HMS Sappho (1837)
HMS Sappho (1837)

Royal NavyVessels

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NameSappho (1837)Explanation
Launched3 February 1837
Builders measure428 tons
Ships book
NoteFoundered on Australian station
Snippets concerning this vessels career
28 February 1837
- 23 November 1841
Commanded by Commander Thomas Fraser, West Indies
18 March 1843
- 25 October 1845
Commanded by Commander George Hope, Cape of Good Hope
2 August 1845Commanded by Commander Robert Fitzgerald Gambier, Cape of Good Hope
13 February 1849
- 1843
Commanded by Commander Reynell Charles Michell, North America and West Indies
17 March 1850Commanded by Acting Commander Arthur Auckland Leopold Pedro Cochrane, North America and West Indies
8 January 1856Commanded by Commander Fairfax Moresby, West coast of Africa, then left England late in 1857 and disappeared, with all hands, on the final stages of a voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Sydney in February 1858
Extracts from the Times newspaper
Fr 14 May 1847

Portsmouth, Thursday, May 13.

The Undine steam tender, Master Commander Allen, having undergone sundry repairs. and been coated on one side of her bottom with red-lead and the other with a composition, in order to see whether either application will prevent the growth of rubbish, was undocked yesterday, and the Sappho, 16, taken in for refitment.
We 3 February 1858


The following is an extract from a letter dated from Her Majesty's ship Sappho, Sept. 20, 1857, off Loando:—
"Since my last letter to you in August circumstances have happened of the most stirring kind; never on this notorious coast has humanity been more outraged or the energy and compassion of British seamen more called for or shown. We continued cruising, looking in at the different stations, until the 10th, when at daylight we saw a schooner at anchor; we made sail for her, she slipped her cable and steered along the beach. We followed in the Sappho as near as the depth of water would allow. The wind was light, so the commander took to the boats and soon came up with her; she proved to be a schooner of fully 150 tons, quite prepared for the reception of slaves, and had arrived the preceding day on the coast. The captain had landed — probably with the specie for the purchase of his cargo, as only 28 doubloons were found, rolled up in a man's garters, who looked foolish enough when the master at arms hauled them off. We took the schooner to Loando to land the slave crew, then, finding her not seaworthy, we made a target of her to exercise our men, and burnt her. This gave us something to talk about until we returned to Loando on the 15th; there we found the Castor, with the Admiral [Rear-admiral Frederick William Grey] on board, from the Cape; he sailed for Shark’s Point, where the ships were collected for courts-martial. We left the following day; at 9 in the morning on the 18th, in a thick mist with rain, we closed with a schooner; while boarding her the weather cleared, and a large ship was seen close to the land. Directly our boats returned we made all sail in chase, the ship making all sail to avoid us, and the chase became very exciting. The captain said we were gaining, and so they must have thought on board the ship, as he tacked in shore and we after him; then he bore away, running along the edge of the surf, and by help of his large sails was drawing ahead. By this time we were sure he was one of the large American slave ships, and we feared he would escape if he got searoom, so the captain took a boat well manned and armed and pulled to windward to cut him off, when he would be obliged to tack offshore; another boat was sent to leeward, the master, the only officer on board, being left in charge. The ship was not more than a mile and a half distant, close to the surf. Seeing the trap laid for him, and that he could not escape, he ran his ship a shore. We anchored in four fathoms; the master took the whale-boat close to the ship, and was soon joined by the other boats. The ship was rolling in the breakers with all her sails flapping about, and appeared to be full of slaves; the master and crew had abandoned her with their boats, leaving the American colours flying. Then we all beheld a dreadful scene; the slaves forced their way from below, jumped overboard, and soon disappeared in the rollers; it was terrible to see them. Our officers and