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The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871
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The beaching of HMS Megaera on St Paul's Island in the Indian Ocean in 1871, as described and illustrated in the Illustrated London News.
(Click on the illustrations for larger versions. See also the reports from the Times newspaper, an eyewitness account by an anonymous officer, published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, this description from the journal kept by the vessel's Surgeon, William Hogarth Adam, and the Report of the Royal Commission appointed to investigate the case.)
12 August 1871
Intelligence has been received at the Admiralty, by telegraph from Batavia, that H.M.S. Megaera was run ashore, in a sinking state, at St. Paul's Island - the crew and passengers all saved. The Megaera was an iron screw troop-ship, carrying six guns, of 350-horse power. It may be remembered that the alleged unseaworthiness of this transport and her overcrowded state by troops were made subject of comment in the House of Commons, about three months since, by Mr. F. Walpole, who had a son on board. St. Paul's Island (of which we stall give an Engraving next week), together with that of Amsterdam, lies a little to the northward of the track from the Cape to Australia. It is often sighted by vessels in order to prove their reckoning, and, although uninhabited, is occasionally visited for the sake of its volcanic spring of hot water. The Admiralty have also received the following telegram, in reply to a telegram sent to Batavia asking the cause of the disaster and whether provisions were landed from the Megaera at St. Paul's. In addition to her own provisions the Megaera carried a considerable quantity of naval provisions destined for Sydney: - "From Fraser, Consul, Batavia, Aug. 5, 2.51 p.m. - Leak reported about June 8. Kept under for several days by hand-pumps. Leak increased; steam then used; water kept under. Insufficient coal to reach Australia; steered for St. Paul's. June 17, anchored. Survey held; diver employed; reported unsafe to proceed; hole through bottom; landed provisions; weather stormy; lost three anchors. June 19, ship was run on the bar full speed, and filled. Lieutenant Jones left July 16, all well; men under canvas; eighty tons cargo saved. Steam-ship Rinaldo left Singapore yesterday for St. Paul's, via Batavia."
19 August 1871
ST. PAUL'S ISLAND.
The loss of the Megaera, an iron screw steam-ship, on her way from the Cape to Australia, has been recorded. Complaint had been made, before she left England, that the ship was overcrowded, that she was unseaworthy; and it was stated that her crew had protested against going to sea in her. On behalf of the Admiralty those allegations were denied. But it is not necessary to enter into these matters, nor into the consideration of the letters and speeches which the loss of the Megaera has occasioned. It will be sufficient, at present, to state that she was run ashore in a sinking state on St. Paul's Island, about half way between the Cape and Australia; that, happily, all the crew and passengers had been safely landed, and that a steamer had been chartered at Hong-Kong to take them to Sydney.
The gentleman to whom we are indebted for our Illustration of St. Paul's Island thus records a visit made to the island by him in one of her Majesty's vessels in October, 1865:-
The vessel was running under a westerly gale and approaching the vicinity of St. Paul's Island, our captain intending to visit it, if practicable, for hydrographical observations. The weather was so thick that we were beginning to fear we might run past without sighting it, when the high steeps of the island were espied through the haze, and the vessel was then steered for the anchorage. Our sails were reefed, or in rounding to we should probably have lost a mast. As we entered the anchorage the squalls were terrific, coming round the rocks as through a funnel. Our first anchor had no sooner reached the ground and received the first snub of the cable when the fluke was torn off. Happily our second anchor brought us up.
St Paul's Island is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. The island is simply an extinct, or nearly extinct, volcano, about two miles and a half across, and the highest point about 800ft., that part of the lip of the crater which forms about one third of the crater having, in some convulsion of former ages, evidently sunk into the sea and allowed the water to flow into the crater. The crater, which is almost as regular as a washing-basin, would form a splendid harbour for ships were it not rather too deep (over 20 fathoms) and the entrance too shallow (6 ft. or 8 ft.). Boats and small vessels can, of course, enter. Our ship was anchored on the part of the lip of the crater which had evidently sunk.
The inhabitants consisted of three French Malays, fishermen, their employers residing at Bourbon Island, whence they are communicated with every four or six months, when the fish they have caught and salted are exported. I never was in any place where fish is so plentiful.
On the edge of the crater-basin are two hot springs; one, apparently the hottest, is visible only when the tide is low, and the water dribbles out between the stones. I saw an egg boiled in this spring. The other is above high-water mark. The slopes of the crater are in most places accessible. The soil is rich, and English vegetables grow well; but there is not a tree of any sort on the island. Penguins frequent the island in great numbers. The fishermen informed us that the island was visited with a severe earthquake a few years before our visit.
