RMS Quetta

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RMS Quetta in 1884
RMS Quetta in 1884 near Gravesend in the River Thames
Launched: March 1881
Fate: Wrecked 28 February 1890
General characteristics
Displacement: 3300 tons (gross)
Length: 380 feet (120 m)
Beam: 40 feet (12 m)
Propulsion: Steam
Speed: Over 13 knots (24 km/h)

Designed for:

  • 72 saloon (1st class) passengers
  • 32 steerage (2nd class) passengers

The RMS Quetta was a merchant ship that wrecked on the Far North Queensland coast on 28 February 1890. Of the 292 people aboard, 134 perished.


The RMS Quetta was part of the British India Line that travelled between England, India and the Far East. The Queensland Government negotiated to have a service between the United Kingdom and Brisbane, to ease the passage of people and mail. The Quetta was specifically built for the Australia run, with refrigeration capacity for the frozen meat trade. The ship was launched in March 1881 and made her first voyage to Brisbane in 1883. The designation RMS indicated the ship's role within the Queensland Royal Mail Line. Her sister ships were Manora and Merkara.

The ship was initially designed for 72 saloon (first class) and 32 steerage (second class) passengers, although this was later altered to favour steerage class due to the large number of migrants using the service. In five-and-a-half years service the Quetta made 11 London-Brisbane round trips; the twelfth would be her final attempt.


On the night of 28 February 1890 the ship's master was Captain Sanders, with Captain Keatinge aboard piloting the ship through the Torres Strait. Destined for Thursday Island, the ship turned into the Adolphus Channel to round Cape York. The pilot was experienced, the weather fine and visibility good, but at 9:14pm the ship struck an uncharted rock in the middle of the channel. The rock ripped a hole through the plates from the bow to the engine room amidships, 4 to 12 feet wide. The ship sank in less than five minutes; at the time, the worst maritime disaster in Queensland's history.

At the time of the disaster the Quetta had 292 people aboard: a crew of 121, comprising 15 European officers, 14 from other trades and 92 lascars from India; 70 Javanese in temporary deck houses, travelling to Batavia after working in the cane fields; and 101 other passengers.

People aboard at time of the disaster
Group No. aboard Survival rate
Javanese passengers 70 79%
Lascar crew 92 78%
Saloon passengers 26 19%
Steerage passengers 75 86%
European officers 15
Crew (other trades) 14
Total 292 54%

The ship's cutter floated clear of the wreck and capsized, surrounded by a large group of Javanese and lascar seamen. Quartermaster James Oates organised the baling of the cutter and it headed towards shore. Only one of the ship's lifeboats survived: Number 1 starboard lifeboat controlled by third officer Thomas Babb. It was damaged and largely awash. As it headed toward shore it picked up more survivors including Captain Sanders. Around midnight the two boats came together and those aboard were placed on the nearest island. Captain Sanders then ordered the cutter to search for more survivors.

After spending a night and day without food and water on Little Adolphus Island the main group of ninety-eight survivors were rescued by the Albatross, that along with the Merrie England had been dispatched from Thursday Island's Port Kennedy.

The Albatross took soundings and located the rock thought responsible for the disaster, about half a mile from where the Quetta lay. Relics raised during salvage attempts months after the disaster, and later, can be found in the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island, which was consecrated in 1893.

She now lies on her port side in 18 metres (59 ft) of water and is a protected historic shipwreck under Australia's Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.


  • Jeffreys, Max (1999). Murder, Mayhem Fire and Storm: Australian Shipwrecks. New Holland Publishers (Australia). pp. 163–175. ISBN 1-86436-445-9. 

Further reading

  • The Wreck of the SS QUETTA by Hubert Hofer 2004
 A Maritime History of Torres Strait ,  Sportdiving # 43, 1994

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