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The wreck of the immigrant ship Surat - January 2nd 1874

Surat ashore at The Catlins

Being cast ashore with just the clothes on your back may be the stuff of Robinson Crusoe stories but in the mid- 1870's in New Zealand it actually happened. A large number of immigrants on board the 1000 ton Surat were stranded on a southern shore on the morning of January 2nd 1874. Within two weeks the ship, its cargo and everything the immigrants owned had been sold at auction. A protest on behalf of the passengers for their belongings had been lodged by Mr John Booth (a Cabin Passenger) but whilst note was taken of this protest, the entire contents of the ship were sold.

On September 27th 1873, Surat sailed from London under charter to the New Zealand Shipping Company and in command of Captain Johnson. On board were 270 assisted immigrants and two cabin passengers bound for Dunedin. In addition Surat carried a valuable cargo consisting, in part, of railway iron and also of plant and machinery for the Kaikoura Woollen Factory - a cargo valued at almost 150,000. No record seems to have been made of the conditions experienced during the journey out and one must assume that the ship experienced a trouble free passage as her voyage time was a rather swift 95 days.

Nothing was heard of the Surat until early January 1874 when she was reported ashore at Chaslands Mistake near the Catlins River. To those on board, the first hint of impending danger was at 10:00pm on December 31st 1873 when the ships keel ran over the submerged Beechers Rocks. The bumps (five in all) were gentle at first, but ended with such a severe jolt as to cause all on board to grasp anything they could to stay upright or to prevent themselves being thrown out of bed. Like many such maritime calamities, it was night time and most of the passengers were preparing for bed. Were they thinking of their arrival in their new home on the following day? Were they thinking, perhaps, of the wonderful opportunities that awaited them in this land of plenty with the dawn of a new year and a new life? Either way they were jolted from any reverie and the deck was soon crowded with excited and apprehensive passengers, many clad in their flimsy night clothes.

As the Surat seemed to have suffered little damage, Captain Johnson stood out to sea and hove to for the night in little Bloody Jacks Bay near the Catlins River. The pumps were kept going all night with relays of crew and passengers and it appeared that they were managing to hold back the water. Early on the following morning some passengers were put ashore but in the daylight it was found that Surat was making more water than originally thought and was actually sinking and it was at this time that Captain Johnson decided to run her on to the beach at Catlins Bay. This was approximately 12 hours after she first struck the rocks. The remainder of the passengers and crew were taken off with the exception of the First Mate and two crew-men who remained temporarily on board.

A successful operation in which the correct decisions were made at the right time to save passengers and cargo and, yes, even the ship. But was it? Other accounts placed matters in a very different light. These accounts were so pointedly contradictory of the Captain's version of events that some newspapers of the day shied away from publishing them - but let us not get too far ahead.

On news reaching those at both Dunedin and Bluff of the stranding of the Surat, all haste was made to send vessels to the rescue. At Dunedin was the French man-of-war Vire under the command of Captain Jacquemart and at Bluff were the steamers Wanganui and the smaller Wallabi. Captain Jacquemart at once placed his ship at the disposal of the Provincial Government, offering to carry out the service asked of him free of charge. Government officials, however, promised to pay all expenses resulting from the voyage. Having been hauled out and steam got up with all haste, Vire was underway to the Catlins by one o'clock on Friday afternoon - the day the Surat had been beached. Meanwhile in Bluff, the Wanganui whose Captain (Fraser) was on board his vessel, wasted no time in getting underway and shortly after 2:00pm on Friday afternoon was steaming towards the Catlins River with "a spanking breeze" behind her. The Wallabi's Captain (Leys) was in nearby Invercargill and it was some time before she too was steaming northwards aided by the same "spanking breeze".

The Wallabi, "bowling along at nearly nine knots" arrived at Bloody Jacks Bay two hours before dawn where they spied the Wanganui by her running lights and the "..river spit ahead, and a dark object on it." On her arrival at the scene some hours earlier, the Wanganui had failed to spot the stricken ship, but those on the Surat had certainly spotted the Wanganui. The passengers and many crew members later declared that when it was found that Surat was making more water and the Wanganui was hove to within sight, they had begged the Captain to fire a gun. He had refused. Other passengers and the ships Purser hoisted a distress signal - the Union Jack upside down - but they were threatened with revolvers and made to haul it down. Bells were rung and a woman jumped on the poop deck and waved her red shawl but to no avail. The Wanganui temporarliy steamed out of sight and conditions on board turned almost mutinous. Threats were made to take the Captain and First Mate hostage and appoint the Surgeon Superintendent commander of the ship. The Surgeon, however, would have none of it and threatened to leave the ship entirely at which point the threat was dropped.

Eventually the ship was spotted by the Wanganui but not before she had been beached. At this time the Wallabi had arrived and the Vire rounded The Nuggets and anchored in the Bay. Being the only vessel of shallow enough draught, the Wallabi turned towards the river mouth, crossed the Bar, steamed a short way up the river and anchored in mid-stream. From here they were able to see two fires on the beach where the survivors had prepared themselves a meal and were, no doubt, keeping themselves warm. The "castaways" were a pitiful sight, scantily clad and many without footwear, hats or coats and it was decided to make all haste in effecting their rescue. By 12:00 mid-day all of the Surats passengers (with the exception of a woman recently confined, her husband, sister, brother-in-law and their families) were on board the Wallabi and she re-crossed the Bar to take them all to the waiting Vire. With all haste the Vire steamed for Dunedin where the immigrants were taken to the Immigration Barracks by special train and made as warm and comfortable as possible.

