The wreck of the HMS Conqueror near Rum Cay

HMS Conqueror

HMS Conqueror

By Eric Wiberg

THOUGH the lore of shipwrecks is often embellished, that of HMS Conqueror on Rum Cay often has the date, the destination, and basic historical facts reported incorrectly. It wrecked on 13 December, 1861 (not the 29th), it was not the first propeller ship in the Royal Navy (HMS Rattler was in 1842), and the ship was on its way to Bermuda, not Mexico. HMS Conqueror was a two-decked steam-screw (propeller) ship, first-rate, of the line, 240 feet long, 55 feet wide, and 34 feet deep.

 Her steam plant developed 800 horse-power, pushing the sailing ship at 10 knots, with a prominent smoke stack between three large masts. Constructed in Devon in 1855, the ship was 3,224 tons and carried 101 guns.

In only six years of service HMS Conqueror served in the English Channel Squadron, Mediterranean during the Crimean War, Malta, North America, and Caribbean. Her usual complement was 905 men, on top of which Royal Marines joined. Captain Sir Edward Southwell Sotheby assumed command in Plymouth by 1860.


Captain Sir Edward Southwell Sotheby

He was born in Bristol, son of Admiral of the Blue Thomas Sotheby, joined the Royal Navy at 13, and attended the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth. His relatives included a poet, rear-admiral, and the famed auctioneers. Sotheby served off Syria on HMS Dido, in China, and in command of HMS Racehorse he fought the Māori in New Zealand, then against the slave trade in West Africa on HMS Sealark.

As captain of HMS Pearl Sotheby helped repress the Indian Rebellion of 1857, rescuing the crew of transport HMS Transit off Bangka Island, Sumatra, and was highly decorated.

By 1861, Sotheby was commanding HMS Conqueror in the Channel Squadron with HMS Sans Pareil and HMS Donegal. That Fall they sailed for Jamaica together to support a French invasion of Mexico. Sotheby’s ship arrived in Port Royal on November 13, before the others and transferred 1,100 marines off his ship. Roughly two weeks later the flotilla set off north through the Bahamas for Bermuda. On the night of December 13, the ship struck the southeast corner of Rum Cay, at Sumner Point which protects Port Nelson. It wedged there in coral and is still there 160 years later. The cause of the wreck was deemed “due to a navigational error.”

After strenuous efforts to kedge itself off the reef, 1,390 of the survivors encamped ashore. Captain Sotheby and ten sailors remained on board for days, until the ship broke up. On shore, there weren’t many people on shore to help them. When the sandy soil of Rum Cay was deemed unsuitable for Loyalist slaves, and they were freed in 1834, the majority of the inhabitants left. According to the most detailed account, HMS Conqueror:

“… was 20 miles out in estimating her position and, after making her landfall, cut rounding the southeast point of Rum Cay too fine, and went hard on the reef. Her captain, fearing that his crew (most of whom could not swim in those days) would drink themselves insensible when it became obvious the ship was lost, ordered all ale, wine, and spirit casks to be broken, and their contents ditched. He then had the crew unload everything they could salvage, and set about making a camp on the island.”

Word reached New York from Nassau on January 1, 1861, that “the Conqueror had struck on …Rum Cay [and] the captain was using every exertion to get her off”. A pinnace, or ship’s boat, was sent back to Jamaica to enlist help; it arrived at Port Royal on January 8, 1862, and Commodore Dunlop promptly sent HMS Cygnet to provide help. On January 28, The Nassau Guardian reported that “schooner William H Bell, Henry Bowe, master, [told] of the probable loss of [Conqueror] having struck on a sunken rock … and become embedded five feet on the coral reef. Mr. Miller, an officer …was dispatched … to Nassau … the Bulldog will leave for the scene.” By January 16 the Admiralty learned that “the crew are saved and well [and] HMS Nile, HMS Donegal, HMS Diadem, SS Bulldog, HMS Spiteful, and HMS Landrail [were] engaged in recovering the stores.”

The Bermuda Royal Gazette reported that by February 4 … HMS Diadem and HMS Landrail “arrived from the West Indies [and] brought the remainder of the crew of … HMS Conqueror, the bowsprit only of which, is now above water. All the ship’s company are berthed on board the hulk HMS Medway, where they will remain until the court-martial … on board the HMS Hero on February 6.” Several junior officers were found culpable, and not the captain; then the proceedings dragged on for months, and ended in Plymouth.

On March 19, 1862 the hired transport Cleopatra arrived in Plymouth with “Captain Sotheby, 30 officers, and 590 men … the remaining 20 officers and 240 men” arrived thereafter on HMS Diadem. Captain Hutton presided over a court martial inquiry for eight days. On the March 15 Sotheby, Lieutenants St Clair and Tomkins, and Midshipman Hay “were acquitted; Lieut Gammell, officer of the watch, was admonished; and Mr Thain, master, was reprimanded. The loss was attributed to insufficient allowance for leeway, and to a westerly current.” Contributing factors included “no efficient night-glass on deck, and a want of promptness in putting the ship about [turning] on the appearance of land.”

HMS Conqueror was paid off, meaning its books were closed, on March 21, 1862. By April 21, 1862 HMS Termagant had “on board, for distribution among the Pacific Squadron, 135 volunteers, chiefly from HMS Conqueror”.

The paddlewheel HMS Devastation then took them to HMS Bacchante, further into the Pacific. Then on April 29, 1862, an Admiralty memo “revised the sentence of the court-martial, and blamed Sotheby “for the loss”, finding that there was no excuse to have lost the ship “in fine weather, under no unusual circumstance … through a channel in which the currents are known to set … with varying strength, has been totally lost … though no reason [to] have continued all night on a course which the master acknowledged might carry her within six or seven miles of an island surrounded by dangerous coral reefs.” Following the case, Sotheby was denied further commands except for a coastguard division on land, in 1863. He retired as an admiral in 1870, and lived to age 88 in 1901, and was chairman of the Blind Institute.

Today, HMS Conqueror’s wooden hull is gone, however its metal remnants are scattered over a small area in about 30 feet of water, and is now an underwater museum belonging to the government of the Bahamas.


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