The Hope ; the History of an Early Colonial Ship.

Copyright 2010 Greg Jefferys

As well as the prominent men and women who earned places of note in Tasmania’s early history, there were also historically prominent ships. Such ships carried those people who would shape Tasmanian society; like the Lady Nelson which brought the settlers from Norfolk Island to Hobart Town. Such ships were also often the stages on which events that would shape the future of the young colony were played out (like the Porpoise from which, after his expulsion from Sydney, ex-Governor Bligh harassed and attempted to usurp Lieutenant Governor Collins). Sometimes these ships, by the extent of their connectedness with Tasmanian society and history, earned an historic status in their own right. One such historic ship was the Hope, yet the existing histories of the Hope are not extensive and contain many errors. This is largely because her past was deliberately obscured by the man who first brought her to Hobart; for what has been written on the Hope is almost exclusively in connection with two events: her first voyage to the Antipodes and her eventual wrecking at the mouth of the Derwent River.

In 1823-24 she carried the English engineer and entrepreneur Peter Degraves from England to Van Diemen’s Land. As well as Degraves and his family the Hope carried the personnel, machinery and other equipment he would use to build his water powered sawmill at the Cascades on the slopes of Mount Wellington. Ultimately Degraves’ mill led to the establishment, in 1832, of the Cascades Brewery, Australia’s oldest continually operating industrial enterprise. It was the success of this business that ensured that the Degraves dynasty became one of Tasmania and Australia’s wealthiest families for much of the 19th century. 

Apart from her connection with Degraves the Hope is also remembered in connection with another Tasmanian legend, the lost treasure of Bruny Island. This popular story has its source in the Hope’s loss on Hope Beach on South Arm at the mouth of the Derwent River in April 1827.

While these events are focal points in the Hope’s long history there is much more to the story of this vessel than was contained within the brief period between when Degraves was her owner to the last frantic hours preceding her destruction on Hope Beach. For when Hobart’s bay whaling and sealing industries were booming the Hope carried whale oil, whale bone and seal skins as well as timber and other agricultural produce back to England.  On the return route she carried migrant passengers as well as much needed coin and merchandise, stopping along the way there and back to trade at various ports in Africa and Asia. When back in Australian waters she also worked the inter-colonial sea routes moving goods and people between Sydney and Hobart. 

The 1827 demise of the Hope was a significant shock to Hobart’s population and to the colonial authorities who had been complacent about the safety of the entrance to their harbour which had developed an international reputation as one of the safest anchorages in the world. The wrecking of the Hope resulted in the erection of the first navigation light —built on Iron Pot Island at the mouth of the Derwent River. It also resulted in the dismissal of the government pilot, Michael Mansfield, who, as a consequence, became the first European to settle and farm the Blackman’s Bay area in Kingsborough, south of Hobart.

Apart from these and other material events the wreck of the Hope also produced one of Tasmania’s most enduring and interesting buried treasure legends, a legend that grew in size and stature over the years. This has been written and speculated about in numerous books, magazines and newspaper articles as well as having inspired a substantial number of treasure hunting expeditions, some of them being works on a grand scale involving syndicates and treasure maps.

This chapter will examine the history of the ship Hope and how Peter Degraves was able to alter critical aspects of her identity and ownership by taking her to the colonies. Following chapters will explore the histories of some of the people who sailed on board the Hope and also the evolution of the associated buried treasure mythology.

The Hope’s Early Years

The Hope was a sharply built, barque rigged, two decked, wooden sailing ship of 231 tons burthen built in Bristol in the year 1793 constructed of well-seasoned English oak.  She was about the same size as Captain Cook’s barque Endeavour though of a very different shape.   The term “sharply built” implies a streamlined hull and a bow constructed for speed; the sharply built design was the precursor to the later clippers which are generally associated with design innovations which came out of America; though this was not the case with the Hope which was British built. A feature of the “sharp” design was that some storage space in the hull was sacrificed in the structural streamlining of the shape of the vessel, particularly at the bow. This was to play an important part in the Hope’s story.

The fact that the Hope was built in Britain and of seasoned British oak was important, because these qualities were specifically required for her to obtain a “First Class” or “A1” rating with Lloyds’ Insurance. This in turn determined the type of insured cargoes that the Hope could carry. A 1st Class rated ship could be insured to carry any goods including goods which might be “liable to sea (water) damage” (such as sugar).  This was significant because the Hope was originally and primarily employed in trading between the various British colonies in the Caribbean and ports in Britain and, occasionally, Canada, carrying a variety of cargoes, such as timber and tobacco.  In her early years, however, her primary cargo was sugar—a product that spoiled easily if exposed to water.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries most of the European colonial powers attempted to gain territories in the Caribbean in order to gain a stake in the lucrative sugar industry. The Netherlands, France, Spain and Britain all established plantation based colonies there which relied almost exclusively on slave labour. After wresting Jamaica from the Spanish in the middle of the 17th century Britain set about increasing her existing territorial holdings in the region in the 18th century through a series of treaties with France and the Netherlands which saw these nations ultimately cede to Britain St Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent, Trinidad, Tobago and British Guiana. Through this period Britain also gained control over most of the Caribbean slave trade, which gave her effective control of a large proportion of the world’s sugar production.