The detached rock (shown in our Engravings) on the north side of the narrow channel or entrance to the crater is about 250 ft. in height, and is known as The Ninepin.
Loss of the Megaera: the island of St Paul, from the sea
7 October 1871
At last we have the best of news respecting the crew of the Megaera. They are all saved. The Malacca, one of the ships sent to the rescue, had, it would appear, reached St. Paul's before any of the shipwrecked men had perished either from hunger or cold; the other ship, the Rinaldo, it would seem, had been blown off the island, so that her services were of no avail. The Malacca took the crew to Sidney. The mail steamer, having been met on the way, Captain Trupp, Commander of the Megaera, took passage home, reached the south point of Ceylon on Sunday night, and is expected in England about the 4th of next month.
28 October 1871
THE ROMANCE OF H.M.S. MEGAERA.
Somewhat about midway between Cape Town and Western Australia, in the Pacific Ocean, lies St. Paul's Island - the cone of an extinct volcano, through one of the sides of whose crater an opening of several hundred yards' width communicates with the sea. It is a dreary spot, containing but a handful of inhabitants, who get their living in part by fishing and in part from terraced gardens constructed up the broken side of the mount. It is somewhat out of the direct line of ships proceeding to and fro between this country and Australia. It is seldom visited, and, having no water-springs and but scant vegetation, the island, the coast-line of which is about six miles only, offers little temptation to shipping, although, in certain seasons, a few fishing-boats, attracted by the abundance of fish, approach its rugged shore. This little and inhospitable speck in the ocean has been the scene of a romance quite as thrilling as that of Alexander Selkirk, of bygone fame.
Last summer, in the second week of June, an iron steam-ship, carrying reliefs for the naval stations of Australia, making her way from the southern coast of Africa to her ultimate destination, sprang a leak which compelled her, after futile attempts to stop it, to shape her course for St. Paul's Island. It was H.M.S. Megaera, of which the British public had heard so unfavourable a character before she had started on her long voyage. She had been a gallant ship in her time; but, after some two-and-twenty years of active service, she had been placed at the bottom of the Admiralty list, and had been reported as unseaworthy for any but short excursions. Who selected her to carry a precious freight of human beings to the antipodes, why she was selected, and for what reasons, after her short run from Plymouth to Cork on her outward destination, the complaints of her unsafe condition which reached the Admiralty from her officers were not seriously attended to, will have to be the subject of strict investigation.
Fortunately, she was under the command of a man equal to the occasion. Providentially, also, she was favoured during most of her cruise with fine weather. On June 16 she rode out a heavy storm, about twenty miles from St. Paul's, and, notwithstanding the heavy sea running, "behaved herself," as Captain Thrupp reports, "beautifully." The leak, however, in the ship's bottom, continued so decidedly to gain upon the efforts of the crew that she was anchored near the island in order that she might be thoroughly examined. But anchor after anchor gave way. The vessel, in spite of the full use of her steam, dragged close to the rocks, and prudence dictated that the only alternative open for adoption was to run her on the beach. Her condition had been found by the engineers to be such as to render it madness to continue her voyage to Australia, distant from St. Paul's about 1500 miles. One of her plates - for she was an iron ship - was found to have been considerably worn away, and the edges of the hole through which the water gained entrance to her hold were so thin that they could easily be bent with two fingers. Many of the girders were eaten through at the bottom, and others nearly so. The bilge pumps were constantly choked by pieces of iron sucked up from the lowest parts of the ship. It was quite evident, as Captain Thrupp has stated in his despatch, that, "breaking up as the ship was, the girders separating from the bottom, that bottom leaky in one place and very thin in many more, the pumps continually being choked with pieces of iron, and those thick pieces," he could not, with so many lives at stake, persist in proceeding on his voyage.
The ship, as we have said, was beached; but before this was done the hands were turned up, prayers were read, the fact of the ship's unseaworthiness was communicated to all on board, and orders given for landing stores and provisions. The situation was, undoubtedly, a critical one, and all chances of safety depended upon the maintenance of perfect discipline. Only one man gave way to insubordination, and he was instantly and severely flogged. Though the wine and beer stores of all sorts were landed together there was no pilfering, no drunkenness, but both officers and men worked most willingly. The sails were all saved, and were of great use in sheltering the men, and covering the stores from the weather Thirteen thousand pounds weight of bread and about six weeks' flour supplies were landed. Three thousand pounds of rice were found on the island. Contrary to expectation, water in abundance could be obtained. With coal cleared out from the ship, three hundred gallons could be condensed daily; with turf, cut and dried and mixed with a little wood, a hundred and fifty gallons; but there was no immediate necessity for resorting to distillation for the purpose of getting enough fresh water. The rain had formed a deep pool in the upper part of the crater, and a hose, eight hundred and sixty feet in length, carried up by the men, freely supplied the camp without much labour.
