Home Melbourne Stories The intriguing story of Merchant ship Madagascar that left Melbourne in 1853

The intriguing story of Merchant ship Madagascar that left Melbourne in 1853

East Indiamen Madagascar, 1000 tons, 1837 build Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (fl 1840) - National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London

Madagascar, the British Merchant ship, which was built as a frigate in 1837, disappeared on a voyage from Melbourne to London in 1853, leaving more questions than answers. Madagascar was built for George and Henry Green at the famous Blackwall yard on River Thames they part owned, which was in the business of building ships since 1617. Built for trade to India and China, Madagascar entered history books due to its mysterious disappearance.

Madagascar mainly carried troops, passengers and freight between England and India. In 1851, Gold was found in NSW and Victoria. On 11th March 1853, Madagascar left the shores of Plymouth under the command of Captain Fortescue William Harris carrying migrants and stock. After a voyage of 87 days, it reached Hobsons Bay in Melbourne on 10th June 1853. The Colony of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital city, was in the middle of Goldrush. Goldrush attracted all the able-bodied men to diggings. Fourteen of Madagascar’s 60 crew jumped ship for the diggings, but only 3 new recruitments have signed in.  In Lieutenant Governor of Victoria Latrobe’s own words, ‘’Cottages are deserted, houses to let, business is at a standstill, and even schools are closed. In some of the suburbs not a man is left.’’ Due to the issue of missing crew, Madagascar had already delayed its departure from Hobson’s Bay.

Madagascar was on track to leave Melbourne with two tons of Gold valued at £240,000 in August 1853, when detectives investigating a missing Pistol case suddenly barged in searching for one Mr John Francis. The arrest of John Francis lead to the arrest of his brother George Francis, both connected to the McIvor Gold Escort Robbery at Mia Mia. This lead to more arrests and the departure of the ship was further delayed.  It was announced that owing to unforeseen circumstances she had not yet sailed.

Tuckwell was one of the detectives came to the ship for arresting John Francis. On 10th August 1910, onwards the Argus published a series of articles named, ‘’A Mystery of the Fifties’’ , among other things Tuckwell detailed what he had seen at Madagascar when he visited the ship in connection with the arrest of John Francis. J. Tuckwell writes,

(we have edited this to make it short and sensible)

Madagascar, one of Green’s Blackwall liners, frigate built, square rigged, over thousand tons, lay snug at her moorings at Hobson’s Bay, hatches battened down, some 600 passengers on board, with a heavy flight of gold dust in her lazarette. Twice had her anchors been weighed, top sails sheeted home, wooing the sharp northerly breeze, filling top gallants and royals gently bearing her southwards, but on neither occasion had she the luck to reach the heads, a sudden southerly buster driving her back to her old berth, where she was still lying some two or three weeks, after the Gold Escort at McIvor had been stuck up. In search of John Francis, we soon stood on the poop of Madagascar, the scene that revealed itself, as seen from the break of the poop, baffles all description, and will forever remain fresh in our memory.

Drunkenness, fighting, swearing, men, women and children in a state of semi nudity, howling like wild animals. The crew composed of men, the most villainous and motely that ever signed articles on capstan head. Some of the passengers were a rough lot – escaped convicts or a worst class. A pang of horror shot through me, as the thought raise to my brain, should evil overtake Madagascar, what would become of the women, young girls and better class of passengers. God help them! Was my silent prayer. Another few days the good ship slipped her moorings, on the top of an ebbtide quietly guided down the bay, passing safely through the RIP in a charge of sea pilot. When some seven miles distant she backed her main topsoil, allowing the pilot to drop into his dinghy. The sun was now dipping below the western horizon, and the Madagascar was lost to the sight – and from that moment to the present she has never been seen nor heard of. Fancy can conjecture the awful tragedies enacted on board that ill-fated ship.’’

It was not until 1854 that friends and relatives of those on-board Madagascar learned that the ship had not yet arrived in England. Many rumours were spread as to its whereabouts. The treasure chests of the ill-fated ship and expecting a foul play could be justified.

The Argus carried the remaining story on 13th August 1910, with another incident connected with the disappearance of Madagascar. It is as follows,

”In support of this theory, a story is told of a woman who, when dying in New Zealand, called a clergyman to her bed side and told him how the Madagascar had been robbed and scuttled when off the coast of South America.

