The Marlborough in Port Chalmers (NZ)
|Career (Great Britain)|
|Builder:||Robert Duncan and Co., Port Glasgow|
|Fate:||Last sighted 13 January 1890, near New Zealand|
|Displacement:||1,124 long tons (1,142 t)|
|Length:||228 ft (69 m)|
|Beam:||35 ft (11 m) over paddle boxes|
|Draught:||21 ft 7 in (6.58 m)|
|Sail plan:||Three-masted full-rigged ship|
The Marlborough was a large iron-built sailing merchant ship which disappeared in 1890. She was built by the firm of Robert Duncan and Co., Port Glasgow and launched in 1876 for her owner Mr. J. Leslie, who later sold her to the Albion Company.
The ship was commanded by Captain Anderson from 1876–1883, with a crew of 29, when she made voyages to Lyttelton, New Zealand and Dunedin, also making some very fast passages home to the United Kingdom, on one occasion, in 1880, travelling from Lyttelton to the Lizard in Cornwall in 71 days.
Marlborough made 14 successful voyages with immigrants from London to New Zealand up to 1890, most often returning with cargoes of wool and frozen meat. She had been converted to refrigeration as soon as the success of the venture was proven by her sister ship Dunedin, and carried her first shipment in 1882. In 1884 Captain Herd took over command and was aboard her at the time of her voyage from Lyttleton to London in 1890, when she disappeared without trace.
On 11 January 1890, the Marlborough departed Lyttleton bound for London, with a cargo of frozen meat and wool, with a crew of twenty-nine men and one passenger. Two days later she was spoken to by a passing vessel and was never heard of again. When no word of her came after a long wait, an inquiry was made as to her condition when she sailed, where it was proved that the cargo was properly stowed and the ship well founded in good trim for the voyage. After some months the ship was posted at Lloyd's as "missing" and general opinion was that the ship had been sunk by icebergs, which were frequently encountered near Cape Horn.
RMS Rimutaka reported that there were great quantities of ice in the Southern Ocean between the Chatham Island and Cape Horn when she sailed through the area in early to mid February. This was at the same time as the Marlborough would have been in the vicinity. The Marlborough's Captain Herd was noted for running well to the south.
Alex Carson, a ships apprentice on the Marlborough, was meant to have sailed on this journey but fell ill before the ship sailed. His illness effectively saved his life.
Fate of the crew and passengers
Two spurious stories are often reproduced regarding the fate of the Marlborough, which have been debunked by author Basil Lubbock in his The Last of the Windjammers
In October 1913, the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times published a story according to which the Marlborough had been discovered near Cape Horn with the skeletons of her crew on board. The Straits Times attributed the story to a paper called the Evening Standard and mentioned that it was based on an "account cabled from New Zealand" which was yet to be confirmed. The ship that sighted the Marlborough in 1913 was said to be the sailing ship Johnson. Some less reliable publications have referred to the Johnson as a merchant steamer.
Further details of the discovery of the missing ship come via London. It appears that some considerable time back the sad truth was learned by a British vessel bound home from Lyttleton after rounding cape Horn. The story told by the captain is intensely dramatic. He says: ‘We were off the rocky coves near Punta Arenas, keeping near the land for shelter. The coves are deep and silent, the sailing is difficult and dangerous. It was a weirdly wild evening, with the red orb of the sun setting on the horizon. The stillness was uncanny. There was a shining green light reflected on the jagged rocks on our right. We rounded a point into a deep cleft rock. Before us, a mile or more across the water, stood a vessel, with the barest shreds of canvas fluttering in the breeze.
We signaled and hove to. No answer came. We searched the "stranger" with our glasses. Not a soul could we see; not a movement of any sort. Masts and yards were picked out in green – the green of decay. The vessel lay as if in a cradle. It recalled the "Frozen Pirate" a novel that I read years ago. I conjured up the vessel of the novel, with her rakish masts and the outline of her six small cannon traced with snow. At last we came up. There was no sign of life on board. After an interval our first mate, with a number of the crew, boarded her. The sight that met their gaze was thrilling. Below the wheel lay the skeleton of a man. Treading warily on the rotten decks, which cracked and broke in places as they walked, they encountered three skeletons in the hatchway. In the mess-room were the remains of ten bodies, and six others were found, one alone, possibly the captain, on the bridge. There was an uncanny stillness around, and a dank smell of mold, which made the flesh creep. A few remnants of books were discovered in the captain's cabin, and a rusty cutlass. Nothing more weird in the history of the sea can ever have been seen. The first mate examined the still faint letters on the bow and after much trouble read ‘Marlborough, Glasgow.’
— newspaper report, 1913
The points against this story are that:
- the area around Cape Horn is subject to severe storms, strong eastwards currents, and icebergs. Any drifting vessel would more likely have been driven on to rocks or into icebergs rather than gently floating around for over 20 years
- the Cape was on a major shipping route making the likelihood of any vessel remaining undetected for such a long length of time improbable (the Panama Canal did not open until 1914 and this was the quickest route for ships from the American Pacific Coast to the Atlantic)
- Punta Arenas was a significant settlement and minor gold rush had started in the area in the 1890's further reducing the likelihood of the ship remaining undetected
- the area around the Cape was searched quite regularly for missing ships and their crews due to the high number of shipping disasters in the area
- a sailing ship like the Johnson would not normally sail on this route to reach New Zealand – the usual route being the Clipper route around the Horn if sailing from England. See map.
