Military Wiki
Maria (brigantine)
Career (Australia)
Name: Maria
Launched: Dublin 1823
Out of service: 1840
Fate: Wrecked off Cape Jaffa, 1840
General characteristics
Tons burthen: 136 tons
Sail plan: Brigantine
Armament: Single cannon
Notes: Passenger ship

Maria was a sailing ship wrecked in July 1840 near Kingston SE, South Australia. All 25 survivors of the wreck were massacred by Aborigines on the Coorong.


Maria, a 136-ton brigantine, left Port Adelaide on 20 June 1840 for Hobart Town, Van Diemens Land with 25 persons on board, including the captain and his wife.

The ship's complement consisted of Captain William Smith, his wife, Samuel Denham and Mrs Denham (née Muller) and their five children (Thomas, Andrew, Walter, Fanny, and Anna), and Mrs York (sister of Mr. Denham), who had recently been widowed and her infant.

Also aboard were James Strutt (Strut? Sturt?), previously with Lonsdale's Livery Stables and who had been hired as Mrs Denham's servant, George Young Green and Mrs Green, Thomas Daniel and Mrs Daniel, Mr. Murray, plus the ship's mate and crew: John Tegg, John Griffiths, John Deggan, James Biggins, John Cowley, Thomas Rea, George Leigh and James Parsons.

Shipwreck and massacre of survivors[]

The Maria was blown off course in the stretch between Cape Willoughby and Cape Jaffa and foundered on the Cape Jaffa reef. The passengers and crew safely reached land and commenced trekking the Coorong coast towards Encounter Bay, some 150 km to the north. According to a later account, around 60 km from the wreck, in company with some friendly Aborigines, they came across a track and at once had a dispute as to whether or not to follow it, and decided to split up: Captain Smith and the crew took to the track and most of the passengers continued along the shoreline. Two days later some of this latter group split from the party in the hope of rejoining the Captain. Around this time they were attacked and killed by a group of the Milmenrura (or "Big Murray Tribe"), stripped of their possessions and buried in the sand.[1] Such detail of how the Maria survivors came to be widely separated into three groups can only be supposition, as none lived to tell the tale.

Word of the massacre reaches Adelaide[]

Major O'Halloran's expedition to the Coorong, August 1840.

Word of murders of some white people by natives reached Adelaide and W. J. S. Pullen, some sailors and three Aboriginal interpreters set out to investigate on 28 July, and on 30 July reached a massacre site, recovering two wedding rings. On 1 August, they encountered a group of Aborigines in possession of blankets and clothing. They returned to Adelaide with the rings which were identified as belonging to Mrs York and Mrs Denham.[2]

Punitive expedition[]

Major O'Halloran was commissioned to investigate further and left Adelaide on 15 August. Reinforcements were called for and on 22 August, O'Halloran left Goolwa with a mounted troop, including Alexander Tolmer, Captain Henry Nixon, Charles Bonney, and William Pullen following the coast, while boats sailed parallel. On 23 August the force ran into a number of Aborigines and rounded up 13 men, 2 boys and 50 women and children. He shackled the men and set the others free, though they voluntarily remained nearby.[3]

In his report, O'Halloran stated that they yielded up the man who had killed a whaler named Roach some two years previously, and pointed out where one of the Maria murderers could be found. O'Halloran pronounced a death sentence on them. Two Aborigines who tried to escape by swimming were shot and wounded. The Maria's log-book was recovered in one of their wurleys, as were numerous articles of clothing, some blood-stained and other incriminating evidence. At 3.00pm on 25 August, the two condemned men were summarily hanged from sheaoaks near the graves.[3]

O'Halloran was not exceeding his brief; in fact he was following his instructions from Governor Gawler to the letter. His instructions were:

"...when to your conviction you have identified any number, not exceeding three, of the actual will there explain to the blacks the nature of your conduct ...and you will deliberately and formally cause sentence of death to be executed by shooting or hanging"[4]

Little blame was apportioned to O'Halloran for his part in this affair; not so for Governor Gawler, who was severely criticized by sections of the press, notably the Register, and in London. The controversy may have played a part in his recall. The Aborigines Protection Society argued that South Australian law could not be applied in any case, as the tribe had not pledged allegiance to the Crown.[5]

On 10 April 1841, Richard Penny was guided by members of the Tonkinya tribe to a spot where they promised the remains of a drowned white man were buried. He believed it would be of Captain Collet Barker, who was speared to death in the same area on 30 April 1831. They found instead the bodies of four of the five from the Maria that were still unaccounted for; one drowned and four bashed to death. The Aborigines told him how the massacre followed the shipwrecked party's refusal to hand over clothing that they considered their just entitlement for guiding, sustaining and carrying the children across their land. The Maria party had promised any amount of blankets and clothing from Adelaide when they returned, but this did not satisfy the Aborigines and a fight eventuated.[6]


The Maria's hull was never found, though pieces of wreckage were washed ashore at Lacepede Bay. Her cannon (which must have been used for ceremonial or line-firing purposes rather than defence) was purchased from the Lee family of Middleton by D. H. Cudmore around 1914 as a garden feature for his home "Adare" in Victor Harbor, South Australia, then as a family tradition fired to welcome each New Year.[7]

A plaque commemorating the wreck of the Maria was unveiled at Kingston SE on 18 February 1966.[8]


  • Names of Aboriginal groups are as reported in the contemporary press. They must have been tribes or clans of the Ngarrindjeri people but may have no connection with any later group.


  1. *Noble, Captain John Hazards of the Sea: Three Centuries of Challenge in Southern Waters Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1970 ISBN 0 207 12070 6
  2. "The Southern Australian.". Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 14 August 1840. p. 2. Retrieved 28 May 2013.  Pullen's journal, 28 July to 3 August
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Late Shipwreck and Murders at Encounter Bay". National Library of Australia. 8 October 1840. p. 3. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  4. "MajorO'Halloran'sInstructions and Execution of two Natives at Encounter Bay.". Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 15 September 1840. p. 3. Retrieved 29 May 2013. 
  5. "A Famous Wreck". Sydney: National Library of Australia. 5 October 1895. p. 1 Supplement: Evening News Supplement. Retrieved 29 May 2013.  This reference quite credibly states the bodies were stuffed down wombat holes, where others coyly refer to "shallow graves". It is also one of the few to touch on the contentious possibility of cannibalism.
  6. "The Milmenrura Murders". Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 23 April 1841. p. 2. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 
  7. "From Rosaline's Notebook". Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 10 February 1934. p. 16. Retrieved 28 May 2013. 

External links[]

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