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Photograph from a series depicting the sinking of the SS TAHITI

Date: 1930
Overall: 93 x 147 mm
Medium: Photograph
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Shirley Eutrope
Object Name: Photograph
Object No: ANMS1122[012]

User Terms

    When the well known and popular steamer RMS TAHITI sank on a voyage from Sydney to San Francisco in 1930 some of the survivors and rescuers found a ready market for their pictorial images of the sinking and rescue of the passengers and crew amongst New Zealand and Australian newspapers and movie houses.

    SignificanceThis small collection of photographs capture the drama and excitement associated with the loss of a large passenger steamer in mid-ocean and the subsequent rescue of the passengers and crew.
    HistoryRMS (Royal Mail Ship) TAHITI was a New Zealand passenger / cargo vessel of 7,585 tons built in 1904 at Bristol, England as the SS PORT KINGSTON for the Imperial Direct West India Mail Service Co. In 1911 the steamer was purchased by the Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand and renamed the SS TAHITI. The TAHITI along with the MANUGANUI, MONOWAI and MOERAKI were converted into troopships at the start of World War I in 1914 and went into the British Transport Service before being returned to the Union Steamship Co in 1919.

    Being a fast and comfortable ship upon its return, the steamer was put on the Royal Mail run between Sydney and San Francisco and carried the distinctive R.M.S. title. In 1924 RMS TAHITI was chosen by the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (AWA) Company of Sydney, to take part in a series of tests using short and long wave radio equipment and it was fitted with experimental radios. The signal was tested on voyages between Sydney and San Francisco.

    On 3 November 1927 RMS TAHITI came into collision with the Sydney ferry GREYCLIFFE off Bradleys Head resulting in the ferry sinking immediately with the loss of 37 lives. Because of the nature of the collision and the large loss of life the GREYCLIFFE disaster, as it became known, resulted in many court actions.

    Whilst on a voyage from Sydney to San Francisco via Rarotonga, Papeete and Wellington in August 1930 the steamer's starboard propeller shaft snapped off in the early morning of Saturday 16 August whilst the steamer was 450 nautical miles southwest of Rarotonga, tearing a large hole in the steamer's stern. It was immediately seen that the lower stern section of the hull was extensively damaged and despite desperate efforts to stop it, water entered the propeller shaft and the lower compartments of the vessel at the rate of 30 tons an hour. With the water gaining on the pumps and the vessel drifting Captain A T Toten ordered a distress signal to be sent out requesting urgent assistance.

    A number of steamers, including the VENTURA on a voyage from Sydney to the United States, and the TOFUA, which was proceeding from Suva to Apia, immediately altered their courses to go to the assistance of the TAHITI. The master of the Norwegian steamer PENYBRYN, bound from Cuba to Auckland, which was closer to the position of the TAHITI also answered the distress call and proceeded towards the sinking ship.

    Throughout Saturday and all day Sunday the TAHITI drifted helplessly, moving slowly to the north, due to the effects of wind and current. With the engine room flooded the vessel's donkey engines, usually used to power the ship's cranes, were jury rigged to provide power to the ship's pumps but were unable to keep up with the water pouring into the vessel.

    On Sunday night, aware that they had drifted almost 60 miles to the north-west of their original position, the crew of the TAHITI starting firing off star shells and rockets to alert the crews of the rescue ships. About nine o'clock on Sunday night the SS PENYBRYN, guided by the rockets, reached the TAHITI. Given the darkness of the night and the risk to the passengers it was decided not to transfer any passengers until the following morning.

    On Monday morning the TAHITI, although settling down in the water, was not in immediate danger so the passengers and crew, now reassured by the presence of the PENYBRYN, settled down to await the arrival of the much larger SS VENTURI. The VENTURA arrived in the vicinity 50 hours after the distress signal was sent. As it appeared on the horizon the remaining engine room bulkhead on the TAHITI gave way and the passengers and crew were ordered to abandon ship. Five boats were filled, launched and heading over to the PENYBRYN before the VENTURA reached the stricken steamer. The 128 passengers and 148 crew were transferred to the VENTURA and the PENYBRYN. The TAHITI could not be saved and sank shortly after the vessel was abandoned, two and half days after the accident.

    Amongst the 128 passengers were Fred Walker (founder of the Kraft Walker Cheese Company of Australia) and his family, Sir Hugh Allan (Professor of Music at Oxford University and President of the Royal College of Music), the author Hector Macquarrie, Bishop F A Bennett of Atearoa (NZ) the first Maori bishop of New Zealand, and Mr H F Ayson, Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands.

    The dramatic accounts of the sinking of such a well known and popular ship as RMS TAHITI, supported by a number of still photographs and movie images of the vessel sinking and the rescue of the crew, saw the development of a small but lucrative business in the publishing and on selling of such images by some of the passengers and crew of the VENTURA and PENYBRYN. The SYDNEY MAIL ran an exclusive story featuring images of the sinking supplied by passengers onboard the VENTURA and the Fox Film Corporation secured some motion pictures and still photographs from a passenger onboard the RMS TAHITI. (Source: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 10 September 1930)

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