Captain Thrupp has furnished us with vivid details of some three weeks' life of a ship's company on the Island of St. Paul. Every man, at the date of his despatch, enjoyed the protection of tents or houses. They were upon a short allowance of bread, but they could catch fish in plenty. They had enough water, but the supply was somewhat precarious. The climate was salubrious, and the health of the men was well looked after by the medical officers. Lime-juice without sugar was served out every day, to keep off scurvy. But, after all, men who live upon a comparatively desert island, far aside from the usual course of commercial traffic, cannot but be exceedingly anxious as to the future. Every precaution, therefore, was taken to attract notice from any ship that might chance to pass within sight. A flagstaff was erected at the top of the cone, and a flag hoisted upside down, as a signal of distress. A great number of bottles weighted with lead, with a tin flag above the cork, containing an account of the Megaera's ill-fortune and position, were thrown over board from the life-boat some miles out to sea. But it was not till July 10, nearly a month after the Megaera had been beached, that the Aurora, a Dutch ship from Amsterdam, bound for Batavia, caught sight of the flag of distress, and went close in under the land. She reported that she could take twenty men, and was quite willing to do so. Only Lieutenant Jones, however, was left on board her. during the night, and on the next morning she was gone. We know pretty well from other sources the rest of this romantic history. That it has not had a tragical termination does not in any way lessen the blame of those, whoever they may be, who inconsiderately sent to sea an old vessel, strongly suspected of unseaworthiness, to carry hundreds of men, her Majesty's servants, 15,000 miles across the ocean.
The story of the Megaera will make a deep impression upon the public mind. In the first place, it reveals the fact that, in some way or other, even where the safety of human life is concerned, the responsibility of the officials upon whom devolves the active business of the departments is seriously defective, and demands a thoroughly searching investigation. It is difficult to estimate the amount of mental anxiety and suffering entailed upon a large company of highly deserving men by indifference and perversity. But, in the next place, the contrast presented by the pluck, endurance, and discipline of both officers and crew under the perilous and cruel circumstances in which they had been so unnecessarily placed, raise the highest admiration, and show that the stuff of which our naval service is composed is worthy of all confidence. "Aide-toi, et le Ciel t'aidera," is the maxim of wisdom and piety combined, and the romance of H.M.S. Megaera beautifully illustrates it.
4 November 1871
THE MEGAERA ON ST. PAUL'S ISLAND.
We have received from one of the much enduring company of English officers and sailors who landed at St. Paul's Island, in June, from this unseaworthy ship, the sketches engraved for our present Number. The facts are told in the despatches of Captain Arthur Thrupp, commander of the Megaera, addressed to the Admiralty from June 17 to July 18, which were published last week. A vessel on her way to the Dutch colony of Batavia came in sight of St. Paul's Island, and, seeing the flag of distress hoisted by our countrymen, lay alongside and took off an officer and a small party, with the despatches and letters, which were afterwards forwarded from Batavia by the post. The shipwrecked company have since been fetched away from the island by the steam-ship Malacca, which has conveyed them safely to Australia, reaching Melbourne on Sept. 28. Captain Thrupp has come home to England, arriving at the end of last week, and immediately reported himself to the Admiralty. A court-martial has been ordered at Portsmouth, under the presidency of Rear-Admiral Loring, C.B., to inquire how the ship was lost. The account which Captain Thrupp gives of the actual situation of himself and his men is very interesting; it shows that they have undergone severe labours and some real hardships. It appears that their lives were in imminent peril from June 8 to June 19, the ship leaking continually from a hole in the iron plates of her bottom, while the weather was very stormy, and the anchorage on the rocky coast of the island could not be depended on.
