“I caution all masters of vessels to give a good berth to the Loo Choo Islands, as several coral reefs are now known to exist, and I suspect many more whose places are not noted in any charts.” So wrote Captain William J.S. Clark (some sources say “Clarke”), master of the Elizabeth and Henry, from Shanghai on 20 March 1849.
Captain Clark sent his letter to several newspapers in Australia and New Zealand to report the loss of his vessel on a reef off Kumejima island on 9 February 1849. The islands known today as the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa were, from 1429 to 1879, known as the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, but often referred to by Westerners with the Chinese pronunciation of “Loo Choo”.
Captain Clark, a native of Dublin, had been master of the Elizabeth and Henry, a barque displacing 534 tons, since she was launched from the shipyards of Sunderland, England in 1845.
Between February 1845 and June 1848, Clark captained the Elizabeth and Henry on three four-month voyages from England to Australia as a convict transport. Each time, after delivering the human cargo to Tasmania, Captain Clark took on passengers and freight, carrying them from Tasmania to Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand before returning to England with other passengers and cargo. On his first return, in mid-1845, he went via Calcutta and on the second voyage, in 1847, appears to have sailed directly from Sydney to London.
In early 1849, the Elizabeth and Henry was making her third return to London, carrying cargo from Sydney and Newcastle, via Auckland, to Shanghai on the way. According to Captain Clark’s letter, his vessel came in sight of the “Loo Choo Islands” on 9 February 1849 and he set course to pass between “Amikarima and Koomisang (present day Kerama and Kumejima islands). I’ll let him tell the rest:
.. the sea very smooth; we had studding sails set fore and abaft, and so little thought had I of meeting with any dangers in these seas, that throughout the day we had been painting ship inside, and towards dark I had completed a running sketch of all the islands as we passed. About ¾ of an hour after dark, I was sitting at the table talking with Mr Hooper, Mr Manning being upon deck, I heard the look-out man cry on the fore-castle, “broken water right a-head!” Mr Manning unfortunately ordered the helm to be put up, and before I could get out to countermand it, the ship was before the wind, and in a few minutes struck on one of the outward patches of the reef, forced herself over it, struck again on several other patches, until she finally lay with her broad-side to the main reef ; this was about half an hour after high water, with a falling tide.
Having struck the reef at nearly high tide, there was little chance that the Elizabeth and Henry could be floated off, even by waiting for the tide to return. In fact, according to Captain Clark: “the next tide bilged her, and she filled nearly up to the hold beams.” Captain Clark had lost his ship.
What Captain Clark did not know as he attempted to sail through Okinawa’s islands on his way to Shanghai, was that there is a line of coral reef extending eastward from Kumejima toward Kerama. This reef has also produced seven kilometers of sand bars known locally as Hate-no-hama (rough translation: “the end of the earth”). It is, today, one of Kumejima’s top sightseeing/leisure spots, but as uncharted water in the nineteenth century, would have been nearly impossible to sail through unscathed.
Captain Clark relates that the “inhabitants” of the island soon noticed the ship in distress and came out in boats to assess the situation. They brought with them a couple of Chinese traders (Clark calls them”mandarins”) who could speak a little English. In the coming days, the locals of Kumejima fed and sheltered the stranded sailors while Captain Clark hitched a ride to Naha, about 100 kilometers to the east, on an American whaler, trying to find a ship that could help him get his crew and surviving cargo to Shanghai.
There were no foreign vessels in port at Naha that could help, although the officials there tried unsuccessfully to foist an unwanted Hungarian-born Christian missionary, Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (1811-1870), on Clark (Clark had no more use for Bettelheim than the Ryukyuans did). In the absence of immediate assistance, Clark found that nearly all of his cargo (items such as flour, tobacco and rope) was damaged beyond salvaging. He made arrangements for the whaler to carry 15 of his 21 crew to Hong Kong. He then hitched a ride to Shanghai on another whaler, leaving a few men behind with his stricken vessel.
In Shanghai, Captain Clark requested assistance from the British Consul and a British naval vessel, the HMS Mariner, was dispatched to help with a salvage operation. Captain Clark relates: “We stripped her both of rigging and masts, part of the copper, stores, &c., and landed all safe at Shanghai, where it has been put up to sale, and fetched three thousand dollars.”
It is a long-established principle of maritime salvage, that when ships at sea go to the aid of other vessels in distress, they are entitled to receive a share of the value recovered. I’m still trying to determine the quantum of the reward such a salvor was entitled to in those days, but Captain Clark reported–in a very miffed tone–that Captain Matheson of the Mariner claimed 2/3 of the value recovered. Clark strongly implied that this was an unacceptably high percentage, and went on to express his displeasure that Captain Matheson also embargoed Captain Clark’s personal property/cargo in order to claim a portion of that as well. Clark suggested that sea captains are expected to respect each other’s personal property and refers to Captain Matheson’s claim as “cupidity”. He goes on to note that the Americans who were the first to provide assistance “would not claim or take any thing from me, saying ‘it was quite enough for you, Captain, to lose your ship’.”
After disposing of the salvage from the Elizabeth and Henry, Captain Clark returned to London on another barque, the Duilius (itself shipwrecked in 1853). Someday perhaps I’ll be able to learn more about him.
In the meantime, it seems the wreck of the Elizabeth and Henry has disappeared just as Captain Clark did. Being a wooden vessel which had been stripped of everything salvageable, no doubt her remaining broken timbers eventually washed away. It is said that some of her ballast stones can still be seen on Hate-no-hama. Alas, during my recent visit, I was unable to see anything that I could be certain was former ballast, in spite of a diligent search.
Hate-no-hama is, nonetheless, a fun and interesting spot to visit. The usual way to visit is to get a sightseeing boat to drop you on the central sand bar to spend some time enjoying the sand, sun and sea. Often the boats are “glass-bottomed”, allowing visitors to see the coral, tropical fish and sea turtles of these crystaline waters as well.
The boats depart from and return to Fisharena Marina and advance booking is required. Some tours can arrange hotel pickup as well.
Special thanks to the kind staff of the Kumejima Museum and also to my companions on my recent venture: Sarah Nishina, Michelle Nemoto, Kit Nagamura, Danelle Sofuku and Estelle Pizer.
© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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