When the 119-ton paddle steamer Sovereign foundered in Moreton Bay resulting in the loss of 44 lives, it was inevitable that people would want someone to blame. But was it the fault of the captain, the unseaworthiness of the ship or just a terrible accident?
On 3 March 1847 the Sovereign steamed down the Brisbane River. The captain had intended to cross Moreton Bay and head out to sea before bearing south on her regularly scheduled service to Sydney. This day she carried a crew of 24 to tend to the ship and her 30 passengers. The Sovereign was also loaded down with 140 bales of wool and other cargo. What did not fit in the hold was stowed on deck making her sit low in the water.
By the time she reached Amity Point, it was too late in the day to cross the bar so Captain Henry Cape anchored for the night off the pilot station. For the next seven days, the winds blew strongly from the south and he had little choice but to wait for the weather to ease.
Late on the 10th of March he tried his luck but on reaching the bar on the southern passage between Moreton and Stradbroke Islands he thought it too risky to try crossing. He returned to his anchorage near Amity Point hoping the next day might prove calmer.
By 6 o’clock the next morning, 11 March, the wind had dropped to a light south-westerly so Captain Cape again got underway. When he got to the bar the Sovereign encountered a heavy swell rolling in from the east. Cape would later recount that he had previously made the passage in worse weather and felt confident he could safely get out to sea.
However, when he was almost through the rolling swells, one particularly large wave broke over the Sovereign breaking the framing supporting the shafts for the two paddle wheels. The steamer lost propulsion and was now at the mercy of the powerful swells. Captain Cape could only rely on his sails at this stage and with little wind to fill them, they were close to useless.
Waves swept across the deck carrying away some of the cargo. Also, the lifeboats were lost before anyone had a chance to board them.
As the steamer drifted towards the sand spit extending from the southern point of Moreton Island, one anchor was let go, followed by a second. While they kept the ship’s head to the sea the anchors dragged and they were slowly driven towards disaster.
Passengers and crew heaved overboard what wool bales the waves had not already carried away, thinking to lighten the load. Hatch covers leading below decks were washed away and the sea began filling the hold. The pumps were continuously manned by members of the crew and willing passengers but to no avail.
The Sovereign began to founder. From the time the engines stopped to that dreadful moment about 45 minutes had elapsed. In the next five minutes, the ship was pounded to pieces as she wallowed in the breaking surf.
Several people clung to wool bales as they floated free but they soon drowned when the sodden bales sank. As a portion of the paddle box floated by, Captain Cape and several others sought refuge on it. They held on for dear life until they were washed ashore on Moreton Island. But, not before the powerful surf smashed the paddle box to matchwood and again threatened their existence.
Several Aborigines who had witnessed the disaster waded into the pounding seas and pulled Cape and several others to safety. Those acts of bravery would later be justly rewarded. A couple of fishermen and a boat crew from the pilot station also came to assist. Several other passengers were saved having held on to debris from the wreck. In all, just ten people escaped with their lives. Forty-four others were swept away or drowned.
Allegations soon began circulating that the steamer was ill-suited for the Brisbane – Sydney run and should never have been used for such a long and arduous ocean voyage. Built in Sydney around seven years earlier, it had begun regularly steaming between Newcastle and Sydney, then between Sydney and Brisbane.
In response to the criticism, warranted or otherwise, the Sovereign’s owners, the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company promptly sacked Captain Cape and released a statement absolving itself of any blame.
They disputed that fault lay with the design, build or maintenance of their steamer. Rather, they refuted claims that the engines had failed as described by Captain Cape drawing on testimony provided by a stoker named John McCallum, who had also survived the sinking. The imputation was that it was Captain Cape’s decision to go to sea in dangerous conditions or his handling of the vessel that had resulted in the appalling loss of life.
Cape was so incensed that he countered his former employer’s accusations by providing sworn statements made by the Amity Point pilot and one of the surviving passengers that on the day of the wreck they had heard McCallum confirm that the engines had failed. Regardless, a marine board inquiry found him at fault, though there remained considerable sympathy for Captain Cape and how he had been treated. To this day the loss of the Sovereign remains among the more costly to occur in Queensland waters.
© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.
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