Home Planet Blue The Death of Ships

The Death of Ships

The familiar bow of Carnatic shows the typical schooner lines of a vessel designed primarily for use under sail.Text & Photos: Mike Ward

The northern Red Sea was a dangerous place for shipping in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1869, the Carnatic struck Abu Nuhas. In 1876, the Dunraven hit what is now Beacon Rock. In 1881, the Kingston steamed full on to Shag Rock. In 1887, the Ulysses hit the northern tip of Gubal Island. In 1903, after the lighthouse had been in place for two decades, the Numidia was wrecked on Big Brother. There are more wrecks as well. Beneath the Ulysses lie the remains of an earlier vessel. Opposite the Kingston lies the Carina. Up the side of Sha’ab Ali are four or more wrecks from the same period. So why are there so many wrecks from the same period in the same place?

The Red Sea has always been a commercial waterway. From the very earliest days of Ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs mined turquoise and other minerals on the Sinai and offshore islands, and made their sea crossings using papyrus boats.

Divers ascend from the the wreck of Carnatic.  In the background can be seen the straight supports that once held a canvas cover over her decks and the curved davits that held the lifeboats used by survivors to reach nearby Shadwan IslandThe Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl reconstructed a papyrus boat in the 1960’s and was able to demonstrate the seaworthiness of these vessels by making a safe and comfortable passage across the Atlantic. Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1472 to 1457 BC, sent a great trading expedition to Punt to bring back all sorts of good things. We know her ships travelled south down the Red Sea, though we can’t be certain where Punt actually was, and we know that earlier Pharaohs had sent ships to the same place.

Alexander the Great became Pharaoh in 317 BC as he built the empire that made him famous. When he died in 310 BC Egypt was taken over by one of his generals, Ptolemy. Ptolemy created a southern Red Sea port that he named Berenice after one of his wives to help with the already ongoing trade between India and the Far East and Egypt. The Romans thought that this trade was sufficiently important to keep the port thriving for centuries. One item that Berenice seems to have controlled was the black pepper trade. In Roman times black pepper was a luxury item and a single handful would have been worth as much money as two years supply of wheat.

Colossal head of Hatshepsut from her mortuary temple on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor.  Hatshepsut sent a maritime expedition to Punt, sailing south down the Red Sea.Berenice thrived for a simple reason - wind. The wind in the Red Sea usually blows from the northwest, though it can come from anywhere in the quadrant from true north to true west, so anyone trying to sail up the Red Sea has to sail against the wind for their full journey. It isn’t impossible to work sailing ships like this but it is very hard work. Ancient sailors preferred to land their cargoes at Berenice and make a longer trip across the desert to the Nile, than fight the wind for another two hundred and fifty miles north to the next port.

Over the next two thousand years or so nothing much changed. The wind continued to blow from the northwest, ships were still driven by sail-power and trade with India and the Far East remained largely in luxury items such as spices. By the nineteenth century, it was European nations who ran the ships and the route the ships took from Europe was long and risky, and therefore expensive. A ship from London had to sail through the English Channel, around the coast of France, past Portugal, along the west coast of Africa, around the Cape, and then northeast across the Indian Ocean to India, or more east and less north to reach China. Coming home it would have to follow the same route in reverse. The journey took months each way, at best, and was dependant on making the trip at the correct time of year to catch favourable winds, not to mention the continual danger from storms and pirates.

Khufu was the Pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid at Giza.  Buried next to his pyramid was this superb cedar boat that has now been rebuilt and is displayed in a specially designed museum on the site where it was discovered.  This boat proves that the Ancient Egyptians were able to build elaborate vessels.The attraction of a route through the relatively gentle Mediterranean and Red Sea is obvious, but there was still that constant northwest wind in the Red Sea to deal with. It took one East India Captain over a month just to get his sailing ship through the straits at the bottom end of the Red Sea in 1697 and early nineteenth century ships were no different.

The problem was especially important to the British. The British East India Company was formed on 31st December 1600 to control trade with India. Fort St George at Madras became the first permanent British settlement in 1637 and British interest in the sub-continent gradually increased over time. When the French began to take an active interest in the middle of the eighteenth century the British decided it was time to bring India under their direct political and economic control and a succession of Generals and armies were sent to the sub-continent, all of them transported to India by sea using the established route around Africa.

By 1805, India was fully under British rule and goods and people were flowing freely back and forth, at least, as freely as the route around Africa allowed. By then, Newcomen had invented the steam engine, James Watt had improved it into a machine useful for doing regular work and small steam engines had been used to propel small boats through the water.

The nineteenth century was a time of engineering innovation; in very much the same way as the late twentieth century was a time of computer innovation. It was not long before steam engines were finding their way into larger vessels. Isambard Kingdom Brunel eventually demonstrated the way forward with two brilliant ship designs, the Great Western and the Great Britain.

The open iron latticework shows just how Carnatic was built in 1862, with four levels above her keel.  Today she is covered in colourful marine life and is a haven for fish of all kinds.Brunel had realised that the distance a ship was capable of steaming depended on how much coal it could carry, and designed a ship large enough to carry a large cargo and a large quantity of coal. He proved the worth of this ship, the Great Western, by steaming her across the North Atlantic in just 15 days and at an average speed of almost 9 knots. Brunel next realised that to make ships
bigger they would have to made from something stronger than wood. Great Britain was built of iron, to much initial scepticism because iron is well known for sinking. Early in her career she was wrecked on a hostile shore for the best part of a year, but she was then successfully refloated and was found to have suffered relatively little damage from her ordeal. A wooden ship would have been dashed to pieces in the same situation. The sceptics were wrong - and iron ships quickly replaced wooden vessels.

