Her loss was one of the most infamous disasters in British naval history. But now HMS Captain is set to be investigated more than 150 years after her sinking.
A powerful iron-clad battleship, Captain sank off Cape Finisterre in Spain in 1870 – an event described as an ‘appalling national catastrophe’ by Howard Fuller, the University of Wolverhampton researcher who is leading the effort to recover the wreck.
Over the past year, Fuller has gathered a specialist team of historians, naval archaeologists, and representatives from international authorities, and has identified Captain’s likely resting place, which lies outside Spanish territorial waters.
Launched in 1869, just the year before her loss, Captain was an experimental, sail-and-turret warship, and was considered the ‘Pride of the Victorian Navy’. This made her a highly sought-after posting, and as such several distinguished British naval officers – including the sons of prominent Cabinet ministers – were on board when she capsized during a fierce gale of hurricane strength off Spain’s notorious ‘Costa da Morte’ on 7 September 1870.
Nearly the entire crew – some 500 men – were lost in the incident, including her celebrated designer Captain Cowper Phipps Coles. The disaster was ‘worse than Britain suffered at Trafalgar or at sea during the entire Crimean War,’ Fuller explained.
Coles had designed Captain as a ‘perfect’ iron vessel that could go anywhere. She boasted the ‘biggest’ guns, mounted on revolving turrets on a weapons platform low in the water. But to ensure speed, Coles insisted on a large spread of sail to supplement her steam engines.
With a lower freeboard than originally planned, the vessel’s centre of gravity made her dangerously unstable. What had been intended as a diplomatic show of force along with the Channel and Mediterranean Squadrons of the Royal Navy, Captain’s presence off Spain instead turned to disaster.
Captain’s sinking touched Queen Victoria personally, and has since been memorialised in panels in St Paul’s Cathedral and a stained-glass window in Westminster Abbey.
Fuller’s research into the wreck saw him secure co-sponsorship by the University of Wolverhampton for an exploratory marine survey using a multi-beam echosounder.
A joint expedition took place last year to the area where Galician fishermen have long thought the ship sank. The result was the discovery of four unidentified wrecks, the last of which most closely matches the configuration of HMS Captain.
Fuller and his colleagues are raising funds for further surveys, using side-scan sonar and Remotely Operated Vehicles with cameras to make a positive identification in the coming months. It is hoped that international protection of the ship can follow.
Find out more about the search at https://findthecaptain.co.uk.