|The Mid-Victorian Royal Navy William Loney R.N. Fun||Search this site|
The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871
|► The Royal Navy ► The loss of HMS Megaera|
This is my transcription the "General remarks" section of the Medical Journal of "Her Majesty's late store ship Megaera" on the "Home and passage to Australia station, and encamped on St. Paul's Island, S. Indian Ocean", completed by Surgeon William Hogarth Adam; the original (ADM 101/266) can be found in the National Archives in Kew.
(See also the extensive reports from the Times newspaper, the accounts and illustrations in the Illustrated London News, this eyewitness account by an anonymous officer, published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and the Report of the Royal Commission appointed to investigate the case.)
On 7 Feby 1871 Her Majesty's store ship "Megaera" was commissioned at Sheerness for the purpose of conveying to Australia new officers and crew to H.M.S. Blanche and Rosario, as well as supernumeraries to the vessels on that station. She was but ill adapted for this purpose. The accommodation not being sufficient for officers or men, and to add to the discomfort, she was deeply laden with stores, lime, tallow &c. &c. which not only took up room that might have been utilised for the men, but impeded ventilation, and brought the vessel down very deeply in the water. On Feby 22nd the vessel sailed from Sheerness for Plymouth in fine weather and with a smooth sea and arrived on the 24th. Here additional stores &c. were received, and the following afternoon in a most crowded, unprepared state, was ordered to sea with a strong and gradually increasing breeze. This rose next day to a gale which, with the heavy sea on the skirts of the Bay of Biscay most severely tested the ship in her too deeply laden condition. She seemed to settle in the trough of the sea in a most peculiar manner, she laboured heavily - there was a marked want of buoyancy; and as each sea struck her, she was filled with a large amount of water above and below; the ports, from not being sufficiently tight, allowed free ingress to the water and on the third day of her sailing from Plymouth her lower deck was three feet deep in water; the men wet through; their clothes in the bags (in their messes) saturated; their bedding soaked, and injuries occurring to the hull, rigging &c. she was put about for Queenstown and arrived there on 28th Feby; before reaching this port, however, the appearance of the lower deck was wretched in the extreme. She was but ill ventilated at any time, but now her hatchways being closed, the suffocating, stifling atmosphere of this deck containing upwards of 300 hammocks slung in all directions (and in some places two or three deep under one another), was truly unendurable. The sick bay contained two old rusty standing beds; outside of this was the petty officers round-house, from which urine flowed freely into the bay, and the stench from which was unsupportable to those in their beds. Under these circumstances, taking into consideration this was the state of things in winter in England, I became apprehensive of the consequences of such a condition in a tropical climate, and having represented it to the Commanding Officer, he requested a statement of the same, which was forwarded to the Admiralty; the same views as myself being taken by the Surgeon of H.M.S. Rosario, and the Assistant Surgeon of the ship.
An inspection took place by the Commander in Chief at Queenstown, when I took occasion to point out the ill ventilated condition of the ship and state of the sick bay; the result was that an immense amount of cargo was trans-shipped to Haulbowline - upwards of 100 tons. Fresh ventilators were made in the sick bay, the leaks stopped, the ports caulked, and by the removal of so much cargo an extra fore cockpit was gained, and allowed of the removal from the lower deck to it of about 50 hammocks, thus giving better sleeping accommodation and allowing of freer and fresher currents of air to pass along it.
Still there was a feeling that she was not altogether a good sea boat and that she was defective and led to remonstrances from the petty officers and men as to her fitness for so long a voyage, and indeed these sentiments were equally shared by officers as well.
