Collection Highlights | Updated 4 years ago

Divers exploring a site believed to be the Trial shipwreck
Suspected Trial Shipwreck
Image copyright of WA Museum

In 1621 the English East India Company dispatched the ship Trial to the Indies. During the vessel’s outward voyage in May 1622 the vessel was wrecked on a then unknown reef off the coast of Western Australia (now known as Ritchie’s Reef, which contain the infamous ‘Trial Rocks’). This wreck was found in 1969 and is Australia’s earliest known shipwreck.

Trial was lost as a result of a navigational error from the ship’s Master, who was following a new course (Brouwer’s Route) to the Indies charted by the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) a few years earlier. Following this course, some VOC ships had sailed too far to the east and, as a result, in 1616 the coast of Western Australia was discovered.

Navigators of the time were faced with several problems, both because of uncertainty of the position of the land and the related difficulty in determining the ship’s longitude.

In the debacle that followed the Trial’s wrecking, more than 100 men were lost, as well as most of the Company’s goods. Subsequently, there were serious allegations against the Master: that he was negligent, that he had stolen some of the Company’s goods, and, that he was an incompetent navigator.

Examination of historical records seems to indicate that the Master falsified the location of the rocks to make it appear that he had been following orders. Because of this falsification, Trial Rocks remained undiscovered for over 300 years, simply because they were not where they were said to be.

The Master’s subsequent career interestingly reflects on his honesty. He was acquitted by the Company of any blame, and was then given the command of the East Indiaman Moone, that returned home in 1624. In 1625, the Moone was wrecked off Dover. The Master was immediately imprisoned in Dover Castle for purposely wrecking the ship. The court case dragged on for two years.

By the 18th century, there was complete confusion of where Trial Rocks were located. At least four groups of non-existent islands were charted in the area, and it was not until the advent of accurate longitude determination and the Admiralty Hydrographic Surveys in the late 18th and early 19th century that these anomalies were finally sorted out.

Initially, the Admiralty officially declared Trial Rocks non-existent. Later, their position was arbitrarily assigned to a group of islands in the general area. In 1934, Lee published the Master’s letters, which showed that a reef known as Ritchie’s Reef was in fact the reef where the Trial was lost. The Australia Pilot was amended and so finally Trial Rocks were officially and correctly located 314 years after their first tragic discovery.

In 1969 an expedition was mounted to locate the wreck site of Trial. On the first day of the search around the rocks, a wreck site was located and tentatively identified as that of Trial. Although four museum expeditions have visited the site since, no evidence has been found to identify the site conclusively, although circumstantial evidence indicates that the wreck site is that of the Trial.

Maritime shipwrecks