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

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


It has been told how, on first landing, we set up a boom for a signal-staff on the mountain, and how we got ready night-signals to attract the attention of passing vessels. On the night of the 23d June a red light was seen, and we fired guns and rockets, but without being observed. A vessel was perceived on the morning of the 24th, but too far off to be communicated with. Later in the day, however, another sail was seen far away. The life-boat was signalled to be ready to put off to her in case this ship should come in; but the boat, mistaking the order, pulled after the distant vessel, and made desperate attempts to reach her. We saw from the shore that this was impossible, and made signals to the lifeboat (as we feared she would be benighted) to come back. It was an hour after dark when she got into the crater. The officer reported that he had got very near the ship, but had not been perceived. They had shipped seas that would have swamped any boat but a lifeboat, and they worn all wet through. Thus ended our first attempt to make our condition known. Lieut. Lewis Jones had orders to keep his portmanteau ready packed, and to board the first ship that he could reach. If he could not bring her in to take us away, he could, at any rate, go himself and take letters; and if he should be lucky enough to reach a port, he could tell of our plight. But fearing that it might be some time before he could get away, we rigged up some sea-messengers, made of barricos, with accounts of our situation inside, and sent them to sea. Two of these were attached to life-buoys. We also put accounts into bottles, weighted the bottles so that they would float upright, stuck a tin flag into each with the words "open me " punched through the flags, and committed them also to the deep. It was tedious work. We saw and chased a ship or two, but up to the 16th July - that is, a month after our arrival - not one had noticed us. On that day, however, our fortune changed. A Dutch barque, bound for Java, and in ballast, had seen our signal and come in. (The captain saw our flagstaff and thought it was a tree: but as he had some previous acquaintance with the island, and knew that it did not possess a tree, he came in to satisfy himself about it.) Lieutenant Jones, in the lifeboat, boarded her according to his orders, and got away with a few returns in his mail-bag. Despatches and private letters were unfortunately not to be found when he put off, and the writers of them were dispersed about the island, and did not get to camp until the opportunity had passed, although they came back at the top of their speed when they heard the gun fire. We thought, however, that the letters would yet be sent, as we fully expected the ship back. The boat brought back word that the barque could take twenty men with the water and provisions which she had on board; but we thought that, with the additional water and stores which we might give her, she might take the whole of us. Accordingly, as we expected her in again next day, we kept our condenser going all night, that the requisite quantity of water might be forthcoming, and got the despatches and letters ready this time. But she did not appear the next day, nor the day after that. Our whole community was overcome with chagrin, and could not recover from the mortification. The only consolation was, that Lieutenant Jones had got off and would report us. Sub-lieutenant Roxby was told off to board the next ship.

Our hopes were raised again on 23d July, but only to be disappointed. A ship passed, but a long way off. The lifeboat put off, and had proceeded but a short way beyond the bar when she was recalled, as the chase was hopeless. The only result of her start was, that some of the mail-bags got wet. There was a similar disappointment, and the mail-bags got wet again, on 28th July.

On 5th August, a Dutch barque, bound for Sumatra, came in. She took Mr Roxby, two other officers, and two seamen, besides a midshipman who, having boarded her from the cutler, was carried away with only the clothes he stood in. This was the occasion on which our cutter was taken away in tow of the barque; and the lifeboat, coming out to rescue the cutter's crew, had her port air-box stove in. The cutter took off water to the ship, and the lifeboat brought us flour in exchange; but the weather was so bad that no farther communication could be effected.

On Monday, 7th August, came in an English clipper-ship bound for Java. The captain would have taken us all to Australia upon exorbitant terms - viz., payment of £3000 and purchase of her cargo of coal at £4,10s. a ton, that we might throw 200 tons overboard to make room for us. As there was every reason to hope that we were in a fair way of being relieved, Captain Thrupp did not think proper to accede to this demand, and let the Mountain Laurel - that was her name - go on her way.

The next ship that visited us was the Oberon steamer, and she arrived on 20th August. Lieutenant Sanders boarded her in the lifeboat, and Lieutenant Evans in the Captain's galley. Just as the latter came alongside he fell overboard, and was gallantly saved by the coxswain of the lifeboat. Almost immediately the galley was seen returning to shore. We crowded to the beach to receive her, and hear what news she brought But before we had time to hear anything, we saw a sight which told us more than a long story, and which extracted such cheering as it was marvellous to account for, coming as it did through throats that swallowed but half a pound of beef per diem. The cheers did however come, and were repeated and prolonged as if the enthusiasm would never end. The cause of them was that, seated in the stern of the galley, and steering her in, was seen Lieutenant Lewis Jones, who had gone away from us in the Dutch barque on 16th July. He had reached Batavia, and had come back in the Oberon, auxiliary screw-steamer, bringing with him provisions for us, and bringing, too, the news that the steamer Malacca left Hong Kong on 7th August for St Paul's, with orders to take us to Sydney. As soon as we had welcomed Lieutenant Jones, we began to prepare for departure. We had held a survey of the stores; and our pier, sheers, &c. being now complete, we hoped for fine weather and a successful embarkation. The supplies brought by the Oberon took away all cause for short commons, and to our delight we were at once on full allowance; and it is to be hoped that the boatswain's and many other waistbands soon grew a good deal tighter. The Oberon left for England on the 27th.