However on March 14th the vessel received her sailing orders and left the same day for Australia, having on board 33 officers and 321 men. The weather favoured her and she reached Madeira on March 21st; and left on the 26th. St Vincent was reached on Ap. 2nd; here she coaled and sailed on the 4th. Reaching Ascension on 19th April and leaving 23rd for Simons Bay; here the vessel anchored on May 19th and sailed on 28th for Australia, but little of note occurred on this route. The physical condition of the crew embarked was not good; a large number were of broken down systems, and many embarked from Sheerness, and Marines from Chatham, were suffering from gonorrhoea &c., but it was chiefly amongst men entered at the eastern ports that the deficiency of stamina &c. was notable, and especially amongst the stokers. The result of this was that a very large number were sent to hospital before leaving England and at the Cape; and three were invalided at St. Vincent, all men of recent entry into the service, one was named Murray, he was a strong man and entered at Queenstown as a musician but suffered so severely from pleuro-pneumonia that he recovered and remained a perfect wreck of a man (this was contracted subsequently to his entry into the service); the other men, a sailmaker and a stoker, had contracted their ailments prior to entry into the service, they were invalided at St. Vincent. From this time the health of the men continued very good. Some cases of intermittent fever appeared, contracted at Ascension through coaling there; and one was sent very weakened to Simons Bay hospital. A case of organic stricture, of 2ry syphilis, of bronchocele [localized dilatation of a bronchus] (recent entry) and a case of phthisis [tuberculosis] were left for hospital treatment. Leave was granted to the men. The vessel provisioned and coaled, and on May 28th after a stay of ten days she sailed for Australia passing over the Agulhas Bank in fair weather and with light breezes from the westward, accompanied by a heavy swell, then calms supervened. Steam was got up and eventually we ran into the strong trade westerlies; the vessel sailing well and all going on smoothly, the crew in good health and but a small number in the sick list.
In the night of June 8th during a strong breeze, the vessel going about ten knots with studding-sails set and heavy sea following, the man on the starboard lookout heard a splash from the bows and imagined a swab had fallen overboard. About ten minutes subsequently he reported the matter. The hands were mustered and a Marine named Henry Richardson, aet [age] 24 was found to be missing. He was observed coming from the head a few minutes previously and was never after seen. He had been in good health and spirits, had passed the evening in his mess singing and playing a tambourine, and the place where he was supposed to have fallen through, would have been very difficult for one to clear (even had they tried to get into the water) surrounded and enclosed as it was by high railings, blocks, anchor and a labyrinth of ropes outside. This is all that was known of this mysterious occurrence.
That same night rumours spread through the vessel that more water was entering the ship than usual, and in the early morning watch the Chief Engineer reported to the Captain that a leak had broken out in the engine room near the stokehold, and pumps were manned to keep it under. But little was thought of it for two or three days (the vessel now was mid way in the Indian Ocean between the Cape and St Paul's Island). The ship kept on her course; on the 4th day, however, the water gained on the hand pumps and matters began to look serious; the fires were lighted - the steam pumps set going. The weather now changed; a heavy gale and tremendous sea arose. The water, notwithstanding the use of steam pumps, slowly increased and as it was hourly gaining, the vessel was put with her head for St. Paul's, then distant 1500 miles, a tremendous sea running and strong gale blowing; two of the pumps broke down. All hands were now employed at the manual pumps and baling the water out from below. Most providentially the gale was fair and under all sail the engines going full speed St. Paul's Island was hoped to be reached. It was a time of grave anxiety, and hopes were earnestly entertained that the small rock might not be run past in the thick stormy weather for it could never have been reached, once passed in such stormy weather. At daybreak on the 18th June it was discovered on the port bow, and at 8 a.m. that day the vessel anchored on a bar at the mouth of a gigantic crater more than a mile in diameter. The anchorage was totally unsheltered and exposed to all the violence of every storm. From the ship nothing was visible of animal or vegetable life. The vessel seemed over capped by a hugh rock of lava. A boat was sent ashore and two Frenchmen were found, one of whom had been entombed as it were on this lone spot for several years. They lived in a small hut six feet high and about six feet square and had no clothing save a wretched piece of flannel for trousers and shirt; they were not certain if water existed at the top of the rock. There was no vegetables or wood on the island. These men depended for their water supply on what they caught in winter from the roof of two old stores in some large barrels. They subsisted on rice and fish and occasionally a fowl, six or eight of which they reared. They had a small piece of ground that had once contained potatoes and in which a dozen or so large rank wild cabbages: a leaf of two of which was occasionally mixed with their rice. A whaler or two would put in once a year and they depended for sustenance on a small vessel yearly coming from Bourbon.