Attempts were made, both from the inside and the outside, to stop the leak by putting on another plate; but the water still came in as fast as it could be pumped out, and the diver found that other plates in the bottom were rusty, thin, and partly gone at the edges and corners; some of the girders inside were eaten quite through, and were separating from the plates. The pumps were frequently choked with loose pieces of iron, scaled off the bottom of the ship. Under these circumstances, the chief engineer of the Megaera, Mr. George Mills, advised Captain Thrupp, on June 17, that it would be. most unsafe to proceed on the voyage to Australia, the nearest part of which lay 1800 miles distant. This opinion was fully confirmed by two other steam-ship engineers, who happened to be on board, Mr. Edward Brown, of H.M.S. Blanche, and Mr. J.B. Richards, of the Rosario. Captain Thrupp therefore, on Sunday morning, June 18, after reading prayers as usual, announced to the ship's company that they would land at once. Provisions and stores were put ashore by the diligent labour both of the officers and men in the course of the next week. The ship had been run aground on the Monday afternoon, upon a sandy bottom, under shelter of the "Ninepin Rock," in 10 ft. of water forward and 18 ft. astern. The men behaved well, except one, who was punished with forty-eight lashes for refusing to work. The officers filled coal-bags, landed boats, manned them, and landed stores, just like the common seamen. There was about 13,000 lb. of bread, and flour enough for six weeks' ordinary consumption, with salt meat, rum, and other provisions to last four months. On the island, which was not quite uninhabited, 3000 lb. of rice was got; there were also wild goats on the hills, and plenty of fish to be caught. The spring-water, being very sulphury, was found undrinkable; but there was some rain-water, which was secured in iron tanks brought from the ship; and the condensing apparatus was used also to distil sea-water for drinking, turf being cut and dried for fuel, to save the coal. The ship was not finally abandoned till June 19. The men who first landed, with their bags and hammocks, were sheltered by tents made from the ship's sails; but some sheds or huts, already existing, were used for store-houses, and barracks were afterwards put up. As Captain Thrupp did not know how long it might be before they could be relieved, he thought it right to put the men on a reduced allowance of food. Their daily rations were 4 oz. of biscuit, 8 oz. of salt or preserved meat, and a little tea or cocoa, with sugar, on alternate evenings, but no flour. Parties went fishing in boats, and got fish to the amount of 100 lb. or 150 lb. every day, which was served out as far as it would go. The weather became cold, with much rain, and snow lying on the ground at the signal-station on the cliff. Notwithstanding these discomforts, the men were tolerably healthy. As the supply of limejuice was short, various herbs, such as dandelions, and some grasses were gathered to supply the want of ordinary vegetables, there being only a few cabbages and potatoes on the island, and mushrooms. The water from the reservoir formed on the hill was supplied to the encampment below by a hose 860 ft. in length.
Wreck of H.M.S. Megaera
The last of the Megaera
One of the Illustrations shows the position of the Megaera when she lay aground close to the rocks; another shows the fore part of the wreck after she was broken up by a storm, which raged with such force as to tear down a large piece of the cliff. There are two sketches also of the encampment.
The first represents the tents of the officers and sailors, the mess-tent, the cooking-galley, the booth for eating and drinking, called "The Royal Hotel," and several storehouses. The officers' mess-tent is that which stands highest on the ground to the left hand, with two crossed ends of poles forming a gable above the entrance. Next to this is the Captain's house, with what looks like a chest placed in front of it, close to the door; it has a little garden under the windows. At one side of it, extending behind, is a tent occupied by Lieutenant Evans, and Messrs. Rapson, Wilson, and Festing. The lower tents of this upper left-hand group, formed simply by stretching a piece of sailcloth over a horizontal pole supported by two pairs of crossed poles, and having no perpendicular walls beneath, are the abode of some of the bluejackets. In the foreground, at the extreme left, is an oblong booth, with a flat roof, which was known among the men as "The Royal Hotel," kept by J. Green. A tent of more elaborate construction, in the centre of the ground, with regular upright sides, surmounted by a gabled roof, is the dwelling of Lieutenant Praed, Lieutenant Smith, Mr. Hill, and Mr. Evans, a midshipman. Adjoining this, in the rear, is the tent of the lifeboat crew. The cooking-galley is marked by its smoking chimney, or iron stove-pipe; in front of it are the rudely-formed tents of sailors; behind it are two neatly-shaped habitations, the larger belonging to the officers' servants, the smaller allotted to a French governess. In the rear of these, to the right hand, are the paymaster's office and a large building, which contains stores of bread and rum; and, farther back, a new storehouse, built by Sergeant Western.
In our second Illustration of the encampment are shown, besides one or two tents on the higher ground, called "Rose Cottage" and other pleasant names, the old sheds close to the seashore, which were made available as storehouses. The boats are here drawn up on the beach; casks, bales, and boxes lie about as on the quay of a commercial port; and the condensing tanks, with the turf-fires smoking through the iron stove-pipes, are employed to distil the sea-water for drinking or cooking.