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The shabby clipper ‘Bald Eagle’ sank with its human cargo of enslaved coolies

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

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This edited article about the coolie trade originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 742 published on 3 April 1976.

Guano works, picture, image, illustration

Chinese coolies digging out Guano on the Chinch Islands off Peru

She was shabby and dirty, a disgrace to the proud clipper-ship tradition. Her officers and men were a motley lot, of a dozen different nationalities. She was U.S. registered, but pretty well the only American thing about her was the star-spangled banner that flew from her monkey-gaff.

Her name was Bald Eagle, and her unenviable claim to fame is that she came to as strange and horrifying an end as any vessel in sailing ship history.

In her later years, Bald Eagle was employed in what was known as the coolie trade, carrying hundreds of destitute Chinese from their homeland to the guano workings on the Chincha Islands, off the coast of Peru. Guano, which consists mainly of seabirds’ droppings, was used as a fertiliser in the days before cheaper and more effective substitutes were discovered, and over thousands upon thousands of years deposits had built up on the islands until in places they were over 200 feet thick (61 metres).

The Chinese found work digging the guano out and loading it aboard ship, and a more unpleasant job can hardly be imagined. Guano is filthy stuff, and what is more, the wretched coolies had not only to work but live on the islands, where everything was covered in yellow guano dust which blew about in choking clouds. It was hell on earth, but one degree better than starving.

The Bald Eagle met her end while on passage across the Pacific with a crowd of Chinese bound for the Chinchas. The coolies were crammed into the ship’s hold, more like cargo than human beings.

The trouble started one afternoon when the ship was some 500 miles (800 km) east of Manila. She was making good progress, an easy ten knots in a stiffish breeze, and all seemed well. Then, suddenly, the Chinese started shrieking and screaming and tried to rush the hatchway ladders leading up on deck. Just why never became clear. It could have been because conditions below decks were intolerable, but it was more likely an attempt to seize the ship.

The attempt didn’t succeed. The clipper’s crew managed to fasten the iron hatchway gratings in place just in time. But, though nobody could have realised it at the time, the damage was done. The fantastic train of events which was to have so terrible an outcome was set in motion.

The captain of the Bald Eagle was himself largely responsible for the tragedy. An excitable Portuguese, securing the gratings wasn’t enough for him. His almost hysterical reaction was to start firing his revolver through one of the gratings at the still struggling mass below; which, like so many panic actions, proved infectious, with the result that the ship’s mates soon followed his example.

The idea behind this, so far as there was one, was to drive the Chinese away from the gratings, but it didn’t work. With so many others pressing from behind, the coolies immediately under the gratings had no chance to withdraw. Instead, a heaving, screaming heap of ragged, emaciated men, many of them dead, dying or wounded, built up until it almost touched the bars above them.

It was then that the incident took its most bizarre turn. A flash of fire, perhaps from a bullet striking iron, set the clothing of one of the coolies alight. And at once, instead of beating the fire out, one of his companions shielded it to keep it burning.

Others joined in. The smouldering, glowing cloth was torn from its wearer, and when one man was shot dead in the act of blowing upon it to fan it into a flame, another snatched it and passed it back out of range of the hatchway.

Gradually the tumult died down, to be succeeded by an ominous silence. Then, half an hour or so later, wisps of smoke began to wreathe up through the Bald Eagle’s main and fore hatches.

Fire! It was the most dreaded of all hazards aboard a wooden ship, and it can only have been an act of final desperation on the part of the wretched creatures imprisoned down below. They must have gambled everything on the chance that, if they set fire to the ship, the hatchway covers would be taken off.

But the captain ordered the covers to be left in place. Instead of removing them, water was poured below by means of the hose used for washing down the decks, but the only result this had was to increase the volume of smoke coming up from below, and to bring the Chinese crowding back under the gratings again, shouting and screaming louder than ever in the knowledge that they could no longer control the fire they had started.

By now it was beginning to get dark. Close-pressed, terrified faces could be dimly seen staring up from below. To the general smell of the fire there was added that of burning flesh.

As night fell, the Bald Eagle hove to, with great difficulty. The crew could scarcely breathe or see each other because of the smoke, or hear the orders they were given because of the groans and shrieks from down below.

Rain started to fall, increasing to a torrential downpour, but it had no effect on the fire, and two hours later the Bald Eagle was ablaze from stem to stern. The commotion below had ceased. There was no sound apart from the crackle and roar of the flames.

There was only one thing the crew could do, and that was to abandon ship. They launched the clipper’s four boats, but one was stove in as they were getting it over the side. This left them with the long boat, which had sail, and two smaller boats with oars only.

The long boat took the others in tow and, leaving the Bald Eagle to her fate, the crew set course for Manila. The wind was fair but strong, and all three boats, heavily overladen, were in constant danger of being capsized by the big following seas. To make things grimmer still, the boats were accompanied for a long way by a very large shark.

The long boat, with the other two in tow, ran before the wind for three nights and two days, until, on the third night, the tow of one of the smaller boats parted. She was later found stove in and bottom up, and none of the men who had sought safety in her were ever seen again.

Those in the other two boats sighted land early on the morning of the third day. Some hours later they entered Manila harbour, survivors of one of the most gruesome stories in the whole history of the sea.

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