Arniston (East Indiaman)

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Repulse, an East Indiaman from the same period and similar in size to the Arniston
Career (Great Britain) British East India Company flag.svg
Builder: William Barnard, Deptford
Launched: 1794
Fate: Wrecked, 30 May 1815 at Waenhuiskrans
General characteristics
Class and type: East Indiaman
Tonnage: 1468 bm
Length: 176.25 feet (54 m)
Beam: 43.25 feet (13 m)
Depth of hold: 17.5 feet (5 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Armament: 58 guns

The Arniston was an East Indiaman ship that was wrecked on 30 May 1815 during a storm at Waenhuiskrans, near Cape Agulhas, South Africa with the loss of 372 lives and only 6 survivors.[1] She had been requisitioned as a troopship and was underway from Ceylon to England on a journey to repatriate wounded soldiers.

Controversially, the ship did not have a marine chronometer onboard, a comparatively new, but expensive navigational instrument that would have enabled her to determine her longitude accurately. Instead, she was forced to navigate through the heavy storm and strong currents using older, less reliable navigational aids such as dead reckoning.[2] Navigational difficulties and a lack of headway led to an incorrect assumption that Cape Agulhas was Cape Point. Consequently, the ship was wrecked when the captain headed north for St Helena with the incorrect belief the ship had already passed Cape Point.


East Indiaman operated under charter or licence to the Honourable East India Company, which held a monopoly granted by Queen Elizabeth I of England for all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. The Arniston was owned by Messrs Borradailes of London,[3] and managed by John Wedderburn (1794 to 1808) then Robert Hudson (1809 to 1813).[4]

She had been built at the Barnard yard at Deptford on the Thames and launched in 1794.[3][4]

The Arniston was heavily armed, with her fifty eight guns[3] making her the equivalent of a Royal Navy fourth-rate ship of the line. A classification of "ship of the line" — a class of ship that later evolved into the battleship — meant that a ship was powerful enough to stand in a line of battle and explained why these ships of commerce were sometimes mistaken for men-o-war.[5] The armament was necessary for the ship to protect itself and its valuable cargo from pirates and commerce raiders of other nations during long voyages between Europe and the Far East.

She had three decks, a length of 176 feet (54 m), a keel of 143 feet (44 m) and a breadth of 43 feet (13 m). She measured 1468 tons, so like other East Indiamen, was slow and unmanoeuvrable, but able to carry a large quantity of cargo.[5]

Voyages (1794–1812)

The Arniston sailed from Great Britain to the Far East eight times before her last voyage.[4] On one of her homeward journeys from China, she struck an uncharted rock at 5°46′8″S 105°16′43″E / 5.76889°S 105.27861°E / -5.76889; 105.27861 (Oomowoomang), near the island of Pulo Goondy (modern day Pulau Legundi), located just south of Sumatra. She did not suffer any ill effects as a result of this incident however, which is mentioned in journals of the time only for its noteworthyness as a navigation hazard to other shipping.[6]

A more significant event occurred during her third voyage to the Far East however. On 27 June 1800, the Arniston had just anchored at Benkulen when the 26-gun French privateer Confiance attacked her. The Arniston cut her anchor and gave chase, firing several broadsides into the other ship. The faster French ship was able to make an escape however.[7] On 9 October 1800, another East Indiaman, the Kent, would be less fortunate, being captured after a two hour battle with the same raider.[8]

Apart from these two incidents, the Arniston's first eight voyages were otherwise uneventful.

(1794/1795) St Helena, Madras, and China

Captain Campbell Marjoribanks:[4] Portsmouth 3 April 1795 – 14 April Tenerife – 2 June St Helena 2 July – 9 August Cape – 27 September Madras – 14 November Penang – 3 December Malacca – 11 March 1796 Whampoa – 23 April Second Bar – 29 June Macau – 20 November St Helena – 1 March 1797 Deptford

(1796/1797) China

Captain William Macnamara:[4] Portsmouth 5 June 1797 – 29 August Cape – 9 December Whampoa – 14 February 1798 Second Bar – 26 March Macau – 5 August St Helena – 23 October Long Reach

