The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 
The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 

Royal NavyLossesLoss of MegaeraBlackwoods (1/5) ◄► (3/5)


As soon as possible after we dropped anchor, the diver was sent down. He descended twelve times before he completed his observations. When at length he reported, it was to the effect that the small part of the outside of the ship which he had examined was generally clean; but that near the leak there were several rusty spots, all so like each other, and so like the leak, that he could decide on which of them was now admitting the water only by putting his hand over them in succession, until he felt the suction at the real opening. Any one of these places might suddenly become a leak. He said, further, that he had found two adjacent plates, the corners of both of which had been knocked away about 4" by 1½" at the joint; also that the plates were so thin that he could easily have put his knife through, "only he didn't like to do so." Further forward, near the stoke-hole, he saw a great quantity of rust, and was of opinion that in that place too she was not far from leaking.

An examination inside showed some of the frames to be eaten away and separated from the ship's bottom. From one of them was thus detached the leaky plate, which was therefore quite unsupported.

Besides all this, the pumps were now constantly found to be choked with pieces of iron from an inch to an inch and a half long and a quarter of an inch thick, some of them having cement adhering to them, proving them, to be pieces of the decayed frames.

It must be added that we had now but 150 tons of coal on board.

Thus, though the leak was said to be stopped (by means of the plate with the spindle before described), there were but too many reasons to fear that the ship was breaking up. In this crisis it was for the captain to determine what should to done, and Captain Thrupp decided boldly and ably. After giving due weight to all the circumstances, he announced to his assembled officers and crew that he did not consider that he would be justified in attempting to continue the voyage, and that he was about to land the crew and the stores, and to make the best provision in his power for keeping them alive and healthy till help should arrive. All had awaited in respectful silence the captain's decision; but when that was given, a cheer burst from all hands, showing how general was the conviction that going to sea again would be suicidal, and how general was the relief that was felt now that a landing had been resolved on.

I am anticipating a little what I have just written, for the captain did not announce his decision until Sunday the 18th, and before that time we had made some acquaintance with the caprices of the weather about St Paul's. It has been said that we dropped our anchor in comparatively smooth water. But the smoothness was apt to be disturbed from time to time by terrible squalls, which nothing could resist. Our anchor lay in black sand, where it should have been, and where indeed it was, fast enough. Nevertheless, it was soon found that we were drifting out to sea. We used our steam to stop this seaward motion, and hove the anchor, which came up with surprising readiness. It had parted across the shank, and both flukes were still fast in the sand. By the help of the steam we were soon in again, and we tried our luck with another anchor, but this time closer to the shore. Captain Thrupp was called every two hours in the night between Saturday and Sunday. The night was comparatively cold, the thermometer marking 48°, which added to the distress of the occasion. At daylight it was clear that we were drifting again; and again we found that we had lost our anchor. We steamed in a third time, and anchored once more. Thus we had lost two anchors before it was determined to remain at St Paul's.


A, Main-mast.
B, B, B, Fore-and-aft girders, supporting the mast.
C, Hole cut through the frame or rib to get to the leak.
D, The frames or ribs of the ship.
E, Iron plating supporting bunkers.
F, Coal bunkers.
G, G, Showing how frames were eaten away.
H, Stoke-hole plates.
K, K, 3/4 - plate bolted on to frames to strengthen the ship near the mainmast.
M, Keel of the ship outside.

That it may be understood with what calm order everything was conducted, notwithstanding the continual jeopardy in which we were, the pumps never ceasing their melancholy clang, and notwithstanding the repeated sudden alarms which we experienced by day and night, let me note that on Sunday morning the Captain read prayers as usual. The General Confession, the Collect for Ash-Wednesday, and the Lord's Prayer were fervently and solemnly joined in by that whole assembly, who were awaiting, as it seemed to them, a verdict of life or death. It was not until after this interesting service that the Captain made his announcement. He accompanied it with a reminder that it would be necessary to enforce strict discipline, and that insubordination of any kind would be severely dealt with; and he concluded with the expression of his hope that every one would work "with a will." His speech having been greeted with ringing cheers, he gave the older to commence landing stores at once.

