WRECKED ON CHRISTMAS ISLAND
by Anthony G. Flude. ©1999.
A BRIGHT BLUE FLARE burst into the blackness of the night,
lighting up the surrounding sky and sea with an eerie glow,
disclosing the dark outline of the approaching American
topsail schoonerCONCORD, as she made her way
cautiously towards Christmas Island in March 1909.
She had left San Francisco for Fanning Island, in
the northern Pacific Ocean, where she had taken on
provisions before leaving for her final destination. The
schooner was fully fitted with diving equipment and
underwater explosive gear suitable for salvage
News had reached these looters from their agents in
Hawaii, that a steamer named the AEON, had run aground
on the coral of Christmas Island and that the vessel lay
abandoned above water level with her cargo intact, while
her officers, crew and passengers had been rescued.
The schooner's captain and crew were intent on pirating a valuable
cargo from a shipwreck.
The unexpected signal, soaring into the sky, brought
warning shouts from the crew.
Her lights were immediately extinguished and the
CONCORD was quickly swung about and disappeared into
the darkness of the night as silently as she had arrived.
Eight months earlier, aboard the ill-fated steamer AEON,
the bridge telegraph had rung out a "Full Speed Astern"
command from the officer on watch, as she steamed
towards a long line of white breakers at 9.30pm on that
dark and stormy night of the 18th July, 1908.
The engines were quickly reversed but to no avail.
A strong onshore current swept them inwards and just four
minutes later, the AEON slid smoothly, with hardly a
sound, onto the coral rocks of Christmas Island.
This lonely island, situated in the northern Pacific Ocean, some
fourteen hundred miles north-east of Pago Pago, Samoa, is a British possession and was discovered by Captain Cook
on Christmas Day. It is described as a low coral rock,
shaped in the form of the letter 'H ', approximately forty
miles long in each arm. A desolate place of white, coarse
sand, with no sign of the usual coconut palms. The only
vegetation visible, appeared to be low clumps of salt bush,
about three foot high, dotted here and there.
The AEON was practically a new ship, according to
Captain Downie's account of the incident, only two or three years old at the time of the wreck. She was of 3,987 tons, built in
England to the order of Howard Smith of Melbourne ,
Bound from San Francisco, via Pago Pago, Samoa, to the Port of
Auckland, her cargo hold held 2,100,000ft of Oregon
timber and Redwood from Puget Sound and another 1000
tons of general mechandise loaded at San Francisco.
Ten adults and two children made up her passengers,
together with eight European officers and a crew of thirty-
five Chinese seamen.
The Captain stated in his reports that the weather was fine
up to the 16th July when the wind veered to the south-east.
The night of the 18th was dark and cloudy, the captain
having just left the bridge, leaving the third mate on watch,
the ship, supposedly, was on her correct course.
Keeping the engines running at full speed astern for an
hour and a half after the grounding, in the hope that as the
tide made they might pull her off, Captain Downie found
the strong winds caused the vessel to be swung broadside.
As the boilers were showing signs of lifting and the steam
pipes getting twisted he ordered the engineers to blow off
steam pressure to prevent an explosion.
"In the meantime the crew were busy getting the lee
lifeboats swung out and provisioned and the electric lights
were kept going until 2am when the steam was exhausted.
"The conduct of the passengers and crew was admirable.", he wrote,
"There was no fuss or excitement and our women
passengers kept quite cool. I sent the mate and two or three crew ashore in one of the small boats to make fast a line so that the lifeboats and provisions could easily be pulled ashore to and fro."
At daybreak he satisfied himself that the ship had gone
aground on Christmas Island. She was stuck on the rocks
some five miles up the south-east bay and within two
hundred yards of the sandy beach.
As soon as the lines were made fast they began the transfer
of passengers to shore, after which they threw overboard a
quantity of the cut timber from the hold and floated this
ashore to build temporary accommodation. No sooner had
the timber landed in the surf, then the men ashore hauled it
up the beach and began construction well above the high
water mark on the sandy shore.
With timber and sailcloth, four little houses were built over
the next two days, while others ferried backwards and
forwards to the steamer, bringing provisions and personal
items ashore. One building was set apart as hospital, as one
of the passengers, a Mrs. Patrick, was approaching the birth
of her child and needed a place for her confinement.
