The year was 1841 and the shipyard was Alexander Stephen and Son, Arbroath and the barque “The Peruvian” had just been launched. The owner of this Vessel was Alexander Pitcaithly of Newburgh.
Even today there is very little manufacturing industry in Australia and 150 years ago there was even less. Boat owners like the Pitcaithly’s, Williamson’s, Laing’s and the Wilson’s from Newburgh took advantage of this lucrative trade in the hope of making their fortune.The risks were immense as these were vast sea journeys.
The maiden voyage was from Dundee to New York thereafter she sailed out of Liverpool and London to visit ports in India, South America and Australia.
On February 27, 1846, the vessel sailed out of Sydney heading for China under the command of Captain George Pitkethly, Alexander’s son. He was accompanied by his wife Elizabeth Ruxton. Able seaman James Murrells was also on board, along with the captain’s brother Alex and his friend James Wilson.
Interestingly, the voyage started on a Friday, a day that sailors have always considered unlucky for setting sail. As soon as the seafarers cleared the Sydney Heads the winds began to blow hard and did so for a week, with the Peruvian making a swift journey time as a result.
A fortnight after leaving Sydney Heads no sail was left on the masts as it was forced to be shortened more and more with the wind blowing a gale around the clock. Then following a day of calm, everyone was relieved. But then disaster struck.
There was said to be great anxiety on both sides of the river Tay when the ship was reported overdue. The Peruvian collided with the Horseshoe Reef on the outer Great Barrier Reef in the dead of night. The second mate was thrown overboard and the captain’s brother Alex was swept out to sea, never to be seen again.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and the crew of 21 sailors cleverly managed to construct, using the masts and spars of the Peruvian, a raft equipped with a small sail.
All the while they had to deal with an extreme culture shock adjusting to an archaic Stone Age existence, no mean feat after having spent their lives in civilised Victorian society. This was exacerbated by physically harsh endurance and food rationed to only four tablespoons of preserved meat a day.
After being at sea for 42 days they landed at the southern point of Cape Cleveland. Only seven of the crew remained and they were in a very weak condition, the others perished at sea. Among the survivors were the Captain, Elizabeth, Wilson and Murrells.
Once on shore, the castaways encountered Aborigines who helped them recover their strength and they went on to take part in tribal food gatherings.
The Captain, Wilson and Elizabeth died, Murrells, however, continued in this way of life for a remarkable 14 years before returning to civilisation.
Meanwhile back in the UK, and never hearing from the doomed expedition, the trustees of the Williamson’s estate, Williamson’s being shareholders in the Peruvian, decided that they were all dead and that they would build a Memorial hall with the family money.
David Williamson and other family memberdecided to contest this decision but they failed to convince others of the rights of their claim and so the Williamson Hall was built in Abernethy.
Morrell later became an advisor to the Australian Government, doing his best to protect Aboriginal rights.