men, regardless of their own lives, pulled through the surf to leeward of the ship, but her heavy lurching for some time prevented their boarding; when they succeeded the scene was horrifying, the slaves still forcing their way up from the slave decks with loud yells, running to and fro, and continuing to throw themselves overboard. All attempts to pacify them were useless, force was necessary to drive them below until preparations could be made for their safety. We were told by one of the slaves who could speak Portuguese, that they were told the English would cut all their throats. As soon as the boats could be attended to the cutter was backed under the [stern?] and a rope thrown her; then three of the slaves were permitted up at a time and lowered into the boat, the whale-boat conveying them through the rollers to the large boat, and so on to the Sappho; this continued until 8 p.m. The surf increased, and it was impossible to save more that night; 180 were rescued. The master was left with a guard on hoard; it was an anxious and a sleepless night for all, as death was rapidly decreasing the number of the poor negroes, who, starving and naked, died from utter misery, — men, women, boys, and girls, more than 200 on board the Sappho, and, as they ceased to breathe, we were obliged to throw them overboard. Poor negroes! I hope conscious in their last moments that English seamen came to save them and now made a silent prayer over them. Fortunately, we had plenty of rice from the schooner captured, which we fed them with, and placed them as best we could under cover of sails. As food and warmth restored them, in various ways they signified their sense of kindness. There was one poor creature with an infant at her breast, naked, cold, and exhausted, apparently dying; a little wine was given her, then some rice, which she forced from her own to her baby's mouth. A sheet was given to cover her; she wrapped her baby in it and pressed it to her heart with that look of maternal love which God has given to the dark as well as the pale-face race. On board the schooner the master and guard were with the remaining negroes in a perilous state; the former passed the night in the forecastle and bowsprit, drenched by the spray of the heavy rollers. At dawn on the 19th the wind and surf had increased; the ship had driven closer to the beach; numbers of armed people were collected; a signal for assistance was made; the captain went with all the boats manned and armed, when the natives on the beach, led on by the white men, apparently the crew of the ship, commenced firing with the intention of preventing the rescue of any more negroes. This continued an hour before we could clear the beach, some of our shots apparently telling well. On again boarding the wreck she was found breaking up, with her hold full of water. On the tide receding, her hull was nearly dry, and there was no time to spare. The large boats were stationed to keep the beach clear with their guns; the cutter was anchored at the back [off?] the surf, and by watching the rollers they succeeded in throwing her a rope, when the negroes were lowered and hauled through the surf, and conveyed as before to the Sappho, 200 more being rescued; then the wreck was set fire to and our people withdrawn.
"We were in such a state, with 380 negroes crowding our decks; the stench was putrefying, and it was impossible to work the ship. In this state the second day closed upon us. We were 40 miles from Sharks Point; the captain resolved to go in his boat and ask for assistance. They pulled all night in heavy rain, and at daylight on the 20th fortunately met the Vesuvius, Commodore Wise, with whom the Captain returned. Commodore Wise took the negroes on board the Vesuvius, to be sent to Sierra Leone in the Alector prize. Having the slaves on hoard has caused much sickness; it is passing without any fatal case. We are ordered to the Cape, we suppose to cruise in the Mozambique Channel; if so it is probable our bones will be left there; its effects, after what we have been through for 20 months on this coast, will be finishing.
I have given you the history of one of the many American ships employed in the slave trade; six, I think, have been taken. We seized the Panihita 30 miles up the coast, and sent her to New York; we do not know whether the American Government will condemn her.
Ma 8 February 1858


