a true story of tragedy in the icy Atlantic – and the one who live to tell about it
Author Brian Murphy
On January 16, 1856, the American ship, John Rutledge, left for New York from Liverpool, with 16 crew men and 120 migrant passengers packed into steerage. On February 19, the ship knocked against an iceberg, causing catastrophic damage.
As the ship foundered, passengers and crew raced to the lifeboats – not everyone reached the safety of the 5 lifeboats.
Those souls finding a place in a lifeboat found them ” the simplest of craft. [E]ach lifeboat was about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter.” There was no mast to hoist a sail, only oars. There were no provisions (only a handful of hard tack and a small container of water). There was no way to flag the boat to standout against the vastness of the sea. There was no way to communicate with the other lifeboats or to send a signal of their location to rescuers; these were the days before transatlantic communication, satellite phones or weather planes.
As the five lifeboats pulled away from the stricken ship, the question in everyone’s mind had to be – Have I just delayed my death? Am I really better off than those doomed and unable to reach the lifeboats?
Feb 29, 1856, day nine after the loss of the Rutledge, one of the lifeboats was spotted in the rough icy waters. Seaman Thomas W. Nye, frozen and nearly incoherent, was pulled from the sea by the packet ship, Germania. He proved to be the sole survivor from the Rutledge. After a desperate search for the other four lifeboats from the Rutledge; none were ever found.
Here’s the rub that keeps the book a three star in my view. Well, actually the first part is a two star and Nye’s story is a four star so I decided on the middle ranking.
Thomas W. Nye’s story is remarkable. Interviews with him reveal a harrowing and horrifying nine days spent drifting in the dead of winter with twelve other people; one by one the others die from exposure and starvation. Most died painfully quick after ignoring Nye’s pleas to avoid drinking seawater. I’ll admit I never really understood what it was the seawater did to the body and how it killed in such a short period of time. It is heartbreaking.
The demise of the Rutledge and its passengers was but one of hundreds of big and small ships and nearly 1000 souls lost to rough seas and extreme ice flows during the three winter months of 1856. The author’s research of that time in world history and coverage of that devastating winter of 1856 is admirable; and he felt the need to share every tidbit and trace. Intermingled with the horrors of Nye’s story are the history of maritime commerce, ship designs, history and ownership of specific vessels, biographies of sea captains and their families, and the mass migration from famine starved countries in the mid 1800’s.
The choice to research the “mundane” John Rutledge and its crew and passengers highlights the disparity of books that cover renowned disasters like the Hindenburg, Titanic or the Lusitania. The Rutledge was a significant ship in international commercial trade at the time, but insignificant to the world-at-large when placed against the great passenger ships ferrying the rich and famous back and forth across the Atlantic. The foundering of several of these high-class ships was covered much more extensively and of much more interest to the general public than a small transport filled with destitute immigrants.
To his credit, the author, in selecting the Rutledge, shows the humanity of the average seaman and the steerage passengers; those now lost souls with ambitions and hopes every bit as important as the high society victims on the opulent passenger liners.
The interjection of lengthy footnotes and history lessons felt like the interruptions in the flow of a good suspense movie by commercials. I understand that Murphy needed to add perspective and background, but in my opinion, a little less coverage would have been sufficient. Perhaps, if the footnotes were placed in a separate addendum, the story would have flowed more smoothly.
I will say this, I learned a lot. Judging from the wide range of reviews on this book, there is something for everyone to like and I would say if you are interested in sea disasters, you will find it an interesting read.