Though she is the national heroine of Australia, these days Grace Bussell is largely unheard of in most of the rest of the world. But in 1876, at just 16 years old, Grace is credited for rescuing the survivors of the sinking SS Georgette. Bound for Adelaide, the Georgette sprung a leak approximately 32km out to sea. The pumps didn't work, and the crew and passengers were unable to bail fast enough. With the boiler room flooded, the Georgette was adrift and sinking.
As the Georgette drifted into Calgardup Bay, Aborigine Sam Isaacs watched from the shore. A stockman for the Bussell family, he quickly rode the 20km to the Bussell property to alert them of the impending disaster. Grace quickly mounted her horse and followed Sam back to the scene of the disaster. Without hesitation, Grace urged her horse into the surf, ignoring the wind and rough seas.
According to the January 31, 1877 edition of the Commercial News, Grace was by all accounts fearless.
The boat swamped, they were all in the water, and in the greatest danger, when, on the top of the steep cliff appeared a young lady on horseback. Those who were present have told me that they did not think that a horse could come down that cliff, but down that dangerous place this young lady rode at speed; there were lives to be saved, and, with the same fearless and chivalrous bravery that urged Grace Darling to peril her life for fellow creations, and gave her a name in all English history thereafter, Grace Bussell rode down that cliff, urged her horse into boiling surf, and out beyond the second line of roaring breakers, till she reached the boat where the women and children were in such peril. Her horse stumbled over the rope and she was nearly lost, but managed to get alongside the boat, and then with as many women and children clinging to her and the horse as possible, she made for the shore and landed them. A man was left on the boat, and he could not get to shore till Miss Bussell sent her black servant on horseback to aid him. So furious was the surf that it took four hours to land 50 people, and every boat engaged was capsized.
Hyperbole aside, Grace Bussell and Sam Isaacs were able to rescue all those still alive (two women and five children drowned when a lifeboat being lowered was hit by a wave and broke in half.). The survivors were taken to the Bussell homestead, where they were purportedly welcomed and sheltered. For her part in the rescue, Grace was awarded the medal of the Royal Humane Society (Sam received a medal as well, a rarity for an Aborigine at the time, and though his was bronze, not silver like Grace's, he was also given a Crown Grant of 100 acres of land). Additionally, she became famous around the world, drawing comparisons to Britain's Grace Darling, and having towns and streets named for her. One young man, Frederick Drake-Brockman, was so impressed by her bravery that he rode the 300km from Perth to meet her. In 1882, Grace married him.
Though less famous today than she was over 130 years ago, Grace Bussell is still an inspiration, reminding us that you don't need to be big or strong or male or even an adult to save lives. With no thought for her own safety, Grace risked her life to save those who would have otherwise drowned. Perhaps this is why she is the national heroine of Australia.
Girl Museum Inc.