Where is the SS Koombana?
The steamship SS Koombana was a steel-screw steamer of some 4,000 tonnes and was operated by the Adelaide Steamship Company on charter to the WA Government as a State Ship.
The SS Koombana made her inaugural voyage to Port Hedland arriving on 10 April 1909 and serviced the Port Hedland community for three years.
On 20 March 1912 the ship sailed out of Port Hedland on route to Broome, encountered a cyclone and was lost with all 146 passengers and crew aboard. It had been rumoured that she was carrying a bounty of gold and a mysterious black pearl called the ‘Roseate Pearl’ that was thought to be cursed.
No records of gold or the pearl were listed on the ship’s manifest.
Despite several attempts and intensive investigation the wreck of the SS Koombana has never been located. However….
Researcher and book author Hugh Edwards has been researching the history of SS Koombana and has provided Julie Matheson with some further information:
In the early 1900s Australians were appalled to read in their newspapers that three of the newest and most luxurious passenger steamers on their coast had gone to the bottom of the sea. All lost in a period of only three years.
Of a total of 515 passengers and crew aboard them none had survived the fatal accidents.
‘NO SURVIVORS !’ was the grim report.
Lost with all hands were the SS Waratah, July 27 1909; the SS Yongala, March 24, 1911; and the SS Koombana, March 20th 2012.
At the enquiry the owners, the Adelaide Steamship Company, did their best to limit the scope of evidence due to their concerns about possible claims against them. They succeeded in escaping without censure in circumstances which might raise eyebrows today.
However, despite the ‘White-wash’, as described by Walter Barker, editor of the Port Hedland Advocate newspaper, there was controversy outside the Courtroom at the time. There was strong opinion that due to increases in the height of upperworks for first class cabins and facilities, the vessels (Koombana and Yongala) were top heavy. It was said that they were bound sooner or later to have problems in extreme storm conditions.
KOOMBANA: COURT OF INQUIRY CONCLUSION:
‘The Court found that the stability and seaworthiness of the SS Koombana were unassailable and that the competency and carefulness of the master Captain Allen was beyond question. After being lost sight of at sea on the 20th of March, 1912, her fate passes beyond human knowledge and remains a Mystery of the Sea’.
The Roseate Pearl
There are also some interesting associated legends in the case of Koombana, including the story of the far-famed Roseate Pearl.
That is an intriguing issue which has caught the imaginations of historians and novelists in the years since, among them the excellent book Koombana Days by Annie Boyd.
It is said that that the pearl went aboard Koombana at Port Hedland with prominent Broome pearl buyer Abraham de Vahl Davis in March, 1912. He was said to have paid 23,000 pounds for it. A fabulous amount of money for the time.
The most famous South Sea Pearl in Western Australian history became a legend, including the fact that three men were hanged in Fremantle Gaol because of it.
Is the Pearl still in a jar, or some other kind of container, in the Chub Safe deep down in the wreck of the Koombana?
We know that the first skipper to cross the bar, which later caused so many problems, and sail on the Mystery into the anchorage of Port Hedland was Peter Headland. He dropped anchor there in the sheltered water in 1863.
Port Hedland was named after Captain Peter Headland in 1896 although the spelling was incorrect as it was spelt Hedlund.
Note from Hugh Edwards: The MMA pilot said to have seen the outline of a wreck which may be SS Koombana was George Meadows and the date of his supposed sighting was 1973. One of the previous searches organised from Port Hedland under the title SS Koombana Search Group had Ted Graham as one of the leaders.
Enquiries: Hugh Edwards 08 9384 4766 or e: email@example.com