Matters looked serious. The want of water, the small space available for camping the men (the island being formed by the sides of a steep volcano) and our small supply of bread, there being only enough on board to have taken us to the destination of the Ship - Australia.
The diver was sent down and reported two holes worn through an iron plate in the keel and that other plates looked worn, and the Chief Engineers of the "Megaera" and Blanche reported that the girders were parting from the sides of the vessel. This additional fact as the vessel was still leaking left no course open but to ground the vessel and this conclusion was come to after the most anxious deliberation, doubly so as the charts and directions stated neither wood nor water existed on the island. On the morning of the 19th June whilst provisions were being hoisted up on deck, the wind blowing a gale, both anchors parted - another was let go and shared the same fate. The vessel was now unmanageable, could not steam against the wind, and was rapidly approaching the foot of a perpendicular cliff 1000 feet high rising abruptly from the water without footing of any kind and with a fearful surf dashing against the base. Destruction seemed imminent as she approached with the flying jibboom almost touching the wall sided cliff of black lava. Providentially by a last effort the engines moved astern and succeeded in barely mastering the wind, however sufficiently so, to get some head sail on and turn her round. We now stood out to sea and the only spot where a vessel could lie on the shore was selected. It was only a few yards across and the order for full speed ahead having been given amidst a deathlike silence H.M.S. Megaera was run ashore with three heavy crashes, the plates being so thin and weak yielded at once, the vessel remained upright with her spars &c. all standing. Boats were now lowered and the sick first landed - then the medicine chests &c. &c. and then the necessaries &c. &c. A heavy swell was running over the bar and it was raining hard. The thermometer being about 44°. A small wretched hut was secured for the sick, used at times by whalers, in which was some dried fish, wild goat [?; uncertain] skins &c. &c. Still it was shelter and gladly secured for the use of the invalids. Provisions continued to be hoisted up all night and day for some time afterwards.
Stores, hammocks &c. were rapidly sent on shore as the vessel was lying in a heavy swell and at any moment rollers might set in. On the next morning at daylight several expeditions were started over the island to its summit and in almost inaccessible places to search for water and great indeed was the gloom on the return of most to hear not a trace could be found (as at the quickest a condenser could not be made with the materials landed for some days), then the coal was not abundant and its efficiency had to be tried.
On the evening of the next day a happy report spread through the gloomy crater that a small pond (formed by dripping of the grass into it) had been discovered that contained water - it was on the summit of the crater and was about 12 feet long, by six broad, and if emptied at night would be half full in damp weather by morning. Every one was put on allowance, and water only allowed for tea and breakfast; those requiring it for a drink received a small allowance from a sentry over a cask.
Fortunately notwithstanding the heavy swell, the latter did not set in, and stores and provisions were landed. Tents formed by spars and sails were erected as soon as possible, and the space available for this purpose was a small piece of tolerably level ground formed by rank course grass and boulders at the foot of the crater and on the edge of a basin formed by the sea. Overhead on each side was a perpendicular rock forming an amphitheatre 2 miles in circumference and one in diameter - barren (same overhead where the encampment was) and this consisted only of coarse tussock grass.
The total space for the encampment was only about 100 square yards. The weather was very cold and moist and damp, and great privation was endured by the men on this account and also for want of shoes as the mud was over the ankles in all directions near the huts.
The rations were reduced to one half allowance on first landing and in a few days only four ounces of biscuit (equivalent to a whole one) could be spared. Lemon juice was very short so I determined to issue a quarter of an ounce every other day to make it run out as long as possible; the want of bread was severely felt by officers and men as the first month drew to a close. Many in their hunger devouring their scanty allowance for breakfast and having no more bread to eat with their fat salt provisions till the following day.
