1855 – Crew of the ‘St Abbs’ lost in Africa

In 1855 the crew of a ship called the St Abbs, which was en route from London to Bombay, was wrecked on the island of St Juan de Nova on 13th June 1855.

The original report in September 1855 was that 17 crew and five passengers perished in the wreck. There was at least one crew member from Essex.(This transcription requires further editing, sorry).

The long missing ship St Abbs, bound from London for this port (Bombay), is at length accounted for, more clearly than satisfactorily. She was wrecked on a reef connecting two islands of the Seychelles in the night of the 13th June. We learn with regret that five passengers and seventeen of the crew perished with the vessel. The following letter from the commander appeared in yesterday’s Times:

“The ship St Abbs of London, Mr. John Willis owner, having been wrecked at eleven o’clock on the night of the 13th June last on a reef which connects the two Islands of St. Juan de Nova. I have the honor of requesting that you will publish the following facts for the information of shipmasters and the mercantile public in general.

“The Island of St. Juan de Nova is laid down in Blackford’s chart as being in Latitude 10.10. South, and Longitude 52.20 East. This is most erroneous. By my reckoning at 8 r. N., on the 13th of June, by two good chronometers, the said Island bore N. E. by E. distant 63 miles : the course steered was N. by W. W., and there was a current setting to the Westward. By Blackford’s chart I therefore had nothing to fear. The real position of St. Juan de Nova is in Latitude 10.10 South and Longitude 51.14 E ust. By tLis error the loss of thetSt. .4bb’s was occasioned with 17 Lands and 5 passciigers. The Island of Astore is also laid down to the Eastward of St Juan Nova, whereas it is lOU miles to the Westward of the last named Island.” Captain Bell, it will be seen, attributesthe loss of his vessel to an error in his charts (Blackford’s) which placed the danger many miles to the eastward of its true position. Juan de Nova appears to be to the south of the Seychelles Archipalego, and at no great distance from the north end of Madagascar. Nautical men will be able to judge better than we can as to whether the assigned cause of loss is likely to have been the actual and only one. Truly it is time, however, that such an excuse, whether good or bad, should be taken away from shipmasters. The British Government, which regulates so many matters of detail in regard to our merchant shipping, ought not to leave the choice of things so vitally important as charts to the caprice’ of commanders or owners, or to be decided by chance or accident. It might surely claim the power to dictate authoritatively in a matter on which, as we constantly see, the lives of passengers and seamen, as well as the property of shipowners, is so largely dependant. Of course it must ere now be in a position to place accurate charts within the reach of mariners, and we believe it is so ; otherwise it must have turned the services of a magnificent;navy to very poor account through a long period of peace. Owners are of course too often ignorant of such matters, and trust too much to the knowledge or judgment of commanders who may possess a very insufficient share of either, or who may be content to accept anything in the name of a chart which is put into their hands, or which they find in the lockers when they take charge of the ship. There is, as the Bombay Times points out, sadly too much of this apathy or indifference among our merchant captains and their officers. Our contemporary says: ” It is a curious fact, and not creditable to the mercantile navy, that while the Geographical Society contains the most perfect collection of Admiralty and In’Lan wavy charts out of Europe, kept at all times patent, free of charge, to all visitors, that there is scarcely a case on record of a ship Captain remitting to it for information, however imperfectly his own vessel may be provided. Colonel LeGrand Jacob mentioned that it magnificent collection of Surveys and Charts of the seas and islands around Borneo, Sumatra and Batavia had been made by the Americans. Of these we have no doubt the Society will speedily obtain a complete set from Washington, which though containing information, in reference to the most intricate navigation in the work’ where else to be found, will in all likelihood lie, as the others have lain, neglected until some dozen of vessels are thrown away. A dozen or tw oof sea officers may be found at any time smoking in a Parsee gip shop, as if time were a heaviness on their bends, while there is a handsome reading room with a well stored library close by, with writing and drawing materials at all times at their disposal, filled with every tiling that ought to be most attractive to the mariner, but which no seaman ever enters. Every division of the community had its rep.esentatives the other evening at Colonel Jacob’s lecture, save the nautical.” This is certainly not as it ought to be, but possibly there may be some slight excuse for the seeming indifference displayed by our skippers in this phase of the matter. They are a shy, independent race, awl might fancy they were intruding or getting out of place if they went to the rooms and the meetings of our aristocratic scientific societies without some more special introduction than a vague general permission or invitation. If we are to expect many of them to refer to the fine collections of charts to which our contemporary alludes, we must maze the depositories of those charts accessible with as slight a strain on the moral courage of our nautical friends as are the ” Parsee gupshops” of which our contemporary speaks.

