Wreck Reef Bank, taken at low water, August 1803

This is one of Westall's ten paintings of Matthew Flinders' Australian voyage (1801-03) that the Admiralty commissioned from 1809 (ZBA7914, 7935-7936, 7938-7944): they were completed over the next three years. It closely follows a drawing by Westall ('View of Wreck Reef Bank, taken at low water, Terra Australis') now in the National Library of Australia, on which it is based.

After Flinders' 'Investigator' was condemned as unseaworthy at Sydney in 1803, ending his Australian survey, he embarked with Westall as passengers in HM sloop 'Porpoise' to return to England, in company with the storeship 'Cato' and the Indiaman 'Bridgewater'. They sailed on 10 August 1803 but on the 17th both 'Porpoise' and 'Cato' ran aground 800 miles north of Sydney, on a sandbank subsequently known as Wreck Reef (or Reefs), part of the Great Barrier Reef. Both were quickly holed by coral and the larger 'Cato' broke up. Three men were lost but everyone else escaped onto a nearby dry bank, where they camped as shown in the painting, having salvaged what they could (including many but not all of Westall's drawings). The grounded and dismasted hull of the 'Porpoise' (a Spanish-built packet schooner captured in 1799) can be seen at far left. The 'Bridgewater' sailed on and later reported both ships lost without survivors. After nearly ten days without sign of help, Flinders then sailed back to Sydney in the 'Porpoise's' cutter and returned with the 29-ton schooner 'Cumberland', the schooner 'Frances' and the East Indiaman 'Rolla', which was bound for Canton, to pick people up. The 'Frances' took a few people back to Sydney: the majority, including Westall, went on to China in 'Rolla' as the next stage homeward. He first did some brief work there and then more during three months at Bombay before reaching England again in 1804. Flinders sailed directly from Wreck Reef for England with a selected volunteer crew in the 'Cumberland', but was detained on Mauritius as a prisoner of war for nearly six years after putting in there for repairs, owing to the schooner's leaky condition. Although Flinders had a French passport, this had been made out for 'Investigator', not personally for him and his crew in any other ship, and his high-handed approach to General Decaen, the French governor (who decided to treat him as a spy), was not well calculated to gain co-operative and early release. He only reached England again in October 1810.

The image was engraved as one of the plates in Flinders ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis' (1814, and also separately published that year in Westall's 'Views of Australian Scenery'). It is the last plate in vol. 2, illustrating the dated journal text about the incident. For other notes on the group see ZBA7914.

Object Details

ID: ZBA7935
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Westall, William
Date made: 1809-1812
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 610 mm x 896 mm; Frame size: 795 x 1055mm

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