An interesting and amusing description of the care and attention shown them by the French sailors is found in the Otago Daily Times of Monday January 5th 1874: "On the passage up every attention was shown to the passengers by the officers and men of the Vire. The women and children were all accomodated below, but the men had to remain on deck. They were all well fed with ship's biscuits, mutton, and soup, and were regailed with claret and ordinary drink on board. The passengers did not appear to be downhearted as one might have expected, although not one of them had saved anything of value. The children all looked well and jolly, and were intensely amused with the antics of 'Roberte' , the pet sheep of the sailors and officers. 'Roberte'  is a fine sheep who was originally taken on board for the purpose of being duly converted into mutton. He showed himself so intelligent, however, that he escaped the butcher's knife, and is now an established favorite. He drinks brandy and curacao before breakfast, and smacks his lips over it, and is fast learning to chew tobacco." "As they left the man-of-war they (the passengers) gave three hearty cheers for the officers and crew, who waved their hats in return."

On Monday, January 5th, the ship and all it contained was sold to Messers Guthrie and Larnach (of the National Bank) for 7,500. A lifeboat and pinnace, the property of the New Zealand Insurance Company, which were used for transhipping the passengers to the Vire, were subsequently sold to the same buyers for 21. On the 13th, responding to complaint and appeals, the General Government attempted to achieve for these new citizens rights to their baggage which, it was claimed, had been illegally sold with with the wreck. An injunction was eventually brought against those who arranged the sale of the ship to restrain them from also disposing of the luggage but we can find no record as to its safe return to its owners. In all their loss was valued at 2,500 and one gentleman lost a box containing 264 in sovereigns.

In Dunedin a "Surat Relief Committee" made up of local citizens and City Council officers was established to look after the interests of those bereft by the incident. An amount of 500 was raised and distributed for the relief of married couples only. Whilst this may sound unfair to the other passengers, it was announced in the Evening Post for January 8th that "...the whole of the single immigrants of the Surat have found employment at good wages".

On Friday, January 9th, the enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the wreck of the Surat commenced before Residential Magistrates Mr Strode and Mr James Fulton and nautical Assessor Captain Thompson. Mr Haggitt conducted the case on behalf of the Customs Department and Mr Stout appeared for Captain Johnson of the Surat. The first act was to ensure that the certificates of competency for the Captain and First and Second Mates were handed over to the Court. Commencing with the Captain, many witnesses including, amongst others, Able seaman John Picton, seaman Frederick Naumann, passengers James Montague Fountayne and William Hargreaves spoke of their experiences and observations during those fearful and confused hours.

Slowly the picture of events was pieced together as information came to light, was questioned and corroborated, contradicted and confirmed. The hours of anguish, alarm and danger suffered by the passengers and some of the crew were brought into the open and a true record of the catastrophe and the culpability of those in charge was drawn out. Following the revelation of the truth the judgement of the Court of Enquiry was almost expected. The Evening Post of January 21st 1874 expressed it thus:

"Mr Strode to-day delivered the judgement of the Court of Enquiry into the wreck of the Surat. After carefully reviewing the facts, as proved, he said that the master was most culpable - 1. In starting from London with his ship in an unseaworthy condition, inasmuch as he had not provided himself with detailed charts of the coast of New Zealand. 2. In not taking, when he made the New Zealand coast, to which he and all his officers were strangers, and when night was setting in, the necessary steps to determine his position with accuracy, not even consulting the "New Zealand Pilot", which work he had on board. That the master and mate were most blameable - (1) In making no efforts to lesson (sic) the leak. (2) In allowing to pass by, at a time when there was eight feet of water in the hold, the steamer Wanganui, whose services they could easily have secured. That the master, chief officer, and second officer, were most culpable - (1) In rendering themselves, by insobriety, after the vessel struck and before she beached, quite unfit for the performance of their duties. (2) In making no efort after the beaching of the vessel and landing the passengers (all of which was effected by 11am, the day being fine) to save the immigrants effects. We therefore come to the conclusion that by the wrongful acts and default of EdmondJoseph Johnson, master, Abraham Foreshaw, chief, and Edward Hesselton, second mate, the ship Surat was lost and abandoned in Catlin's Bay on the 1st day of January, 1874, and we decide that the certificate of competency of EdmondJoseph Johnson as master be cancelled; the certificate of competency of Abraham Foreshaw, as mate, be cancelled; and the certificate of competency Edward Hesselton, as second mate, be suspended for the term of two years from the 20th day of January 1874".

The same edition of the Evening Post made the following statements:

"A very general impression prevails that the captain of the Surat will be prosecuted criminally".

"The question of the right of the passengers by the Surat to their luggage will be brought before the Supreme Court in a few days.

The Evening Post:- January 9th, 12th, 15th and 21st 1874
The New Zealand Herald:- January 17th 1874
Otago Daily Times:- January 5th 1874

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