E. J. Smith, Coptic Aground and Rio---Two out of three ain't bad?

E. J. Smith, Coptic Aground and Rio---Two out of three ain’t bad?

There are several standard White Star history volumes which associate E. J. Smith, commander of Titanic, with the grounding of White Star’s Coptic on Mai Island off Rio de Janeiro in 1890.[1]  Eaton and Haas’s Falling Star and de Kerbrech’s Ships of the White Star Line give the date of this incident as December 1890, while the initial version of Cooper’s E.J.: The Story of Edward John Smith, Captain of the Titanic, put it in the spring of the same year[2]; although differing on the date, all three state that Smith was Coptic’s commander at the time.  Contemporary news reports, particularly from New Zealand, though, demonstrate that Coptic’s grounding at Rio took place on 12 October 1889; that her commander at the time was a Capt. Burton; that Smith took over Coptic after that accident but only for the trip mentioned in the Cooper book, during which nothing unusual was reported to have occurred; and that he was not on Coptic during the December trip mentioned in the Eaton and Haas and de Kerbrech books, which was also uneventful…. in short, that Smith had nothing to do with Coptic’s going aground.[3]

 From The Times (London)

As noted, the Eaton and Haas and de Kerbrech books place this incident in December 1890.  The Atlantic Ocean portion of Coptic’s New Zealand to London voyage which included that month received only routine attention in the shipping columns of The Times with no mention of anything out of the ordinary having occurred (and, as will be discussed later, Smith wasn't Coptic’s commander on this trip in any event).[4]  She arrived at Rio on 6 December and sailed the next day, called at Teneriffe (to use what seems to have been the spelling of the time) on 22 December, arrived at Plymouth on 30 December and then headed to London.[5]

The reporting in The Times of the February/March 1890 trip mentioned in the Cooper book is similar.  Coptic arrived at Rio on 15 March and sailed the next night, called at Teneriffe on 30 March and at Plymouth on 5 April.[6]  Again, none of The Times’ items about this trip suggests anything unusual about the Rio-London segment.

There are, however, several items in The Times in October and November 1889, concerning the voyage before the one mentioned in the Cooper book, which provide some scant details of the problems Coptic encountered in Brazil.  From these articles, it appears that Coptic left Rio on 12 October, but returned to dock with a “hole in [her] forehold.”  She remained at Rio until 30 October and while she was laid up there 16 of her passengers transferred to the New Zealand Shipping Company’s Rimutaka, which arrived at Plymouth on 10 November and reported that Coptic had struck a rock.  Coptic herself called at Teneriffe on 14 November, more than a month after first leaving Rio, and finally arrived at Plymouth on 20 November. Upon her arrival she reported having been delayed at Rio for eighteen days for “repairs in consequence of grounding on a rock.”  This appears to be the extent of what can be drawn from The Times’ reporting of this incident.[7]

 From New Zealand Newspapers

More details come from New Zealand.[8]  Of particular significance for present purposes is a report published in The Evening Post, Wellington, on 19 December 1889 which not only gives some details of the incident based on a letter received in Wellington by the Arawa, but also identifies Coptic’s commander at the time of the grounding as a Captain Burton.  This article is to the effect that Coptic had run aground on Mai Island and that Capt. Burton initially thought the damage was not serious.  He reportedly wanted to proceed but was forced to return to port when his crew “refused to go any further.”  At Rio, a wooden bulkhead reinforced with bricks and cement was put into place before Coptic returned to her course.

Even more details appear in The Poverty Bay Herald, of Gisborne, and The West Coast Times, of Holitika, which on 11 February and 20 February 1890, respectively, published reports of the official inquiry into Coptic’s grounding.[9]  According to these reports, Coptic left Rio at about midnight on the night of 11-12 October and struck Mai Island an hour later, soon after Burton left the bridge for the chart room.  By 10 a.m., when she had 24 feet of water in her fore compartment, Burton decided to return to port, and Coptic was back in Rio the same evening.  The inquest found that the grounding resulted from excess speed and faulty navigation for which Burton alone was responsible and Burton’s certificate was suspended for six months.[10]

That Burton was in fact Coptic’s commander for this trip is confirmed by various items which appeared in the New Zealand press from her 28 August arrival at Dunedin, where she was quarantined because of scarlet fever on board, to her 19 September departure for London.[11]

Smith’s name comes into play only in connection with Coptic’s first New Zealand arrival after the grounding.  On 31 January The Evening Post reported that Coptic had arrived that morning with “Captain Edward J. Smith, from the R.M.S Celtic, Atlantic trade” in command, as “[h]er officers have been entirely changed on this trip, which is the first since she went aground on the Brazilian coast on her homeward voyage.”[12]  In the same vein, The Timaru Herald reported the next morning that all of Coptic’s former officers had been replaced and that “Captain E. J. Smith, R.N.R. (late commander of the R.M.S. Celtic, engaged in the Atlantic trade) has taken Captain Burton’s place.”

