Borne upon the ocean’s foam
Far from native land and home.
Midnight curtain, dense with wrath.
Brooding o’er our ventrous path.
Hurled and huddled in the cold, damp darkness of the low wooden “coolie fittings” below the “Sheila’s” main deck, the valuable human cargo of some 600 Indian indentured immigrants were ordered confined, as the careening clipper fought to make it past the notoriously ferocious South African coast.
Already violently seasick from several storms and the incessant “heavy head” waves of the Indian Ocean, many probably feared that the curse of the “kala pani” would also consume them, as three of the passengers died in the dankness from the vaguely termed “stomach ailments” and were tossed overboard at night, their spirits, traditionally believed, doomed to wander without the religious ceremony of a proper Hindu cremation or Muslim burial.
Others fought to keep sane and alive as they clambered and failed to stay in place above the roaring waters and raging winds. Mothers who had just delivered babies would have had it particularly hard during this part of the treacherous crossing, that became known as the “paglaa samundar”/ “pagal samundar” or “mad ocean” hence such children were often named after the Hindi word for “ocean” – “sagaar” or “sea” – “samudr.” It comes from “Sam-udra,” an ancient Sanskrit term that literally translates as the “gathering together of waters” such as a “confluence.” The Sanskrit is the root of similar expressions for the “ocean/sea” ranging from Urdu “samandar,” Bengali “shomudro,” Gujarati “samandar,” Marathi and Nepali “samudra” to the Punjabi “samuṃdar,” and Tamil “samudram.”
“We had quite a spell of baffling winds and weather to the parallel of the south end of Madagascar, with heavy sulky squalls, in which we broke – in three different squalls – main and fore topgallant yards, and flying jibboom, but without losing the sails. After that we had again a week of fine weather, but a very heavy head sea, indicating bad weather off the Cape of Good Hope – something for us to look forward to!” Captain William H. Angel bragged in his book on the maiden voyage.
Coursing along the eastern tip of the continent, the powerful Agulhas current formed by the confluence of the warm Mozambique and East Madagascar streams, is on the western boundary of the Indian Ocean flowing as “a narrow, swift and strong” force. The Agulhas turns back on itself as it meets the cold water Benguela current, an upwelling from the chilly depths of the Atlantic Ocean between the Capes Agulhas and Point, near the euphemistically-named Cape of Good Hope, originally termed the rightfully-feared “Cabo das Tormentas” or “Cape of Storms” in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias.
On October 11, 1877 with the winds mostly west to northwest “against us” the Captain recalled that “although blowing hard, with an enormous sea, we pressed on.” However, “we had a very dirty time that day, and the coolies were ordered off the main deck…I stood on to make the best of it, as all the time I was putting the ship nearer to the Agulhas current.”
“When at 4 p.m. the wind flew into southeast and south, a fair to a leading wind (wind, do I call it!! dub it a gale, and a hard one). Here was a piece of luck, to get round the Cape, and I was not going to neglect the chance, so I put the ‘Sheila’ to it once more for all she was worth.”
He revealed, “It had been blowing a gale from the northwest previously to the shift of wind, with the Agulhas stream sea on, and it is only those who have experienced it can understand what that term can convey; there cannot be anything worse – short, deep, and choppy, the sea seems to come up from the deeper depths in sudden lumps, and flings great masses on board at you in seeming derision.” The wind changed “favouring us; and now it had come, and with it our chance.” With the 260-foot-long-iron ship’s great bows “going into the head seas of the previous gale right under” the crewmen had “a hard job” to set the sails in a different direction.
“And now there followed the wildest time of my life. The ship fairly staggered at times under the press of the sail, going all 17 knots as an average. The only easing she got was with the helm. The ship would seem to squirm as she rose on the top of a sea, and the rudder would give out an ominous vibrating rattle, but she was steering as usual, as easy as a boat” and “nothing gave out.”
Supported by the constant wind and the Agulhas current, “we never budged tack, or sheet, all that night; if we had attempted it, we should have lost them sail by sail – they would have been blown to tatters in the process, before they could have been secured, and it would have been the same had I attempted to make more sail.”
The skipper declared: “That night, the ‘Sheila’ scudded before it like a veritable thing of life. It was only a matter of whether we could hold her to it. We took not much water on deck, after the sea became true to the wind,” and “the sprays and spoondrift covered everything; there was no rain, but up aloft our top-gallant-sails and royals were completely wetted by the drift, notwithstanding they were so high up. At daybreak it was a wild sight we looked out on.”
Rushing past “a large fleet of vessels” as “if they were at anchor,” some detained by more than a month of “persistent head winds and bad weather,” the “Sheila” moved so fast, Angel joked that “they perhaps thought I was the ‘Flying Dutchman.’” This is in reference to the “De Vliegende Hollander” a legendary phantom vessel that can never make port and is said to wander the oceans forever. Said to be a 17th century “man-of-war” of the Dutch East India Company, lost with all souls during a tempest off the Cape of Good Hope, the ship is reported in sightings to be “glowing with ghostly light” and in ocean lore, the apparition means bad luck.
For the first time the westerly wind changed to the southeast, an occurrence for only a quarter of the year and “the reason for taking all advantage of the slant to get around the Cape” for the next leg of the long journey along the south Atlantic to the West Indies. The Captain celebrated that “we had made a run of 394 knots through the water in the 24 hours” and with the added 72 knots of the Agulhas current totaled an equivalent 536 land miles 41 days out from Calcutta.
Writing in his memoir nearly four decades later, he concluded proudly, “I doubt if my last day’s work has ever been exceeded by a sailing ship. I can’t see how it could be, for no ship could be pressed for so long with more sail, without carrying something away. The ship and all her gear was new, and by now well tried; and I saw to it, by careful handling of the beautiful structure I had control of, she should give up to me the most she was capable of doing.”
With the “Sheila” there was “no limit” to “the speed you could get out of her,” except what the “canvas could stand without bursting, and the spars could stand in the matter of strain.” Conscious of his employer’s Sandbach and Tinne’s directive to deliver the “human cargo” quickly and intact as possible to the British-owned sugar plantations for maximum profits, Angel acknowledged the sailing was “dangerous” but “nerve and judgment comes in” on “how far to go with safety.”
Angel goes down “occasionally from the poop to study the weather glass, and reassure my wife.” She informs him “that she spent an anxious time in her cabin with poor Mora (her pet dog) and her cat for company; she had never a wink of sleep, and said she felt at times as if the ship was being shot along.” But he never bothers with the 626 “poor wretches” in his care except in reference to the ship’s senior medical officer, Dr. Chapman dispatched from London to first check the Indians at the Garden Reach immigration depot and accompany them to their destination.
ID thinks of Dr. Chapman’s response to “What he thought of the ‘Sheila’ now?” Angel said, “All I got out of him by way of answer was: ‘Hobbery, bobbery old craft; she is not like the old ‘Jorawhar,’” his previous ship for several “coolie” voyages. “Well, doctor,” the Captain answered, “you can now boast that you never before travelled at sea so fast in your life.”