First news of the Tragedy

Although the State of South Australia was barely twenty years old in 1857, the citizens of its capital city, Adelaide, already experienced the availability of several newspapers, providing them with overseas and local news at the time.

The Adelaide Times reported the first details about the wrecking of the “Koning Willem II”, in its edition of Tuesday July 7, 1857. This was followed by a more detailed article the following day.

Another paper, the Register published a lengthy Editorial, entirely devoted to the event, on Wednesday July 8, 1857. In the same edition we find another detailed article of the incident from their correspondent in Robe. This article was repeated in another publication, the Adelaide Observer, on Saturday July 11, 1857.

News of the tragedy also found its way to the Netherlands. The Daily Paper for the province of South Holland and The Hague, printed the article from the Register’s correspondent in Robe, in its entirety on September 24, 1857.

A number of other articles relating to the tragedy appeared in the various newspapers in the weeks, following the event. On reading these articles, I cannot escape the feeling, some were written with a certain degree of exaggeration bordering almost on sensationalism.

All the following newspaper articles have been copied exactly from films held at the Flinders University Library, Bedford Park.

Newspaper Reports of the Tragedy

The Adelaide Times July 7, 1857, Miscellaneous Shipping.

Reported wreck-The following is an extract from a private letter received in Adelaide this morning. Another wreck has occurred at Guichen Bay, attended, I am sorry to say, with serious loss of life, viz., fifteen of the crew. The vessel was a Dutch ship, The Koenig Wilhelm II. She became a total wreck within an hour after her striking on the sandbar.

The Adelaide Times July 8, 1857, Local Intelligence.

Guichen Bay-Further accounts of the wreck of the Koenig Wilhelm II, have now reached us. It appears that she was a Dutch barque of 800 tons, Giezen, master, from Hongkong , with Chinese, all of who were safely discharged on her arrival, June 15th. Owing to stress of weather, she was unable to continue her voyage. By the 30th. so severe was the gale, that her windlass was fairly dragged out of her; the master then made all sail with the object of beaching her.

She grounded about three miles east of Robe Town, on the long beach, and almost instantly became a wreck, being completely swept by the surf. As soon as possible, the crew got a boat cleared from the wreck, into which the mate and the remainder of the crew, except the captain, who was compelled to remain on board owing to the boat being swept away. She had drifted but a short distance when from the want of oars; she was soon filled, and capsized.

Of her crew (numbering 25) sixteen were drowned, and the remaining nine, including the mate, dragged ashore in a more or less insensible state. Every assistance that circumstances would permit was rendered by the military under Lieutenant Saunders, stationed at Robe Town, and the police under Corporal Warren. A number of residents of the district were also of great service, in saving the remainder of the crew, even at the risk of their own lives.

Newspaper Reports of the Tragedy

The captain was still to be seen standing on the ship, where he remained several hours, there being no possible means at hand of rendering him any assistance. Towards evening an Encounter Bay black volunteered to swim to the ship with a rope, but in the meanwhile the captain had devised means of saving himself. He attached a rope to a cask, which drifted ashore. He was then dragged through the surf and safely landed.

The Register, Wednesday, July 8, 1857. Editorial. The late gales.

Our publication of this day contains several communications referring to the heavy gales that have lately visited these shores; but not much damage is reported, except in one instance. That exception, however, is of a most painful and distressing kind. A large Dutch barque, laden with Chinese immigrants, had safely anchored in Guichen Bay, and discharged her passengers, when heavy winds, increasing to a terrible gale, drove the ill-fated ship on shore, reducing her, with unparalleled rapidity, to a perfect wreck, and involving the destruction of sixteen lives.

The account of this melancholy catastrophe has been forwarded to us by our correspondent, who was an eyewitness of the horrors he so graphically describes. Our readers will sympathize with him in his various expressions of condolence over the sufferings and loss of life, which his letter so vividly describes.

Newspaper Reports {cont}

With weather so boisterous as that of the past week or fortnight, no one need be surprised to hear of accidents at sea, but as the wreck now described is the third that has taken place at Guichen Bay within the brief period of six months, it is exceedingly desirable that the Government should cause a thoroughly efficient examination to be made, so as, if possible, to afford better shelter to vessels putting into that port, and to diminish the great risks which now have to be encountered.