For most of the 18th century British plantation owners and merchants made vast fortunes from the slave based sugar production of the West Indies using slave labour taken from the West African coast. Whilst the slave ships were specially built for carrying human cargo from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean’s main slave markets in Jamaica, and did not engage is other trade, many ships of the Hope’s size and design, used to carry general merchandise, often engaged in inter-colonial slave trading, carrying slaves from Jamaica to sell in other ports around the Caribbean and the America.  

The returns on investments (and in trade generally) in the West Indies remained high until the end of the 18th century when increased sugar production in other parts of the world began to reduce prices in Europe. The global depression of sugar prices combined with the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade to affect a severe down turn in the economies of the Caribbean colonies from which they would not recover for nearly two hundred years.

The Hope’s A1 rating lasted for 12 years after which time Lloyds’ policies allowed that ships still “in perfect repair” could apply for an E1 or 2nd Class rating. The Hope was rated 2nd Class from 1805 but by 1819 she had lost her 2nd class rating and was downgraded to 3rd class, which meant that she could not be insured to carry goods that might be damaged by seawater.

Because she spent most of her life in tropical waters the timber of the Hope’s hull was under constant attack from the wood eating, worm-like clam commonly known as the teredo worm or “shipworm”. These tiny, pervasive molluscs are often called the termites of the sea because the extensive damage that they cause is not readily seen, the surface of a ship’s hull may look perfectly sound and undamaged while the internal timbers may be completely rotten, riddled with teredo worms. The reason for the undamaged appearance is that the teredo “worms” invade the timber of a ship when at an almost microscopic size, during the free swimming stage of their life cycle. When they bore into the timber of the hull they leave only a tiny hole behind them. The presence of the worms is further concealed by the fact that their entrance hole is “hatched” by two “plates” which can be opened or closed. Once inside the hull the teredo worms bore into the timber allowing water into their burrow by controlling the “hatch” at the entrance through which a siphon extends, but which is withdrawn into the burrow if the worm is disturbed. The teredo worm, like the termite, eats the wood particles that its boring produces and also any microscopic creatures which enter its burrow through the siphon. Though the entrance point may be microscopic the burrow itself is often quite long. In cooler waters the burrows are rarely more than five or six centimetres in depth, but in warmer tropical waters the teredo worm’s burrow can often penetrate a ship’s timber to a depth of two metres, causing severe structural damage. Teredos also grow very rapidly, whilst they are less than one quarter of a millimetre in length when they attach to a ship they can reach 10 centimetres in length after just one month inside a ship’s hull.

Teredo worms were a constant problem for all ships which sailed tropical waters so the Hope, like Cook’s Endeavour and other 18th century ships, was originally iron sheathed to provide limited degree of protection against the worm’s predations. Iron sheathing was a process whereby the section of the hull below the water line was coated with a mixture of tar and hair; this layer was then covered by planks of about half an inch thickness, then the planks were imbedded with thousands of broad headed nails so as to produce an “iron clad” effect. The nails were made of wrought iron which does not rust as rapidly as other forms of iron.  This method was only effective until the salt water got past the tar, which became brittle in colder waters and cracked under the stress of the normal flexing of the hull moving through waves. Once the tar cracked the intrusion of the salt water allowed access for the teredo worms which then bored into the wood of the hull and keel resulting in rot. This in turn caused more sections of tar to fall away allowing further entry of the wood boring worms into the ship’s timbers. It was exactly this effect that forced Captain Cook to bring the Endeavour into Batavia for repairs and which ultimately resulted in the loss of a large number of the Endeavour’s crew and company through disease.  The Hope’s original iron sheathing was applied when she was built in 1793 and was replaced in 1801, then in 1812 the iron sheathing was removed and her hull was re-covered with copper sheathing. The copper sheathing of a ship involved the tacking of thin copper sheet to the exterior of a ship’s hull. Although copper was very expensive in the 19th century, copper sheathing was so very much more effective than iron sheathing for preventing damage to the hull by worms and other agents that it easily justified the expense. For the copper did not rust and only rarely cracked thus removing many of the problems associated with iron sheathing. As well as preventing the access of marine organisms to the hull’s timber the copper sheathing also had a chemical property that prevented marine plants from attaching to the hull. Because of these qualities the majority of shipping was copper sheathed by the middle of the 19th century.  

