The Falkland Islands and South Atlantic
St Mary near Fitzroy, Falklands


The gold rushes to California and Australia that began in 1848 meant an enormous increase in traffic around Cape Horn often by unseaworthy sailing ships. Some simply needed fresh supplies on the long voyage but others, having taking a battering from the seas there, gave up and struggled back to the Falklands leaking and broken, only to founder on reefs and rocks on the jagged coastline. Charts were poor and few, and masters and ships had their limitations. One can only guess at how many unrecorded ships went down and lives were lost. Many are known to have wrecked all around the remote Falklands coast. The bulk of these wrecks happened roughly between 1850 and the end of that century when steam ships began to appear.

Mary Davidson 23/24 August 1871

On the night of 23/24 August 1871 the Mary Davidson a 3 masted barque, 275 tons built in Aberdeen and bound from Liverpool to Guayaquil with a general cargo, struck rocks and totally wrecked on Jason West Cay. Only three of the crew survived. They were picked up, after 27 days of 'suffering great privations' on the rocks, by the Florie (Captain Thomas Hicks) on 20th September 1871. All the crew had reached the island but seven perished of exposure.

Yarra Yarra April 1885

On or about the 28th April 1885 the 1246 ton 3 masted iron British  barque Yarra Yarra of Liverpool which had left Portland, Oregon on 12th February 1885 bound for the United Kingdom, wrecked on the Staats Island cliffs after rounding the Horn. There were no survivors or bodies recovered and wreckage washed ashore as far as Carcass Island.
William Duncan, of Beaver Island made a deposition to his manager Henry Waldron: ‘On or about the 28th April 1885 I was out for a walk on Stickout Bluff, Beaver Island; it was blowing a tremendous gale from the south so that I could hardly stand. I thought I saw a vessel without any sails drifting upon the rocks of Staats Island at Staats Bluff, where I saw her strike and did not see her afterwards. From the time I first saw the vessel until she struck would be about 20 minutes. No signals were flying The vessel appeared to be abandoned, but it’s being at least 6 miles off I cannot state positively to that effect. No assistance could possible have been rendered, even if a lifeboat was here.’
Wreckage recovered included a lifebuoy with Yarra Yarra, Liverpool painted on it.

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  • St-Mary
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    As the St Mary neared Cape Horn the ‘Magellan’, a British ship, collided with her. The Magellan sank with all hands, gales blew up to add to the disastrous situation and after 3 days the St Mary’s crew were exhausted. ‘The men could do no more’ wrote Carver and decided to try to reach the safe harbour of Stanley, Falkland Islands. About 30 miles short of Stanley she struck Pinnacle Rock and went aground.
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St Mary wrecked 1890

The remains of the St Mary lie close to Fitzroy, at Whale Point, around 30 miles from Stanley. Sadly she wrecked on her maiden voyage in 1890.  The sailing age was already giving way to steam when she wasbuilt in Phippsburg USA. She was 242 feet long, fort-two feet in beam and eighteen feet deep with a white oak keel and frame and timbers of yellow pine. On 20th March 1890 she was launched, and considered to be a beautiful ship with ‘the best frame ever seen in these parts’.
The St Mary was taken to New York, fitted out and loaded with a cargo which included coal, iron pipes, whisky, coffee, ink, soap, boxes of tack and toy trains, and carpets intended for San Francisco.

She left on her maiden voyage on 30th May 1890 captained by Captain Jesse Carver who, already deeply in debt, had invested heavily in the ship hoping to reverse his recent bad fortune.
As the St Mary neared Cape Horn the ‘Magellan’, a British ship, collided with her. The Magellan sank with all hands, gales blew up to add to the disastrous situation and after 3 days the St Mary’s crew were exhausted. ‘The men could do no more’ wrote Carver and decided to try to reach the safe harbour of Stanley, Falkland Islands. About 30 miles short of Stanley she struck Pinnacle Rock and went aground. When it was obvious she was breaking up the crew lowered a boat to make for the settlement of Fitzroy pleading with Captain Carver to go with them but he refused, brandishing a revolver and threatening to ‘blow out the brains of the first man that laid a hand on him’. The crew left without him and he was found the next day with froth at his mouth after having been seen with a glass of ‘reddish mixture’.
Eventually the St Mary’s cargo washed ashore, as did a large section of her starboard side, debris from her stretching along the beach for miles. Some cargo was salvaged and that year almost every child in Stanley had a cast iron train for Christmas. Some sections the St Mary has been returned to  the USA.

