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Wreck of the Atlantic


A few weeks ago, I purchased a 19th century broadside of a ballad called "Wreck of the Atlantic," published by A. W. Auner, Philadelphia. I am especially interested in ballads commemorating events that can be traced to actual events, and using online newspapers, I was abe to pinpoint the wreck of the Atlantic to April 1, 1873. In searching online, I also discovered that I am not the first or only person to be captivated by the incident. Detailed accounts of the wreck can be found in a number of books, and I just finished reading a chapter describing the circumstances in a book by William Flayhart called Perils of the Atlantic: Steamship Disasters, 1850 to the Present (W. W. Norton, 2003).

I won't attempt to convey much information about the tragedy since others have done that ably elsewhere. Briefly, the ship was bound from England to New York, but when nearing the North American coast in the middle of the night, the ship's engineer calculated that the remaining supply of coal on board was insuffcient to reach New York. The captain made the decision to change course and sail north in order to put in at Halifax, Nova Scotia to replenish the coal supply. Unfortunately, the ship was closer to the treacherous rocks than anyone imagined and the ship ran upon the rocks and broke apart in heavy seas. Although several hundred persons were saved through heroic measures by some of the ship's crew and local fisher folk, more than 500 others perished by drowning or freezing to death.

wreck of the atlantic

Here I will just transcribe the broadside in order to add the ballad to the stock of such songs found in North America. I have never come across this song in any other context, though I have not yet made a concerted search for it. Possibly it never entered oral tradition, though that would seem somewhat surprising, given the magnitude of the tragedy. In any case, here are the words:

Wreck of the Atlantic.

You kind and tender Christians, I pray you now draw near :
It's of a dreadful shipwreck I mean to let you hear,
The loss of the Atlantic upon the ocean's wave,
Where fully seven hundred souls met with a watery grave.

'Twas on the 20th day of March our gallant ship did sail,
Bound for the harbor of New York : we had a pleasant gale.
We called next day at Queenstown, as we always did before,
And took on board three hundred souls—their loss we now deplore.

We steamed away for seven days without either dread or fear,
Our brave and honored captain his course did right well steer,
Until he found, to his dismay, his coal was rather low,
So he changed his course for Halifax, with proved our overthrow.

'Twas on the 1st of April, in the morning at three o'clock,
When all on board were sunk in sleep, she struck upon a rock :
To hear the cry of dark despair 'twould make you for to weep,
And that loud wail of anguish, as they sank into the deep.

O heavens! 'twas an awful sight, the struggle there for life!
The mother parted fro the child—the husband from the wife :
The billows mad—the breakers wild—o'er the vessels side they tore,
And washed overboard those human beings to sink and rise no more!

Oh! sad it is for to describe all that they suffered there—
The men and women rushed on deck with wild cries of despair,
And some climbed up the rigging—for so we have been told,
And after hours of suffering, they died there with the cold.

One man escaped into the boat—with terror looked behind,
And, trembling there upon the deck, he saw his wife so kind :
"Without my wife I cannot live, so with her I will die,
And I hope we soon will meet again before the Lord on high."

It's when the news it reached New York, 'twould grieve your heart full sore
To see the people cry and weep for friends they'll meet no more :
The office of the "White Star" in crowds they did surround,
To see if news from those they loved was there for to be found.

To see the aged mother it would melt your heart with pain :
"Where is my loving daughter ? must we never meet again ?"
And the tender hearted sister with sorrow she did cry :
"Does my kind and loving brother in the ocean's bosom lie ?"

The poor old feeble father with grief he tore his hair :
"Must I ne'er see for evermore my sons and daughters fair ?"
So to conclude my dreary song, I've one more thing to say—
In your tender mercy, Christian, I hope you'll for them pray.

A few observations in closing:

When the narrator says the ship called at Queenstown, "as we always did before," it suggests the narrator might be a representative of the White Star company. The use of "we" and "our" throughout imply a firsthand account, as if the narrator had been on board, and indeed some of the details are in keeping with factual accounts. On the other hand, in mentioning that passengers had climbed into the rigging, the narrator says "for so we have been told," which undermines to some extent the theory of the first person account. In the third to last verse, the scene shifts to the New York offices of the White Star line where relatives clamor for news of survivors. Interestingly, the song completely glosses over the widespread criticism of the White Star line's owners and management that occurred in the aftermath.