No.31 The Travelling Menagerie

Noah’s Ark

After last week’s edition recounting my challenge to go quackers retrieving soggy bread out of the water, I received another challenge: the most unusual livestock or ‘animal passengers’ on board a wreck. Never one to shirk a challenge . . .

We don’t have anything quite as extensive as the wreck of the Royal Tar which went down with circus animals off New England in 1836.

Elephant tusks are regularly reported as cargo, but in 1730 a live elephant died in the wreck of an East Indiaman. It wasn’t just any old elephant, but a ‘fine white elephant, for whom 500l. (£500) had been offered the same day’ and ‘perished in the flames’ when the Marlborough Indiaman docked in London. There is something ironic about surviving the travails of an arduous journey from the East Indies only to perish on arrival. Poor thing.

Shipwreck seems to have been a recurrent theme in the export of exotic animals, which is hardly surprising, given the distances involved from their places of origin, and their subsequent fate of being exhibited around Europe to paying audiences, which might have happened to our elephant had it lived. When you come to think about it, this theme of the wreck of a travelling menagerie is literally as old as the Ark (!) and has inspired countless works of literature, right up to the Life of Pi.

Clara the rhino was pretty much contemporary with our white elephant and was likewise brought over to Europe on a Dutch East Indiaman from her original home in Indonesia. She was an absolute sensation, and is immortalised in paintings for the rich and handbills for the poor. A very well-known image of her exhibited at Venice in 1751 is in the National Gallery, London.

Shipwrecks featured heavily in the real-life tale of Clara’s adventures, very ably told by Glynis Ridley in a recent book although she luckily survived every time. It was a PR gift and simply made her seem more interesting. Ms Ridley also draws attention to the sad tale of Dürer’s rhino, drawn, but clearly not from life, in 1515, which also perished in a shipwreck bound for Italy as a gift for the Pope.

Closer to our own time, the Terukuni Maru struck a mine in the Thames Estuary in 1939. She was an unusual wreck for two reasons, firstly in being a rare Japanese casualty of the Second World War prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Secondly, all hands were saved including a doggy passenger and an unusual stowaway, a disorientated falcon which had flown on board at Beirut. One of the crew cared for it all the way to London, although the more superstitious members of the crew felt it was a bird of ill-omen. Having had its feathers ruffled, it was placed in the care of London Zoo and featured in the Illustrated London News.

Animals have been a regular theme of Wreck of the Week and there will be more essays on other animals in future editions. See No.5 for dogs aboard wrecks and No.22, for those common stowaways, Rattus norvegicus.

Wreck of the Week No.30: The Staff of Life

Our Daily Bread

Recently a colleague challenged me to name wrecks with an obscure cargo, thinking that bread would be too difficult to find. Off the top of my head – as we were in a respectable hostelry at the time! – I mentioned a number of local ships I knew of, laden with provisions to take to market, some of which must surely have involved bakery goods as well as groceries and livestock. However, back in the office, I thought I’d better do some digging.

One good example is a wreck that has come down to us only as “Owner Owen’s Trow“, belonging to Gloucester, which sank after colliding with a larger vessel in the Severn in 1751, “which greatly damaged her cargo” of “grocery”. Local papers at this time seem generally to refer to Severn trows by owner rather than by any name the vessel may or may not have had.  For an image of what a trow looked like, have a look at the signboard of the Llandoger Trow pub in Bristol.

I suggested also the raw material of wheat, for example the wreck of the Caledonia in 1842, again inbound to Gloucester with wheat from the ‘bread basket of Russia’ at Odessa. Keeping with the pub theme, to this day there is an Odessa Inn at Tewkesbury, which is on the Severn and must refer to this trade.

Well, as they say, an army marches on its stomach. Virtually every time I found a mention of bread or provisions, it was in relation to victualling a campaign or a fleet. We have a number of such records from the Middle Ages, the earliest being in 1296 at Lytham, “with goods and victuals for the castles in North Wales”. This one was followed in 1302 by another victualler feeding Edward I’s army, lost off Hartlepool, while in 1305 another ship was lost off Cumbria, laden with corn and other provisions for “the maintenance of the king’s subjects in the war” in Scotland.

We only have three specific mentions of bread. One was the Rebecca, exporting bread from Stockton-on-Tees for Barbados, lost at Boulmer, Northumberland, in 1691. The Charming Sally was outward-bound to victual the English army at Quiberon Bay in 1760, when she was lost in the Cattewater, just as she was leaving Plymouth. This shows the support for one of the most famous British campaigns of the 18th century, one of those that shaped modern Canadian history.

Likewise the Swift victualler was lost in convoy off Portland, similarly bound for Canada, in 1776, laden with what every sailor needed: rum and bread. “Oh! dreadful sight!” wrote a witness, as she was consumed by fire.

The long distances involved in all three cases shows us that in all likelihood we are probably looking at the famous hard tack or ship’s biscuit. Have a look at one here.

Wreck of the Week No.29: The Supposed Svodohy

It’s All Greek to Me

Welcome back to WOTW following a little summer sabbatical. I trust you are all enjoying the weather!

Profiling a group of wrecks recently, I spotted one called the Svodohy, said to be a Greek brig lost off Lundy in 1883. The name didn’t seem at all Greek to me, but was reported as such in the Board of Trade Casualty Returns (the Victorian annual statistics for shipwrecks). I smelt a rat and called up 19th Century British Newspapers Online (most local libraries subscribe, a hugely useful resource).

Contemporary newspapers revealed various versions of her name, together with equally various versions of her home port, and likewise the master’s name varied from the BOT report. The one thing that they all said, however, was that she was Greek. Usually when this sort of thing happens, it’s a sure sign that foreign lettering, whether on the ship’s side, or as entered by the master in official records, hasn’t been read properly, in this case the Greek alphabet. The most convincing version came from her departure port at Cardiff where they would surely have had access to the port records: hence this report called her Zoodochos (Pigi). I realised that in Greek letters it must have read, probably all in lower case, ζωoδοχος; most likely probably if painted cursively it bore an even closer resemblance to Svodohy, with, for example, the unfamiliar final letter ‘s’ looking like a loose ‘y’. Zoodochos Pigi is one of the epithets of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in Greek Orthodoxy, so this seems on the right track, as, of course, saints’ names have historically always been very popular for ships.

There is a similar case with a 1946 Greek vessel charted as the OHPA, and mysteriously untraced, which, of course, was easily traced once Greek ΘΗΡΑ was transliterated as Thira, unlocking access to further references in the contemporary press..

I find both errors slightly odd during a period when far more people learnt Greek at school than they do now, even if they promptly forgot it as soon as they left . . . !

Such access to a Classical education had its effects on ship names at an earlier date in England. An 1808 wreck rejoiced in the pseudo-learned Greek name of Chrononhotonthologos. 

In fact, it is a name from the English-speaking world, inspired by ‘the most tragical tragedy that ever was tragediz’d’ by Henry Carey in 1734, republished as one of ‘the most esteemed farces on the English stage’ in 1786. It was performed as far afield as Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1818, so the ship operated during the currency of the play. Why the owner named his ship thus is anyone’s guess, and there’s probably a very good story here we know nothing about.

At least it was certainly more distinctive than your average Betsey and probably jumped off the page in arrivals and departures lists, which was always good news for people looking for ‘when their ship came in’.