Stradbroke Island’s Legendary Spanish Galleon
A controversial History
The Stradbroke Island Spanish Galleon story is one of the Australia’s most enduring historic shipwreck mysteries and, along side Victoria’s Mahogany Ship, is the most controversial as it may yet prove that the Spanish reached Australia a long time before Captain Cook. The shipwreck is situated in the 18 Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island. The supposedly Spanish shipwreck has been causing controversy since the mid 19th Century when the first reports of a mysterious oak shipwreck in the swamp began to circulate amongst the people of the young colony of Morton Bay. It is an important issue in Australian Maritime History and Archaeology that deserves serious attention from our Museums but which is being ignored for very strange reasons.
Stradbroke Island History
Stradbroke Island is a giant sand island about 30 miles long with a strip of freshwater swamp, the 18 Mile Swamp, running down its eastern edge between the Pacific Ocean and Stradbroke’s huge, tree covered sand mountains. Stradbroke Island is the east shore of Moreton Bay, and situated just south of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. History records Moreton Bay was the first location of the first British settlement in Queensland. Convicts, settlers and freed convicts were sent there from Sydney to exploit the rich marine resources of Moreton Bay and to find places for the expansion of agriculture. Dunwich and Amity Point were the first places to be settles on Stradbroke Island.
The only link between Australia and Britain was the ocean. The same was the case for between Sydney and its coastal colonies; the safest, fastest way to travel was by ship. At first the Morton Bay colony was based at Amity Point on Stradbroke Island and then moved a few miles south to Dunwich where a better natural harbour existed as well as more fertile soil for farming. The colony quickly expanded down through the complex waterways of Moreton Bay to Southport (now part of the Gold Coast) which was a base for the cedar getters. Like wise the colony moved up the Brisbane River to establish Brisbane city where overland links were established into the New England Tablelands where sheep and cattle farmers had already moved overland from Sydney. All the major settlements were linked by water and by necessity the residents of the settlements around Morton Bay had close links to the sea, sailing and Moreton Bay.
A Legend Is Born
The first recorded investigation of the Stradbroke Island shipwreck appears to have been in about 1860 by the Moreton Bay pilot and light keeper Mister Graham who found both the wreck and an ancient wood stocked anchor in the vicinity of Swan Bay at the south end of Stradbroke Island. He retrieved the anchor and had it on display at his home near Nerang for some years. His wife, who was of Aboriginal descent, recalled that the Aboriginal people had known of the shipwreck’s existence for a long time; this position is supported by a number of oral histories that tell of whites being shown the wreck by Stradbroke Island Aborigines. Read these stories in the Galleon book.
The story that the shipwreck was of a Spanish Galleon in the Swamp of Stradbroke Island appears to have begun in the later 1880’s or early 1890’s, started either by two young Russell Island residents, John Willes and Ivan Bond, who found the remains of the shipwrecked “galleon” on the ocean side of Stradbroke Island in about 1886 or by Mathew Heeb, a timber getter and shipwright, who found the remains of ship with a “high poop and forecastle” (hence as likely to be a carrack or caravel as a galleon though I guess the title “Stradbroke Island Caravel” is not as evocative as Stradbroke Island Galleon) in the 18 Mile Swamp near Swan Bay.
Up until the mid 1930’s a number of people had found the mysterious shipwreck in the swamp on Stradbroke Island, often shown the location by Aborigines. Two well documented and successful expeditions to find the Stradbroke "galleon” occurred in 1934 after a huge fire burned through the Eighteen Mile Swamp from Swan Bay to Blue Lake and burnt the timbers of the wreck that were above ground level to a point where only the thickest of them remained. Since that fire it appears that only one person has seen the wreck. A member of a sand mining crew who saw it immediately after a fire burned through the Swamp in the late 1970’s.
Current Status of the Stradbroke Galleon
Despite a large amount of historic evidence for the existence of land locked shipwreck on Stradbroke Island the Australian archaeological community refuses to do any serious research into the subject. It seems that there are several reasons for this reluctance to investigate. One may be because the shipwreck in the swamp is generally referred to as a “Spanish Galleon” and this sounds too romantic or naïve for the average marine archaeologist; another might be because history tells us that Captain Cook was the first European to reach the east coast of Australia and finding a pre-Cook shipwreck on Stradbroke Island would mean that all the history books would be wrong and have to be re-written. Finally it might be because the Queensland Museum had recently invested a huge amount of money building a Maritime Museum in Townsville in North Queensland dedicated to salvaging and preserving the archaeology of the early 19th century shipwreck of the Pandora. The discovery of archaeology from a significantly earlier shipwreck in close proximity to the major tourism destinations of Brisbane and the Gold Coast would spell financial doom for the struggling Maritime Museum in Townsville.
The “Spanish Galleon” and the Aboriginal Population.
Within the local history of Stradbroke Island there is a significant body of historic material that links the Stradbroke Island Galleon with members of the Aboriginal population of Stradbroke Island. In pre-European days there were two separate tribes (or language groups as archaeologists now like to say) of Aborigines on Stradbroke Island. One tribe inhabited the north end of Stradbroke Island and the other the area around Swan Bay and Jumpinpin. Apparently these two tribes were so different as to speak completely different languages. History tells us that after white settlement at Amity Point and Dunwich the two tribes moved into a satellite position around the white settlements and blended together, a blending that appears to have resulted in the end of the two separate Aboriginal cultural entities.
