John Lambert was a teacher of history
who began writing historical fiction when he retired. This is his third novel to
His stories provide the opportunity to show how the past influences the present and how history illustrates the best, and the worst, of human behaviour. While the characters in the stories are mostly fictional, their actions are closely related to the historical context. History is about people; fiction and history combine to make believable and interesting studies of human achievement.
You could wade across to the island at low tide, though the water came up to your shoulders and the current was strong. At other times, crossing the strait between the island and the mainland required that you swim, or take a boat.
The family property on the central
The Thompson family had owned the property for five generations, and indeed, while there might have been private ownership before Great-Great-Grandfather, no one could remember anything about how it came into the family. The bungalow, called affectionately ‘the Bunker’, had always been regarded as a privileged holiday hideaway for the family. If you belonged to the privileged group of sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles or aunts, you booked in advance, sometimes two years in advance, for the school holidays and long weekends. At other times, you could generally be granted a week or two simply via a phone call. The current grandfather and grandmother had retired to the Bunker to care for the property, and were delighted to see any of the family at any time. There were two self-contained flats as well as three guest rooms, all with en-suite bathrooms.
A holiday in the Bunker was a time to relax, to walk on the beach, to build sand castles if you were so inclined, to fish from the rocks of the island, to swim in the pool attached to the house, or in the strait, or in the surf on the ocean side of the island, or just to lie in the sun, or the shade, and read a book. If you were a child, or even if you weren’t, Grandfather was a wonderful teller of stories, and could keep your attention for hours.
Now one of his stories, which he claimed he had heard from his own father, who had heard it from his father, who had heard it from his, concerned the wreck on the ocean side of the island. No one had ever seen it, but the story was that many, many years ago, in the time of Great-Great-Grandfather Henry, there had been a ferocious storm which lasted for three days. The storm tore trees from the ground, lifted sheets of iron from the roof of the house and washed away much of the sand from the beach on the ocean side of the island. Great-Great-Grandfather Henry had only found out how much sand had been washed away, because, being a man of regular habits – and these habits including rock fishing every Monday – on the Monday after the storm, having completed the necessary repairs to the house, he visited the rocks at the south end of the island.
He found the shape of the beach had been dramatically altered. The sand had virtually disappeared and been replaced by a legion of rocks, all pointing to the sky like a mouthful of jagged blackened teeth, and all about two metres below the previous level of the beach. And there, in the middle of the beach, was the skeleton framework of a ship, or at least the lower parts of the framework. There was a recognisable keel, some of the bottom ends of the ribs, and several timbers from what had once been a stern platform. This latter was at the ocean end, indicating that the bow, of which there was no sign at all, had been driven onto the rocks.
As the story was told and retold to successive generations, the detail was undoubtedly enlarged, but the length of the ship, as estimated by Henry, and including the missing bow, remained in all versions at about a hundred and twenty feet. That made it a substantial ship.
No one else had ever seen the wreck, for a second storm a week later brought the sand back again, or at least that was Henry’s story. However, Henry, as we have noted, was a man of regular habits, and he had brought back to the house a piece of the timber from the platform. He mounted it on hooks and it took pride of place over the fireplace in the lounge room. It was about three feet long and slightly curved. There was no doubt that it had been squared and shaped by human hands but it could have been driftwood from anywhere and no one ever gave it much attention.
That was until sixth-generation Thomas, recently promoted as a materials supply
officer with the
When Thomas suggested to Grandfather James, always known as Jim, that he be allowed to test the timber for type and age, Jim initially resisted, but was eventually persuaded to agree, provided that it was done by sawing off a small section, no more than three centimetres, and testing that section only; the remainder was to stay on the wall.
The testing took several weeks but one afternoon in March, Grandmother Jillian answered the phone to a very excited Thomas who rapidly requested, ‘Mum, hi there. Put me on to Dad straight away, please, I have extraordinary news.’ When his father came on the line, Thomas raced on, ‘Dad, I have the results, and you’ll never guess how old the timber is.’
‘Perhaps a hundred and fifty years?’ suggested Jim, who had always thought the wreck, if it really did exist, would date from somewhere in the eighteen hundreds.
‘No,’ said a highly emotional Thomas, ‘the lab report says it’s about four hundred years old! They can’t be certain but they put it in the range of four-to-five hundred, and it’s English oak. This is incredible news!’