- the Johnson was not listed as being in a New Zealand port between 1912 and 1913
- there were no follow up stories in the papers that did report the find, although they indicated they would
- the story was not covered in any New Zealand newspaper until 1924, while the Burley account was extensively reported in the same period
- there was no follow-up search for the Marlborough when this would be likely
Earlier, in September 1913, the Evening Post, a Wellington, New Zealand newspaper, published a story attributed to Captain McArthur of the Blue Funnel Steamers. The story was in a letter by a Shaw, Savill & Albion Line Captain to a Dunedin shipping man. This account differed in that it stated that two shipwrecked sailors had found the skeletons of the crew on shore and ship some distance away. The story was supposedly discredited by October with Captain Herd's son advising that the story had circulated in 1912 and was untrue particularly because his father would not have sailed into the area where the ship was supposed to have been found.
In February 1914 the Evening Post published a follow up article attributed to its London correspondent that stated Captain S Burley of Puget Sound was one of the crew members that had found the boat and that they had been wrecked in the 1890s, not 1912 as Hird's son had supposed. The paper stated the wreck had been sighted six to seven miles north of Good Success Bay and in sight (on a clear day) of Staten Island. The article also has Burley describing the ship as "a London ship, the Marlborough", when she was in fact registered in Glasgow Hird's comment that his father would not have sailed in this part of the Cape was also addressed.
According to an article in the 24 November 1923 issue of the Auckland Star, in 1919 an additional report had been published in an unspecified Glasgow newspaper which suggested that the crew had been sighted on shore in 1891, but that the passing ship had been unable to rescue them. According to the Auckland Star, the Glasgow story also repeated the first story about the ship being discovered in 1913 with a dead crew on board.
A more detailed account of Captain T. S. Burley of Seattle's claim was printed in 1940. Burley claimed to have been on the barque Cordova which he said was wrecked off Tierra del Fuego on 23 July 1890. The survivors attempted to reach Good Success Bay (now known as Aguirre Bay) on Mitre Peninsula, and on the way passed the wreck of a barque named Godiva. They did not see the Marlborough, but did find a few miles south of the wreck of the Godiva a boat marked "Marborough of London" pulled up above the high tide mark. It was also claimed that they had found a tent made from sail canvas and 7 skeletons with a pile of mussel shells.
Based on this, Burley's account looks more like one of mistaken identity because, while much of his story fits the account of the Cordova's demise and subsequent rescue of four crew members a little over a month later, the date of the Cordova's foundering was in 1888. This was nearly two years before the Marlborough sailed through the area.
Lubbock points out that the coast of Tierra del Fuego inside the Le Maire Strait would be an odd location for a vessel bound round Cape Horn from the west – as the Marlborough was – to go ashore, or even for a boat from her to make a landing. Additionally, the Marlborough was registered in Glasgow, not London.
- Fleming Day, Thomas (November 1982). Sea Breezes (Pacific Steam Navigation Company) 56 (443): pp. 83–87.
- Perils of the sea – three lives lost. The missing ship Marlborough, Evening Post, Volume XXXIX, Issue 125, 29 May 1890, Page 2
- Untitled, Auckland Star, Volume XXI, Issue 138, 12 June 1890, Page 4
- Departure of the Rimutaka, Press, Volume XLVII, Issue 7469, 7 February 1890, Page 4
- Tragedy of the deep, Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XL, Issue 13195, 2 October 1913, Page 2
- Fortunate illness, Press, Volume XLIX, Issue 14788, 4 October 1913, Page 5
- Lubbock, Basil (1986). The Last of the Windjammers. Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson.
- "Crew of Skeletons. Missing Ship Reported After Twenty-Three Years.". The Straits Times. 27 October 1913. p. 3.
- The cruise of the skeletons, Robert Le Roy Ripley, Believe it or not!, Simon and Schuster, 1929, page 159
- A nightmarish dream comes true, Weekly World News, 29 September 1981, page 36
- U.S. Navy Marine Climatic Atlas of the World: Rounding Cape Horn, 1995. Retrieved 5 February 2006.
- Teira del Fuego and its dangers, The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, Wednesday, 18 December 1889
- Searching for castaways, Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 7940, 13 August 1891, Page 5
- The Press a Christchurch newspaper carried a daily column with shipping movements at Lyttleton where the Johnson was supposed to have called. No report of it being there in 1912/1913 has been found
- "Strange Story of the Sea", The Evening Post (New Zealand), 26 September 1913: 8
- "A Discredited Story. The Missing Marlborough.", Auckland Star, 8 October 1913: 5
- "A Tale of the Sea", The Evening Post (New Zealand), 25 February 1914: 8
- Brett, Henry (24 November 1923), "The Marlborough. Lost With All Hands.", Auckland Star: 17
- The epic of the Horn. The story of the old time sailing ships off Cape Horn. Part 1, J G Eastwood, The Cairns Post, Queensland, 14 June 1940
- http://www.plimsoll.org/resources/SCCLibraries/WreckReports/15386.asp Board of Trade report into wreck
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