A higher platform with a flagstaff was set up in the hopes
that their plight would be seen from a passing vessel as
they were close to the main shipping route to Samoa.
The Chinese crew had other ideas and did not wish to live
in close contact with the officers and passengers. They
elected to build themselves a larger communal house for
themselves in a hollow about a quarter of a mile distant.
Away to one side they built themselves a small joss house.
The Chinese crew decided that they would sink a well in
their hollow, but the results were disappointing, producing
only brown brackish undrinkable water.
It was decided to salvage a condenser from the ship along with a two-
hundred-gallon tank. The condenser could produce forty
gallons of fresh water a day.
Before this was done, however, the ship's carpenter had
other ideas. He reckoned that fresh water could be found by
digging on a ridge of coarse sand, located about a quarter
of a mile inland. A well was sunk and at seven or eight feet
down a good supply of fresh water was found.
As for food supplies, there was going to be no shortage, for
the hold of the vessel was stacked with merchandise,
tinned meat, cases of pigs feet in jelly, cans of fish and
boxes of claret wine and beers.
Four of the ships' lifeboats were safely ashore, provisioned
and rigged with sail and fresh water. Captain Downie was
aware that Fanning Island lay just one hundred and ninety-
six miles distant; but there were strong sea currents in the
area and frequent storms and rough weather, making the
trip a risky one in a small boat. They had the timetables of
the steamers that plied the route from San Francisco to
Samoa and used this information to light bonfires at night
to attract their attention.
It was obvious that others had been shipwrecked here
before, the captain later reported. Their memorials were
their own graves, some dozen or more, together with the
remains of at least four wrecks at different parts of the
beach. Among one of the wrecks debris, they found a
rusting iron plate, which showed she was a New Bedford
vessel of the 1829 era.
"After two days the Chinese crew decided that they would
do no more work. The No.1 Boatswain said quite plainly
"No pay. No work" and after that they spent their days
lolling about or fishing."
The ships' officers and passengers spent most of the day
sorting provisions from the cargo hold which were being
ferried ashore. A game of cards was played at night,
together with a little music from a gramophone, salvaged
from the ship. Lights went out at 8 o'clock and we were all
up at 7 o'clock next morning ready for breakfast.
Some concern was expressed about their being rescued
after a month had passed with no sign of any other shipping
being sighted. It was decided to fit out one of the ships
lifeboats to make a rescue bid. The cargo manifest showed
that there were two small boat engines in the hold and they
set about retrieving these from the wreck. One was about 4
horse power which was then fitted to one of the boats.
By the sixth week on the island they were ready to make a
rescue attempt to reach Fanning Island. Captain Downie
and the 1st Officer were to make the trip, leaving behind the
1st and 3rd Mates and the 2nd and 4th engineers to look after
"We started out on the 8th September with a leading wind
on the beam and further out found the current running at 4-
5 knots. We made about 16-18 miles to the northern point
of the island, when the rudder pinion broke and we lost our
sails, which were blown away. The rest of the day and
night we just drifted about. Finally, at daybreak on the 10th
September we fixed the rudder and decided to return to the
settlement. They were pleased to see us back but
disappointed that out rescue attempt had failed."
Captain Downie's report continued:
"On the 14th September, with the boat re-provisioned and
with new sails, we were ready to make another attempt. We
left at 7am and after rounding the south-east point of the
island, bore away for the western point where, I had been
told was where Messrs. Lever Bros. had started a
settlement to grow copra.
When we got there at 4pm we found it had been deserted
for years. All that remained was a few stunted palms, a
small hut in which there were 3 tins of preserved milk
which had gone bad, together with an Australian
newspaper dated 1904. We slept there the night and sailed
next morning, setting a course for Fanning Island.
On the morning of the 18th, we sighted land ahead. It had
been two months since our stranding on Christmas Island.
The people at the cable station were not surprised to see us.
They knew we must be somewhere in the area when cables
had reached them from Samoa telling of our non-arrival on
Captain Downie cabled the owners in Melbourne detailing
our plight. He received a reply from them on the 21st saying
that the steamer MANUKA would call in and pick them up
and carry them on to Christmas Island in order to rescue
our people and collect the mails, of which we had 500 bags
in the hold.