 The narrator, who had been a nurse, related how the crew and several passengers mutinied, killed the captain and officers, imprisoned all the passengers, except several young women whom they commandeered under the hatches, then seized the gold, and finally, after saturating it with tallow, set fire to the unfortunate ship and took to the boats. According to the dying woman’s story, these inhuman brutes did not live to enjoy their ill-gotten gains, as only six men and five women (including the narrator) reached the shore alive, after many days of terrible privation. None of the other boats ever appear, and the gold, which meant untold wealth to those that were saved, went to the bottom when their boat was capsized in the surf.

After terrible suffering, they reached a small settlement in Brazil, but the sword of divine vengeance descended suddenly upon them. All of them, except two men and this poor woman, were struck down with yellow fever, and died. Slowly the survivors made their way back to civilisation. There, after having been dragged down to the lowest depths of iniquity, the woman was cruelly deserted. One man disappeared altogether, while the other is said to have been hanged for murder in San Francisco. Whether this strange tale is true or otherwise will probably never be known, and the loss of this fine ship will forever remain one of those profound mysteries of the sea which ever grow more and more unfathomable as the years roll on.

But, even if the disappearance of the Madagascar was remarkable, so are a number of striking coincidences told by a well-known member of the legal profession in Melbourne. This gentleman arrived in Hobson’s Bay in the ship Roxburgh Castle, on July 21, 1853, and anchored close to Madagascar, which was then ready for sea, and advertised to sail “shortly.” Like most homeward-bound ships at that period she was waiting for a crew, many of hers having deserted for the goldfields. The Roxburgh Castle left London on May 1 and called at Plymouth for passengers. Among the new passengers was a Mrs. De Carteret, a young married lady, and her three children. It was soon learnt that she was the wife of a member of the legal profession who had left for Melbourne a few months previously, with a view to preparing a home for her on her arrival there.

Mrs De Carteret was a woman of many attainments, and soon became very popular among the passengers. Before the voyage was far progressed, she had enshrined herself in the hearts of all, especially in those of the passengers’ children, whom, with her own, she gathered around her every day in her cabin and taught. On anchoring, in Hobson’s Bay everyone was shocked to hear that this gentle lady had casually picked up, in the saloon, a Melbourne newspaper, which had been brought on board by the pilot, and therein seen a notice of her husband’s death, which had occurred a few days previously. Such a blow prostrated the poor woman with grief, and nothing could induce her to land and settle in the new country. The captain of the Roxburgh Castle eventually secured her a pas- sage back to England by Madagascar, and she sailed away, accompanied by her children and a nurse, in that ill-fated ship. It has been suggested that the nurse may have been the unfortunate woman who is said to have died in New Zealand.

To continue the welding of this chain of remarkable narrative, about the year 1858 a firm of Plymouth solicitors, acting on behalf of a client, wrote to the aforementioned solicitor, who had come out in the Roxburgh Castle, asking him to make inquiries respecting the death of a certain Captain Tolcher, which had recently been reported, and to have a memorial stone erected over his grave.

The deceased had served in the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny and had “then proceeded to Melbourne to regain his health, which had suffered from the hardships through which he had passed during those two strenuous campaigns. It was ascertained that he had died in the Melbourne Hospital, and bad been buried in a public grave. The body was exhumed, and re-interred in a private grave, a suitable memorial stone erected, and the matter reported to his relatives in England. At the request of the late Captain Tolcber’s sister, who resided in England, the Melbourne solicitor’s wife consented to keep the grave in order, and, owing to this, a correspondence sprang up between the two ladies, which ended in a life-long friendship. This friendship eventually led to a meeting at Yelverton, England, when the Melbourne solicitor and his wife were visiting that country in 1899.

It was this visit that marked the culmination of these remarkable coincidences. Shortly before the two friends parted, when the English lady was telling how lonely her life was, “all her relations being dead, the solicitor’s wife asked casually, “Did you ever have a sister?” “Oh, yes,” was the reply, “an only sister, long since dead.” “And by the way.” she added, “she went out to your country, but never landed. She went out to join her husband, but, when she arrived, she found he had just died.” The solicitor, in surprise, exclaimed, “Was her name De Carteret?”

