From William Makepeace Thackeray's Roundabout Papers
SS SARAH SANDS.
The screw steamship ‘Sarah Sands,’ 1,330 registered tons, was chartered by the East India Company in the autumn [16th Aug] of 1857, for the conveyance of troops to India. She was commanded by John Squire Castle. She took out a part of the 54th Regiment, upwards of 350 persons, besides the wives and children of some of the men, and the families of some of the officers. All went well till the 11th November, when the ship had reached lat. 14 S., long. 56 E., upwards of 400 miles from the Mauritius.
Between three and four P. M. on that day a very strong smell of fire was perceived arising from the after-deck, and upon going below into the hold, Captain Castle found it to be on fire, and immense volumes of smoke arising from it. Endeavors were made to reach the seat of the fire, but in vain; the smoke and heat were too much for the men. There was, however, no confusion. Every order was obeyed with the same coolness and courage with which it was given. The engine was immediately stopped. All sail was taken in, and the ship brought to the wind, so as to drive the smoke and fire, which was in the after-part of the ship, astern. Others were, at the same time, getting fire-hoses fitted and passed to the scene of the fire. The fire, however, continued to increase, and attention was directed to the ammunition contained in the powder-magazines, which were situated one on each side the ship immediately above the fire. The star-board magazine was soon cleared. But by this time the whole of the after-part of the ship was so much enveloped in smoke that it was scarcely possible to stand, and great fears were entertained on account of the port magazine. Volunteers were called for, and came immediately, and, under the guidance of Lieutenant Hughes, attempted to clear the port magazine, which they succeeded in doing, with the exception, as was supposed, of one or two barrels. It was most dangerous work. The men became overpowered with the smoke and heat, and fell; and several, while thus engaged, were dragged up by ropes, senseless.
The flames soon burst up through the deck, and running rapidly along the various cabins, set the greater part on fire.
In the meantime Captain Castle took steps for lowering the boats. There was a heavy gale at the time, but they were launched without the least accident. The soldiers were mustered on deck;— there was no rush to the boats; and the men obeyed the word of command as if on parade. The men were informed that Captain Castle did not despair of saving the ship, but that they must be prepared to leave her if necessary. The women and children were lowered into the port lifeboat, under the charge of Mr. Very, third officer, who had orders to keep clear of the ship until recalled.
Captain Castle then commenced constructing rafts of spare spars. In a short time, three were put together, which would have been capable of saving a great number of those on board. Two were launched overboard, and safely moored alongside, and then a third was left across the deck forward, ready to be launched.
In the meantime the fire had made great progress. The whole of the cabins were one body of fire, and at about 8.30 P. M. flames burst through the upper deck, and shortly after the mizzen rigging caught fire. Fears were entertained of the ship paying off, in which case the flames would have been swept forwards by the wind; but fortunately the after-braces were burnt through, and the main-yard swung round, which kept the ship’s head to wind. About nine P. M., a fearful explosion took place in the port magazine, arising, no doubt, from the one or two barrels of powder which it had been impossible to remove. By this time the ship was one body of flame, from the stern to the main rigging, and thinking it scarcely possible to save her, Captain Castle called Major Brett (then in command of the troops, for the Colonel was in one of the boats) forward, and, telling him that he feared the ship was lost, requested him to endeavor to keep order amongst the troops till the last, but, at the same time, to use every exertion to check the fire. Providentially, the iron bulkhead in the after-part of the ship withstood the action of the flames, and here all efforts were concentrated to keep it cool.
‘No person,’ says the captain, ‘can describe the manner in which the men worked to keep the fire back; one party were below, keeping the bulkhead cool, and when several were dragged up senseless, fresh volunteers took their places, who were, however, soon in the same state. At about ten P. M., the maintopsail-yard took fire. Mr. Welch, one quartermaster, and four or five soldiers, went aloft with wet blankets, and succeeded in extinguishing it, but not until the yard and mast were nearly burnt through. The work of fighting the fire below continued for hours, and about midnight it appeared that some impression was made; and after that, the men drove it back, inch by inch, until daylight, when they had completely got it under. The ship was now in a frightful plight. The afterpart was literally burnt out merely the shell remaining the port quarter blown out by the explosion: fifteen feet of water in the hold.’
The gale still prevailed, and the ship was rolling and pitching in a heavy sea, and taking in large quantities of water abaft: the tanks, too, were rolling from side to side in the hold.
As soon as the smoke was partially cleared away, Captain Castle got spare sails and blankets aft to stop the leak, passing two hawsers round the stern, and setting them up. The troops were employed baling and pumping. This continued during the whole morning.
In the course of the day the ladies joined the ship. The boats were ordered alongside, but they found the sea too heavy to remain there. The gig had been abandoned during the night, and the crew, under Mr. Wood, fourth officer, had got into another of the boats. The troops were employed the remainder of the day baling and pumping, and the crew securing the stern. All hands were employed during the following night baling and pumping, the boats being moored alongside, where they received some damage. At daylight, on the 13th, the crew were employed hoisting the boats, the troops were working manfully baling and pumping. Latitude at noon, 13 deg. 12 min. south. At five P. M., the foresail and foretopsail were set, the rafts were cut away, and the ship bore for the Mauritius. On Thursday, the 19th, she sighted the Island of Rodrigues, and arrived at Mauritius on Monday the 23rd.
Then from Exchequer Reports:
The master having caused surveys to be made to ascertain the amount of injury to the ship, and whether she could be repaired, either at the Mauritius or elsewhere, and at what cost, it was found that the ship could not be effectually repaired at the Mauritius, and that the costs of her repairs would far exceed the value of the ship when repaired. He accordingly, on the 9th of January, 1858, caused a protest to be drawn up and notice of abandonment to be sent to the plaintiffs, who received it on the 12th of February, 1858. On the 17th of February the plaintiffs gave notice of abandonment to the underwriters on the hull and machinery, and claimed as for a total loss. The defendant accepted the abandonment. On the 5th of December the said John Squire Castle chartered a steam ship called the "Clarendon" to convey the troops to Calcutta, at a freight of 6197/. 18s. 4rf., which was paid by the East India Company to the owners of the "Clarendon" and deducted from the payment hereinafter mentioned to be made to Turner, Cadogan & Co. after the arrival of the passengers in India.
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