On October 8, 1892, Hong Kong’s cricket team was returning home from an annual inter-port match in Shanghai when their ship foundered in a typhoon. Of the 148 passengers and crew on board the P&O steamship SS Bokhara, only two team members were among the 23 survivors. The China Mail reported at the time that “the wreck seems to have been one of the most appalling that has ever taken place on the China coast”. One-hundred-and-twenty-seven years later, researchers from City University’s Lighthouse Heritage Research Connections (LHRC) project, led by Dr Steve Ching Hsianghoo, have returned from the Penghu Islands, in the Taiwan Strait, where their exploration of the Yuwengdao (Fisher Island) Lighthouse took a drift of its own, enabling the reconstruction of a 19th century maritime tragedy that shocked colonial Hong Kong. “Lighthouses on the China coast were more than navigational aids,” says Ching, “they were engineering masterpieces which signified national prestige and they hold the key to many stories about Asia’s maritime past.” Almost as an aside to their lighthouse research, the team of architecture and multimedia specialists have resurrected the Bokhara disaster, which Ching believes is much more than an obscure anecdote from the dusty annals of Hong Kong’ s colonial past. For him, the story remains an important example of “connecting the Eastern and Western worlds”. The Bokhara was a substantial ocean-going vessel used to carrying mail, cargo and passengers from China to the port of Colombo, in Sri Lanka, in all conditions. Built on the River Clyde, in Scotland, in 1873, it was a three-masted steamer of 2,900 tonnes and a length of 365 feet – about three times as long as a Star Ferry. That October Saturday the ship sailed from Shanghai, carrying a cargo of silk, tea and silver Mexican dollar coins, the de facto currency of Hong Kong at the time. The Hong Kong cricket team aboard the vessel had been competing against the Shanghai XI, with the former soundly beaten in the two-day match. The result, however, was perhaps incidental to the wining, dining and lavish hospitality offered by the hosts. One of the more successful players for Hong Kong was Dr James Lowson, assistant surgeon at the Government Civil Hospital, in Sai Ying Pun. A jovial and popular member of the team, Lowson had taken eight wickets and a catch in the first innings and opened the batting. On the return journey to Hong Kong, like most of his teammates, Lowson took the opportunity to sleep off the athletic and social excesses of the previous few days as the experienced Captain Charles Sams navigated the ship around China’s southeast coast. By midday on Sunday, October 9, while the passengers prepared for lunch, Sams was looking at the barometer with increasing concern. Pressure was falling sharply and he was more aware than anyone that it could be the first warning sign of an approaching typhoon. We were pitching about so fearfully that I got up and went into [cricketing teammate John] Dunn’s cabin. He also got up and sitting together there we could hear the wind howling outside and the water dashing over the steamer Survivor Dr James Lowson told the China Mail By Sunday evening, the weather had begun to deteriorate rapidly. At 10pm, Sams called an emergency conference on the ship’s bridge with his officers. He ordered the upper-deck hatches to be battened down and for all sails to be removed or lashed down in preparation for lying to, to ride out the storm. By 1.45am, the second-in-command, Chief Officer Giles Prickett, reported everything as being secure and ready and Sams attempted to turn the ship around. By now, the wind was raging at hurricane force, the sea rising into cliffs of water that crashed over the upper deck. Despite ordering full ahead on both engines before applying full helm, the ship turned only part way then lurched off course, blown by the howling wind. It was impossible to calculate their position in such weather, as the ship drifted southeast with the prevailing seas. Officers took depth soundings from a handheld line. Lookouts strained their eyes staring into the distance for signs of land, life or hazards. By Monday evening, conditions were still worsening and the ship was now beam (side) on to the heavy seas, causing violent pitching and damage to the upper deck. At about 9.45pm, three huge swells swamped the vessel, smashing the engine-room skylight, allowing seawater to enter and extinguish the boiler fires. The Bokhara was now powerless and at the mercy of the elements. The survivor accounts told to Hong Kong press and the subsequent marine court of inquiry, which began on October 21 at the Harbour Office, reconstruct the ship’s final moments. “We were pitching about so fearfully that I got up and went into [cricketing teammate John] Dunn’s cabin,” Lowson told the China Mail . “He also got up and sitting together there we could hear the wind howling outside and the water dashing over the steamer.” By 11.45pm, Prickett was called to the bridge, where he was given the worst possible news – land had been sighted. “It’s all up Prickett – goodbye – we have done our best,” said Sams, stoically. “There was no necessity for him to explain what he meant,” Prickett told Captain Ramsey, of the Royal Navy, at the court of inquiry. Through the misty darkness, Prickett could see waves crashing violently over a rocky reef just 300 metres away. Sams shook his officers by the hand, thanked them and went below to warn the passengers of the impending catastrophe. He was never seen alive again. “A few minutes later, she [the Bokhara] struck on the starboard side,” recounted Prickett, “heeled over to port and again struck, shipping seas at the same time which washed everybody off the bridge.” The horrible sound was enough to alert Lowson, still in Dunn’s cabin. “Before midnight on Monday she gave a heavy lurch and seemed to shake from stem to stern – jumping up I said, ‘John, that’s the finish,’” Lowson said. He grabbed two life jackets and threw one at Dunn, who paused to put it on. Lowson ran out of the cabin and pushed past other passengers and crew huddled in the companionway leading to the upper deck. They seemed petrified, either by the prospect of drowning or the terrible force of the storm. “Get life belts and come out,” screamed Lowson above the din, but they only looked at him with blank eyes before a huge sea engulfed them all. Lowson received a gash to the brow as he grabbed at a ladder while the sea washed everyone off the bridge and upper decks like flotsam. “I then struck out for the shore, which was about 250 yards away, for all I was worth, and