State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 67 Autumn 2001


The Lost Gold Ship

What Happened to the Madagascar? Did she run into a storm with winds so strong and waves so high that she foundered and sank without trace? Was she crushed by icefloes as she tried to round Cape Horn? Perhaps she was seized by murderous pirates who stole her rich cargo and left her to drift. Or maybe the crew mutinied and, in league with some of the passengers, took the gold and set the ship on fire. No one knows, although speculations of this kind continued long after she sailed from Port Phillip in July 1853, bound for London.
The Madagascar was a full-rigged ship of 835 tons, a Blackwall frigate built in 1837 for the East India run. She was transferred for use in voyages to and from Australia after the discovery of gold, bringing passengers out from England and taking others back, including those few fortunate diggers who returned home as wealthy men. A fast ship, she was entrusted with carrying Victorian gold to the Bank of England. When she left Melbourne on her last voyage, all passages had been taken, and she had over 60,000 ounces of gold dust on board, plus a large consignment of wool.
Captain Fortescue Harris was about to give the order to sail when detectives arrived to question one or two passengers whom they suspected of being involved in the McIvor gold escort robbery, then causing a sensation in the colony. When new goldfields opened up, the excitement of finding the gold was succeeded by concern over safe transport to a place where its value could be realised. This meant travel over roads that were little more than rough tracks through largely uninhabited countryside, providing opportunities for bushrangers and other likely villains to
enrich themselves. As a precaution, both government and private gold escorts were employed to ride alongside each carriage full of treasure.
Gold had been discovered at McIvor (later called Heathcote) in 1852. On 20 July 1853, the gold escort was guarding 2,230 ounces of gold and £700 in cash. Soon after they crossed the Campaspe river on the way to Kyneton, they noticed a log lying across a narrow part of the road near a shelter of boughs heaped together. While they were stopped at this obstacle, deciding how to remove it, three of the escort were wounded by shots coming from behind the shelter. The remaining members returned the fire until they ran out of ammunition, by which time another man was wounded and the shaft-horse had been killed. Those who were left could do little more than ride off to look for assistance. When they returned with the local Gold Commissioners and a number of troopers, they found that the robbers had broken open the boxes and stolen the gold.
An extensive search was quickly organised, with diggers from neighbouring fields anxious to join in finding the ruffians who had succeeded in jeopardising their fortunes. The fear and outrage spread throughout the colony: not only were escorts in other districts at risk, there was resentment at the presence of runaways and exconvicts at large, especially those arriving from Tasmania, to which transportation had recently ceased. As the writer of the Argus leader of 25 July thundered:
It seems as if England, in wickedly deluging us with tens of thousands of the felons whom she is afraid to retain within herself, and therefore cowardly thrusts upon us, had succeeded in establishing a sort of experimental school of crime, in which outrages of all degrees of atrocity seem to be developed; with an originality of conception, and a cruel boldness of execution, which no other British society could ever dream of rivalling.
There had already been a hold-up on the St Kilda and Brighton Road as well as an audacious robbery of a freight of gold worth around £30,000 from the barque Nelson, then moored at Williamstown in readiness to sail. Although three men were arrested, the gold was not recovered. Now the Melbourne Gold Escort Company had been robbed, and the police were determined to find the culprits.
The government offered a reward of £2,000. The escort company, which had already accepted responsibility for the loss, added a further sum of £500, half of which was for the apprehension and conviction of the robbers and half for the recovery of the stolen property. The robbers had worn woollen comforters or long scarves around their heads to prevent identification. They carried off their wounded, but left behind two of their horses and, more importantly, some tin pannikins with their names on them. Five men were arrested, but there was little other evidence and two were discharged. Eventually, three men were convicted of the robbery and executed. Justice was thus achieved, but the gold was not found.
It was in this environment of suspicion and frustration that the detectives boarded the Madagascar, believing it possible, even likely, that one or more of the thieves had either taken passage or arranged the safe dispersal of the proceeds with an accomplice. There was insufficient evidence to prove them guilty and, eventually,
Captain Harris was free to sail, no doubt hoping for a fast voyage home to make up for the delay. Apart from unconfirmed rumours of possible sightings, there was no further news of the ship's whereabouts. In an effort to reassure relatives and friends, the agents, J. B. Were, inserted a notice in the Argus on 4 May 1854, listing the names of the passengers and emphasising that only one had been suspected of involvement in the escort robbery. But by this time it was obvious that the notice was more in the nature of an obituary, since theMadagascarhad been lost.
Both the gold escort robbery and the disappearance of the Madagascar were talking-points long after the event. In time they became a rich source of fiction. For Céleste de Chabrillan, writing in Paris after her return from two years in Victoria, the escort robbery would become the focus of Les voleurs d'or, published in 1857. Celeste had arrived in Melbourne in 1854 as the wife of the French consul, Lionel, comte de Chabrillan. Unfortunately, her memoirs of life as a courtesan had preceded them, making her unwelcome in good society. She was, nonetheless, a keen observer of colonial life and used it as the basis for her melodramatic novel, the ex-convict villain of which was one of the perpetrators of the robbery. This is the way in which she described it:
‘Listen.’ said Max in a low voice, ‘here is the escort travelling towards us with great difficulty. Several million pounds are going to pass in front of us; are we going to let them escape, saluting them from afar like fools who need nothing?’
‘No!’ replied the Cutter, whom the drink had made keener. ‘If the convoy gets stuck in the mud it's a good time to attack. I'm going to climb this tree, and I promise you that I will bring down six before they see me.’

