Collection Highlights | Updated 8 years ago

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

The Rapid was an early 19th-century American China trader wrecked on the north-west coast of Western Australia in 1811.

China traders were the pride of the American fleet; they had to be large, well-founded, speedy vessels built specially for lucrative, but competitive and rigorous trade.

Rapid is the first example of an outward-bound American China trader to be given archaeological attention, so aspects of that trade can now be re-examined from an archaeological perspective.

Rapid departed Boston for Canton on 28 September 1810. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope the vessel sailed across the southern Indian Ocean and then north-east towards North-West Cape on the Australian coast.

It looked like being a fast voyage but disaster struck on the 98th day when Rapid hit a reef at Point Cloates. The next day, a storm was raging and the crew set fire to the ship, sacrificing everything so that the wreck would not appear above water and attract other ships to the scene before the Captain could return to save the 280,000 Spanish silver dollars carried on board.

In 1978, a spearfishing group discovered the wreck. During three seasons of excavation between 1979 and 1982 archaeologists from the Department of Maritime Archaeology surveyed the ship’s timbers and removed artefacts from within the hull, including 20,000 remaining Spanish eight-real coins.

The excavation provided a unique insight into the life on board one of these fast ships. The ship’s fittings, provisions and the personal possessions of the crew members had survived in reasonable condition on the site.

The hull survey provided sufficiently comprehensive data for the lines of the vessel to be reconstructed and gave vital information about a vessel type that had been frequently referred to in the literature, but never comprehensively described.

The entire crew of the Rapid reached Java alive, though a number died afterwards. Captain Henry Dorr, his clerk and three sailors survived 37 days of deprivation in the 16-foot, very leaky jolly boat with only limited rations.

They found rats and crabs to eat on Christmas Island en route to Bencoolen, but no water other than rainwater that they collected in the sails. Six weeks after arriving in Batavia (Jakarta) the opportunity of a passage home presented itself.

The American schooner General Greene had lost its captain and most of its crew at Batavia, so Henry Dorr and part of the Rapid’s crew offered to navigate the schooner to America, arriving in Philadelphia on 27 July 1811.

Salvage of the wreck’s money was a matter of immediacy for the owners. The town of Boston was already suffering commercial distress, added to which were the deteriorating relations between America and Britain that eventuated in the war of 1812.

Most of the specie (coins) was salvaged during the months after the wreck; the ship Meridian transported c. $91,000 to Canton in 1813, with more held by salvagers at Madras and Java.

Maritime shipwrecks