Historian Tracy (History/Univ. of New Brunswick; Nelson’s Battles, 2008, etc.) examines the maritime disaster of the Kent.
Employed by the East India Company outbound in March of 1825, the large vessel was fully loaded not only with cargo but also roughly half of a military regiment posted for duty in India—some 700 people, including the ship’s crew, soldiers, their wives and children. Its stores and supplies included vast amounts of beer and potable spirits, the latter highly flammable. Just several days out, the Kent was hit by a violent southwesterly gale in the Bay of Biscay; the ship rolled so badly that sailors had to be lashed on deck. Investigating the possibility of cargo breaking loose below, one mate dropped a lantern where rum or turpentine had spilled from a broken cask. The result was an uncontrollable fire that eventually reached the magazine where powder for the ship’s guns was stored. By sheer coincidence, a much smaller ship, the brig Cambria, carrying Cornwall miners to a venture in Mexico, came upon the burning Kent. For all of a day and part of the next night, in a still-raging storm, the crew of the Cambria was able, through heroic seamanship, to transfer all but about 70 from the Kent, many of whom drowned or were crushed in the attempts. Some 14 more were retrieved later by another small vessel. The author notes that the episode had an effect on Britain similar to that of 9/11 on America—accounts were republished for years, often as evangelical testimonials. Tracy’s satisfying narrative constitutes the first modern account.
Finely detailed maritime history.