The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

The Tragic end of the ‘Maltese Titanic’

Malta Independent Sunday, 7 October 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The disaster claimed the lives of some 1,500 of the ship’s 2,200 passengers and crew and is a tragedy that still fascinates millions around the world today.

There were no Maltese citizens on the Titanic – although an American survivor, Georgette Alexandra Madill of St Louis, Missouri, later married a Maltese man.

But it can be argued that the Titanic disaster was foreshadowed four years earlier by a tragedy with striking similarities that happened just outside Malta’s Grand Harbour. The sinking of the SS Sardinia in 1908, just beyond the Grand Harbour of Valletta, may be considered the Titanic’s Maltese counterpart.

The Sardinia was by no means as large or luxurious as the Titanic, nor did it carry as many passengers in its cabins, and therefore its sad ending has a much smaller claim to fame.

Originally, the ship left the Hebburn yard of Hawthorn Leslie’s on the Tyne in 1888 as the Gulf of Corcovado, for the Greenock SS Co. Ltd.

A decade or so later, she became the Paolo V for Italian owners and then, after three years, the Sardinia, for Ellerman Lines.

In 1908, the SS Sardinia belonged to the Ellerman and Papayanni Line. She weighed 1,514 tons (a minuscule proportion compared to the Titanic’s vast 46,328 gross tons).

On her last voyage, which ended on 25 November 1908, the Sardinia was carrying 39 crew, 12 saloon (i.e. first class) passengers and 142 steerage, who were all Moslem Moroccans travelling to the city of Mecca.

The Sardinia was travelling from Liverpool, carrying a small handful of passengers and general cargo and was due to set sail from Malta for the Egyptian port of Alexandria and thence continue to Mecca, thus completing her journey.

The ship set sail from Malta’s Grand Harbour minutes before 10am on that chilly Wednesday morning. Everything seemed to be going to plan, when at about 200 metres from the breakwater, thick, black smoke started to seep out of the vessel’s starboard side.

Within seconds, several explosions were heard throughout the ship and not long after, huge flames started to engulf her keel.

The wind was blowing strongly at the time, and with that, the fire grew higher, the flames gushing up into the air and onto the top deck, burning everything they touched.

It seems that, when the ship was about a mile offshore, fire had broken out in nitrate being carried in her No2 hold.

The ship changed course and began to turn as if trying to re-enter the harbour, which was still within sight. Several witnesses, however, saw that the ship started to go round in circles, implying that her crew had lost control of her rudder.

When the Sardinia started to turn for a fifth time, it ran aground on some rocks off Fort Ricasoli. Then a large explosion rocked the vessel, shooting flames upwards and spitting burning debris across the water and the nearby shore.

Boats of all kinds, packed with Maltese fishermen and seamen, departed the port in order to try and help any possible survivors. Reaching the Sardinia itself would prove catastrophic, as it was still ablaze, and anyone who might still be alive was compelled to jump into the cold November water of the Mediterranean in order to escape the flames.

In all, only 10 passengers and 23 members of the ship’s crew were saved, but most of the Arabs below deck had either perished because of the explosion or drowned in the ensuing sinking. Their sad loss would tragically resemble the sad fate of most of the 3rd class passengers of the Titanic, less than four years later.

The bodies of only 23 Moroccans were recovered. They were transported to the Central Civil Hospital and the following day they were buried in the Turkish cemetery at Marsa.

The final death toll was proportionately very high. Two European passengers, 16 crew and more than 100 Arab passengers had perished. Three bodies were later recovered from the sea and buried in Ta’ Braxia.

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