The island of St Paul, on which we were about to lead a Crusoe life for so long as it might please God to spare us, is a speck in the Indian Ocean, its latitude being about 38° 43' S., and its longitude about 77° 38' E. It is two miles long and a mile and a half broad. The form of it will be understood from the accompanying diagram. The whole island may be described as the rim of a large basin, believed to be the crater of an extinct or dormant volcano, with a piece broken out so as to form the bar. The sides of the crater rise to the height of 860 feet in places, and are almost precipitous. On the bar are 12 feet of water at the top of spring-tides: when we arrived there were 6 feet on the bar. The crater is 25 to 30 fathoms deep. Two Frenchmen were living on the island. They came off to us, and, through a Jersey man on board, we got from them a good deal of information concerning the place to which we had been so providentially led. They could not speak a word of English.

Sketch map

C, Crater, Inland Sea.
B, Bar, 6 feet water on it.
E, Esplanade on the rocks.
P, Pier.
T, Town.
N, Nine-pin Rock.
H, Hill Station, 860 feet.
S, The Ship.
W, Water Pools, 3 tuns.

After announcing that he had decided to remain, Captain Thrupp landed, selected his sites, and took order for encamping or hutting his people and stores. On board the discharge of provisions from the ship was so vigorously proceeded with, that by dark our four months' stock was all on shore. All assisted in this most important duty - officers, cooks, stewards, were to be seen bending their backs to hard burdens, and doctors and paymasters pulling away at the ropes. One party of officers landed a 20-foot spar, and dragged it 500 feet (which was about half-way) up an almost perpendicular cliff, intending to set it up as a flag-staff, which it afterwards became. A good many soft hands were by this work much blistered before night; but, on the whole, the exercise and occupation did every one good. Before dark we had, by advice of the Frenchmen, shifted our berth and got nearer in to a place where whalers often lie for two or three weeks at a time; and all that night we were filling coal-bags ready to land. Of course our primary object in getting out heavy stores was that we might use them during our detention; but there was another secondary object. We thought that if the ship were very much lightened she might float over the bar next spring-tide, when, as the Frenchmen told us, there would be twelve feet of water on it. But, as will be seen, the fate of the ship was decided before the springs, although they occurred only a week after our arrival: for it blew very hard that Sunday night, and at daylight on the 19th we found that the ship was adrift and going rapidly on to the rocks. The fluke of our anchor (this, it will be remembered, was our third) was gone, so we kept under steam, recovering our ground every time we drifted, and despatching our boats with coal as we best might, for the Frenchmen now told us that it was useless to attempt to anchor while the weather might continue so stormy. We had constructed a huge raft for transport of the stores, but this we did not use, as we found four boats on the island, which, with the ship's boats, gave plenty of conveyance. But the gale increased to such a degree that three of these boats were nearly lost on the rocks, and the ship got close to the shore, and was barely saved by going full speed astern. So we had to hoist up the boats that were outside near the ship, and to signal to those inside the bar to stay where they were. Then we were blown off with such force that, with all the power of our engines, we could scarcely keep near the land. Once we were carried so far away that those working on shore, forgetting that we had no provisions, thought we had deserted them.

We made our way in again, but it had now become evident that, with the gale increasing as it was, we could not keep afloat all night. Either we must strike on the rocks, or we must founder; for, alas! our leak was open again, and as bad as ever. And now again our unlucky Captain was called upon to come to a sudden decision, and again he showed himself quite equal to his duty. The next short lull, he said, he would run the ship on shore. So the holds and lower decks were cleared of everything that could possibly be got up, as it was expected that they would be full of water after she should take the ground. The time was chosen well. One of the Frenchmen acted as pilot; the Captain's coxswain took the helm; the Captain himself gave the orders; and, steaming full speed, with the wind abeam, she was driven with a great shock and noise right on to the centre of the bar, where she was stranded perfectly upright, and well on to the ground. The engines were stopped just as she took the ground, but they worked again full speed to keep her up until the water rose inside her, and put the fires out. When they were powerless, we let go our last anchor to prevent her slipping off the bank; and there she stuck, never to plough the seas again. The Megaera was a wreck.