The New Zealand Herald reported that the steamer
MANUKA was being diverted for the rescue and left Fanning
Island on the morning of the 23rd September. At 3pm the
long line of white surf of Christmas Island came into view.
After running down the long leg of the 'H' for thirty miles
we saw across the land the shape of the stranded steamer,
sitting close in-shore , with her white funnel and two masts
At 5.45pm we sent up a rocket and fifteen minutes later it
was answered from the shore. Two bonfires began to blaze,
one in direct line with the ship, another some distance away
to one side which we later learnt had been lit by the
A small boat pulled away from the shore towards the
MANUKA and when it was alongside the four occupants
were asked if all was well ashore at the settlement.
"Yes thank you', came the reply, "Have you got a doctor
on board?" Dr. Woolard, the ships surgeon, answered promptly and
said he would be willing to accompany them to shore. The
expected little one had arrived the previous night and
mother and baby were doing well.
It was decided to land the ships doctor and then begin the
task of removing the mail bags from the AEON's hold. The
motor launch which they had used to sail from Christmas
island to Fanning Island to effect the rescue, was aboard the
MANUKA and this was lowered into the sea. In the swell
running at the time, some water got into the engine and it
would not start. Undaunted, the rowing boat occupants
elected to try to tow the launch ashore, where the engine
could be fixed and dried out.
The tow was more hazardous than expected, and on more
than one occasion the small boat was almost capsized as
the towed launch swung from side to side in the swells.
Finding themselves in danger of being thrown into the sea,
they decided to cut it loose and let it head in the strong
current for the reef. As they pulled for the shore, they
watched the launch, caught by the surf, run aground and
beach in shallow water.
Meanwhile, the MANUKA's jolly-boat began ferrying the
mails from the stranded vessel. It was a long task and they
decided to work through the night, while the sea was calm
to stow them all aboard.
By 7am, the task was completed and all 500 bags were
safely aboard in the hold. The passengers were considered
the next priority and since they had all eaten a hearty last
breakfast on their lonely island, were gathering up their
personal belongings ready for the transfer.
Two boats were made ready and the women and children
came first, accompanied by the ship's doctor, followed by
the Chaplain's wife, Mrs Patrick, lying on a trestle bed
holding her first little 3 yr old boy tightly by the hand as the
small boat bobbed up and down in the swells.
Next to be helped aboard by the welcoming crew were the
elderly nurse, clutching a small bundle containing the
Gradually the thirty-five members of the Chinese crew
were ferried aboard, the last load included Captain Downie,
who had managed to pry off the tin nameplate of the gig of
the AEON as a momento.
By 11am the MANUKA had finished her rescue and was
ready to resume her scheduled route to Samoa and on to
Auckland, leaving the stranded steamer, its cargo of timber
and remaining stores, intact. Some thirty minutes later, Christmas Island and the wreck were fading into the distant haze on the horizon.
In December 1908, after the usual official marine enquiry,
the rights of salvage of the AEON and its cargo were sold
to a syndicate of businessmen in Auckland and Sydney for
the sum of £1000.
They had learned that the AEON's general cargo was
valued at £30,000. Her timber valued at £12,000, while the
steamer herself was valued at £70-80,000. The salvage
operation was considered well worth mounting.
Chartering the three masted topsail scow ZIGARA in
Auckland, they began to set up the vessel ready for her
expedition into the Pacific Ocean to Christmas Island.
The scow was fitted with auxiliary power in the form of
two small steam engines which drove her twin screws.
These were too small and weak in horsepower to be of
much use to the lumbering scow, however, they were good
in calm water and light winds. She was probably the best
vessel for the type of salvage work that they had in mind
and had the full cargo of timber been aboard the AEON on
Christmas Island, when they reached her, she could easily
have loaded it in 200,000 super feet consignments.
Captain W. Robertson, a New Zealand shipmaster took
command of the vessel and as the mate had his son Captain
L. Robertson. Captain Holmes sailed with the expedition,
together with Mr F. Goodman a master shipwright, and Mr.
Henderson, who went as secretary.
An experienced diver was hired, two engineers, two
firemen and a winch driver, besides the deck hands.
The ZIGARA sailed out of Auckland to begin her
adventure on the 18th February, 1909.
