Untold lives blog

06 October 2014

A bottle of water and half a biscuit

The Red Sea was a perilous place in the early 1830s. Foundering on treacherous reefs was a constant threat and pirates ‘swarmed’ there according to Clements Markham, author of the Memoir of Indian Surveys. William Lowe, Commander of the East India Company’s brig the Nautilus, also had to battle with adverse weather in the Red Sea after setting sail from Bombay in November 1833 carrying a Packet for Suez.

Fame - loss c13595-32

Engraving of the Fame East Indiaman sailing ship foundering and sinking in a storm, P411   Noc

In his letter to the British Consul General in Alexandria, Lowe describes how they were wrecked on a rocky reef about 30 miles from the African coast ‘nearly opposite Jeddah’. Forced to abandon ship at about 1 pm on 06 December in the ship’s boats, it ‘being unsafe to remain any longer on board, the wind still increasing, we only succeeded in saving about fifty gallons of Water, two Bags of Bread (completely wet with Salt Water) and a small quantity of Salt meat; the nearest port to us with the wind then blowing was Suakin, distant about 110 miles; with this small quantity of provisions and eighty men in the boats, we stood on for the aforementioned place, where we arrived on the afternoon of the 9th without a drop of water in the boats, and not being able to procure any on the way the last day we had only one bottle of water between six men and half a biscuit.’

Lowe concludes by saying that he sends the Packets over land by Lieutenant Lynch of the Indian Navy. Among the three passengers accompanying Lynch was Captain Bourchier of the Royal Navy, who wrote an account of their journey, in which he claims that their route from Suakin across the desert to Berber had never before been attempted by Europeans. In total, they rode 613 miles by camel in twenty nine days, including four rest days. When they reached the Nile at Kroosko, they continued their journey by boat. Bourchier describes the privations of the journey across the desert beyond Abu Hamet – heat in the day, cold at night, the discomforts of their accommodation and the difficulties of maintaining standards of cleanliness and grooming owing to the scarcity of water. He seems to have become rather attached to the camels and was greatly saddened when they had to abandon one to join the other skeletons in the desert. The travellers did not always command respect – Bourchier relates how at Berber he took to wearing a turban because the locals compared the English hats to their cooking pots! 

The East India Company Steam Navigation papers show that danger and arduous journeys were quite commonplace for the people pioneering potential routes, but it is surprising that I was unable to find many references to this particular adventure in the British newspapers. Does anyone know if there was a reason for this?

Steam communication_IOR-L-MAR-C-560

Map from Steam Navigation Papers, IOR/L/MAR/C/560   Noc

You can read more about adventures in navigation in an earlier blog about Colonel Chesney’s expedition to explore the Euphrates. Lynch joined this expedition and was shipwrecked again while in command of the Tigris and suffered the tragedy of losing his own brother.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records   Cc-by

Further reading Capt W Bourchier, R.N., Narrative of a Passage from Bombay to England Describing the Author’s shipwreck in the Nautilus in the Red Sea; Journies across the Nubian Desert; Detentions in the Lazaretto at Leghorn etc. (London, 1834)
C. R. Markham, A Memoir on the Indian Surveys, 2nd edn (1878)

IOR/L/MAR/C/557-572  Steam Navigation Papers
IOR/L/MAR/C/567, pp.515, 584-588, 821-823 for details of the wreck of the Nautilus IOR/F/4/1479 Collection 58137 : Report of Lieutenant William Lowe of the HEICS Nautilus on the disturbed state of the ports on the Red Sea and the insecurity of trade in that region (with associated correspondence), Jun-Oct 1833 

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