The greatest disaster of the Euphrates Expedition was when one of the two steamboats, Tigris, sank during a storm on 21 May 1836, killing 20 crewmembers. Fitzjames was on the Euphrates which was spared thanks to the quick response of the crew and also a good dose of luck.
Some Tigris crewmembers were lucky, too. Alexander Hector, William Elliot and some others were not on board that day, for they were preceding the steamers on a flatboat and themselves only experienced a moderate gale.
Chesney was on the Tigris that day. He was supposed to divide his time between the two steamers, but researcher John Guest uncovered an incident that made Chesney move to Tigris permanently, and shines a light on Chesney’s relationship with his Second in Command Henry Blosse Lynch:
“The published accounts of the Euphrates expedition gloss over a strange incident at the Beles anchorage that vexed Chesney for a fortnight and reveals some of the tension that had been built up by months of frustration and delay. In a letter to Cabell dated 2 May, Chesney alluded to some disciplinary problems on the Tigris, now resolved, that had prolonged his stay at Beles. In a subsequent letter to Hobhouse, Chesney stated the facts as follows:
The dispute arose about reading aloud after dinner, between Lt. R. Lynch of the Indian army and Dr. Staunton and Mr. Cockburn; Lt. [Henry] Lynch ultimately took the part of his brother, although only a passenger; and he placed the other two gentlemen in arrest, in which state they remained 18 days until I released them on the grounds that the proceeding was illegal, because charges were sent of which they did not receive the copies enjoined by the Articles of War.
This step of mine was followed by a severe order; calling for mutual apologies beginning with Mr. [Robert] Lynch, and making known my determination to suspend all from duty, and leave them at Aleppo pending the orders of Govt. The concessions were immediately agreed to by all the parties except Lt. [Henry] Lynch, who expected that I would have supported him unhesitatingly; it required therefore more time to make him see reason; and preparations were already made to supersede him, when he made the desired concession, and, as all promised it should be a real and cordial reconciliation, I promised to bury the matter in oblivion.
Concerned that Lynch might be too much under his elder brother’s influence, Chesney decided to move his quarters permanently to the Tigris instead of keeping his papers and belongings on the Euphrates and spending part of his time on each vessel.”
The survivors of the wreck were puzzled as to how the casualty rate among such able men could have been so high.
In William Ainsworth’s words:
“The ‘Tigris’ remained for a moment with the keel at her stern uppermost ; but having gone down bow foremost, she struck the bottom in that position, and turned round as upon a pivot, for she was afterwards found lying in the bed of the river completely upset.
It was probably in part owing to this circumstance, added to the crowding of the men at the stern, that so heavy a fatality accompanied the loss of the vessel, for it went down close to the bank, while the wind was driving everything in the same direction ; and with one exception, most of the men were good swimmers. Even the survivors themselves were totally unable to account satisfactorily for the loss of twenty of our devoted men out of the thirty-four on board. Being for the most part huddled together, many in the darkness may have grasped each other, so as to have prevented the free use of their limbs ; it is possible that some took a wrong direction, and swam out into the middle of the river, and it is probable also that others were involved in the whirlpool occasioned by the sudden sinking of the vessel, and its turning a somersault.”
Besides the tragedy of the loss of human life, the Expedition had also lost all of their money and luggage. “Everything not in immediate use, and all the stores were on board her [Tigris].”, according to Doctor Helfer.
(Ainsworth’s and Helfer’s full and detailed accounts can be read in their respective publications)
A selection of eyewitness accounts:
Chesney’s account as written to Sir John Hobhouse (President of the Board of Control) and Bucknall Estcourt’s account as written to Chesney can be read in the Supplement of the London Gazette of 29 July 1836
In a letter to one of his sisters, Chesney added other details and also expressed his fervent wish to see the Euphrates river be used as a route to India:
Euphrates steamer, Anna, May 25th, 1886.
We were steaming down this river with every success that could be desired when it pleased God to sweep away the Tigris in the short space of about eight minutes, with twenty valuable lives.