As the ship's bottom grated against the ground of the bar, the frame which was most damaged, and which was near the leak, broke in half. The water bubbled through the fore part of the port-side of the stokehole, just about where the diver had seen the large rusty place. She bumped heavily at first as the rollers lifted her, but after the fires had been extinguished she lay perfectly still. A shore which was put over to keep her upright snapped immediately. There were 12 feet of water in her forward, 15 feet amidships, and 17 feet in the after-hold; indeed, she was full up to the troop-decks. But sad as this plight was, it was a most fortunate issue of the desperate measure which our Captain had been compelled to take. Many among us expected the very worst. Some thought that she might part amidships as she encountered the bank; others predicted that the waves would break over her funnel or her mast-heads as soon as she should be fast; and, impressed by these fears, they stood ready to take the water and swim for life. Nothing seems so bad but that an anxious imagination can make it worse, as everybody soon began to perceive. We left off making, or listening to, gloomy speculations, and went to dinner.

We soon learned from the Frenchmen that the wind rarely blows in from the sea except in December, January, and February, which intelligence was reassuring. It was possible thus to make use of the shelter of the wreck until some sort of cover could be extemporised onshore; and indeed we did not wholly desert the old craft until the 29th of June. This was the way we managed to live on board of her. The Captain's cabin was under the poop, and therefore dry enough as long as the stern windows were unharmed. Under the cabin was the ward-room, a very commodious one, lit by stern-lights and by two circular ports. Through one or other of these ports an ingushing wave would sometimes make its way, when it was necessary to catch up the feet pretty high if one would avoid getting them wet. A capacious table ran athwart ships, large enough to entertain the gunroom as well as the ward-room mess, so this was the general saloon. Forward there was the topgallant forecastle, affording a good shelter, and the main-deck below was still dry. Below that again was the troop-deck, which, as has been said, was full of water.

Looking from a boat in the offing towards the bar and signal station at this strangely-formed island which was to be our prison, and might be our grave, the view was something like what is shown in the sketch on the following page.

Now that the old ship was disposed of, we had three principal matters to attend to, and we set about them all without loss of time. The first was to unload the ship as far as possible; the second, to prepare the hutment on shore; and the third, to search the island for some natural water-supply; for though we hoped to land a condensing apparatus, and could of course manage to catch some rain-water, yet a spring or reservoir would be much better, and the charts had it that there was no water on the island.

The landing of the coals, clothing, cordage, &c., was proceeded with most vigorously on the 20th. Everybody helped who had not some other special duty. The officers manned the four shore-boats that had been found, and hoisted out and landed their own gear.

View of the island

The men had to be trusted with open boxes, containing many things which might sorely have tempted them; but nothing was missed - a circumstance which reflects the greatest credit on the crew. The sails were all saved, and most of the slops and bales. Some perishable articles were destroyed by wet, but a very great deal came out quite serviceable. To get at the coal, which we so much required, it was necessary to break up the main-deck, and then many of us, to whom that occupation fell, descended into the bunkers, amid the water black with coal, where we got shockingly begrimed with our work. We had to keep our dirt too, for not a drop of water could then be allowed except to drink. The condensing apparatus was all under water, and could not be got out; but three main-deck tanks were taken on shore, and one of them was stayed up and strengthened sufficiently to make it capable of doing the work of a boiler, and in four days our engineers had a condensing apparatus complete. We also filled as many casks and barricos as we could with fresh water. The magazine was under water, and the ship's ammunition could not be got at at all, except two cases containing forty-seven rounds of powder and two thousand rounds of ball-cartridge. When we had cleared away all that we could get at, there still remained many casks of oil, paint, lime, &c., low down in the water, and for the extrication of these the diver went to work with some success. All this took time to do, and was not achieved without severe exertion, which, however, all underwent, officers and men, cheerfully and persistently, with a solitary exception. An ordinary seaman, the day after we beached the ship, refused to work. Whereupon the Captain turned up the hands, had the offender seized up to a grating on board, and ordered him four dozen lashes, which brought the culprit to his senses, and deterred any other skulkers, if such there were, from objecting to take their share of the toil. From this little incident it will be understood that of the valuables saved a cat-o'-nine-tails was one, and that our chief was not afraid to use it.

