A ship for the taking
: the wreck of the Brisbane as a case study in site salvage and material culture reuse

  • David Steinberg

    Student thesis: Masters by Research - CDU


    On the 10th of October 1881 the Brisbane, a large, modern and well equipped steamship carrying passengers and cargo struck Fish Reef, approximately 25 nautical miles from Port Darwin, and became permanently stranded. What followed over the next three months was an organised salvage programme in which the ship was salvaged of cargo, equipment and fittings. These goods were sold to Port Darwin locals through a series of auctions. The wreck provided a wide selection of second-hand goods to a small isolated community. Approximately one hundred years later locals return to this wreck to take objects they considered of value.

    This thesis is a case study in material culture salvage and reuse of material from the Brisbane. Local men purchased the wreck in 1881 and presided over an extensive salvage programme in which maritime technical equipment and a range of other equipment, furnishings and fittings were removed, sold and reused. Some items were not salvaged and were left on the wreck site, these being visible today. The decision of salvors to not reuse some machinery and equipment challenges broad assumptions that isolated pioneer settlements, with poor access to goods, without fail practiced full scale salvage and reuse out of necessity. This thesis examines what was taken, why it was selected and how it was used.

    Recent cases of salvage in which objects are valued as historic ornaments are analysed in detail to demonstrate that there is no consensus to either the historic value of this wreck or its objects. Analysing the kinds of qualities attributed to historic ornaments, identifying them for example as antiquities or curios, reflect different ways in which people engage with the past. A comparison of salvage in 1881 to that more recent shows change in how salvage and reuse have functioned as social mechanisms. This thesis emphasises that object transformations may not involve physical modification, and that object meaning is relevant to a specific time and place.
    Date of Award2005
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorClayton Fredericksen (Supervisor)

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