Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Spontaneous Combustion of the Mariposa

In 1900, during the Anglo-Boer War, the steamer Mariposa entered the roadstead with a load of hay as fodder for the British cavalry. Probably due to spontaneously combustion this fodder caught fire on the 20th May 1900 and attempts to quench it were in vain. The ship was towed out to sea where the cargo smouldered for weeks. She was later beached and declared unseaworthy.

This blog is based almost exclusively upon the autobiography of seaman Bisset and an article from the Port Elizabeth Advertiser

Main picture: The Mariposa beached on North End beach

Autobiography by seaman Bisset

Aboard another ship in the roadstead was a seaman who was only on his second sea voyage. Fortunately for posterity he recorded his experiences.  

Since leaving England, the South African War had broken out, and we now received orders to take aboard grain, Aour, and fodder, and proceed to Algoa Bay. We loaded at two small places, called Port Germain and Port Pirie, and finally sailed about the middle of February. Rounding Cape Leewin, Western Australia, we edged north to avoid the westerlies and made a fairly good passage of 65 days. About the longitude of Mauritius, the glass fell to about twenty-seven inches, accompanied by a long swell from the north­east and a sky of terrifying appearance. It was the hurricane season, and we snugged down to lower topsails for about twenty­ four hours, expecting every moment to be struck by a cyclone. Our luck held, however, and the storm passed north of us.

Algoa Bay is an open roadstead, and it was crowded with shipping, both sail and steam, waiting to be unloaded. There was a grave shortage of lighters, and of course the steamers got them first. The ship lay there six weeks before a hatch was uncovered. During that time, we the apprentices, rowed the Captain ashore every morning in the gig, and went back for him in the evening, or whenever he ordered. We took the opportunity of slipping ashore, two at a time, and watching thousands of horses and mules being unloaded from lighters on to the small jetty. The congestion was beyond belief. The town, Port Elizabeth, was full of soldiers and Kaffirs, and, despite the war, everyone seemed to be having a good time.

One Sunday afternoon a steamer called the Mariposa hoisted the signal NM, meaning ‘I am on fire’. Our Captain decided to go over and see if he could lend assistance, as he knew her Captain. We got alongside and found twenty other boats there on the same errand. She was loaded with hay, and her forward holds were well alight. Her Captain shouted down to us that he had a live pig on board and asked whether we would like to have it. ‘Sure,’ called our Captain, and a few seconds later a great squealing hog, weighing 300 lb., was hung over the side. It was too big to get into the boat, so the Captain leaned over the bow and put a bowline round its neck with our painter. In doing so, he lost his gold presentation watch over the side. There was some good-humoured chaffing from the other boats, and the Captain, feeling very angry and slightly ridiculous, transferred himself to a friend’s boat that was passing and left us to tow ‘Dennis’ back to the ship.

Burning of the Mariposa per the PE Advertiser

Even though the Mariposa suffered her fate on the 20th May 1900, it is only on the 2nd June that the Port Elizabeth Advertiser reported on this disaster.

The relief of Mafeking was signalised in a sensational and unintended way in Algoa Bay on Sunday, by the burning of the transport S.S. Mariposa, laden with compressed hay for military use in South Africa. The Mariposa had been lying in the Bay some six weeks awaiting in the crush of landing work an opportunity to discharge her cargo of forage, which was a present from the Canadian Government. On Sunday morning, soon after ten a.m. smoke was seen issuing from the hay piled up high on the decks above the for’ard hatches, and people in the town became anxious as to the fate of the vessel, for flame soon followed the smoke and the fire raged terrible. Assistance was sent from the shore as soon as the distress of the steamer was seen, the Associated Boating Company, and Messina Bros., sending off a tug and launches with men and apparatus. Mr. Charles Searle also took off with a whaleboat and crew, a huge hose and fittings for the use of the tug. Three boat’s crews from HM.S. Pelorus put off to the burning ship, and boat’s crews were also sent from other steamers. The Mariposa’s own crew were working like demons, and were as energetically assisted by the seamen, who hurried to her assistance.  From all the hillsides of the town the men could be watched working on the edge of the blazing mass and pouring water on. At times the flames were subdued for a moment, and the dense volume of steam and smoke that arose, gave rise to the hope that after all the vessel might be saved. Then fanned by the light land wind, the flames leapt up again, and it as if the seamen toiling on the brink of the furnace were enveloped. In smoke and terrific heat, they worked like fiends, but the fire was too strong for them, and gradually gained. The hay, in hard compressed bales, not only filled the holds, but was piled up to a great height and boarded in on the decks fore and aft.

The gutted hulk of the Mariposa

The fire worked down deeper into the mass, eating the boarded  framework that kept it in place and masses of the burning stuff rolled down over the ship’s side causing the boats and tugs to shift with all celerity. At one time the whole fore part of the ship was surrounded on the water by floating masses of burning hay, and it looked as if the seamen at work on the forecastle were trapped. They could not pass the flames and get aft, and below, the sea was all aflame. They attached hawsers to the vessel’s stern, however, and slewed her round so that the wind blew the fire across instead of straight down her, and the same moment helped her clear of the floating fires, so that the men at the bow were taken off by the boat.

The crew and the men from the Pelorus and others still poured water onto the flames from aft, some working on the bridge, which had a few minutes before been in flames, and heavy streams were poured into from the tugs. But it was useless, and shortly after noon the Mariposa was towed clear of the shipping, her anchor cable blown asunder by a charge of guncotton, and she was left to her fate. Efforts were made to sink her, the men from the Pelorus fired half a dozen shots into her  bottom, and Captain Luscombe,  R.N.,  who was alongside the whole time, representing the Harbour Authorities, caused all the sluice valves to be opened, but she would not sink. Finally, the Mariposa was towed to the North End Beach, where she ran fast onto the sand close to the breakers and has been burning ever since. All Sunday night the burning steamer was a grand but distressing sight. Roaring flames rose light in a solid mass from stem to stern, the fire having crept aft and seized the whole vessel. Her stem was fast on the  sand, she swung slowly round the tide, and townspeople watched the unusual spectacle far into the night, as she lay end on, broadside on, and end on again, illuminating  the Bay  and casting  up a lurid glare that was observed by vessels as far away as Cape St. Francis, some sixty miles  away.

The Mariposa was a fine new ship of 4,656 tons, and had a full cargo of hay, which was present to the Imperial Authorities for use in the war. Captain Walker is greatly distressed at the disaster, the origin of which is not yet clear.  Both the vessel and the cargo were insured. It was remarkable that the British Ensign at the jib fluttered all night unscathed by the flames, and the fact was noted with pathetic interest.

What happened to the Mariposa after being burnt out? In the age of sail when all ships were constructed of wood, its final “burial place” would have been North End beach. Instead being iron, it was towed to England and repaired.


The Bay of Lost Cargoes: The Shipwrecks of Algoa Bay and St. Francis Bay on the East Coast of South Africa by Warren Morris(2005, Xpress Print and Copy, Port Elizabeth)

Square Rigger Days: Autobiographies of Sail by Charles W Domville-Fife (Naval Institute Press)

Burning of the “Mariposa” (Port Elizabeth Advertiser, 2nd June 1900)

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