The men now were busily employed half erecting tents - half hoisting out and saving provisions from the wreck - whilst engineers and stokers were at work night and day erecting a condenser. As the ground for forming an encampment was of so small an extent (100 sq yards) for 350 men, it was very important to see that a good hygienic condition was maintained and a code of regulations for this purpose was drawn out for the benefit of the crew who were severely punished for non-adherence to them. They were enjoined to make circular surface drains round their tents, to open the tent on rising in the morning by means of raising the ground flaps, opening the door openings, and a small portion of the canvas at the back of the tent to allow a through current of air to pass along; those that could were to sling their hammocks off the ground to the masts and supports of the tent. All tents were ordered (as far as it possibly be obtained from the wreck) to plank the tents and over this to lay a thick covering of the coarse grass that grew about. Latrines and urinals were made on the beach to leeward of the encampment, and severe punishment inflicted on any one using any other place; during mess hours buckets were stationed in the tents into which bones, fish scraps &c. &c. were placed (to prevent them being thrown in the grass or between the boards and decomposing). These were afterwards carried out to large hogsheads outside and a Corps of scavengers organised whose duty was to empty these morning and evening into the sea. The men suffering from diarrhoea were ordered to go at once to the hospital.
As it was constantly hailing and raining, double canvas was put over the tents for the purpose of dryness and warmth. The tents were cleaned and inspected at 9 a.m. daily by myself and the Assistant Surgeon and occasionally at night, and twice a week the grass removed, the planking of every tent taken out and cleaned, the earth beneath scraped, dried, fresh lime put down, then the planking, then either fresh grass (if dry) or the old well shaken (if the fresh grass was damp). A strong solution of dilute carbolic acid sprinkled freely all over the canvas inside of the tent. And any men caught throwing fish bones &c. &c. outside their tents were at once punished. As it was cold and wet, the thermometer at 44° the men were kept as dry as possible. Still it was somewhat hard to get them to maintain ventilation, especially in the larger tents where from 35 to 40 men were living. By all these means strictly adhered to and by constant inspections at varied hours, the various fevers incidental to camp life were avoided, as well as dysentery (tho' provisions were scant, the weather cold and wet and the men depressed) and even catarrhs and rheumatic attacks completely avoided; this is more singular as the men had but little clothes beyond their serge dresses and for weeks the rain was incessant. With thick mists, the thermometer at from 44°-48°, the ground a mass of mud, the grass dripping with water, the bedding, coats &c. of every one saturated with damp, from the small allowance of bread &c. began to tell and was marked after the 10th day. The spirits of the men began to fall; they were now kept employed in building houses, making roads &c. - fishing parties sent away tho' this could only be done occasionally in consequence of the tremendous rollers on the bar. At the end of the first month the men generally had a wan yellow-puffy look and moved slowly and languidly. Their working hours were now greatly shortened to save them from fatigue.
The only available place for an hospital I secured, and a truly miserable place it was - the ruins of a boiling house for sealers. There were no doors or windows and though the rotten roof the rain poured in streams. However, some sashes were obtained from the ship, and a cabin door, and a new sail was put over the roof, to make it water-tight. These answered their purposes well. Attention was now turned to the inside. The walls (of mud &c.) were whitewashed, a wooden flooring put down. A mess table and stools placed n the centre, a fire kept burning (of wood) and in time the place assumed an altered aspect. Most fortunately the medicine chest was safely secured though not without difficulty, hoisting it out in a heavy swell, landing in among the rocks and carrying it up to the hospital over large boulders of lava &c. &c. This was all accomplished with but little breakage and with no loss of medicines. Notwithstanding fishing parties &c. &c. depression was visible as week after week flew by without hope of communicating with a vessel and the gloomy state of the climate. The wretched position of the huts with the black sides of the crater around all tended to conduce to ennui. Still no murmuring occurred; all duties were performed willingly and the health of the men, to the surprise of the officers, remained good. One of the most harassing and dangerous duties was breaking up the wreck for firewood and this duty had to be daily performed for twelve weeks, excepting when the rollers hid the vessel from view. It was dangerous as there was always a heavy surf on the bar that would break into the boats going and coming from the wreck, and then the difficulty of getting in and out of these boats in a fearful swell into the ship ports was very great indeed, many men having narrow escapes from smashing their legs by the boat rising and falling so rapidly. All these expeditions were accompanied in turns by a medical officer and this duty was felt by us to be especially hazarding by itself. In addition to the want of more food; the constant wettings the whole day either from rain or rollers, for so many weeks together.