Records of who originally built the Hope have not been found. The earliest records are in the Lloyds Insurance Registry of 1800; these show that in the year 1800 the Hope was owned by of a person named Monckley and that her master was a Captain Wilson. It is likely that Monckley was the original owner and that he sold the Hope the year before she was to lose her A1 rating with Lloyds, in 1804, when sugar prices were depressed. The Hope’s ownership then passed to Gibbs & Company, master Captain Gardiner. Gibbs & Company owned her until 1814 when ownership passed to Hooper & Company who retained ownership of the Hope until she was sold to Peter Degraves and his brother-inlaw-Hugh Macintosh in 1820 or 1821.  During the period between 1800 and 1820 the Hope appears to have continued to sail almost exclusively between Britain and various British ports around the Caribbean, such as Barbados, Jamaica and Tobago.

  In 1820 the Hope arrived in England on a run from Honduras carrying mahogany timber for Hooper & Co under the command of Captain E. Seaton. Based on later testimonies it is clear that Hooper & Co believed the Hope’s days of sailing safely and profitably across the Atlantic were over; her copper sheathing was worn through in many places and due for replacement; in turn the holes in the copper meant her hull was riddled with teredo worm. For these reasons Hooper & Co. sold their ship to Degraves and Macintosh for just £850: the low price being indicative of the poor condition that the Hope was in at the time of purchase.

The Hope, Hobart Bound.

In early 19th Century a reasonable price for a second hand sailing ship of 231 tons burthen in reasonable condition was between £2,500 and £3,000.  A good example of this is again Cook’s Endeavour which was three years old when purchased by the navy in 1768 for £2,800.  Prices for ships in early 19th Century were normally worked out at a price per ton rate, with a price of around £10 per ton of capacity (burthen) for a new ship. Hence the Endeavour, being of 368 tons burthen and just over three years old, sold for just under eight pounds per ton. This price was for a relatively new ship in good condition, with the term “good condition” being primarily related to the condition of the hull. The £10 per ton did not include the rigging and such things as anchors, cable and other extras, but the cost of actual ship.

By 1820 the Hope was 27 years old; an old ship with significant structural problems including the worn copper sheathing, a rotten keel and rotting timbers in her hull, the result of her years plying the tropical waters of the Caribbean, nineteen of those years being without the protection of copper sheathing. Lloyds’ Register records show that from 1802 to 1821 the Hope had required notable repair work every year and, whilst the records do not show the exact details of these repairs, annotations show that this work was often of a major nature.

Generally the existing literature on the Hope and Peter Degraves states that either Degraves on his own, or in partnership with Macintosh, purchased the Hope for the specific purpose of transporting themselves and their families, a load of paying passengers as well as a substantial quantity of machinery and other equipment and merchandise to Hobart Town in Van Dieman’s Land.  Other writers say that Degraves either chartered the Hope or was allowed to use it by the trustee of his creditors.  However Lloyds’ Insurance Register records for the period show unambiguously that Macintosh was the sole (registered) owner of the Hope from 1821 to 1826.  The modern confusion about the ownership of the Hope is understandable, as even in 1821 most people who had dealings with Degraves or the Hope were under the definite impression that Degraves was the owner, or at least the principle owner, an impression which Degraves cultivated and which was probably true except on paper.  Degraves made a deliberate effort to obscure the identity and history of the Hope by subtly altering details of her age and origin in the documents associated with her re-insurance with Lloyds.

Regardless of who actually owned the Hope in 1821 it was without doubt that it was Peter Degraves who was principle instigator and active partner in the project of relocating his and Macintosh’s endeavours to Tasmania and that he was the one who sought to maximise the number of fare paying passengers they could put on the Hope. To this end Degraves and Macintosh employed a ship joiner, John Forsyth, to build extra cabins between the Hope’s two decks, thus substantially reducing storage space below decks, but significantly increasing the potential for immediate income from fare paying customers who had to pay cash up front to book their passage.  It will be remembered that because of her ‘sharp’ construction, the Hope already had a reduced capacity compared to conventionally built vessels of a similar size.

The alterations to the Hope were carried out in dry dock at Portsmouth. Although this work greatly increased Hope’s passenger carrying capacity Degraves was not interested in spending money on the much needed structural repairs that the aging vessel clearly required before attempting the long voyage to Van Diemen’s Land. Such repairs would have been expensive and cash was something that neither Degraves nor Macintosh had ready access to.

So it was that by the middle of 1821 the Hope was transformed from being a ship principally designed for carrying cargo to a ship that could carry both cargo and a significant number of fare paying passengers. However the modifications that Degraves ordered were of a superficial nature and no effort was made to repair either the worn copper sheathing or other structural problems that existed due to the combination of age and worm damage. It was Degraves’ unwillingness to make those structural repairs that almost fatally interrupted the Hope’s first voyage to Van Diemen’s Land and led to her being seized by the British port authorities. To understand why Degraves attempted to confuse the ownership and origins of the Hope, why he was not prepared to spend money on repairing his vessel it is necessary to first understand something of his past, a past which he made great efforts to conceal in his later life in the colonies.