BombayOneida Collision

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Jim Kalafus

Dec 3, 2000
"There is one point only we desire to notice. The Bombay arrived at her anchorage, but made no report, though surrounded by men-of-war of all nations. Nopt only was she not willing to render assistance herself, but unwilling that any other vessel should do so, either. Yet, it cannot be urged in extenuation that she was wholly unaware of the injury she had inflicted, for the Oneida passed on with her whole stern cut out, and the light from the inside flaring over the sea...."

(Anglo-American Times, London, May 21, 1870.)

Perhaps the best, and most balanced article, about the then-notorious collision between the P&O liner Bombay, and the corvette USS Oneida, nine miles outside of Yokohama, on January 23, 1870. Written in England, for an English and American readership, it HAD to be less shrill than papers catering to one exclusive audience.

About a week ago, when I was pondering exactly why the general public was so willing to accept that Captain Lord may very well have KNOWINGLY stood by and did nothing (which I dont believe, btw), and I was listing, off the top of my head, occasiuons on which other captains behaved dishonorably, and knowingly left people behind, I intentionally omitted this disaster. It was too complex a story to reel off the top of my head, so I spent a week compiling data, and contacting archives for more data, since the longer you read up on this, the weirder it gets.

The corvette USS Oneida had been caught in a typhoon, and lost most of her boats. Captain Williams requested replacements, and his request was denied.

The liner Bombay, of P&O, was entering Yokohama under the command of Captain Eyre as the Oneida was departing. From the summaries of the US and British hearings, it is clear that the collision was an Andrea Doria/Stockholm sort of thing. Both ships saw each other. Both ships, according to crew from either, did all the correct things to avoid a collision. Yet, somehow, the Bombay tore the stern off of the Oneida, and crashed along her starboard side.

According to the US hearing, the Bombay was at fault.

According to the UK hearing, the Oneida was at fault.

The Oneida's lost lifeboats were sorely missed. Most of the remaining boats were destroyed by the collision. 56 escaped in them, while 120 were lost when the ship sank 20 minutes later.

The crew aboard the Oneida had tried calling up to the men aboard the Bombay, by voice and officers' whistle, while the ships were beside one another. As the Bombay steamed off, the Oneida's whistle was tied down, and her gun fired at least four times. The sound of the cannon was heard nine miles away in Yokohama, yet the officers of the Bombay were unanimous in saying that they never heard any voices, officers' whistles, ship's whistle or four cannon shots. Nor did they see any lights from the vessel they had rammed.

A steward, however, testified that he saw the American ship seemingly torn in half at the stern, and men being carried out on to her deck.

Eyre did not mention a collision upon arriving in Yokohama. For that matter, those in Yokohama who heard the cannon fire from out at sea did not ASK, either.

According to a Lieutenant Clemens, of the British ship Ocean, Eyre commented to him that "he had cut the whole bloody quarter off a damned Yankee frigate and served her bloody well right."

From my reading, it seems that no Bombay passengers were called to testify as to whether or not they saw or heard anything.

The 56 survivors came ashore the following morning. By then, those who drifted at sea had all died of drowning or exposure.

Eyre seemingly contradicted himself on a number of occasions. He was aware only of a slight jar. He ws awawre of the collision, having witnessed it. He thought that the Oneida's upper works had been carried away. He thought the damage was slight. He thought there was no damage.

Neither the US or UK Inquiries believed him. The UK was considerably less shrill, but suspended his license for six months; not for the collision, for which he was blameless, according to THEIR findings, but for sailing away and for not reporting the collision.

The UK hearings were covered extensively by the English Shanghai newspaper, which is online. The American far east paper is also online, and covers the Naval hearing. From the published transcripts, it is like you are reading about two separate disasters.

The US papers went for Eyre's jugular, and so too did those in the UK although with not quite the same level of ferocity. And, the indignation and repulsion did not quickly died down. Articles urging criminal investigation, in BOTH countries, appeared in to the summer of 1870. NO ONE was pleased with the six month suspension.

Eyre, however, thought it was too harsh. He pled his case before the Board of Trade. After examining the evidence, in May 1870, "Instead of being too severe, the Board thinks that six month's suspension is more lenient than the gravity of the offense required."

I am now digging to find how this was all resolved. And to get as many first person accounts as possible.

Reading up on things like this is necessary to understand the mindset of John Q Public, 1912. They were raised in an environment where personal honor was stressed to an almost unbelievable extent, yet also lived in a world in which people who were supposed to behave honorably DIDNT, with dismaying regularity.

In the weeks to come, I'll transcribe as much of this material as I can.
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