The Burning of the Sarah Sands


She was a small fourmasted, iron-built screw-steamer of eleven hundred tons, chartered to take out troops to India. That was in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny, when anything that could sail or steer was in great demand; for troops were being thrown into the country as fast as circumstances allowed—which was not very fast.

Among the regiments sent out was the 54th of the Line, now the Second Battalion of the Dorset Regiment—a good corps, about a hundred years old, with a very fair record of service, but in no special way differing, so far as one could see, from many other regiments. It was despatched in three ships. The Headquarters—that is to say, the Lieutenant-Colonel, the Regimental books, pay-chest, Band and Colours, which last represent the very soul of a Battalion—and some fourteen officers, three hundred and fifty-four rank and file, and perhaps a dozen women, left Portsmouth on the 15th of August all packed tight in the Sarah Sands.

Her crew, with the exception of the engineers and firemen, seem to have been foreigners and pier-head jumpers picked up at the last minute. They turned out bad, lazy and insubordinate.

The accommodation for the troops was generously described as “inferior,” and what men called “inferior in 1857 would now be called unspeakable. Nor, in spite of the urgent need, was there any great hurry about the Sarah Sands. She took two long months to reach Capetown, and she stayed there five days to coal, leaving on the 20th of October. By this time, the crew were all but openly mutinous, and the troops, who must have picked up a little seamanship, had to work the ship out of harbour.

On the 7th of November, nearly three weeks later, a squall struck her and carried away her foremast; and it is to be presumed that the troops turned to and cleared away the wreckage. On the 11th. of November the real trouble began, for, in the afternoon of that day, ninety days out from Portsmouth, a party of soldiers working in the hold saw smoke coming up from the after-hatch. They were then, maybe, within a thousand miles of the Island of Mauritius, in half a gale and a sea full of sharks.

Captain Castles, the master, promptly lowered and provisioned the boats; got them over-side with some difficulty and put the women into them. Some of the sailors—the engineers, the firemen and a few others behaved well jumped into the long-boat, lowered it and kept well away from the ship. They knew she carried two magazines full of cartridges, and were taking no chances.

The troops, on the other hand, did not make any fuss, but under their officers’ orders cleared out the starboard or right-hand magazine, while volunteers tried to save the Regimental Colours. These stood at the end of the saloon, probably clamped against the partition behind the Captain’s chair, and the saloon was full of smoke. Two lieutenants made a dash thither but were nearly suffocated. A ship’s quartermaster—Richard Richmond was his name—put a wet cloth over his face, managed to tear down the Colours, and then fainted. A private—and his name was W. Wiles—dragged out both Richmond and the Colours, and the two men dropped senseless on the deck while the troops cheered. That, at least, was a good beginning; for, as I have said, the Colours are the soul of every body of men who fight or work under them.

The saloon must have been one of the narrow, cabin-lined, old-fashioned “cuddies,” placed above the screw, and all the fire was in the stern of the ship, behind the engine-room. It was blazing very close to the port or left-hand magazine, and, as an explosion there would have blown the Sarah Sands out like a squib, they called for more volunteers, and one of the lieutenants who had been choked in the saloon recovered, went down first and passed up a barrel of ammunition, which was at once hove overboard. After this example, work went on with regularity.

When the men taking out the ammunition fainted, as they did fairly often, they pulled them up with ropes. Those who did not faint, grabbed what explosives they could feel or handle in the smother, and brought them up, and an official and serene quartermaster-sergeant stood on the hatch and jotted down the number of barrels so retrieved in his notebook, as they were thrown into the sea. They pulled out all except two barrels which slid from the arms of a fainting man—there was a fair amount of fainting that evening—and rolled out of reach. Besides these, there were another couple of barrels of signalling powder for the ship’s use; but this the troops did not know, and were the more comfortable for their ignorance.

