SS Principessa Mafalda
|Namesake:||Princess Mafalda of Savoy|
|Owner:||Navigazione Generale Italiana|
|Port of registry:||Genoa|
|Builder:||Cantiere Navale di Riva Trigoso|
|Launched:||22 October 1908|
|Completed:||9 March 1909|
|Fate:||Sank on 25 October 1927 in South Atlantic.|
|Length:||463 ft (141 m)|
|Beam:||56 ft (17 m)|
|Speed:||18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)|
|Notes:||Two funnels, two masts|
The SS Principessa Mafalda was an Italian transatlantic ocean liner built for the Navigazione Generale Italiana (NGI) company. Named after Princess Mafalda of Savoy, second daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, the ship was completed and entered NGI's South American service between Genoa and Buenos Aires in 1909. At the time she was the largest Italian passenger ship afloat. Principessa Mafalda was known for her luxury and was the preferred mode of travel for such celebrities of the day as Carlos Gardel. Her sister ship SS Principessa Jolanda had sunk immediately upon launching on 22 September 1907.
On 25 October 1927, while off the coast of Brazil, a propeller shaft fractured and damaged the hull. The ship sank slowly in the presence of rescue vessels, but confusion and panic resulted in 314 fatalities out of the 1,252 passengers and crew on board the ship. The sinking resulted in the greatest loss of life in Italian shipping and the largest ever in the Southern Hemisphere in peacetime.
Principessa Mafalda was built at Cantiere Navale di Riva Trigoso with her sister, the SS Principessa Jolanda. In 1907 the Jolanda sank during her launch in a dramatic spectacle. The sinking was the result of mistakes in launch procedures and not flaws in vessel design. Principessa Mafalda was launched on 22 October 1908 without her superstructure installed in order to avoid the same accident. She was finally completed on 30 March 1909 and became the flagship of the NGI. In 1910 she played a part in the development of long distance radio communication when Guglielmo Marconi conducted experiments on board.
Specifically designed for voyages between Genoa and Buenos Aires, Principessa Mafalda was considered the best ship on this route for several years. She had a luxurious two-story ballroom, spacious cabins in Louis XVI style and traveled at a relatively rapid 18 knots. On the eve of World War I, 22 August 1914, she made her one and only voyage between Genoa and New York City. During the war she was requisitioned by the Italian Royal Navy and housed officers at Taranto. She resumed her prewar South American service in 1918. She remained the NGI's flagship until 1922, when the SS Giulio Cesare assumed the role. By 1926 the Mafalda had made over 90 long but uneventful round trips and had a reputation for "faded luxury."
Last voyage and sinking
On 11 October 1927 Principessa Mafalda sailed from Genoa for Buenos Aires with intermediate stops scheduled at Barcelona, Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Montevideo. The ship was under the command of Captain Simone Gulì with 971 passengers and 281 crew aboard. She also carried 300 tonnes of cargo, 600 bags of mail, and 250,000 gold lire destined for the Argentine government. The trip was to take 14 days.
It soon became apparent that the ship was in poor condition. Principessa Mafalda left Barcelona almost a day late due to mechanical problems and several times she slowed to a complete stop on the high seas, sometimes for hours. Water in bathrooms became intermittent. A refrigeration system failure caused tons of food to spoil, resulting in numerous cases of food poisoning. At the stop at Cape Verde, Captain Gulì telegraphed the company to request a replacement vessel, but was told "Continue to Rio and await instructions." With the ship resupplied with fresh food and partially repaired, he took her out onto the Atlantic.
By 23 October Principessa Mafalda had developed a small but noticeable list to port. The passengers, who had received few explanations for the previous breakdowns, now began to worry that the ship was taking on water. Although far behind schedule, she was finally traveling at full steam off the coast of northern Brazil on the 24th. Life aboard then flowed more quietly with the longest part of the journey nearly complete. On crossing the Equator, a line-crossing ceremony was organized on deck with orchestra music and a huge cake.
Around 17:15 hours on 25 October 1927, near the Abrolhos Archipelago, 80 miles off Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, the ship was rocked by several strong shudders. Passengers were initially assured that this was only due to the loss of a propeller and the situation was not dangerous. However, on the bridge the engineer reported that the starboard propeller shaft had indeed fractured, but it had also traveled off its axis and cut a series of gashes in the hull. Complicating matters, the watertight doors could not be fully closed. At 17:35 Captain Gulì sounded the alarm and ordered the radio officer to send SOS. He also stated this was merely a precaution as he believed his ship could stay afloat until the next day. Two ships, the SS Empire Star (British) and Alhena (Dutch), arrived quickly. With clear weather and rescue nearby, it seemed that the situation was in hand. However, panic began to spread among both passengers and crew.