We saw the threatening storm at a moment when the bosom of this great river was all peace, and Lynch proposed we should make fast to the bank ; a signal was therefore made to the Euphrates to do the same. But the march of heaven’s artillery was so rapid that our vessel was caught by the hurricane and refused to answer the helm by coming round. We chose another part of the bank lower down, or rather the wind partly did so for us, and all was ready to make fast, when she came against it with some violence, so as to rebound a little, leaving two men ashore. A lurch in the wind at this instant drove her further from the bank, and the engines were almost stopped by the heel of the vessel. Two anchors were let go, hoping still to get her head to wind and save us all ; but these failed, and the waves, which were estimated at ten or twelve feet, not only drove the Tigris almost on her side the larboard but sent in so much water at the windows that she began to sink.
Her bow first got a little under, and the water gradually increased on deck, but slowly at first ; indeed, most of us had been below to see if we could stop up the windows, but all was in vain.
I think two minutes had not elapsed from the entrance of the first portion of water until Lieutenant Lynch came to report that she was sinking. The word was then given for all to save themselves ; but seeing for an instant the bank, and that she was approaching it, we encouraged the men to remain and be steady. Most of them had crowded aft, where she was still dry ; but all at once she went down, even before those who purposed it could jump overboard. Lynch and myself were rather before the crowd, and were carried down a little way ; he dived out through the starboard ridge ropes, and I through the larboard, striking away for the shore without seeing it, and scarcely knowing the direction, though but five yards or so distant. On reaching the bank and turning round I found many landed and landing, and had hoped that all might have been equally fortunate ; but God had ordered it otherwise ; and to give you a faint idea of this storm (which in its violence may have lasted eight minutes), the fragments of the great beams and pieces of the deck, side, &c. were on shore almost as soon as anyone, so speedily was this promising vessel destroyed.
Neither vessel could see the other, at the short distance of four hundred yards, but on looking round I found the Euphrates safe. She had answered her helm, and the skilful seamen, Lieut. Cleaveland and Mr. Charlewood, got two anchors fast in the bank, and these, with the assistance of the engine working at full power, enabled the vessel to maintain her position until the storm was over, and with God’s blessing she is yet destined to accomplish all that was in progress. I believe the Tigris is too deep to allow me to hope she can be raised, but I propose leaving some to try, whilst we descend and come up with the mail, and let me hope that your prayers and those of others will follow us. This river is in all respects so favourable that it must be navigated, unless it be God’s will that it shall take place later ; and I argue favourably from the blessing on the Euphrates, which did not suffer in the least. They thought us all gone, having seen the Tigris keel up after her first descent ; but the first person they saw coming was myself, leading Eden, for my strength did not fail for an instant. This is the second time that I have been carried towards the bottom of the Euphrates, but God spared me each time, and let His will be done in the sequel.
– as published in The life of the late General F.R. Chesney, 1885
The Liverpool Albion of 1 August 1836 published Chesney’s account from the London Gazette, but added a different letter from Bucknall Estcourt and an excerpt from a very personal and heartbreaking letter from Henry Blosse Lynch.
James Bucknall Estcourt had apparently sent a letter to someone on Malta, dated a few days after his letter to Chesney, and this letter was published in The Albion and other newspapers.
“Malta, 9 July, two o’clock, P.M. – I have received the following letter, which is of the most painful interest, by way of Alexandria – ”
Annan, (on the Euphrates,) May 29, 1836
The lamentable event which has befallen the Euphrates expedition, in the midst of its prosperity, renders it desirable that the truth should be as widely spread as possible, that, melancholy as the facts are, yet reports should not increase their sadness.
The expedition, with the two vessels, the Euphrates and Tigris, was descending the river most prosperously. Fuel had become, from Beles, most abundant, consisting of wood, bituminous coal, and charcoal. The state of the river was so favourable that the Tigris, being the smallest vessel, was in the habit of leading, and, having a native pilot on board, there was no difficulty in finding the deep channel. The Arabs were very friendly ; they engaged to provide depots of fuel, and entreated our protection.