Lieutenant Jones reported most favourably of the kindness and liberality of the captain of the Dutch barque Aurora. The latter refused to receive any passage-money from the Vice-Consul or from Lieutenant Jones, and only regretted that he had been able to render so little assistance.

Before the Malacca could arrive, came in by moonlight on 29th August H.M.S. Rinaldo, with orders for Captain Thrupp to proceed to England to face the inevitable court-martial. Next morning came in the Malacca, by which time it was beginning to blow hard. By noon both ships were standing out to sea, Rinaldo having lost two anchors, and Malacca one. Very like our luck, barring the leak. At evening they were both out of sight.

On 31st, the ships not being seen all day, Captain Thrupp made last arrangements, decided who should go to England and who to Sydney, and we settled all money transactions. Malacca was just seen at sunset and then vanished again, but on 1st September, which was a lovely day, she came in, dropped her anchor, and embarked 264 officers and men, with all their baggage. It was as smooth as oil while this was being done, but by the morning of the 2d it was blowing again. Malacca was informed that the anchorage was unsafe, and requested to weigh but to keep near, add come in again when weather might permit. But she held on, and at 9.30 parted her anchor and ran to sea, while it blew very hard indeed. It was a fearful night. It was the night, indeed, when, amid the war of the elements and a wrack as if heaven and earth would mingle, the old Megaera parted and broke up, as has been already described. Both ships were in again on the 5th, the Rinaldo under sail with no coal left. Her captain urged Captain Thrupp to embark at once; but that officer was far too sensible of what it behoved him to do to listen to such a suggestion. On the other hand, it was positively dangerous for Rinaldo to stay; yet she did wait, sailing about, tossed by the heavy sea some miles from the island, until all were embarked, Captain Thrupp appointing King George's Sound the rendezvous. Boats from camp got off to Malacca, but could not leave her again until they had been towed well up to windward, to enable them to pull back for more people from the island. The weather was beyond all conception bad. And now the captain of the Malacca too declared that he could wait no longer, and that Captain Thrupp must come on board at once. It cost the latter officer a pang, no doubt, to leave his stores, but the man who had decided so promptly and so judiciously on former trying occasions was not at fault now. He left the Frenchmen in charge of the stores, promising them remuneration if they acquitted themselves honourably, and hoping that when the stormy season should be over, a steamer might fetch the stores away at leisure. He then, after seeing every man who had been under his charge embark, left the island himself, and got onboard in safety. By this time Malacca had lost two anchors, one lifeboat, two cutters, and two chain-plates - pretty broad hints that it was time for her to be off.

Malacca reached King George's Sound in safety, whence the main body of the Megaera's crew proceeded to Sydney. Rinaldo arrived there on 16th September, but the mail-steamer took Captain Thrupp, and those who were to accompany him, to England. This was done to save time, as the Rinaldo would not have been coaled and provisioned for a week; whereas the mail-steamer was going direct to Galle at once.

So we were all saved. Thanks, in the first place, to the Providence that watched over us, and brought us through so many dangers! but thanks also to the instrument, our Captain, who, after so many misfortunes, could give a good account of us all. It may seem very straightforward work when it is read of after the events; but let any man think what would have been the effect of a failure of nerve, or of an error in judgment, at any of the critical predicaments which I have recorded. My object in writing this account was not to laud any one in particular, but to show what great things God has done for us all, as I said before. And yet I think that every one of our party, when he feels himself alive and hearty, when his wife's arms are round his neck, and his little ones are about his knees, will scarcely be convinced but that he owes his wellbeing, in some degree, to Captain Thrupp.

"Beseech you, sir, be merry; you have cause
(So have we all) of joy; for our escape
Is much beyond our loss: our hint of woe
Is common; every day some sailor's wife,
The masters of some merchant, and the merchant,
Have just our theme of woe ; but for the miracle,
I mean our preservation, few in millions
Can speak like us."
[Gonzallo in "The Tempest", by William Shakespeare; Act 2, Scene 1]

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