Thursday, 31 October 2013


"At the outset of the case it was agreed by counsel for the parties that any matters tending to throw light on the circumstances of the ship's loss should be placed before the Court, although, according to the strict rules of evidence, they might not be admissible. The Court approved the adoption of this course, but has had to consider what effect should be given to such "hearsay" evidence. While desirous that the natural anxiety of the public, and particularly of the friends and relatives of those lost in the ship, should, so far as possible, be set at rest by a complete examination of every scrap of information available, the Court had to remember its functions as a legal tribunal upon which it was incumbent to observe the law of evidence. The rule which, in the peculiar circumstances of the case, it laid down for its own guidance was, that, while any findings of fact must be based upon strictly legal evidence, yet it would consider those findings in the light of the more or less irregular evidence allowed to be introduced, and see how far its conclusions were thereby fortified or invalidated. In the absence of direct evidence it is satisfactory to the Court to find that the inferences it has drawn from the legal evidence would not require any modification had the "hearsay" to which it has listened been evidence upon which it could have acted."

The Inquiry was confronted with one insurmountable obstacle in the establishment of culpability regarding the loss of the Waratah: The Waratah had disappeared without a trace. There had been no wireless on board and absolutely no hard evidence as to where she had gone down, and why.

However, despite this significant limitation every attempt was made to hear opinions, both expert and casual observer. Hearsay and impressions dominated the witness stand. As we saw in the previous post, there was a 64% to 36% split re witness opinion in favour of the Waratah's stability and safety. To what degree this split opinion ratio was influenced by:

the 'hysteria' of the moment;
gossip fueling opinion;
'moment of glory under the spotlight' syndrome;
inexperience at sea;
fear of the unknown,
loyalty to the Blue Anchor Line;
defence of the steamship 'club',
fears about job security;
concerns about victim payouts etc;
bribery and corruption

.....we shall never know for certain.

The court at the end of the day had the unenviable task of sifting through the fluctuating witness testimonies and confusing, technical variables relating to the Waratah's metacentre and stability. Judge Dickinson cautiously commented:

"A careful investigation by such a committee, including, as it would necessarily do, examination of stability curves of many vessels in all trades, might show the feasibility of recommending minimum curves for different types of vessel for general adoption. If so, rules for the stowage of cargo for a particular ship could be formulated by the builder for the guidance of the shipowner, with greater precision than is now possible."

"The Court is fully aware of the complexity of the subject, and of the difficulties of making rules sufficiently elastic to meet the requirements of varying types of ships and of diverse trades, and, being so aware, refrains from making any more definite recommendation."

The court had in fact hedged their bets and opted for a path of 'reasonable doubt', acknowledging the 'complexity of the subject' and 'difficulties making rules sufficiently elastic to meet requirements'. It did not come to the conclusion that the Waratah, by design, was a flawed steamer. We also know that expert witnesses at the Port of Durban reported that she left upright and in fine, stable condition, fully loaded and well ballasted. This condition was further corroborated by the senior crew of the Clan MacIntyre. After all was said and done, the Inquiry was left with little choice but to declare the Waratah lost in the severe storm of the 27 / 28 July, 1909.

'An act of God'

But damage was done, and the Blue Anchor Line witnessed a progressive fall in ticket sales eventually resulting in liquidation despite the ratio split in favour of the Waratah's perceived safety emerging from the witness accounts.

My own opinion:

The Waratah was an inherently top heavy vessel whose GM could be manipulated and improved at the expense of being too heavy, with reduced buoyancy. I also believe Waratah sustained latent hull plate and rivet damage which compounded the disaster and caused her to founder fast. I believe Captain Bruce's account that there was indeed a coal fire and Captain Ilbery was forced to return to Durban. I can only imagine that in the chaos and with difficulties mobilising lifeboats Waratah struck the St John Reef and foundered a mere 0.5 nautical miles off shore in 36 m of water.

“Endings to be useful must be inconclusive.”
― Samuel R. Delany


“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles


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