Loss of the Amphitrite, The [Laws K4]
DESCRIPTION: The Amphitrite leaves port, bound for Australia. Two days out she runs aground and sinks, killing all the passengers and most of the crew. The singer and two others survive by clinging to a spar (though one of them dies later)
EARLIEST DATE: 1917 (Cox; there are older, undated broadsides)
KEYWORDS: ship wreck
1833 - The Amphitrite, carrying female convicts to Australia, runs aground near Boulogne; only three sailors are saved
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Laws K4, "The Loss of the Amphitrite"
JHCox 87, "The Anford-Wright" (1 text)
Palmer-Sea 95, "Loss of the Amphitrite" (1 text)
DT 740, AMPHITRI
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 1947, "Loss of the Amphitrite," W & T Fordice (New astle), c. 1840; also Firth c.12(78), H. Such (London), 1863-1885; Firth c.13(277), J. Forth (Pocklington), no date; Johnson Ballads 1947, "Loss of the Amphitrite"
cf. "Rounding the Horn" (subject)
NOTES [1707 words]: For an account of the accident see broadside NLScotland, F.3.a.13(126), "Horrible Shipwreck !," Menzies (Lawnmarket), 1833 ("Taken from this day's Observer. Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1st Sep. 1833"). - BS
Cox also gives a contemporary description of the storm in which the Amphitrite sank. And Thomas Haynes Bayly, author of "Long, Long Ago!" and several other songs in the Index, in 1833 wrote "The Female Convict Ship" about this incident, although the poem is very short on actual names despite having thirteen eight-line stanzas.
According to Hudson and Nicholls, Tragedy on the High Seas, much of the fault belongs to the captain. Undermanned, and overcrowded with 136 people aboard, the Amphitrite ran into a severe storm, and the captain ran her aground but would not let anyone take to the boats; she had convicts aboard and he didn't want them getting loose. The ship eventually broke up, and only three survived. That's a good brief summary of what happened.
There is a recent book about the tragedy, Andrew C. A. Jampoler, Horrible Shipwreck! : A Full, True and Particular Account of the Melancholy Loss of the British Convict Ship Amphitrite, the 31st August 1833, off Boulogne, When 108 Female Convicts, 12 Children, and 13 Seamen Met with a Watery Grave, in Sight of Thousands, None Being Saved out of 136 Souls but Three! (Naval Institute Press, 2010). It features an incredible number of irrelevant side notes (I'd estimate that two-thirds of the book is not relevant the Amphitrite at all), making it quite a task to wade through, but amid all the unrelated material, it gives many details on the tragedy.
The Amphitrite may not have been particularly sound. As originally built in 1801, she had two masts (she was rigged as a "snow," with square sails on the masts plus a fore-aft sail) and was about 75 feet long and 158 tons (Jampoler, p. 70). In 1824, she was extensively rebuilt, increasing in length from 75' 10" to 92' 10", gaining a third mast and a bark rig, and increasing to 209 tons (Jampoler, pp. 72-73). This can't have helped her structural integrity. There was much dispute after her wreck about whether she had been sound (Jampoler, pp. 194-198, cites very mixed testimony -- naval officers who had inspected her had found her to be in good shape, but others disputed this); although Jampoler, p. 247, says that defects in her condition were not responsible for the tragedy, it sounds as if she was in decent shape but had not been perfectly cared for; she went to pieces in about five hours, and odds are the a stronger ship would have lasted at least a little longer.
Even as enlarged, she was small for a transport (the average in 1833, according to Jampoler, p. 73, was 418 tons), but by 1826, she was in service carrying soldiers to India (Jampoler, p. 74).
Unusually, her final voyage began on a Sunday; I can imagine that there were people who blamed that for the tragedy, although Jampoler, p. 102, suggests that it was simply a matter of supply contracts.
The fact that the ship went aground was not unusual at the time; "What made the Amphitrite's wreck unique and sensational was the public's suspicion that callous poop deck leadership and inept seamanship, coupled to contracting corruption and a civil servant's disinterest, had produced the tragedy" (Jampoler, p. 9)
Jampoler, pp. 42-43, says that most of the crew's names are unknown -- the muster rolls for that particular voyage are lost, although they were usually sent ashore and preserved before the ship sailed -- but that the ones who are known had not served on the ship before.
The same was true of Captain Hunter, who was owner as well as master -- he had bought all 64 shares of the ship on August 17, having to take out a substantial loan in order to do so (Jampoler, p. 51). Although still only thirty-three -- two years older than his ship (Jampoler, p. 59) -- he had a great deal of sea experience. Not all of that experience was especially relevant, though -- he had commanded smaller ships, but none as large as the Amphitrite, and not recently. He had sailed to Australia -- but as a junior officer, not commander. And he had never commanded a female transport (Jampoler, p. 47). So he was new to his ship, and new to handling a ship of this size -- not a good situation for a voyage halfway around the world!