While some were employed landing provisions and stores, as above stated, others were preparing accommodation on shore. There were old sheds and houses standing on the island, which we, of course, turned to account. Besides these, tents were our readiest resort; but no time was lost in running up some huts of dry masonry or turf. Some of these were lined with canvas or wood, and some roughly plastered and lime-whited. The roofs of the new buildings were all of canvas. Our settlement grew at a most satisfactory rate, and was not at all ill laid out. Even here the benefit of discipline and order was felt. There was no running up a cabin here or there, as the taste or caprice of an individual might dictate. Everything was done under authority, according to a previously-considered plan, which looked to future contingencies as well as to present needs. The Captain had accepted responsibility for beaching the ship and for landing her people, and he was by consequence charged with the maintenance of their lives and health as far as was possible. That he never for a moment lost sight of such responsibility, was abundantly evident from the minuteness with which all our doings were officially proscribed. With what judgment he exercised his authority will be better understood when, we come to reckon up the number of dead he left behind, the casualties that occurred, and the general results of his administration. The hutment, then, was laid out with some care, and streets and roads were formed, as well as houses. The sites for the latter were carefully cleared and levelled as far as our means permitted. But we were, all through our sojourn, at a disadvantage from the paucity of picks and shovels, which, notwithstanding all that the blacksmiths could do to keep our small stock in repair, were always insufficient for our wants.

Where the piece has broken out of the crater's rim as above described, the rim itself, from both extremities of the fracture, slopes downward to the sea, and at its lowest part is hid under water - this lowest part being the bar on which the Megaera lay stranded. As the rim rises out of the water right and left, it forms two horns, one rising north, the other south. The prow of the ship pointed nearly west, therefore the northern horn, or causeway along the rock, was to the right of a beholder on her deck looking forward. This horn, which we called the Esplanade, ran up, as you looked at it from the sea, to a towering cliff 860 feet high, where we established our signed station; but inside, viewed from the crater, it sloped away behind the hill, forming a terraced shelter, an indented strand, upon which stood, or was to stand, our town. High up at the signal station we established a small outpost for the look-out men; and perpendicular to the northern horn we ran out a landing-pier into the crater. The marines had a tent to themselves, the sailors had four; there was one for the hospital or sick bay, one for the petty officers, one for the stokers. The stewards had a tent, so had the servants, and there was one for the men's bags. Last, though not least, there was a cooking-tent or galley. As for the officers, they lived together in two's and three's in tents or huts, or in dwellings compounded of the two. The Captain established himself in an old shed where whale-oil had been boiled; and to give an idea of the order of architecture fashionable in St Paul's, I subjoin some of the details of construction of "Government House," In its original condition as a whale-house it was a most unsavoury place. It had no window, so the first steps in the transformation were to pull down one of its side-walls (a dry rubble wall, remember), and then to pull up the pavement and cleanse the place thoroughly of its impurities and abominations. These were pretty well disposed of at last. Then they laid the floor anew in quicklime, raked the salt out of the walls, purified the whole edifice with carbolic acid, and finally rebuilt the wall which they had before taken down, only when the wall rose again, instead of being a "dead" one, it was lively with two superb windows. When the inside had been hung with canvas by way of tapestry, it formed an imposing hall, which was afterwards made to gain in comfort if it lost in grandeur, by being divided into three rooms by bulk-heads - dining-room, bed-room, and kitchen. The floors were made of ship's hatches, and the outside was whitewashed to a high degree of brightness. Inside was the cabin furniture: tables, chairs, bookshelves, and cot; mess-traps had been landed all sound; there was a toilet-table and a looking-glass: the settlement in its early infancy was becoming luxurious.

