The Sinking of the SS Utopia

The Sinking of the SS Utopia
This month marks 130th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Utopia on 17th March 1891 on the Bay of Gibraltar at around 6.20pm on a stormy evening. We have all heard the saying ¨Mas viejo que el año del Utopia¨, but not so many of us know where it came from, and the tragedy that occurred that evening. It is a disaster that is better remembered in Italy than here in Gibraltar.
There is a memorial plaque that was paid for by the Italian Government on 20th March 1893 and is inside the dockyard, just below the wall of Alexandra Battery but not many people can see it. I have seen it, in the distance, from the Cumberland Building area, near the Dockyard clock, because I was looking for it. I asked to view it at Southport Gate, and I was not allowed in. It would be appropriate to move the plaque somewhere where it can be seen by everyone. There is a second memorial at the North Front Cemetery in the form of a big marble cross and a plaque, halfway along the western wall next to the Jewish sector, where 130 bodies are buried.
SS Utopia collided with the moored battleship HMS Anson and 562 out of 880 passengers and crew of the Utopia and two rescuers from HMS Immortalité died. Out of 880 on board, there were 59 crew, of which most were stewards, 3 first class passengers, and 3 stowaways. There were 85 women and 67 children. The hull of the Utopia was pierced by the ram of the iron clad and tore a hole 5 metres wide below the Utopia’s waterline, and quickly flooded.
The Utopia was built in 1874 in Glasgow for the Anchor Line and had be refitted to carry 45 cabin class and 900 steerage passengers which made her more suitable for Mediterranean migration to America. She had picked up passengers at Fiume, Palermo and Naples, and was bound for New York. She was carrying poor Italian migrants looking for a better life in America, escaping from poverty and political hardship.
Some were going to make enough money to return to Italy one day and buy land. As she was reaching Gibraltar where they had a scheduled stop to get a lifeboat that was missing, and get more coal, they encountered a storm. The Utopia was equipped to carry four lifeboats and two work boats, so the maximum number of passengers that could be accommodated would have been around 460 in moderate weather. There were no life rafts and about 200 life jackets. How could 880 passengers be saved if the Utopia ran into trouble, especially in bad weather? It was also carrying a cargo of fruit, vegetables and meat for Gibraltar.
Like most disasters, the sinking of the Utopia brought out the best and the worst of humanity. There were so many heroic acts by the sailors helping with the rescue operation from the nearby boats and Warships. They were fighting fatigue and the cold, but they continued risking their lives.
They were saving people who were in the water and also picking up the many lifeless bodies that had been unable to withstand the cold, the force of the wind and the waves, and had fallen from their precarious perches and drowned. Stories like that of a father who had thrown his son into the sea to be picked up by a rescuing boat, only to be washed away overboard himself and drown. A man clinging to the Utopia’s funnel, tired and exhausted, was called by a small boat beneath him calling him to let go, only to jump on the dinghy which tilted, and he fell overboard and drowned.
Some forty small crafts were collecting people that had been swept from the wreck and were transporting them to Ragged Staff Wharf, where they would be taken by horse drawn carriages to wherever they were being accommodated. Survivors were taken to the Garrison Recreation Hall inside South Gate, the Sailors Home in Engineer Lane, and the Old Naval Hospital in Buena Vista Hill.
Then there were horrific stories of men pushing others aside as they scrambled for salvation from the lower decks; men climbing over bodies, women and children, in their desperate struggle to get to the top deck of the Utopia. Indeed, when the wreck was salvaged, bodies were seen to be stuck together in a desperate attempt to get out from below. Families had been split up in the chaos and the panic that followed, and some did not know if their loved ones had survived or not.
For three hours the rescue operation was under way with the wind and the rain hampering their task. The wind carried the screams from the passengers trapped below deck and could be heard all over the upper town.
Many civilians made their way to Ragged Staff Jetty where they could see and hear the events unfolding only 300 metres away. The horror of seeing black shadows bouncing on the water only to realise that they were floating bodies. Imagine the sound of the guns firing the warning, the searchlights lighting up the dark, and the rain glistening against the lights. The worst part must have been the sound of the waves crashing against the Utopia and the helpless cries from those on board.