The letter of our correspondent shows plainly enough that there was no deficiency of interest on the part of the inhabitants of the district where the melancholy disaster happened, but of all instances of fruitless sympathy, none are more painfully distressing than those in which hundreds of persons are congregated together on the beach, watching the gestures and listening to the piercing cries of those who are in the very jaws of death, without the possibility of deliverance. Whatever ingenuity can devise, humanity should apply in mitigation of such fearful risks, and in diminution of such heart rendering calamities as have now been brought to our knowledge.

Should the bill now before parliament for restricting the immigration of Chinese become law, and which may be regarded as tolerably certain, the passenger traffic to Robe Town would be immensely diminished. This circumstance will of course be taken into consideration, in connection with any plans that may be devised for the better preservation of the shipping visiting that seaport. But even though the Chinese immigration were totally stopped, the state of the harbour is still a matter deserving the serious consideration of the Government. On such a question however, especially when backed by so painful a tragedy as that now enacted, we feel that the Executive will need no prompting. It will be observed that the captain of the stranded vessel was eventually drawn through the surf by means of a rope, which was, by a mere accident, passed between the wreck and the shore. What was thus done by the help of an accident, circumstance might easily, cheaply, and quickly performed by an apparatus contrived for the purpose.

We have frequently seen in England a machine, something like a cannon, for firing out a rope, to the extremity of which an arrowhead is fired. By the employment of this apparatus a rope could at any time be thrown from the coast over a ship’s hull, thus establishing an instant communication between the wreck and the shore. One of these instruments should be placed in the hands of the authorities at each of our seaports; the expense would not be much, and if each apparatus was but successful in saving the life of a solitary individual, the people of South Australia would not begrudge the outlay. On the coastline of England the machine now referred to has been the instrument of rescuing very many from watery graves, and we should strongly recommend its introduction here.

We ought also to have a few life-boats. It is not to be expected that ordinary boats can be put off in the teeth of such a storm as the one productive of the fatal event at Guichen Bay. Indeed such risks are scarcely proper to be undertaken. Much as we admire the heroism displayed by those voluntary exposed their own lives to mortal peril, in the hope of assisting those who cannot help themselves, it is a species of heroism amounting almost to self immolation, and involving the greatest danger of a

double sacrifice of life. Great attention has for some years past been paid in England to the construction of life-boats. These boats are generally so built that though full of water they cannot sink, and though overact they immediately right again. The coasts of South Australia are very inadequately supplied with the means of saving life in the event of shipwreck; and it is to be hoped that the distressing occurrence now reported from Guichen Bay will cause renewed attention to be paid to the general question.

The Register, Wednesday, July 8, 1857

Adelaide Observer, Saturday, July 11, 1857

GUICHEN BAY (From our Correspondent) Robe Town, July 2, 1857

During the past week this coast has been visited by a continuance of one of the most terrific gales ever remembered by those resident here from the earliest commencement of the settlement, now more than 10 years since, myself among the number, and it is my most painful duty to have to report another shipwreck in this Bay, accompanied by such fearful loss of life, and so complete a destruction of the entire vessel within a few hours, as I think stands unparalleled in the history of this province.

I will endeavour to condense the following particulars of this lamentable catastrophe into as brief a space as possible, and having been personally an eye witness to the greater part of this horrible scene I am about to describe, you may rely, upon the authenticity of my report.

On the 25th ult. the Dutch barque Koenig Willem II, 800 tons, Giezen, master, arrived at this port, from Hongkong, with Chinese immigrants, all of whom she safely discharged soon after arrival, and was delayed prosecuting her voyage on account of bad weather, which gradually increased into a heavy gale from the south-west on the 29th, previous to which the master had, as far as practicable, secured his vessel by sending down his upper spars, &c, notwithstanding which she drifted considerably from her anchorage, and continued doing so until noon on the 30th, when, the windlass being fairly dragged from out the ship, through the violence of the storm, the master made sail with the intention of beaching her. She took the ground about three miles to the eastward of Robe Town, on the Long Beach, and in less time than I am narrating the affair became a complete wreck, with terrific seas sweeping over her, and with almost certain prospect of instant death to all on board.

