Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The sinking of the Empress of Canada.

RMS Empress of Canada was an ocean liner built in 1920 for the Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan on the Clyde in Scotland. This ship -- the first of two CP vessels to be named Empress of Canada -- regularly traversed the trans-Pacific route between the west coast of Canada and the Far East until 1939. This Empress was distinguished by the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) prefix in front of her name while in commercial service with Canadian Pacific. When not carrying mail, the ship would have been identified as SS Empress of Canada.

In 1920, Canadian Pacific Steamships ordered a new ship to be built by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company at Govan near Glasgow in Scotland. This Empress was a 21,517 ton, 653 foot ocean liner. She undertook her maiden voyage on 5 May 1922. Based at the port of Vancouver, British Columbia, the first Empress of Canada was intended to provided service to Japan, Hong Kong, and China. Her sister ships included Empress of France and Empress of Britain.

Great Kantō earthquake
On 34 September 1923, the Empress of Canada arrived at Tokyo harbor -- just three days after the devastating Great Kantō Earthquake struck the city. She found that the Empress of Australia had been converted to a command post from which the British consul was directing relief work; and the Empress of Canada transported refugees to Kobe -- 587 Europeans, 31 Japanese, and 362 Chinese.

World War II
Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, she was converted for use as a troopship. She carried ANZAC troops from New Zealand and from Australia to the war zones in Europe.

SS Empress of Australia's ballroom was cleared for sleeping as ANZAC troops are transported from the Antipodes to the war zones in the Northern Hemisphere. This specific image was captured at sea in January 1940 near Fremantle, Western Australia.

The return voyage from Europe was not less dangerous than the trip north had been. On 13 March 1943, while en route from Durban, South Africa to Takoradi carrying Italian prisoners of war along with Polish and Greek refugees, the SS Empress of Canada was torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo Da Vinci approximately 400 miles (640 km) south of Cape Palmas off the coast of Africa. Of the approximate 1800 people on board, 392 died. Nearly half of the fatalities reported were Italian prisoners.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Fire on the River. The Steamboat SS Sutlana

The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history until that time. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank not far from Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War.

Under the command of Captain J.C. Mason of St. Louis, the Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous heads of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch weld job was done to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of less thickness than the parent plate was riveted in its place.

This repair only took about a day, whereas to replace the boiler completely would have taken about three days. Captain Mason was itching to be on his way and had the patch job done because it was faster. During the Sultana's time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the ship was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than two thousand men crowded aboard.

Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of Sultana's passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.

The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded attempting to overcome the spring river current. The boiler (or "boilers") gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 A.M. There was a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water while destroying a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis.

The first boat on the scene at about 3:00 A.M. (an hour after the explosion) was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which overtook the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank and sank about dawn off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, the Jenny Lind, the Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship's regular crew had been discharged days before.

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. The Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.

About 500 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies. The Chicago Opera Troupe staged a benefit, the crew of the Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.

Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Pamyat Azova and a rotten egg.

The Pamiat Azova (Память Азовa meaning Memory of Azov) was a unique armoured cruiser built for the Imperial Russian Navy in the late 1880s. She was decommissioned from front line service in 1909, converted into a depot ship and sunk by British torpedo boats during the British Campaign in the Baltic 1918-19, in the Russian Civil War.

The ship served with the Baltic Fleet and took part in a round the World Cruise with Crown Prince Nicholas on board. This led to a Fabergé egg, the Memory of Azov being made to commemorate this event. There was a mutiny aboard the cruiser in 1906 near Reval and the ship was placed in reserve. In 1909 she was converted into a torpedo boat depot ship and renamed Dvina. She was sunk by the British torpedo boat CMB79 in Kronstadt Harbour on 18 August 1919. The wreck was raised and scrapped.

The egg commemorates the voyage made by then-Tsarevitch Nicholas and Grand Duke George to the Far East in 1890.
The trip was made after a suggestion by their parents to broaden the outlook of the future Tsar and his brother. At the time, Grand Duke George was suffering from tuberculosis and the voyage only exacerbated it. Tsarevitch Nicholas was also the victim of an attempted assassination whilst in Japan and sustained a serious head wound. The Tsarina was presented with the egg before these events occurred and it was never one of her favourite eggs.