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The Sinking of the Carnatic

by August J. Mordtmann

translation by Michael Wooff

part 1

Captain Clifford, our captain, had been married to his childhood sweetheart Fanny, whom he loved to distraction, for two years when he set out with her on a long voyage on his then ship, the English barque Carnatic, from Rio de Janeiro to Batavia. It was their joint misfortune to be blown off their true course southward and thus be brought closer to a band of drift ice in the waters around Antarctica.

Soon the Carnatic was surrounded by icebergs and ice fields, rendering its progress ever more dangerous. Instead of working its way out of the ice, it was drawn further in due to the constantly unfavourable wind. After a cold and stormy night, it had fallen among floes of almost immeasurable extent that pressed together and raised the ship out of the water so that, though it did not incur any further damage, it was stranded. Soon, owing to a heavy frost, it was totally frozen to the spot.

For the crew to have remained on board would have had dire consequences. A general ship’s assembly, called by the captain, voted unanimously to abandon the ship and leave it where it was.

Both lifeboats were brought with great effort to open water and each equipped with a compass, drinking water and provisions. Then the first boat cast off. The boat that was to be the first to depart was placed under the command of the helmsman. The captain’s wife was supposed to take her place on this boat as it was bigger and offered more amenities than the other boat, which the captain himself wanted to command.

When the first part of the crew in the first boat had gone, Captain Clifford sent the second part down after them, and hurried, after taking the ship’s log and checking there was no-one left on board, to join them, for, coming up from the south, a weirdly white wall moved towards them, one of those fogs that, in polar regions, often come down and are so extraordinarily thick that you can no longer see anything more than three steps in front of you.

When the captain climbed down from the bow of the Carnatic, it was high time that he did so, for he was already swathed in fog. He was happy as he agilely descended through opaque and impenetrable air, to reach his boat and to there be reunited with the five crew members who, apart from him, made up the quota allocated to it. The other boat was already some distance away, but no-one had seen it depart.

A course was set northwards through the thick fog, always watching for the bigger boat ahead, but never actually seeing it. For one whole day and one whole night, the crews continued relentlessly on their gloomy way. With the grey light of dawn, there arose a strong southwesterly which had the inestimable merit of driving away the fog.

Towards midday, the wind piped down. Soon after, the monolithic grey mass of the sky started to exhibit occasional scraps of blue. As time went on, the blue became more pronounced and, half an hour later, bright sunshine and cerulean good cheer lay over a choppy ocean flecked with spray.

The ice had vanished far and wide and, in its place, another, more uplifting sight was evident. At a distance of perhaps two nautical miles there was a short-rigged brig, the sailors on board of which must have had an unobstructed view, for hardly had this ship hove into sight than it turned about in order to come nearer.

Captain Clifford concluded from this that the brig had already taken on board those who had been on the first boat and had, acting on information supplied by them, kept a lookout for the second of the two boats. This proved to be the case, for the first man who came to meet Clifford, as he clambered up on deck, was his helmsman.

The captain’s blood froze in his veins, however, at the sight of his subordinate, and the face of the helmsman was as pale as death when he asked in a husky voice:

“Where is your wife, captain? Isn’t she with you?”

“My wife? But she was in your boat!”

“As God is my witness... no!” The other sailors crowded round helmsman and captain at a loss for what to say. The lovely Fanny Clifford had been to all of them like a higher being. They had called her the Carnatic’s lucky star.

Through the stammered perfunctory sentences of the helmsman, the shattering truth soon came to light. The captain’s wife, loved by all, had stayed behind on board the ship now locked in the ice, alone, helpless, and condemned to certain death.

The reason for this, as inexplicable as it seemed initially, was, in reality, quite clear and straightforward.

Mrs. Clifford had gone with the crew of the first lifeboat to the edge of the ice. Just as they were about to set off, however, she noticed the fog coming down and it was instantly apparent to her, as the seafaring wife of a sailor, that it was not only possible that the two boats would become separated, but a foregone conclusion. “I’m staying with my husband!” she cried determinedly and jumped back onto the ice. This all seemed so natural to them that no-one thought to hold her back.

The crew for the second boat had not arrived yet. The woman waved goodbye to the helmsman and called out: “I’ll go to meet them! Go!” The boat then shoved off and, after a few seconds, was so steeped in fog that she promptly lost sight of the ice and everything on it.

That was the last that had been seen of her. She must have lost her way in the thick fog and have gone past the captain and his crew at some distance without having noticed them or having been noticed by them.

