Mahogany Ship Myth Resurfaces

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photo (c) by Jenny Williams Fawcett

Journalist Matt Neal finally captures the dilemma of myths in Australian history legends in his Mahogany Ship legend promised to rewrite Australian history, but is it just 19th-century fake news.

From Spanish and Portuguese caravels to 15th-century Chinese junks, the origins of the wreck have been speculated on by historians for decades.

But, like many legends, it appears to be one built on half-truths, mistakes, exaggerations and even out-and-out lies.

For 173 years  it has especially been journalists in search of an ancient wreck who have added to the myth-making of an old wreck laying  buried in dunes below Tower Hill, east of Port Fairy in Victoria’s south-west coast.

They went in search of the truth of the vessel, and often in their hastily written stories they made errors or assumptions which crept their way into the legend of what was to become known as the Mahogany Ship.

And those errors, assumptions (and often just a dot in the wrong place) have endured to inform and give impetus to modern searches of the wreck.

In 1847 it was a journalist,  based an hour and a half westward at Portland who first published a hastily-written few lines about a wreck on the coast east of Port Fairy.

At the time European settlement on shore at the two coastal ports of Portland and Port Fairy were barely a decade old, and communications between the two port towns was usually via coastal ships, with the some horse and cart trips if weather and conditions permitted.

Then in the 1880’s a journalist promoting the 50-year ‘Henty’ european settlement of Portland created a cornerstone myth of an ancient wreck which began to be known as the Mahogany ship.

Victoria was a in a lull, its pioneering european settlers were diminishing with age and an interest began in earnest in regard to the history of the region.

Another journalist – the well known founder of the Warrnambool Standard named Richard Osburne decided to publish his memoirs and based himself in a pub in Warrnambool to finalise his book. Though he already some thirty years to write about the an ancient wreck on beaches between Warrnambool and Port Fairy, it was only in this commercial undertaking  of his memoirs that he first mentions the ‘Mahogany Ship’.

To complicate matters a reward was offered by a geographic society at this time, for anyone who could find this journalist’s supposed ancient wreck (Australia’s history by now had become of interest to international geographic societies).

The saddest journalist of all was an earnest enthusiast who was suckered in by the infamous Hugh Donnelly – a veritable ‘Rider Haggard’ in Victoria’s south west. For the next fifteen years Donnelly managed to string him along  with his many tall tales and outright lies on his involvement in the Mahogany Ship.

And in the interim a reward was offered out of Warrnambool to find the wreck, inducing a great many ‘locals’ to show up with supposed evidence of the wreck.

Since Federation there has constantly been journalists tasked over the years with summing up the history of a wreck which no-one managed to find.

Matt Neal is one of the lone voices has taken the time to listen to facts and evidence about the mythical Mahogany Ship.

Have a read of Matt Neal’s story on the Mahogany Ship   – it makes for pleasant reading instead of the usual sensation-creating writings of previous journalists who should have known better.

Man On Beach