There are many conflicting versions about what happened next. What is known is that officers had difficulty maintaining order, some passengers were armed, and the ship kept moving forward in a wide circle for at least an hour. Rescue vessels received confusing signals about how to assist. Not all the lifeboats could be launched due to the list, some were rushed by the crowd, and many were not even seaworthy. An Argentinian newspaper claimed that the first lifeboat away was filled almost entirely with crew, including the purser. The rescue vessels, fearing a possible boiler explosion, kept themselves at a distance. A few remaining lifeboats did shuttle between Principessa Mafalda and Alhena, but some were capsized by the panicked throngs. Captain Gulì went down with the ship, and the chief engineer, Silvio Scarabicchi, reportedly committed suicide by shooting himself. Gulì was posthumously decorated for bravery at sea, as were the two radio operators, Luigi Reschia and Francesco Boldracchi, who had remained at their post until they had been drowned.
At 22:10, nearly five hours after the initial accident, Principessa Mafalda sank stern first. Since she went down on a busy shipping lane, a number of vessels arrived to assist. By daybreak, Alhena had picked up 450 survivors. Avelona rescued 300, Empire Star rescued 202, Formosa 151. Rosetti rescued 122. Moselle rescued 49 people, 22 of whom were landed at Bahia. Those rescued by Empirestar were transferred to Formosa and landed at Rio de Janeiro. Many controversies remain about exactly what transpired and who was responsible for the death toll. Reports of gunfire, sharks in the water, exploding boilers, and nearby ships refusing to assist were widely published but never confirmed. Even the exact wreck site remains a matter of dispute today.
An investigation by the Italian Navy Board began immediately following the tragedy. It determined that a joint in the propeller casing was to blame for the accident and it ordered that propeller shafts on all Italian-registered vessels be fitted with devices designed to avoid such accidents. It also determined that six lifeboats located on the stern could not be used because of poor placement. Issues of the vessel's age, inadequate maintenance, and the problematic actions of the crew were not investigated. However, the NGI was ordered to pay heavy compensation to the families of victims.
A journalistic investigation conducted in 1956 by the weekly L'Europeo established more facts. A 2012 analysis demonstrated that while the number of casualties among steerage passengers was indeed high, the death rate between first and third class was the reverse of that of the RMS Titanic, more first class passengers died (51.8%) than did steerage class passengers (27.8%).
In 2013 Il naufragio previsto. Principessa Mafalda: l'ultimo tragico viaggio was published, a short book about the sinking.
In what has been called a further "twist of fate" to the history of Principessa Mafalda, Princess Mafalda of Savoy herself also met with tragedy. Imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II for use as a hostage to manipulate her father, King Victor Emmanuel III, she died at Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944, aged 41. Her sister Jolanda died in 1986.
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- Osvaldo Sidoli: "El fin del Principessa Mafalda" Historia y Arqueología Marítima. (Buenos Aires: Fundación Histarmar 2008) (in Spanish) Retrieved 10 August 2012
- Associated Press, “Death List of Sea Disaster Mounts to 300, With Many Still Missing - Full Check On Rescue Ships Not Possible - Bravery Displayed by Men of Vessels Which Rushed to Side of Lost Craft - Count 900 Survivors - Scenes Off Brazilian Coast Admitted Long Drawn Out As Well as Harrowing,” The San Bernardino Daily Sun, San Bernardino, California, Friday 28 October 1927, Volume LXI, Number 58, page 2.
- M Elinder: "Every man for himself: Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters" Archived 17 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Department of Economics Working Paper 2012:8. (Uppsalla: Uppsala Universitet, 2012) p. 30.
- "The Sinking of the "Principessa Mafalda" – Controversies". Christopher Ecclestone. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
- "Italian Liner Lost". The Times (44723). London. 27 October 1927. col A, p. 12.
- "Cause of the Disaster". The Times (44723). London. 27 October 1927. col B, p. 12.
- "The Lost Liner". The Times (44724). London. 28 October 1927. col A, p. 14.
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