A party of men for signals and for bringing water (to a small wooden vessel to which a hose was attached) lived on the summit of the crater about 1000 feet above the encampment. One of these, a Marine, lost his way on a dark night and had a miraculous escape from death; he fell down the crater 400 feet and was only saved from falling an equal distance into the sea by a tuft of grass. Occasionally a sail could be seen flitting past on the horizon, but too far away to be communicated with, and a depressing reaction would be visible on her disappearance. The men began to grow more debilitated, and breathlessness from slight exertion was complained of. Cases of debility and even syncope [brief loss of consciousness] from exhaustion began to set in. Fish was abundant but the continued use of it seemed to cause nausea, and the want of bread was greatly felt. At this time during the lifting of a thick fog a larger merchant vessel was seen close to the island. Guns were fired. Signals made and great was the joy through the camps to witness from the elevation that she had closed and was bearing down to our life boat. A Lieutenant with dispatches was placed on board and she was ordered to remain for the night but the strong winds that prevail carried her to leeward of the isle and she could not bear up again but stood on her course for Batavia. The knowledge that our condition would soon be known cheered all hands and shortly after obtaining 8 barrels of flour from another vessel the men had an extra issue and the benefit was soon seen in the improved looks of the men.
As the lime juice was very short and would soon run out I conceived that some vegetable matter added to their food would be beneficial and after much searching about the sides and summit of the crater the common plantain plant was found and a species of wild dandelion. Of these specimens were placed in each tent and the men enjoined to use them at dinner. They did so boiling the plantain leaf and using the leaf of the dandelion boiled and raw. They not only liked this addition to their food but admitted that they experienced great benefit from it, and in their spare time they might be met with scaling the crater and dispersed through various parts in search of these plants. In a few days the yellow puffy aspect disappeared and the men's countenances assumed their usual appearance, and the lips from having a dusty hue became ruddy.
The island is barren and volcanic, a giant gloomy crater forming a hugh amphitheatre arises from mid-ocean. At its base a large lake formed by the sea, the entrance to which is only 40 yards across at high and about 10 at low water, the remaining connection with the crater rock being formed by a reef of large boulders of lava forming the beach as it were. This amphitheatre is precipitous, rises to 900 feet from the salt lake at its bottom which it overhangs destitute of vegetation, and black and arid looking it was in the gloom of this place that the encampment was fixed near, however the only spot on the island that bore some rank sparce tussock grass. Animal life is almost - or indeed quite as scarce as vegetable, even the wild sea bird does not make this island its haunt. A few wretched thin wild goats were seen and some three or four shot for the men. A few wild cats exist, and these with a few rats in the abandoned stores are all of animal life on the island. Towards the close of our stay vast numbers of penguins arrived for the purpose of hatching and immediately commenced to ascend the rocks about 500 feet high by a series of jumps. They remain from August to November in the holes in the ground and then with their young proceed to sea; at this time also a large number of whale birds also arrived and formed their breeding places between detached rocks in the hot earth.
Various parts of the island showed the existence of actual volcanic action. Clouds of steam issuing forth in many parts the temperature of the ground being from 150° to 198° Fahite. Sulphurous hot strings are also found and the hand cannot be thrust between the grass and moss in many places on account of the intense heat. Fish are most abundant all the year round but especially in Augt, September, October, Novr and Decr the species are the rock cod, snook, mackerel, bream [?; these all uncertain]. Cod and numerous small varieties of sardines are found inside the crater. The large ones are abundant about half a mile from the narrow entrance to the crater. I do not believe that water can be found on the island during the summer months. Were the entrance to the crater on the bar deepened so as to allow vessels to enter the lake (one mile in diameter) and a depot made of this island its importance for relieving or repairing vessels bound to India, China and Australia cannot be estimated. The ground on one side near the huts is capable of being tilled and would provide carrots, potatoes, cabbages &c. &c. &c. Condensers could be erected for to supply water and small factories might be erected for the repair of machines &c. &c. &c.