I do not know that the encampment generally needs a particular description; yet there is one little circumstance which it is right to mention, because it goes to prove that architecture in the island of St Paul is governed by considerations which do not present themselves in most places. The marines, it was stated, had a tent to themselves, or rather a tent and hut combined. After a little while it was found that the floor smoked, and that the paving-stones were so hot that none could touch them. It was the opinion of some of the more imaginative marines that their tabernacle stood over the ancient realm of Hades, from which it was separated by a thin crust. It seemed as if an extension of their motto, "per mare, per terram," might soon be proper. The fact was, as other evidence afterwards convinced us, that we were doing literally what people are by a figure so often said to do - slumbering on a volcano!

From first to last we saved more than two-thirds of the ship's stores. We rescued 35 tons of coals. We got out furniture and utensils sufficient to save us from very great privations in those respects. By the 24th of June all had landed except the Captain, twelve other officers, and forty men who continued to live on board. The men took their bags and hammocks ashore with them. By 29th June the bilge-water on board had become very offensive; and as preparations on shore had advanced satisfactorily, the last of our party landed on that day, leaving the old ship to her fate. We did not cease to extract what stores we could from the wreck; but we had for ever parted from her as our habitation. How long could she bear the attacks of the winds and the seas without falling to pieces?

Before we abandoned the ship, a discovery of some small ponds of water, holding about 3 tuns each, on the heights over our encampment, was made. It was ascertained, moreover, that if these ponds were drained, as they often were, they would be filled again by a night's rain. So that in this respect also we were far more favoured than we had any right to expect. The charts said the island was without water, which was true as regarded wholesome springs; but as long as the rainy season should last, the catch from our roofs, and the contents of the ponds, would yield an ample supply. If it should be our fate to be detained there till the dry season, we had still our extemporised condensing apparatus, and all that we might store during the wet season to fall back on. We did not anticipate a sojourn on the island until the water should fail, and so, having a certain stock of provisions, clothing, fresh water within reach, and a very fair shelter, we parted from the ship in good heart, being now interested in her only so far that we desired to get as much as we could out of her, and were curious to see how long, in her exposed and storm-beaten position, she could hold together. And now, before I begin to speak of life on the island, I will complete the history of the old Megaera. On the night between the 9th and 10th of August, her starboard quarter-gallery was washed away by heavy rollers; but she still held herself upright on the bar with all her masts standing. On the 23d of August, when we had five weeks' experience of the island, being much in want of plank, we went off and sawed the mizzen-mast off flush with the poop. It came down with such a crash that it broke in half; but still the ship held her ground, her familiar form being a link between us and the world from which we were separated - a souvenir of our notable preservation from the perils of the deep. Half an hour after midnight, on the morning of the 3d September, under the influence of the sea and the wind, both of which raged violently and with increasing strength, all our boats moored inside the crater were blown adrift. While we were securing them, a loud report was heard in the direction of the ship, and when the surf and rollers cleared away for a minute or two, it appeared that the old Megaera had parted amidships. Soon after the mainmast fell; and the part of the ship containing the engines and boilers broke up. Above the howling of the wind and the roaring of the surf could be heard the rending and cracking of her parting timbers and plates. The foremast with the fore-yard fell next The bows then, moving in a direct line for the entrance of the crater, tumbled over, blocking up two-thirds of the entrance. The stern of the ship was afterwards driven ashore on the rocks between the encampment and the open. Such was the fury of the elements, that large pieces of the wreck, and boulders weighing half a ton each, were driven twenty feet above high-water mark. Our esplanade was destroyed, many of the low-lying tents and houses were flooded, two shore-boats were washed off the strand where they had been hauled up, and our new pier was lifted and displaced. This all happened within an hour; but the hurly-burly continued and waxed stronger and more fearful till 9 o'clock, when, as if to bring the horrid turmoil and din to a climax, a huge cliff fell at the entrance to the crater, 2000 tons of it at the first crash, and then 700 tons more. And thus perished, not an easy victim even to nature's fury, her Majesty's iron screw-ship Megaera, seventy-six days after she had been stranded. Before we lost her presence we knew that our deliverance was at hand; so that, as we witnessed her terrible dissolution, we were spared, thank God, the apprehension that in a little while our remains too might strew that desolate shore.

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