Maria's Diary 35 The Shipwreck
Where'er the foot of man hath trod,
He feels the presence of a God:
Around, above, beneath,-where'er
His thought can reach, a God is there.
I mentioned earlier that Papa and I were shipwrecked, which meant that he lost all his written work, and I lost my diary, as well, of course, as most of our personal possessions and the souvenirs we had of our time in Hong Kong. I will tell the story from several points of view, starting with Papa’s. There is quite a bit of repetition but I find it interesting how various sources found different aspects to feature.
As soon as we got home, Papa wrote his idea of the shipwreck which was printed in the saga, “Once a Week.”
“I left Aden in the Alma and we heard a crash crash crash. The ship was wrecked. The water rushed in through the ports and there were horrible shrieks ‘we are lost, we are lost’ prayers and invocations. The vessel was almost on its beam ends.
“Those around us remained but calmly to die, but at this moment a rope descended and we were dragged one after another through the skylight. We had nothing on but our night garments. We were helped to crawl up the deck and get over bulwarks at the side of the ship. We were lowered into a boat filled with water. We were rowed to a coral reef where we landed barefoot, the coral tearing at our feet like jagged rocks. But we were delighted to see from the eposis of the birds that the water did not ordinarily wash the higher parts of the island.
“Arrangements were made to see what could be saved, to organise, to arm, to bring sails for shade, against the burning sun and spars and sores and liquids.”
I will add my own thoughts before I present the newspaper articles.
I can hardly describe the feeling one gets when awakened in the night, and finding water cascading through the open portholes and very quickly filling out sleeping quarters. We were paralysed with fright, but soon the children were crying and many of the women were screaming, but most were praying. The loose furniture was floating and the levels rose to where we knew we would soon be drowned, when relief came. Our saviours were swimming through the ship to get to us, and as they took us one by one to safety, those with young children went first. I was one of the last out, as I was not as panicked as the others, and knew how to float. But my turn came finally and we were all tied to the railings so that we wouldn’t fall in. Some of the men had taken the life boats down, and before long we were all lowered into one and were being rowed to shore. Although the panic had subsided somewhat, we didn’t know what had happened to our partners and parents. I asked after my father and was told everyone was being got out and not to worry.
It turned out the lascars and other seamen had jumped ship and were now exploring the island for water which they didn’t find. We were rescued by the officers and other men from the ship, who didn’t know how to lower the boats or any of the basics, but they learned very quickly.
There were about 40 of us women and children out of 170 of the paid passengers. When we were unloaded on the beach, we had yet another worry. There was no soft sand to walk in - only coral and sharp shells, and we were told to make our way, barefoot to the centre of the island where there was a little ridge. We all had just our nightclothes on, and the mothers were carrying their children, so we had do painfully walk up through this sharp surface, cutting our feet. Some found doing it on hands and knees was easier as our night gowns provided a little bit of protection from being cut. But before long we had all made it. It was about 6 a.m. but very hot already, and nothing to provide shade.
The boats went back and forth bringing the rest of the passengers and I was very relieved when Papa arrived. The men had the foresight to also bring some sails and some of these were laid as a pathway to protect feet. One was made into a sort of tent like formation, which did provide shade which was especially important for the young children, as the sun would quickly have destroyed their delicate skins.
When the last of the passengers were off and safe, the men started getting out what they could rescue in the way of food and drink. There were some important things like milk and arrowroot biscuits which the children were given. There was even some dried oats, so when the men provided a fire, and a huge pan was also provided, we managed to make some porridge, so by the time all the things that could be got out had come out, we had a hot meal of sorts - with porridge made with the small amount of rescued brackish water, which was hardly drinkable on its own, as some salt water had got into it, but in the porridge, it didn’t seem to make it unpalatable.
There were men assigned to guard the stores, as they were especially worried that the seamen who had abandoned the ship might try to take off with it. There was sufficient beer and wine and some spirits to last some time if it was carefully doled out. In the four days we were there, there was one beer a day for most of the men, and a bottle of wine shared between two women. Some found that mixing the brackish water with rum made it almost palatable.
Several of the men took the boat and went to the nearest island, Mocha, to get water supplies and give the message that we needed rescuing. Supplies of water were brought to us but it wasn’t enough or very pleasant to drink. Our boatmen had gone on to give our message to Aden, but as it turned out, they encountered a boat en route, and managed to get them to come to our rescue. It was the fourth day of our adventure by then and our supplies were nearly gone, and so had the hope of many. I will now list what the newspapers said, as they give the sorts of details that I didn’t know.
