The People of Gibraltar

1843 - The USS Missouri - Dead men tell no tales

Sir Robert Thomas Wilson and Charles Carroll Bayard

The USS Missouri, built in New York in 1842, was one of the very first steamships of the United States navy. 

The Missouri

In August 1843, while anchored just off Gibraltar she was accidently set on fire by the ship engineer's yeoman. The following morning one of her powder magazines blew up. It destroyed the Missouri and sank what remained of her. There were no casualties. Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, the Governor of Gibraltar opened the gates of the fortress and allowed the American crew in. It was considered - at the time - an unprecedented act of courtesy. An impressed United States Congress responded by sending letters thanking everybody involved in helping out.

The British warship HMS Malabar looks on as the Missouri explodes. Her crew helped fight the fire and took on board 200 of her men   ( E. Duncan - from a sketch by G. Purcell Mends )  (See LINK

Another version, also drawn by E. Duncan from a sketch by G. Purcell Mends

The ship came to rest in 41 feet of water in the Bay hampering navigation so badly that the Gibraltar authorities - obviously of the opinion that thank you letters from Congress were not enough - asked the United States to remove it. They took more than a decade to finish the job. However, they did make a start a couple of months later. Charles Carroll Bayard - a junior midshipman in the US Navy who took part in the proceedings - has left us a letter where he describes the US Navy’s first attempts to remove the wreckage and salvage some of its iron.

Charles Carroll Bayard's letterhead engraving
My dear Mother - I send you a few lines which I shall commit to the care of the American Consul & he will send them to you by the first opportunity, for by this time tomorrow we shall be bounding over the deep blue billow on our way to the Brazil’s. . . .  I have visited the wreck of the Missouri. It is a very melancholy sight. 
She is burnt down to the water’s edge so the only thing we can do is to raise all the machinery & the other iron work that remains & sell it to the best advantage. For this purpose, they have employed a diver for $25 a day who goes down & makes tackles fast to everything he finds. They are then swayed up into a Schooner hired for the purpose & sold to the best advantage. The diver wears an oil cloth suit & has a large helmet on his head from which there goes a hose connected to an air pump through which they pump air to him continuously.

25 dollar a day diver salvaging machinery & the other iron work from the wreck of the USS Missouri
I was amused the other day when the Captain & some others were at the wreck. There came on a violent shower. The diver was under the water hammering at some tanks. When it was over he came up perfectly dry while we were wringing wet. It seems odd, does it not?
And that would probably have been that, had there not been a sting to the tale. In 1845 The Times published the following:
Dead men tell no tales . . .  but foundered vessels are not safe. The wreck and cargo of the Missouri are in the hands of divers. Day after day they are bringing up, doubtless much that a British sailor will easily divine  . . . But what does he imagine the divers are bringing up in great quantities, day by day, and carrying off in cartloads to their store? 
Slave shackles, of every strength and size, for men and women old and young. A correspondent of undoubted authority has sent us three specimens - a family group, for father, mother and child. They are such as are used in the slave trade and are own brothers, as we can swear, to those found on board vessels engaged in the traffic. . . . What could they be wanted for among the stores of a war steamer is the question. 
Another correspondent of the Times who signed himself "American" suggested that the only possible explanation was that they had been planted there. A very sceptical Times demanded an enquiry - which as far as I can make out was never held. 

1845 - The Illustrated London News