Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cabin Biscuits and Water: The High Price of Stocking a Lifeboat

                             The Arctic in all its glory, 1852.  From Harper's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 5, 1852

In the worst shipwreck of the 19th century, the wooden steamship Arctic collided with the smaller, iron-hulled steamship Vesta, on September 27, 1854.   The two ships were travelling through the Grand Banks, a stretch of the Atlantic roughly sixty miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland that was notorious for fog.  Around noon, Captain James Luce was in the chartroom when he heard an officer shout “Hard a-starboard!  Stop her!”  Moments later, the bow of the Vesta rammed into the starboard side of the Arctic.  Until a quarter after one, Luce desperately attempted to steam the Arctic to shore so that passengers and crew could be saved, but by 1:30, it was clear to that the ship was going to sink.  As the water reached the grate bars of the ship’s upper furnaces on the port side and the pumps and engines stopped, panic ensued.

This terrible wreck is remembered because no woman or child survived when the crew members mutinied and took many of the spots aboard the ship’s too-few lifeboats.  While the facts of that mutiny haunt me, I also remember this wreck for another reason.  It was the first incident that I know of where a suggestion was raised to stock lifeboats with provisions so that its occupants could perhaps survive, or at least survive in more comfort, until they reached shore or were picked up by other vessels at sea.   

Right after the collision, Captain Luce commanded Chief Officer, Robert J. Gourlay to release a lifeboat and row with some other sailors to the Vesta to rescue its passengers.  But quickly afterwards, as it became clear that the Arctic was sinking, Luce abandoned the Vesta and Gourlay’s lifeboat to their fates.   Gourlay’s  lifeboat was found a month after the Arctic sank when the American schooner Lily Dale picked it up at sea with its oars still inside, but empty of its occupants.  Given the situation, the only reasonable explanations were that they had been rescued by a ship that subsequently sank, or that after some days adrift without water or food, each man had died and had been thrown in the water by the survivors until the last survivor, in a fit of delirium, leapt overboard and committed suicide.

Equally chilling, two more Arctic lifeboats that had been filled with passengers and crew eventually washed ashore in Newfoundland, one in mid-November, and another in December.  A reporter from Newfoundland wrote, “We fear the people who took to her at the time of the loss of the ship must have perished fearfully” (Qtd. in Brown, 148).

Another lifeboat, manned by Third Mate Francis Dorian, held 31 people.  Aside from a pumpkin and a cabbage that floated by and were salvaged, these survivors had no food or water to sustain them, either.

The port quarter boat and the starboard guard boats held 45 survivors under the command of Second Mate Baalham.  They had nothing more than a handful of biscuits that one of the passengers, William Gilbert, had thought to stuff in his pocket before the Arctic sank.  Gilbert’s fellow lifeboat occupant, Frederick De Mayer, remembered that “the gnawings of hunger and the terrors of starvation” compounded their plight (qtd. in Alexander Crosby Brown, 123).    

After the Arctic’s wreck, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Peary argued that for as little as $286, ten lifeboats could be equipped not only with compasses, oars, yards, sails, and masts, but also water and 1,500 pounds of biscuits placed in watertight containers.   The general response from ship owners was that such provisions would cost them “too much,” according to historian David Shaw’s account in The Sea Shall Embrace Them (44, 204)

Edward Knight Collins, the owner of the Arctic, agreed with Perry, however.  He was stricken by the deaths of his wife and two children who went down with the Arctic, as well as the deaths of Maria Miller Brown and Bill Brown, related to the Collins Line President, James Brown .  E.K. Collins wished to make immediate improvements and thought the investment in lifeboat provisions worth the cost.  He was also desperate to save his company.  In  his letter to Joseph Francis, printed in the New York Times on 3 November, 1854, Collins requested five new Metallic Life-Boats for each of his ships, and he hoped that his company “be able to provide for four hundred persons with water and provisions for several days in ordinary weather, at sea.”

Collins’ respect for the safety and wellbeing of his passengers appeared to be newly found, and it came too late.  When Collins’ ship, Pacific, set sail on January 23, 1856, it was never seen again, having presumably run into a huge ice field that sank it (Butler, 80-81).  The United States Congress cut Collins’ subsidy down to $385,000, Collins’ new ship, the Adriatic could only attract thirty-eight passengers (it had room for 376) on its first voyage, and by 1858, the Collins Line was dissolved.  In the meantime, the proposal of supplying lifeboats with provisions and water went unheeded.  

The story of Collins’s demise contains an irony:  How could the large shipping companies that survived the Collins Line and that came into being after it claim to be unable financially to provision lifeboats, when en route they spent lavishly on food, wine and spirits?  The Collins Line had set the culinary bar spectacularly high and other companies felt bound to match it to stay in business.  As part of its effort to “cast this man Cunard from the sea”, Collins drove its ships on average three knots faster than Cunard ships, costing Collins an exorbitant $10,000 per voyage on coal, and it offered first-class passengers meals calculated to overwhelm their gustatory senses, even though the first-class ticket price of $130.00 could not cover such costs.  The perpetual budget deficit of the Collins Line was justified because E. K. Collins and his backers were confident that over time, superior meals and service would bring them more business.  And, in spite of the horrific wreck of the Arctic and the disappearance of the Pacific, the lesson that later steamship companies seemed to take from Collins was that in spite of the cost, what mattered were sumptuous meals in luxury surroundings, not comfortable but plainly outfitted ships that put the passengers’ safety at a priority--what had been and continued to be for some years afterwards, Cunard's mantra.  For most companies, gourmet food mattered more than provisioning lifeboats in case of a disaster.

Looking back, Rear Admiral French Ensor Chadwick (1844-1919) drew a salient observation about Americans, and by implication, the Collins Line’s business strategy:  Americans “demanded more and more luxurious surroundings and appointments”—and they got them “in every respect” when it came to opulence and extravagance at sea (Ocean Steamships, 120)  But in regards to the ultimate extravagance—the safest possible voyages—American steamships might arguably be blamed for having given its passengers the short shrift.  Their objective was not to profit by ensuring passenger safety so much as it was to profit by ensuring passenger deception, to do everything possible to help passengers forget that they were at sea so that they could enjoy the experience and entertainment of an ocean passage.   But at what expense? 

Sources Cited:

Brown, Alexander Crosby.  Women and Children Last: The Loss of the Steamship Arctic.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961.

Butler, Daniel Allen. Age of Cunard:  A Transatlantic History, 1839-2003.  Annapolis, MD: Lighthouse P, 2003.

Chadwick, French Ensor, et. al.  Ocean Steamships: A Popular Account of Their Construction, Development, Management, and Appliances. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891.

“Life-Boats Ordered for the Collins Line.”  New York Times.  3 Nov. 1854, p. 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008).  Web.  4 June, 2012.

Luce, Captain Jame.  Letter to E.K. Collins.  Quebec, Oct. 14th 1854.  Reprinted in Friend’s Intelligencer 11(1854): 490.

Shaw, David W.  The Sea Shall Embrace Them:  The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic.  New York: Free Press, 2002.

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