The Bathing Sheds at Devil’s Tongue, and the workshops in the Dockyard and the Royal Artillery sheds were used as temporary mortuaries. An inquest was held in which Captain McKeague was found not guilty of any negligence perhaps because of the stormy weather but he certainly had made mistakes that led to the accident.
Today he would have been under a heavy lawsuit, for not providing proper safety equipment in case of an emergency, and also for overcrowding and having passengers in less than sanitary conditions.
It is interesting to note that during the meetings held there is very little reference to the part played by the population in the rescue and the welfare of the survivors. It was the attitude of the military that the “natives” were second class citizens, and this was reflected when awards for bravery were announced. Many donations were made by the local population, and the hotels and catering services offered their help for very little remuneration.
The first bodies recovered were buried at the Cemetery in a commemorative grave. The rest of the following bodies recovered were buried in the straits, weighted to sink to the bottom. On the day after the sinking, bodies were found all over the bay, at La Línea and Campamento, at Tarifa, El Espigón and La Atunara, as they were being washed away from the sunken wreck.
There was even a body that had floated all the way to Tangiers. When the wreck of the Utopia was raised a few months after, more decomposed bodies were recovered and the stench of death throughout the town was like the worst plaque. There was no one to identify them. Most of the survivors were housed in a temporary camp at Glacis until they were repatriated back to Italy or could continue their journey to America, within a month of the disaster. As far as I am aware no survivor settled in Gibraltar.
I strongly believe the story of the Utopia is a part of our maritime history that must not be forgotten. It deserves to have the memorial donated by the Italian Government placed in an area where we can all see it. I asked my old school friend Patrick Canessa, the Honorary Consul of Italy in Gibraltar, and he agreed that it is something he has been lobbying to achieve.
He had written to the Government Minister about moving the plaque but the Covid and Brexit situation has delayed any progress on this. It would have been a fitting tribute to have achieved this on the 130th anniversary of the incident. The area around Devils Tongue, which is around Watergardens today, would be one potential location as so many bodies and flotsam had to be brought in through that site.
This was partly to prevent Spanish scavengers taking suitcases and personal belongings that were floating on the Bay. Around the Ragged Staff area would also be an appropriate site, as it was so close to where it happened.
Patrick was also able to introduce me to a researcher in Italy, Pina Mafodda, who has been doing extensive work on the Utopia accident and will be publishing a book in Italian about the survivors and its descendants with Volturnia Publishing House in Isernia, province of Italy. She is also actively looking for a publisher to produce an English translation of her book with a publisher in England or Gibraltar. Her work complements the book by Paul Baker “SOS Utopia” which gives a very good account of events, mainly from the Gibraltar perspective.
Paul Baker’s book is an excellent read, and can be obtained from the Gibraltar Heritage Trust shop. Adding the names of those who perished with her research, we would get close to producing a list of everyone on board the Utopia at the time of the incident. This list sadly seems to have disappeared with the wreck. Pina also talks in her research about a woman’s story and her life in the countryside, her desire to leave, yet the sadness of leaving her country.
It tells the sad story of the shipwreck and the five days leading up to it. It is one voice that speaks for the 570 victims of the disaster; a story that sadly has been mostly forgotten here in Gibraltar. The sinking of the Utopia is our very own “Titanic story”. So many lives lost from a group of migrants, who had left their country, Italy, to look for a better life in America and instead found their death in the Bay. It is also a story of how our Gibraltarian population is always ready to come together and unite whenever there is a crisis.
When you stand at La Bateria in Rosia Road, and look out to the Bay, think of the many Italian migrants, who drowned on that stormy night just a few hundred metres from our shores, and are now in a sea grave somewhere in the Straits beyond Europa Point. Next time you say “eso es del año del Utopia” you will know the tragic story behind the saying.
Text by Terence Moss