The frigate Madagascar left Melbourne for London on this day, August 12, 1853 with more than 150 passengers and its crew…but also nearly three tons of gold on board.
It was never seen again.
The Madagascar was a sturdy British merchant vessel built in 1837, used for carrying soldiers to India as well as passengers looking for an exotic vacation on the Indian sub-continent.
However, by the 1850s, Victoria was in the grip of a gold rush and the ship found it had a new role in its life: instead of being filled with troops for India, it was literally packed with would-be rich improvised miners heading for Melbourne, convinced that there were fortunes to be made.
So much so, that after arrival in Melbourne in 1853, 14 members of the crew resigned after deciding to stay in Australia and Captain Fortescue William Harris could find only three replacements for the return journey. Thus, the reduced crew faced a busy time of it because 110 passengers had signed up to travel back to England and, in addition, in the hold the Madagascar carried a box of specie, eight boxes of silver, nine boxes of sovereigns (about 60,000 gold coins), 86 boxes of gold dust and nuggets, making a total weight of nearly three tons and all valued at about £250,000.
And moreover a large cargo of flour, rice, wool and timber was taken on board.
Preparations to sail on August 10 were dramatically interrupted when police came on board and began to search the vessel.
A bushranger called John Francis was arrested on a charge of robbery, and Captain Harris was told to delay his departure.
The following day two other passengers were arrested on related charges. We know the details of the arrests on the Madagascar through a certain Victorian detective, Mr J Tuckwell, who had also been concerned at the sight he had seen from the poop deck of the ship while he was there arresting the robbery suspects. There were “drunken men and women, swearing and fighting” and “howling like wild beasts“. He stated also that the crew was the “most villainous motley lot that had ever signed articles on a capstan’s head” and added that among the passengers were escaped convicts of the worst class, and he was deeply concerned for the safety of the other passengers. At that time, the most hardened convicts had been sent to the toughest penal colonies in Australia, including the “prison of silence” Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula. The captain would however have signed even doubtful looking ex-convicts as crew, because he needed men to sail the ship and he had some difficulty finding enough crew. In any case, the ship was allowed to sail on the afternoon of August 12, when It left the port, and disappear.
There has been much speculation about what happened to the Madagascar: one is that the wool on board spontaneously combusted, and in fact such a tragedy had had happened before, but there was the possibility that the ship had been wrecked by a freak wave or, Titanic-style, sunk after colliding with an iceberg.
There was also a growing belief that criminals on board, undetected by the police in port, had taken over the ship.
However, a more plausible explanation is that the vessel was the victim of pirates who would have sunk the Madagascar after taking its treasure.
In 1872 rumours of a supposed death-bed confession by a man who “knew who murdered the captain of the Madagascar” were first published.
Over the next century many purely fictional stories based on this rumour have been published, and most 20th-century versions state that the death-bed confession was by a woman passenger who was taken by the mutineers and, raped, she was too ashamed of what had happened to her to confess beforehand.
In 1997 Australian researcher Gerald Crowley discovered artefacts like knives, spoons, nails, and other on the remote atoll of Anuanuaro in French Polynesia, and he believes they are from the Madagascar.
His theory is that the ship was hijacked in the Pacific, turned north, and sunk on the atoll, 1,500 kilometres south-east of Tahiti.
“There’s a wreck there. We’re beyond doubt,” he said with conviction a few years later “but I can’t prove it.“….