The Colonial Treasurer announced that the Queensland government would buy two gunboats in November 1882, at a cost of £60,000 (around $7.7 million today), to boost its sea-power and protect its vulnerable coastline. Armed with experience, firepower and integrity, the age of Queensland’s powerful maritime defence was about to begin. Or would have begun, if not for a few money troubles.
Built by Mitchell and Co. of Newcastle-on-Tyne in north-east England, the boats were named Gayundah, from the Wakka Wakka (North Burnett region) language meaning ‘lightning’, and Paluma, meaning ‘thunder’ in the Nyawaygi (North-east Queensland) language. In an agreement between the Queensland Government and the Royal Navy, the 36.5-metre-long HQMS Gayundah was the only Australian boat to have the honour of flying the white ensign of the Royal Navy. This was to have unexpected consequences.
The Gayundah sailed from England with Senior Naval Officer of the Queensland Maritime Defence Force Captain Henry Townley Wright at the helm. It arrived in Brisbane on 28 March 1885. Captain Wright took up his post with a salary of around £600 (close to $80,000 today), with an additional £120 ($15,500) for ‘house allowance’. But this didn’t quite meet the captain’s needs. An auditor-general’s report in 1887 found that there had been ‘unauthorised appropriation by Captain Wright of (public) funds by way of personal allowances to himself, and his refusal to repay them when required to do so’. Between 1886 and 1887 the esteemed sailor spent an additional £187 ($24,000) of public money.
The captain explained that his wayward spending was mostly for supplies for the Gayundah as well as food and on-land accommodation for himself and his crew. As he pointed out, according to tradition a naval captain was rightfully entitled to make such purchases as he saw fit, and to charge such costs to the public purse.
In addition to this, there was the difficult little matter of his bankruptcy. On leaving England, he’d agreed that half his pay would be directed to his creditors in London, but the payments were never made. His creditors brought charges against him and he faced instant dismissal from his post – a bankrupt person could not hold a government position. However, the Chief Secretary made an exception, with conditions: Captain Wright was permitted to continue in his post until the end of 1888 but all expenses needed to be approved by the paymaster, Wright had to make arrangements with his creditors and he had to repay the £165 he owed at a rate of £15 per month (approximately $21,000 at $2,000 per month).
In September 1888, Captain Wright sought to leave his post early, requesting three months leave to return to England. The leave was granted, but his request to have his remaining salary paid in a ‘lump sum’ was denied.
With the captain’s departure imminent, Lieutenant Taylor was instructed to take charge of the Gayundah, anchored in the Brisbane River near the Botanic Gardens and Parliament House. But when Taylor went on board, Wright considered the attempt to remove him as captain an act of mutiny and placed Taylor under arrest. In flying the white ensign, Captain Wright believed that the Gayundah was under the authority of the Royal Navy, not the government of Queensland. He loaded the ship with provisions, presumably intending to sail directly to the Royal Navy’s Australian Station in Sydney.
The situation escalated. The Colonial Secretary went aboard and 20 armed constables, led by the Commissioner of Police and the Police Inspector, surrounded the boat. A crowd of 2,000 people quickly gathered along the banks near the Botanic Gardens.
After long debate, Captain Wright realised it was hopeless. He strode down to his cabin, drafted a letter of protest, came back on deck to read the letter aloud to everyone on board, then formally released Lieutenant Taylor. He then took a cigarette from his cigarette case, asked a bystander for a light and disembarked with the Police Commissioner.
The Gayundah sat in the Brisbane River with a new captain and a startled crew. Below deck was 35 tonnes of coal and three months’ worth of supplies, all purchased without approval of the paymaster and more than enough for a trip to Sydney. The white ensign was taken down, replaced with the Queensland blue ensign.
The British prime minister later issued a dispatch confirming the government had acted legally. What became of Captain Henry Townley Wright after he left the colony, no one knows.
The Gayundah had a long service history, even being used to patrol Moreton Bay during the First World War. In 1921, she was sold to a civilian company and used to haul sand and gravel along the Brisbane River. The Gayundah remained in service into the 1950s, when she was eventually scrapped. Her hull was beached in 1958 to serve as a breakwater off the Woody Point cliffs near Redcliffe.