Rescue too Late for Deutschland's Nuns

Dan Graves, MSL

Rescue too Late for Deutschland's Nuns

The rescue of the survivors of the ship Deutschland on this day, December 7, 1875 almost led to war and prompted the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to write a lengthy poem.

Faced by a rising storm on December 5th, the Deutschland changed course. Early in the morning of the 6th, it ran aground on a shoal that its two experienced pilots--one German, one English--should have avoided. In trying to get off, the propeller snapped and the wind drove the ship farther onto the shoals. From the deck of the ship, the passengers could see the lights of England. Furious winds whipped snow and ice against the craft. Unlike the Titanic, the Deutschland had enough life boats and life preservers for everyone. It did them no good.

In the furious weather, attempts to launch the boats did not succeed. The first boat swamped, drowning eight. The second boat also swamped, but its three riders managed to right it. (They drifted for thirty-eight hours and two froze to death.) Women passengers shrieked that they didn't want to take to the sea in the lifeboats. Their protest was unnecessary, for the wind ripped the rest of the lifeboats off of their davits, smashing them, and removing any hope of escape that way.

The passengers, most of them Germans, were in dire straits. Told to take to the deck, some clambered into the rigging. Several froze to death. The water washed bodies up and down the deck.

The ship's distress signals received no reply. This is what infuriated the German nation and almost led to war. The Germans accused the British of waiting thirty hours to send a rescue boat, allowing 157 people to die "less than four miles from shore." Actually, no one in Harwich or Marburg, over twenty miles away, saw the signal. A small fishing boat which spotted the ship did report it to the harbor master at Ramsgate, but he took no action, saying it was not his jurisdiction.

Finally a tug reached the broken ship and took off most of the survivors. Their stories were reported in the Times. The account that led Hopkins to write his poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, was a tale of five nuns, fleeing Germany's anti-Catholic legislation. The five remained below because there was not enough room on the deck. Clasping hands, they were drowned together, their leader calling out loudly and often "O Christ, come quickly!" until they could breathe no more.

In his poem, Hopkins pondered the meaning of her cry. He concluded that she had recognized that the storm was controlled by Christ. He then imagined her reception in heaven:

Jesu, heart's light,
Jesu, maid's son,
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?

Bibliography:

  1. Alberge, Dalya. "Scandalous Shipwreck Yields it Treasure." http://archives.mundoacuatico.com/jan02/ 21janscandalousshipwreck.pdf
  2. Collins, Rowland L. Fourteen British and American Poets. New York: Macmillan, 1964; pp. 235 - 246.
  3. Deutschland, the." http://www.rmstitanichistory.com/deutschland/
    deutsch.html
  4. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "The Wreck of the Deutschland." Available in various formats and collections.
  5. Kunitz, Stanley L. British authors of the nineteenth century. New York: H. W. Wilson company, 1936. p. 306.
  6. Ruggles, Eleanor. Gerard Manley Hopkins. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1947.
  7. Untermeyer, Louis. Lives of the Poets. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.
  8. Wintle, Justin. Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800 - 1914. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
  9. Various internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007.

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