Then the flames broke through the after-deck, the light attracting shoals of sharks, and the mizzen-mast—the farthest aft of all the masts—flared up and went over-side with a crash. This would have veered the stern of the ship-head to the wind, in which case the flames must have swept forward; but a man with a hatchet—his name is lost—ran along the bulwarks and cut the wreck clear, while the boat full of women surged and rocked at a safe distance, and the sharks tried to upset it with their tails.

A Captain of the 54th—he was a jovial soul, and made jokes throughout the struggle—headed a party of men to cut away the bridge, the deckcabins, and everything else that was inflammable—this in case of the flames sweeping forward again—while a provident lieutenant, with some more troops, lashed spars and things together for a raft, and other gangs pumped water desperately on to what was left of the saloon and the magazines.

One record says quaintly: “It was necessary to make some deviation from the usual military evolutions while the flames were in progress. The men formed in sections, countermarched round the forward part of the ship, which may perhaps be better understood when it is stated that those with their faces to the after part where the fire raged were on their way to relieve their comrades who had been working below. Those proceeding ‘forward’ were going to recruit their exhausted strength and prepare for another attack when it came to their turn.”

No one seemed to have much hopes of saving the ship so long as the last of the powder was unaccounted for. Indeed, Captain Castles told an officer of the 54th that the game was up, and the officer replied, “We’ll fight till we’re driven overboard.” It seemed he would be taken at his word, for just then the signalling powder and the ammunition-casks went up, and the ship seen from midships aft looked like one floating volcano.

The cartridges spluttered like crackers, and cabin doors and timbers were shot up all over the deck, and two or three men were hurt. But—this is not in any official record just after the roar of it, when her stern was dipping deadlily, and all believed the Sarah Sands was settling for her last lurch, some merry jester of the 54th cried, “Lights out,” and the jovial captain shouted back, “All right! We’ll keep the old woman afloat yet.” Not one man of the troops made any attempt to get on to the rafts; and when they found the ship was still floating they all went back to work double tides.

At this point in the story we come across Mr. Frazer, the Scotch engineer, who, like most of his countrymen, had been holding his trump-card in reserve. He knew the Sarah Sands was built with a water-tight bulkhead behind the engine-room and the coal-bunkers; and he proposed to cut through the bulkhead and pump on the fire. Also, he pointed out that it would be well to remove the coal in the bunkers, as the bulkhead behind was almost red-hot, and the coal was catching light.

So volunteers dropped into the bunkers, each man for the minute or two he could endure it, and shovelled away the singeing, fuming fuel, and other volunteers were lowered into the bonfire aft, and when they could throw no more water on it they were pulled up half roasted.

Mr. Frazer’s plan saved the ship, though every particle of wood in the after part of her was destroyed, and a bluish vapour hung over the redhot, iron beams and ties, and the sea for miles about looked like blood under the glare, as they pumped and passed water in buckets, flooding the stern, sluicing the engine-room bulkhead and damping the coal beyond it all through the long night. The very sides of the ship were red-hot, so that they wondered when her plates would buckle and wrench out the rivets and let the whole misery down to the sharks.

The foremast had carried away on the squall of the 7th of November; the mizzen-mast, as you know, had gone in the fire; the main-mast, though wrapped round with wet blankets, was alight, and everything abaft the main-mast was one red furnace. There was the constant danger of the ship, now- broadside on to the heavy seas, falling off before the heavy wind, and leading the flames forward again. So they hailed the boats to tow and hold her head to wind; but only the gig obeyed the order. The others had all they could do to keep afloat; one of them had been swamped, though al! her people were saved; and as for the long-boat full of mutinous seamen, she behaved infamously. One record says that “She not only held aloof, but consigned the ship and all she carried to perdition.” So the Sarah Sands fought for her own life alone, with the sharks in attendance.

About three on the morning of the 12th of November, pumping, bucketing, sluicing and damping, they began to hope that they had bested the fire. By nine o’clock they saw steam coming up from her insides instead of smoke, and at midday they called in the boats and took stock of the damage. From the mizzen-mast aft there was nothing that you could call ship except just the mere shell of her. It was all one steaming heap of scrap-iron with twenty feet of black, greasy water flooding across the bent and twisted rods, and in the middle of it all four huge water-tanks rolled to and. fro, thundering against the naked sides.

