Launched in 1885, and entering service the following year on the Le Havre- New York route, the 7395-ton, 490-ft La Bourgogne set a new standard of speed, crossing in just over seven days. Her maximum passenger capacity was just over 1000, of whom some 390 were accommodated in first-class. Other than her enviable reputation for speed – 17 knots was considered high at this time – her career seems to have been uneventful until 1896 when she collided with a British steamer, the Ailsa, in New York Harbour. The 2000-ton Ailsa was at anchor in fog at the time and she sank in situ. On this occasion, it was the crew of the Ailsa that appears to have behaved deplorably, as evidenced by a question asked by an MP in the British Parliament in March 1896, in the aftermath of the accident. The following quote is verbatim:
HAVELOCK WILSON MP: I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade, whether his attention has been directed to the reports of a collision between the British steamship Ailsa and the French Transatlantic liner Bourgogne whether he is aware that the major portion of the crew of the Ailsa were foreigners, who immediately after the collision made a rush for the lifeboats, one of them striking a lady passenger and another kicking a lady in the side, and that they drew their knives and threatened the passengers; and afterwards took away the only available lifeboat, in spite of the protests of the captain; whether he will cause an immediate and full Inquiry to be held into the whole of the circumstances attending this collision; whether he can state if the crew of the Ailsa were competent seamen, able to speak and understand the English language; and, whether they were shipped in the United Kingdom or before Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul at New York?
Even allowing for the general distrust of “foreigners” – i.e. non-British citizens – was rampant at the time in Britain, the case seems egregious and indicates just how poor the safety standards and procedures on ocean-going shipping still were. It was the crew of La Bourgogne herself however that was to feature in an equally disgraceful manner two years later. The liner had been refitted in 1897-98, with a quadruple-expansion engine – then the gold standard – being installed.