There are also numerous stories which state that the Stradbroke Island Aborigines have had Spanish gold coins in their possession as well as other artifacts from the “Spanish Galleon”, some stories even state that certain Stradbroke Island Aborigines are custodians of the secret location of the galleon’s hidden treasure and that this knowledge is passed down carefully through the generations. All these issues are dealt with in detail in the book. For more information on the Stradbroke Island Aborigines please visit the Aboriginal page on this site.
Searching for the Stradbroke Island Galleon Today.
The first historically documented search for the shipwreck in the 18 Mile Swamp was in about 1894 by the Hon J.G. Appel M.P. Queensland Colonial Secretary (a governmental position like today's state premier or governor), with his friend Mathew Heeb and in the company of his secretary and noted local historian Isabel Hannah.
Heeb found the wreck, which he describes as having a “high poop and forecastle”, when he was out in the bush looking for timber. He retrieved about 50 kilos of copper fittings from the shipwreck and later told his friend the Hon. George Appel about his find and showed him the copper fittings.
Of course Appel was keen to see this mysterious shipwreck so Heeb took him by boat to the “Stockyards” near Slipping Sands where they walked overland to a hill from which they could see the so-called galleon through "powerful" binoculars..
As is the common theme they located the Stradbroke Island shipwreck after a fire had burnt through the swamp but were not able to get close to it due to heavy rains which immediately followed the fire and flooded the swamp. Later, when they returned better equipped to deal with the flooded swamp they could not find the wreck due to the regrowth of reeds in the swamp.
Throughout the 20th Century numerous groups of people interested in Australia's maritime history and archaeology have gone in search of the Stradbroke Island Galleon. Many others have searched because of the lure of supposed treasure that people always associate with a shipwrecked Spanish Galleon; others search to solve the mystery of the re-occurring question of whether of not Captain James Cook was the first European to reach Australia’s East Coast. In the early part of the century (as mentioned) some groups did succeed in finding the shipwreck but as time wore on and bush fires burned away the ship’s above ground timbers, the shipwreck effectively disappeared from history and into the peat of the 18 Mile Swamp.
With the advent of new remote sensing technology in the last decade of the 20th century some amateur archaeology groups organized searches for the shipwreck in the 18-Miles Swamp employing magnetometers and satellite imagery. Most of these were private groups led by dedicated Australian “shipwreck hunters” like Duncan McFee, Alan Rogers and Greg Jefferys. The Queensland Underwater Archaeology Association was also involved in an unsuccessful search which brought McFee and Rogers’ resources together along with renowned geophysicist Phil McClelland from the company Ultramag.
Greg Jefferys and his team.
Greg Jefferys has been searching for what he calls “The ship in the swamp” since 1989 and has organized dozens of expeditions into the swamp. Some of these were solo expeditions but most of them were in the company of Dr Cliff Rosendahl and Brad Horton. The Jefferys, Rosendahl and Horton team has covered more ground in the Swamp than any other group to date, grid searching large areas of the swamp and as a result they have made a number of important finds, particularly in terms of artifacts that appear to be directly related to the “Stradbroke Island Galleon”
Cliff Rosendahl documented a large number of these expeditions with video and has also taken numerous still images of their expeditions and their finds. Cliff has also made a one-hour long documentary, which summarizes the history of the Stradbroke Island Galleon and their team’s search for its remains in the 18 Miles Swamp That video documentary is now available for sale on DVD.
Greg Jefferys has written the world’s first definitive book on the subject of the Stradbroke Island Galleon. The book documents the history of the galleon in detail including the earliest reports by people who found the shipwreck’s remains in the 19th century.
“The Stradbroke Island Galleon” is result of thousands of hours of archival and field research and contains copies of old maps that show the galleon’s location. It contains interviews with and the recollections of “old timers” then aged in their 80’s and 90’s but now mostly dead, who saw the shipwreck in the 18 Miles Swamp in the earlier part of the 20th Century as well as reprinting the records of the two successful expeditions of 1934 to find the “Stradbroke Island Galleon”. Greg also includes, for the first time ever, images of artifacts retrieved from the remains of the shipwreck by the two 1934 expeditions.
Perhaps the most important offering of the book is the story told to Greg by a Stradbroke Island Aborigine who claims direct descent from the shipwreck survivors, recounting the family traditions and oral histories handed down through the generations so that the story of those survivors would not be lost.
Greg uses this true story as the basis for an imaginative historical reconstruction of the events leading up to the Spanish Galleon (actually more likely to have been a caravel) being shipwrecked on Stradbroke Island and how the survivors coped with life amongst the Aborigines and then their eventual, unsuccessful attempt to sail to Manila.
Greg Jefferys’ book:
“The Stradbroke Island Galleon”
The mystery of the ship in the swamp.
Is available in print or on CD with over 200 pages of reports and interviews and with over 100 never before seen images which includes pictures of the snake infested and almost impenetrable 18 Mile Swamp, artifacts found on the shipwreck or directly associated with shipwreck, a wide collection of old maps of Swan Bay, Jumpinpin and the 18 Miles Swamp sections of Stradbroke Island.
The CD can be purchased from this website
A combined package which includes the printed book, the 'e' book and 2 DVDs is also available .