasmanian convicts. He argues they may have arrived on the schooner Unity in 1813, which was wrecked or beached nearby. In his view, this theory explains the repeated nineteenth century references to several unidentified wrecks in different locations in the area. It also accounts for the finds of wood from northern New South Wales (where the Unity had been built), and the nineteenth century descriptions of the Mahogany Ship as crude construction.


There have been of course, many searches for this infamous ship wreck, from the 19th Century through to more recent, using Google Maps an aerial survey equipment, government rewards and private endeavours. Apart from a few stray pieces of wood, which could have been from any wreck there is still no evidence of what the ship was, or even if it was at all.