This page:Unknown photographer.Gold Escort, Ballarat c. 1853. Albumen silver photograph. H6225, La Trobe Picture Collection.
Page 3:‘The Madagascar’ (Basil Lubbock, The Blackwell Frigates, 1950 ed., facing p. 105).

Max agreed, making him a sign to keep silent. The convoy was now approaching, escorted by six men on horseback and the driver. In spite of their raincoats, which the wind and the movements of the horses blew open, the men of the escort were soaked by the rain.
‘Devil take this journey!’ growled the driver, seeing a sea of water into which he had to drive his horses, while the riders went off to right and left to try and find a better path among the trees. The vehicle had not yet reached the deepest part of the rut when a shot rang out. Max leapt like a deer which has been struck by an arrow. ‘Too soon!’ he cried in a strangled voice. A man hit in the head fell off his horse.

Céleste at the time of her marriage, c. 1855. François Moser, Vie et Aventures de Céleste Mogador, 1935, p. 145. S 920.7 C34M.

The driver leant out to see what was happening and got a bullet in his chest; he let go of the reins and cried for help. The five horsemen rode up to the vehicle and threw off their coats, preparing to fight. One aimed his rifle in the direction from where he thought he had seen the second shot come; the tree was leafy, he aimed at the middle of the leaves and fired, but the shot went wide. At the same time a shot from the Cutter penetrated his arm.
‘Whip up your horses!’ cried the five horsemen to the driver, ‘We will look after ourselves. Save the gold!’
The coachman did not move. The horses; deep in water, made no effort to get out.
Max and his accomplice remained hidden; the rain and the leaves of the trees provided a shelter for them from which they could see perfectly, while the escort did not dare to leave the
vehicle to chase the criminals whose one idea was to separate them, or lure them into the woods. The assassins kept up such a regular fire that one might have imagined them to be twenty men firing in succession.
Some sort of defence, however, was necessary. Two of the horsemen detached themselves from the group: they were knocked down from their horses immediately.
‘Now’, cried Max, ‘now there are not too many! Come on!’
The Cutter jumped down like a jackal and both of them threw themselves at the horses’ heads; a terrible struggle took place. One of them faced up to the enemy, the other climbed up like a snake and attacked from behind. Horses and men rolled in the mud.
Max got up. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked his companion.
‘Yes,’ said the Cutter, ‘in the shoulder, but it's nothing.’
‘Take your revenge,’ cried Max, ‘finish them off with a knife, they mustn't be able to describe us except in the other world.’
Then, leaning over each wounded man to see if he still gave some sign of life, he stabbed them to the heart, and throwing himself at the head of the team of horses, whip in one hand, reins in the other, in water up to his waist, he beat the horses, who made an effort and easily pulled the coach out of the mud.
Max finds a spot where he can stop to force the safe, taking out ‘the sacks of gold and the nuggets with the joy and calm with which an honest man might have counted his money’. Then he buries the treasure and takes the precaution of murdering his accomplice.
Céleste de Chabrillan, writing from newspaper reports and hearsay about the robbery that had taken place before her arrival in Melbourne, succeeded in producing a lively account of an outrageous event, despite the imaginative liberty that placed the scene on the flooded road from the Ballarat goldfields. But, because of the link between the gold escort robbery and the Madagascar, she was mistaken in concluding that ‘like everything which is much talked about, the episode was forgotten; the escort was doubled and that was the end of it.’1
In March 1867, the first instalment of ‘My Story; or, the Fate of the Madagascar’, was published anonymously in the Australian Monthly Magazine, then owned and edited by its founder, W. H. Williams. The serial continued until August 1867, when the magazine was sold to Clarson, Massina and Company and became the Colonial Monthly. As the new editor, Marcus Clarke allowed My Story to run on until its conclusion in July 1868. Like Les voleurs d'or, it was a tale of emigrant life, centred around an important event in early colonial history. The main characters, who are all from the one English village, arrive in Melbourne on board the Madagascar. Then, after many trials and adventures, some of them decide to return home on the same ship. This gave the author the opportunity of testing his theories on the actual happenings of the voyage through the depiction of events in his heroine's diary, as well as the log of the Madagascar, kept by one of the passengers.
