Captain William Bell's duties as Port Captain at Durban were very much of the hands-on variety. The most famous shipwreck Bell had to deal with was that of the Minerva. A former East Indiaman of 987 tons, built in Bombay in 1812, this vessel came to grief on the rocks below the Bluff on 4 July 1850 when her cables parted.
She was the largest ship chartered by Byrne and brought the most emigrants carried by one ship. Each emigrant family had brought the pick of their household treasures, items which in many instances were irreplaceable.
The Minerva dropped anchor in the outer anchorage about 10 a.m. and Byrne’s agent, Moreland, went out in the port boat to welcome his own wife and children who were on board. The passage had taken 67 days.
On July 4th some of the passengers were landed and arrangements were made for trans-shipping heavier goods. After midnight came the sound of a signal gun. It was assumed that another vessel was arriving but when the firing continued it became clear that a ship was in distress. Fires were lit on the Bluff and on the Point, and by this light it could be seen that the ship was the Minerva, stuck fast on a reef at the foot of the Bluff. At 3 a.m. a boat from the barque Henrietta (which had arrived meanwhile and was lying at anchor) bravely attempted to approach but capsized in the surf; 4 crewmen were pulled ashore by rescuers but the fifth man, the 2nd mate of the Henrietta, was swept away and drowned. He was the only casualty.
By now most of Durban’s population were at the scene, with soldiers from the Port garrison, Custom House officials and personages such as W S Field, G C Cato and, of course, the Port Captain.
Donald Moodie, Colonial Secretary, happened to be in Durban, about to travel to Table Bay on the schooner Rosebud. He was an ex Naval lieutenant and understood the situation, so his advice was welcomed; he later paid generous tribute later to various helpers:
‘Poor Captain Bell had just been ordered and taken a hot bath when turned out of his bed to stand all day in the surf. His coolness and skill were conspicuous.’
Moodie also mentioned that ‘The ship lay so still … it was thought she would last all night and that it was better to leave the residue of people and crew (about 50) on board till the morning. Bell and I did not think so …’ *
They were certainly proved right – the Minerva was dashed to pieces on the rocks during the night, but those on board were by then safely ashore.
Within 24 hours wreckage was strewn for miles along the beaches. It had been a successful rescue with everyone behaving most courageously. However, scarcely any of the settlers’ possessions were saved – it was estimated that 300 tons of personal effects had been lost. This was a terrible blow for the new settlers, but there was a sympathetic response from the inhabitants of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. A relief fund was established, with donations of money, food and clothing, and other assistance such as accommodation generously given. The remains of the ship were sold on the beach – rigging, sails, spars, planks, beams, barrels of tar etc.
An enquiry was held into the wreck and the Port Captain’s statement taken; Bell’s usual practical thinking and his maritime experience came to the fore:
WILLIAM BELL Port Captain: On the 3rd July, at about 10 a.m., the Minerva came in close round the Bluff, fired a gun and then anchored. Being very unwell at the time, he immediately sent the coxswain (Archer) off to her in the Port boat, and desired him to shift her a little more to the northward, and after shifting her to give the Captain a passage ashore, and bring the Captain to him in order that he might discuss with him the way of getting his passengers landed.
About 2 o'clock the boat returned and brought the Captain ... who was fatigued, having been up the night before and wished to be excused from moving her that day. Told him the vessel was in a very fair berth and it was not particularly necessary to remove her that evening. She was lying in 12 fathoms water, and about 60 fathoms of chain out. Told him that was sufficient, as the vessel would be clear of her anchors with that scope out. He said he had double reefed his top sails ready for going to sea in case the vessel should part. Told him that vessels did not make a practice of slipping and going to sea, as they had rode it out in all weathers and at all seasons of the year, many of them not having to let go the second anchor. Then asked him who his agent was, he replied Mr. Moreland. Told him he had better see him and make arrangements about landing passengers the next morning, and that he could go off with the pilot and get the vessel moved.
Captain Moir went off the next morning in the port boat with the pilot for that purpose but in consequence of light airs from the northward it was not advisable to attempt moving the vessel. About noon the wind freshened and drew more to the eastward and about half-past four the Henrietta came to anchor. About sunset the wind was fresh, but the three vessels appeared to ride easily. At nine the wind abated and drew more to the northward. At about 12 o'clock heard a gun and by the blue lights saw Minerva ashore on the Bluff ... went over to the Bluff but nothing could be done until daylight.
Had he (Captain Moir) been on board the Minerva when the wind freshened at ten and the vessel rode heavy, he should have let go the second anchor and veered out the whole cable on the port anchor. His motive for wishing to move the Minerva from the position she first occupied was to get her into a more convenient berth for landing her passengers and cargo, and not on account of her being in a bad anchoring ground.
Captain Moir argued that the fluke of the anchor had given way. The court of enquiry thought that the anchor cable, of partly new and old chain, had possibly failed at the swivel. No blame was attributed to Moir and the anchor and chain were never recovered from the wreck site.
* Source: Moodie to Pine, 7.7.50 CSO Pt 2 14 (NAB)
Wreck of the Minerva by J Forsyth Ingram