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’.

18. The Ship of the Desert

As camels are so often poetically named the “ship of the desert” it seems apt that a real ship might rejoice in the name of a camel. Or does it?

This week I have been channelling my inner Errol Flynn by buckling the swash through the Battle of the Gabbard, 1653, among others. I don’t want to spike my guns by revealing too much at this stage, but I do want to whet your appetite for the Battlefields project!

The ship in question is sometimes referred to as the Kameel in both primary and secondary sources, commanded by Joost Bulter, and is one of the six ships sunk in the battle. Only two have the potential to have been lost in English waters, since both were lost before nightfall on the first day – after which the Dutch bore up for the Flemish coast. One of these was the Kameel.

Earlier in the Anglo-Dutch wars Bulter was recorded as in command of a ship known as the Stadt en Land (Town and Country), but this wasn’t the right name either as the Stadt en Land seems not to have otherwise been recorded. It is suggested by one authority that Willem van de Velde the Elder, who drew many ship portraits (as did his son, the Younger – many of you will be familiar with the Younger’s drawing of the London) may have been to blame for the first misapprehension, by recording this ship with a camel carved on her counter-stern, and annotating it as ‘Kameel’. Perhaps this was her first name, if she was a hired ship. (Camel is certainly attested as the name of an English ship in the same period, one of the English fireships expended in the Second Anglo-Dutch War: the name seems to have gone out of fashion until we see a rash of CAMELS wrecked 1875-1896!)

At the same time another ship named the Stadt Groningen en Ommelanden is recorded, and it has been proposed by some that this was Joost Bulter’s ship. It would not be unusual for crews to shorten or otherwise alter the name of their ship: we know, for example, at a later date that the crew of the Bellerophon called her the Billy Ruffian, so that explanation sounds very plausible.

The Gabbard is not particularly well illustrated in Dutch marine paintings, possibly because they were, well, trounced, on this occasion. There is a atmospheric, albeit fairly general, scene by the minor artist Heerman Witmont in the National Maritime Museum, whose central feature is sails with prominent holes over clouds of smoke – no better way to convey the heat of battle! The technique is grisaille – pen and ink drawing on panel – not common, but characteristic of some Dutch marine artists and used by Willem van de Velde the Elder.

Resolution on the right duels Brederode on the left by the mutual firing of broadsides: Resolution flies the ensign of the Commonwealth. In the foreground is the detritus of war – wreckage floating in the foreground on a symbolically choppy sea. This foreground wreckage is very much a convention of marine paintings, particularly of battle scenes, and no wonder, with masts being constantly shot away and the like, but possibly it also subtly alludes to the Dutch losses in this encounter.

10. Something with a Christmas flavour

‘Twas the night before Christmas . . .  not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . .

We wouldn’t expect to receive newspapers on Christmas Day nowadays, but it was not uncommon in the past for Lloyd’s List to be published on 25th December. I shall focus on 25th December 1753. Two wrecks were reported in this issue in the south-west of England. One was the Union, from Cork for Bristol, on the Bristol Channel coast.

There was also the Jeffrow Edia Maria [sic].  Lloyd’s List reported a ‘Dutch Dogger from Galipoly to Amsterdam lost off the Ram he[. .]’ with the loss of the master and four men. The Sherborne Mercury also said: ‘They write from Plymouth that on the 23rd inst. a Dutch dogger from Gallipoli for Amsterdam is wrecked at Ramhead. The captain and men drowned, and the vessel and cargo lost. The Jeffrow Edia Maria, of and from Amsterdam for Gallipoli, Jacob Sume master, is lost on Ramhead. The master and four men drowned.’

This is a perfect example of the confusion which occurred in contemporary newspapers with information being ‘split down the middle’ between variant accounts, often in the same paragraph as correspondence from different sources arrived to hand. The vessel also turns up in a Dutch paper, where: ‘they write from Ramsey, an Island and Haven in the Irish Sea, that the richly laden merchant vessel the Juffrauw Ida Maria was lost on the cliffs at that harbour with man and mouse’. (The latter is Dutch idiom for ‘with all hands’.)

There are no cliffs at the entrance to Ramsey, Isle of Man, but this description fits the profile of Rame Head, which is near Plymouth. The Dutch version suggests that Lloyd’s List was the medium of transmission, Dutch editors struggling to make sense of the missing letters in Lloyd’s List. They evidently settled on Ramsey rather than Rame Head, but the loss of all hands in that account suggests that the Dutch dogger and the Edia/Ida Maria were one and the same.

6. Ever wondered why a Russian ship doesn’t have a Russian name?

– or, don’t expect a Cyrillic nameboard to turn up!

Recent update work has included adding documentary evidence to both sites and casualties resulting from the Great Storm which took place 18-20 November 1893. One is the “Russian” casualty Venscapen but why does it matter that she wasn’t Russian?

Getting it right enhances retrievability of vessel name and nationality and allows the vessel to be traced through documentary sources.

It was a dark and stormy night, as Snoopy might have said: all too frequently, the nameboard wasn’t visible, was lost, or not legible; the survivors couldn’t speak English; they passed on their ship’s name to their rescuers, fishermen with strong regional accents; by the time it reached the Lloyd’s agent it was hopelessly garbled.

It’s also true that the English coastline was so frequently strewn with wrecks that foreign ships lost here were of relatively little interest to the English press. Conversely, they made big news back home. These days with online digitization, such resources are easy to find and use.

One of the great strengths of the database is that it permits profiling of wrecks against each other – it could be as simple as spellings, or as complex as statistics for particular areas, cargoes or vessel types. I had a theory based on previous experience . . .

My first port of call was the Finnish National Newspaper Library. An excellent high-res digitization with an English interface, it permits fuzzy searches, a great help with phonetic spellings: Venscapen brought back the correct spelling Vånskapen, a Swedish-language name with a Swedish master’s name (Johansson). Curiouser and curiouser. Definitely not Russian . . .

Reading Finnish printed in black-letter Gothic is quite a challenge: 2nd column on the newspaper page.

Like many “Russian” barques of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, she was registered in Ahvenamaa, or the Aaland Islands, part of Finland. In 1893, Finland’s mercantile classes were Swedish (Aaland remains Swedish-speaking today) but Finland was also a Grand Duchy of Russia, hence the “Russian” nationality. This vessel is therefore now indexed by her nationality as expressed at the time, and her current nationality – as well as the right spelling!

The exceptionally interesting Aaland ships cornered the market in the last of the sailing barques, which by the 1930s were only economical on very long-distance routes where bunker coal was unavailable. They thus specialised in the Chilean nitrate trade and the Grain Race to Australia. Herzogin Cecilie was one of the last Aalanders, but Historic England also holds pictures of others in their very final days after the Second World War, including Pamir.