James Matthews

In 1841, the James Matthews was wrecked in Western Australia. The wreck was located on 22nd July, 1973 on the north wide of Woodman's Point in Cockburn Sound, by members of the Underwater Explorers Club who were conducting an underwater line search as part of their wreck research program.

Report from The Inquirer Newspaper 28 July, 1841

Arrived - On the 21st instant, the James Matthews, Roberts, master, from London, touching at the Cape of Good Hope - Passengers, Messrs. Burgh, Mrs Roberts, and Mr F. Luth.

We regret to say that the
James Matthews was wrecked on the night of the 23rd, after having come to anchor. The following are all the particulars we have been able to collect as to this unfortunate occurrence, and we should be glad to see some inquiry made into the circumstances.

On Wednesday the brig came to anchor in Owen’s Anchorage in 5 fathoms water. On Thursday afternoon it came on to blow fresh, and about midnight blew a heavy gale of wind; between the hours of 12 and 2 in the morning the cable parted, when the second anchor was let go, which brought her up for a short time; at last she drifted on Woodman’s Reef, where she soon filled with water. Between 7 and 8 in the morning the masts were cut away — the weather was so very thick that nothing could be seen of her before 7 o’clock.

As soon as it was ascertained that she was in danger, Captain Scott went to assist in saving the crew, and a second whale-boat was despatched for the same purpose, when the passengers and crew were saved. On Thursday afternoon, a boat belonging to a man of the name of John Edwards went to the brig, and was obliged to hang astern, not being able to return to Fremantle. At the time the chain parted Edwards and his mate ran on deck to see about their boat — the boat had broken adrift.

Whether Edwards succeeded in getting into his boat is not known, but neither he nor his boat has been seen since. It is to be hoped that a considerable part of the cargo will be saved, if the weather should be moderate. The vessel is reported to be a total wreck. It seems to be the general opinion that if the second anchor had been down before the first parted, so that an equal strain had been on both chains, the vessel would have weathered the gale.

James Matthews - A Former Slave Ship

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, and new cargoes on loaded for the return voyage back to Europe. On 25th April 1837 one slave-ship, the brig Don Francisco was seized as a prize near the island of Dominica by Her Majesty’s Brigantine Griffon. At that time the Don Francisco had 433 slaves on board and was in a near sinking state.

Hand drawn illustration showing how slaves were packed as cargoes onto ships

Packing a cargo of slaves
Image copyright WA Museum

Henderson found that the Don Francisco was owned by the notorious slave dealer Francisco Felis da Souza, who arrived in West Africa from Brazil around 1800. He traded in humans, and goods out of the Portuguese controlled fort at Whydah on the coast of what is now Benin. His fortune dwindled through declining trade, and the loss of the Don Francisco and another slaver The Florida with their cargo of slaves would have had considerable effect on the state of his financial affairs.

Portrait of Francisco Felis de Souza

Francisco Felis de Souza
Image copyright WA Museum

Don Francisco was condemned as a slaver by the British and Portuguese Mixed Commission Court on 21st November 1837. During the court proceedings, it was revealed that da Souza had earlier purchased the vessel from a Frenchman, Gabriel Giron, who was apparently a slave dealer also. The Lloyd’s Surveyor thought the vessel was French built. Subsequent to its condemnation, Don Francisco was sold, repaired and entered into general trading under British registration and re-named James Matthews.

This should not have happened. In 1836, a Bill was presented to the British Parliament requiring that slave ships, immediately after condemnation, should be broken up entirely, and sold in separate parts. This was to defeat the re-purchasing of vessels for re-employment in the slave trade. In 1837, when the Act came into effect there were 24 prizes at Sierra Leone. The schooner Gazita, which was one of the 24, was cut in two and sold; the remaining 23 were hauled out and burned.

Hand drawn plan showing how slaves are assembled on the James Matthews

The stacking plan for slaves aboard the James Matthews
Image copyright WA Museum

The effect of this and other similar legislation must have been to severely limit the chances of survival of any representative of this type of ship. It was fortuitous that the James Matthews was not broken up after condemnation.

