(Like other black and white illustrations in this article, this is public-domain ex-Wikipedia)
These musings were prompted by reading a Victorian-era account of the wreck of the 3700-ton RMS Atlantic, a liner belonging to the famed White Star Line which would later own the Titanic. When she came into service in 1871 this ship was one of the fastest and most luxurious afloat. 420-feet long, and driven at a maximum of 14.5 knots by her single-shaft 600-hp engine, she carried auxiliary sails on four masts – the back-up to steam that was still essential in this period. With the “RMS” identifying her as authorised to carry Royal Mail, the Atlantic was employed on the prestigious Liverpool-New York route “with wonderful regularity”, and with capacity for 1166 passengers in addition to her crew.
In March 1873 the Atlantic set out on her nineteenth voyage to the United States with 835 passengers – many of them emigrants – and 117 crew on board. Stormy weather was encountered from the start and this caused such heavy consumption of coal that the Atlantic’s Captain Williams decided to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to replenish his bunkers before pressing on to New York. On the evening of March 31st, the Atlanticwas within some dozen miles of Halifax and stormy conditions were continuing. Williams decided to put off entering harbour until daylight and in the meantime the ship was set on a southerly course. At midnight he retired to rest in the chart-room, leaving instructions for the officer of the watch to call him at three o’clock. The first officer had apparently also retired, leaving the vessel in charge of the second and third officers. Despite proximity to a dangerous coast, they did not take soundings, or post a masthead lookout, or reduce speed. They failed to spot the Sambro Lighthouse to the south of Halifax’s harbour entrance.
The watch changed at three o’clock but the captain was apparently not woken. Minutes later an alarm of “Breakers ahead” was called from deck, too late to allow evasive action. The Atlantic had driven herself on to rocks and was stranded there immovably. Pounded by the waves, she heeled over on her starboard side, rendering it impossible for the boats there to be launched, while those on the port side, exposed to the storm’s full fury, were ripped away. Bewildered passengers crowded up on deck and were told by the officers to lash themselves to the rigging to prevent being washed away. It appears that significant numbers of passengers never made it on deck and drowned in the steerage. The Victorian account almost relishes the horror of the moment: “they slept, ignorant of the danger, until the cold waves dashed in upon them, and rose to their lips. Then, one wild startled cry, and all was hushed!”