There was a long pause.
‘Dad, are you still there?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m here. Just thinking very fast. Have you told anyone?’
‘No, you’re the only one.’
‘Good. Did you tell the technicians where the timber came from?’
‘Thank goodness. Then don’t tell anyone at all. Absolutely, absolutely no one.
If the technicians ask, let them think the timber came from
‘Yes, I see why you’re worried. We could be about to change the history of the
exploration of the east coast and the Bunker will become the focus for every
tourist and academic in
‘Send me the report by express registered mail. Don’t leave any copies anywhere.’ Then Jim added as an afterthought, ‘Can you and Margaret and the children come up for a day or so as soon as you can? I’d like to talk further with you about what we do, if anything.’
* * * * * *
Thomas, Margaret, William, aged ten, Brendon, aged eight, and Juliet, aged six, arrived for a weekend stay ten days later. Jim, in the meantime, had been doing a lot of investigating. As an old history teacher, he had an excellent library, and he refreshed his memory of the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
After dinner on the Friday night, they all gathered in the lounge for the family conference. William and Brendon, in their grandfather’s opinion, were quite old enough to understand and perhaps contribute.
Jim had with him the report from the laboratory and, following some rather bland comments of thanks for coming, and the importance of the subject, he began by reading its conclusions:
‘On the basis of the testing we have carried out, we believe the piece of timber to be English oak and to have an age in the range of 400 to 500 years. The timber is heavily impregnated with salt, which is consistent with it having been in salt water for much of its life since it was cut and shaped.’
‘Now let us, for the moment, assume that the report’s conclusions are correct,’ said Jim. ‘The most important issue then is how it came into Henry’s possession. The story about the wreck may well be true, and if it is, the implications are incredible. But we’ll come back to that in a moment. The other options are that Henry was given it, or bought it, and that it came to Australia at least two hundred years into its life, or that it was driftwood cast up on the ocean shore of the island at any time over its four hundred years, brought there by currents from anywhere in the world. It may, or may not, have been part of a ship, and, if it were, the ship may, or may not, have been a wreck. If it were driftwood, the implications are entirely different and possibly not as significant.’
‘It’s also possible,’ added Thomas, ‘that it was brought to this area, not necessarily to the island, by someone else, and found by Henry.’
‘Yes,’ replied Jim, smoothing back his grey hair and smiling benignly, ‘in which case, Henry made up the story about the wreck.’
‘The critical issue is whether there was a wreck,’ affirmed Margaret who had a habit of speaking in such a way that there could be no further argument, especially from Thomas. ‘If there was a wreck, we have to rethink the history of the discovery of the east coast by Europeans.’
‘Probably yes, though much would depend on whether there were Europeans on board the ship, and what happened to them. It would be possible that the ship included some English timber, perhaps from one captured or rebuilt and that it was sailed by Chinese.’
‘Are we going to dig up the beach?’ asked Brendon.
‘Well, we may have to if we wish to prove the wreck existed, but the process would cost a great deal of money, and even if we were successful, we may not want the publicity that discovery of the wreck would generate. We will have to think more about it. Of course, there might be another storm that uncovers it again, but I think the chances are very slim.’
‘Then what action do we take?’ asked Margaret.
‘I’m not sure,’ replied Jim, ‘but before we decide anything, I wish to tell you
some history. You see, I have been reading quite a few books on the period in
‘Sixteen-forty-nine doesn’t fit very well with four hundred years,’ commented William, who had added the figures in his head.
‘True,’ Jim responded, ‘but remember, the timber would have been cut and matured over a number of years before the ship was built. Moreover, it would be likely that the ship had been built many years before it made the trip. Ships in those days were expected to last at least fifty years.’
Then he went on, ‘My reading has convinced me that it is quite feasible that an English ship could have reached the east coast four hundred years ago. My reading has also convinced me that there were very good reasons why no one made any noise about it.’
‘Will we dig up the ship?’ asked Brendon.
Jim smiled and then went on. ‘Tomorrow I wish to tell you a story. It will take most of the day, but I think you will be enthralled by it. The forecast is for rain, so we would have to be indoors anyway. Tonight, before tomorrow’s story, let me give you the evidence that leads me to think the ship could have arrived four hundred years ago, a hundred and seventy years before Captain Cook.’