I cannot describe the terrible character of that experience amid the rocks and breaking seas,” Lowson later told the press. “I struck the upper bridge with my head,” Prickett told the court of inquiry, “and the next thing I knew was when I was lying on the reef.” Still in shock, Prickett met up with Third Officer T. Jones-Parry, Fourth Officer W.H. Sweeny and two quartermasters (Ward and Lewis) on the beach, recalling nothing of how he had reached Sand, or Gupo, Island. They joined more than a dozen Lascars – South Asian crewmen – and the sodden group of shipwrecked mariners took shelter in a primitive hut near the beach. They found Lowson and his teammate Lieutenant F.D. Markham, of the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, shivering inside. Lowson was dressed only in torn pyjama trousers and a vest. It fires the imagination to stand on an island where only the destined ones were able to survive the terrifying experiences of the Bokhara shipwreck Dan Lai, a member of City University’s Lighthouse Heritage Research Connections project Some 127 years later, when the LHRC team slid their boat onto shore, they found Sand Island still desolate and uninhabited, the black rocky reef where the Bokhara had foundered clearly visible to the north. “It fires the imagination to stand on an island where only the destined ones were able to survive the terrifying experiences of the Bokhara shipwreck,” says LHRC member Dan Lai, who has been investigating the story since last September. “It was a very eerie environment. On the day we arrived, the sun was shining with clear skies, yet a strong feeling of emptiness and isolation could be felt while walking around.” When the survivors peered out of the hut on the morning of Tuesday, October 11, 1892, there was nothing left of the ship but wreckage strewn along the beach. By Wednesday morning, the weather had improved and a passing fishing junk spotted them and took them to a nearby island, where they sheltered in a temple and where “we were very well treated”, said Prickett. On Thursday morning, the castaways were taken to Makung, the capital of Penghu, and placed under the care of the archipelago’s mandarin. Again, they were treated with kindness by the imperial Chinese official and his staff. Meanwhile, corpses and flotsam were washing up below the cliffs of the Fisher Island Lighthouse, about 10 nautical miles southwest of the reef. On sighting evidence of a shipwreck, lighthouse keeper Thomas O’Driscoll sent a message to the authorities in Makung. Sweeny was subsequently sent by boat from Makung to the lighthouse to assure O’Driscoll that all the survivors had been rescued. On October 15, the SS Thales, dispatched to search for the Bokhara, made contact with O’Driscoll and raised flag signals to ask if a wreck or disabled vessel had been seen. Sweeny, who was still at the lighthouse, joined the Thales by boat and guided the ship to Makung, to pick up his fellow survivors. From Makung, local officials helped the Thales coordinate with the warship HMS Porpoise, which took the survivors back to Hong Kong, where they were met by friends, family and an eager press pack. “Both the surviving passengers [from the cricket team, Lowson and Markham] bore traces of their rough buffeting in the waves and neither seemed to have recovered wholly from the nervous shock such a fearful experience entailed,” wrote one reporter. A collective memorial service was held at St John’s Cathedral, in Central, and local newspapers were full of accounts of the disaster for weeks. The inquiry exonerated Sams and his crew of any wrongdoing in the incident. “The Court desired particularly to bring to notice the human conduct of the people amongst whom the survivors were cast,” said Ramsey, “the fisherman who took them off Sand Island, the native priest at Pehoe [Penghu] who relieved their immediate wants and the Mandarin […] who it appears treated them with the greatest kindness and hospitality.” The Yuwengdao Lighthouse remains operational and the site is open to the public. The name of British engineer David Marr Henderson adorns the white, circular exterior of the lighthouse wall. On their recent trip, the LHRC group was accompanied by Marr Henderson’s great-granddaughter, Felicity Somers Eve, who was able to show them the original drawings of the light and the complicated mechanics her great-grandfather had designed and installed in 1875. Ching and his team also met Penghu locals, such as 95-year-old Cheng Ing-shie, a retired elementary-school teacher from Baisha township who remembers his mother telling him how she used silk material recovered from the Bokhara wreck to make clothes. In 2009, underwater archaeologists from the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, in Taipei, led by Professor Tsang Cheng-hwa, located the wreck at a depth of about 20 metres, some 100 metres north of Sand Island, and organised a dive. Tsang says the main structure of the vessel is now covered by coral reef. Their intention is to leave it in situ, but they did recover some Mexican dollar coins and parts of the ship, including a brass porthole cover, which confirm the ship’s identity. “The wreck of the Bokhara has already been listed as an underwater cultural heritage by [Taiwan’s] Ministry of Culture,” says Tsang. Following the disaster, the British community in Hong Kong raised funds for a commemorative granite stele, which was installed in 1894 on Sand Island. A commemorative silver plate was also presented to the mandarin of Penghu as a gift from Queen Victoria, together with a formal letter of thanks from the British diplomatic presence in Peking, on December 28, 1893. The stone stele remains in place but the whereabouts of the silver plate are not known. Searching in Japanese archives, Lai found correspondence relating to the monument and plans to help maintain it during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, from 1895 to 1945. The lettering on the stele is faded and the upper part is scarred by large caliber shell holes – possibly inflicted by warplanes on exercise – but technology is giving the monument new life. As part of an exhibition about Fisher Island and the Bokhara planned for later this year, LHRC member Anthony Leung Ka-ho is constructing a 3D virtual-reality model of the stele, as a permanent digital memorial to the 1892 disaster. The 3D digital model and video documentaries on Fisher Island and the SS Bokhara, created by the team behind City University’s Lighthouse Heritage Research Connections project, will form part of a permanent display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.