Lost ship re-found in Vanuatu tropical paradise

12 Apr 2018

Illustration of old shipsVanuatu has been revealed as the final resting place of a lost 19th century tall ship, the Chevert, which took part in Australia’s first scientific expedition to another country.

University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences PhD student and associate lecturer at Murdoch University Graham Fulton and co-author Peter Bialek painstakingly traced the last sightings of the small, but historically important French ship via 19th century newspapers and French military  records to Port Sandwich, Vanuatu – where Captain Cook landed in 1774.

Mr Fulton said they reconstructed the ship’s history by pulling together misplaced puzzle pieces tracing the ship’s origin in Rochefort, France, through its peacetime and wartime service, and finally its Australian ownership.

“The research is significant because it fills in gaps about Australia’s early scientific history, and interactions between France and England in the South Seas in the 19th century,” he said.

“The Chevert was built for Napoleon III’s navy between 1850 and 1863, serving as a transport in peacetime to supply French colonies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. 

“It entered private merchant service in the early 1870s and in 1875 became the symbol of Australia’s coming-of-age in the world.

“The ship drew headlines from around the world by carrying Australian scientists and explorers on the first Australian scientific expedition to a foreign shore - William Macleay’s Chevert Expedition to New Guinea.

“Aboard were the cream of Australian naturalists, among whom was a young explorer, Lawrence Hargrave, who would later feature on Australia’s first $20 note.”

Mr Fulton said the Chevert subsequently re-entered the merchant service before being wrecked in a cyclone in 1880.

‘Even after it was extensively damaged in this event, the Chevert’s hulk played an important role in European settlement of Vanuatu, including acting as a fortress and as an office where the local chiefs could meet to negotiate agreements,” he said.

Later records available for the Chevert indicated that its hulk was beached in 1887, when the stripping of its timbers began. 

The final episode in its history saw a New Zealand photographer, Russell Duncan, photograph the remains of the stripped ship on Port Sandwich beach.

The history is published in The Journal of Pacific History (doi: 10.1080/00223344.2018.1448216).

Media: Mr Graham Fulton, grahamf2001@yahoo.com.au or Jan King 0427 559 427