The Ill-Fated 'Surat'

The events surrounding the voyage of the Surat to New Zealand in 1873 are covered in a small booklet by Bruce E. Collins. The following account draws heavily on it.

The Surat had sailed from London on 26 September, 1873, with a complement of 271 passengers and 37 crew, under the command of Captain Edmund Joseph Johnson. Although it was his first trip to New Zealand, the Surat had been in these waters before. It was a full-rigged iron sailing ship of three masts, measuring just over 60 metres long, 9.6 metres broad and 6.5 metres deep. She weighed exactly 1,000 tons.

The Surat slipped out of the South-west India Dock on 26 September 1873. The 99-day voyage of the Surat was relatively uneventful. Steady progress was made in good winds for the first 3 weeks, such that Cape Verde in West Africa was passed on 17 October.

One wonders, however, how long it took the passengers to adjust to the routines and motions of the ship. Life on board was a monotonous, constricted existence, dominated by the routines of the crew, and marked out by changes of watch and meals. The diet consisted of porridge, ships’ biscuits with black treacle, pickled pork and corned beef, mutton, and cocoa.

Adding to the routine was a school organised by one of the passengers for the children, and regular church services. Entertainments included dances and ‘social gatherings’ which would have utilised not only the musical talents of those on board, but also their ingenuity!

On 31 December New Zealand's Stewart Island was first sighted. This was a significant moment: the eve of a new year, within sight of a new land, indicating the start of a new life.

But what followed was a series of near disasters, high farce, mutinous behaviour, sheer good luck, and not a little inebriation. At approximately 9.50 on New Year’s Eve, the Surat, ‘grated as if she were going over a gravel bank’. The jolts were enough to bring the Captain back on deck to initiate remedial action. The Surat had hit land at Chaslands Mistake, on the Catlins coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

One moment some of the passengers were celebrating and dancing, the next they were being flung across the deck. Four times more the ship struck and they clutched at fittings to stop being tossed about. A rush was made to the main companion-way to the deck where they anxiously crowded together.

Although the first inspection had revealed no obvious rise in the water-level in the water-tight compartments, a watch maintained - to good effect, as within an hour the level was 10 cm. At 10.49 the level was 19 cm, and four minutes later 21.5 cm. The pumps were manned, but to little effect as the ship was rolling sufficiently to reduce their value. In fact only the port pump was in working order. These had to be supplemented by a small fire-engine pump.

"Working the pumps was exhausting and the passengers spelled the crew, even the women being called on to take short turns."

Now followed one of those errors of judgement, made for the best of motives, but with unfortunate, and probably unforeseen, consequences. The Captain ordered gin to be given to those working the pumps. Twenty minutes later the steward dispensing the drink was found ‘beastly drunk’ and giving liquor to anyone who asked for it. Clearly discipline began to evaporate, under the combined influences of the tension, physical exertions, rising water levels, and alcohol. Indeed, the first mate, already drunk, attempted to stop the pumps until he was threatened with a tomahawk!

And then, salvation seemed near at hand! Smoke was seen on the horizon about 3 a.m. The steamer Wanganui, on one of her regular trips from Dunedin to Bluff. Within an hour she was abreast of the Surat, and the passengers were expecting rescue. Captain Johnson, however, had other ideas! He was asked to raise a signal or fire a gun.

"Johnson replied that he was master of the ship, he knew best and he would land them safely in Dunedin and nowhere else. Hargreaves [a passenger] returned to him holding a child and begged him to fire a gun ‘for the sake of the little innocent children’. The passengers, he said, thought it ‘very hard of the captain’ to be standing away from land when both a steamer and land were in sight, and wanted him either to launch the boats or head the ship inshore. Johnson told him to mind his own business and threatened to shoot anyone who hoisted a signal or fired a gun without his orders. He stalked off to the cabin leaving Hargreaves to return to the pumps."

Despite this clear and explicit instruction, it appears a distress signal was raised, and a boat even launched. However, both measures were too late to prevent the Wanganui from sailing on to Bluff.

