"It was the shouting that woke me, that and the thud of feet on the deck
above our heads. It had been a wonderful February day. I had stood on the
SS Vingorla with my mother among all the Indian deck passengers and crew,
waving goodbye to the Bombay dock workers as we set sail on a calm sea with a
warm light breeze. I watched the sails billow and the ship heal over
slightly and felt the reassuring vibration of the engines beneath my feet."
Rupert was still a great traveller well into his 80s. He thought nothing of jetting off to see his son in South Africa or friends in
America, India or New Zealand. A man of few qualms, he nevertheless had one
superstition about travelling: he would never venture forth on leap day - the
The reason, he told me, goes back more than a century to the history of his
family and their long association with India. Rupert's aunt Gladys, the
eldest of his grandfather's children, used to tell of the time that she and
her baby brother (Rupert's father) were shipwrecked in the Arabian Sea. This
is her story.
"All the previous day we had been on the train from Neemuch, our home in
Central India, 400 miles away. We slept that night at the Army base at
Colaba and then went down to Bombay to catch the British India Steamship
Vingorla (578 tons) for Karachi where my father was waiting for us. His
regiment, the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, were fighting in Afghanistan and we
were to join him for his local leave. Despite the excitement of my first sea
voyage, I was asleep almost as soon as we went below to the cabin which I
shared with my baby brother Charles, just seven months old."
"It was dark when I was woken by the commotion on deck and soon my mother was
there in her night dress. She looked worried, spoke to some other passengers
and then we were all told to come up on deck at once. There wasn't even time
to get dressed and we all were in our night clothes just wrapped in blankets
throughout the momentous events that followed."
"The deck was damp and cold under my feet and bathed in eerie moonlight
casting long shadows as the men worked. Some were raising the mail boat into
its davits, others with lights were around the main cargo hold and I saw that
the deck passengers had all been moved to the stern of the ship. We stood
around in a group, the saloon passengers among whom I recognised Mrs Stuart,
the Master's wife with her small baby, Major Greig, Lieut. Colborne, Mr.
Cloete and the second officer Mr. Battersby Wood who was in charge of
launching the mail boat. Vingorla's sails had been taken in and we seemed to
be at anchor with engines stopped. The sea remained calm and nothing
appeared to be amiss with our ship but I saw men dumping what looked like
cargo over the side. Eventually I was lifted into the mail boat, in which
there were about twenty people including my mother with Charles, and we were
lowered jerkily down to the sea."
"It was only much later that I discovered what had happened. The ship had
left Bombay at noon; by 9.30 p.m. she was about 70 miles out with her sails
set and doing 8 knots in light winds on a smooth sea when she began to steer
abnormally with the head down. It was found that water was leaking into the
main cargo hold and from there the disaster developed. Efforts were made to
save the ship by dumping cargo overboard but the water gained steadily over
the next four hours and at 1.30 in the morning Vingorla sank by the head in
20 fathoms. Our mail boat had been launched soon after 10.30 p.m. and two of
the three remaining life boats got off shortly before the ship went down.
The third was rushed by deck passengers, for whom no boats were provided, and
broke in two in the davits, dumping them all in the sea."
"Our small boat continued circling the ship at a distance, but we could see
little of what was happening on Vingorla until the awful moment when she sank
with a dreadful hiss and we heard the cries of people in the water. The
three life boats continued searching for survivors until about 4 a.m. at
which time, overloaded with a total of 95 survivors aboard, the boats set
course for Bombay. All that day, Sunday 29th February 1880 (leap day), we
sat crowded into that mail boat with the sun beating down on us. Fortunately
the sea remained calm and at 3 p.m. when we were apparently still 45 miles
from Bombay we were spotted by the SS Malda (1945 tons) and our ordeal was
over. We had been in that little open boat for more than 16 hours. Malda
then went directly to the scene of the sinking but after a two hour search
found no more survivors. That eventful leap day ended early the following
morning at 3.50 when we were landed back at Bombay and my mother was able to
reassure my father at Karachi that we were well. He had known only that the
Vingorla had sunk with heavy loss of life!"
Some seventy years later Rupert verified all the facts about his father's
shipwreck which figure in aunt Gladys' story. His interest in the tale had
suddenly been reawakened by a flight he took in 1948, the year after
Independence, when on route from Karachi to Bombay one of the two engines
stopped. It was a close call but the Indian pilot just succeeded in making
an emergency landing at Ahmedabad and Rupert and the other passengers walked
off the plane, shaken but unharmed. It was another 29th February - leap day!
"We learnt subsequently that four more survivors clinging to wreckage had
been picked up by other ships late on the 29th, including Conroy, the Chief
Officer. This meant that 75 people, nearly half the ship's complement, had
drowned. Among those lost were the Master, Captain JW Stuart, the ship's
clerk, Mr. Mowbray, and all three engineer officers, with most of the rest
being deck passengers. The Court of Inquiry failed to discover the cause of
the leak in Vingorla's hull. She had a good reputation as a well maintained
and seaworthy vessel, was not overloaded and no impact or shock had been
felt, either on leaving Bombay or afterwards. They found that the loss of
life was due to the lack of provision of boats for deck passengers, although
under Bombay legislation at that time this was not a requirement and the ship
had her full complement of life boats."