Rapid 1836

Monday 22nd August 1836

'Rapid' was arguably the pre-eminent ship of the colonising fleet to arrive in South Australia in 1836.  Commanded by Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light, 'Rapid' completed the voyage from London to Kangaroo Island (KI) in just 114 days, dropping anchor in Nepean Bay near the South Australian Company’s camp at 2pm on Monday 22 August, 1836.

Built in 1826, the South Australian Colonization Commissioners bought 'Rapid' in 1836 and refit it as one of two survey vessels to be sent to South Australia.  

It is understood  29 people joined Light on this voyage, including Dr John Woodforde, the colony’s first doctor. Woodforde’s diary, published many years later, details several of his hunting and exploration trips  on KI.  

Six days after the 'Rapid’s' arrival at Nepean Bay, Dr Woodforde “again went on shore … for the purpose of shooting on a salt lagoon about eight miles along the shore and a more unpleasant and fatiguing walk I never remember. The heat was excessive and our pocket pistols were soon exhausted … Kangaroo Island even at this season swarms with mosquitoes and today they have bitten me most unmercifully, giving me rather an unpleasant idea of the pleasures of the summer season."

With the average August temperature in Kingscote  around 16°C, one wonders how Dr Woodforde survived his first summer in Adelaide!

As Surveyor-General, Col Light was under instructions from the Commissioners to  examine the Gulf St Vincent coastline, paying special attention to Nepean Bay, Port Lincoln and the coastline from Encounter Bay to the head of the Gulf.  Light was also to make a careful examination of the ‘fine harbour’ reported by Captain John Jones in 1834 and select a site for the new capital.

Given the time allotted, these orders were virtually impossible to fulfil.  At least the 'Rapid' was fit for purpose, and from early September until the end of December 1836 she carried Light and his survey teams on numerous trips between Nepean Bay, Rapid Bay, Port Lincoln, Holdfast Bay and the Port River. Light found the entrance to the Port River on 20 November, but had to leave exploration of that area until he had examined Port Lincoln.  Rapid and the survey team returned to the Port River on 18 December and from there Light continued his work on shore, walking across the plains to the camp on the Torrens River, the site Light had chosen for Adelaide.

'Rapid' worked in and around Gulf St Vincent until 19 February 1837, when she was dispatched to Sydney to collect a load of horses for the new colony.  Having returned from that voyage, on 5 June Rapid departed Adelaide bound for England.  On board was George Strickland Kingston, Deputy Surveyor, who was to approach the Commissioners and request more staff to help complete the survey work.  This voyage is notable as it took South Australia’s first export cargo to the UK – 150 tons of sperm oil on behalf of the SA Company.

On 20 June 1838 'Rapid' returned from her voyage to England and was present at the first Port Adelaide regatta in September.  In December, Governor Gawler decided that 'Rapid' should be replaced with a more economical vessel and so put the ship up for auction.  No purchasers came forward, so 'Rapid' was chartered to J B Hack, a prominent South Australian farmer, merchant & accountant.

In March 1839 'Rapid' left Adelaide bound for Launceston, returning with supplies for the South Australian whaling stations.  In July that year she rode out a gale at Encounter Bay, leaving a few weeks later for the West Coast under charter to the Secondary Towns Association, a private group formed to purchase surveys of land in rural districts.

In October 1839 'Rapid' was finally sold by the Government to a private partnership that included the SA Company.  Her first voyage under the new owners was to Launceston, where she loaded sheep before returning to SA.  'Rapid' was then used to trade mainly between Launceston and Sydney.

In September 1840 'Rapid' was back at Port Adelaide and in October joined in the celebrations for the opening of the New Port.

On 24 December 1840 'Rapid' departed Sydney with a load of cargo bound for China.  Forced to head inshore in search of fresh water, 'Rapid' ran aground and was wrecked on a coral island near Rotuma (Fiji Islands) on 14 January 1841.  

The crew was rescued by a passing whaler, but the cargo and valuables were lost to the island’s traditional owners.



Cummings, D – Bound for South Australia - https://bound-for-south-australia.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au Elder, D.(ed) - William Light’s Brief Journal & Australian Diaries, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1984, p 72Heinrich, Dorothy M. - The Man Who Hunted Whales, Awoonga, Australia, 2011Price, A. G. – The Foundation & settlement of South Australia, Hassell Press, 1924

This article was submitted by Athea Taylor to the Pioneers Association of South Australia Facebook page, 22 Aug 2022 

See also https://sites.google.com/view/first8ships/rapid