Helen A Miller1859

Helen A Miller an American three-masted clipper ship of 510 tons and registered in Baltimore in 1851, lies in Port San Carlos where in June 1859 she put ashore, leaking & unseaworthy. She was captained and owned by Captain J. Sweeney and bound for California with a valuable luxury cargo that included butter, hams, oil, skins, carpeting and canned peaches. She hit very heavy weather off Cape Horn and becan to leak so ran for Stanley. Unable to keep afloat to get there the master ran her ashore on Point San Carlos.

The salvage and subsequent sale of the 'portion saved of slightly damaged' cargo became the subject of much controversy and ended in court. The dubious Captain Smyley, an aquaintance of Sweeney, was involved and suspicions and doubts surrounded the rival parties.

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Captain John Grey, Great Britain steam shipCaptain John Gray, Shetlander

SS Great Britain 1886

Probably the most famous ship to end her career in the Falklands was the SS Great Britain. She was launched on the 19th July 1843, designed by Brunel, and the first wrought iron built ocean –going ship to have a screw propeller. She had a displacement of 3,675 tons with a length of 322ft (98m), originally five schooner-rigged and one square-rigged mast (to be reduced to three square-rigged masts after 1853), and a revolutionary massive single screw sixteen foot iron propeller driven by two twin steam engines. Long voyages meant replenishing her coal bunkers and this was often in Stanley. When she was launched she was by far the largest ship in the world and shaped the future of mass passenger and international travel.

Initially she carried 360 but later her passenger capacity was increased to 730. Over the space of 24 years she transported over 16,000 immigrants to Australia as the Victorian gold rush was at its height.  Wealthy individuals travelled back and forth with large amounts of money, she was sometimes referred to as a ‘floating bank’.  On board life was luxurious and elegant, and she was fast and comfortable, food was fine, even live animals, cows, sheep and pigs, and large numbers of poultry were carried to ensure fresh meat. In 1861 she carried the first English cricket team to Australia.  With John Gray, a Shetlander as Master (1854 to – ’68), and converted into a three-masted full-rigged ship under his advice, she became fast actually making the Liverpool  to Melbourne run in only 65 days in 1854. Eventually by the late 1870’s the Great Britain as a three-masted sailing ship, her engines removed was reduced to transporting Welsh coal to San Francisco. She hit very heavy weather off Cape Horn and badly damaged put into Port Stanley harbour on 26th May 1886 where, like so many others she was swiftly condemned as unseaworthy. She remained afloat in the harbour for the next forty years serving as a wool storage hulk. During the First World War coal from her hold replenished battle cruisers. By 1937 with her hull leaking and deteriorating, she was towed to Sparrow Cove and deliberately beached where she remained until she was salvaged and towed home to the very dock in Bristol where she was built. She has now been restored to her former glory and is one of Britain’s greatest visitor attractions.

  • Capricorn
    Capricorn's cargo of coal caught fireby Staten Island near Cape Horn. To extinguish it the crew scuttled her then refloated her. She made it to the Falkland Islands but too damaged to repair was condemned. She remained afloat, a storage hulk and lighter, until she was scuttled to form the head of a jetty during war years.
  • Jhelum
    Jhelum arrived in Stanley on 18 August 1890 in a sinking condition after difficulty 'rounding the Horn'. Her crew refused to go to sea in her again and she was condemned and scuttled to lie at the head Packe's Jetty.


Sources include: Colonial Reports. Condemned at Stanley- John Smith 1969 Wikipedia website,www.boatregister, The Falkland Islands Journal, The Falkland Islands- Ian J Strange, Jane Cameron nationalarchives/shipping casualties wrecks

Photographic credits: Robert Maddocks, Unknown-hope you don't mind!
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