The UK press was prompt in publishing on 10 May names of the people landed at Madeira by the steamer Congo, allaying some fears. A list was provided of all the American’s passengers and their intended destinations in South Africa. This is a bonus for family historians as original passenger records for vessels departing England before 1890 were later destroyed. Initials weren’t given for every passenger on the American, so the ports for which they were bound are a convenient identifying clue. It’s likely that the six Wirths destined for East London were members of the famous circus family of that surname. The Lord family’s maidservant and the nurse accompanying the Southon family were not named. The identity of the stowaway remains unknown; no doubt he repented his choice of ship.
Another useful offering, the crew list of the American, arranged in order of rank, appeared in the press on 11 May 1880. There were only two female crew members: stewardess Ann Hyslop and E Packman, bathroom stewardess. The latter was fortunate in being among the survivors of the first boats to be rescued. Miss Packman, with 3 officers, 2 engineers and 23 crew were taken to England from Madeira by Currie’s RMS Balmoral Castle.
South African newspapers such as The Cape Times covered all stages of the story. There were numerous tributes to John Paterson, ‘the most talented member of our legislature’, and it was predicted that his death would influence the course of South African politics. In Port Elizabeth, where Paterson had been a founder of the city’s first newspaper, The Eastern Province Herald, flags were hoisted at half-mast.
As mentioned previously, The Natal Witness devoted an entire supplement to the shipwreck, with eye-witness narratives of astounding detail. A passenger, Charles Cox, stated that the survivors taken on board the Senegal ‘suffered very much from a low, nervous fever’ and that Mr Wilkinson had a finger severed during the debacle of the second wreck. There were individual acts of heroism: Mr Dunn, 4th officer, dived under the waves to save Mrs Lord. She appeared dead when lifted into the fishing boat and the superstitious Portuguese fishermen would have consigned her to the deep but smelling salts revived her. Mr Humphrey of Graaff-Reinet helped in the rescue of Mrs Lord before he fainted. These accounts thrilled the reading public at the time, and now present rich pickings for anyone tracing an ancestor who was on the ill-fated American.
Lesser columns shouldn’t be neglected as interesting snippets can emerge. Searching forward in The Natal Witness, the edition of 12 June 1880 contained a brief report under Local & General News: ‘a young man named Alexander Smith, rescued from the American, is now staying at Mrs Granger’s Boarding House, Church Street’ (Pietermaritzburg).
The British Board of Trade held an official inquiry into the loss of the ship. It was found that the master, his officers and men had done everything they could to save the vessel and the lives of the passengers, and that Captain Wait’s admirable maintenance of order when the ship was on the point of sinking deserved the greatest credit.
Read the report on the inquiry at
South African newspapers are available at the British Newspaper Library, Colindale
Anyone interested in an ancestor who may have been on board the final voyage of the American, either as passenger or member of the crew, contact me through the comment facility on this blog.