The Union Steam Navigation Company's mail packet Celt, Captain Brown, from Table Bay December 30, St. Helena January 8, and Ascension January 12, arrived this morning.
The Boscawen, 70, flag of Rear-Admiral the Hon. Sir Frederick W. Grey, K.C.B.; sloop Sappho, 12, Commander Fairfax Moresby; and Seringapatam, coal depôt, were at Simon’s Bay.
Ma 8 February 1858The steam sloop Encounter, 14, Captain O'Callaghan, arrived yesterday afternoon at Plymouth. She left Aden November 21, reached the Cape December 19, and sailed on the 23d, touched at St. Helena January 2, and at Ascension on the 7th. Including stoppages the passage from Aden to Plymouth was accomplished in 78 days. At the Cape she embarked 12 invalids from the Boscawen, five from the Himalaya, five from the Sappho, and two formerly belonging to the Shannon; at St. Helena two distressed merchant seamen, and at Ascension nine invalids from the West Coast squadron.
Th 11 March 1858Her Majesty's ship Boscawen, left Simon's Bay on the 3d of January, on a cruise to St. Helena. Ascension, and the West Coast; the Admiral, Sir F. Grey, on board. The Sappho left on the 8th for Australia. The Hermes left for East London, with the Governor, on the 19th. On the 27th Her Majesty's steamer Simoom arrived from Calcutta, and is now the only vessel of war in Simons Bay.
Fr 3 December 1858Several incorrect statements having recently appeared relative to the alleged loss of Her Majesty's ship Sappho, 12, Commander Fairfax Moresby, the Lords of the Admiralty, in order to allay the fears of the relatives and friends of the officers and men in that vessel, have directed Captain G. Goldsmith, C.E., the Superintendent of Chatham Dockyard, to investigate the accuracy or otherwise of the statements which have been made public, and which have caused a great deal of uneasiness. The Sappho was commissioned in January, 1856, and immediately proceeded to the coast of Africa, where, after remaining for some time, she was sent to join the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope. In the month of January, in the present year, she was directed to proceed from the Cape of Good Hope to the Australian station, and, in obedience to orders, immediately sailed for that destination, since which nothing whatever has been heard of her. From inquiries made at Chatham has been ascertained that a letter has been stated to have been received by a person at Stonehouse, to the alleged effect that the Sappho had been wrecked "on an island at some distance from the coast of Australia," that a portion of the crew were lost, and that others had died on the island. The Lords of the Admiralty have caused the most searching inquiries to be instituted relative to the alleged statements contained in this letter, hut without any satisfactory result. The name of the person at Stonehouse who is stated to have received the information has not been obtained, and from the fact that no name is given to the island on which the Sappho is alleged to have been wrecked and that no confirmatory evidence has been received by any other persons, the Admiralty have written to say that they place no faith whatever in the existence of any such letter as that which is alleged to have been received. Captain Goldsmith has also written to the Secretary of the Admiralty, expressing his opinion that no reliance is to be placed on the statements which have been made public relative to the supposed wreck of the Sappho. It is, however, of no use disguising the fact that from the circumstance of the Sappho not having been heard of since January last very grave doubts are entertained as to the safety of that ship. The following were the officers who sailed from the Cape of Good Hope in the Sappho — viz., Commander Fairfax Moresby; Lieutenant Francis P. Staples; master, Mr. Frederick Wills; surgeon, Mr. William Evans; and paymaster, Mr. Thomas J. Ley.
We 29 December 1858The Union Screw Steamship Company's mail packet Norman, Captain Boxer, has arrived. She left Simon’s Bay, Nov. 20; St. Helena, 30th; and Ascension, Dec. 4.
... Her Majesty's ship Boscawen was at Simon's Bay. The steamship Hermes was preparing to leave Table Bay, in search, of the brig Sappho. The Sardinian ship Malabar, with coal, from London for Aden, was wrecked at Table Bay on the 6th of November; crew saved.
Ma 17 January 1859From Australian, letters and papers which have just been received at Chatham by the friends of officers belonging to Her Majesty's missing ship Sappho, 12, Commander Fairfax Moresby, some intelligence has been obtained relative to the supposed loss of that vessel. A few days previously to the departure of the mail for England a letter had been received at Melbourne by his Excellency the Governor, from Commodore W. Loring, C.B., of Her Majesty's ship Iris, 26, dated Sydney, Oct. 16, 1858, in which the Commodore reports that he had just learnt from a merchant at Sydney that Her Majesty's sloop Sappho, 12, was spoken on the 18th of February last, 20 miles south of Cape Nelson. Further information was promised, but had not been received at the date of the departure of the mail. Commodore Loring states that he believed the information to be correct, and that the inference was that the Sappho had either foundered at sea, or that she had been wrecked in the vicinity of King's Island, which lies immediately in her track from the Cape of Good Hope to Bass's Straits. The first supposition — that the vessel had foundered at sea — was not entertained by nautical men in Australia, as none of Her Majesty's ships are ever allowed to go to sea in a sinking state, and from the fact that the missing ship was spoken so near the Australian coast there is little doubt that she has been wrecked on one of the islands, probably the one mentioned. King's Island lies about 90 miles from Port Phillip Head, off Cape Ottway; it has no lighthouse upon it, and is not believed to be inhabited. Hopes are entertained that she might have gone ashore at the spot indicated, and that some of her officers and crew, which numbered 140, were saved. The Governor had given direction for the despatch of a sloop-of-war from Melbourne to search along the shore of King's Island and the adjacent coast for any fragments of the missing ship, and also with the hope of rescuing any of the crew who might be found alive.
Ma 12 September 1859


