Divers from the UAD excavating the stern section of the wreck. Photo: Pongsatorn Sukhum / THAIWRECKS

Wreck of the 1881 steamship “FRANCIS GARNIER”

The identification of a Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine steamship sunk in Thailand.

Background

It is often a case of serendipity that transforms a single obscure mention of a ship to the actual discovery of the shipwreck itself.

And so it was during September 2016 that I came across the Mannok Excavation Report (2008) by the Underwater Archaeology Division (UAD). The information contained in this report bore many similarities to the research work I had conducted several years previously on a French steamship which was lost nearly a hundred years ago in Rayong; and warranted further investigation. On 21st September 2016, I contacted K. Erbprem Vatcharangkul, the then Director of the UAD, about my findings, and we discussed possible visits to the site.

It wasn’t until two years later that I was able to visit the site and make a visual confirmation. During the period 17th-18th December 2018, I had the opportunity to join the UAD at the Mannok shipwreck site, Rayong Province, to observe their excavation activities. But more importantly, I was there to gather further evidence that would help confirm the identity of the vessel.

I would like to express my gratitude to former UAD Director Erbprem Vatcharangkul for initiating my involvement, and UAD Director Capt. Boonyarit Chaisuwan and his team for the warm welcome and access to the site. I would also like to thank team members whom I dived with — K. Sira Ploymukda, K. Wongsakorn Rahothan, and PO.1 Prasert Sornsuparb.

This document contains a brief summary of the ship and its history, and my findings.

Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine

The Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine (MF) was founded in 1880 by Jules Rueff — a French Jew with the grand vision to navigate up the Mekong River from Cochinchine. The company was incorporated in Paris with a registered capital of 1.5 million francs, to conduct shipping operations from Saigon. Very early in their company history, they received a contract for the postal service in the Mekong region. This was extended several times and provided them with a virtual monopoly for thirty five years. These contracts heavily subsidized their shipping operations.

The existing French connection to the Scott & Co. shipbuilding company on the Clyde in the 1880’s may have been a deciding factor for the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine to immediately place orders for six ships to be built at Scott & Co.

Rueff greatly supported the French colonization activities in Indochina, and was well rewarded. His company was responsible for charting the Mekong and building rail links to allow ships to be transported and assembled up past the rapids, connecting Saigon to Luang Prabang. Their ships took visitors to Angkor.

During 1893, Rueff offered his services to the French Navy and allowed them the use the Messageries Fluviales vessel JEAN BAPTISTE SAY (JB SAY) which led the way for the French Navy ships to navigate past the bar at Bangkok. This maneuver and battle became known as the Paknam Incident of 1893.

In 1914, as the new postal contracts were renewed, the Messageries Fluviales found that they had lost their monopoly which lasted only until 1915. So by 1916, the Messageries Fluviales had suspended their regular service between Saigon and Bangkok. Some of their shipping assets were eventually sold off.

The Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine was later renamed Compagnie Saïgonnaise de Navigation et de Transport (CSNT) as newspaper advertisements and ship registrations show. The company began to diversify into rubber plantations, and tobacco.

Commissioning of the Ships

The Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine placed an order for a total of six ships to be built to the same design. These were the

  • PHUOC KIEN (yard no. 209),
  • CANTONNAIS (yard no. 210),
  • JEAN DUPUIS (yard no. 211),
  • FRANCIS GARNIER (yard no. 212),
  • MOUHOT (yard no. 213), and
  • BASSAC (yard no. 214).

These FRANCIS GARNIER was launched by Scott & Co. in November 1881.

From the Clyde, the ships sailed into the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, and onwards to Cochinchine. Of the six steamers built, only four survived the journey.

The JEAN DUPUIS was lost in the Red Sea on 6th February 1882 and two weeks later, on the 23rd February 1882, the BASSAC, the last of six ships to set sail from the Clyde, was wrecked in the Gulf of Suez, eight miles north of Ras Gharib. The FRANCIS GARNIER also suffered damage during this voyage and required repairs to her engine and the replacement of a lost screw at the port city of Aden.

Change of Ownership

Malcolm Béranger, a French national based in Bangkok founded Malcolm Beranger & Co., an import-export business which also became a shipping agent. He later expanded his business to open several branch offices in Singapore, Penang, and Saigon.

Malcolm Beranger & Co. reportedly purchased the FRANCIS GARNIER in August or September 1918, for their Penang — Phuket route. Later the steamer was assigned to the Bangkok — Chantaboon — Koh Kong route on the East coast of the Gulf of Siam.

In 1920, Malcolm Beranger & Co. subsidiary International Motors Ltd. began to import automobiles such as Citroën and Renault, and became the sole agent for the Strait Settlements (Malacca and Penang), Federated Malay States (F.M.S.) and Siam.

Circumstances of Sinking

News reports from the period state that the FRANCIS GARNIER sunk on Friday 26th August 1921, at around 3am, during her inward voyage from Chantaboon to Bangkok. Accounts from the surviving Chief Engineer suggested that he had advised the Master to stay at Chantaboon owing to the heavy seas, which the Captain refused. The ship was not prepared for heavy weather and many of the ports and doors were not properly closed which resulted in ingress of water into the engine room and the ship started to list. The Captain ordered the Chinese coolies below to shift the cargo but the vessel began to sink stern first. The ship carried a cargo of coal and timber and was possibly overloaded.

