The Sinking of the Peruvian and the story of Muriel Pithkethley who survived

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, which, for more than a thousand miles, stretches from Cape Townsend to Cape York, has been the scene of many tragedies, since that prince of navigators, Captain James Cook, surveyed and. passed between it and the mainland, a hundred and thirty years ago in the Endeavour. And of all the many records of ship wreck and adventure due to the terrible Great Barrier, the story of Muriel Pithkethley, of the barque Peruvian, stands foremost as an example of a woman's heroic conduct under the most awful and horrifying conditions that can be imagined.

The writer at Port Denison, in North Queensland, conversed with a man-James Murrell-who was one of the survivors of the Peruvian, and who spoke of Mrs Pithkethley as "a little pink-faced woman, sir, quite young and delicate-looking, but with such a heart-as brave as that of any soldier man that ever led a forlorn hope." The story of James Murrell, himself a young sailor, who was a native of Maldon, in Essex, is well-known to Australians, and it was through Murrell, 17 years after the shipwreck of the Peruvian, that the sad story of Mrs Pithkethley was made known. She was quite a young woman-only 22 years of age, when she sailed from Sydney in the Peruvian, of which her husband was master. The vessel was of 350 tons, and bound to London via Singapore with a cargo of Australian timber. Besides Mrs Pithkethley, there were other passengers - a Mr Quarrie and his young daughter, Mr and Mrs Wilmot, with their infant child, and a nurse - the latter was born at Cork, and was "a beautiful girl" (vide Jimmy Murrell, who, so Wilson said, was very fond of her, and had engaged to marry her when the barque reached London).

 The Peruvian left Sydney at the end of February, and made a rapid passage up to within 20 miles of Cleveland Bay, on the coast of North Queensland, when, an hour before dawn, she crashed on to an outlying spur of the Great Barrier Reef, near Cape Bowling Green, and not far from Townsviile. There was a terrible surf running at the time and it was very soon evident that the barque was doomed, for within ten minutes a mighty sea lifted her up bodily, and let her down so heavily that the whole of the starboard side of the bottom was crushed like an egg-shell, and wave after wave swept over the decks, carrying away the second mate-the first to perish-and lifting the ship further on to the reef, where she continued to bump heavily as the tide rose. At daylight Captain Pithkethley ordered the port quarter boat to be lowered; It was hopelessly stove in as soon as it touched the water. A second boat was so rotten that as soon as the mate and a sailor got in, before it was lowered, their weight drew out the stern bolt, and the two men dropped Into the seeming surf, and were at once drowned. The passengers were now, with the exception of the captain's brave wife, distracted with terror, for the barque only carried two boats; but, Mrs Pithkethley, who was helping the children to dress, cried out to them that a raft was better than a rotten boat, and that everyone should help, and not hinder the seamen by their lamentations. Then the captain, in order to steady the ship, cut away all the masts, which, with the sails set, went over the port side, and in a way formed a breakwater.

The raft was then made, and the bulwarks on the lee side having been cut away, It was launched over the deck with handspikes by noon, and the people went on board only just in time, for the upper deck was working out of the ship, which was now full of water. From the moment they left the ship Mrs Pithkethley tried to keep up the spirits, not only of her fellow-passengers, but of the seamen as well. She. not only nursed Mrs Wilmot's infant, but helped to paddle the raft, and at night always kept watch, while her husband slept, and sang to the weary seamen. On the tenth day out Mr Quarrie died of exhaustion, and his body, after being divested of clothing, was dropped overboard, and, said Murrell, "sharks, which were always following the raft, tore it to pieces before our eyes."

 Next day two large fish were caught, equally divided, and eaten raw. In the night Mrs Wilmot's baby died of starvation, and in the morning the poor mother followed. She had no clothing on but her nightdress when - she left the ship, but one of the men gave her his jacket, and Mrs Pithkethley had given her her own skirt. She, too, was dropped overboard in the agonised silence of despair, and her broken-hearted husband and his companions In misery turned their faces away - they did not want to see that which they knew would quickly happen. The next victim was Mrs Wilnot's nurse. All this time Mrs Pithlkethley kept an undaunted heart, and was constantly trying to encourage her fellow sufferers, and Murrell describes her as a "most wonderfully plucky lady."

 A day or so later a seaman died. One of his legs was severed, and hung over the side to tempt a shark near enough to enable the famished crew to catch it. This was done in a few minutes by means of a running bowline, and the struggling creature, by the united strength of everyone on the raft, was dragged out of the water and killed with an axe by the carpenter. Some of the raw flesh was at once eaten, and the blood evenly divided, and that evening, to the great joy of everyone, land was sighted-the bold high Cape Cleveland, near Townsville. In the morning it was much nearer, another shark was caught with the same terrible bait as was used on the proceeding day, and ten hours later the raft drifted ashore a few miles from Cape Cleveland.

