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 work.

    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 , Australia.
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 the settlement.

    "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 schedule."

    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 still standing.
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 Chinese crew.

    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 
newborn infant.
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 scow zigaraCaptain Robertson had arranged to pick up a crew of 25-30 trained natives to help with the loading and salvage work.

    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 
on course.
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 site.

    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 recently landed.
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 here."
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 
dynamite.
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 was built.

    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.