Justice at last for the Indian Empire incident?

Week IV

Despite the excitement, the prospects, the agreement to carry mail, and new luxury ships, the Galway transatlantic adventure headed by J. Orwell Lever ended in failure within six years.

But, as Tim Collins wrote in an earlier article,* ‘as an historic failure, its record is impressive. Ultimately the Galway Line employed 16 steamers (eight paddle-powered, and eight screw-powered ) which made a total of 55 return voyages across the Atlantic between 1858 and 1864. The voyages were made during winter months as well as during the calmer summer sailing season. Six ships were involved in serious accidents due to ice and fog as well as storms, while five made only one trip, or foundered on their first crossing.**

For the venture to have lasted six years was perhaps a miracle considering its inauspicious beginning. On the launch of the scheme, Sunday June 19 1858, while the citizens waited with fireworks and a grand dinner for the town’s hoi polloi, the Indian Empire sailed majestically into the Bay only to be temporarily stranded on the Margaretta rock. The two pilots were blamed for the calamity. During a meeting with the somewhat bemused British prime minister, the Earl of Derby, and a Galway delegation led by Fr Peter Daly and J Orwell Lever, to seek funds for a new habour at Furbo, the matter of the Indian Empire came up (as reported in the Freeman’s Journal and the Tuam Herald ).

Fr Daly: She met with an accident before she started, and after she left another accident happened, which deprived her of a considerable portion of her power.

The Earl of Derby: She ran upon the only rock to be found in the neighbourhood, did she not (a laugh )?

Fr Daly: She was run upon a rock, and the two pilots who had her in charge were committed for trial for the offence. One of them is since dead.

The Earl of Derby: By suicide?

Fr Daly: That has not yet been ascertained, as his stomach has not yet been analysed.

The prime minister declined to forward the money.

‘Natural causes’

Despite the testimony of three doctors, who told a preliminary inquest in Galway that the ‘mysterious and sudden death of Patrick Wallace, one of the pilots, was due to the effects of poison’, their testimony was later disproved.

Having examined the contents of poor Wallace’s stomach, Dr Charles Croker King told the jury and the county coroner, there was no evidence of a violent death. The jury returned a verdict that Patrick Wallace had died from ‘natural causes and by the visitation of God’.

The trial of the other pilot, Burbridge, appears to have been adjourned indefinitely. Ray Burke, the author of Joyce County - Galway and James Joyce*** tells us that no record of it can be found in the Galway Assizes reports in the local newspapers over the next year. Nor was there any official mention of the supposed wickedness of the Liverpool merchants, who, it was wildly claimed, jealous that Galway would steal their monopoly of the Atlantic shipping business, had bribed the pilots to wreck the Indian Empire, and scuttle the Galway plan.

Meanwhile the Indian Empire repaired its damage, and continued with its transatlantic crossings. It withstood a five-day storm off the Mayo coast in November, earning captain Courtney high praise from his passengers and crew.

‘Negligent navigation’

James Joyce visited Galway on two occasions, 1909 and 1912. We know how he absorbed, through all his senses, the sights and sounds around him. Galway proved to be a gold mine of images for him, which Ray Burke entertainingly explores.

Michael Healy, an uncle of his wife Nora, was the Barnacle family member to whom Joyce was closest. Healy was Galway’s Inspector of Custom and Excise and, 50 years later, probably told Joyce the amazing story of Galway’s transatlantic ambitions.

Ray Burke concludes that the Liverpool conspiracy theory has been dismissed far more firmly by no less a personage than the late Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Irish Supreme Court. ‘Anti-British prejudice, of which there are many examples in Ulysses, leads some characters to conclude that a small marine accident in Galway Bay was caused by British government ‘palmoil’ or bribes to the ship’s master in order to supress to potential of Galway as a transatlantic port,’ he wrote, before concluding: ‘ it is more obviously attributable to negligent navagation,’

He added:’ A ship striking an isolated rock might be caused by an act of sabtage on the part of her captain (pilots? ), but the mere fact of the accident does not demonstrate this.’

NOTES: Tim Collins, Director Centre for Landscape Studies at NUIG, two articles for the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Volume 46 (1994 ) and volume 47 (1995 ).

** Because of the interest shown in the launch of the Galway Line, and Galway’s great bid to become the hub for transatlantic passenger, mail, and freight business in the mid 19th century, I will come back to Tim Collins’ articles next week.

*** Published recently by Currach Press, Dublin, on sale €19.99.

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