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Marianne Egan and her children, Gertrude Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia - Joy of Museums - Marianne Egan and her children

Marianne Egan and her children, Gertrude Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac

Marianne Egan and her children, Gertrude Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac were 38, 18 and 20 years old when they died in one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters.

Marianne (1818–1857) was born in Sydney, the daughter of ex-convicts. Her mother, Jane, was transported for theft in 1814. Her father, Richard, was a convict transported to New South Wales aboard the ship, which struck an iceberg in the Southern Ocean while on route to Sydney in 1789. Richard was among the convicts who assisted in keeping the ship afloat until it could reach Sydney in 1790. Richard was rewarded with land and a pardon for his role in ensuring the ship’s safe arrival.

Marianne was sixteen when she married Henry St John Cahuac, an ex-convict’s son in 1834 with whom she had two children, Henry William (1837–1857) and Gertrude (1839–1857). Following Cahuac’s death in a horse riding accident in 1841, Mary Anne remarried in 1843, her second husband, Daniel Egan (1803–1870) who was a shipowner, merchant and public servant.

Supported by a wealthy husband, Maryanne, Henry and Gertrude visited England and for their return voyage home they aboard the Dunbar, which departed Plymouth in 1857. The Dunbar was a full-rigged ship which had been launched in 1853 and entered the passenger and cargo trade between London and Sydney. She was one of a number of large sailing ships that began trading to Australia as a result of the Australian gold rushes.

On the night of 20 August 1857, the ship approached the entrance to Sydney Harbour from the south, but heavy rain and strong gales made navigating difficult. The ship’s captain, either erroneously believing he had already passed the harbour’s southern headland or mistaking a smaller break in the coastline known as The Gap for the port’s entrance, drove the ship onto rocks. The ship was shattered into a thousand pieces and every one of the 121 passengers and crew perished, with the exception of one sailor.

Dunbar wrecksite

The site of the Dunbar wreck site

The wreck of the Dunbar is still considered one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters. The remains of the bodies of twenty-two victims were recovered and interred in a single large tomb in Camperdown Cemetery in Newtown. Several other victims have individual monuments. Its anniversary is marked each year with a service at St Stephen’s Church in Newtown, where many Dunbar victims are buried.

While images exist of the sole survivor, this is the only known portrait of victims of the Dunbar tragedy. The family had sat for the portrait in England but it was unfinished at the time the Dunbar sailed. The painting followed on another vessel, arriving safely a few months after the deaths of its subjects.

Among the many historical portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, the following are highlights:

Marianne Egan and her children Gertrude Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac

  • Title:               Marianne Egan and her children Gertrude Evans Cahuac and Henry William Cahuac
  • Artist:              Unknown Artist
  • Year:                1857
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   82.0 x 91.5 x 8.5 cm
  • Museum:         National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia

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” Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.”
– Australian Proverb

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Photo Credits: 1) GM