Sir, — I enclose a paragraph taken from the Overland Summary of the Friend of India of the 16th of July relative to Her Majesty's ship Sappho, Commander Moresby, supposed to have long since foundered on her voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Australia. All the officers and men had been, of course, given up for lost, but, if any reliance can be placed on this report, they, or at least a portion of them, are still alive. The Admiralty, if in possession of such information, ought surely to have made it public as soon as possible. As nothing appears to be known here of the important news I trust you will give it publicity.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Sept. 10. R.S. MOLESWORTH.

"Tidings have reached the New Zealand papers of Her Majesty's brig Sappho, which was supposed to have been lost on her voyage to Australia. She stranded off an uninhabited island some distance from Sydney, and became a total wreck. The portion of her crew that was saved formed an encampment on the island. A merchant ship, when passing, found them in a very distressed condition. The few who had survived the exposure were living on the wild cats and seeds which they found on the island. Commander Moresby, from grief at the loss of his brig, had become insane." — Friend of India. July 16.
We 14 September 1859


Sir, — In your impression of to-day (the 12th) you publish a paragraph from the Friend of India, enclosed by a correspondent, reporting the discovery of part of the crew of the Sappho on an island at some distance from Sydney. This paragraph went the round of the colonial papers several months ago, with, I think, this difference, that the survivors were feeding on monkeys. As it, however, carried contradiction on its own face, I imagine the Admiralty did not think it required a formal refutation, The only islands that could be described as being at such a distance from Sydney are Lord Howe's Islands, above 400 miles to the N.E.; these have been inhabited for several years by a few persons who supply vegetables, &c., to passing whalers, but as the Sappho was lost on her passage from the Cape she could hardly have reached these islands, which lie in almost the opposite direction, The only other islands anywhere in the neighbourhood of Sydney are close in shore, and are passed by many coasters daily.
The westernmost and weathermost islands in Bass's Straits offer the most dangerous and most likely coast for the loss of a vessel bound for the Australian ports, but they have been thoroughly, though unsuccessfully, searched for some trace of the missing ship; and their position would no more be described with reference to Sydney than that of an island in the Mediterranean would be to England.
None of these places, however, afford the kind of provisions upon which this canard asserts the crew were living, neither wild cats nor monkeys being indigenous to Australia or to be found in any of the adjacent islands. This paragraph must have been, I fear, generated in the brain of some sorry wag, on the arrival of his ship in port, to appease the ravenous appetite for news of a colonial newspaper reporter. The originator can have but little idea of the number of hopes he may have raised, only to be disappointed, since his miserable joke first gave rise to these reports; and I think it but due to the friends of those who are lost in the Sappho that they should be spared the pain of having those hopes reanimated which can never be realized in this world.
I remain, Sir, yours, &c.,
G.P. HEATH, Lieutenant, R.N.
20, Glocester-crescent North, Hyde Park, Sept. 12.
We 22 August 1860Her Majesty’s sloop Elk, 12, Commander H. Campion, which was paid off at Chatham yesterday, has been in commission upwards of four years, during which period she has seen a great deal of active service both in China and in other distant parts of the world. She was commissioned at Chatham on the 6th of May, 1856, by Commander J. Hamilton, who was succeeded in August, 1858, by Commander Campion, formerly of the Vulcan, 6, [should be: Falcon] on being promoted. The Elk, on leaving England, proceeded to China, and formed one of the squadron engaged in the Chinese waters until the termination of hostilities. The whole of the crew who could be spared formed a portion of the naval brigade under Commodore Stevens [should be Stewart], of the Nankin, 50, and were present at the capture of Canton, and other places. After the discontinuance of operations in the China seas, the Elk sailed from Hongkong for Australia in the month of April, 1858, and after arriving was employed for several months in making a minute search along the coast and through every part of Bass's Straits for Her Majesty's missing ship Sappho, but without success. The Elk left Sydney on the 1st of March for Auckland, which was reached on the 12th of March, just at the time the insurrection was raging in New Zealand. A portion of the crew and several of the ship's guns were landed to form a part of the naval brigade, and the men volunteering for this service were left behind. On the 26th of April the Elk left Auckland for England, at which time the following vessels of Her Majesty were at New Zealand — viz., the Iris, 26, Commodore W. Loring, C.B.; the Pelorus, 21, screw corvette, Commodore F.B.P. Seymour; the Niger, 13, screw steamer, Capt. P. Cracroft; and the Cordelia, 11, screw steamer, Commander C.E.H. Vernon. During the voyage home, and when near the entrance to the river Plate, the ship was caught in a tremendous typhoon, which raged for 48 hours, during which the vessel suffered severely, and it was only by the very best seamanship that vessel and crew were not lost. The Elk, since she has been in commission, has been constantly employed on service, and has sailed over upwards of 132,000 miles. Upwards of 20 of her crew have died from cholera, dysentery, and other causes, exclusive of a number invalided home. The crew have been exceedingly well-behaved, and the infliction of corporal punishment has been very rare. On the crew being paid off yesterday a silver medal, together with a gratuity of 10l., was awarded by the Admiralty to John Turner, captain of the after-guard, for good conduct and long service. The Elk, which is in very good condition, is to be attached to the reserve ordinary at Chatham. Second Lieut. O'Grady and the boatswain of the ship are under arrest, awaiting their trial by court-martial.

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