Authors: Jonathan Eyers
For Camilla Eyers
Catastrophe at sea during the Age of Sail
Triumph and tragedy aboard the
The loss of a ship, the devastation of a city
From the Spanish Armada to the
The loss of the
and why Churchill covered it up
Tragedy without triumph during the Second World War
The sinking of the
Maritime disasters since the Second World War
In terms of loss of life alone, the sinking of the
doesn't even figure as one of the fifty worst maritime disasters of the last three hundred years. Even putting aside an objective and somewhat cold comparison of death tolls, some of the circumstances in which the other vessels sank â and some of the experiences of those who died on, or survived, them â were horrific almost to the point of being unimaginable. They make disaster movies look sanitised, and that includes even the more accurate versions of the
wasn't hopelessly overcrowded with more than 10,000 people, unlike the
didn't lose all power and wasn't plunged into darkness when she began to sink, making escape almost impossible for those below decks, unlike
wasn't consumed by a swiftly spreading inferno,
. Those fleeing the
weren't shot at, unlike those fleeing the
didn't capsize before she went down, unlike the
. And the
took almost three hours to sink, unlike most of the ships in this book.
It is a popular misconception that the
disaster had a great impact on maritime safety. The first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 1914 was a direct response to the disaster, and there have been several others since, in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974. Since 1929 the emphasis has been on fire prevention, because fire has been responsible for half of all peacetime casualties at sea. In 1974 a completely new convention was drawn up, which made it a requirement for all passenger ships to be subdivided into watertight compartments to ensure they can stay afloat even with the level of hull damage the
suffered. However, as of a few years ago there were still cruise ships in active service that only adhered to the 1948 convention. And most of the disasters in this book have occurred since the first convention.
disaster continues to hold sway over the public imagination, being the archetypal maritime disaster, possibly because it became a symbol of a dying age, the point at which mankind's belief in its invincibility thanks to technology faltered, before finally being extinguished on the battlefields of Europe a couple of years later. Many of the films made about the
use the decks of the ship to represent a microcosm of a society riven by class. Poor European emigrants seeking a better life in America face the same peril as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, John Jacob
Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, some of the richest, most notable men in the Western world at the time.
It is hard to imagine
, the most recent disaster featured in this book, making so few headlines in the West had there been any British aristocrats or rich American industrialists on board. Yet around 2,000 died when
capsized off the coast of Senegal in 2002 and, only a decade later, the disaster is unknown even to those who consider the loss of the
â and 1,500 of its passengers â a great tragedy. The
has been remembered, commemorated and celebrated for over a century now. This book is about the people who sailed on other ships that met with disaster. Some lived, many died, but all have been almost completely forgotten.
Catastrophe at sea during the Age of Sail
Life expectancy for the average sailor in the 18th and 19th centuries was unmercifully short. Whilst someone who worked on land could reasonably expect to make it to at least their late thirties or early forties, a sailor could consider himself lucky if he made it out of his twenties.
It should perhaps not be surprising, then, that at times half of all British sailors serving on Royal Navy ships during the Age of Sail were conscripted by press gangs. Sailors were physically overworked in harsh conditions, spending much of the time wet and cold. They were malnourished, eating poorly preserved food; a diet that
contained little in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables but plenty in the way of weak alcohol, the only alternative to which was dirty water. They lived in crowded conditions and sanitation was poor. Half of all deaths that occurred at sea were due to disease. During the Napoleonic Wars, for example, 100,000 British sailors perished. Only 1,500 died in battle, whilst 60,000 died from disease, the biggest killer being typhus spread by infected lice.
A graveyard of shipwrecks litters the seabeds of the world's oceans.
Disease and sea battles aside, whether on warships or merchant vessels, life at sea during the Age of Sail carried with it at least a one in ten chance of death. Approximately ten per cent of long voyages met with total disaster. A graveyard of shipwrecks litters the seabeds of the world's oceans, the unknown final resting places of the vessels and crews who never reached their intended destinations, having disappeared without trace â or survivors â en route.