As it became evident that the Wanganui was not going to help, near panic set in. A boat was ordered launched by the chief officer, only to countermand the order moments later as the lashings were cut. When questioned for the reasons for the change, the chief officer, Foreshaw, threatened to shoot him. The drunken steward joined the dispute, and threatened in turn to knock the seaman’s ‘bloody eye out’. Another seaman was threatened with the revolver.

As Collins points out, technically this was mutiny. The disagreement staggered from bad to worse as the revolver was pointed at the seaman and assistance sought. Another attempt was made to lower the boat, only to have those doing so threatened in turn by the mate, this time armed with a hatchet. The mate finally, gave up and retired to his cabin, perhaps to sleep off some the alcohol!

Dr. Tighe was now able to organise a number of the passengers into the boat,

"but the captain stayed on the poop and ignored requests from John Booth to land the passengers. When Tighe ordered the longboat to return to the Surat he was met alongside by the captain who presented his revolver at him and accused him of disobeying orders. ...

Meanwhile the drunken steward Kelly had taken the wheel, ... William Morris, an experienced seaman, took the wheel from him. ... he kept the Surat heading along the coast looking for a place to land the passengers. To Morris the captain ‘looked like a man stupefied, and [he] did not seem to care for anything."

Shortly thereafter, Captain Johnson left the poop, and steering the ship was done by Morris under the direction of the sailmaker, Fox. Fox’s estimate was that, although the Surat was sinking, she might still last two or three hours, and the best option was to beach her at the first opportunity. His directions to Morris were to this effect.

Johnson reasserted his command as the Surat headed into Jacks Bay, south of the Catlins River mouth. He instructed Morris that he intended to take the Surat in, land the women, children and old men and then go on to Port Chalmers, using the young male passengers to work the pumps. The Surat grounded about 135 metres from the shore in Jacks Bay at which point the anchor was let go. The Surat had made landfall in New Zealand.

Now that the ship was stopped and at anchor, the passengers had to disembark. About 100 of them, mainly women and children were put into boats and rowed ashore. Some began to build makeshift shelters, while the boats returned to the Surat, which thereupon began to drag its anchors. It headed for cliffs at one end of the bay. The anchor was hastily slipped, and, with barely any room to spare, the Surat swung around and missed the headland. She now wallowed into Catlins Bay.

The Surat surrendered to the inevitable and finally dug into the soft sand of the beach. She had reached her final resting place. The time was 11.15 am. The remaining 170 passengers and crew were now able to take to the boats and land safely.

There were now two groups of passengers - one at Jacks Bay on the other side of the headland, and the majority on the beach at Catlins Bay. A party at once set out to bring the others around to join the majority. Unfortunately, being strangers to the dense bush country in which they found themselves, a small group of these got left behind, and, although found, by then it was too late to join the main party and so spent their first night in New Zealand around an open fire deep in virgin New Zealand forest.

While these efforts were underway, others turned their attentions to the provision of accommodation. Some were directed to a local sawmill. A few stayed in local cottages, especially those of local sawmillers.

So ended the first day of the New Year, 1874. Eventful, memorable, but hardly designed to inspire confidence in the future!

The passengers now faced the major problem of how to complete their journey to Dunedin. In the immediate aftermath of their landing, no attempt was made to recover the passengers sea-chests. As a result most of the party had only the clothes they were wearing, and a few personal possessions they happened to have on their persons when they abandoned the ship. In James Mulligan’s case this amounted to a pocket diary.

Upon hearing of the need for rescue the Wanganui and the Wallabi from Bluff, and the French man-of-war Vire set out for the scene. This ship reached the scene about 3.30 on the morning of Saturday, January 3, to find the other two ships already on hand.

After the officials had inspected the wreck, the Vire left for Port Chalmers, arriving about 4 am on a ‘cold and damp morning’. At dawn the passengers went ashore to be greeted by locals armed with offers of hospitality, hot tea and coffee. They then boarded a special train to take them to the immigration barracks at Caversham.

The migrants, James and Margaret Mulligan among them, had arrived in New Zealand.