Smith’s actual service on Coptic was limited to that one trip.[13]  When Coptic next returned to New Zealand in May, she was under the command of Capt. C. H. Kempson, ”late master of the Arabic.”  Smith, it was reported, had been “transferred to the Atlantic service.”[14]  Kempson was also in command when Coptic sailed from Lyttleton in November to begin the trip which included the December 1890 call at Rio, described earlier.[15]

I have not exhaustively researched the subject, nor have I consulted any sources other than the online newspaper archives I’ve mentioned.  But based on what has been presented here, it seems that the grounding of Coptic at Rio and E. J. Smith had nothing to do with one another.


[1] Most of the news articles cited here refer to Coptic as a Shaw, Savill and Albion ship, rather than a White Star one.  White Star and Shaw, Savill operated a joint service to New Zealand from 1884 until White Star’s demise in 1934, utilizing ships owned by both lines.  This service was managed by Shaw, Savill, operated out of Shaw, Savill’s home port of London and was advertised in The Times and in New Zealand newspapers under the Shaw, Savill name.  The ships used on this joint service were almost invariably referred to in the shipping columns of The Times and other papers of the day as Shaw, Savill ships, regardless of whether the ship involved bore a White Star name or a Shaw, Savill one.

 [2] I have the Cooper book in pdf format as it appeared within a few days after it was released in 2009 and my references to that book relate to that original version.  Based on later email exchanges with Mr. Cooper, I believe that he may have changed the book based on the information presented here, and, at the very least, his web site, at captainedwardjohnsmith.co.uk cites an earlier version of this memo to support the statement that “Smith actually took command of the Coptic shortly after another captain had grounded the ship outside Rio de Janeiro.” 

[3] The only alternative conclusion that comes to mind is that the same ship went aground on the same island on two consecutive trips under two different masters and that the second incident was so minor as to not attract public attention. 

[4] Unlike other newspapers, The Times did not routinely include ships’ masters’ names in its shipping intelligence column.

[5]The Times, 9, 23 and 31 December 1890.  I did not find a report of Coptic’s London arrival for this trip (or the March 1890 trip, for that matter).

 [6]The Times, 18 March and 1 and 7 April 1890.  In both March and December 1890, the Rio-Tenneriffe leg of Coptic’s trip took about two weeks, which seems to have been the standard duration of that leg for other trips by Coptic in the White Star/Shaw. Savill service. 

[7] The Times, 14 and 16 October and 1, 11, 16 and 21 November 1890.

 [8]The National Library of New Zealand has digitized a significant number of old New Zealand newspapers and made them available free of charge (at least for present) and searchable on its web site, paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.  The New Zealand news reports used here are drawn entirely from that site.

 [9]The Poverty Bay Herald article mentions Burton by name but the West Coast Times article, a transcription of which appears on the Encyclopedia Titanica Message Board, does not. There seems to be no mention of this inquest in The Times.

 [10]The court also provided that a mate’s certificate should be issued to the captain if he chose to apply for one.

 [11]E.g., The Star, Lyttelton, New Zealand, 29 August, and 3, 5 and 9 September 1889; The Evening Post, Wellington, 9 and 20 September 1889. 

 [12] A transcription of this article appears on the Encyclopedia Titanica web site, http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/arrival-of-the-rms-coptic-11318.html  That Smith assumed command of Coptic for this trip is consistent with the information contained in Appendix II to the Cooper book and in Eaton’s A Captain’s Career, http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-captain-smith-a-captains-career.html .

[13] According to the Cooper book, Smith retained “nominal command” until December, and the Eaton article on ET shows him as Coptic’s captain until November.  His next actual command seems to have been Adriatic I in early 1891.

 [14]The Evening Post, Wellington, 30 May and 6 June 1890.

 [15] The Evening Post, Wellington, 4 November 1890.

Related Biographies:

Edward John Smith


Mark Baber

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