The Peninsula & Oriental Passenger Steamer “Carnatic” was built by Samuda Bros of London and classified as an “iron framed planked passenger steamer of 1776 tons.” Her dimensions were 89.8m x 11.6m with a draught of 7.8m. In addition to square-rigged sails, she was powered by a single 4 cylinder compound inverted engine which produced a very handsome 2,442 hp – also built in London, by Humphrys and Tennant.
The Carnatic was launched in December 1862 and registered by P & O (although that abbreviation was not used in those days) in March 1863. She then sailed for Calcutta on June 27th whereupon she was employed between Suez, Bombay and China. In 1867 the Carnatic became the proud command of Captain P. B. Jones – one of the ablest officers of the company.
By September 1869, the Suez Canal was nearing completion and would be opened within three months. For the moment, however, passengers and cargoes were unloaded at Alexandria – from where they would travel 200 miles overland to Suez, before joining another vessel and resuming their voyage. In this way, the longer and more perilous route around the Cape of Good Hope was avoided.
It was during the second week of September that Captain Jones was found supervising the arrival and stowage of both passengers and cargo for yet another trip. Some of that cargo was very valuable and he had to make sure every single item was thoroughly checked and secured. Finally, he had taken charge of 34 passengers, 176 crew and a cargo of cotton bales, copper sheeting, Royal Mail, and 40,000 in specie – destined for the Indian Mint.
At 10am on the morning of Sunday 12th September 1869, Captain Jones ordered the mooring lines slipped and the Carnatic sailed for Bombay. She was a sleek vessel with proud lines and, unlike many of the hybrid “sail and steam” ships of the period, this vessel responded well to either form of power – thus giving her a definite advantage when other ships were becalmed. Captain Jones personally negotiated the long narrow confines of the hazardous Gulf of Suez and remained on the bridge to give his personal attention to every detail of navigating his vessel safely.
Not trusting his more junior officers, Captain Jones remained on the bridge, supplementing this continual lack of sleep with copious amounts of coffee – just to stay awake. Maintaining a steady speed of 11 knots, the light at Ashrafi was sighted at 11:40pm and by the time the Second Officer came on duty just after midnight, it was already 5 or 6 miles astern – though no bearing was ever taken.
The night was clear, with a slight following breeze and a little land haze – common in these parts. More importantly, the headlands and islands through which the Carnatic plotted her course, were all visible. At 1am Shadwan Island was sighted by the Second Officer – dead ahead. The Master altered course to S. 46 true and gradually to S. 51 true.
Eighteen minutes later, however, breakers were seen on the starboard bow. The helm was instantly put hard-a-starboard and the engines at full speed astern. Too late, the Carnatic struck Shaab Abu Nuhas Reef where she became firmly fixed.
Not a man to overreact, Jones was most thorough in checking every single aspect of the ships condition and was quite satisfied that the pumps could handle the amount of water being taken on. Judging the passengers and crew to be as safe as could be expected, he decided everyone would remain on board.
At daybreak on the 13th, Jones assessed the situation once again. The ship was stuck fast on a large Coral Reef and, although she was leaking, she was still in pretty good shape and the pumps were coping. Jones then ordered a large amount of the cotton dumped overboard in order to lighten the vessel in the forlorn hope that she would float off with the tide. There was no panic amongst the passengers although some did ask the Captain for permission to make for Shadwan Island. Jones refused.
Jones was well aware of the dangers involved in moving 210 people to a remote island on the far side of a dangerous coral reef in small boats and of the deprivations they would suffer until rescued. For the moment at least, his vessel was relatively sound, they had power and considerable comfort. He also knew that the P & O Liner – Sumatra, was due to pass by at any time, inbound for Suez and he fully expected to be rescued later that day.
Meals were served, people strolled the decks and, up aloft, a constant lookout was kept for a passing ship. But none came and, as evening fell, a second deputation of passengers approached the Captain with a plea to be allowed to reach Shadwan Island by lifeboat. Again he refused. Totally underestimating the power of a Coral Reef to inflict damage on a steel-hulled vessel, Jones decided all would spend another night on board. Accepting his authority, some of the passengers even dressed for dinner and the waiters served drinks before they all enjoyed a sumptuous evening meal. For some, it would be their last.
