One of the most tragic events in the history of Moreton Bay was the wreck of the steamer Sovereign in the South Passage on 11 March 1847.
The Sovereign was a wooden paddle-steamer owned by the Hunter River Steam Company. Built in Sydney in 1841, and designed for running short trips between Sydney and Newcastle, she made her first voyage to Brisbane in 1843 under the command of Captain Henry Cape. Regularly carrying livestock, wool and other goods as well as passengers, the Sovereign she was ill-equipped for the ocean conditions and was regularly overloaded with goods like most other steamers of the day.
She left Brisbane on 3 March 1847 with 54 people on board, including 26 crew, and was delayed at Amity Point for a week due to southerly gales. After an attempt on the 10th, the Captain returned to anchorage before proceeded to the bar the following day, which did not present a dangerous appearance. However, disaster struck soon after and the boat was quickly smashed to pieces, leaving passengers clinging to what they could find in the water.
Of the 54 on board, only 10 were saved, including the Captain, and a cabin passenger named Richard Stubbs. Perhaps all would have drowned were it not for the help of several rescuers. While a boat crew was despatched from the Amity Point pilot station, the 10 who were saved owed their lives to the heroic efforts of a group of seven local Aboriginal men from Moreton and Amity, led by Toompani.
Survivor Richard Stubbs said Toompani “was the man who first called upon his tribe to swim out and help the people. They were afraid to start until he set them the example, and had gone some distance from shore when the rest followed.”
According to the writings of historian Thomas Welsby, “All over the island (Stradbroke) even amongst the whites who knew him, Toompani’s name is mentioned nowadays with the deepest of respect.”
It was customary at that time for the Government to award the aboriginal people with honorary breastplates in recognition of special service – such as saving lives of white people or other acts of courage or faithfulness. Toompani was also given a boat or his role in the rescue, a significant and valuable asset at the time, although he did not receive it until 24 years later.
This story is from the Local History and Heritage Collection at Redland Libraries. Did you know that Redland Libraries has a number of digitised collections available online? Check out Redland Images and search an ever-growing collection of photographs by suburb or subject, many donated by members of the public. It’s never been easier to take a trip down memory lane or learn more about our early history. Take a look at Redlands Images today.