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Theories of the Disaster

In 1982, a British cargo ship called the Amphitrite sunk in the English Channel with seventeen on board, losing the lives of all on board. The first question that is being asked is whether or not weather played any part in the sinking. Amphitrite has been described as an unlucky ship because she sank into a massive storm. This rolled the ship and crushed its cargo, making the vessel unseaworthy for duty. Even if the ship had not been caught up in a storm and sunk, the crew would have most likely still died. The Amphitrite disaster was monumental. There are many theories about why this event happened and what led up to it as well as what consequences it has had. This tragic event occurred a long time ago; however, there are still many questions as to why this disaster happened; necessitating their burial at sea, besides causing heavy damage to the ship. 

The different Theories for the disaster include: The captain trying to save his ship and a cyclone that could have torn it apart suddenly appearing, the ship being destroyed in its berth due to negligence of duties by the crew, an accidental explosion of gunpowder stores--meaning there was no immediate cause, death was due to happen over time as well as fires and suffocation while aboard,  the listing vessel caused a fire, this eventually sucked in crew members into it who died soon after and the boat was set on fire--this could have been due to sabotage, due to the nature of it being a prison ship.

The only primary source regarding this is the documentary account of one passenger, the Rev. William Dodd, who sailed on board Amphitrite. Dodd writes that he saw the chaos as he was walking around in steerage just before departure - people were scrambling to get on top of each other and into anything they could- and as a result, he had time to get onto his upper bunk before everything tipped over. Dodd also writes that "There was an enormous quantity of gunpowder" that would have been very dangerous and could have exploded, even without the hurricane. Dodd writes that "It seems to me, there were two causes to this catastrophe: accidental and deliberate," so he believed it was more likely that it was deliberate than accidental. He also writes, "the British seamen are the most treacherous set of men in the world," meaning there were many crew members who were enemies of the convicts on board.

Primary Sources

The author argues that insurance for merchant ships – while necessary - has led to a situation whereby those involved in the British shipping industry profit regardless of whether or not the vessel completes its voyage in safety. He suggests that the government require shipbuilders to build all ships to a higher standard to deal with this.

The author also discusses merchant ships from "foreign and native" sources, how different types of ships have been built over time, and what can be done about it now, if anything. The author addresses how maritime insurance came to be and is managed today. He discusses how ships were initially built and what led to the commodification of marine insurance. The author addresses how the situation has evolved and what can be done in the future to solve this problem. He suggests that with the creation of a marine board, the government can resolve some of these issues by regulating marine insurance.

While Captain Chads may not have known the causes of this shipwreck, he was able to provide many details about it, which were necessary for shipping and mariners to know about. They also think that Captain Chads did an excellent job with his reporting because he demonstrated extensive knowledge about ships themselves.

Assumptions concerning the catastrophe include; that there was no water in the boiler. This meant that there would be no steam, which meant that a problem would arise with the engines. Another reason could have been that they were using very old boilers to power their ship, making it weaker than other vessels of its period. This would mean that it would not be able to withstand the pressure when going at full speed. Another possibility is that the firemen were careless and thus unable to prevent a boiler explosion. A fireman is responsible for stoking the boiler, maintaining high temperatures, and being alert in case of any dangers. A possible reason why they were not careful was that they had taken much steam from the boiler and therefore could not take more than that because if they did, there would be a risk of a boiler explosion. 

Another theory is that the investors did not trust the captain, so he was not given access to money. This may have led to him being unable to order additional supplies. If this were true, it would mean that the captain could not maintain the engine, which would make it so weak that a disaster like this would happen. In addition, many of them had probably died of exhaustion before they even got on board the ship, so there was nothing these sailors could do once they were on board. They were so ill that they could not fight the fires, which would have saved their lives. Another reason this happened is that the sailors on board considered themselves brave men when they went on a trip, but in reality, they did not possess the survival skills needed for this circumstance. One example can be looked at with regard to Tom Paine, who wrote about his experience and gave it as an example for others to follow. Perhaps, this is how they felt, but, in reality, they were all unlucky to have been placed on the same ship and suffered together.

