The Illustrated London News published on 31 May 1890, on page 675, included a sketch of the Lighthouse at the Daedalus Reef in the Red Sea at the mouth of the Gulf of Suez, offshore from Marsa Alam, adjacent to the Two Brothers rocks. These dangers named for the vessel which originally surveyed the Red Sea lay on the direct route of ship traffic along the Suez Canal. The Reef had undergone a name change by sailors who, well aware of its menace, referred to the ‘Deadlies’ rather than Daedalus. Earlier on 12 September 1869 the Carnatic, a P & O sail and steamer destined for Bombay, using this route to save 4,500 miles travelling around the Cape of Good Hope, was an early casualty losing 31 passengers when the ship broke apart prior to sinking, just two months before the Canal opened.
For those researching immigration by the British India Steamship Navigation Company (BISN), the main carrier between Europe and Queensland in the 1880s and 1890s, the calamity of 18 May 1890 when the BISN, 4525-ton screw-steamship Dacca, carrying immigrants also was wrecked at the same site probably has closer associations. Leaving London on 30 April, the ship visited Naples before reaching Port Said on 13 May accompanied by sister ship, the Palmacotta (sometimes Palamcotta). Every soul on board the Dacca, many in night attire, including 91 crew members, four hundred and forty-nine passengers comprising 21 married couples, 176 single men, 187 single women and 45 children, younger than 12 years of age, was rescued on the day of the disaster by a passing steamer, the Rosario, who landed many near the Daedalus lighthouse. Although her bow was broken, with air-tight compartments, the vessel floated for four hours drifting away with the tide, permitting many to wade in shallow water to the north side of the reef despite an 80 to 250 fathom drop on the opposite side. Some crew scoundrels who stayed on board looted ladies’ cabins for cash and jewellery, were ultimately imprisoned at Port Said. Captain Almond, late dispatching executive for emigration for the Queensland Government worked incessantly rendering sterling assistance to the master, Captain Stone, and his officers, all of whom were commended for their care and attention, particularly after ensuring the safety of female passengers.
Almost immediately, following the third trans-shipment on the disastrous day, the destitute survivors were taken to Suez by the BISN 3413 ton Palamcotta of Glasgow, which housed them on board while anchored at the entrance to the Canal. An eye-witness ‘nautical man’ reported from Suez to the Brisbane Courier on 25 June 1890: ‘Their luggage lost, shoeless and thinly clad, these unfortunate people presented a pitiable appearance on boarding the Palamcotta’. Relief finally came with the arrival four weeks later, on 15 June 1890, of the BISN Taroba, 3234-tons under Master Arthur Morris, to transport the majority of Queensland-bound immigrants to their destinations. By this time, some saloon passengers including Queensland Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mr R.J. Sayers, had transferred to the Orient liner, Liguria.
Shipping company BISN spent over 1,000 pounds sterling on providing new bedding and recompensing travellers for lost effects and luggage. The Brisbane Courier reported on 28 July 1890 that when submitting claims, many passengers grossly over-estimated the value and extent of their possessions. This self-estimation of lost items and replacement expenses necessitated careful reassessment when expected compensation payments were not met, resulting in noisy dissension. It was observed that some voyagers appeared more prosperous and more appropriately clad when they arrived in Queensland than when, in heavy suiting, they had departed Britain. Already two Walsh girls from Ballydinan in County Clare had their case aired in a House of Commons Debate on 21 July 1890 to which Sir Michael Hicks Beach responded by referring them to British consular representatives for advice. [House of Commons debate, Vol. 347, cc 364-5364.]
Further discord was addressed in the Brisbane Courier on 9 August 1890 when several women, third class passengers, joined with others using Unmack and Fox solicitors to approach the Chief Secretary demanding an inquiry into their claims and making charges of cruelty and injustice against the Surgeon-Superintendent, Dr Thomas Hickling and Matron, Mrs. Tymons. Their heated submission failed. Once more in the Brisbane newspaper dated 16 August under the pen-name Dacca, a male passenger disputed the amount of clothing, rations and money distributed either at sea or in port, again naming Dr Hickling as taking charge of all cash and apparel donations contributed at each Queensland anchorage and then urging: ‘I trust, sir, that those who were kind enough to give the money for us will try and find out where it has gone to, and I as one of the losers beg to return my heartfelt thanks to those who gave anything towards our assistance’.
An official enquiry, conducted by the British Board of Trade on 10 August 1890, unconditionally exonerated Captain Stuart who had left written instructions when entrusting the vessel’s control to the chief officer when he retired for the night. The court suspended the officer’s master’s certificate for twelve months but agreed to issue him with credentials enabling him to work as a mate during the deferment.
On 25 May 1890, Sarah, the wife of passenger William Russell and mother of one-year old Walter, while at Suez on the Palmacotta, was delivered of a female baby. The grateful parents named the new arrival Emily Sarah Palamcotta Russell. In due course the family arrived in Cairns as steerage passengers on the Taroba. All family historians would delight in a report and photograph which appeared in the Queenslander on 29 April 1911 on pages 27 and 29.
Prompted by a letter despatched by Mr William Russell, currently living at 160 St Augustine Road, Southsea, Hampshire, England to mark the 21st anniversary of the loss of the Dacca, Mr Russell had enclosed a photograph of his daughter writing that: “I feel certain that our old shipmates will be glad to know she has grown to be a fine young woman.” A photograph was to be placed in the saloon of the steamer after which she was named and another in BISN’s London office. Usefully he also noted that Palamcotta had an uncle, aunt and several cousins at Rockhampton, Mr Charles Lodge of the Railway Department and his family, plus an aunt and cousins at Charters Towers.
Few immigrant vessels failed to berth at their projected Queensland destinations, but at the time of this disaster, no doubt many recalled the very recent wreck of another sister ship, the Quetta in the Torres Strait in late February 1890 when returning to London after its thirteenth immigration voyage to Queensland. That tragedy claimed 100 of the 150 European passengers on board.
(Further reading: John C.H. Foley, The Quetta: Queensland’s Worst Disaster, Brisbane, Nairana Publications, 1990; for the Dacca newspaper reports as indicated above).