Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Gambia – A Victim of Rescue Bid?

Was this a case of the ship’s master being too well-meaning or does this episode cast aspersions on Owen’s ability after his narrow escape en route to Port Elizabeth? Being a cynic, I believe that Cox possibly consented to assist a fellow ship in trouble not for altruistic motives but rather so that he could pocket the £200 offered by Mr. Hume, the Mauritana’s agent.

You make up your mind.

Main picture:The Gambia lies wrecked on the rocks at the bottom of Kemp Road after attempting to tow the Mauritania out to sea.

Precursor incident

The Gambia’s first problem arose before the steamship arrived in Algoa Bay. This incident happened while sailing between London and Cape Town during May 1871. One night, for some inexplicable reason, the vessel ended up some 77kms off course from where she should have been. As a result, she hit a sandbank on the Northern Cape coast. Below deck the impact had strained her plating and frames so badly that she was leaking profusely. The pumps were swiftly brought into action and fortunately the steamer reached Cape Town safely but required immediate repairs.

At the subsequent Court of Enquiry, the Master, Captain James Cox, was found guilty of negligence and his master’s Certificate was suspended for six months. As is often the case in such events, even the pointed questions at the Enquiry had not uncovered the underlying cause of this mishap. As Cox could ill-afford to run any risks which might raise any questions regarding insurance, he requested that the ship’s First Mate, Albert Studdy Owen, rather than a stranger, be appointed sailing master of the Gambia in his stead. As Owen was certified to act as master of the steamship, the ship’s agent, William Dickson, sent a letter to Owen explaining the situation under which Owen is offered the position as sailing master.

Journey resumed

The Gambia sailed for Port Elizabeth with Owen navigating. As the Gambia approached Port Elizabeth in the early hours of the 27th May 1871, a significant exchange of differing opinions occurred on the bridge. Together with Cox and Owen on the bridge was the ship’s surgeon, Alfred Carter. At the enquiry, Carter recalled that when the depth readings were between seven and eight fathoms (13m to 15m), Owen asked Cox, “Don’t you think, sir, we had better let the anchor go here? Almost petulantly, Cox replied, “No. No. We are yet two miles off. The cargo boats will not come out so far”. Owen submitted to Cox’s statement as they sailed closer to the shore. Ultimately the Gambia dropped anchor in 5½ to 6 fathoms (11m) of water. After 55 minutes the barrel of the windlass broke off and the cable parted 20 minutes later. The Gambia steamed slowly beyond the other ships in the area until daylight when it anchored in eight or nine fathoms (about 16 metres) of water.

The Mauritana arrives

When the Mauritana arrived in the Bay there was a thick haze and visibility was reduced to a minimum. Her captain, Lawrence Macdonald, slowly approached the shore in his vain attempt to spot the light from the Donkin lighthouse. When he suddenly heard waves breaking, he immediately dropped anchor in seven fathoms (13 metres) of water. His vessel was only 60 metres from the breakers.

Alfred Carrington Wylde, the Resident Magistrate

The Mauritana’s local agent, Mr. Hume, boarded the Gambia the following morning. He offered Captain Cox £200 to pull the Mauritana into deeper water. I attempting to do so, Cox experienced severe difficulties in getting his ship in a position to pass a hawser – a thick rope or cable for mooring or towing a ship – across to the Mauritana. At the Enquiry, Cox claimed that he had remarked that “I am not going to lose the ship for the sake of the Mauritana”, to which Cox replied, “Oh! Let us have another trial”. Eventually the hawser was passed. Mr. Owen maneuvered the ship in a very proper manner”.

The arrangement with Macdonald was that as soon as the tow rope was attached, they would release the anchor. However, Macdonald claimed that they did not slip the anchor “as the steamer’s head inclined inshore and the warp was not taut and had we shipped, the vessel would have gone onshore”.

As the three-mastered screw steamer Gambia swung its bow towards a rocky strip of North End beach. Captain James Cox cried out, “By Jingo, we shall lose the ship if we do not mind what we are about. We must cut the hawser”. As the Gambia headed for disaster on Saturday the 27th May 1871,the carpenter chopped the tow rope and it dropped into the sea. As it did so, it wrapped itself around the propeller and caused it to jam. Left powerless, the Gambia drifted like a hobbled pony towards its final resting place at the bottom of Kemp Street.

In the ensuing court of enquiry, Cox and Owen each claimed that he was not master of the vessel, but the Resident Magistrate, Alfred Wylde, ruled that the loss of the Gambia was attributable to Cox. The court suspended his master’s certificate for 12 months, a derisory period considering that his actions had resulted in the complete loss of the steamer.

Mr. C. W. Frames made attempts to refloat her, but without success, and her wreckage was eventually blown up. The Gambia remained a feature of the foreshore for many years opposite the railway station.


Ship the Victim of bid to rescue another vessel, by Ivor Markman in The Herald dated 5th February 2009

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