Most dreadful catastrophe: 476 men, women and children set sail on the ship Cospatrick. Only three reached St Helena alive

cospatrick 640 yThe story of the sinking of the emigrant ship Cospatrick was one of the most harrowing tales ever to come ashore at St Helena. Word reached the island on 6 December 1874, when three seamen brought horrific details of the disaster, and their many days in an open boat. They were the only survivors of 476 souls who had been aboard the emigrant ship Cospatrick when it caught fire off the Cape, en route from England to New Zealand. With no fresh water, the three had survived by drinking the blood of their dead companions.  

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From the Illustrated London News, January 2, 1875

The most terrible catastrophe of the old year was the destruction by fire of the emigrant-ship Cospatrick, and the consequent loss of over 450 lives, in the early morning of Nov. 18.

The Cospatrick left Gravesend on Sept. 11 last, carrying 429 emigrants. There were 177 male adults, 125 women, 58 boys, 53 girls, and 16 infants under twelve months. Her crew was composed of 43 persons-officers, men, and boys, all told. There were also on board four independent passengers, making in all a total of 476 souls.

A telegram from Madeira in the Daily News says that at midnight on Nov. 17, when the second officer left the deck, everything was apparently all right, but at half-past twelve he was awoke by the alarm of fire. The captain was on deck immediately, and all hands attempted to get the vessel before the wind, but without success. The flames came up the fore hatch within a quarter of an hour, and in less than half an hour the fire was nearly all along the deck.

A special cablegram in the Daily Telegraph goes on to say that the flames and smoke were driven aft, setting fire to the boats which were placed in the fore part of the vessel, and thus effectually prevented their use. The excitement on board now became terrible, and the passengers rushed to the quarter boats, which were on the davits hanging over the side, and crowded into them.

It is estimated that about eighty people, most of them women, thus got into the starboard boat, and remained there till the davits bent down over the side and the boat’s stern dipped into the sea. Then it capsized, and all its occupants were immediately drowned alongside the vessel.

Just afterwards the fore, main, and mizen masts all fell over the side in quick succession, killing many of the emigrants and adding to the terror of the rest.

But the worst had not yet come; for suddenly the stern of the vessel blew out with a loud report under the poop deck, and completed the destruction of the ship. Two boats under the command of Mr. Romaine and Mr. Macdonald had meanwhile been filled, and reached some little distance from the Cospatrick; but Captain Elmslie, his wife, and Dr. Cadle remained on board the vessel until she went down.

When the last moment had come the captain threw his wife overboard, and then leapt into the sea after her. At the same time the doctor jumped overboard with the captain’s little boy in his arms, and all were drowned together.

The two boats kept together for a couple of days. They were then separated by bad weather. The missing boat contained the chief officer, the ship’s butcher, five seamen, and twenty-five passengers. She has not since been heard of, but it is hoped that she may have reached the island of Tristan d’Acunha.

In Macdonald’s boat thirst soon began to be severely felt. One man fell overboard while steering. Three others died after becoming mad. On Nov. 23 four more died. The survivors were then suffering so intensely from hunger and thirst that they drank the blood and ate the livers of two of the dead.

Other deaths followed; and when, on the 27th, two more of the men died, one was thrown overboard, but nobody had strength enough to lift the other.

Ultimately five men were all who were left alive in the boat, and of these two had gone mad. They died soon after being rescued by the ship British Sceptre. Macdonald, Thomas Lewis, and James Cotter, the three survivors, were most kindly treated on board the British Sceptre, which landed them, on Dec. 6, at St. Helena. Thence they left in the Nyanza for Southampton, touching, en voyage, at Madeira, whence the foregoing particulars of the lamentable calamity have been telegraphed to England.

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From the Illustrated London News of January 9, 1875.

The terrible disaster at sea on Nov. 18, which was related in our paper of last week, is still the topic of much sorrowful comment and discussion. An official despatch from the Governor of St. Helena to the Earl of Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, is dated Dec. 10, four days after the arrival there of the ship British Sceptre, with three survivors only of this dreadful misadventure.

Two life-boats kept afloat, with thirty-two people in one and thirty in the other. The port life-boat was in charge of Mr. C. Romaine, chief mate; the other life-boat was under Mr. Macdonald.

All but five of the thirty in that boat had died of hunger and thirst and exposure. There were no females in this party. They had no food, no fresh water, no mast or sail, and but one oar. A girl’s petticoat was rigged upon the oar for a sail, which enabled them to go before a southerly wind.

It is thought just possible that the other life-boat may have reached the lonely islets of Tristan d’Acunha, where there are a few settlers of English race. H.M.S. Sappho was sent from the Cape de Verde Islands, on the 6th ult., to look after this chance. But two steamers have arrived at Madeira – one from the Cape of Good Hope, the other from St. Helena – which bring no news of the escape of more lives.

The fire is supposed to have begun in the boatswain’s locker, which contained ropes and oakum, cotton waste, tar, paint, and oils; near this were several casks of fat, and some kerosine oil; in the forepeak were seventy tons of coals; and there were about forty tons of spirit on board.

Our illustration of the Cospatrick is from a photograph by Mr. F.C. Gould, of Gravesend, taken just before she sailed from the Thames. She was a sailing-ship, of 1220 tons burden, 190 ft. in length, 34 ft. in breadth, and with 24 ft. depth of hold. She was built of teak, at Moulmein, British Burmah, in 1856, and was first employed as an Indian troopship, but passed into the hands of private owners, and was used for the coolie trade to Demerara.

The New Zealand Government emigrants on board were chiefly of the agricultural-labourer class, from the midland and eastern counties; they consisted of 177 adult males, 125 women, 58 boys, 53 girls, and 16 babies; and there were also four independent passengers.

Portraits of Captain Alexander Elmslie, of Mrs. Elmslie, and of their little boy, four years old, will be regarded with painful interest. There are two children surviving, little girls. It is to be hoped that these orphans will receive some benefit from the Mansion House Fund, to which the New Zealand Government Agency has subscribed £1000, for the relief of those left destitute by the burning of the Cospatrick.

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With thanks to island traveller and historian John Grimshaw, who brought this story to the attention of St Helena Online. John has published many articles about St Helena’s history, here.  

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