On the 30th of August at daylight the P and O steamer Malacca was observed rounding the island coming to our relief. She with difficulty could anchor in consequence of the heavy sea. (H.M.S. Rinaldo had arrived two days previously from Singapore.) At 10 a.m. H.M.S. Rinaldo parted from her anchors and being blown under a cliff was all but lost (her Commander gave thanks for deliverance from destruction). At 12 a.m. the P and O steamer also parted from both her anchors and the sea was seen to make clean breaches over her. Both ships now stood out to sea, the men on shore being busily engaged in preparing for their embarkation on the return of the P and O steamer Malacca.
On Thursday 31st the Malacca returned; on the same day the sick &c were first sent off to her, a matter of considerable difficulty. On Saturday Sept 1st as rapidly as possible the men and officers were sent on board with their personal effects. The stores - cargo &c. being left till next day, a few officers and men remaining on shore. At 9 a.m. on the next day the Malacca was again blown out to sea in fearful weather. Our men received several contusions. Casks of mess wine were smashed to pieces and at one time it was doubted if the Malacca would again fetch the island, she being so much to leeward of it. On Monday being a most powerful steamer she returned and the Captain of her requested the immediate embarkation of the remaining officers and men, as he did not consider his vessel safe for an hour in so dangerous an anchorage. H.M.S. Megaera which we had left upright with her masts and standing when blown to sea, was nowhere visible on our return. She was shattered to atoms, her hugh boilers, machinery &c. all being blown into the narrow entrance of the crater!
Unfortunately: - from the account of those left behind when the steamer went to sea, the same night a fearful gale set in. The surf was awful to behold breaking over the mast heads and runing from the stern to the funnel of the ship and hiding her at times from view though only 30 yards from the shore. The reverberation of the thunder through the crater - the lightening - the fearful deafening noise of the rollers as they appeared to engulf the island; the ??? of the wind &c. &c. and both officers and men ??? was indescribable, and at its height H.M.S. Megaera had suddenly disappeared. An earthquake took place. A tidal wave split the ship to atoms, carrying her hugh bow more than 100 yards right over the crater into the lake, her machinery, engines &c. &c. were visible in all directions in deep water the following morning. An immense piece of the precipice forming the crater had fallen into the sea, split as it were with a hatchet. It was now the sole object at once to get the remaining officers and men on board, and to wait for cargo or stores would have perilled the ship. On 5th September accordingly with great difficulty the remainder of the crew having embarked, the Malacca sailed.
From the island of St. Paul's whence considerable privation was endured from 19 June to 5 September, stores of all kinds were abandoned and even the officers private mess traps, linen, plate &c. &c. Only the personal effects of man or officer could be taken on board. I had with great trouble and anxiety secured the landing of the medicine chest and stores, and now had as much if not more trouble to re-embark them. This however was accomplished, and considering the unusual circumstances of shipwreck and carting the chests over boulders but little loss of any kind occurred as will be seen on reference to the expenditure ??? ??? finished our shipwreck on this lone island ???. Everything was done not only to secure the health of the men as far as practicable, but for their comfort. And on landing, the prospect seemed so gloomy, that it was believed to be almost an impossibility to get away from the place without losing men or boys from accident or disease. Providentially sickness was kept away, and of the men and officers who landed from H.M.S. Megaera every one answered their muster on board the P and O ship Malacca, v v feel grateful and thankful to be able to state this.
On 5th Septer the island was abandoned and after touching at Albany and Melbourne the Malacca arrived at Sydney on Octer 2nd, here the Blanche and Rosario were found, and on the 12th were commissioned by their new crews, the Megaera's commission expiring on 11th Oct. 1871.