The novel has a complicated plot, including a secret marriage and an unjust conviction for murder. In the section linked to the return voyage of the Madagascar, Edith Bygrave, her friend Frank Delasere (to whom she was betrothed as a child), Mortimer (alias Lionel Delasere, the villain) and Peter (alias Caleb, an escaped convict) have disappeared with the ship, leaving those who had remained in the colony anxious for their safety. Some months later, when Robert Travers and his friend Alice Bygrave (Edith's cousin) are on a picnic to Cape Schanck, a small boy in their party picks up a bottle on the beach. Inside there is a roll of folded papers, the pages of Edith's diary.
Edith is infatuated with Mortimer, to whom she has become engaged, believing that Frank's warnings are prompted by jealousy. She is impressed by the Captain's obvious friendship with Mortimer and reassured about some of the suspicious looking persons on board:
[The Captain] trusts Mortimer in everything, and consults him even more than he does his chief officer. Yesterday, I saw the two (the Captain and M.) going together over the ship's papers and bills of lading. Among other things he confided to M. the secret place in the ship where the larger portion of the gold on board had been stowed away. … It has been whispered around the ship that more than one person concerned in the late escort robbery have taken passages home with us. It is hinted that these have done so in order that the ship might be seized by them, despoiled of her treasure, and scuttled. It troubled me a little at first; but Mortimer soon allayed my fears. … At [his] suggestion, these suspected parties have been appointed as ship's guard, and have been secretly supplied with arms by the captain, so that should there really prove to be traitors in our midst, the moment of attack will not find us altogether unprepared.2
She goes on to describe a small vessel — a brig or schooner — which is hovering in the distance, changing course when a sailor from the Madagascar sends a signal in the form of an accidentally dropped sail. At this stage, Mortimer decides that he and Edith should be married at once, and it is then that she learns his true identity. Before she can discuss this revelation with him, the schooner closes in and shots are fired. Edith is horrorstruck to find, too late, that Mortimer is the ringleader. Because she is his wife, at least in name, she is removed to the schooner, while some of those on the Madagascar are set adrift in an open boat and others are forced to walk the plank. Frank, singled out for special punishment because of his attempts to thwart Mortimer's plans, is tied to the mast and the ship set on fire, awaiting explosion through the gunpowder that has been smuggled on board.
The story is then taken up by Frank who, as voluntary second officer, has kept the ship's log. He is saved by Peter/Caleb, who has a boat tied up in readiness. They are able to pick up Edith who has escaped from Mortimer's grasp by jumping into the water through one of the schooner's portholes. Then Edith describes their arrival at an island where they find sufficient food to enable them to survive, even though it seems that they are stranded without much hope of rescue. One day Edith goes for a walk and finds that Mortimer and his crew have also reached the island, making their camp a few miles away. She overhears Mortimer discussing the gold with Macra, his Negro
servant. Mortimer thinks that he has the treasure safely locked up in a wooden box, but it turns out that the bottom of the box has been removed and the gold stolen by the crew who, pretending to go off for fresh provisions, have deserted their onetime master. Macra has past reasons for his own revenge on Mortimer and, in the end, both perish. Edith, Frank and Peter are saved through the arrival of the Great Britain, which takes them to Melbourne and reunion with families and friends. Romantic attachments are sorted out and Peter, again Caleb, is eventually proved innocent of the murder for which he had been transported. The only loose end is the location of the gold.
