Fire both fascinates and terrifies man. It has nurtured man’s ascent from savagery to civilization by cooking his food, keeping him warm, and smelting his metals for war and agriculture; and yet nothing else so triggers his instincts of panic and terror when trapped in its presence. Fires in large buildings and aboard ships at sea are especially terrible because the victims of these fires often have nowhere to flee.
A terrible fire took place aboard the H.M.S. Bombay on December 14, 1864. Ninety-two men perished in the tragedy. The following account has been derived from William H. D. Adams’s Great Shipwrecks, published 1877, and The Royal Magazine (vol. 15, 1905), which contains a first-hand account of the disaster by Admiral Henry J. Carr, RN.
The ship Bombay was constructed in 1827 of high-quality Indian teak in the city that bears her name. In 1860 the vessel was converted into a steamer by cutting her in two and lengthening her with additional timbers. The American Civil War had shown that the days of wooden fighting vessels were over, and that ironclads were the future. But these kinds of revolutionary developments can take years to implement on a practical level. In early December of 1864, the H.M.S. Bombay was conducting military exercises in the South Atlantic near the city of Montevideo in Uruguay. Adm. Carr tells us that, as a precaution against the spread of disease, the ship’s hold was kept well-ventilated; fresh draughts blew through “open gratings from one partition in the hold to another.” This measure undoubtedly contributed to the extent of the disaster that was about to overtake the Bombay.
It should be noted, however, that the Royal Navy had paid a great deal of attention to the threat of fire at sea. It was a lesson acquired from bitter experience. In 1800, the Queen Charlotte had caught fire and exploded near Leghorn, Italy; in that horrifying tragedy, six hundred seventy-three men perished. Teak was supposedly a fire-resistant wood. But the Bombay’s timbers were old and dry; and when flammable chemicals and munitions are aboard, the slight mishaps can spiral into catastrophes. The Bombay was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Eliot, and was engaged in drills on the morning of December 14th. Aboard her were six hundred and fifty-five men.
At about 3:15 p.m., the fire bell was sounded. Carr, who was aboard at the time, relates that he and some of the other officers thought at first that the alarm was a drill. They quickly realized that it was not. He immediately ordered the guns to be unloaded. These were eight-inch, muzzle-loading, smoothbore guns, packed with powder and shot. It proved a difficult task, and many of the loaded guns had to be abandoned as they were as the flames worked their way through the hold. Carr relates what happened next:
When I had seen to the guns, I went to the pumps aft on the lower deck, and found that there was fire indeed. Smoke was pouring up from below, and was already so dense that it was almost impossible to see. The men who were directing the hoses were constantly relieved, and were taken up sick or suffocated. The pumps were heaving bravely round, but the overpowering smoke continued to ascent through the hatchway. The deck became so thick with it that in order to enable us to continue working we had to trice up some of the ports. This could not have been more than five minutes after the outbreak was reported—so fierce and swift was the spread of the flames.
Huge quantities of water were poured into the hold, but this had little effect. What worried Henry Carr now was the fact that both the aft and forward magazines contained forty tons of powder each. Yet he was comforted by the fact that a French ship was nearby, and might be able render aid; in the event, however, the crew of the Bombay would find out that they were on their own. The Bombay’s captain, Colin Campbell, did as much as could be done to try to suppress the flames, but his efforts were overwhelmed by the speed with which the conflagration engulfed the hold.
The Bombay had five rescue boats hanging over her side, as well as six others stowed away inboard. Carr notes dryly that “an immense help to the flames had been given by the bursting of casks of rum which were stowed in the hold in the compartments next to that in which the fire originated. The bilges, where there was an uninterrupted flow from one end to the other, were flooded with blazing spirits, so that the ship was now on fire literally from bow to stern.”
By this time, the boats had begun to fill up with men—marines, bandsmen, and craftsmen—looking for an escape. Others began to leap into the sea, clutching at ropes attached to the ship. Many of them were unable to swim. When the last large boat was placed in the water, the flames made their way to the quarterdeck, where Carr himself was located. He tried to climb up the rigging, but the tar-coated ropes began to catch fire. Shells stored in the hold now began to explode, adding another curse on the doomed Bombay. By this time, as Carr says, “the roaring of the flames and the crashing of the bursting shells made it necessary for every man to fend for himself.” Most of the lives lost were men who leapt in terror into the Atlantic waters, but were then unable to swim and fend for themselves in the chaos that was taking place in the ship’s vicinity.