* * * * * *
Jim produced a large
map of the world, with
‘We probably should begin with the European explorations of the 1490s. The
continents of North America,
‘In the latter part of the fifteenth century, and throughout the sixteenth, there was an awakening of interest in science and exploration. Linked with this was a challenge to the traditional teaching and structures of the Christian Church. The Reformation, and the Counter Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, brought a reinvigoration of religious life, though this was associated with much turmoil and persecution.
‘Exploration of unknown, or little known, parts of the world was mixed with
religious motives, as well as motives of trade, wealth, and conquest for power.
Especially sought were spices to enrich and preserve food. It should be noted
that the great civilisations of
‘In 1492, Christopher Columbus, sailing on behalf of
‘Bartolomeu Dias, in 1486 and then in 1487, sailing on behalf of
‘In 1493, the Portuguese and Spanish persuaded the Pope to divide the new lands
between them. A line was fixed three hundred miles west of the
‘The next major development was the circumnavigation of the world in 1519-22 by
Ferdinand Magellan, sent out by
‘In the decades of the middle of the century, the Portuguese and Spanish brought
great wealth back to their countries; the Portuguese from India, Arabia, China
and the East Indies, the Spanish from the West Indies and the Pacific coast of
South and Central America. The Straits of Magellan were considered too dangerous
for regular sailing so the Spanish-built ships established ports on the west
‘These galleons attracted pirate attacks particularly from the French and much
of the treasure did not reach
‘In the 1570s a new power intruded and began to break all the rules. This was
‘The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 1558–1603, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest periods in English history. The religious ferment was brought to a state of stability, with the Church of England clearly a separate, reformed, protestant entity, headed by the Queen, though it retained many of the traditions, and much of the liturgy, of the past. The prayer book was the basis of worship. The links with the Pope, broken by Henry VIII, remained broken, though the Spanish king, Phillip II, on behalf of the Pope and for his own aggrandisement, wished to overthrow the “Elizabethan Settlement”. There were still large numbers of “Puritans” within the Church, many Catholics outside it, and many independents outside it, who wished for change, but who preferred stability to continuing unrest and persecution. While religious belief was taken very seriously indeed by most of the population, there was nevertheless an overall acceptance of the “settlement” for the time being.
‘It was the sailors who were to bring renown to
Juliet had long since been put to bed but William and Brendon, who had been going to sleep, suddenly came back to life at the mention of Francis Drake.
William broke in with, ‘Drake was a hero. How could he have been a pirate?’
‘Well, he was both,’ replied Jim, looking for a logical answer. ‘He was a hero
to the English but a pirate to the Spaniards, because he raided their ships and
their towns. It was his part in defeating the Armada in 1588 for which he is
most often remembered, but from our perspective tonight, it was his journey
around the world in 1577-80 which was more important. He set out in 1577 with
several ships to raid the Spanish treasure galleons in the
‘The French also became involved with exploration and colonies in
‘It is worth mentioning that Thomas Cavendish, in 1586-88, followed the general route of Francis Drake, plundering the Spanish, and circumnavigating the world. He showed that Drake’s exploits could be replicated.
‘In 1600, Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to the British East India Company
for exclusive trade in
‘Despite their success, during the reign of James I, the Stuart king who
followed Elizabeth in 1603, the navy was given little support from the crown,
and faced increasing competition from the Dutch. Indeed, the Dutch became
pre-eminent in the
‘All this brings us to the point where we should consider the explorers who
reached parts of the coast of
‘In 1642-44, Abel Tasman, in the service of the Dutch East India Company, sailed
east from Mauritius and keeping further south than previous explorers, reached
the west and southern coasts of Tasmania. He then went on to discover the west
‘The English began trading in
‘Amongst all this activity, the east coast, and our island here at the Bunker, remained undiscovered by Europeans till James Cook’s first voyage in 1770. The gap from Tasman, and even from Dampier, is enormous, and one has to wonder why. Could there be other explorers of whom we know nothing? Could our wreck be evidence of a voyage that did indeed reach the east coast many years before Cook but which, for all sorts of reasons, has not been recorded?
‘Tomorrow, I will tell you of such a voyage.’
* * * * * *
Click on the cart below to purchase this book:
Prices in Australian Dollars CURRENCY
(c)2011 Zeus Publications All rights reserved.