The Cospatrick Disaster Of 1874
By James Donahue
Over 450 passengers and crew members perished when fire swept the emigrant sailing ship Cospatrick off Cape of Good
Hope, South Africa, on November 17, 1874. It was among the worst shipping disasters of the 19th Century.
The 190-foot three-mast frigate under the command of Captain Alexander Elmslie was sailing from Gravesend, England,
to Auckland, New Zealand, with 472 passengers, most of them emigrants, and a crew of 43 including the captain’s wife
and child when the fire of undetermined origin broke out sometime around midnight.
Second Mate Henry Macdonald and two members of the crew, the only survivors, painted a story of horror at sea as the
crew tried unsuccessfully to save the ship and then launch lifeboats to save as many passengers as possible.
Macdonald said it was near the end of his watch when he caught a strong smell of smoke and discovered that fire had
broken out in the boatswain’s store where oakum, tar, paint and ropes were stored. The crew manned the ship’s
pumps and fire hoses and made an unsuccessful effort to turn the ship before the wind to take the smoke and flames forward,
which might have helped contain the fire.
Panic broke out among the passengers as the fire rapidly grew out of control. There were only five lifeboats on the
ship with capacity for only 187 people so it was obvious that there was little hope for most of the people aboard that doomed
frigate. Because of the aggression of the fire, only two of the boats were launched before the frigate burned and sank. One
of those capsized dumping an estimated 80 people into the open sea. Many of these were drowned.
The lifeboat was eventually righted again. An estimated 61 passengers and crew escaped the burning ship alive.
Macdonald said the ship was engulfed in fire within an hour from the time the blaze was discovered. The captain with
his wife and the doctor remained on board until the last moment before they jumped overboard and drowned. The doctor jumped
with the captain’s child in his arms. They all drowned together.
He said the two lifeboats remained near the burning ship until it sank. He described a scene of incredible horror as
men, women and children first rushed the boats and then floundered in the open sea until they also drowned. Some were killed
by the ship’s masts when they toppled into the water.
The two lifeboats drifted together for the first four days. Then they were separated during a storm that struck on
the night of November 21. One of the boats was never seen or heard from again. Those on Macdonald’s boat drifted another
six days on the open sea, many dying from exposure, starvation and lack of water. It was said that some of the people in the
open boat went mad after drinking salt water and began drinking the blood and eating body parts of the dead. The survivors
were rescued by the British Sceptre on November 27 some 500 miles northeast of where the Cospatrick burned and sank.
There were five still alive when the British Sceptre found the lifeboat. Two of those died before the Sceptre reached
The other survivors were the ship’s quartermaster, Thomas Lewis and Edward Cotter, a deck hand.
The Cospatrick was launched in Burma in 1856 for London shipowner Duncan Dunbar. After his death in 1862 the ship was
sold to Smith, Fleming & Co. of London. The vessel made many trips between England and India carrying passengers, cargo
In 1863 the Cospatrick participated in the laying of a telegraph cable in the Persian Gulf. Later, when sold to her
final owners, Shaw, Savill & Co. in 1873, the ship began regular trips between England and New Zealand.
Elmslie had served as the ship’s skipper for seven years before the disaster.