Vessels built for the slave trade needed to meet special constructional requirements, such as a shallow draft, fine lines for speed and various internal fittings to provide for the slaves. Slave ships were famous for their excellent sailing qualities and some of their internal features were so obviously intended for a specific trade that legislation was passed providing that vessels of this design could be detained as a prize even without the actual presence of slaves on board.

Hand drawn illustration of the process of freeing slaves from under deck cells

Freeing slaves from the nightmare below decks
Image copyright WA Museum

Colonial Trader

The James Matthews left London for Fremantle on 28th March 1841 with a cargo of 7,000 slates; farming implements; general cargo; 3 passengers and a crew of 15. 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 organization of the enterprise in England and had an interest in the vessel. When the brig was wrecked he suffered a considerable personal loss, including a case of guns and rifles, and a chest containing 200 sovereigns.


James Matthews was a snow-brig of 107 tons, registered at the Port of London. The vessel was 80.2 feet in length, with a breadth of 21 feet and a depth of 11.5 feet (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.

Hand drawn illustration of the James Matthews

James Matthews the snow-brig
Image copyright WA Museum

Excerpt from the diary of Henry de Burgh

Details of the voyage of the James Matthews are contained in the diary of Henry de Burgh, one of its four passengers. It is a revealing insight into those times

En route:

In the evening of the same day we came closer under the Christina to the same port and Robert and I accompanied the Captain on board to supper. There were a great many nice people on board and I bear with me still a tender recollection of the younger sister of two Misses Carter who were emigrating with their brother.

There was a little dancing and some singing on deck and we adjourned to the brig late. The weather was so calm that the two ships kept the entire night within speaking distance of each other and the next morning after breakfast we renewed our visit to the Christina and passed the day on board making the agreeable to Miss Carter, playing chess, etc., etc.

Our owner got very drunk and nearly upset us all going back to the brig in the gig. The next day the gentlemen of the Christina dined with us, but I never saw Henrietta Carter again though I have since seen her name in the Adelaide Observer as led to the Hymeneal altar by some or another bullock feeder whose name I scorn to perpetuate.

Carved chess pieces viewed

Chess pieces recovered from the James Matthew
Image copyright WA Museum

The wreck on 22nd July 1841:

…the sailor on watch rushed into the cabin to say that the anchor had given way and the brig was drifting. The second anchor was instantaneously let go, but did not take hold, so we drifted with great rapidity...They then endeavoured to make sail, but this failed...A few seconds more and the brig’s keel struck with great force...The ship’s bows went down and her stern settled on the rock...

...I saw a large chest of ours, containing among other valuables 200 sovereigns, consigned to the deep. We had now sunk to the uttermost the rocks would permit us...

I confess that I was not unmoved at seeing the beautiful brig that had borne us so manfully over such a waste of space in such a state of dilapidation.

Portrait of Henry de Burgh

Henry de Burgh
Image copyright WA Museum

(See Burgh, W.J. de and Henderson, G., 1979, The last voyage of the James Matthews. Western Australian Museum, Perth.)

The De Burgh's

After the wreck Henry and his brother Robert, who had accompanied him from England, purchased property near York. Henry returned to England in 1846 and did not return.

Robert married Clara Welliton and together with their three small children they left for the Ballarat goldfields in 1852. They returned to Western Australia in the following year to take up land on the Moore River later named Cowalla. Their family grew in number, but in 1865 they lost three of their children to diptheria and moved in to Caversham, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

The Wrecksite

The wreck lies buried in sand approximately 100 metres from shore. The water depth varies between 2 and 3 metres, and the sand basin in which the wreck lies is surrounded by a bank of sea-grass. The highest section of the wreck consisted of a mound of slates and a bundle of large iron lengths resembling railway lines. Beneath these are the ballast stones which lie on top of the ceiling timbers.

Aerial view of the land near the James Matthews wreck site

The wreck site from the air looking south east.
Image copyright WA Museum

Aerial view of the land near the James Matthews wreck site

The wreck site from the air looking north west. Showing the cement jetty and water pollution. The wreck is midway between the jetty and the point
Image copyright WA Museum

Visibility on the site is usually poor due to the proximity of the site to a cement works jetty. Barges deposit loads of lime sands at the end of the jetty for dredging into the factory. Consequently a fine milky suspension cloud repeatedly moves over the site, sometimes reducing visibility to less than 30 cm. A south-westerly breeze is necessary to clear the site entirely. The site is protected against swell and rough wave conditions during all weather with the exception of a north-westerly wind.


