While less well known than the sinking of the Titanic, the ten nautical disasters on this list often eclipse the Titanic story in terms of sheer horror, scandal, and loss of life. With human nature itself proving either the salvation or doom of the castaways, here are tales of heroism, cannibalism, endurance, murder, and disappearance without a trace.
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10 SS Arctic, 1854
If you are familiar with the sinking of the Titanic, then you are aware of the principle of “women and children first.” But what if that principle was ignored? On September 27th, 1854, the SS Arctic, a passenger paddle steamship of the Collins Line, entered a dense fog off the Newfoundland coast and collided with the French fishing vessel the Vesta. Attempts to patch the hole in the hull with sailcloth and mattresses failed, and over the course of four agonizing hours, the sea crept in, finally extinguishing the ship’s boilers and, with them, the pumps.
With 250 passengers and 150 crew on board, the Arctic’s six lifeboats were woefully inadequate to carry more than 180. At first, the process of loading the women and children went as planned—until panic began to spread amongst the ship’s crew. As discipline broke down, a wild melee ensued, and one boat after another was swarmed by mobs of men. One tipped over, sending most of its dozen occupants (mostly women) into the sea to drown. Desperate to restore discipline, the captain attempted to launch another boat on the opposite side of the ship, only to see it too filled with male crew rather than women and children.
The two remaining boats (and a makeshift raft built by loyal officers) were likewise taken by the ship’s crew, one boat stolen by the engineering staff who, brandishing firearms, told the crowd that they needed the boat to patch the hole in the ship. No sooner had the boat launched (only half full) when it rowed away, leaving the waiting women and children to their fate. Of the 400 aboard, only 85 survived (61 crew and 24 male passengers). All the women and children drowned.
9 SS Pacific, 1856
As if things could not get worse for Collins Line founder Edward Collins, who had lost his wife and two children in the sinking of the SS Arctic, her sister ship, the SS Pacific, disappeared into the Atlantic without a trace in January of 1856. Leaving Liverpool for New York City with 45 passengers and 141 crew, no word of the ship’s fate was ever heard again, save for a message in a bottle washed up on the coast of the Hebrides islands in 1861. Whether authentic or a hoax, the message within offers us one possible explanation for the Pacific’s destruction:
“On board the Pacific, from L’pool to N. York. Ship going down. Great confusion on board—icebergs all around us on every side. I know I cannot escape. I write the cause of our loss that friends may not live in suspense. The finder of this will please get it published.”
8 Empress of Ireland, 1914
Among the beneficiaries of updated lifeboat regulations in the wake of the Titanic disaster was the ocean liner RMS Empress of Ireland of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. Equipped with watertight doors and enough lifeboats to accommodate 280 more people than the ship was built to carry, the fact remains that when she collided with the Norwegian ship Storstad in a fog at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River on the night of May 29th, 1914, she sank in scarcely 15 minutes, taking 1012 of the 1477 people aboard to their deaths.
The water poured into her side so quickly that there was no time to shut the watertight doors, and the list to starboard increased so quickly that it nullified the port side lifeboats, which could not be lowered. Many passengers sleeping on the starboard side drowned in their cabins, but some who made it to the boat deck were able to successfully launch five of the lifeboats.
Some five minutes after the collision, the power failed, plunging the ship into total darkness. Five minutes after that, with the useable lifeboats gone, the Empress of Ireland rolled onto her starboard side, allowing hundreds of the doomed to take refuge on the exposed port side hull, where they sat for a few agonizing minutes watching the frigid water slowly creep up the hull to claim them “like sitting on a beach watching the tide come in,” as one survivor put it.
7 Essex, 1820
While falling far short of the death toll of the Titanicor any other entry in this list, the tale of the whaling ship Essex eclipses all the rest in terms of sheer horror. The real-world inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the Essex, was twice rammed by a sperm whale in November 1820, some 2,000 miles west of the South American coast. The twenty-man crew was forced to take to three whaleboats with what food and water they could carry and set off to reach South America.
