Fate of the ‘Cospatrick’


?Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell!
Then shrieked the timid, and stood still the brave;
Then some leaped overboard with dreadful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave.?

?The Shipwreck? Lord Byron.

The open ocean?is full of terrors, and those who choose to lose sight of familiar shores must all live with these fears as ever present companions.

One of the greatest nightmares any sailor holds in their heart is the outbreak of a fire at sea.

This was to be the fate of the Emigrant Ship ?Cospatrick?, leading to the most catastrophic loss of life at sea to be intimately felt by the peoples of the emerging nation of New Zealand.

The ?Cospatrick? was a 191 foot Blackwell frigate which had been laid down in the Burmese shipyard of Mawlamyaing in 1856, at the commission of prominent London ship owner Duncan Dunbar.

After her owner?s death in 1862, she was bought by Smith, Fleming and Co. of London, and was employed primarily on passages between England and India, carrying arms, goods, passengers and indentured servants.

In 1873 she was sold again, for the last time, and bought by Shaw, Savill and Co. of London.

Her new owners intended to make best use of her as an emigrant ship, ferrying passengers to the burgeoning colony of New Zealand.

It was on the second of these outward bound journeys that she would meet her end.

It was the 11th of September 1874 when the ?Cospatrick? set sail from Gravesend England, bound for Auckland New Zealand.

According to accounts printed by the Illustrated London News, she carried: 177 male adults; 125 women; 58 boys; 53 girls; 16 infants under the age of 12 months; and a crew of 43. There were also onboard 4 independently travelling passengers; making a grand total of 476 souls.

The journey south had been largely uneventful, as the heat of the tropics slowly but surely began to give way to the crisp cool of the swift-moving Southern Ocean.

As the ship approached 37 degrees south of the equator and 12 degrees East in Longitude, something happened.

We will never know what started the fire.

Perhaps it was a match dropped by a clumsily drunken hand. Or a fallen lamp maybe; unsecured from its rightful place by a rogue wave one too many times, shattered and spilling its reservoir of Whale Oil and flame.

What we do know, however, is that on or about 1am?on the morning of the 17th of November 1876, a cry of ?Fire!? was heard by the ships second mate, Henry MacDonald.

MacDonald quickly identified the source of the flames as coming from the Boatswain?s Store which housed a great deal of flammable material such as paint; oakum; rope and tar.

An attempt was made by the crew to turn the ship ?before the wind? in order to preserve the majority of the hull from damage, however, the fire was to spread at such a speed that this most desperate manoeuvre proved ineffective and within minutes all hope of containing the blaze was lost.


One can only imagine the anguished cries of panic which ensued as the terrible realisation sunk into the souls of those on board, that their trusted vessel of refuge from the awful fathomless depths below, their ark of salvation towards a new and better life, would soon be gone.

The flames and smoke were driven aft, setting the stern life-boats on fire; preventing their use.

About 80, mostly women, crowded into one of the starboards quarter-boats, which crew members desperately attempted to put to sea. This vessel was to capsize, however, drowning all onboard alongside the still blazing hulk.

It was now that the fore, main and mizzen masts all collapsed underneath their own weight, effectively crushing many still onboard, causing much further devastation.

A massive explosion on her stern was to be the Cospatrick?s final humiliation, as the once proud vessel slowly sunk beneath the ocean?s surface, never to be seen again.

Captain Elmslie was to stay onboard until the final moments when he would throw his wife into the water below him and follow soon after.

Dr. Cadle was also to remain until the last, jumping into the heaving seas with the Captain?s son in his arms.

Only two life-boats would be successfully launched from this scene of such misery and pathetic despair.

They would both stay in close proximity with each other until the night of the 21st when they would be parted in the middle of the night by a tempest.

On the 27th, 500 miles north east of their last reported position and ten days out from the sinking, one lone life-boat would be sighted and picked up by the British Sceptre of Liverpool.

Only five men were found to be still alive and mercifully hauled aboard.

Two of these men died immediately upon rescue, however, three survived.

Among the three survivors, one was Henry MacDonald.

When finally they were able to speak their words told of unimaginable torments and ungodliness.

Of needing to live on the flesh and blood of their former comrades for sustenance in the last desperate moments of endurance, spent onboard the constantly bobbing floating furnace that the lifeboat had become.

But what of the Cospatrick?

An inquiry would be launched into a sea of bureaucratic musings and publicly announced good intentions.

And, as in all times where honour is a stranger to civility in such proceedings, the temptation to allocate blame upon the shoulders of those who can no longer speak won through.

Nothing was altered or learned from this tragedy.

The absence of necessary, but unprofitable numbers of life-boats, would remain.

The safety of ocean going passengers would continue to be ignored, and only become paramount after another tragedy’s lament, in the freezing North Atlantic waters, on the night of the?12th of April, 1912.