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An Australian Town’s Identity Rests on a Ship That May Not Exist

Between 1836 and 1880, the remains of a shipwreck were visible in the sand dunes near Warrnambool on the Shipwreck Coast of Victoria, Australia. It was one of many, which is how the Shipwreck Coast got its name. This particular wreck was unusually flat-bottomed and was said to have been there so long that it was part of Gunditjmara Aboriginal folklore. Influential writers speculated that it was Portuguese, but it was only after the sands of time had reclaimed the wreckage that the legend of the Mahogany Ship took hold.

In 1977, the Portuguese theory was resurrected—and seemingly confirmed—by a book called The Secret Discovery of Australia, written by lawyer and historian, the late Kenneth McIntyre. McIntyre asserted that the Mahogany Ship was one of a trio of caravels captained by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522 on a covert exploration through Spanish-controlled waters. Ironically, the ships were searching for another bit of maritime lore: Marco Polo’s fabled island of gold, Jave la Grande. According to McIntyre, Mendonça successfully charted the east coast of Jave la Grande before changing course for home after the Mahogany Ship sank in a perilous storm.

McIntyre's theory rested more on speculation than evidence, but the book went to the reading list at Australian schools, and the town of Warrnambool hosts a Portuguese cultural festival in honor of the early explorers who supposedly left the Mahogany Ship behind. The buried wreck has not been found, but continues to draw scientists and treasure hunters to Warrnambool. Read the legend of the Mahogany Ship as we know it at Atlas Obscura.

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