On 3 July 1854, the Peruvian ship Grimeneza struck a reef at Bampton Shoals in the Coral Sea. The Captain, first mate, ship’s surgeon, and four sailors immediately abandoned the ship leaving the rest of the crew and about 600 Chinese passengers to their fate.
Twenty-eight days later Captain M.H. Penny and five others reached safety at New Ireland after a gruelling 4,000kms passage in an open boat. They had suffered severely from hunger, exposure, and disease, but they had survived their ordeal. The first mate was not so fortunate for he had been killed at New Britain when they stopped seeking food.
Captain Penny reported that the Grimeneza had been sailing from Shantou in China bound for Callao (present day Lima) in South America when its voyage was cut short. The night his ship crashed onto the reef it was blowing a gale. He claimed to have done all that was possible to ensure the safety of everyone on board before he and the others were forced to abandon the ship. Justifying his hasty departure, Penny said the Chinese passengers panicked and had tried to attack him and the rest of the crew. And had no one else made it off alive, that is all anyone would have known of a disaster that claimed over 600 lives.
But others also survived. One was the second mate, who later reported that the captain fled the ship immediately after she struck the reef stopping only to secure the hatch’s leading to the hold where the passengers were accommodated. After the captain’s departure, the remaining crew tried to back the vessel off the reef but when that failed, they too left in the remaining two lifeboats leaving the passengers to their fate. After six days at sea without food or water the castaways contemplated killing a 12-year-old cabin boy for food to keep the rest of them alive. Fortunately, they were discovered by a passing ship and the boy’s life was spared.
Back on the Grimeneza, the Chinese passengers eventually broke out of the hold to find they had been deserted. Sometime after that the ship slipped off the reef on the high tide and immediately started filling with water. The passengers manned the pumps and baled for all they were worth to keep the vessel afloat. For three days they toiled as they sailed before the wind towards the Queensland coast. They could have come within a few hundred kilometres before disaster struck. After three days of unrelenting effort, everyone was exhausted, and some began giving up. They could not or would not keep going. The sense of common purpose that had got them thus far broke down. A few began plundering what they could from the ship as water filled the hold. Others made preparation for the inevitable.
The Grimeneza soon foundered. A few men took to small rafts they had hastily built, others jumped into the sea with nothing more than a single timber plank to keep themselves afloat. According to one of only six Chinese passengers to survive, most drowned or were soon taken by sharks. The lucky few were rescued by a passing ship after several days in the water. They were cared back to health and taken on to Madras where their appalling story came to light through the aid of an interpreter.
Captain Penny briefly touched in Melbourne on his return to South America but was never held to account for his callous actions. Years later it was revealed that the Chinese “coolies” had boarded the Grimeneza believing they were being taken to the Californian goldfields. Instead, they had been bound for Peru to work in the Chincha Island guano mines as indentured labourers.
© Copyright, C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.
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