Moreover,—this they could not see till things had cooled down—the powder explosions had blown a hole right through her port quarter, and every time she rolled the sea came in there green. Of the four masts only one was left; and the rudder-head stuck up all bald, black and horrible among the jam of collapsed deck-beams. A photograph of the wreck looks exactly like that of a gutted theatre after the flames and the firemen have done their worst.

They spent the whole of the 12th of November pumping water out as zealously as they had pumped it in. They lashed up the loose, charging tanks as soon as they were cool enough to touch. They plugged the hole at the stern with hammocks, sails, and planks, and a sail over all. Then they rigged up a horizontal bar gripping the rudder-head. Six men sat on planks on one side and six at the other over the empty pit beneath, hauling on to the bar with ropes and letting go as they were told. That made the best steering-gear that they could devise.

On the 13th of November, still pumping, they spread one sail on their solitary mast—it was lucky that the Sarah Sands had started with four of them—and took advantage of the trade winds to make for Mauritius. Captain Castles, with one chart and one compass, lived in a tent where some cabins had once been; and at the end of twelve more days he sighted land. Their average run was about four knots an hour; and, it is no wonder that as soon as they were off Port Louis, Mauritius, Mr. Frazer, the Scotch engineer, wished to start his engines and enter port professionally. The troops looked down into the black hollow of the ship when the shaft made its first revolution, shaking the hull horribly; and if you can realize what it means to be able to see a naked screw-shaft at work from the upper deck of a liner, you can realize what had happened to the Sarah Sands. They waited outside Port Louis for the daylight, and were nearly dashed to pieces on a coral reef. Then the gutted, empty steamer came in—very dirty, the men’s clothes so charred that they hardly dared to take them off, and very hungry; but without having lost one single life. Port Louis gave them all a public banquet in the market-place, and the French inhabitants were fascinatingly polite as only the French can be.

But the records say nothing of what befell the sailors who “consigned the ship to perdition.” One account merely hints that “this was no time for retribution”; but the troops probably administered their own justice during the twelve days’ limp to port. The men who were berthed aft, the officers and the women, lost everything they had; and the companies berthed forward lent them clothes and canvas to make some sort of raiment.

On the 20th of December they were all reembarked on the Clarendon. It was poor accommodation for heroes. She had been condemned as a coolie-ship, was full of centipedes and other animals picked up in the Brazil trade; her engines broke down frequently; and her captain died of exposure and anxiety during a hurricane. So it was the 25th of January before she reached the mouth of the Hugli.

By this time—many of the men probably considered this quite as serious as the fire—the troops were out of tobacco, and when they came across the American ship Hamlet, Captain Lecran, lying at Kedgeree on the way up the river to Calcutta, the officers rowed over to ask if there was any tobacco for sale. They told the skipper the history of their adventures, and he said: “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to me, because I have some tobacco. How many are you?” “Three hundred men,” said the officers. Thereupon Captain Lecran got out four hundred pounds of best Cavendish as well as one thousand Manilla cigars for the officers, and refused to take payment on the grounds that Americans did not accept anything from shipwrecked people. They were not shipwrecked at the time, but evidently they had been shipwrecked quite enough for Captain Lecran, because when they rowed back a second time and insisted on paying, he only gave then grog, “which,” says the record, “caused it to be dark when we returned to our ship.” After this “our band played ‘Yankee-Doodle,’ blue lights were burned, the signal-gun fired”—that must have been a lively evening at Kedgeree “and everything in our power was had recourse to so as to convey to our American cousins our appreciation of their kindness.”

Last of all, the Commander-in-Chief issued general order to be read at the head of every regiment in the Army. He was pleased to observe that “the behaviour of the 54th Regiment was most praiseworthy, and by its result must render manifest to all the advantage of subordination and strict obedience to orders under the most alarming and dangerous circumstances in which soldiers can be placed.”

This seems to be the moral of the tale.


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