Today’s Shipwrecks™ range from Spanish lost in the Bahamas in 1623, to an armed schooner lost by pilot error in 1808, and multiple U.S. navy ships being burned at the Norfolk Navy Yard in 1861, as well as wrecks from other time periods at a wide range of locations. The question for this day is — did the freighter Paul Hamilton have gold on her when she was sunk in 1944?
compiled and edited by Dr. E. Lee Spence
1623: An unidentified Spanish admiral’s ship and two other Spanish vessels, the Santisima Trinidad, Captain Ysidro de Cepeda, and the Espiritu Santo, Captain de Sota, all bound from Havana to Spain with treasure, were shipwrecked on April 20, 1623. All three are believed to have wrecked on the jagged reefs of the Bahamas.
1657: On April 20, 1657, during what is called the Anglo-Spanish War, the British under Admiral Robert Blake totally destroyed the Spanish West Indian fleet, in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Santa Cruz was so well fortified that it was thought to be impregnable to attack from the sea. Sixteen Spanish ships were reported destroyed. The British lost just one ship, despite being under fire from shore batteries that were and attacking and withdrawing on the tide. Although the silver that had been shipped from the Americas had already been landed and was not captured, Blake’s victory delayed its arrival in Spain and earned the fledgling British Navy respect throughout Europe.
This was not Blake’s first major victory. In 1656, Blake blockaded Cádiz, Spain, throughout the winter of that year and one of his captains, Richard Stayner, captured a treasure galleon and destroyed most of the Spanish Plate Fleet at the Battle of Cádiz.
1801: Captain Adams of the brig Dispatch bound from Boston, reported seeing a wreck in latitude 33°21′ North, longitude 74° West, on April 20, 1801. The next day the Dispatch picked up a bag of upland cotton. (Note by ELS: 33°21′ North is the latitude of DeBordieu Island, South Carolina)
1805: On April 20, 1805, the HMS Renard, 18 guns, Lieutenant Jeremiah Coghlan, saw and chased a ship off the north coast of San Domingo catching up with her in a little over 3 hours. The enemy ship opened fire, but Renard did not reply until within pistol-shot. About 35 minutes later the ship was observed to be on fire and ten minutes later she blew up. Coghlan lowered a boat and rescued 55 of the ship’s men who had escaped the flames and been blown into the water.
She turned out to be the former Royal Navy sloop Lilly, which had been captured on July 15, 1804, and renamed General Erneuf. She was commanded by Paul Gerard Pointe, and had been cruising as a privateer. According to the British, she was armed with eighteen 12-pounder carronades and two long guns. The ship had carried 129 seamen and 31 soldiers of whom between 20 and 30 had been killed or wounded before the explosion.
The Renard had nine men wounded, the enemy fire being mainly directed at her sails and rigging. Before the action Capt. Pointe had hailed Renard and called on her to strike. Captain Coghlan had replied through his trumpet “Aye! I’ll strike, and damned hard too.”
The Lilly had been purchased into the Royal navy in 1795 as the Spencer and renamed in 1800. According to French records, she was 200 tons, 92’6”x22’11”x12’ and, as the General Erneuf, she was armed with two 4-pounder cannons and fourteen 6-pounder carronades.
1806: An unidentified brig wrecked at Cape Romain, South Carolina, on April 20, 1806. (Note by ELS: I have found lots of shipwrecks on Cape Romain and had to describe them as “unidentified” in my Admiralty claim exactly because of wrecks like this. As I continue my research and I uncover more information to match with the artifacts that we are recovering, I am slowly identifying some of them.)
1808: At 2:30 in the morning, during a heavy snowstorm, on April, 20, 1808, HMS Widgeon ran into a reef on the Scottish coast, two miles to the northwest of Banff, and was lost. Her crew threw shot overboard and fired guns of distress. However, there was a heavy swell and she bilged and filled with water within ten minutes. Her crew took to the boats and were saved.
Her loss was attributed to her pilot, Alexander Layell, having failed to follow Elliot’s orders and remain at least four miles from shore throughout the night. Instead, Layell had gone below, leaving a bosun’s mate in charge. Layell was tried and sentenced to six months and to be fined all pay due to him.
She was a Royal Navy Cuckoo-class schooner, armed with four 12-pounder carronades and a crew of 20. She was built by William Wheaton at Brixham and launched in 1806. She was just over 75 tons, 56 feet 3 inches in length overall, 18 feet 6 inches in breadth, and 8 feet 6 inches in depth of hold. Her draft light was 4 feet, and her draft fully loaded was 7 feet 9 inches.