On Saturday, the 21st inst., we had brought up at mid-day to a bank, for fuel, and after the people had dined we cast off, meaning to steam to Annan, then distant about 80 miles. Scarcely, however, had we commenced our voyage, when a cloud of dust was seen to rise high in the air, on the right bank, threatening a squall of no ordinary violence. Preparation was immediately made to meet it, by furling the awnings, &c. Having passed over a reef of rocks, at this season far under water, the signal was made from the Tigris, leading as usual, and having Colonel Chesney on board, to choose a berth, and make fast. Scarcely had we answered when the squall began.
The Tigris was rounding to make fast, the Euphrates following. As we neared te left bank, I saw that the Tigris had failed to bring up – her head was falling outwards. The Euphrates was now obliged to back her paddles to give room, an operation full of danger, lest she should be unable to gather away upon herself again, against the current and the violence of the gale. However, her power is great, and, again working the engines with all force, she came to the bank with some violence ; but by the skilful management of Lieutenant Cleaveland , and the activity of Mr. Charlewood, and a most willing crew, a hawser and small anchor were got on shore : then a chain cable and large anchor ; then a second chain cable and another anchor. All the time the paddles were kept working with their utmost power. Still, however, such was the violence of the hurricane that the vessel drove, but fortunately it did not last above fifteen minutes, at the end of which time our danger was over, and the vessel was safe.
But what had become of our consort? I had seen her cross our bows, driving down the stream, and unable to bring her head to the gale. The thick dust which then succeeded excluded her from my sight ; from that moment I have never seen her since. In the midst of the hurricane, Mr. Fitzjames reported to me that he had seen her upset to leeward about three quarters of a mile, and instantly after she went down.
A party was sent off alongshore to render what assistance they could, and another went by boat. Some of the officers, namely, Colonel Chesney, Lieutenant Lynch, Mr. Eden, Dr. Staunton, Mr. Staunton and Mr. Thompson , came walking towards us, much exhausted.
They had swam and dived ashore. Some seaman and natives also followed them ; but fifteen Europeans, of whom three were officers, namely, Lieutenant Cockburn, Royal Artillery ; Mr. Lynch, a passenger, and brother to Lieutenant Lynch ; and Mr. Sarded, an interpreter, were lost, besides five more.
The hull of the vessel has never been found, notwithstanding all our efforts. She filled, and turned bottom up. All sounding has been in vain. Some bodies have floated even so low as this place, and have been buried.
We have since continued our voyage thus far with our former success. The officers of the Tigris saved will return to England ; but the expedition continues its course with the fairest prospects.
I am, &c., &c.,
J.B. Bucknall Estcourt
Captain 43d Light Infantry.
I may add that, besides the loss of life, it is much feared that Colonel Chesney’s valuable papers were in the Tigris
Henry Blosse Lynch
Euphrates Steamer, off town of Annan, in the river Euphrates, May 27, 1836
Poor Robert is no more! He went down by my side, on the 21st of this month, in a dreadful storm that drove my vessel to the bottom in a few minutes, as we were running along, proud in leading the way, over the unknown stream, and confident in our vessel and the band around us.
All was blighted in a few minutes ; and even yet, I can only look back with stuper to the dreadful event. Little did we think death was hovering so near.
I saw the storm coming, and prepared for it, but preparations were not of any avail ; it dashed us before it, amidst a cloud of sand, dark as midnight ; and cleft to fragments by the racking lightning and echoing thunder that appeared to crash all around us, man’s puny hand was powerless, the blast was irresistible, and the darkness passed away to leave a sinking wreck.
We sunk together, thrice was I dragged down by some sinking sailor, and when I rose unencumbered from the last deadly struggle, nearly exhausted, I looked around in vain for Robert. A few minutes dashed me, clinging to the passing fragments, to the bank, where I climbed, not to find him ; oh! We had parted for ever, he was never seen more. I cannot go on.
Suffice it to say, though I have lost all, the storm could not leave any stain on our name. The committee of officers appointed as usual in such circumstances give me, with eagerness, in their report to his Majesty’s Government, full credit for judgment to meet and intrepidity to face danger, and avert it as became an officer ; and those who remain to mourn for their lost comrades are as eager to sooth my loss, by testifying their belief, that they were led through the danger by an officer whom the appearance of death did not divert his efforts to save them.
Twenty of my fine crew went down with Robert ; few, comparatively, were saved, not a third of the whole crew, which was above thirty-five in all ; and when I dashed to the shore, I had hardly breath to return thanks for my safety to the Power by whose hand alone I could have been saved. Adieu.”
The Morning Advertiser of Friday 29 July 1836 does not print Blosse Lynch’s letter, but summarizes it as follows:
“The following particulars relative to the loss of the Tigris are from a letter sent by its commander, who was saved from drowning, although 20 of the crew and a passenger, Lieut. Lynch (brother of the commander) perished. The Tigris on the 21st of May was near Nuha, in the Euphrates, when a violent tempest came on, and the atmosphere was clouded almost to darkness. The few efforts time would allow to put the vessel in condition to weather the gale were unavailing, and the steamer in a few minutes foundered. The Commander and Lieut. Lynch (relatives) went down together, but in their struggles for life, while in the water, the Commander states, in his letter to his friends received yesterday, he shook the Lieut. off and was saved. He adds, that on recovering himself, he found that twenty of his brave crew had perished. A committee of officers had, as usual, sat to investigate the matter, and they had reported in favour of the skill, intrepidity, and judgment of the Commander under the trying circumstances in which he had been placed. The letter conveying these details is dated on board the Euphrates, another of the vessels employed in the expedition.”
Andrew Staunton, the assistant surgeon on Tigris, gave his account for the 1885 Chesney biography:
I was seated about 1 o’clock in the fore-cabin of the vessel, in company with Lieutenant Cockburn, R.A., who was engaged in laying down maps –
The day had been sultry and the atmosphere then felt as if loaded with sulphur, the sky also assumed a turbid and bloody appearance, when the vessel suddenly began to roll, and a swelling sea washed in at the windows of the cabin, whence, unfortunately, the frames had been previously removed for the benefit of air. We endeavoured in vain to replace them, but the water overcame every resistance and began rapidly to fill the cabin. Lieutenant Cockburn and myself now proceeded on deck for assistance, where an appalling sight presented itself, the rolling clouds of sand obscuring for a moment every object, then a vivid flash lighting up for an instant the anxious yet resolute countenances of the crew.
No voice was heard above the storm but the hoarse directions given to the tiller-man, all else was silent save the boiling of the surge. I had not been many moments on deck when my companion and all objects were lost in dense sand-clouds and spray. My only recollection of the subsequent events consists in my being balanced on the awning ropes, with a native holding my feet and screaming piteously. I instinctively endeavoured to swim through the surge. I knew not whither I was borne till in a few moments I found myself in a field of Indian corn, which was washed flat by the waves that still pursued. A light at this time broke through the sandy darkness, and showed me the keel of the vessel as she foundered directly opposite to the spot where I stood. Thus was the object of all our toil, our zeal and hopes, taken from us in a space of time so short that the mind can hardly run through the succession of disasters.
Fitzjames’ and Charlewood’s accounts of the disaster are included in Chesney’s 1868 book:
“To secure the steamers against what promised to be an ordinary strong gale, immediately occupied all our attention, at the very moment that we were arriving at the rocky passage of Is-Geria. Indeed, we were already so close to it that there was not sufficient space to round to and bring up ; consequently, it became most prudent to steam onwards, the result of which I now give in the words of Mr. Fitzjames : —
A squall was observed on the right hand, which it was thought would not reach us ; but just as we were going through the rocky passage of Is-Geria (which, however, we did not see, as there were three feet of water over the rocks), the squall was observed coming in our direction from the WSW. with great rapidity, and looking like a large cloud of black mud. As soon as the rocks were passed, the “Tigris” made signal to pick up our berth, and she rounded by us to the left bank.
As our broadside came to the stream, we were taken with the violence of the hurricane, which made us heel considerably ; but being too near the “Tigris,” it became necessary to back our paddles, to avoid a fatal collision. It was blowing tremendously, and the air so thick with sand that we could scarcely see. On our bow touching the bank, Charlewood and a number of the crew jumped on shore, and by the greatest exertions got an anchor out, which, with the full power of steam, held her till two chain-cables were got out, and secured by means of jumpers driven into the ground ; but with all this she dragged, and would have gone down at her anchor had the storm continued—for the waves were then four feet above the bank of the river. When at its height, we saw the poor “Tigris” fall off from the shore, and drift past us at a fearful rate, broadside to the wind, and heeling over considerably. She soon disappeared in the cloud of sand, but on looking astern, soon after, I saw her in a sinking state, with her bow already under water—in fact going down, and it is believed that, on reaching the bottom, she turned keel upwards.
Such is the account written, on the instant, by the lamented Mr. Fitzjames. The following is that given also at the time by Mr. Charlewood, who says :
At two p.m.-, the men having dined, all was ready for proceeding down the river, and little did we imagine, when shoving off from the bank, how few of our party would ever tread the ground again. Having steamed downward for about a quarter of an hour, the clouds towards the SW. began to assume an alarming appearance. The wind, which was before from the SE., gradually fell to a light breeze. These ominous symptoms caused us to furl the awnings and put things in order, and the ‘Tigris’ appeared to be doing the same. The clouds by this time were quite terrific. Below the darkest of them, there was a large collection of matter, of a dark crimson colour, which was rolling towards us at an awful rate ; and at the moment we were looking most anxiously for a signal from the ‘Tigris’ to secure to the bank. But we were then passing through the first belt or mass of rocks at Is-Geria laid down in the Colonel’s chart, and she was therefore obliged to postpone the signal—a fatal delay ! But the instant the rocks were passed, the signal was made, and we rounded to, to endeavour to bring the vessel’s bow up the stream, and the ‘Tigris,’ then a little ahead of us, did the same. But, at this very moment, a tremendous gust of wind came on us, and nearly laid us on our broadside, at the same time hurling both against the bank with an awful crash. The water forced the windows open forward, and would have speedily swamped the vessel, if the carpenters had not rushed below to close the openings.
Only one resource now remained—namely, that of securing the vessel, for if she sheered off, all would be lost. For, day being turned into night by clouds of sand, the hurricane, which was carrying the latter, would blow the vessel so far over that she must fill through the windows. But the necessary exertions were forthcoming at this trying moment. With some difficulty a part of the men got ashore, and having succeeded in placing three anchors in the ground, with the chain-cables secured by means of jumpers driven into the earth, and the engines working at full speed, the ‘Euphrates’ was saved by these means, notwithstanding the raging storm. But it is believed by all the survivors, that she must have experienced the fate of her consort, if the height of the raging storm had continued a quarter of an hour longer.
[… here follows Chesney’s own long and detailed account]
During this period of anxious search and enquiry, the weather was marked by repeated storms of thunder and lightning, and on May 24 we had a shower of hailstones, some of which measured 1 1/2 inch in diameter, and weighed 120 grains each. On the 25th, the bodies of Mr. Sader and of the sapper Macdonald were recovered, and were buried by their commander, near Erzi, on the evening of the same day.
All hope of finding any survivors being by this time nearly given up, it became my duty to think of the future ; and I at once assembled a board of officers, consisting of Lieutenant Cleaveland as President, and Messrs. Charlewood and Fitzjames as members, who were instructed to go into all the circumstances attending our late disaster. After a most painstaking examination for five hours, and after going carefully into all the evidence that could be obtained, it was decided that every possible effort to save the ‘Tigris’ had been made, and that the conduct of all on board had been most praiseworthy.”
Charlewood also talks about the loss of the Tigris in his 1869 book, and adds some more details:
The wreck of the “Tigris” steamer, when in a part of the Euphrates river not more than six hundred yards wide, was a truly awful occurrence, and the wonder is, her consort, the ” Euphrates ” steamer, did not meet with the same fate. The storm which caused this disaster did not last more than twenty minutes. It approached us from the right bank of the river, in the form of a dense black cloud, with a brick-red arch underneath, and then a yellow sand colour below that again.
It struck the steamers at once with its full force. Had the “Euphrates” been blown from the bank, nothing could have saved her. About six men, including myself, had just time to leap on shore, drag out the anchor and sink it into the earth, when the hurricane caught her on the bow. We could not stand, but all lay upon the ground, holding on to a rope attached to the anchor.· In this way we were dragged, until the anchor was within five yards from the edge of the bank; had it reached the edge, all would have been over; the steamer would have gone broadside to the wind, and instantly filled from the low cabin windows ; but the wind then ceased as suddenly as it had commenced, and we were saved.
Had this terrible wind continued for any length of time, I can quite imagine it might have blown, at the least, a fordable passage across the river, which at this spot was from five to six fathoms deep; thus forcibly reminding us of the Scriptural account of the “strong East wind” which, after blowing all one night, formed a passage across the Red Sea, through which the Israelites travelled on dry land.
Whilst holding on to the anchor, and for just one moment, I caught a sight of the funnel of the ill-fated “Tigris,” disappearing under water, about a mile below us, and then the dense cloud of drifting sand again closed over the scene. So dense, indeed, was this cloud, that sometimes we could scarcely distinguish our own vessel, only a few yards distant, as we were lying upon the ground endeavouring to prevent the anchor from dragging. Our clothes, faces, &c., had a cake of sand plastered upon them quite the thickness of a wafer. All now being safe with the “Euphrates,” my anxiety became great to afford relief to the poor fellows who might have survived the foundering of the “Tigris.”
Accordingly, Ainsworth started on foot, and I proceeded down the river in a boat, and whilst doing so, noticed a confused knot of persons some three hundred yards inland, evidently a portion of the “Tigris” crew. Upon landing near the spot where this vessel foundered, I was overjoyed at discovering that our noble chief, Colonel Chesney, was amongst this small party of about six persons, who had been literally blown, with the water of the river, at least three hundred yards inland, from the left bank of the river. They were now attempting to walk. Chesney appeared rather stronger than the others, and I believe was trying to help some of them to stand, but he was clearly in a most pitiable plight, and utterly crest-fallen, almost unconscious as to what was going on around him. Still, it was singular to notice how, even when in this state, his mind was evidently occupied in trying to help others rather than himself.
I approached without any recognition, and now a conversation took place, which is worthy of being recorded in the exact words (so far as I can remember them with strict correctness), as it shows the indomitable spirit which this man possesses :-
Charlewood.- Oh Colonel Chesney, I am so delighted to find you saved! Let me help you to the boat.
Chesney (in a very downcast tone).- Is that you, Charlewood ? Well, I am glad indeed to see you saved, too ! I hope you are not hurt?
Charlewood.- Oh, no, sir! I am all right, I am thankful to say.
Chesney.- Are you the only one saved from the “Euphrates?”
Charlewood.- I do not quite understand you ; we are all safe and sound.
Chesney.- What ! do you mean to say that the “Euphrates” has not gone down ?
Charlewood (pointing to the “Euphrates'” funnel, showing over the bank).- Look there, sir! there she is, lying alongside the bank. The effect of this news was like an electric shock upon the Colonel ; he started in amazement, his face brightened, and with a lip quivering with pleasure and excitement, he simply said- “We will get the ‘Tigris’ up again.”
But the “Tigris” was built of iron, and once at the bottom, in six fathoms water, we had not the appliances to lift her again. Ainsworth now joined our party, which I left in his charge, and proceeded down the river, in the hope of picking up some more of the wrecked crew ; but this little band proved to be the sole survivors. Some twenty-two fine fellows were drowned, and a few days afterwards, when at anchor about twenty miles below, several of the bodies came floating down, in a most sickening state ; all greatly swollen, and most of them mutilated by wild beasts as they floated by the river banks : few could be recognised. All we could get hold of were buried by us. I have not described this disaster more fully, as it was minutely detailed in the various despatches sent home at the time, and published in the Supplement to the London “Gazette” of the 29th July, 1836, and also recorded in my Journal.