The Quetta Disaster Of 1890
By James Donahue
The British merchant ship Quetta was steaming from Australia
to England with merchandise and 292 passengers and crew members aboard when it struck an uncharted rock in Adolphus Channel
and plunged to the bottom in less than five minutes.
In spite of the speed at which the 380-foot iron steamer sank,
two life boats were either launched or floated off and 158 people survived. There were 134 who perished.
The disaster occurred on Feb. 28, 1890 as the British India Steam
Navigation Company’s steamship, under the command of Captain Alfred Sanders, was on the first leg of a journey to London
after taking on freight and passengers at Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
The nine-year-old vessel was manned by British officers and a
mixed crew of Singhalese and Indian workers. Included among the passengers were 71 Javanese cane cutters, some with their
families, who were returning home after working on the North Queensland cane farms. There were 101 other passengers.
February is summer south of the equator and the Quetta was steaming in fair
weather. Captain Eldred Keatinge, an experienced Torres Strait Pilot, was on the bridge with Captain Sanders, to make sure
the vessel made safe passage through the islands and into open sea.
Ironically, because the steamer was running 24 hours behind schedule, Keatinge
and Sanders had a disagreement over whether to bring the ship through Albany Passage for a planned stop at Thursday Island,
or take the broader and deeper Adolphuis Channel. Keatinge wanted to steer through Albany Passage, which was a shorter but
a more dangerous route. Sanders, however, had been directed by his superiors to use Adolphus Channel and he insisted on this
It was because Captain Sanders chose what he thought6 was the safer route
that he lost his command. At about 9:15 p.m. the steamer struck the rock that tore out its bottom. Survivors said they hardly
noticed anything wrong when it happened. They said there was a “tremble” throughout the ship and a “muffled
grating noise” heard from below.
The Quetta was one of those so-called “unsinkable” ships of its
day, designed with seven water tight compartments that should have kept it afloat in most types of mishaps. But this was no
ordinary mishap. The rock ripped open the iron plates from the bow to the engine room amidships, tearing a gap from four to
12 feet wide. The ship dropped bow first with its stern rising briefly out of the water before it plunged.
The ship’s cutter floated clear of the wreck but capsized. A number
of Javanese and lascar seamen swam to it and were clinging to it when Quartermaster James Oates got there. He organized the
men to get the cutter righted and bailed free of water. The group then headed for the nearest island.
Only one of the ship’s lifeboats got off. This was the Number One starboard
boat which was damaged and mostly awash. Other survivors were clinging to this craft. Third Officer Thomas Babb was among
them. As this boat worked toward the island it picked up other survivors in the water, including Captain Sanders. The two
boats eventually came together and reached Little Adolphus Island at about midnight.
The cutter then set back out to sea in search of more survivors. Many were
found still clinging to floating wreckage.
The survivors were rescued two days later by the Albatross
A Marine Board of Enquiry cleared both Captains Sanders and Keatinge of blame
since the ship struck an uncharted rock. The Albatross took soundings and located the rock believed responsible for the sinking.
It was about half a mile from where the Quetta was found in 59 feet of water.
The wreck lies on its port side and is a protected historic shipwreck under
Australia’s Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976.