The serial had been an entertaining story, with enough of suspense and topicality to keep its readers interested throughout. It could have remained hidden in the pages of the two magazines if, in 1887, its author had not decided it worth publishing in volume form as The Lost Gold Ship; or, the Wreck of the Madagascar.3 Thomas Harrison, then revealed, was a frequent contributor to Victorian periodicals, often anonymously though sometimes using the pseudonym of ‘Robin Goodfellow’. It is not known whether his book sold well, but the note that he included with it was designed to draw more attention to the novel than might otherwise have been the case:
The following story was written for a Melbourne periodical, nearly twenty years ago. At the request of a considerable number of persons, it is now reprinted and launched before the public with all imperfections on its head. Without any intrinsic merits the narrative may possess an interest from another point of view. The late lamented Marcus Clarke informed me that several incidents in the narrative, together with the plot of another story, written by myself, and appearing in the same serial, had suggested to him the idea of the now world-famed novel, ‘His Natural Life’. I trust that the public will not misunderstand me, Mr Clarke was no plagiarist and by no means a literary prig. He simply took an idea from one of his most humble confreres and worked it out in a manner most masterly.
The other story that Harrison mentions was called ‘Was it Murder? Or, Passages in the Life of a Tasmanian Settler’, which began in the Australian Monthly Magazine in December 1866 and ran until February 1867. Both of these stories depict incidents that could have provided Clarke with ongoing ideas, although, as Harrison acknowledges, their treatment in His Natural Life is distinct.
The Madagascar itself has not been forgotten. Recently, an 1838 painting of the ship by English maritime artist John Lynn was offered for sale, accompanied by an amazing story that the art dealer had found in Basil Lubbock's The Blackwall Frigates. As Lubbock tells it:
Years afterwards the following story went the round of the Colonies. A woman in New Zealand, being on her death-bed, sent for a clergyman and said that she had been a nurse on the ill-fated Madagascar. According to her, the crew and several of the passengers mutinied, when the ship was in the South Atlantic. Captain Harris and his officers were all killed; and the rest of the passengers, with the exception of some of the young women, were locked up below. The boats were then lowered, and the gold and young women put into them. Finally the mutineers followed, having set fire to the ship and left their prisoners to burn.
However, they soon paid for their crimes with their own lives, for only one of the boats, containing six men and five women (the narrator among them) succeeded in reaching the coast of Brazil, and even this boat was capsized in the surf and its cargo of stolen gold dust lost overboard.
The sufferings of the crew had been severe enough on the sea, but on land they grew more terrible day by day. At last a small settlement was reached. But this proved a death trap, for yellow fever was raging. In a very short time only two of the mutineers and this woman remained alive. They, after more hardships and privations, at last reached civilisation. Then the two scoundrels, after having dragged the woman with them through every kind of iniquity, eventually deserted her. One of them disappeared entirely, but the other, according to her, was hanged in San Francisco for murder.4
There is no way now of knowing whether what the woman was saying was the truth or whether she was acting out a fantasy provoked by what she had heard in the past about the gold escort robbery and the disappearance of the Madagascar. Without corroboration or any further news, the fate of the ship and its gold remains a mystery, the stuff of fiction rather than ascertainable fact.
Lurline Stuart


Les voleurs d'or, translated as The Gold Robbers by Lucy and Caroline Moorehead, Melbourne: Sun Books, 1970, pp. 103-05. The novel also began serialisation as The Gold Stealers in the Victorian Review in March 1861, probably translated by the editor, James Smith. It ceased with the closure of that periodical in June 1861.


‘My Story’, II.xi, Colonial Monthly, January 1868, p. 362.


I am grateful to Peter Arnold for drawing my attention to this rare book.


Basil Lubbock, The Blackwall Frigates, Glasgow: James Brown & Son, 1922, pp. 152-53.