Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mariners: Caithness and the Flying Dragon 2

St George's Cathedral, Cape Town 1850
 by Thomas Bowler

Captain James Ramsey Caithness had buried his first wife - the mother of his first six children, Elizabeth Watson b Ridges - in ‘Scorey’s Vault’ at St. George’s, Cape Town, on 23 January 1851. He was based there from that date until at least January 1855 when his second child by his second wife, Eliza Noyle, was born in January 1855. 

This establishes that James was in the area at the time of the Sea Gull incident during the gale of July 1854. According to press reports at that date he was captain of the Sea Gull and about to depart for Australia with emigrants on board. The gale put paid to that voyage, and though the Sea Gull was refloated, the damage she had sustained being found to be less than initially imagined, she was eventually condemned. This meant James was, temporarily, a mariner without a ship and with a wife and eight children depending on him: stressful times.

As we’ve seen, the clipper Flying Dragon was launched with much fanfare on the Australia run, completing her first passage from the Downs to Melbourne in 76 days (some say less), ‘thus fully bearing out the character published of her’. So speedy was this barque that an unknown lady was moved to express her admiration in verse, comparing the Flying Dragon with an American rival clipper, the Sovereign of the Seas.*

How much greater, then, the general shock and horror when it was announced in the Illustrated London News (and other papers) that on 31 July 1854, en route from Ceylon to London, the vessel caught fire at midnight, 200 miles off the Cape of Good Hope and ran into Simon’s Bay near Cape Town in August, ‘burnt to the water’s edge where she was scuttled’.

The ILN eulogized thus: 
The Flying Dragon was built for the Australian trade by Mr J Pyle [sic,] of North Sand, Monkwearmouth, the builder of the Spirit of the Age and other vessels … celebrated for their superior sailing qualities, for Robert Smith, Esq., of Manchester; and made on her  passage out one of the fastest voyages on record … She was classed A 1 at Lloyd’s … built of East India teak … and one of the most perfect advanced models of beauty in ship-building that ever left this country. 
Fire at sea – in this case, 200 miles from shore – is one of the greatest calamities to be visited on any ship and on those who sail in her. It was nothing short of miraculous that there was anything left of the Flying Dragon to be brought into Simon’s Bay and even more astounding that the crew survived to accomplish that feat. However, that is far from the end of the story.

Ship afire

*Lines on The Flying Dragon by a Lady

'From the English Downs to Philip's Port, in seventy-one days she ran,
Whilst the Sovereign took from Liverpool just eighty days and one.
The Sovereign can no longer boast the empire of the sea,
Since the beauteous Flying Dragon has eclipsed her Sovereignty'

Tom Sheldon for his research and assistance 

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