The unfortunate captain’s state of mind can be all too easily imagined. He was like someone demented and wanted to jump overboard in a frantic effort to get back to the ice by swimming there if necessary. It was only by the use of force that he was stopped.

The captain of the brig was so affected by this awful quirk of fate that he did more than he could possibly have justified to its owners. He deviated from his course and steered due south until he reached drift ice. Here, for two days, he went backwards and forwards, but without success. The Carnatic was nowhere to be seen, and the brig could not, without great danger, venture as far as the pack ice. She had to revert to her previous course empty-handed.

Clifford’s despair gave way to obsessive brooding. Only when approaching Capetown was there a change in this outlook. He came to be quite talkative again. His benighted countenance took on a calm and sensible, one might almost say far-sighted expression. He acquired the appearance of a man who has wrestled his way to the making of a hard and fast decision.

In Capetown, Clifford fitted out a small schooner, with which he intended, on his own initiative, to make an exploratory voyage in Antarctic waters. His wife, he was unshakeably convinced of it, was still alive. The whole of his crew remained loyal to him and went with him. Although they persisted in the teeth of every danger in order to go over water full of floating ice with a fine tooth comb, their voyage was unsuccessful, but they only returned to port when their supply of foodstuffs was completely exhausted.

Clifford tried again; again with no tangible result. Then his money ran out and he was forced, from the point of view of any rational person, to give up this hopeless enterprise.

But when I say: any rational person, I do not include in that category Clifford’s crew. He himself cannot be said to be of sound mind and therefore has a totally valid excuse, but, remarkably, his fixed idea has by now effectively infected that sober and experienced group of men that have so far been his subordinate officers and crew.

Mention should be made in passing that the sailors who now serve on my ship, the Lady Godiva, are still the same ones that were on the Carnatic, and they all share with their captain the incontrovertible belief that they will one day find again both the Carnatic and Mrs Clifford. Because of this they only take service on ships that ply their trade in the southern parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Even the helmsman has stayed, who could, long ago, have been a captain himself, but he does not abandon his old superior officer and shares his madness.

The helmsman told me the whole story, and his firm belief in the captain’s illusions is all the more touching for his being Norwegian and, like many of his compatriots, inclined to mysticism. Ole Johannesen devoted an entire evening to talking about it with me on his watch, and my original scepticism was deeply shaken thereby.

When the Carnatic was abandoned, it was still perfectly watertight and seaworthy. It was therefore possible to reckon, if it came to open water that, despite the lack of any crew on board, the risk of it meeting with an accident was not immediate. It was, admittedly, fast frozen in the ice, and therefore exposed to a variety of dangers, but these were not as bad as might be believed.

The ice field, on the top of which it lay, was quite extensive, so that collision with icebergs was a highly remote possibility. It was much more likely that the ice that was hemming it in would act as a sort of protective wall. As it had not yet been found by the various expeditions launched to find it, it may justifiably be assumed that it had drifted further south along with its drifting ice field to join the belt of pack ice round the pole and to there be immutably trapped.

Recent winters have been unusually severe, and recent summers cold and unfriendly. A milder winter and an earlier summer will melt the pack ice and free the Carnatic. It will then be lowered down into the water and driven northward by the prevailing currents.

There were relatively few objections I could make to Johannesen’s scenarios. There was one consideration, however, which I could not be blind to. I had to ask him.

“According to what you’ve told me, this sad incident took place about three years ago, didn’t it?”

“Three years and five months exactly.”

“How would Mrs Clifford, given that everything has worked out the way you suppose it has, have been able to feed herself over this long period of time?”

I thought I’d hit the nail on the head. Johannesen just laughed: “We had enough provisions on board for our whole crew for a year. We’d consumed a quarter of it at most. A good eater could have lived for ten years on what was left.”

I voiced no further objection. As I have already pointed out, the confidence of these good people had rubbed off on me. I repressed my anxiety that Fanny Clifford might have succumbed to the cold or killed herself in a fit of easily understandable despair. The answer to my doubts would have been: “That might have happened, but it can’t have done.”

The day after tomorrow we will travel far from here. I am gripped by the same senseless and feverish tension as my shipmates. I would not be surprised if, one fine day, the Carnatic turns up in front of us with a white figure waving to us from the side of it!

Captain Clifford’s adventure ended in such high drama that I cannot think of it even now without being deeply disturbed by it. The experience still haunts me in my dreams, and I am bathed in sweat and tremble in every limb whenever I see and hear again what I then had to see and hear.

Proceed to part 2...

German original by August J. Mordtmann (1839-1912)
Translation © 2020 by Michael Wooff

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