1812: The vessel Gipsey, Captain Long, bound from Havana to Boston, was lost “in the Gulf,” on April 20, 1812. Her crew was saved. (Note by ELS: Because of the route normally taken by ships bound from Havana to Boston the “Gulf” mentioned here is probably the Gulf of Florida which is the wide gulf made up of the waters and shoals between peninsula Florida and the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, and includes the Bahamas.)
1817: A Spanish schooner, bound from Jamaica to Cuba, with a cargo of a million and a half dollars, was captured about April 20, 1817, by a Carthagenian Privateer. (Note by ELS: This has been included, even though it isn’t a shipwreck, to give readers and idea of the wealth that some vessels carried. Don’t forget, this was in 1817 values when silver was about a dollar an ounce.)
1822: The vessel Albion, Captain Potts from Bermuda to Antigua, was lost near Prickly Pear Island, Antigua, on April 20, 1822.
1844: The schooner Mandarin, Captain Martin, of Baltimore, bound from Antigua for Turk’s Island, was wrecked on Turk’s Island on April 20, 1844.
1850: The British brig Jewess, Captain Gilchrist, bound from Spain for New Orleans, “struck on the Cavallo Blanco Reef, Crab Island” on April 20, 1850, and was expected to be a total loss.
1853: The British schooner Defiance was burnt on April 20, 1853, “at Harbour Island; master perished in the flames.”
1857: The German ship Minerva, Captain Weiting, bound from Rotterdam, with gin, brandy, grapes, etc., went ashore in thick weather and strong easterly winds, at 1:00 in the morning on April 20, 1857, 12 miles north of the inlet at Barnegat, New Jersey. After she struck, her foremast was cut away to ease her. There were four passengers and a crew of fifteen, including her officers, who remained by the vessel in two of the ship’s boats until daylight, when they reached the shore in safety and found temporary shelter in the life station, which was not far from the place where the ship struck. She was described as broadside to the beach with six feet of water in her hold, and, with the continuous gale and heavy seas, it was considered almost certain that she would go to pieces. The Minerva was built in Bremen in 1833 and was 832 tons.
There were two schooners wrecked to the northward of the Minerva and the gale was believed to have caused other wrecks along the Jersey coast.
1857: The ship New Hampshire, which was ashore on Jones Beach, Long Island, New York, went to pieces on April 20, 1857. In half an hour after she began to break up not a plank or timber could be seen, except the fragments which were strewn along the shore. The wreckers had not been able to do anything except to put two steam pumps on board, which were lost in the destruction of the ship. A letter from Freeport, Long Island, New York, published a few days later stated: “The old ship New Hampshire, which came ashore some time since on Jones Beach, was by the violence of the recent storm broken to pieces on the morning of April 20. She has entirely gone to pieces, or at least that portion of the hull above water were. Fragments of the hull have been picked up in our bay, and are now being brought up by fish boats to the landing. No article of her cargo has, up to this evening, been seen or driven ashore. There is a probability that a portion of her cargo may be obtained, when the present heavy seas resolves, by fishing it from under the water.”
1857: The British brig Caroline, bound from Nova Scotia for Boston, with a cargo of wood, went ashore on Cohasset, Massachusetts, on April 20, 1857. The crew were all landed safely by the lifeboat.
1857: The British brig Wave, Captain King, bound from Kingston, Jamaica, for London, with a cargo of coffee, was totally wrecked on Long Cay, Crooked Island, Bahamas, on April 20, 1857. Her crew saved and part of her cargo salvaged in a damaged state. A contemporary newspaper stated: “The cargo was all saved by the shore people, and sold there for from $8.50 to $10 per hundred; salvage awarded, 60 percent. There are no capitalists at Long Cay, and as it is in the interest of a few to have the property sold there it generally happens that such is a fixed fact. It would be much more to the interest of the underwriters to have it brought to and sold at Nassau, where there are moneyed men and plenty of competition. Self interest appears to be the ruling passion of the day, and ‘more money’ the only precept inculcated.” She was also described as bound “for Liverpool,” and as “wrecked on Fortune Island; crew saved.”
1861: The Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, was abandoned and burned by United States forces on April 20, 1861 to prevent the ships and machinery from being of use to the Confederates.
It was from the salvaged remains of one of the ships sunk that day that the Confederates built one of their most innovative ships. Like the mythical Phoenix, this screw steamer was raised from the ashes for a new life. Although an observer quoted by the New York Times ridiculed the idea of the salvaged hulk ever being used for offensive purposes, the Confederates rebuilt her as an ironclad ram and Christened her the Virginia. She made history when she successfully attacked the United States blockade fleet off Hampton Roads, Virginia, and later fought the first battle between ironclads. If you haven’t heard of her its because the winners of wars write the history books and, when they described the historic battle between her and the Union ironclad Monitor, they called her by her former name. She had been built from the wreckage of the USS Merrimac, and they referred to the battle as between the Monitor and the Merrimac, even though it was really between the Monitor and the Virginia. The Merrimac had been a wooden ship, not an ironclad.