Bombay Gazette – Saturday 29 September 1855

The story was revisited for many years.

“THE SOMALI CAPTIVES. The story of the white captives in Africa, recently revived by General Rigby and Dr. Cheadle, promises to be a good example of our characteristic official mode of doing business. The St. Abbs case, as it is now called, is in its thirteenth year. In 1866 a good deal of ground for in- quiry was shown, and much interest was excited, but nothing was done. There has been a strong belief for the last ten years that the survivors of the St. Abbs wreck are still in captivity among the wandering tribes which inhabit the western coast of Africa lying north of the line. We are told that these Somali are, generally speaking, an intelligent race of people, that the country is fertile, the climate good, and that therefore the probabilities are in favour of the present existence of some, if not many, of these twenty six Englishmen. Officially there has been expressed a disbelief in the existence of the English captives among the Somali, founded upon the knowledge of the mendacious character of the natives from whom the reports were received. It is now clearly shown, however, that the only persons employed to investigate the reports have been these very natives; who can hardly be supposed to have become truthful by the preparation for a diplomatic career. Information through Zanzibar and Aden seems hopeless. Can no one suggest a practicable mode of obtaining news of the captives – if they exist – through other channels?”

As reported in the Glasgow Evening Citizen – Tuesday 18 February 1868.

The story also inspired a rum brand named St Abbs.

Thanks to Euan Gibson for his photo.

The story told by the St Abbs rum company is as follows:

The Shipwreck and the Rum’s Rebellion

The three-masted full-rigged wooden vessel St Abbs was launched from the ship yards of Sunderland in 1848, spending her life chartered to the Honourable East India Company. In 1855, under the guiding hand of Captain Bell, this striking craft set sail on a ten month passage from London to Bombay beset with a cargo of Caribbean rum and municipal supplies for the navy of India.

On the 14th June during the final leg of her ultimate journey, she drifted into tempestuous seas striking a reef in the shallow waters of a remote Indian Ocean atoll at the southern tip of the Seychelles archipelago. The swells were violent, brutal and being stoked by a storm so powerful that it tore the ship to pieces as her shapely hull crashed against the sea-breaching razor-sharp coral shelf.

The cursed vessel was ripped into two and the aft part of the ship, along with most of her crew, were never seen again. The tragic loss of the castaway sailors was later ascribed to the marauding sharks and ruthless pirate rampant across the region. The fore part of the vessel, rebelling against her underwater fate, hauled herself towards the nearby island beaches of the reef in a remarkable last stand that liberated 100 barrels of rum from the reserves of her belly and cast them to shore, a final satirical gift from the soul of the ship that raised the spirits of the surviving crew during the marooned days and months to come.

Curious stories emerged in the years following her wreckage of distress messages carved out of the wood and leather flotsam of her ruin, being carried on open-ocean currents and washing-up as far away as the East African coast. This sombre artwork was traded by curio vendors in African bazaars, spreading the sobering tale of the St Abbs and her rum-soaked crew far and wide.

Our collective blend of distinctive Caribbean rums is reincarnated from the rum-tub of the good ship St Abbs and the private reserves of Captain Bell, to pay homage to the drunken survivors of her fateful wreck, the shelter provided to them by her battered bones and the bullion filled barrels of nectar that saved their souls on that most forlorn and desolate island sanctuary. St Abbs Reserve Caribbean Rum, your kindred spirit, raised on the 14th June 1855.



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