They landed before daylight, and, throwing themselves down on the bench, slept. In the morning water was found, the pangs of hunger were alleviated by shell-fish, and hope for the future sprang up in their hearts. So far they had seen no traces of blacks, and were hopeful of making. Their way along the coast to civilisation, or being seen by a ship. They had, when twenty days out on the raft (they were forty-two in getting to land), seen a barge a long way off outside the Great Barrier Reef - too far out to notice the raft, which had no sail. A few days of rest did them all good. Oysters were plentiful, and so was water, and they still had left about half of the last shark, which was now putrid. Then death put an end to the sufferings of poor Mr Wilmot and the carpenter, and the rest of the party, feeling strong enough to walk, began the journey to they knew not where - for Townsville had not been founded, and Bowen or Port Denison, the nearest place inhabited by white men, was ninety miles distant.

That evening, just as they had camped for the night on the top of a grassy bluff, a large full-rigged ship was sighted running down the coast, and inside the Great Barrier. They made the most frantic efforts to attract her attention, but, having no means of lighting a fire, failed. Nearer and nearer she came, then at last she passed, and soon was swallowed up in the darkness that was not so black as the despair that now filled their aching hearts. Early in the morning, as they walked along the beach, the sailmaker, named Miller, discovered a - native canoe, in which were found some fishing tackle, two spears, and a "waddy" (club). Poor Miller, who was doubtless half insane, launched the frail craft, and headed her for the open sea. There was a heavy surf breaking, and in a few minutes his companions saw the craft upset, and the poor man drown.

Day after day passed, the party living mostly on shell fish, crabs, birds' eggs, lizards, etc. Mrs Pitlkethley still bravely "kept up the courage of the others, and was most industrious in getting food, and giving it away freely, saying she was the strong eat of the lot." Early one morning, as the tide was low, she went out alone on some rocks to get shellfish, when she was discovered by a number of blacks. To her great joy, they treated her kindly, and she led them to the camp where her companions were. The aboriginals, so Murrell stated, showed the greatest pity for the poor wanderers; they gave them cooked food, "and kept on fondling and stroking our hands, faces and bodies in an affectionate manner." But they insisted on appropriating the clothing out everyone of the party except Mrs Pithkethley, who had little enough, for when Mr Quarric's daughter died; she could not bear to see the poor little emaciated frame consigned to it's grave of sand without some additional clothing, and so had wrapped it in her petticoat. The shipwrecked people, 'who were now reduced to four-Captain and Mrs Pithkethley, the cabin boy (whose name Murrell did not know), and James Murroll - remained with the party of blacks who had discovered them for only a short time, and were then taken along the coast to a large native camp.

Here the captives were apportioned out, Murroll and the cabin boy being taken by a coastal tribe, inhabiting the country between Cape Cleveland and the mouths of the Burdekin River and Baratta Creek; and poor Mrs Pithkethley and her husband being handed over to the savages of the Cape Marlow and Mount Elliott district. Murrell bade them a sad farewell. His own tribe treated him very well, and, indeed, neither Mrs Pithkethley, nor any of the survivors, were badly treated, though kept captive. But I must conclude the sad story. Murrell managed to see Mrs PithkethIey and her husband occasionally. He was now alone, the cabin boy having died after about ten months' captivity, and the poor fellow felt it terribly. Quite two years passed, and then one day he received a message by one of Mrs Pithkethley's tribe that she wished to see him - her husband was dying. It took him three days to reach her, although there were but forty miles of bush between them, but the blacks always took him by a circuitous route whenever he went to see the Pithkethleys, for they were afraid that he might discover some of the horses or cattle belonging to the cattle station at Port Denison, the existence of which they had concealed from him.

He found Mrs Pithkethley's tribe of blacks camped on a headland near Gape Cleveland, and the poor lady, whose body was now burnt to the hue of leather, seated under a crude "break-wind" of bark and leaves, with her husband's head pillowed on her lap. 'He was just able to recognise Murrell, and feebly put out his hand. A few hours later he passed quietly away. That evening, at sunset, Murrell and the unhappy woman, aided by the blacks, dug a grave with sticks, and the poor seaman was laid to rest. "Will you stay with me a few days, Jim'," she said to him that night, as they sat on the headland under the star studded sky, gazing upon the sleeping sea, "I am sure God will release me now very soon, and I want you to lay me beside him!" He stayed, and two days later the loving, loyal heart was at rest. "Good-bye, Jim," were her last words. "I am very happy now. God has answered my supplications to Him - I knew He would not keep me waiting very long."- Louis Becke, in St. James's Budget.

Published August 7, 1904, New York Times