Some of the other vessels burned and sunk at the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia on April 20, 1861, were:
• USS Columbia. She was armed with four 8-inch guns, twenty-eight 32-pounders, and twenty-two 42-pounder carronades. She was a ship rigged frigate of 1,708 tons, launched at Washington in 1836. The Columbia had a wood hull, 175′ in length, 45′ in breadth, 14’4″ in depth and drew 22′ of water. She could make a maximum of 12 knots. The wreck was raised and sold on October 10, 1867, to M. Porves for $16,901.50.
• USS Columbus. She was a first rate ship-of-the-line, armed with sixty-eight 32-pounder guns, and twenty-four 42-pounder carronades. The Columbus had a wood hull, launched at Washington in 1819. She was 2,480 tons, 191’10” in length, 52′ in breadth, 21’10” in depth, and drew 25’8″ of water. She could make a maximum of 12.5 knots.
• USS Delaware. She was armed with thirty long 32-pounder guns, thirty-two medium 32-pounder guns, and two 32-pounder carronades. She was a first rate ship rigged ship-of-the-line of 2,633 tons, launched at Norfolk in 1820. The Delaware had a wood hull, 196’4″ in length, 53′ in breadth, 22′ in depth and drew 26’2″ of water. She could make a maximum of 12 knots.
• USS Pennsylvania. She had three complete gun decks and a flush spar-deck and her hull was pierced for 136 guns. In 1846 she was reported as having on her Spar deck two 9 pounder cannons and one small brass swivel; on her Middle deck four 8-inch guns, and thirty 32-pounders; on her Main deck four 8-inch guns, and thirty-two 32-pounders; and on her Lower deck four 8-inch chambered cannons and twenty-eight 32-pounders. She was a ship rigged ship-of-the-line. She had a wood hull, was 3,241 tons, 247′ in length, 59’6″ in breadth, and 54’10” in depth of hull. The Pennsylvania was launched July 17, 1837, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
• USS Raritan. She was a 1,708 ton ship rigged frigate, armed with forty-two 32-pounder guns and eight 8-inch guns. The wreck was sold in 1867.
• USS Plymouth. She was a ship-rigged, sloop-of-war armed with four 8-inch guns and eighteen 32-pounder guns. She was immediately repaired and put into service by the Confederates.
• USS Germantown. She was a wooden hulled, sailing sloop-of-war of 939 tons, and was armed with four 8-inch guns and eighteen 32-pounder guns. She was subsequently raised and placed into service by the Confederates as a floating battery.
Note by ELS: Besides scuttling and otherwise destroying the above vessels, the 700 men who had been in charge of the United States government property at Gosport spiked all of the cannons, and threw “overboard chronometers, side and small arms and munitions of war of every description.” Even in 1865, the total loss in ships and other public property destroyed by fire or water amounted to over $10,000,000.
1867: The barque Andromache, bound from Cuba for London, previously believed to have foundered at sea, “drifted ashore on Great Guana Cay Abaco,” on April 20, 1867, where her cargo was landed. “The vessel’s materials were saved and taken to Green Turtle Cay.”
1944: The American Liberty ship Paul Hamilton, bound from Norfolk, Virginia, for the Middle East, as part of convoy UGS 38, was sunk just 30 miles into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Cape Bengut, near Algiers, by twenty-three German bombers launched from aircraft carriers. There is evidence that she may have carried a considerable quantity of gold.
One aerial torpedo struck the Paul Hamilton and detonated its cargo of high explosives and bombs, and the ship and crew disappeared within 30 seconds. The crew and passengers, who included 154 officers and men of the 831st Bombardment Squadron, were all lost. Of the 580 men aboard only one body was recovered.
1944: The French troopship Sidi-Bel-Abbès, bound from Casablanca to Oran with 1,100 Senegalese troops, was torpedoed and sunk about ten miles north the Habibas Islands, Algeria, by the German submarine U-565 on April 20, 1943. The British rescued about 520 survivors, but the remainder of the troops and crew (or about 611 people) were lost. She was built in 1929 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. at Wallsend and was 3,392 gross tons, 365 feet in length, 50 feet in breadth and 23 feet in depth of hold. She was powered by six steam turbines geared to two propeller shafts and could make 16 knots.
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NOTE: This is by no means meant to be a complete list of the vessels lost on April 20, as there have been thousands of ships lost for every day of the year. All of the above entries have been edited (shortened) and come from various editions of Spence’s List™. The original lists usually give additional data and sources. Those lists are being updated and are or will be made available for a fee elsewhere on this site.
© 2013, 2017 by Dr. E. Lee Spence for composition, content and compilation.Share