Insurance and the Shipping Industry

In summary, all of these theories are plausible. The factors that led up to the explosion varied considerably between each approach, and it was hard to figure out which reason was more significant than the others in this case. It is likely that many factors came together for this catastrophe to happen, but what caused them mainly was unknown. One thing is for sure that this was significant wreckage on this ship and had a great impact on America. They blame anything or anyone they can think of. The ship was too old and too small. The crew was inexperienced, unprepared, and shoddy—as if unskilled is a reason to avoid inquiring about something. It must have been the captain's fault for wrecking the ship off Boulogne. Only the passengers were not blamed because they were convicts. The ship was carrying convicts, and that's an embarrassment to the British: it makes them look brutal and uncivilized. People weren't fond of prisoners being transported to Australia for committing crimes. 

However, few people today object to transporting prisoners across the sea in a "prison hulk." Hence, I wonder why this is such a problem, perhaps because Westerners are far more accepting than our ancestors of punishment, not so much of dumb criminals being stupid as we are of stupid criminals being sent overseas when they could be rehabilitated here at home. 

In my opinion, the wreckage was a combination of factors; the first problem is that they were sailing across the Bay of Biscay, which is notorious for being rough. However, this doesn't fully explain why so many lives were lost. Most likely, it was because they weren't prepared to fight the waves in such a heavy storm. The ship was too lightweight and had a weak hull. That's why it was tossed around like a rag doll and eventually destroyed by a wave crashing into it.

I cannot blame the passengers. The captain and crew had no way of knowing what they were doing that fateful night; how much experience they had in storming through the stormy seas. Therefore, it's not their fault. They were placed in a situation where they were forced to take extreme measures due to the severity of the condition. There were well over a hundred deaths that night, and most of them were drowned. That's because the ship was tossed around like a cork in the sea and eventually smashed upon the rocky cliffs at Boulogne. 

Contributing Factors to the Shipwreck

If you had been there that night, what would you have done? It was either sink or be smashed upon the rocks, so they chose to sink. The passengers and crew had no choice but to abandon the ship once it became apparent that their boat was going down. Fortunately, however, most of them were rescued by other ships in the area, even more so once they heard what was going on at Boulogne. The convicts were saved, and even though they died, they at least went down in a more dignified manner than the majority of the passengers. On the other hand, we were brought home to England—and I'm sure many of us would prefer to be crushed to death in the Bay of Biscay rather than aboard the Amphitrite.

The shipwreck location was significant because there was a lighthouse on the dangerous rocks in the area. With such light-guiding ships through the fog, it is not surprising that so many people were killed when their ship ran aground. The seas in this area are also notorious for treacherous winds, which could have contributed to fatal mishaps. The social and economic factors leading to a high death toll from the Amphitrite disaster included an early lack of regulation in maritime safety practice and an over-reliance on voluntary cooperation from sailors. 

Notable incidents involving shipping in the early 1800s included the sinking of a large wooden ship, the Carrier Pigeon. One thousand four hundred sailors were on board, and only 132 survived. The ship was so big that it took nine hours to sink even though there were holes in the hull, indicating that watertight compartments had not yet been invented. The overcrowding of ships could have contributed to a high death toll because there were too many passengers on board. The crew, who would have been hard-pressed to control their passengers during an emergency, would have been even more so if they were also crammed onto the boat.

Many people have wanted to know why so many lives were lost in the Amphitrite disaster. There are still many questions that remain unresolved. For example: Why did the captain and crew survive? Why didn’t they attempt to rescue the passengers (and convicts) during the worst of the storm? The answer to this question lies in decisions made by those in charge of the ship. Many had thought that they would take a shortcut to save time and money. However, these decisions ended up costing them their lives instead. This paper helps us go over some of the events that led up to this event and how it was caused, along with lessons learned by all involved groups on what not to do when doing something as significant as building a ship of this size and importance.  

Celeste, Mark. "Shipwreck, Slavery, Revolution: History as the Open Secret in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette." (2016).

Frasier’s Magazine, “The Loss of the Amphitrite. An Account, by an Eyewitness, of the Wreck of the Amphitrite” pages 557-559.

J.M.W. Turner’s painting “A Disaster at Sea” 1835

Moses, James. "The Amphitrite." Broward Legacy 1, no. 1 (1976): 26-26.

Marine Insurance” an article published in Metropolitan Magazine (November 1835) p.225-231. 

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