The British Library holds an account of the sinking of an East India Company ship, the Ganges, in 1807. It is a terrifying story, not least because the tragedy unfolded over days. The Titanic sank in less than three hours. The Ganges was in trouble for a week.
The author of the account was Samuel Rolleston, a passenger on the Ganges. Born in Hampshire in 1775, the son of a merchant, Rolleston had been appointed to the East India Company’s civil service in Bombay in 1794.
A convoy of East Indiamen had left India and was approaching the Cape of Good Hope. The weather was unsettled and the Ganges had been letting in water. The crew were monitoring the leak. On May 24, there was 24 inches of water in the hold. To make the ship lighter, four guns were thrown overboard and then some of the masts were lowered. One of the other ships in the convoy was the St Vincent. On May 25, Captain Thomas Talbot Harington, commander of the Ganges, went on board the St Vincent. He asked the commander, Captain Charles Jones, whether some passengers could change ships. Jones refused as the St Vincent was also leaking. However, he agreed to stay close by.
On May 26, the weather was fine. There was hope that they would reach the Cape safely. The next day, Harington gave orders to throw more cargo overboard. The passengers helped the crew do this and also to pump out water from the hold. The guns on the main deck were thrown overboard. Now, the Ganges was less able to defend herself against attack. The Ganges constantly made signals of distress. The St Vincent did not reply.
The passengers believed they would die that night. Darkness fell and the ship was rolling heavily. At midnight, an officer thought he saw a light. He went to tell the captain. Three hours passed before they saw the light again. At dawn, it was clear that the St Vincent was astern. The Ganges sent a signal: “The Ship is Sinking. Send Boat”. The sea was rolling so violently it was difficult to get people into the launch. The first passengers left just before 1 pm. The last boat, with Harington and Rolleston on board, reached the St Vincent at 9 pm.
The next day, May 29, the Ganges was still visible. Harington and Rolleston went to her in a launch to see if they could salvage anything. They could not and returned to the St Vincent. They had just reached her when the Ganges sank in one minute. She went down with her masts standing, except one. All hands and passengers had been saved, but presumably any animals on board had been left to drown. Rolleston finished his account with “gratitude to my Creator”.
After this traumatic experience, Rolleston settled in England. The family home was Pan Manor on the Isle of Wight. He was twice married and had two children. Rolleston died in 1860, aged 84.
Helen Paul is lecturer in Economics and Economic History, University of Southampton.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog.