Recently, I came across my photos of the famed Star of India, the world's oldest seafaring ship. She is considered the crown jewel of the Maritime Museum in San Diego, CA. Inspired once more by this beautiful ship with her intriguing history, I’d like to share a few of her stories—historical and haunted—in the next few posts. These were researched and written while toying with a book idea.
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. … John Masefield “Sea Fever”
Step aboard the Star of India and you step back to a time when tall ships roamed the seas, the world still held secrets, and faraway places beckoned with the promise of wealth, adventure, or a new beginning.
Tall ships, the most majestic of sea-faring vessels, ruled the seas for hundreds of years. These grand, traditional ships boasted three or more masts to which vast, white-canvas driving sails were laced to yards positioned square to each mast. A fully square-rigged ship could fly before the wind, and these swift ships, in their heyday, were the key to international commerce. Nevertheless their powerful fusion of wind, billowing canvas, and human muscle were no match for the steam engine. The reign of the tall ships declined in the late 1800s and came to an end after World War One.
It’s not difficult to believe that grand old ships like the Star of India are haunted—some perhaps more than others. And why not? Many set sail for distant shores with crews and passengers packed aboard, living elbow to elbow for weeks or months at a time—a microcosm of life in a pressure cooker of confinement. The voyagers would bring aboard all their expectations, dreams, fears, and sorrows. Add to the mix the inescapable tensions of the journey: unpredictable seas, foul weather, hunger, illness, uncertainty, and sometimes death. In such an environment, emotions are distilled down to their most raw, elemental form. Voyage after voyage, these powerful passions would be evoked and would seep into the very framework and fabric of the ship, from deck to cabins to the gloomy cargo hold—and decades later, people would feel them like a tactile echo and describe the ship as having a profound sense of history.
Then, of course, sometimes the tragic nature of events would leave behind the white, silent people who haunt a ship’s deck, whisper from the shadows, and glide past, felt but unseen, in the darkness of the hold.
A Hard-Luck Beginning
The Star of India actually began her life as a fully square-rigged ship christened Euterpe, after the Greek muse of music. She was built by Gibson, McDonald & Arnold in 1863 on the Isle of Man at the Ramsey shipyard—at that time a yard at the forefront of ship building. The iron-hulled Euterpe was an experiment of sorts; most vessels were still being built of wood. Rigged with royal sails and double topsails, she was launched on November 14, 1863, to be used in the Indian jute trade.
From the outset of her sailing career, bad luck was an invisible passenger aboard Euterpe. In January, 1864, she set sail from Liverpool bound for Calcutta under command of Captain William John Storry. Off the coast of Wales, a collision with a Spanish brig forced her to lay up in Anglesey for repairs. The angry crew turned mutinous and had to be jailed until the ship was back in working order. On her second trip, she was dismantled in a gale off the coast Madras (now known as Chennai) in the Bay of Bengal and barely limped into port. Euterpe’s ill-fortune pursued her on the return voyage from Calcutta to England with the peculiar death of Captain Storry. He was buried at sea
“We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, when the Sea shall give up her dead …”
Over the next few years, Euterpe made four more relatively uneventful voyages to India. Then in 1871, she was purchased by the Shaw Sevill line of London mainly for transporting passengers and freight to New Zealand, with an occasional side trip to Australia, California, or Chile. It’s interesting to note that Shaw Sevill had a partner at this time: the White Star line, whose name is forever linked to the ill-fated ship Titanic, doomed to sink on her maiden voyage in 1912 after collision with an iceberg.
In my next post, I'll tell you the strange tale of stow-away John Campbell, whose ghost is still aboard, it seems.