The ship's surgeon James Forrester, who was to a significant extent responsible for the human cargo, had served on convict transports twice before (Jampoler, p. 51), but his performance in that role had been dubious enough that he was put on a semi-official list of those unlikely to do the job well (Jampoler, pp. 53-55), implying he got the job only because no one better was available. And his wife, who went with him, apparently was a snob who looked down on the convicts (Jampoler, p. 58).
We obviously don't know much about what went on in the ship's final hours, but many of the convicts had been on board her for weeks before she sailed, and there had been little control exercised over them (Jampoler, pp. 98-99).
The storm that hit the Amphitrite was a very bad one; it caused damage all over Britain (Jampoler, pp. 118-119). On the Thursday after she set sail, she passed Dungeness on the Kentish coast, a little east of Rye; on Friday, the storm was bad enough that the ship started to shorten sail; by late Friday night or early Saturday morning, she had taken in all sail and was running on bare poles. Out of sight of land, and with no ability to see the sky, there was no way for them to know their position. (Jampoler, pp. 108-109). It appears they were being blown just about straight east-southeast; Boulougne-Sur-Mer is the directly across the channel from Dungeness.
"Some time after 4:00 PM, several hours before low tide, on August 31, 1833, Captain Hunter deliberately put his ship onto the Boulogne sands, not because it was a good idea but because he had run out of alternatives" (Jampoler, p. 125; it was not possible for a ship the size of the Amphitrite to enter Boulogne harbor at low tide).
Captain Hunter apparently didn't realize what would happen when the tide rose. Perhaps he thought it would float him off; insofar as his actions are known, they seem consistent with that interpretation (Jampoler, p. 191). But the tides in that area, funneled by the English Channel, were very high and strong. Twice locals from Boulogne risked their lives to come to him and tell him that he had to abandon ship; she would be ruined by the tide. One harbour pilot brought a boat to the Amphitrite; one amazingly brave man swam to her with a line. Hunter refused to accept help (Jampoler, pp. 142-143). He didn't even run out the boats, and when the disaster struck, he apparently did not fire rockets or make other distress signals (Jampoler, p. 191. The ship soon broke up, killing almost all of those on board. There were just three survivors, all members of the crew, all quite young (Jampoler, p. 154. The oldest claimed to be 22, the others were in their teens. Two were unharmed, the third had non-life-threatening injuries). It sounds as if all three were in the upper parts of the ship when she fell apart; everyone below decks was killed.
There were reportedly seven doctors on the beach (Jampoler, p. 152), but there obviously wasn't anything they could do for the dead and drowned -- which was almost everyone. Possibly more could have been done to conduct a rescue, but it appears no one ashore realized the Amphitrite was a convict vessel until one of the survivors told them (Jampoler, p. 155); they just assumed she was a cargo vessel with a crew of probably fewer than twenty.
The exact number of female convicts is apparently unknown. The original indent lists 101, with convict #102 listed in a separate letter. Yet there are claims that there were 108 or more (Jampoler, p. 85). Sixteen of them were said to be under twenty years old, with the youngest being just thirteen although she was regarded as a hardened thief (Jampoler, p. 89).
Soon after the disaster, the newspapers began their coverage (Jampoler, p. 184, says the first story appeared on Tuesday; the wreck was on a Saturday). The story quickly became the subject of headlines. A week after the disaster, at the request of the Foreign Office, the Admiralty sent Captain Henry Ducie Chads to investigate (Jampoler, p. 195). As often happens in these cases, Chads refused to blame anyone British (Jampoler, p. 198). But there were reports that the French locals had actually killed some of victims of the Amphitrite, which threatened diplomatic consequences (Jampoler, pp. 200-201. Jampoler, p. 206 and after, seems to think the charges against the locals true (at least the claims of looting, if not of murder) -- but his main evidence seems to be what happened to other wrecks. It sounds to me as if the French were simply following their rules about preventing smuggling, enforcing quarantine, and preventing looting (as described by Jampoler, p. 210). Jampoler, p. 230, thinks that William Hamilton, the British consul in Boulogne, should have ordered the ship evacuated, but that strikes me as a pretty strange thing to expect a diplomat to do.
In all, 85 bodies (not all of them identified) were buried in Boulogne, meaning that about fifty were not found. They were buried in mass graves. The surviving crewmen identified four of the crew: surgeon Forrester, the second mate, the cook, and one of the seamen. Four other adult men's bodies were recovered but not identified (Jampoler, pp. 238-239).
The song is obviously correct in saying the Amphitrite had only three survivors; it is incorrect in saying that one later died. The rest of the details seem to be mostly true, from the little we can tell from the survivors' accounts, but despite its claims, the song is clearly not an account by one of the actual survivors.
In addition to this song, the wreck inspired a painting by N. E. Deey, "The Amphitrite Wreck'd off Boulogne Augt 31st 1833 (108 Females on Board)," which is reproduced on p. 141 of Jampoler and which can be seen at the Royal Museums Greenwich web site, as well as Joseph Mallord William Turner's much better-known, although unfinished, "A Disaster at Sea." - RBW
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