The loss of the American emigrant ship Ocean Monarch was a significant tragedy in its own time yet little remembered today when compared to the more recent and greater maritime disasters of the twentieth century.
A magnificent full-rigged ship of 1,310 tons, Ocean Monarch was built by Donald McKay at his renowned East Boston yard in 1847. Ordered by Mr. Enoch Train for his White Diamond Line of Boston to Liverpool packets, she entered service under Captain James Murdoch and her owners had high hopes that she would become a notable record-breaker in the North Atlantic trade. Barely a year after her completion, she left Liverpool, homeward bound, at about 5.00am. on 24th August 1848 with 406 persons aboard, mostly emigrants. Three hours later she was in open water, with a fresh northwest breeze behind her, but at noon the same day, the steward reported a fire below decks to Captain Murdoch. When an initial investigation revealed that the fire was already out of control, Murdoch's first thought was to make for the Welsh coast only four miles away but, in the event, the fire spread so rapidly that all he could do was to let go both anchors so as to bring the ship's head into the wind in the hope of containing the blaze in the stern. Within a remarkably short time however, the whole ship was burning furiously and the sea was filled with terrified passengers who had jumped overboard to escape the inferno. Fortunately, a number of ships were close at hand and the first on the scene, the racing cutter Queen of the Ocean, had saved 32 people by the time the Brazilian paddle frigate Affonzo arrived at about 1.00pm. With considerable skill, Affonzo's commander manoeuvred his ship upwind of the Ocean Monarch and plucked a further 184 survivors from the water as the blazing hulk burned down to the waterline. Another steamer, the Prince of Wales, arrived on the scene shortly afterwards but, by then, the rescue had been completed.
This famous event was chronicled in a series of three paintings by Samuel Walters (see Davidson, pp. 142-6) and also by Thomas Dutton.