Hundreds of thousands died over the centuries, but death at sea was too commonplace, too routine, to warrant memorialising the loss of yet another 200 crewmen. Two particular disasters stand out, however, because both of them led to the deaths of more people than the sinking of the
. One of them â the Scilly Disaster of 1707 â changed the world. The other â the sinking of the
in 1822 â has been forgotten by all but ghoulish collectors, and the treasure hunters who serve them.
On 29th September 1707, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell sent word from his flagship HMS
to the other
20 vessels under his command that they were to leave Gibraltar for Portsmouth. They had spent the summer in the Mediterranean, besieging the French port of Toulon as part of a combined force of British, Dutch and Austrian ships. The War of Spanish Succession was in its sixth year, with another seven to go before the alliance of French and Spanish unionists gave up on their attempts to unify the countries under a single Bourbon monarch, which would have shifted the balance of power in Europe away from those who allied against France and Spain.
Shovell's fleet, which comprised 15 ships of the line, four fireships, a sloop and a yacht, had helped destroy eight French vessels at Toulon, but the British-led campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. The victorious French and Spanish ships had inflicted not inconsiderable damage on the ships of Shovell's fleet, and whilst still seaworthy they needed to return to Britain for repairs. Winter would soon make the passage too dangerous, so putting off departure much longer would risk leaving the fleet cut off. Carrying the spoils of war, including thousands of plundered gold and silver coins, the fleet left Gibraltar and sailed into the Atlantic, and a terrible storm.
Squalls plagued the fleet for the entire journey, and when Shovell's ships passed through the Bay of Biscay, gales pushed the fleet off course. It was 21st October before the night skies were clear enough for Shovell's navigators to make an astronomical observation and estimate the fleet's position. They were not where they thought they were. The next day, as the ships passed to the west of Brittany, a new storm brought even worse weather than before. Again, the fleet was blown off course.
At noon on the 22nd, Shovell summoned the captains and navigators of the other ships to the
. Depth soundings taken by his crew had recorded 90 fathoms (just over 500ft, or 150m), which was completely wrong for where they were supposed to be. The only way of determining the fleet's longitude was to use dead reckoning, calculating the current position by factoring in the direction travelled â and the speed travelled at â since the last position was fixed. Notoriously unreliable even in the best of weather conditions, dead reckoning proved to be fatally inaccurate for Shovell's storm-ridden ships.
All but one of the captains and navigators meeting on board the
agreed â the fleet lay off the coast of France, in the latitude of Ushant. The captain of HMS
was the sole dissenting voice. He believed the fleet was much closer to the Isles of Scilly, about 100 miles distant from Ushant. The Isles of Scilly were surrounded by one of the most extensive graveyards of shipwrecks in the world (to date, more than 900 ships have struck the rocks and sunk there). This made the waters around the 55 islands some of the most infamously dangerous for shipping. The captain of the
believed the fleet would be within sight of them by mid-afternoon.
Notoriously unreliable even in the best of weather conditions, dead reckoning proved to be fatally inaccurate for Shovell's storm-ridden ships.
Shovell ignored him and accepted the prevalent opinion. He sent 17 of the captains back to their ships with orders to be ready to continue at his signal. Three of the ships he ordered to break formation and head for Falmouth instead. One of those ships was the
. Listening to Shovell's
orders rather than his own inclinations, the captain of the
followed a direct north-easterly route toward Cornwall. The three vessels soon found themselves amongst the rocky islets to the southwest of the Isles of Scilly. The
managed to evade them, but another of the ships, the fireship HMS
, struck the rocks. Her captain quickly ordered the ship beached, and running her ashore on the sands between Tresco and St Martin's was the only thing that saved her crew from suffering the same fate as many of those on the rest of Shovell's ships.
The Isles of Scilly were surrounded by one of the most extensive graveyards of shipwrecks in the world.