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White Wings Vol I. Fifty Years Of Sail In The New Zealand Trade, 1850 TO 1900

the Cospatrick Tragedy

page 62

the Cospatrick Tragedy.

Burnt at Sea: 470 lives lost—Survivors' Story.

A terrible disaster that caused a thrill of horror throughout the Empire and particularly in Auckland, for which port the vessel was bound, was the burning of the emigrant ship Cospatrick, 1220 tons, west by south of Cape of Good Hope on November 17, 1874. There were 473 souls aboard, and only three survived. It was at midnight that the fire broke out in the forepart of the ship, which was then several hundred miles from land. In spite of heroic
This fine teak-built ship left England with over 400 emigrants, mostly farm labourers, bound for Auckland, and was burned off the Cape of Good Hope, only three men being saved.

The Ill-Fated Ship Cospatrick.

efforts, the crew and passengers could make no headway against the flames, and the ship having lost steerage way, got her head to the wind, and the fire quickly ran aft, hampering the work of getting out the boats. The first boats lowered were sunk, and only two boats kept afloat. A gale sprang up on the 21st, and one was never heard of again. The other, the port lifeboat, with 41 persons—all men—aboard, saw the ship sink on the 19th and all those that remained on board drowned before their eyes. The master, Captain Elmslie, threw his wife and little child into the sea, and he himself followed when he saw it was hopeless. After drifting about for ten days the port lifeboat was picked up by the ship British Sceptre. All but five died of hunger, thirst and exposure. Some went mad before death came. Two of the five died on board the British Sceptre. The second mate, the quartermaster, and a lad were all that survived that awful holocaust.
The mate, Mr. Henry McDonald, one of the survivors, when he reached England, at an inquiry held, stated:—"I was aroused from sleep by the cry of 'Fire!' Rushing on deck I found dense clouds of smoke were issuing from the fore peak. The bo-sun's locker, full of oakum, rope, varnish, and paint, was ablaze. The fire engine was rigged, and soon the forepart of the ship was deluged with water. They had already got her head before the wind, but presently, by some extraordinary mischance, and one that was never explained, she came head to the wind; and then the smoke was driven aft in suffocating clouds. Flames burst out 'tween decks, and in an hour and a-half the Cospatrick was doomed. Dreadful scenes followed, for a panicpage 63 broke out among the emigrants. One boat was launched, but was immediately swamped by the crowd of demented men and women that jumped into it. The long boat caught fire; and in the end only two boats got away safely—the port and the starboard lifeboats. They stood off, and helpless to assist, watched the tragedy to the bitter end. The main and mizzen masts fell, and many of those who had crowded aft were crushed
Edward Cotter. Mrs. Elmslie. Thomas Lewis. Master Elmslie. Henry McDonald. Captain A. Elmslie.

Captain Elmsley And Survivors.

to death. Then the stern was blown out. That was the end, and the shrieks of the survivors were silenced suddenly in the roaring flames.

Terrible Suffering.

The condition of those who had escaped in the boats was well nigh desperate. Had they known what was in store for them doubtless most of them would have preferred a more merciful death on the burning ship. They had neither water, food, masts, nor sails; and in the starboard lifeboat they had but one oar. "The two boats kept company on the 20th and 21st November," said McDonald at the inquiry; "then it commenced to blow, and we got separated. I whistled and shouted when daylight came, but could see nothing of the other boat. Thirst began to tell severely on all of us. Bentley, who was steering, fell overboard and was drowned. Three men became mad that day, and died. We threw the bodies overboard.

"On the 24th four men died. On the 25th we were reduced to eight, and three of them were out of their minds. Early on the morning of the 26th a boat passed close to us. She was not more than 50 yards away. She was a foreigner. Wepage 64 hailed but got no answer. I think she must have heard us. One more died that day. On the 27th it was squally all round, but we never caught a drop of water, though we tried to. Two more died that day. We threw one overboard, but we were too weak to lift the other. There were then five of us left—two able seamen, one ordinary, and one passenger, and myself. The passenger was out of his mind. All drank sea water. We were dozing when the madman bit my foot. I woke up. We then saw a ship hearing down upon us. It proved to be the British Sceptre, from Calcutta to Dundee. We were taken on board and treated very kindly. I got very bad on board of her. I was very nigh death's door. We had not recovered when we got to St. Helena."

While some people have remarkable memories for events connected with the ships they travelled on in their youth, other people are woefully astray in their ideas. As I mentioned once before, people on the same vessel will vary in an astonishing manner as to names, times and places, and what happened on the voyage. All they remember is that they came out in such and such a ship. Mr. J. Barr, the librarian at Auckland, tells me that many old people applying for the old age pension have applied to him for the date of the arrival of their ships, so that they could give satisfactory evidence as to age and date of arrival in New Zealand. One of the oddest cases connected with the obtaining of an old age pension, and a queer twist of memory as to the ship, was told me by Mr. Hubert Baillie, of the Wellington Public Library. He says he once had an inquiry from one of the smaller towns as to the date of the loss of the Cospatrick, "as he wished to assist an old lady who was trying to obtain her pension, but could not place the date of her arrival, except that she was one of the survivors of that ill-fated ship!" This is a rather remarkable instance of a person imagining that she took part in a tragedy—a phenomenon not unknown to scientists. The solution is probably given in a letter I received from a correspondent. He writes:—

"While reading over your article in the "Auckland Star", a lady friend came in, to whom I mentioned the story of the lady who thought she had come out on the Cospatrick. My friend mentioned that when in Timaru in the late 70's she had met some ladies named O'Rourke, whose boxes (they had not long arrived from England) were marked passengers by Cospatrick.' It appeared that these ladies had booked passage on the Cospatrick, but by some means were prevented from shipping in that ill-fated boat, and came out by another ship; and were congratulating themselves on having been so stopped. Is it not possible that the lady you mention, or her friends, may have been misled by a similar inscription, which with the lapse of time may now be taken for fact?"

the Cospatrick visited New Zealand on one other occasion only. The previous year, with Captain Elmslie in command, she left London on March 20, and arrived at Dunedin on July 6, 1873, making the passage in 108 days from the docks.