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Fate Of French Steamship Afrique Was Sealed

By James Donahue

A combination of factors sank the French steamship Afrique and killed most of its 602 passengers and crew members in the Bay of Biscay in the winter of 1920.

The 390-foot-long liner was in its tenth year of service, on its fifty-eighth regular trip along the European/African coast, stopping at ports from its home port of Bordeaux, south to Dakar and northward, when the vessel developed engine trouble at about the time it got caught in a fierce winter storm in the Bay of Biscay on January 12.

The vessel, under the command of a Captain Le Du, got into trouble while off  Rochebonne, France. One report suggested that the Afrique sustained some damage when it struck a submerged wreck in the Gironde River on its way out Bordeaux. It was never determined if this led to the mechanical trouble that overwhelmed the ship in the midst of the storm.

While battling a raging sea, with the ship’s bilge pumps working overtime, the helmsman suddenly reported that the ship’s rudder was no longer responding. The steamer fell into the trough of the seas and began to flood. It was not long before rising water in the engine room flooded the boilers, put out the fires, and the Afrique was dead in the water and in serious trouble.

A call for help brought the tugboats Cedar and Victory out from Rochefort but the raging storm prevented either vessel to get close enough to the liner to rescue passengers.

By the time the Afrique foundered, there were only 34 survivors out of 135 crew members and 474 passengers. The Steamship Ceylon picked up a lifeboat with nine crew members. Another lifeboat with seven crew members and three passengers managed to reach the shore near St. Vincent.