Dreadfull loss of the Amazon by fire

The Royal Mail Packet Amazon

- Pascal Kainic -

Terrible news of the destruction of the Royal Mail Steamer and loss of 115 lives. There is something in a fire at sea which seems peculiarly to affect the imagination: shipwreck, famine, thirst, all the dreadful perils of the wind and waves – harrowing as are the catastrophes they frequently involve – are received as the natural “perils of the deep waters” to them “ that go down to the sea in ships.”

It is perhaps the strong contrast of the elements of fire and water to which the sensation owes its force – the fearful alternative of death by the flames or the waves strikes the mind with dramatic power.

Perhaps for these reasons, while the narratives of such terrible calamities as the wreck of the Medusa or the Halsewell, or the still great catastrophe of the Royal George, are recalled with deep interest, the burning of the Kent, Indiaman, of the Queen Charlotte and the Ocean Monarch, stir the imagination with emotions to which the former can offer no comparison.

The destruction of the Royal Mail Steam-Ship Amazon, Captain Symons, in the Bay of Biscay was a catastrophe in no degree behind the most terrible on record in fearful interest. She was the last built of the magnificent vessels constructed for rapid communication with the West Indies and was described as the largest timber-built steam-ship ever constructed in England.

She was of 3000 tons burden, built by Messrs. R. and H. Green of Blackwall, 310 feet in length and fitted with engines of 800-horse power. The vessel was considered capable of carrying fourteen 32-pounders and two 10-inch pivot guns of 85 cwt. Each, on her main deck: her coal-boxes were constructed to carry 1000 tons of coal of upwards of 16 days consumption, at a rate of 2 tons per hour for her 26 furnaces. The cost of the vessel was stated at upwards of £ 100.000.

Every improvement that science could suggest had been adopted in her construction and equipment; she was fitted up with the utmost convenience and luxury for her passengers and in this respect resembled a superb hotel afloat.

This splendid vessel left Southampton on her first voyage at half past three o’clock on the afternoon of Friday the 2nd January, 1852 having on board the usual mails for the British and Foreign West Indies, 50 passengers, 110 officers and crew, plus a large and very valuable cargo consisting of general merchandises, including 500 bottles of quicksilver for mining operations in Mexico and specie value £ 20.300 sterling.
When added to the value of the ship, it gave a total amount of property of a little less than £ 200.000 sterling.

The departure of this noble ship on her first voyage had been scarcely announced when the public mind was startled and horror stricken with the fearful news – at first scarcely believed – of the total destruction by fire of this majestic “castle of the deep” and the loss of 115 out of the 161 souls who had left Southampton on board her, but a few hours before, full of life and hope, with the cheerful expectation of accomplishing one of the quickest voyages to be recorded in he steam navigation of the Atlantic.

It was anticipated indeed that she would make the run of 3622 miles out to Saint Thomas’s in less than 14 days. The Amazon, on clearing Southampton Water, encountered in the Channel, strong head winds and rain, and on two different occasions, prior to the discovery of the fire, she was obliged to be stopped in her course, on account of “hot bearings” in other words, the heating to redness of the axles and other moving parts of the engines by the excessive friction of the new machinery.

She was now about 120 miles from the Lizard Light, and just entering the Bay of Biscay, the greater of the passengers had retired to their cabin. Captain Symons had been watching the weather – for it blew heavily right ahead – when Mr. Vincent, midshipman of the watch, perceived smoke and fire coming up from the fore-hatchway and past the galley. The alarm-bell was instantly rung; the Captain and crew rushed upon deck and directed their energies to repressing the flames.

The engines were urging her through the water at the rate of 12 miles an hour, a fierce gale was sweeping her from head to stern, her timbers were new and dry and the paint fresh. The flames consequently swept from the fore-hatchway to the stern with magical rapidity, the glass partitions giving way with sudden crash. Time for prudence and precaution there was none.

The terrified passengers rushed on deck naked and distracted; Captain Symons and his officers did all that could be done under such appalling circumstances – kept manfully to their posts and endeavoured to get the ship’s head round. This was partly effected, but the ship continued her course wit unabated speed, for the fierce flames had driven the men from the engine-room before they could stop the engines.

In the meanwhile, some of the crew and passengers made frantic efforts to launch the boats with a desperation which defeated their efforts. The aftermost boat was got into the water wit about 25 persons in her, but the moment she touched the water she was swamped and the whole perished, clinging together in a struggling mass an uttering dreadful shrieks.

The pinnace was next lowered, full of people, but by an unhappy fatality, the after-tackle alone couldn’t be unhooked, and the sea therefore swept into her and washed out all her miserable freight. The second cutter was being lowered, when, by sad mismanagement, the fore-tackle was let go, the boat hung perpendicularly and her living burden was titled into the foaming waters.

Others of the vessel’s boats (she had nine in all) were so fitted on the deck, that in the terror and emergency of the moment, it proved impossible to launch them at all. The “dingy” and a life-boat, containing 21 persons, were all that were known to have reached the water in safety. To use the words of Mr. Neilson, a passenger, who gives the most connected account of the appalling catastrophe, “we drifted clear, the doomed ship rushing madly forward, the combined sport of the three elements; but above the roaring crash of wind and wave and fire rang the shrieks of the helpless sufferers on board the ill-fated Amazon.

The life-boat now hailed the dingy and took her crew on board, towing her astern. But they seemed to have escaped from one danger to perish by another scarcely less terrible; the oars were locked, they had no sails, no water, no provisions, the best clad were half naked, the sea raged fearfully around them and the swelling crests as they rolled upon them were lighted to a red glow by the flames of the burning ship which spread a lurid glare for miles around.

Near them were pieces of wreck and their perished companions. They observed the ship burning fiercely, broadside to the wind; her mainmast went first, then the fore and mizzen-mast, but by the light of this terrible scene, they were enabled to perceive a ship pass between them and the burning steamer at about 300 yards distant: they hailed her with the energy of despair, she answered altered her course and bore away !

The life-boat’s crew now saw that another boat had escaped the burning ship and they mutually shouted for that aid which neither could give. Suddenly, the hailing ceased and they saw her no more !

The chimneys of the burning ship were now red-hot, and as they crossed her stern at the distance of half a mile, her magazine exploded, discharging a considerable number of rockets and in about half an hour after her funnels went over her sides and she sank beneath the waves...

It is impossible adequately to describe the horror which the news of this appalling catastrophe spread throughout the country – through Europe in fact. The launching and equipment of the ship, her recent departure in all the interest of a first voyage and the suddenness and completeness of the catastrophe, shocked all minds…


  • treasures
    I have been told that Odyssey Marine Exploration was very interested by this project...
  • Clemente Gilardini
    • 2. Clemente Gilardini On 28/05/2009
    Amazing I will tell anybody who asks or i will tell

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