Ship losses can be divided into three categories: Enemy action, navigational error and weather. All too many from enemy action, company ships sunk by German U boats in the first and second world wars.
Navigational error in the nineteenth century was almost always due missjudgement of the strength of the current, to errors of the magnetic compass, and the officers lack of knowledge on the subject. Superb seaman as they were, they all too often fell foul of that old enemy, complacency. Little recognition is given to the transitional nature of the watch-keeping on deck in the nineteenth century. Little had changed at sea from the very earliest days until the advent of steam. Navigation was essentially done by the master, assisted by the mates. It was the master's responsibility to supply the charts, he would carry his own, charts he largely built up himself from his own observations and experience. Until Admiral Beaufort, in 1829 was put in charge of the Admiralty Hydrographic Office, it did not in fact exist, there were no dedicated marine surveyors. It was Admiral Beaufort who changed all that. However that would all take time, and so for the coast line of South Africa only the most basic and rudimentary coastal surveys existed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed well into the twentieth century there was still a warning not on the chart for South West Africa (Namibia) to the effect that the coast was believed to lie two miles to the west.
Until Captain Flinders, R.N. began to explore the mysteries of the magnetic compass, they remained largely that, mysteries. It was he who found that by having a large wrought iron bar placed vertically before the compass did wonders for the deviation of that compass, and that was only at the turn of the eighteenth century. Then came William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, who elaborated upon this by introducing two cast iron spheres either side of the compass, these with Flinders bar, along with other refinements, very largely made the magnetic compass a reliable navigational instrument. But William Thompson was only doing his research in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even having the correct time, an essential factor in obtaining a vessels position, was not readily available to the navigators of 1870.
Twentieth century navigational error was mostly due to the negligence of the navigator.
Relatively few losses can be ascribed to the weather, quite remarkable when one thinks of how small the early mail ships were, and how hard they were driven in order to maintain the mail contract schedule. But one has to stand out, it was an exhibition of pure skill, bravery and ultimately, a forlorn hope on the part of the master, Captain David Crichton Smith and the crew of R.M.St. "Athens".
This page is a memorial to all those unbelievably brave crews, who gave their lives in the service of the Company and their country.
R.M.St. "ATHENS", 1865