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The intriguing tale of the Queen of the Colonies

The emigration clipper Queen of the Colonies under full sail. Image: Merriott family’s genealogy


The intriguing tale of the Queen of the Colonies

The Queen of the Colonies was the greyhound of the seas and delivered thousands of immigrants to Moreton Bay, but it wasn’t her speed or cargo that secured her place in history. GARRY REYNOLDS tells the amazing story of survival and heroics at Moffat Beach.

In the 1860s, many of England’s desperate unemployed embarked on overcrowded but fast clipper ships to start a new life in Queensland.

Top of the line was a former American clipper Wizard King which had been converted to an emigrant vessel in the UK and re-named Queen of the Colonies.

Her inaugural voyage to Brisbane in early 1863 was eventful, marked by tragedy and passengers fighting for survival on board and then as lifeboat castaways.

The Queen was under the command of wily Captain Robert Cairncross who outran pirate raiders by pushing his vessel through horrific storms while carrying rampant disease on board.

The impoverished emigrants were sharing infections in the crowded, putrid conditions below decks.

The ship made good time and after 87 days, anchored off Cape Moreton on April 6, 1863.

Just as they arrived a young mother, Mrs Barnfield, died in childbirth and as it was against regulations to cast a body into harbour waters, it was decided she would be buried on Moreton Island.

Her grieving husband and 13 men rowed a lifeboat with her coffin to the island but on return at dusk were swept away from the ship by a storm and were ultimately washed up near Moffat Beach.

For eight days they survived on shellfish, then, increasingly desperate, the survivors took fate into their own hands and attempted to row to Brisbane.

Weakened and weary, they managed to get their lifeboat through three lines of breakers, but a fourth wave overturned the tiny craft and tossed them into the sea.

All managed to make it back to the beach except the heartbroken Mr Barnfield.

The desperate and starving men were now severely ill with dysentery.

Meanwhile, Inspector John McDonald of the Queensland Water Police, a tough ex-military man, was being thwarted by the weather and bureaucracy in his attempts to mount a search and rescue mission.

The inscribed Queen of the Colonies monument opened at Moffat Beach headland in 1963

Fortunately, members of Bribie Island’s Ngunda people arrived in Brisbane, having walked overland. They reported that a small boat with 14 white men had arrived on a local beach and were living on fish and food provided by the Aboriginal people.

The Colonial Secretary promptly telegraphed orders to the pilot station at Lytton for the Government’s steam tug Brisbane to get underway to Bribie Island and the mainland across Pumicestone Passage.

It was another two days before it departed, and then couldn’t get any closer than 10kms to the shore.

With the clock ticking, McDonald provisioned a lifeboat and took several men with him to get to the Island and explore on foot. They then proceeded to the mainland.

Running out of food and water, three castaways had set out by land, and were met by McDonald’s rescue party proceeding overland on April 26.

Two days later, McDonald found the remaining men at Moffat Beach.

The castaways were sunburnt, starving and almost naked, camped under bushes near a pandanus where they had carved the clipper’s name.

The original pandanus in 1920. Image: State Library of Queensland.

It would be another eight days before the last three clambered into the lifeboat to be rowed back to the steam tug.

After the castaways and their rescuers returned triumphant to the capital, the Government presented McDonald with £100 in recognition of his bravery and persistence.

The owners of the Queen of the Colonies expressed their gratitude by presenting McDonald with a tea and coffee service valued at 100 guineas.

Two years later, the clipper made one of the fastest passages on record when she sailed from England to Moreton Bay in 76 days, arriving three days before the news that she had left London.

She was wrecked in the English Channel in 1874.

The pandanus on Moffat Headland was fenced in 1920 but it was deteriorating and was removed for preservation.

A concrete memorial was erected at the crest of Queen of the Colonies Parade, Moffat Beach in 1963.

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