Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fire on the "Leading Wind", 1891

Image from Barnstable and Yarmouth, sea captains and ship owners (1913), by Frank William Sprague & Leavitt Sprague.

Fire, flax, scuttling, and a (nearly) international diplomatic incident – this is the story of the Leading Wind in Auckland in 1891.

At around 11.30 on the night of 22 January that year, a fire was first noticed amongst the gum and flax bales in the cargo hold of an American-owned full-rigged 1,128 ton ship, launched 1874 in Maine, named the Leading Wind. At the time, the Leading Wind was still in the process, since earlier that month, of being loaded at the No. 2 Jetty at Queen Street Wharf. Captain Francis M Hinckley from New York, one of the ship’s owners, had retired to his berth half an hour before, but finding he wasn’t sleepy, got up again and, as luck would have it, was just heading back to the cabin when a member of the crew gave the alarm. Smoke was seen “rising up from the fore-hold, oozing through the hatchway.” Customs, Auckland Harbour Board officials and fire brigade members were soon on the scene. The usual crowd of onlookers was evident at the wharf, but a fire in the small hours of early morning meant the numbers weren’t as high as they might have been.

With 3,500 bales of flax and about 700 cases of kauri gum on board, all the firemen could do was remove the fore-hatch and pour as much water down into the hold as possible – so much so that the ship began to list about 25 degrees away from the wharf. Still the fire raged down below, no amount of pumped water able to get to the seat of the flames. After a couple of hours, a hurried consultation between Captain Hinckley, Mr. C. V. Houghton of the NZ Shipping Company (the local agents for the Leading Wind), and the harbourmaster Captain Burgess that the best action to take would be to scuttle the ship. Superintendent Hughes of the fire brigade was alone in the opinion that the ship should be scuttled where she was at the wharf, in 26 feet of water, but Captain Burgess was concerned in case the fire should spread to Harbour Board property at the wharf. The Calliope Dock at Devonport was one suggested site for the scuttling, but time was against that option.

At 5 o’clock in the morning, nearly six hours after the fire was first reported, the Leading Wind was hauled out from the wharf into the stream by the P.S. Victoria, the tug Rotoiti and the S.S. Despatch, past the end of Hobson Street wharf, and out to the entrance of Freeman’s Bay. The P. S. Brittania joined the scene, and there, once the tugs were clear of the ship, the ship’s carpenter and others from shore began to cut holes in the hull. After another couple of hours, “a great hole four feet long by three or four inches wide on the starboard side aft had been cut, and this was the first to admit the water, which began to pour into the hold steadily and in considerable volume. With all speed four other holes were cut, two on her port and two on her starboard side, of considerable size, and the ship began slowly but surely to settle down. Being of wood it took only a comparatively short time to scuttle her.”

By ten o’clock the Leading Wind reached the harbour’s bottom, with most of the fire extinguished – except for part forward of the fore-hatch, which still smouldered through the afternoon, until the high tide finished it off. At five pm, tenders were called for the refloating and salvage work. The Leading Wind was successfully refloated three days later. By the beginning of April, she had been sold to a Captain Savory for £2150, and set sail again two weeks later.

A coronial inquiry into the cause of the fire on board the Leading Wind was supposed to have been held sometime towards the end of January or early February. Inexplicably, the official inquiry didn’t take place until 20 April, after the ship had been raised, repaired, sold, and Captain Hinckley had sorted out all but one of the local interests in the ship and its damaged cargo. Even then, the only verdict was an open one, possibly spontaneous combustion of improperly treated flax, but even that option was ruled out later by government analysts. All bills of lading for the cargo, except one, were by April deposited in New York, awaiting final accounting with regard to insurances.

The one exception was Wood, Shand & Co of Christchurch, who had arranged shipment of 1,298 bales of flax on the Leading Wind in January, valued at £3,100. They demanded not only the proceeds of the sale of their damaged stock, but also a further £1,200 from the general insurance average upon the ship. On 25 April, they applied in the Auckland Supreme Court for a writ of arrest against Captain Hinckley to prevent him from leaving the colony until he had provided security of payment.

In fiery response, the American Consul in Auckland at the time, John D. Connolly, wrote the following letter to the NZ Herald:
“Sir, --

“During my brief stay in Auckland I have endeavoured to the utmost of my ability, to promote the most friendly commercial relations between this colony and the country I have the honour to represent. I have upon all occasions when could honourably and consistently do so, written and spoken in the most favourable terms of New Zealand. I have done this from a sense of duty, believing as I do, that every effort should be made by the people of both hemispheres to encourage those sentiments of friendship and mutual esteem which should ever characterise the actions of those through whose veins courses the blood of a common ancestry.I regret to say that recent events compel me to modify my opinions as to the existence here of those friendly sentiments I have just mentioned …