The New York TImes - “The ship being at an angle of 45 degrees everyone believed that in a few moments she would flounder. The native crew some 200 Lascars and Seedees ran forward climbed over the bowsprit and leaped upon the reef, and had it not been for the admirable and systematic manner which passengers, stewards and four English quartermasters assisted in getting people toward the port bulwarks and in lowering the boats, it is no doubt that most of the Europeans would have found a water grave.
“Officers were swimming and diving for the most of half an hour dragging half drowned women and children out of their berths through the skylights and through the ports on the upper side of the vessel. How everyone was ultimately saved cannot be explained. An officer was dispatched to Mokka to summon help from the Turkish governor and to contact Aden while the others conducted a frantic and useless search for fresh water.
“On the fourth day the warship Cyclops arrived to rescue them. Although in the end, the only casualty was the ship’s purser who died of sunstroke and 400 or so passengers and crew lost all their baggage and personal possessions.”
WRECK OF THE INDIAN MAIL STEAMER “ALMA” From the “Annual Register”, 12 June 1859 The magnificent steamship of the Peninsular & Oriental Company, the Alma, has been wrecked on a reef in the Red Sea. The Alma was an iron screw steamer of 1,293 tons register, and was commanded by an officer who had made no fewer than 72 voyages in the Red Sea; the first officer had made eleven voyages in the Red Sea. There were four other officers and a crew of 51 Europeans (chiefly engineers, stewards &c) and 171 Manilla men and lascars. There were about 140 passengers, among whom was Sir John Bowring. The India and China mails were also on board, and a cargo worth £200,000. There was also on board an Arab pilot, who it was stated was engaged merely for the satisfaction of the insurers, and the captain and officers never sought and habitually disregarded his advice. The ship arrived at Aden on the 10th of June and left it on the 11th in the morning. At this time Captain Henry was confined to his cot, by an attack of erysipelas, and Mr Davies, the chief officer, was left in charge. At 3 am of the 12th, the ship ran upon a reef, part of the desert islands called Haruish, heeled over immediately, and the starboard and stern ports being under water, she filled rapidly. All the females and many of the male passengers were in bed, and the suddenness of the accident and the position of the vessel, placed them in the greatest jeopardy. Fortunately there was no panic; the male passengers, many of whom were officers returning from India, and were sleeping on deck, displayed their characteristic coolness and courage, and the European crew, when it was found that the ship could not be got off, behaved well. By their exertions the women and children were dragged from their berths and from the cabins now filling with water, and hoisted upon the decks; but very few of them had on more than their night-clothes, and none saved any of their apparel. As soon as the ship had struck, it was found that the reef formed part of an island. To this spot the passengers were conveyed in the boats without the loss of a single life. But their position was distressing in the extreme. The island was uninhabited, sterile, and a waterless waste. Only a small quantity of provisions, some beer and wine, and a very small quantity of water were saved; nor was there any shelter against the terrible power of a Red Sea sun. The same courageous exertions palliated these sufferings. Shelter was formed by sails and other materials, fires were lighted, such clothes as could be got from the wreck were distributed, and by nine o'clock the same morning, six hours after the vessel struck, a hot breakfast was set before the ladies and children. A boat was then manned and dispatched to Mocha for assistance - particularly for water - and the Turkish authorities were unusually prompt in lending aid. The boat then proceeded by sea to Aden, but fortunately when in the narrowest part of the straits, descried the war steamer Cyclops, who took them on board and steamed instantly to the wreck. By this time the provisions and water had begun to run short; the island was surrounded by numerous fishing boats of the savage and piratical Arabs, and the Lascar seamen were showing symptoms of mutiny. In this gloomy state of affairs, the Cyclops suddenly made her appearance, and soon removed the people from the island. During the four days they had been on the reef they had been exposed to much suffering; the male passengers being more exposed and subject to more exertion, were proportionately affected, many were struck by coups-de-soleil, and the purser died from the effects. The mails were saved. The wreck remained some time upon the reef, but ultimately went to pieces. The Board of Trade instituted an enquiry into the wreck. It appeared clear that the first officer had executed his duties with considerable carelessness, failing to consult the chart, and when uncertain as to the correctness of his course, did not slack speed. For these reasons the blame of the misfortune was adjudged to rest on Mr. Davies, whose certificate was suspended for twelve months. The island had, it seems, a considerable elevation above the sea, and was seen by several before the ship struck; but it would seem that there was a slight stratum of haze floating at a slight height, which shut it out from the men on the look-out. It is also said that the old Arab pilot warned the third officer that the ship was on a dangerous course, but that, as usual, no attention was paid to his warning.
