Monday, January 7, 2013

The Wreck of the Príncipe das Astúrias

It was ten minutes past four in the morning of the 5th of March, 1916.

The liner Príncipe das Astúrias, constructed in the same shipyard as the Titanic (Harland and Wolff, in Belfast) and the pride of the Spanish mercantile fleet, was en route from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.

The weather was bad, the visibility poor.

Passing the tip of the island of Ilhabela, between the Brazilian ports of Rio de Janeiro and Santos, and proceeding at full speed, she hit a rocky outcrop.

The collision tore a huge gash in her double hull. The inrushing water caused her boilers to explode. She caught on fire, broke apart, capsized and sank within five minutes.

Officially, she carried 588 passengers and crew.
And the initial reports were that 445 of them were lost.

But, in fact, the disaster was much, much worse.

Because some 1000 men, women and children, refugees from the war in Europe, were being carried clandestinely in the hold.

And none of them escaped.

Those that did were on the upper decks. They were close to the island, but this photo, taken from over the spot where the wreck now lies, shows what kind of a coast it was and is. Not an easy one to come ashore onto when being battered by high waves.

Going down just four years after the Titanic, the sinking of the Príncipe remains classified as the second greatest maritime disaster in American waters. But she achieved that distinction only because she was a smaller vessel (less than half the length of the Titanic) and because many aboard were not carried officially on her roles.

The true loss-of-life, however, was greater.

She lies, today, at depths ranging from 10 to 50 meters (32 to 169 feet), and can be visited by divers, but the water is cold, the currents are strong and the visibility is poor.

So her greatest treasures have yet to be salvaged.
There’s gold aboard – forty thousand pounds of it.
And bronze – in the form of statues.

The statues, twenty of them, were to form the base of a great monument in Buenos Aires. Money to create them was collected by Spanish immigrants in Argentina to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic. And the commission was given to the Spanish sculptor, Agustí Querol.

In 1990, one of those statues was finally recovered, and it can be seen today in Rio de Janeiro.

The bronze survived the sea quite well, but the work was heavily damaged by the explosion and fire.

The other nineteen statues remain within the wreckage on the sea floor.

They are valued at some eight million United States dollars.

Leighton - Monday


  1. What a fascinating story; one that I'd never heard before. Thanks for writing about this sad, but oh so interesting, maritime disaster.

  2. It's amazing that a wreck like that has gotten so little publicity (in the US, at least). Apparently not enough US citizens involved. Thanks for the story, Leighton. What a horror!

  3. Add me to the "never heard about this before" ranks! I'm surprised that not more salvage attempts have been made, with that kind of cargo.

  4. New to me, and the bronzes must be beautiful. Someone will figure it out someday. And we are very Eurocentric, aren't we? As a culture?

  5. How do you know these things? What a story...and the bronzes... I feel there must be more coming. Or at least hope so.


  6. I didn't have any idea about this disaster