James Matthews

Collection Highlights | Updated 2 years ago

Divers exploring the James Matthews shipwreck site
Exploring the James Matthews wreck site
Image copyright of WA Museum

The James Matthews wreck was located in 1973 on the north side of Woodman Point in Cockburn Sound by members of the Underwater Explorers Club (UEC) who were conducting an underwater line search as part of their wreck research programme. The vessel was wrecked in July 1841.

James Matthews was a snow-brig of 107 tons, registered at the Port of London. The vessel was 80.2 ft in length, with a breadth of 21 ft and a depth of 11.5 ft (approximately 24.5 m x 6.5 m x 3.5 m). It had one deck, two masts, a square stern, male bust figurehead and no galleries.

The James Matthews was a former slaver that operated under the name Don Francisco, owned by Felis de Souza. The slave trade generally consisted of a ‘triangular run’, with ships travelling from Europe with trade goods, to West Africa where slaves were purchased from local slave traders, to the Americas, where the African slaves were sold.

On 25 April 1837, Her Majesty’s Brigantine Griffon seized one slave-ship, the brig Don Francisco, as a prize near the island of Dominica. Once captured, the vessel was repaired and given the name James Matthews.

The James Matthews left London for Fremantle on 28 March 1841 with a cargo of 7,000 slates, farming implements, general cargo, 3 passengers and a crew of 15. The vessel struck rocks after parting its anchor warp and sank on 23 July 1841. One of the passengers, Henry de Burgh, left a comprehensive diary covering the voyage to Australia and his later experiences on the land. Much of the cargo belonged to de Burgh, who had been involved in the organisation of the enterprise in England and had an interest in the vessel.

Maritime archaeologists and volunteers under the archaeological direction of the Department of Maritime Archaeology carried out four seasons of excavation on the wreck site between 1974 and 1976.

Preservation conditions were good on the site and a significant amount of the hull and cargo remained. While research into the ship’s rigging and cordage (ropes) has been published, most of the research and publications have concentrated on the hull, as an important representative of the slave trade.

Recently the wreck has been the subject of an in-situ preservation study designed to relieve the effects of sand movement around the remains. This work has been carried out with staff from the Department of Materials Conservation.

Maritime shipwrecks