(1799/1800) St Helena, Benkulen, and China

Captain Campbell Marjoribanks:[4] Portsmouth 7 January 1800 – 4 April St Helena – 27 June Benkulen – 29 July Penang – 27 August Malacca – 21 September Whampoa – 29 November Second Bar – 18 January 1801 Macau – 15 April St Helena – 17 June Long Reach

(1801/1802) St Helena, Benkulen, and China

Captain Campbell Marjoribanks:[4] Downs 31 December 1801 – 9 March 1802 St Helena – 10 June Benkulen – 12 July Penang – 31 August Whampoa – 24 October Second Bar – 11 February 1803 – St Helena – 26 April Long Reach

(1803/1804) China

Captain James Jameson:[4] Portsmouth 9 June 1804 – 17 August Rio de Janeiro – 14 January 1805 Whampoa – 14 February Second Bar – 21 March Malacca – 30 June St Helena – 15 September Long Reach. This journey included a passage through the Bass Strait in order to improve an earlier nautical chart of the route.[9]

(1805/1806) China

Captain Peter Wedderburn:[4] Portsmouth 14 May 1806 – 7 August Cape – 10 October Penang – 21 January 1807 Whampoa – 4 May off Lintin Island– 1 July Penang – 17 July Acheh – 19 September Cape – 13 October St Helena – 6 January 1808 Lower Hope

(1809/1810) Bombay and China

Captain Samuel Landon:[4] Portsmouth 21 January 1810 – 9 April Cape – 26 May Bombay – 1 September Penang – 12 October Whampoa – 29 December Second Bar – 28 May 1811 St Helena – 13 August Long Reach

(1811/1812) Bombay and China

Captain Walter Campbell:[4] Torbay 4 January 1812 – 5 April Johanna – 7 May Bombay – 11 September Whampoa – 4 January 1813 Macau – 27 March St Helena – 7 June Long Reach

Wreck (1815)

The Arniston was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1814 as a troop transport to bring wounded soldiers of the 73rd Regiment back to England from Ceylon. Critically, the ship did not have a chronometer for this voyage, a comparatively new and expensive navigational instrument at the time. Captain George Simpson[3] could not afford the 60-100 guineas for one,[10] and his bosses were also unwilling to purchase one, even threatening to replace him with another captain if he refused to set sail without one.[2]

The Arniston sailed from Port de Galle on 4 April 1815 in a convoy of six other East Indiamen, under the escort of HMS Africaine and HMS Victor.[1][11] Among her 378 passengers were many invalid soldiers and sailors, plus 14 women and 25 children.[2][3]

During the passage from Ceylon, at one o'clock every day, the ships signaled each other their longitude that they calculated using their chronometers. In this way, the ships were able to compare their respective instruments, and the master of the Arniston was enable to learn his longitude too, as long as he remained in the convoy.[2][10]

On 26 May, while rounding the southern tip of Africa, the Arniston was separated from the convoy in bad weather after her sails were damaged.[1][2] Without accurate daily longitudinal information from the other ships, the Arniston had to rely instead on older, less accurate navigation methods. Navigation via dead reckoning proved particularly difficult as there were strong ocean currents combined with inclement weather that prevented a fix being obtained for several days via celestial navigation.

File:Arniston 01.JPG
Coastline at Arniston

On 29 May, land was sighted to the north at 7am in the morning, and given the dead reckoning estimates, was presumed to be the Cape of Good Hope. The ship sailed west until 4:30pm on 29 May, then turned north to run for St Helena. However the land sighted had in fact been Cape Agulhas (then known as "Cape L'Agullas") and the ship had also not made good headway against the current since this sighting. Compounding these navigational errors, the master had not taken any depth soundings (which would have confirmed his location over the Agulhas Bank), before heading north.[2] Consequently, instead of being 100 miles (160 km) West of the Cape of Good Hope as presumed, the ship was closing on the reef at Waenhuiskrans near Cape Agulhas. The anchors were unable to hold the heavy ship in the storm, so on 30 May near 4pm, Lieutenant Brice advised Captain Simpson to ground the ship in order to save the lives of those aboard.[1] Eight minutes later, at about 8pm in the evening, the ship struck rocks half a mile offshore and heeled into the wind. The guns on the opposite side were cut away in a failed attempt to level the ship, which soon started to break up in the waves.[1][11]

Only 6 men of the 378 people on board survived, after reaching the shore only with great difficulty through the high surf.[1][3] The following morning, the sternpost was the only part of the vessel still visible.[11] The ship and her passengers had been lost for the price of a chronometer,[10] or as an officer from the same convoy later wrote:[2]

[T]his valuable ship, and all the lives on board of her, were actually sacrificed to a piece of short-sighted economy. That they might have been saved, had she been supplied with the worst chronometer that was ever sent to sea, is also quite obvious.