In two weeks, the food was gone, and water so scarce that they were forced to drink their urine. They were temporarily saved by water and food foraged on barren Henderson Island, but after eating the island dry, they set off once more in the boats, less three men who decided to stay. By January, the men in the boats began to die. The first two corpses were consigned to the sea, but when a third died, the men were so hungry they decided to resort to cannibalism. When more men died, they did likewise. Soon, even this dire infusion of food became insufficient, and the surviving men drew lots to see who was to be killed and eaten next.
A young 18-year-old named Owen Coffin drew the black spot and was soon shot and butchered by the others, one of whom died ten days later and was likewise consumed. It would not be until late February 1821 that the five dazed survivors were rescued off the coast of Chile, having eaten no less than seven of their comrades.
6 Sultana, 1865
Imagine this. You have just spent years in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison where starvation, disease, and ill-treatment have killed some 13,000 of your comrades (a staggering death rate of 29%). You have just learned the Civil War is over after four brutal years, and you have just been told that you are finally going home. And so some 1,953 released Union prisoners of war were crowded onto the groaning decks of the Sultana, a northbound Mississippi river steamboat designed to carry only 376 passengers. With some 177 additional passengers and crew aboard as well, the Sultana crept slowly up a Mississippi swollen by one of the worst floods in living memory.
All went well until 2 am on the 27th of April, 1865, when both of its faulty boilers suddenly exploded under the strain. The jet of scalding hot steam blew out the center of the boat, destroying the pilothouse and knocking down the smokestacks, trapping hundreds in the wreckage that soon caught fire. Those trapped under the collapsing decks were scalded or burned to death, while the hundreds of ex-prisoners who jumped overboard quickly drowned, unable to keep afloat in their weakened state. When the hulk of the Sultana finally sank by the Arkansas shore around 7 am, some 1,169 men had died, making this the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
5 SS Central America, 1857
On September 9, 1857, the SS Central America, carrying 477 passengers, 101 crew, and over nine tons of newly mined gold from the California Gold Rush, found itself trapped in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. For two days, she rode out the storm, her steam-powered paddle wheels keeping her pointed into the 100 mph (62 km/h) winds. But by September 11, the boilers were failing, the sails were torn to ribbons, and leaks had developed, which threatened to overwhelm the pumps.
When the boilers finally failed, the engines and pumps fell silent, and the ship was adrift at the mercy of the storm. Red-eyed passengers spent the long night passing buckets of water up through the dark ship, but they were fighting a losing battle with the sea. The eye of the hurricane brought momentary calm, allowing the doomed to contemplate their fate, but when the storm returned, the ship continued to sink by the stern.
In the morning light, another ship was sighted, and women and children were loaded into the lifeboats and set off through the perilous sea. In this way, some 153 people were saved, but when the Central America finally sank after its three-day struggle, it took some 425 souls with it.
4 SS Princess Alice, 1878
There could be nothing more pleasant than taking an evening excursion by paddle steamer up the river Thames, which is what some 700 Londoners were doing on the evening of September 3, 1878. Then the SS Princess Alice was cut in two by the oncoming collier SS Bywell Castle in Galleon’s Reach, just east of London. Those who had been below decks at the time of the collision had no chance of survival, as it took a mere four minutes for the broken ship to slip beneath the river.
Despite launching boats from both the Bywell Castle and riverfront residences and factories, hundreds of people, weighed down by Victorian clothing, were washed under and away by the currents. Terrible as this was, what happened next transformed the scene into an unfathomable horror. The pumping stations for the London sewer system output their raw sewage into the Thames at the very spot where the Princess Alice sank, and a mere hour before the disaster, over 90 million gallons of raw sewage had been dumped into waters already polluted by local gas works and chemical factories.
