Sunday, June 17, 2012

Wreck of the Earl of Hardwicke at Natal, 1863

The dangers of a long sea voyage to Natal culminated in the risks of arrival. From 1845 to 1885 approximately 66 large vessels were lost on the beaches of Durban. Many were driven ashore from the outer anchorage in strong gales. This was the case with the Earl of Hardwicke, a British ship of about 900 tons wrecked on 26 September 1863 on what was then known as the Back Beach, during a north-easterly gale. A Court of Enquiry was held at the Resident Magistrate’s Office to determine the cause of the wreck and to take evidence from the Master, John Maddison, officers and crew members. William Bell, Port Captain, and his friend George Cato, Lloyd’s Agent, both of the Harbour Board, were present.

On her arrival, the Earl of Hardwicke was positioned in the roadstead according to the instructions of the Port Captain. A north-easterly sprang up on the morning of Saturday, 26 September, though not sufficiently strongly so as to necessitate her taking to the open sea. She remained riding by her starboard anchor, with 90 fathoms of chain out. However, in the afternoon she began to drag and the boatswain’s mate, Samuel Hunt, gave it as his opinion that the chain had parted, but he had not voiced this at the time. Able Seaman Goodwin disagreed, and had maintained the chain had not parted. The chief officer, Edward Benjamin Bullen, was considered to have acted correctly in letting go the port anchor and paying out a full cable, while the starboard anchor dragged. During the night the cable had parted and the broken link was brought into court.

It was apparent that the gale had come on suddenly, ‘with more than the usual sea’, and the Earl of Hardwicke was not the only vessel whose cable had parted.  [The barque Sebastian was wrecked on the Back Beach during the same gale.] The Board acquitted the Captain, officers and crew of any blame. There was a great deal of discussion on the point that the scale of chains laid down in Lloyd’s rules were of insufficient size to resist the winds and seas that set in at times on the Natal coast.

The Board respectfully begged to offer a few suggestions arising out of the investigation as well as from the experience of the past: ‘something should be done to save the good name of this port, as it is known to be the best holding ground in Africa. At other places larger size chain cables are used. The same scale should be adopted at this port and duly tested with certificate attached to the ship’s register. Port instructions for Outside should be framed after the Government have first set at rest the vexed question whether the outside anchorage is, or is not, the Port of Natal … These instructions should fully set forth the Port Captain’s duties, and what assistance vessels have a right to expect, not leaving the matter as it now stands, one of opinion of, perhaps, a master of a day, month or year’s experience, or perhaps an interested merchant, against the Port Captain’s experience of twenty-three years of the same place.’  [It’s almost possible to hear William Bell making this statement.]

The Board also recommended, in view of the inevitable increase in volume of vessels, the acquisition of some apparatus for getting a line to ships in difficulty off the port. [This was duly followed up and the rocket apparatus became a vital addition to the harbour facilities, saving both ships and lives.] Finally, the Board suggested ‘the propriety of having a light-house erected, with as little delay as possible, on the Bluff.’ [This too, was acted upon, but it took a year to get the foundation stone of the lighthouse set in place, and another two years to finish building the structure; 23 January 1867 was the date of the official opening.] 

No lives were lost during the wrecks of either the Earl of Hardwicke or the Sebastian.

[Source: Natal Mercury 4 December 1863]

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