The FRANCIS GARNIER was lost near Koh Man, in close proximity to the Loftus Shoal.

There were a total of 23 survivors — 18 were picked up by the East Asiatic steamer CHUTATUTCH at Koh Samet, and five from Chantaboon, which included the Chief Officer and Chief Engineer. Most of the crew survived, but the majority of the passengers perished with ship. It was reported that as many as 50 lives were lost, including a Chinese theatrical troupe. There were no European officers onboard the ship; she was officered and manned by Siamese. She was registered to carry 35 passengers and a crew of 32.

Other Messageries Fluviales incidents

February 1886, the NORODOM 1, also built at Scott & Co., but to a larger design, was lost in bad weather between My Tho and Saigon with a loss of some 19 lives.

April 1893, the MOUHOT involved in a collision with a French Government steamer resulting in the sinking of the ship and death of M. Lande, Chief of the Cabinet of the Governor General, his wife, a family friend, and several locals.

The MOUHOT and CANTONNAIS collided with the former damaged and the latter reportedly sunk, December 1897.

May 1917, the MOUHOT was again involved in an accident when she collided with the Norwegian steamer HEIM. The Messageries Fluviales were lucky not to lose the MOUHOT in this incident. When the HEIM left Bombay, she was carrying 1,600 cases of dynamite and 300 cases of detonators amid ships, directly where the collision occurred.

Matching Historical with Archaeological Data

Important evidence was obtained by the UAD and described in their 2008 Mannok excavation report. Of particular interest are the geographical location of the wreck, measured dimensions of the wreck, and the artifacts recovered. All three classes of information, together with additional evidence gathered during the December 2018 excavation, were used in the identification of the wreck.

Geographical location — this wreck lies at a depth of 20m and is located approximately 4nm south of Koh Man, in Rayong Province. News reports from the period clearly specify the location of foundering as being near Koh Man, in the proximity of the Loftus Shoal.

Dimensions — the UAD reports the measured dimension of the wreck site as length 41.20m width 6.50m. The ship’s registered dimensions are length 135.7ft, breadth 19.9ft, and depth 7.2ft with a 39 ton house erected on deck. This is equivalent to length 41.36m and breadth 6.06m.

Artifacts recovered — the numerous Siamese coins recovered from the wreck, with latest issue date being 1917 (B.E. 2460). This is consistent with the known dates from construction in 1881 to loss in 1921. The existence of French coins with an issue date of 1913 provides further proof of the association with the French Colonists of that period.

Additional Measurements and Observations

During the December 2018 dives, I was able to photograph the wreck site in detail. Close examination of the photographic evidence led me to request further measurements. These were taken by K. Wongsakorn Rahothan of the UAD.

Propulsion system — the wreck was observed to contain a single, cylindrical marine boiler, with a measured separation of boiler end plates of 240cm. This is consistent with the documented shape (cylindrical) and length of the boiler (8ft). The wreck excavation revealed a single screw and shaft; however, the blades were not intact. In close proximity were four clumps of calcified rust. Ship’s historical documents show a four-bladed, right-hand propeller of 5ft diameter.

Evidence of Girder (Crown) Stays, assuming they are intact, inside the boiler (forward/port quadrant) would indicate that the boiler furnace opening point aft towards the engine. This configuration is not common, but is consistent with the placement of the funnel in the known photograph of the ship. Further excavation of the boiler is required to determine the exact configuration.

Boiler stay rod and tube diameters were measured as approximately 2.5in and 3.25in respectively.

A porthole recovered aft of the wreck was in the open position, possibly further supporting the newspaper reports that the ship was not rigged for stormy weather.

A vertical protrusion was observed from the sand, abaft the boiler, this may indicate the Piston Tail Rod. Further excavation required.

Visual Interpretation from known Photographs

Only two photographs have been discovered for this class of ship thus far. Both show the FRANCIS GARNIER in 1888. No photographs of the other five ships have been discovered.

The images show a two deck passenger steamship with two masts, and cargo boom. Applying the known dimensions of the ship and visible humans, it can be seen that the foremast is situated approximately 9–10m from the bow, followed by the fore hold. There is a triangular awning supported by stanchions, extending from the bow to the foremast. Two anchors and chains are also observed.

The upper deck is supported by closed bow and stern; and by approximately 31 stanchions on either side.

Abaft the fore hold are the central erected structure, two pairs of davits, funnel, two cowls, and engine room opening. These are followed by the after mast and aft hold. The observed position on the wreck site of the two holds, boiler, and engine are all consistent with this interpretation.

Archival material related to the construction of the ship is currently being searched for. Information presented here is subject to change.

Conclusion

I believe that the Mannok wreck is the steamship FRANCIS GARNIER, built in Greenock, on the River Clyde in Scotland, during 1881 by Scott & Co. to the order of the Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine — a French company registered in Paris, with operations in Saigon. She was lost on Friday 26th August 1921.

The historical and observed archaeological data are consistent in sufficient detail to establish that they belong to the proposed ship, and there are no irreconcilable discrepancies.