Maritime archaeologists and volunteers under the archaeological direction of Graeme Henderson of the Western Australian Maritime Museum carried out four seasons of excavation on the wreck site between 1974 and 1976 initially using airlifts and later water dredges, a three dimensional ‘bed frame’ recording grid and photogrammetric recording. Preservation conditions were good on the site and a significant amount of the hull and cargo remained.

The entire remaining hull structure was excavated and all of the loose artefacts that lay within the hull structure were raised, conserved and some are now on display at the Shipwreck Galleries of the WA Maritime Museum, Fremantle.

While research into the ship’s rigging and cordage has been published, most of the research and publication has concentrated on the hull, as an important representative of the slave trade.

The Finds

A significant proportion of the final cargo of James Matthews appears to have been intended for the construction of one or more farmhouse buildings including items such as roofing slates, window-panes and door hinges. By far the largest single component of the cargo was 7,000 roofing slates.

Diver examining a large pile of roofing slates

Part of the cache of the 7,000 roofing slates
Image copyright WA Museum

Builders or carpenters tools were found together with bundles of iron rods, believed to be intended for blacksmithing purposes. Eight iron wagon axles, four iron horse harness traces (some complete with ring and swivel), nine wool carding combs, quarters of a grindstone, together with glass window panes and heavy iron door hinges were also recovered.

While Henry de Burgh mentions the presence of ploughs in his diary and writes that during the sinking the ‘decks had been cleared off and the ship lightened of everything possible, among which our ploughs, instruments and all heavy luggage, which was on deck ready to be landed in the morning’, no evidence of these ploughs was found during the archaeological excavation.

Joe Matthews and the James Matthews

Texan Joe Matthew’s father had earlier purchased part of the de Burgh property Cowalla and Joe came to wonder about the interesting links to the de Burghs and to the little ship. He visited the exhibitions at the Museum and got to meet all the staff, many of whom were involved in the earlier James Matthews exhibitions.

His interest was such that he provided a grant to the WA Maritime Museum to study the wreck and to see if the timbers could be raised. A study was commenced under the leadership of Dr M. McCarthy, involving many staff of the museum’s conservation facility, notably Ms Vicki Richards, a specialist in the assessment and treatment of ‘composites’ i.e. wood/metal objects.

When it became apparent that the costs of raising, preserving and presenting the hull was prohibitive, the programme soon evolved into a major in-situ preservation study.

The Timbers

The entire hull was cleared over three seasons from 1974 through to 1977. The keelson was exposed, and then the adjacent inner planking was uncovered. Dredging proceeded up the ceiling to the bulwarks of the port side about midships, where the scuppers and chain plates were exposed, as well as what may be part of the coaming of the main hatch. The remains of iron griddings, which may have been deck gratings, were also recorded in this area.

The outer planking is sheathed with copper, and the timbers are fastened with copper, iron, and wooden treenails. A thin pine inner skin covers a section of the inner planking.The remains were recorded in three dimensions using stereo cameras on a tower and a grid frame that allowed tape measurements in an x, y and z (vertical) axis. The site plan shown here was the result.

After the excavation the timbers were covered over and the materials raised sent to the conservation laboratory in Fremantle where they were readied for study and exhibition.

Detailed hand drawing of a plan of the wrecked James Matthews

Henderson's team produced this site plan
Image copyright WA Museum

Divers demonstrating the processes of site recording

The 3-dimensional site recording methodology
Image copyright WA Museum

Hand drawn illustration of a typical slave sailing ship

Typical Slave Ship
Image copyright WA Museum

Vicki Richard’s Study

The results of this on-site conservation pre-disturbance survey which was conducted over the summer of 2000/2001 indicates that the exposed hull remains of the James Matthews are in relatively poor condition but most of the wreck remains are buried and these structural timbers are in a good state of preservation. The rate of degradation would have accelerated dramatically with the significant decrease in sediment coverage over the past few years.

Hand drawn illustration of sail ship

The Brigantine James Matthew
Image copyright WA Museum

Further information