Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reports on wreck of American 1880, continued.

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.


Sue de la Mare said...

Hi I'm trying to find out what happended to my gg grandfather, Frederick J Nicholls, after he was shipwrecked on the American off the Cape of Good Hope in 1880. Can you help?

Mole said...

All I can tell you is that a man named NICHOLLS was a passenger on the American, port of disembarkation given as Cape Town. Initials vary in the newspaper accounts e.g. 'J.K.' but this is probably transcription error. Nicholls was NOT one of the survivors landed at Madeira by the steamer Congo. So he may have been among those 60 people who suffered the 'double shipwreck' involving the steamers Coanza and Senegal.

Unknown said...

Hi, I am really interested in "the young man named Alexander Smith" that is mentioned here. We have a family story that mentions a ship wreck and the name alexander passed down from generation to generation because of this. I am hoping you have more information on this person?

Mole said...

Regret I have nothing further on this Alexander Smith: the reference to him was a chance finding when I was going forwards through the newspaper in search of any mentions of the wreck of the American. So all we know is that he was rescued and that he was staying in the boarding house in Pietermaritzburg. The surname Smith makes things more difficult. A search of NAAIRS on all SA from 1880 onwards brought up nearly 600 hits for Alexander + Smith. And we have no way of knowing whether this man remained in SA.

Mole said...

Charmaine, further to yr query re Alexander Smith, see Natal Witness Deaths 1884

I like this possibility.

Regards, Mole

Unknown said...

Thank you Mole, very much appreciated. I will follow up and let you know if anything came from it! Charmaine

Sue de la Mare said...

Frederick J Nicholls, after he was shipwrecked on the American off the Cape of Good Hope in 1880. Please see images as follows regarding Frederick Nicholls and the double shipwreck.

Mole said...

Well done, Sue, on finding more about Fredereick Nicholls after the wreck of the American, and for posting the links on this blog. I have had a look this morning but will read more carefully in due course.
Excellent result! Thanks for sharing the information. Best Wishes. Mole