The story began in 1803, after Matthew Flinders had completed his epic circumnavigation of Australia and was returning to England. He was a passenger on HMS Porpoise, a 10-gun sloop under the command of Lieutenant Robert Fowler. The ship was travelling in convoy, accompanied by Cato, an armed cargo ship, and Bridgewater, a cargo ship owned by the East India Company.
But disaster struck close to midnight on August 17 when Porpoise hit an uncharted reef in the dark. Fowler ordered a cannon to be fired to warn the other ships. In the confusion Cato and Bridgewater were heading for a catastrophic collision until Captain Park, on the Cato, changed course, even though that meant hitting the reef about 400 metres from the Porpoise.
To his shame, the captain of the Bridgewater made no effort to rescue the two shipwrecked crews, ignominiously sailing on to India. ”The Bridgewater’s captain did the dirty,” says Hosty. ”His crew were so revolted by his actions that some of them jumped ship in India, refusing to sail with him.”
Flinders and Fowler stayed on board the Porpoise that night, rescuing those still in the water – only three men out of 98 died – and salvaging whatever might aid their eventual survival.
But on the treeless sand island itself, other crew members made a startling discovery: the timber remains of a previous wreck.