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The mystery of the Mahogany Ship: did the Portuguese discover Australia?

Grupo de dançarinos em apresentação no Festival Português de Warrnambool de 2018 Source: LF/SBS Portuguese

For more than 28 years the Portuguese speaking communities of Victoria come to the city of Warrnambool to celebrate what they believe to be the discovery of Australia by Portuguese navigators. The Warrnambool Portuguese Cultural Festival is held every two years and celebrates the historical ties between Portugal and Australia, based on the legend of the mysterious Mahogany Ship.

The legend is based on many historical reports that a shipwreck was sighted partially buried in the town’s dunes in 1876, before disappearing in the shifting sands the following year. The mysterious ‘Mahogany Ship’ is thought to be a 16th century Portuguese caravel. The discovery could rewrite Australia's history books if it's proven to be a ship of Portuguese origin.

The Warrnambool Portuguese Cultural Festival showcases Portuguese culture in a vibrant display of traditional music, dance and food.

The Mayor of Warrnambool, Councillor Robert Anderson, said that the Festival is great for the tourism industry and promotion of the ‘most liveable city’ in the state.

“We are very happy to have the Portuguese community here every two years; we want the festival to get bigger and better. We also want to keep the Mahogany Ship buried in the dunes, we don’t want to dig it out and spoil the mystery, this is great for our city,” said Cr Robert Anderson, Mayor of Warrnambool.

Buses from all over Victoria come down to the town on the coast, located 300 kilometres South-West of Melbourne. This year at least 500 visitors and locals attended the event.

The festivities start on Saturday with a dinner party that featured performances of traditional Fado singers accompanied by a Portuguese Band. On Sunday, an outdoor mass, and the official opening proceedings are held at one of the city’s highest points, the Portuguese Memorial on Cannon Hill. The ceremony is held at the foot of the ‘Padrão’ (a large stone cross inscribed with the coat of arms of Portugal).  

The official proceedings end with speeches by dignitaries from Warrnambool and representatives of the Portugal Consulate and Portuguese community organisations in Australia. The ceremony ends with the singing of the Portuguese and Australian national anthems.

For the Honorary Consul General of Portugal in Victoria, Dr Carlos de Lemos (OAM), the national anthem is the highest point of the event. At 91 years of age, the founder and force behind the Festival is proud of his life achievement and said that the 2018 event is his last as Honorary Consul General of Portugal.  

 “We feel a great emotion when we are at the foot of the Padrão – surrounded by the busts of Vasco da Gama and Prince Henry – and the Portuguese flag. The national anthem plays and we look at the sea below and imagine the Portuguese navigators crossing the waters. It is a great emotion; it touches the hearts of all Portuguese people.”

The President of the Portuguese Speaking Communities in Victoria, Alda Pereira Retre, says that the festival brings a real Portuguese flavour to the shores of Warrnambool and is always well received by the entire community.

“The event brings people together, the residents and all the Portuguese speaking communities, it is a great weekend of celebrations, we feel more Portuguese here. We will keep working hard to get the young generations involved and to make this an even bigger event.”

She said the link between the two countries is also supported by a sister city relationship between Warrnambool and the Portuguese city of Lagos.

Dr Carlos de Lemos has a street named after him, the ‘Lemos Court’.

“I thought this usually happens after you die, I am very glad to be here and celebrate this honour!”

Dr Lemos is the only Portuguese in Australia to receive medals of honours from three countries: Portugal, East Timor and the Medal of the Order of Australia, the latter in 2018.  He was also the first Portuguese Language Program broadcaster at SBS Radio.  

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