In the nineteenth century a new and powerful German Empire arose from the ashes of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71. In this period of expansion and optimism many peoples of Europe looked to the New World, and over 100 000 Germans emigrated across the Atlantic in 1870 – by far the largest of any emigrant group. To accommodate this mass movement, and to seal its place among the great trading nations of the world, Germany rapidly developed its merchant fleet, and the first of a dynasty of giant ocean-going passenger ships evolved. Among these was the steamship Schiller – flagship of the Eagle Line and pride of the Atlantic sea-lanes.
In May 1875, while en route from New York to Plymouth, the Schiller hit a reef near the Bishop Rock lighthouse off the Isles of Scilly. Her last hours on the terrible Retarrier Ledges form one of the most enthralling and harrowing sagas in the annals of shipwreck. Howling wind, incessant rain and the tremendously angry seas that crashed over the ship, brought unspeakable misery and death to many of those trapped aboard her, among whom were over 150 women and children, helpless and largely unaided. There were acts of cowardice and heroism among those on board; yet the rescue mounted by Scilly Islanders in small rowing boats was of the very utmost in selfless bravery.
The aftermath, the mass burials on St Mary’s, has a poignancy almost unique; for altogether the lives of over 340 American, German and British people were lost. Added to the horror of those who died in such terrifying circumstances on that wild and stormy night, is the tragic fate of Schiller’s Captain, a much admired and conscientious commander, whose navigational error – some said ‘entire neglect’ – led to posthumous disgrace.
Although The Victorian Titanic does not directly draw on comparisons between the two ill-fated voyages taken almost forty years apart, similarities between the loss of the Schiller and the Titanic are certain to be drawn. Lessons that might have been learnt from the Schiller’s loss were not. Each ship was considered to be the pinnacle of design and elegance in its day, and each carried wealthy and illustrious passengers. Both vessels were captained by men held in the highest regard by their shipping lines and by the passengers who sailed with them, yet both were competing against rival ship owners and, for different reasons, each pushed their ships against the clock to complete the voyage.
In the final analysis it is the sea that claimed both vessels. The Schiller is one of hundreds of ships that have been lost upon the notorious reefs around the Isles of Scilly – yet few others called upon the islanders to exhibit such selfless courage and compassion. Along with the Schiller this is their story.
Keith Austin was born in Kent in 1940 and trained as a history teacher. For the past twenty years he has contributed history articles to numerous journals and periodicals. His first book, concerning the lives of silk weavers in Macclesfield, was published in April 2001. His interest in the Schiller disaster arose from a holiday in the Isles of Scilly which led to research in American, German and British archives.
Imprint: Halsgrove. ISBN 978 1 84114 133 6, 226x240mm, 240 pages. Published 2001. pdf e-book June 2011.