The six survivors buried the bodies found on the beach, then travelled East along the beach, expecting to reach Cape Town. However after four and a half days, they realised their error and returned to the site of the wreck. Here they subsisted off a cask of oatmeal, while trying to effect repairs to the ship's pinnace, which had been washed ashore.[11] They were discovered six days later on 14 June by a farmer's son[12] who was out hunting.[1][13]

  • Among the victims were: Captain George Simpson, Lieutenant Brice, Lord and Lady Molesworth.[1]
  • The six survivors were: Dr. Gunter (boatswain), John Barrett (carpenter), Charles Stewart Scott (carpenter's mate), William Grung (second class), Gibbs (third class), Robinson (fourth class).[1]

A memorial, a replica of which can be seen today, was erected on the beach by the wife of Colonel Giels, whose four children were lost in the tragedy on their homeward journey, having visited him in Ceylon. The memorial bears the following inscription:[14]

Erected by their disconsolate parents to the memory of Thomas, aged 13 years, William Noble, aged 10, Andrew, aged 8 and Alexander McGregor Murray, aged 7 (the four eldest sons of Lieut Colonel Andrew Giels of H.M. 73rd Regiment) who, with Lord and Lady Molesworth unfortunately perished in the Arniston Transport, wrecked on this shore on 3rd May, 1815.

Over time, the seaside village of Waenhuiskrans has become so associated with the wreck, that it too is now known as Arniston. The nearby town of Bredasdorp has a museum dedicated to the wreck. The wreck had a direct influence on the decision to build a lighthouse at Cape Agulhas in 1847-1848.[15]

Thirty seven years later, the 73rd Regiment of Foot suffered hundreds of casualties on this coast once again when HMS Birkenhead was wrecked only 50 miles (80 km) away at Gansbaai.

Archaeological excavation

The wreck, which lies in about 6 metres (20 ft) of water, was surveyed by an archaeological team from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1982.[16] The National Monuments Council issued a permit to UCT student Jim Jobling to conduct an underwater survey of the site, as well as a limited excavation. A number of artifacts were recovered, which were donated to the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum.[16]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 AJ 1816, primary sources.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Hall 1833, primary sources.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Mitchell 2007, tertiary sources.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 BL 1812, primary sources.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Port Cities UK, secondary sources
  6. The date of the incident is not documented. Murray et al., primary sources
  7. Lindsay 1874, primary sources.
  8. James, 1837, primary sources.
  9. Lee 2003 (Primary sources)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Hall 1820, primary sources.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Grocott 1997, primary sources
  12. The farmer's son probably had the Afrikaans name "Jan Zwartz" or perhaps "Jan Swart". The earliest report consulted gave him for a "John Swastry" (AJ 1816:34), but this seems an Anglicisation or phonetic corruption of an oral account. A later report name him "Jan Zwartz" (George Thompson, 1827, Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, 2nd edition, Vol. 2, p. 405, quoting the account of survivor C. S. Scott in a version slightly different from AJ 1816:34). Later again, we have him as "young Schwartz" (Raikes 1846:527).
  13. RAIKES, Henry (1846). Memoir of the Life and Services of Vice-admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton. Hatchet & Son. pp. 527. 
  14. Note the incorrect date on the memorial, which should be 30 May
  15. Proposals for a Lighthouse at L'Agulhas, secondary sources.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Carol Ruppé, Jan Barstad (2002). International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology. Springer. pp. 558-559. ISBN 0306463458. Retrieved 2008-07-28. 


Primary sources consulted
Secondary sources consulted
Tertiary sources consulted

External links

Coordinates: 34°39′36″S 20°15′7″E / 34.66°S 20.25194°E / -34.66; 20.25194 (Wreck of the Arniston)