The shipwreck of the HMS Sirius is one our most tangible and substantial links to a vessel of the First Fleet. Located in Commonwealth waters, south east of Kingston Pier in Slaughter Bay, Norfolk Island, the archaeological remains of the HMS Sirius are the only known in-situ remains of a vessel of the First Fleet.
The HMS Sirius was inscribed on the National Heritage List on 25 October 2011, the 225th anniversary of the commissioning of the HMS Sirius and the appointment of Arthur Philip as Captain and commander of the First Fleet.
The shipwreck of the HMS Sirius is of outstanding heritage value to the nation for its importance to some of the most defining moments of Australia's history.
The shipwreck of the HMS Sirius is the 97th place to be included in the National Heritage List.
Guardian and lifeline of early colonial Australia
The HMS Sirius was the guardian or Flag Ship of the First Fleet during its 15 000 miles, six month journey from England to Australia in 1787-1788. The arrival of the HMS Sirius and the first fleet at Port Jackson on 26 January 1788 is one of the most important moments in Australia's history and is celebrated each year as Australia Day.
Following its First Fleet voyage the Sirius became the main form of defence for the colony of New South Wales and their primary supply line and communications link with Great Britain.
By September 1788 the shortage of food and supplies at Sydney Cove was so great that the Sirius was dispatched to Cape Town, South Africa to purchase additional supplies, especially flour and medicines.
Under the command of John Hunter, the Sirius survived a treacherous nine month round trip to bring much needed supplies to the colony. On its return the ship was closely examined and spent the following four months undergoing much needed repairs from storm damage and other defects.
During this time the situation for the colony was becoming critical as the settlement failed in its early attempts at self-sufficiency. The HMS Guardian was dispatched from England in September in 1789 to re-supply the colony but it failed to reach Australia. By February 1790 the shortage of supplies at Port Jackson was critical and the settlement was in danger of collapse and abandonment.
To avert disaster Governor Philip dispatched the Sirius and the HMS Supply to Norfolk Island with convicts and Royal Marines in the hope that the conditions on the island would be more conducive to self sufficiency and relieve pressure on the remaining government supplies. The Sirius was then to proceed to China to purchase desperately needed supplies for the colony.
Loss of the Sirius
The HMS Sirius sank on 19 March 1790. Norfolk Island is an isolated volcanic outcrop lying 1500 kms north-east of Port Jackson. The island's coastline consists of sheer surf lashed cliffs up to 90 metres high and water depths drop off dramatically to more than 2000 metres.
This geography proved a daunting experience for early European navigators. After a stormy passage, the Supply and Sirius arrived at Norfolk Island on 13 March 1790 and managed to send the marines and most of the convicts ashore at Cascade Bay before being forced out to sea by bad weather.
Both vessels moved to the other side of the Island opposite the main settlement at Kingston, hoping to find a more sheltered anchorage, but strong winds again threatened them after they entered the bay. The Supply managed to turn around and headed out to the safety but the Sirius remained embayed with onshore winds and currents making it impossible for the ship to avoid a reef lying 200 metres from shore. Unable to tack against the prevailing wind, the Sirius was thrown backwards on to the reef and in less than 10 minutes its hull was destroyed.
The loss of the Sirius left the early settlers at Norfolk Island and Sydney Cove feeling utterly devastated. Early settlers considered the ship their insurance against starvation and adversity. The colony in Sydney was left with barely three months worth of supplies and was in danger of collapse and abandonment. In spite of the loss of the Sirius the decision by Governor Phillip to move colonists to Norfolk Island proved correct and ensured the colony's survival until further supplies arrived from England.
A link to early colonial government and leadership
The careers of the first three governors' of the colony of New South Wales are closely associated with the Sirius. Governors Phillip (1788-1792), Hunter (1795-1800) and Gidley King (1800-1806) all sailed as senior officers on the Sirius.
A remarkable "time capsule"
The shipwreck of the HMS Sirius has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of its potential to yield information that could contribute to a greater understanding of Australia's history of early European settlement. As the shipwreck is relatively free from the effects of cultural disturbance after salvage ended in 1792 the remaining fabric of the Sirius and associated artefact assemblages represent a "time capsule" of cultural life from the period leading up to 1790.
In an international context the HMS Sirius also represents one of the few located examples of an 18th century British warship exhibiting the use of experimental construction techniques in the period following the American war of independence and along with the HMS Pandora is one of only two such naval ships from this period located in Australian waters.
The shipwreck site and its associated relics have been protected from damage or disturbance under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 since 1984.
Revealing new information about early colonial history
Ongoing analysis research of the shipwreck, relics and naval records have also revealed new information on the construction of the vessel and raised questions about the debate as to why Botany Bay was chosen as a penal colony. Convict ships are depicted as being rotten old tubs and contemporary reports' criticisms of the Sirius, by some of the officers and crew, have led historians to assume the ship was unsuited to the voyage to New South Wales. This had led some to argue that the settlement was merely a temporary measure to relieve England's overcrowded gaols.
Naval records now indicate that by the time the Sirius was ready for its journey with the First Fleet the cost for refit and supplies came to 7 000 pounds sterling which was expensive for the time and indicative of a thoroughness of preparations for the naval contingent of the expedition.