A countless number of sailors and ships, Korean and foreign, have perished in the turbulent sea around Jeju Island. Many of these ships were lost due to human error and lack of accurate charts – especially prior to the 20th century. Others were victims of Mother Nature’s wrath: battered by powerful waves of the sudden and violent storms that frequently plagued the region or driven upon treacherous shoals by freak currents.
By 1910, the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula and its myriad of islands were accurately charted, and lighthouses and other navigational aids had been constructed to help ensure the safety of ships. Despite these many improvements, there were several expensive – as regards both money and human lives – shipwrecks. One of the worst was the H.M.S. Bedford, a British first-class cruiser, which was lost in August 1910.
On Aug. 20, 1910, the H.M.S. Bedford and three other British warships – Minotaur, Monmouth and Kent, departed Shanghai, China bound for a rendezvous near Nagasaki, Japan. The Bedford was to conduct speed trials en route.
On Aug. 21, at 4:20 a.m., the high bluffs of Jeju Island were first sighted off the port side by the Bedford’s officer of the watch, who duly noted it in his logs and found that they corresponded roughly – within three miles – of his dead reckoning. (Dead reckoning is a navigational estimate of present position based on the speed of the ship, course, time, and last known position).
Captain Edward Stafford Fitzherbert, the commander of the ship, was asleep in his quarters but at 4:30 was informed by a messenger that “Quelpart Island [is] on the port beam.” This was expected and the captain thought nothing of it and went back to sleep.
At 4:43, the watch officer made his Pole Star observation and was surprised to note that it indicated the ship was nearly 28 miles off of his dead reckoning. Considering it unreliable, he dismissed the Pole Star observation, but two minutes later, land was again sighted – this time in front of the ship.
The officer, apparently taken aback by the discrepancies between his charts and what he was seeing, issued orders for an alteration of course. A messenger duly reported this course change to Captain Fitzherbert, who, perceiving something was wrong, immediately began to make his way to the bridge when disaster struck.
The warship, traveling at about 19 knots an hour, plowed into the submerged Samarang Rock – located to the southeast of Jeju Island – grinding to a sudden halt. On the bridge, the officer on watch immediately ordered the engines to be stopped. At the base of the ladder leading to the bridge, Fitzherbert issued orders for “collision stations.”
According to one newspaper account, it was fortunate that the night crew, which had just been relieved, had managed to return to their bunks. Otherwise the terrific shock of the ship striking the stones would have caused many severe injuries amongst the men as they were thrown about the ship.
Realizing that the three other ships might follow the Bedford upon the submerged rocks, Fitzherbert issued orders to transmit a warning by searchlight to the other ships. Only one message was sent before the ship lost all power and was plunged into darkness.
A later newspaper account noted that “the crew promptly turned out and were mustered on deck … there was no panic and the officers and men awaited orders as calmly as though an ordinary evolution were about to be performed. The condition of the ship was hastily ascertained by those whose duty it was to do so and then the first order to the ship’s company was given – ‘Lash and stow hammocks – making known to the men that there was no immediate danger, and a period of anxious suspense ended.”
The ship had settled on the bottom of the sea, held in place by the rocks, and was flooded to her engine-room bulwarks. At the time, no one knew just how badly the ship had been damaged or how many lives had been lost. Later, it was discovered that the ship’s bottom had been punctured in a number of places – the largest hole was nearly 30 feet long and 15 feet wide.
Eighteen men, mainly stokers in the boiler room, were lost. Only one man from the boiler room survived – having been carried by the inrushing water to the top of the compartment where he managed to grasp a grating and pulled himself up a hatchway and to safety.
After it became light enough, the crew of the Bedford were removed and placed aboard the other ships. They were then taken to Nagasaki to await passage back to England. A Nagasaki newspaper noted very little information could be gleaned from the wreck because the ship’s officers were maintaining “a discreet silence pending the inevitable court-martial.”
Between 200 and 300 tons of stores and equipment and the main weapons of the Bedford were recovered. But the ship, which was built in 1901 at a cost of £725,000 was sold for scrap for a measly £3,000.
On Nov. 14, 1910, a court-martial was assembled and found Captain Fitzherbert and Lieutenant Albert Edward Dixie guilty of stranding the H.M.S. Bedford through their negligence. Both were severely reprimanded. The wreck’s cause? Failure to take into account strong currents and a clean, barnacle-free hull. Captain Fitzherbert went on to have an illustrious career. He was made commander-in-chief of the strategic Cape of Good Hope Station in May 1918 and was promoted to full admiral upon his retirement in 1925. In 1932 he was made the 13th Baron of Stafford and died at the age of 77 in 1941.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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