As soon as the wreck was perceived at Robe Town, Messrs. Ormerod instantly ordered all the men in their employ to hurry to the scene and render assistance and to the exertions of some of these men, who were first there, may be attributed the preservation of the lives that were saved. The military also, with Lieut. Sanders, were speedily present, likewise the police, under Corporal Warren. Indeed all vied with each other in willingness and anxiety to assist in rescuing their fellow creatures from a watery grave; but before the arrival of the majority of the persons mentioned the melancholy result had taken place. Soon after the barque struck a boat was got out from the wreck into which the chief mate and the remainder of the crew entered, with the exception of the captain, who was left on the wreck, owing to the painter of the boat breaking. The boat had proceeded but a short distance, when from the want of

Newspaper Reports {cont}

Oars, she broached too, filled, and her living freight were now struggling for life in the breakers, and out of the 25 who left the wreck, but nine, including the chief officer, were dragged ashore, and all of them in a state of partial insensibility; and these were not rescued without considerable risk to the lives of their preservers, foremost among whom I ought to mention Mr. Evans, of this place, also Messrs. Flett and McDonald (in the employ of Messrs. Ormerod), who were nobly backed by a few others equally daring. But for this timely assistance every soul must have perished.

Attention was now turned towards the captain, who continued pacing the few feet of the stern yet left him, which had approached so close to the shore that every sign made by him was distinctly observed, and even his voice clearly heard above the din of the storm, shrieking for assistance, by at least a hundred people on land, anxiously watching him, but utterly unable to render any help. The poor man pointed to the boats which laid on the beach to the northward, all of which were stove, and useless; indeed, had they been seaworthy, it would have been madness at that time to have ventured through the breakers. For many hours had this poor man been kept in this agonizing state of suspense, not knowing from one moment to another when the complete submersion of his fragile place of refuge might take place, involving almost certain destruction to him.

All attempts to communicate from the shore to the ship, and from the ship to shore, had hitherto failed. The sun had gone down in a fiery sky, night was drawing on, and the assembled people, with heavy hearts, were returning home. During the evening various schemes were devised for attempting his rescue. Mr. John Ormerod guaranteed 50 pounds to a boat’s crew at the Bay if they succeeded in bringing off the captain. An Encounter Bay black volunteered, for a promised consideration to swim to the wreck with a rope, and a small boat was dispatched by Mr. Evans, by land, to be launched as soon as practicable. Whilst preparations were being made to carry out these laudable intentions, a message was received in the bay about 10 o’clock p.m. that the captain was safe on shore. He shortly afterwards came up to Robe Town. It appears that the wind had shifted slightly, drifting to land a cask, to which the captain had secured a rope, by which means the parties on land were enabled to draw him through the surf, which they safely accomplished. The Boomerang and another small schooner rode out the gale in safety. Up to the present time none of the bodies of the missing sailors have been found.

It is not my province to hazard an opinion upon the subject of this wreck, now making the third at this port within a less period than six months; but I do think it incumbent upon the Government of this colony to cause a searching investigation to be made into all the circumstances attending this, as also the two previous ones.

The Register, Wednesday, July 15, 1857

Adelaide Observer, Saturday, July 18, 1857

GUICHEN BAY ( From our Correspondent) Robe Town, July 11.

Nothing of interest has occurred since the wreck reported in my last, and concerning which I have a few remarks to make. I therein hinted at the propriety of the Government instituting an enquiry into the facts connected with the loss of this ill-

fated ship, and I am now more than ever strongly impressed with the necessity of such proceeding.

There has in this matter been some mismanagement apart from the defective nature of the ship; and without directly charging our authorities here with neglect I would enquire why this Dutch barque (and indeed every large vessel entering this port) was not secured to the moorings laid down, in the most approved anchorage, at a great expense by the Government, now two years since, and which, with but one exception, have never, I believe, been made use of.

Since forwarding you an account of the wreck I have learnt, upon unquestionable authority, that this vessel, on her voyage from Hongkong to Guichen Bay, made from 12 to 14 inches of water per hour, that the Chinese were daily and nightly employed at the pumps, that her gear of every description was in a rotten inefficient state, and that had a survey of nautical men been held upon her in any Australian or other port she would have been unhesitatingly condemned. I have this opinion from a nautical man well qualified to judge, and should the enquiry I suggest be instituted the truth of my assertion will be elicited, and the above statement fully corroborated.

