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‘Taken by surprise’: Barbara throws Australian maritime history overboard

“We thought, if it wasn’t going to be the Opossum, we weren’t going to see much out of the ordinary compared to other ships we’ve got around the place.

“We’ve now set up a research question that we hadn’t really expected, and that is: ‘What did Australian shipbuilders know about the timbers available in Australia?’ And it looks like they knew a lot more than we originally thought.”

The Barbara, built in 1841 on the Exeter River in Tasmania, is one of the oldest examples of an Australian-built ship ever studied by archaeologists.

Divers uncovering the wreck of the schooner Barbara off the coast of Rye.

Divers uncovering the wreck of the schooner Barbara off the coast of Rye. Credit:Heritage Victoria/Flinders University

Given the time it was built, they were taken aback by its deep hull, solid design and sophistication.

But mostly, it was the timber samples.

Despite shipbuilding wood in ready supply in colonial Tasmania, the builder imported jarrah from Western Australia, box gum from New South Wales and other timbers from Victoria.

Shipbuilders not only knew of the timbers available around the colonies, but had trade networks in place to import it.

“It’s a really important find,” said Mr Harvey, who is working on the Barbara in conjunction with Flinders University and the Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria.

“Australia’s shipbuilding practices, especially early practices, are really poorly documented in history. One of the only ways we’ve got to fill out that history is to fill out the archaeology.”

The 39-foot schooner, after more than a decade of unknown service in Tasmania, was traded to well-known Melburnian George Ward Cole in the early 1850s to ship lime from Rye to Melbourne.

Shells and limestone were mined and fired in coastal kilns to convert calcium carbonate into what we know now as builders lime, which helped build early Melbourne.

If you walk around Victoria’s oldest buildings and look between the bluestone, you may see some of the Barbara’s cargo, complete with fragments of shells.

It was wrecked in 1852 within 150 metres of the Rye coast when a strong northerly wind blew it aground. The same storm probably also destroyed the Opossum, which is yet to be found.

While there was probably crew on board at the time, there were no reports of any deaths.

Such cargo ships were once common – the semi-trailers of their time, according to Mr Harvey – meaning there is scarce historical information.

“This leaves us with just the archaeology,” he said. “That can tell these stories and bring them to life. A lot of that work still has to be done.”

The Barbara is listed with Heritage Victoria as a ship of historical significance.

Mr Harvey said at last count there were about 720 known shipwrecks around the Victorian coast and barely a third had been discovered.

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