News reports of shipwrecks are a wonderful source of information for family historians and it’s worth checking this avenue even if the incident seems comparatively obscure. Well-documented disasters such as the loss of the Titanic and the sinking of the Lusitania have attained legendary status. The wreck of the American on 23 April 1880 is largely forgotten, yet this extraordinary story made headline news in the world’s press for months. The adverse publicity dealt a blow to the famous Union Line whose Chairman had, a few weeks before the event, announced the Company’s immunity from accident.
On 8 May 1880 The Natal Witness announced that the Union R.M.S. American had arrived at Cape Town, and that among the passengers was Mr John PATERSON of Port Elizabeth, Member of the Cape Parliament.
However, the report of the arrival proved incorrect (a reminder to read ahead when searching in newspapers) and was followed days later by the announcement that the American had been wrecked under dramatic circumstances.
This ship of 2,126 tons, built in Dundee in 1873, was one of 5 mail steamers put into service by the Union Company in that year as a result of the opposition of Currie's Line in the England to Cape route. In 1876 she had undergone some alterations which had slightly changed her appearance, but she was a fine large vessel. On this particular voyage, under Captain A MacLean WAIT, she had departed Plymouth for the Cape on 9 April 1880 carrying 76 hands, 66 passengers and one stowaway.
When she was slightly north of the Equator, on the morning of Friday 23 April, her passengers were roused from their slumbers by a violent shock and the stopping of the ship’s engines. The stern propeller-shaft had broken.
This wasn't an unusual occurrence among steamers of the period; generally the vessel would hoist her sail and go on to the nearest port for repair, or be taken in under tow. But the American's shaft had bent, tearing away plating at her stern as well as part of the bulkhead aft. Water began to pour in, and the captain called the passengers together to explain what had happened. He calmly ordered breakfast to be served while the crew and some volunteers from among the passengers manned the pumps.
In due course it became clear that the pumps couldn't cope and that the American was doomed. The aptly-named Captain WAIT took six hours before deciding to abandon ship; the passengers and crew were ordered into the boats and all were safely taken off. After another hour and a half the vessel disappeared stern first into the Atlantic.
Despite finding themselves adrift in mid-ocean in 8 boats, everyone behaved well. The weather was good and as they were in the regular West African shipping lanes they would be picked up soon. If not, the optimistic captain hoped to make Cape Palmas, 250 miles away, and accordingly set sail.
Unfortunately, the boats gradually became separated. Three of them were picked up by the liner Congo on her way home, on 25 April and these survivors were landed at Madeira on 8 May where the news of the wreck was cabled to England. Thus began a phase of terrible anxiety for relatives and friends of passengers and crew who were not among the occupants of the first three boats.
Three other boats were found by the American vessel Emma F Herriman, and later these survivors, about 60 in all, were transferred to a steamer, the Coanza, which landed them at Grand Bassa, Liberia, and they were then taken on board the Senegal which sailed for Las Palmas.
Their troubles weren't over yet. On 15 May, the Senegal, now carrying far more than her usual number of souls, ran aground off the coast. This was too much - a double shipwreck for the American’s passengers. Panic ensued, people rushed for the boats, one of which jammed then on being cut loose plunged into the sea. In the melee, John PATERSON, probably struck by the propeller, was lost. There were no other casualties and the remainder made for Las Palmas by wagon.
The captain of the R.M.S. Teuton, which was in the area, put back to Las Palmas having sighted the Senegal aground, and took on board those passengers of the American which had arrived at the town. The Teuton then headed for the Cape, stopping at Madeira to take on the survivors who had landed there from the British and Africa steamer, Congo, under Captain LIVERSEDGE.
It was only on 28 May that news came of one of the remaining two missing boats from the American - the occupants had been picked up by a German schooner, the Moltke, transferred to the steamer Kamerun, and then landed at Madeira. When almost all hope had been abandoned of the seven crew members who were in the last remaining boat, they were miraculously found by the Portuguese ship, Tarujo, four months after the first news of the disaster had reached England, and landed at Loanda on 21 July.
The story occupied column after column in the South African press with inevitable delays in news being received of the missing boats. Eye-witness accounts, such as that of a passenger, Mr COX, thrilled the reading public, and The Natal Witness published an entire supplement on the ill-fated American. The loss of the respected Cape Member of Parliament, John PATERSON, was deplored; in Port Elizabeth flags all over the town were flown at half-mast. It seems PATERSON had twice postponed his voyage before finally choosing to depart on the American: a premonition, perhaps?