R7530 Wreck of the 'Waterloo' convict ship, 1842



This is a black-and-white sketch of a convict ship, the 'Waterloo', being wrecked off the coast of South Africa on 28 August 1842. The ship is being pounded on one side by huge waves, and is leaning as if it is about to tip over. Two of the three masts have snapped off. People can be seen floating in the water on pieces of the broken masts.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy of Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania.

Educational value
This sketch gives a graphic illustration of the fate of the convict transport ship the 'Waterloo'. It had set sail from England in June 1842 on a voyage to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and in August had anchored to take on provisions at Table Bay, near Cape Town in South Africa, when north-westerly gales whipped up fierce seas. In the rough conditions, the 'Waterloo' broke from its anchors and struck sand in the Bay, running aground not far from the shore.
When the 'Waterloo' first broke from its anchors it 'rolled' with the waves, but once it had struck, the starboard (right) side of the ship took the full force of each wave. Some of those aboard were washed into the sea, while others jumped overboard to try to reach the shore. The ageing vessel soon snapped in two, and within about 90 min had entirely broken up.
Most people, even sailors, did not know how to swim in the 19th century and 190 people from the 'Waterloo' drowned including 143 convicts, 14 crew members, 15 soldiers, 4 soldiers' wives, and 14 children, five from one family. The ship had a total of 330 people aboard, thought to have comprised 219 male convicts, 51 soldiers acting as their guards, 27 family members of soldiers (5 wives and 22 children) and 33 crew members.
Convicts were generally kept below decks, sometimes in chains or behind bars, so they could not try to escape by jumping overboard, but the situation on the 'Waterloo' quickly became so dire that an order was given to allow the convicts onto the deck to give them some chance of survival. Those who made it to shore were then recaptured and later sent to Van Diemen's Land on another ship.
Hundreds of people on shore had heard distress signals but their rescue efforts focused on a larger British ship, the 'Abercrombie Robinson', which had run aground earlier. Two large surf boats, hauled to the beach from Cape Town on ox wagons, were used to rescue almost 700 people from the 'Abercrombie Robinson'. By the time one of the surf boats was diverted to help those aboard the 'Waterloo' it was too late.
Built in England in 1815, the year of the famous battle from which it took its name, by 1842 the 'Waterloo' would have been regarded as close to the end of its lifespan as a long-distance wooden sailing vessel. It had made at least two previous trips to Australia, in 1834-35 and 1840. At 414 tonnes and 34 m long, the 'Waterloo' was slightly smaller than the average size of the 23 ships hired to transport convicts to the Australian colonies in 1842.
Between 1788 and 1868, more than 158,000 convicts arrived in Australia from England and Ireland after trips lasting several months aboard wooden sailing ships. The British Government began transporting convicts to the Australian colonies from Britain and Ireland in 1788, starting with the First Fleet. Transportation was formally abolished in 1868, although it had effectively stopped in 1857.
Nineteenth-century convict transports were significantly safer than other ships travelling to Australia and NZ in the same period. In 1854 for example, a passenger ship, the 'Tayleur', sank, with the loss of 380 lives, just 2 days after setting out from Liverpool on its maiden voyage to Australia. In 1874, 472 people died after an emigrant ship bound for NZ from London, the 'Cospatrick', caught fire south-west of the Cape of Good Hope.
This sketch was based on a drawing by Charles Staniforth Hext (1815-55) of the 4th King's Own Regiment, the commander of the guard on the 'Waterloo'. Hext was ashore with the captain of the vessel, Henry Ager, when the disaster occurred. Presumably, Hext would have been preoccupied with rescue and recapturing efforts at the time so would have produced his drawing of the event later, from memory.
Convict ships
© Curriculum Corporation, 2007, except where indicated under Acknowledgements