A few of the bodies of the wrecked sailors have been washed on shore, but in such a decomposed state that it was thought better to inter them on the spot. And whilst upon this mournful topic I cannot omit mentioning a trivial incident of self-possession in two of the apprentice boys, lads of from 12 to 14 years of age, and worthy of being recorded. When the ship struck, and seas were sweeping over the decks, and the men hurrying into the boats, these little fellows, with a smile upon their faces, enquired of Mr. Crossland, the Custom-House officer, who was standing near them, in broken English, if he could swim? The reply was in the negative. The question repeated, the little fellows smilingly gave a prophetic shake of the head, and twisting their fingers in circles in the air, pointed downwards, expressing more by gesture than by words what they had to expect - a fate, alas, fearfully realized within a few short minutes; but never was death met with more calmness or real Spartan fortitude, than by these same youths, Crossland was saved.

I am ashamed for the character of this place to say that almost in the presence of the police stationed here, who were exceedingly vigilant on the morning after the wreck, some unprincipled scamps were actively engaged playing the parts of “Long Tom Coffin,” breaking open the chests of the poor seamen. The police have information of them, and I trust will bring them to condign punishment.

The Adelaide Times, July 16, 1857


We have been favoured by a gentleman in Adelaide with the following extract from the letter of his correspondent at Guichen Bay. The bodies found are of course supposed to be of the unfortunate seamen who lost their lives through the recent disastrous shipwreck at Guichen Bay. Guichen Bay, July 10, 1857.

“Dear Sir- I acquainted you last week of the occurrence of another wreck on this

beach, with the loss of life, &c. The other morning, in coming along the shore from the Sultana tents to the Phaeton’s, distant about six miles, I found three of the bodies just dragged out from the sea weed by one of our party, and a native. They presented a most horrible spectacle. One man had his face, stomach, legs and thighs eaten away by fishes. Another was bereft of one hand, a portion of a cheek and his chin, but being encased in oilskin, they had not touched his body. The third, a boy, was an entire skeleton, there being no flesh remaining but portions of his liver, heart, and lungs. They were buried on the following day.”

Adelaide Observer, Saturday, July 25, 1857.

MOUNT GAMBIER (from our correspondent) Tuesday evening, July 14.

The late wrecks at Guichen Bay ought to teach a monitory lesson. The bay is a badly selected port, and open to the strongest objections. Responsibility rests somewhere, though it does not appear to be fathered. Surely some enquiry should be instituted into the cause of these repeated disasters.

Adelaide Observer, Saturday, August 29, 1857.


Sir-I have no desire to enter upon a newspaper warfare, or to unduly criticise any remarks your Mount Gambier correspondent in his wisdom may think proper to advance; but when in his report of the 25th ult. he modestly advances his opinion upon the merits of this Port, diametrically opposed to that of every captain, both British and Foreign, who have visited it, as also recently expressed by the highest nautical talent the colony affords, I would simply remind him of a passage from the “Phoedra AEsopi”, apropos, and which he possibly may not have forgotten, “Ne sutor ultra crepidam.”

I am, Mr. Editor, &c.,


Robe Town, August 20, 1857

Adelaide Observer, Saturday, September 19, 1857

GUICHEN BAY. (From a Correspondent)

Since the wreck of the Wilhelm the township has had nothing to disturb its wonted gravity or dullness. The Boomerang comes and goes, sometimes bringing new faces and taking away old ones; but China ships, which make our streets (?) teem with population, and turn the place for the time being, like Venice, into a city of boatmen, are very scarce. They will probably be scarcer still when the news of the wrecks gets home; and, like a dissolving view, they will fade away entirely when the new Act comes into operation. It is very hard, however, to blame the bay for the first cause, though three wrecks in so short a time is what one might at least call a “singular coincidence,”

But be it remembered that the Phaeton was one out of a hundred vessels that would have been lost under similar circumstances; that common caution would have prevented the wreck of the Sultana; and, considering that the Wilhelm could scarcely be kept afloat during the voyage, it would have been a wonder if she had not gone down in the Bay.

Be this as it may, their remains, strewed and scattered the whole length of the beach, form a spectacle that is sad enough. Masts, spars, figure-heads, and bulwarks speak plainly of the work that has been effectually done, let us hope for the last time.