First, she headed for the island of Niue, or Savage Island as it is sometime known, where
Captain Robertson had arranged to pick up a crew of 25-30 trained natives to help with the loading and salvage
After taking on her extra crew, the ZIGARA continued
heading northwards for Christmas Island. North-east and
northerly trade winds were met after they left Niue astern
and the small engines had to be used frequently to keep her
Eventually Christmas Island was reached, but at first they
could find no signs of the masts of the AEON, which they
expected to find protruding above the horizon. Finally they
found her; all that remained of the proud steamer was her
bow which lay capsized, her deck facing into the sea. On
the coral nearby lay some of her framework, awash, with
the sea lapping around it.
As they approached closer, they saw the her cargo of timber scattered over nearly a mile of the beach by the tides.
The seas were continuing to run high and the ZIGARA
could not approach the wreck for nearly eighteen days. It
was also impossible to land a small boat near the wreck
Captain Robertson with the mate and the engineer made the
trip in a small boat into the calmer waters of the lagoon and
had to walk the thirty-two miles to the wreck which took
them two days. They occupied one day surveying the
wreck, deciding that it was going to be impossible to
salvage much of value from her in this state. It was
fortunate that they took plenty of food with them as nothing
in the way of stores or provisions from the hold remained.
Returning back to the ZIGARA two days later, they found
the seas still running high. They decided to head back to
Fanning Island again to cable the results of their survey to
the remainder of the syndicate in Auckland and Sydney.
Returning to Christmas Island, they found the seas had
calmed down and they were able to get a boat onto the
beach where the shipwrecked crew had landed and built
their little houses.
Inside the huts they found stacks of boxes of provisions
from the AEON'S hold, some of which had been brought
ashore by the crew at the time of the shipwreck and others
which Captain Robertson believed to had been more
A note was pinned to a makeshift table which read:
"These stores have been left for the benefit of any other
shipwrecked crew who might be unfortuate enough to land
Quite clearly some unauthorised persons had been here to
plunder the salvage that the apparently abandoned steamer
had left in her hold. Dynamite had been used to blow a hole
in her hull to gain easy access to the stores remaining.
As though to confirm these findings, that same night the
American topsail schooner CONCORD had been sighted
silently making her way towards the beach by the watch
aboard the ZIGARA.
It was he who had fired off the blue rocket into the sky, to
warn them off and make them aware of others present. It
was obvious that she was up to no good when her lights
were extinguished and she quickly turned about.
Next morning at daybreak they ran a line ashore and
secured it to a large pile of timber on the beach. Boats were
secured to this line to enable then to ply between the ship
and shore with the boxes stacked in the houses.
Gradually, with the many willing hands of the crew of
natives aboard, the ZIGARA's hold was filled. Working
backwards and forwards through the surf was tough work
and twice the empty boats returning to shore capsized on
their way to the beach.
Captain Robertson had meanwhile decided that it was an
impossible task to salvage items from the steamer in the
position she was now placed. He had hoped to salvage
much of the timber that he had been told was still aboard
the AEON's hold, but of course this had been washed out
of the wreck by the seas after she had been split apart by
He had hoped to recover also the two boilers, all the brass
fittings aboard, copper piping and also her two brass
anchors which he knew had cost £1500 each, when she
Although they had the experienced diver aboard with them
it was impossible to use his services due to the high seas
running all the time in the vicinity of the wreck.
The ZIGARA waited around for a further twenty days in
the hope that the seas would calm, but this did not happen
and they could not get close enough to the wreck to achieve
any further salvage in the strong currents and bad weather.
Finally they all decided that any further chance of salvage
was not going to present itself.
Reluctantly, the ZIGARA turned to head back to
Auckland, the hold only containing the provisions they had
loaded on board from the beach settlement of the earlier
wreck. Dropping off their labour force at NIUE Island, they
made the final leg to Auckland.
When the goods were sold at auction and fetched only £350, the syndicate found they were sadly out of pocket. They had spent over £2000 on the salvage price of the wreck and charter of the ZIGARA and crew, only to have their spoils stolen by the American looters from Hawaii and San Francisco.
Captain Robertson was to learn at a later date, that had they
sailed northwards to the little known island of Palmyra,
they would have found there the remaining consignment of
illegally pirated merchandise from the hold of the AEON.
However, it was too late. Nothing could be proved; nothing
more could be done to recover their losses.