Kingston had masts, but she was primarily a steamship... though the magnificent marine life colonising her wreckage probably doesn’t careBy the early 1840’s, steam ships were capable of operating in the Red Sea, and the 2017-ton Hindustan became the first P&O steamer to operate a regular service from Suez to India. Passengers and goods for the Hindustan first travelled from England to Alexandria aboard another P&O ship, perhaps the Oriental or the Great Liverpool, and transferred from Alexandria to Suez using a combination of Nile boats to Cairo, shallow draft barges to Cosseir, and finally mule-carriages to Suez. The journey was scheduled to take 88 hours. That doesn’t sound too bad, but it was almost four days. A railway was opened in 1858 to make the journey simpler, easier and quicker.
By 1869 one of the many vessels operating between Suez and India, or further east, was the Carnatic, one of the most famous of all Red Sea wrecks.

The Carnatic was launched in London in late 1862 and entered service with P&O in early 1863, operating a service between Suez and Calcutta. She was built of iron and carried a full sailing rig and a compound steam engine, and was able to sail faster than she could steam in ideal conditions. She left Suez on Sunday 12th September 1869 on one of her regular trips and ran headlong onto the reef at Abu Nuhas just after midnight.

The impressive galleon-like stern of Carnatic. She was built of iron but at first glance this could easily be the stern of a wooden sailing ship.She stuck fast on the reef top and stayed there throughout the next day, despite much of her cargo being thrown overboard in an attempt to lighten her and float her off. The ship seemed stable and the pumps were coping with the water flooding aboard so it was decided that passengers would be better remaining on board than trying to transfer across to nearby Shadwan Island. Despite her boats having been lowered some time earlier they weren’t
provisioned and were unused. During the second night, the water entering the hull rose high enough to extinguish her boilers and that stopped the pumps. From that point on she was sinking and it was just a matter of time…

By daylight the hull was very low in the water and the lifeboats were provisioned and passengers started to climb in. The first to do so were the three women aboard and a girl of three years, and as they took their seats, the Carnatic broke in two, tumbling what remained of her cargo and almost all the passengers and crew into the water. After considerable effort, the survivors were able to transfer in the lifeboats to nearby Shadwan Island, where the P&O steamer Sumatra rescued them the day after. All in all, 27 passengers and crew died when she went down.

One of Carnatic’s masts stretches a long finger into deeper water off Abu Nuhas.  Some of the passengers who survived her sinking climbed her masts to save themselves from drowning.Just across from Abu Nuhas is Shag Rock, named for the birds. Early one morning in 1881, the Kingston was steaming at speed directly into the rising sun when she struck the reef. Kingston was built in Sunderland in 1871. By then steamships had become commonplace. Sailing vessels still had many useful years left, but it was clear they were old technology and the future was steam. For steamers to operate they needed coal, so coaling stations were set up around the world, one of them at Aden just outside the southern straits of the Red Sea and conveniently on the way to India. The Kingston was carrying coal to Aden when she struck.
Both Kingston and Carnatic were built of iron and carried sails and an engine, but in the nine years between them ship design had moved on.

tThe stern of Carnatic looks like a sailing galleon from a Hollywood pirate movie, the stern of Kingston looks like a modern steamer. Kingston’s bow was destroyed by the impact with the reef and the subsequent action of wind and water, but Carnatic’s bow is intact and reinforces the sailing ship image. Carnatic looks like a sailing ship with an engine, Kingston looks like a steamship with sails, though their general construction is much the same. Both these vessels were a vital part of the link with India that made nineteenth century Britain the economic and military power she undoubtedly was.

Shag Rock, where Kingston lies, is home to an incredible profusion of fish and other life.  A shoal of juvenile fish uses the stern section of Kingston as a safe refuge from predators.Without Carnatic and her sisters to carry soldiers, diplomats, administrators and trade goods back and forth British India could never have developed in the way that it did. Whether that was a good thing or not depends on your point of view, but it was Carnatic, her forebears and her successors that made it possible. In their turn, they could never have functioned without innumerable vessels like the humble Kingston to supply them with coal and other supplies.

These wrecks, and the others from the same period, are a significant and visible link with the Imperial past of Great Britain, and other nineteenth century European powers. History oozes from their iron frames when you understand their significance. By diving both wrecks you can see how shipbuilding changed and get some idea of just how quickly technology was developing in those years. Nowhere else in the world is it possible to see this change.

Carnatic now lies at the base of the reef at Abu Nuhas, neatly rearranged and looking like she never broken in half. She’s covered in beautiful soft and hard corals, is home to a shoal of glassfish and is visited by every other reef dweller you could mention. Dolphins are regularly seen here. Kingston sits on one of the finest reefs in the Red Sea, full of the most wonderful colour and vibrant life, on and off the wreck. The current here flows regularly from the north and provides a superb drift along the face of the reef after you leave the wreck. Wrecks - real history and superb marine life. Divers’ paradise!


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