The Times cited a local chemist who reported the outflow as “two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda-water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel-house odour.” The toxic slime proved fatal even to those who did not drown in it. Of the 130 survivors of the disaster, some 16 died later from ingesting the putrid waters.
3 SS Atlantic, 1873
Prior to the 1912 loss of the Titanic, the White Star Line’s greatest catastrophe was the loss of the SS Atlantic on a different April night some 39 years earlier. En route to New York from Liverpool with 952 passengers and crew, the Atlantic was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to load more coal. Approaching what they believed to be the harbor entrance in a howling storm, the ship was, in fact, over 12 miles (19 kilometers) off-course, heading straight for underwater rocks.
Failing to spot a familiar lighthouse west of the harbor, the helmsman relayed his concerns to the officer of the bridge, only to be told to stay the course. When the ship struck the rocks and the hull was smashed inward, the passengers clung to the listing vessel and watched as one after another of the 10 lifeboats were launched, only to be crushed against the hull or swept away by the raging sea. With no other way off the swiftly capsizing ship, crewman John Speakman swam to nearby rocks with a line of rope, creating a lifeline by which the strongest were able to pull themselves to shore.
In this way, some 429 passengers and crew survived to watch the remaining 535 people drown, including all 156 women and 188 of the 189 children aboard the ship. Commemorated in artwork by Winslow Homer and Currier & Ives, the loss of the Atlantic was the deadliest civilian maritime disaster of its day, only eclipsed 25 years later by our next entry.
2 SS La Bourgogne, 1898
Speeding through a fog bank southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the pre-dawn hours of July 4, 1898, the SS La Bourgogne, a French ocean liner bound from Le Havre to New York, was struck midship by the iron-hulled sailing vessel Cromartyshire. Those passengers sleeping on the starboard side either had no chance of escape from their berths or woke to find their compartments rapidly filling with water.
With the starboard side lifeboats damaged or destroyed by the collision, the crew attempted to launch the port side boats, only to find the task imperiled as the list to starboard increased and the port side rolled up into the air. As discipline collapsed, passengers and crew fought to gain space in the undamaged lifeboats, and within 30 minutes, the ship had settled and slipped stern first under the waves.
It was only when the sun rose, and the fog lifted that the crew of the Cromartyshire (still afloat) realized that the La Bourgogne had been far more damaged than herself and began to render assistance to the survivors. But it was too late. Of the 726 souls aboard, only 173 survived, and of those, all but 70 were male crew members. Of the 300 women aboard, all but one would perish, along with each and every one of the children.
1 Batavia, 1629
In June 1629, the Dutch East India Company’s ship Batavia struck a reef off Beacon Island, a remote coral island 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) west of Western Australia. While her fate was a common enough occurrence in the age of sail, it is what happened next that earned the Batavia a spot on this list. Though 40 people drowned, the rest of the 322 passengers and crew got ashore on a desert island only to find no fresh water and nothing to eat but birds.
When the captain, senior officers, and some crew embarked in the longboat on a 33-day journey to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia) to seek help, the hundreds of survivors elected one Jeronimus Cornelisz, a senior company merchant, to leadership. They could not have made a worse choice.
He ordered 20 of the soldiers to explore a nearby island, ostensibly to search for food, but then abandoned them to die. Then, confiscating all weapons and then all the food, he began a two-month reign of terror, marooning more of his rivals on nearby islands and forcing seven of the surviving women into sexual slavery. Then, with food becoming scarce, he began to openly murder the survivors. Around 110 men, women, and children were drowned, hacked, strangled, or beaten to death before the 20 soldiers, having refused to die on their desert island, set up a fort and refuge from the mutineers.
Cornelisz declared war on the soldiers, and a battle ensued. It was in the midst of this inter-island war that the Batavia’s captain returned in the rescue ship, arrested the mutineers, and tortured them into a confession. Cornelisz and his followers were executed, and the nightmare was finally over for the 122 souls that remained.