“I have refrained as far as possible from unnecessarily obtruding in the adjustment of this most unfortunate affair, believing the honour and keen sense of justice of those concerned would aid them in determining the proper and most honourable course for them to pursue. In this I am exceedingly sorry to say I was mistaken; nor is it to the credit of those through whose practice I am forced to this conclusion. In most civilised countries, when such misfortune befalls a vessel belonging to a friendly people, every facility and kindness is afforded the master or owner to get him out of his difficulty as pleasantly and agreeably as possible. In this case, however, it is positively painful to observe the treatment Captain Hinckley has received at the hands of the Auckland Underwriters Association, and I may as well include the New Zealand Shipping Company who, by the way, were acting as agents for the Leading Wind

“Instead of that sympathetic and courteous assistance which an American naturally expects from a British community under such trying circumstances, Captain Hinckley was harrassed, obstructed, and annoyed at every conceivable point, and finally to cap the climax, a summons has been issued from the Supreme Court, praying for his arrest and imprisonment unless he performs certain acts which at this late date are entirely beyond his power … This is friendship with a vengeance! I hope this is not a true Briton’s idea of justice. If it is, I confess it is wholly at variance with the high opinion I have heretofore entertained of his sense of fairplay.”
A day after Connolly wrote his lengthy plea for British fairplay in Auckland, Captain Hinckley was arrested and detained on Saturday 25 April 1891, with Connolly being a vociferous and protesting witness to the whole affair. Captain Hinckley was boarding the mail steamer Alameda at the time, to return to America with his wife.

The Observer described the whole saga as a farce.

“I was a stranger and ye run me in !' Such may be the exclamation of Capt. Hinckley of the ship Leading Wind, as he summarises the treatment he has received in Auckland. He has been violently arrested when about to leave the colony, because a civil claim for damages was laid against him, three months after the fire on board his ship in Auckland Harbour ; and in addition to the bad impression which a stranger thus obtains of Colonial manners and customs, there will in all likelihood be an international difficulty created, which will lead to considerable trouble and expense to all concerned.

“From the time of the fire down to the present moment, all connected with the Leading Wind has been a comedy of errors. The holding of an inquest three months after the fire was in itself a farce, made of the ' screaming ' order by the fact of a medical coroner and a jury of grocers, tailors, &c., inquiring into an occurrence that required all the acumen of nautical experts to unravel. Some of the men connected with the ship lost good situations by being detained to give evidence, and of course the jury could only find that the fire took place by the visitation of God, or something of that sort.

“I really wonder that the intelligent jury did not fall back on the ‘incendiary rat ' theory, which has often proved so useful at inquests on Auckland fires. They got the straight tip, but obstinately refused to smell a rat. Robert Moore, a lumper employed loading the vessel, stated that on the 22nd January, about ten o'clock in the morning, he saw a rat come out from the lower hold. The animal seemed quite stupid, so much so that one of the men picked it up. The hair was all turned the wrong way, and it was quite wet as from sweat apparently. Mr. Moore's evidence ended with the statement that the fire broke out that very night.

“Now, I have no doubt that, had he been cross-examined with a small modicum of acuteness, he would have added that the rat had a prophetic air about it — that it strove to speak, but could only articulate ' Ugg, ugg, ugg,’ or words to that effect, that it then turned pale, gazed vacantly into space, and wrapping itself in the Stars and Stripes gave up the ghost. That rat was a loyal American rat, and it wanted to save Captain Hinckley and his men from all the annoyance that has come upon them through a fire caused by a band of low colonial rats. I am a New Zealander, but in this case my sympathies are with the American citizens who have been so harshly dealt with. “
(2 May 1891)

Eventually, a security was lodged, and Captain and Mrs. Hinckley finally left Auckland on 23 May.

Some interesting link found while gathering info for this post:

Ships on Fire (from Rootsweb)

Barnstable and Yarmouth, sea captains and ship owners (1913), Frank William Sprague & Leavitt Sprague.

Captain Hinckley came from a long line of sea captains from Barnstable, Maine, and surrounding areas. At the time of the Leading Wind saga, he already had at least three decades of experience under his belt as a ship’s master.
“Captain Francis M. Hinckley, of Barnstable, was Master of ships Winged Hunter, Ocean Queen, Leading Wind, Star of Peace, and Arabia. While crossing the Indian Ocean on a voyage to Singapore, in the latter, the cargo of coal with which the ship was loaded, caught fire by spontaneous combustion. He succeeded in safely bringing his ship to Singapore. For this the China Marine Insurance Company presented Captain Hinckley with a gold watch and chain. The inscription on the watch is as follows:

‘Captain Francis M. Hinckley, for his brave and skillful conduct in subduing a fire in the cargo of coals on board ship Arabia, on voyage to Singapore, A.D. 1869.’ …

Captain Hinckley was in command of the ship Star of Peace when she was burned by the [Confederate commerce raider] Florida, March 6 1863.”
(Sprague & Sprague, p. 30)

“Francis Hinckley was told by the owners of the Arabia to use thinner paper when he wrote from New Zealand to save money.”(Images of America: Barnstable Village, West Barnstable, and Sandy Neck, Edward O. Handy Jr., p. 60)
Other sources used included Papers Past, Auckland Star and NZ Herald.

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