Friday, February 5, 2016

Shipwreck survivors 14: Titanic, Waratah, American

In more recent times, if an ancestor was shipwrecked on a large liner there is a good chance that the event was well-documented, even that a passenger list was published in the press. I am thinking of the obvious famous vessels like Titanic and Lusitania, though there are less publicised wrecks such as that of the American in the1880s. The survivors of the latter ship had to undergo a second shipwreck immediately after the first, on the ship which was supposedly taking them to safety. Not a good day for those on board.

The Waratah, which mysteriously disappeared off the South African coast in 1909, was the topic of numerous  reports in local and international press for many months and the list of her passengers was published several times. Despite these facts being to hand, there are frequent claims made by alleged descendants that their ancestor was among those on board the fated ship.

It is evidence of a strange desire to be associated in some way with a famous and tragic incident - rather like descendants who hold to it, buckle and thong, that their forebear fought at Rorke's Drift in 1879 when it is perfectly clear from documentary evidence that he was not among that small courageous band of British soldiers. 

What particular claim to fame it might be for an ancestor to have been lost on the Titanic or the Waratah remains nebulous, but there's no doubt that a certain glamour attaches to such an ancestor.

I sometimes receive queries from family historians who ask why shipwrecks are relevant to the topic of genealogy. Clearly the loss of an individual in a wreck certainly was relevant to his or her family and undoubtedly changed the course of the latters' lives. Also, the mere fact of an ancestor dying in this manner means that information will be available - on the more well-known vessels at least. All grist to the family historian's mill. 

On rare occasions details may emerge about an ancestor wrecked on a little-known vessel. An example was finding mention of Sturges Bourne Bell, son of Captain William Bell, who was shipwrecked off a collier near the coast of Spain in 1873. This reference led to the discovery of further information on this obscure and elusive forebear.

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