TOTAL LOSS OF THE STEAMSHIP ALMA.
The Alma, a magnificent steamship of 2200 tons and 450 horse power, about five years old, and one of the finest ships of the P. and O. Company's fleet, ran ashore on Moosayeerah, a small rocky island, with reef attached, running out to seaward about 400 yards, situated off the N.E. end of Great Harnish Island, and about 47° N.W. by W. from Mocha.
The facts connected with this melancholy case, as related by one of her passengers, were nearly as follows. They left Aden for Suez on the morning of June 11th; during the remainder of that day they had fine weather, with light head winds and sea, and as the weather was warm, many of the gentleman slept on deck, and shortly before the accident took place many of them had been up admiring the beauty of the night. About three o'clock in the morning they were aroused by a strange grinding and shuddering of the ship, accompanied with a few shocks not at all violent, which those on deck immediately discovered to be caused by the ship having run on shore. Almost instantaneously, or within two minutes, the ship heeled over to starboard, and all her ports being open, filled at once, and settled by the stern, until the water became level with the middle of the deck and gradually decreasing forward, as her bows were almost entirely out of water. During this period occurred a scene which may be imagined but cannot well be described. A cry arose to save the ladies and children, when several of the gentlemen, accompanied by the surgeon of the ship, rushed down to the cabins and fished out ladies and children from the debris of broken cabins, chairs, tables, and boxes, and passed them from one to the other out through the ports of the port side, where several gentlemen were in waiting to receive them—the ship being sufficiently inclined to enable them to accomplish this—and thus fortunately succeeded in saving the whole of them.
And here again, as in the loss of the Ava, was displayed by the ladies, that heroism and self abnegation which has so frequently of late, drawn the admiration of the whole civilised world to their conduct in the East—one young lady refusing to leave the ship until she was assured of the safety of her father. Mothers refusing all assistance until they had placed their children in security. The expression was—"Never mind me but save my children."
After some time the port boats were got into the water ; those on the starboard side were saved by the exertions of the second officer. The passengers commenced landing. About this time the main and mizen masts were cut away with only one slight accident. One gentleman, a major in the army, had one of his fingers crushed by a falling shroud. They landed on a small rocky island, of volcanic origin, and as rapidly as things could be procured from the ship they rigged tents out of awnings, studding-sails, &c., to shelter the ladies and children from the sun, which was now becoming intensely powerful.
The next object was to procure as many stores as possible from the wreck. In this they succeeded very well, with the exception of water, which they were unable to get at, as the tanks had either burst or were under water. Most of the gentlemen formed a guard, and divided into watches, and placed sentries over the stores as they were landed; the necessity for this measure being caused by several cases of pilfer.
Towards evening the purser, Mr. Hatchett, died, owing partly to his great anxiety and partly to the intense heat of the sun. This melancholy event cast a deep gloom over the whole of the party.
All the executive officers of the ship being fully engaged on the wreck—and the surgeon's time being wholly engrossed by his unremitting attentions to the sick, and the ladies and children, the passengers invested Mr. Gisborne (a passenger and Engineer to the Red Sea Telegraph Co.) with full charge and regulation of affairs on the Island.
As soon as possible, Mr Baker, the second officer, was despatched from the wreck in one of the boats, (accompanied by Mr. Newall, a passenger,) to proceed to Mocha for the purpose of procuring water, as nothing whatever was to be obtained on the Island—they most providentially fell in with H.M S. Cyclops, Captain Pullen, who, on receiving intelligence, immediately proceeded for the wreck, and to the great joy of all the passengers, took the whole of them on board (about 170), after being on the island three and a half days with little or no water—every passenger being limited to one bottle of beer per diem.
They received the greatest kindness from Captain Pullen and his officers and crew, to whom their most sincere thanks are due. After a favourable passage they arrived at Aden, where they were hospitably received by the. P. and. O. agent and the residents of the place.
The Alma had a most valuable cargo on board, consisting chiefly of silk, which had been transhipped from the China steamer, the Pekin, at Galle. Some of the passengers had large investments on board, part of them uninsured, all of which were totally lost.