Carr and a few others were forced into the water when a shell exploded behind them. He then swam for one of the launches. When he had gotten clear of the dying ship, he turned around to watch the last act of the drama. The Bombay had become an inferno; flames crackled from every port, and their roar was interspersed with the concussion of exploding shells, which in turn caused showers of embers to fall on the men bobbing about in the launches. The mainmast, two hundred feet high and weighing eighty tons, crashed upon the roaring deck. Carr and the men in his boat escaped, however. When they could find no more survivors to pick up, they dropped anchor and offered a prayer for their deliverance.
On December 15, the following message was sent by the commander-in-chief of the South American station to the Secretary of the Admiralty:
I much regret that I have to report the total loss by fire of Her Majesty’s ship Bombay. She left this anchorage under sail at 7 A.M. yesterday, when I transferred my flag to the Triton. About 5 P.M. of the same day, I received intelligence that the Bombay was on fire near the English Bank, or Flores Island, about thirteen miles from this place. I immediately despatched the Stromboli to her assistance, and proceeded myself in the Triton; but so rapidly had the fire extended, that the ship had been deserted long before assistance could reach her.
The ship’s company had been at general quarters in the afternoon till a little after 3 P.M.; the foremost lower-deck guns were then told off for divisional exercise, but firing had not commenced from them, when, about ten minutes after the retreat had been beat, fire was reported to have broken out in the after part of the ship about the after-hold. The fire-bell was immediately rung, and with the greatest order and promptness an abundant supply of water was obtained.
But the fire appears at once to have spread with uncontrollable rapidity; which gives me the impression that it originated very close to the spirit-room, and that the spirit-casks must almost immediately have burst and ignited. At 3.35 P.M. the fire was reported. At 3.52, finding the fire was quickly gaining, the boats were hoisted out. At 4 P.M. the boats were out, with the exception of the second launch, when the flames, coming up the hatchways—the awnings and sails having been burned—rendered it impossible for men to work. The sick had already been passed into the boats, and the rest of the ship’s company now followed…
Soon after the main-mast fell, the stoppers of the anchors being burned through, the anchors fell and it seems many men who were upon or near them must have lost their lives. The ship was under sail, hove to, when the fire occurred, steam not having been up…The French mail-packet being at this moment on the point of departure, I am not able to give a more detailed report; but I am endeavouring to ascertain the number and names of men missing, which, I am sorry to say, amounts to about ninety-three…
I have the honour to be, &c.,
Chas. A. J. B. ELLIOT, Rear Admiral and Commander-in-Chief
Incredibly, says Carr, neither of the two magazines exploded. By six o’clock that evening it was all over. Rescue ships from Montevideo came out to render aid, but they were too late to save any lives. Carr’s boat, which contained about a hundred men, was rescued by the passenger steamer Rio de la Plata, out of Buenos Aires. The men gratefully drank some grog, and were transported to Montevideo. In a week’s time Carr left the city for England. On his way out from the city, he caught a glimpse of the scorched hull of the Bombay:
The Bombay’s bowsprit, held by its wire rigging, was bobbing awash, the ship having sunk in only seven fathoms—forty-two feet—of water. Even that soon disappeared, and what had been a noble battleship was covered by the mud. We picked up only one body and buried it. This was the only one that was ever heard of, for, strangely enough, no corpses went ashore.
A court-martial was held upon the return of the survivors to Portsmouth. After five days of hearing evidence and testimony, the judges exonerated Captain Campbell and his officers. The simple fact was that the origin of the fire could not be traced. While it was clear that the fire had originated near the magazine, there was no identifiable negligence on anyone’s part. In fact, the judges noted the heroism of the officers and crew that without doubt contributed to the saving of the majority of those aboard. I found this comment by the survivor Henry Carr, who later went on to become an admiral, to be of special relevance:
Where men have to save their lives by their own exertions and coolness, a stout heart is everything.
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