“Yes!” came the startled reply. “Why, how did you know?” The Melbourne citizen then explained how he had sailed out to Australia 40 odd years before with Mrs.De Carteret. For a minute the old lady was struck dumb with astonishment. Then, referring to the remarkable coincidence, she said, “You are the first person I have ever met who saw my sister after she left for Australia.” She then told the romantic story of Mrs. De Carteret’s life and marriage, and how, when the news came that she was returning home, her rooms were got ready for her, and were kept prepared for her for years; and how, as the long, sad, silent years drifted on, her father had waited, never giving up hope, for the return of his long-lost daughter. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Madagascar is still a mystery, dark and unfathomable; and now, in a far-off little English churchyard near Plymouth, lies the body of one who devotedly waited and watched through the long, long hours for the sister who never returned.’’

The story of Madagascar may intrigue the minds of history enthusiasts for many more centuries. If made movie this could be a box office hit. But the tears shed for the loved ones who lost their lives in this tragedy, will remain a pain for anyone with a kind heart.

Those interested in further reading on the mystery of Madagascar Tragedy. Please read this article published by Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic. : 1867 – 1875) on Tue 31 Dec 1872, Page 255


From the Sydney Evening News we give a condensed account of the narrative supplied to that paper of the Madagascar’s fate:-

A gentleman emigrated from England in 1852, with his wife and family, to Melbourne. He brought with him three men, hired to serve him in the colony three years. On arrival at Melbourne the men were furnished by their employer with a large tent and provisions and encamped at North Melbourne; and as a disposition was shown by them to break their engagement, he settled with them and gave them their discharge.

months after, one of them, named Robson, returned to Melbourne with one thousand seven hundred pounds worth of gold, leaving it at the house of his former employer, who, on reaching home, and finding that Robson had left the gold, made search and found him drinking at a public house. He told Robson that, ‘’if you do not remove the gold he would throw it in the street, as he was not going to run the risk of being murdered for the sake of the gold. The gold was therefore taken away, the gentleman putting a seal on the string for Robson, who handed it for safety to a publican, in the presence of his former master. Robson said that the gold belonged to himself and his former fellow servants.

This occurred just about the time the gentleman had taken a passage for England in Madagascar, for himself, wife and family, but did not go in that vessel. On going on board the Madagascar one day, he saw Robson there, and asked what he was there for, who immediately answered, ‘Oh, I have sent my two mates their share of the gold, and I am going to England,” and Robson did sail in that vessel. The Madagascar took with her 60.000 sovereigns and 60.000 oz of gold, besides large sums in the hands of the passengers, and was never more heard of.

 In 1857 the gentleman went to England in the Southampton, and visited the father-in-law of Robson, a Mr. Chadwick, of New Brighton, in Cheshire. In conversation with the old man, he said that some person had told him (Chadwick) that his son-in-law (Robson) had been hanged for the escort robbery, but he had received a news- paper from California, in which was an account of Robson’s death, his age, the place of his birth, and the name of his former place of abode in England.

This newspaper was brought from a box upstairs. The gentleman read the account of Robson ‘s death himself but bothered himself no more about the matter. After this he again went to Victoria, in the Lord Raglan, and again took a passage to England in 1865, in the Swiftsure, and one day whilst on the passage, the mystery attending the fate of the ship Madagascar was mentioned, upon which Captain Mayhew said that Mr. Green, the shipowner, had told him that he heard of a man in the Mauritius (Isle of France), who, on his death bed, said that he knew the man who murdered the captain, of the Madagascar. The gentleman is well connected, is known, so he states, to the Bishop of Sydney and other gentlemen of position, and, is ready to answer any questions at any time.

The inference to be drawn is that this Robson had gone on board with, his mates’, gold, and afterwards had joined some of the desperate characters known to have been on board Madagascar. ( This Robson could be the man the Nurse mentioned died in San Francisco)  They had then murdered the captain and passengers, plundered the ship, and afterwards destroyed her by fire or otherwise, so that a vestige of her could not be discovered. Also, the probability is, that some of the gang, participators in the crime; are still living, and may yet be brought to answer for the deed or be willing at least give some account of their diabolical conduct. Probably the man Robson; fearing to be hanged, would not confess his participation in the crime, but procured a promise whilst ill that if he died the advertisement of his death before mentioned should be inserted, and a copy sent to England.

East Indiamen Madagascar, 1000 tons, 1837 build
Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (fl 1840) – National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London

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