Souls lost to the Sea


FREMANTLE, and the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, claim the mantle as the spiritual home of the WA commercial fishing industry. 

It is perhaps timely then, as the Fremantle Harbours Master Plan yet again considers a “re-vitalisation” of the area, that we consider the cultural and historical context of these local seas we call home. 

It was from these nearby shores of the Swan River that the first commercial fishermen Alexander Forbes and John Nye, after arriving onboard the Calista, first fished in 1829. 

They became the first recorded tragedies of the commercial fishing industry the following year, when both lost their lives in two separate misfortunes. 

Many other fishers’ since, have paid the ultimate sacrifice and much of their story remains largely untold. 

They often left a lasting legacy of grief, loss and unanswered questions. 

For most, there has never been a final good-bye, or a known final resting place.

The Swan River, Cockburn Sound and adjacent islands, including Garden and Rottnest Islands, have claimed the lives of many fisherfolk over the last two centuries. 

In 1895, a Greek fishermen named Nicholas Considine, with just a blanket as belongings, met his death when a boom struck him whilst he “made water” off Rottnest Island. 

Other earlier migrants from France (Jean Baptiste Le Taul), Sweden (Marinus Sorenson), Italy (William Canalli – later anglicised to Connelly) and Austria/Croatia (Garbin and Barbich) all met similar fates as it was proven time nd time again that mankind is no match for the mighty forces of the natural elements. 

With the commercial fishing profession often considered one of “last resort”, fishers were largely a melting pot of old-world migrants who bought with them seafaring skills and knowledge from their birth country. 

In 1914, an Italian named Francesco Migliori was shot by a sentry off Rottnest Island as his boat approached within the one mile prohibition zone declared around the island during its internment period – perhaps a case of miscommunication rather than malice. 

It led to a cascading series of events that had untimely consequences for all family members and surviving children, and a lasting legacy that continues until this day. 

In 1933, a baby faced 19-year old Italian named Joseph Basile, fresh off “the boat”, paid the ultimate sacrifice when he gave his oars as flotation to his companion who could not swim. 

Basile’s body was never found. In 1926 a single “freak wave” about 1 mile east of Dyer Island, swamped the San Francisco and engulfed the body of Peter Vinci – his body also never recovered, joined the spirits lying deep upon the ocean bed.

His surviving grandson, also named Peter Vinci, continues to crayfish from Fremantle with his two sons to this day. Many other surviving families remain spiritually attached to the Fremantle fishing industry. 

One of the largest fishing related tragedies to befall upon our community occurred on October 1, 1946 when six Fremantle fishers lost their lives when their vessel, the Mary, was swamped whilst being towed through the breakers off Cervantes Island. 

Collectively, they left behind 15 children without fathers. 

The lone survivor, a shipwright named Leonard James Back, was the only person not wearing heavy sea overalls that fateful day. 

His great-grandfather – the somewhat notorious Captain Edward Back, was Rottnest Island’s first resident marine pilot in 1848. 

After the loss of the Mary, the inaugural Fremantle Blessing of the Fleet was introduced, perhaps as a way of not only honouring these lost souls, but also in seeking protection from Powers we all fail to completely comprehend. 

But the tragedies continued, and they continue to this day. 

A small group of passionate volunteers is now forming the WA Fishers’ Lost at Sea Memorial Association and is collecting, researching and documenting every last tragedy. 

If you can help in any way, we would like to hear from you. Contact: or phone: 0472 786 492 (James).


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