As the Carnatic continued to pivot on top of the Coral head that held her so firmly in place, the leaks got worse. What went undetected, however, was the slow, irreversible process that was weakening the keel itself as it steadily rocked to and fro in the gentle sea. By now it was only a matter of time.
At 2am on the morning of the 14th, the level of water within the ship finally engulfed the boilers and suddenly they were without power and light. Now even more passengers wanted to leave – but still Jones placed his faith in the timely arrival of the Sumatra. By daybreak, however, the sea state had begun to increase and water was rapidly filling the ship. Finally realizing his ship was lost, Jones ordered the lifeboats be made ready.
It was not until 11am that he allowed the first passengers to begin to disembark. Tragically, at that very moment it became too late for some. In the time-honoured tradition of women and children first, the three ladies and one child on board had just taken their seats in one of the lifeboats when the Carnatic suddenly and without warning broke in half. Thirty four hours on top of a Coral outcrop had proved too much for the gallant little ship and, with her back broken, the aft section sank quickly – taking 5 passengers and 26 crew with it.
Instantly, much lighter, the fore section fell over onto its port side as it also began to slip off the Reef – spilling almost everyone into the sea as it did so. With passengers and crew fighting for their very lives amongst masts, spars, rigging and all manner of debris, they were then suddenly engulfed by the returning wave caused by the sinking stern. As freed lifeboats floated off, there were many instances of bravery and brute strength as people forgot their respective positions and worked together for the common purpose of saving themselves and each other.
One by one the survivors were firstly hauled to safety and then taken to a rallying point where other lifeboats congregated together in the shallow water above the Reef. Then it was a matter of collecting anything that might be needed and, with a final scan for survivors, it was time to leave.
Shadwan Island, however, was three miles from the far side of the very wide Shab Abu Nuhas Reef. To shorten this journey, each of the seven lifeboats was pulled across the top of the Reef by the men taking it in turns – until, finally, this small, pitiful flotilla was able to row the remaining distance. It was after sunset when they arrived and, once again, they had to negotiate yet more coral reefs before they were safely on dry land.
Fortunately, several jettisoned bales of cotton had washed onto the island and being so tightly packed, were still very dry inside. They were actually calico – a form of course muslin material, and provided rudimentary clothing and warmth for the cold night ahead. In fact there was so much dry cotton that a large amount was carried to a high point and set alight. At last the Sumatra was sighted and she quickly responded to the only signal rocket fired. On his return to Suez, Captain Jones was recalled to England to face an official Board of Enquiry.
Recovering the Specie
With a cargo of such great value (the equivalent of several million pounds by todays standards), Lloyds immediately dispatched Captain Henry Grant to take charge of a recovery operation. On arrival in Suez, Grant was informed that the Carnatic had sunk in over 40 fathoms (over 70m!) and almost turned back. Then having second thoughts, he decided the least he could do was take a look. He arrived on the scene on 29th September and immediately chased away some Arab boats. Grant was heartened to find the Carnatic in quite shallow water at the bottom of a Reef with some of her features still visible above the surface.
Working from the Salvage vessel “Tor,” Grant had only one diver at his disposal – one Stephen Saffrey from Whitstable and adverse weather conditions delayed the first descent until 15th October. The search began in the Mail Room where a body was first recovered. Mail bags were sent to the surface and pocket watches removed from the safe, but no specie.
Next to the “Mail” Room, was also a “Post Office” but access involved removing the large bulkhead which separated the two. This took Saffrey several days but finally, he was through and, on the 24th recovered another 16 mail bags. The first box of bullion was then brought to the surface on the 26th and the task completed on November 8th. In the meantime, local Bedouin free Divers had recovered over 700 sheets of fine-grade copper also destined for Indias Mint.
Official reports record the entire cargo of “specie” being recovered and, having been found in a very secure and undisturbed part of the ship, no other outcome was ever likely. That said, stories of “missing treasure” still appear from time to time.
Diving the Carnatic