Sultana Maritime Disaster

Carl Sagan once said, “Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.” This stands in complete accordance with Sultana’s preventable fall. The worst maritime disaster in human history could’ve been avoided if it was not for ignorance.

The date is April 27th, 1865 and the night is dark save for the hundreds of stars above you. You are aboard on steam paddleboat 'Sultana', hearing the steady thumping of the paddles on either side of the ship as they propel the boat along, along with the conversations and soft singing of almost two thousand Union soldiers. You don't think about how almost fifty years in the future, a bunch of poor souls will be on board an Atlantic passenger liner playing a losing game with a hazardous iceberg. No negative thoughts about the current voyage cross your mind. You're on a safe paddleboat sailing on the Mississippi river, no icebergs here! But suddenly, there are a series of explosions. Your boat is sinking fast and there is hardly any safety provision available. In not much time, it turns into a tragedy worse than the legendary RMS Titanic disaster.

The Sultana stands as one of the worst maritime disasters in the world. Still, when it took place, with nearly two thousand dead, the incident was largely ignored. Possibly, it happened like this because the public had grown indifferent to deaths after years of the American Civil War. What is not ignorable is that there was a chance to prevent it, if it wasn't for some good old-fashioned government corruption and the greed of Captain Mason. The Sultana was a small steam liner that typically carried bales of cotton. She had to transport soldiers, yet a hired mechanic argued with Mason and his chief engineer over the plan to transport soldiers, highlighting that one of the Sultana's four boilers needed urgent repairs. Steam technology was notoriously dangerous. The steam fed a piston-cylinder, and the pressure pushed the piston up and then it opened a valve that let the highly pressurized steam vent out safely and thus dropped the piston, starting the entire cycle over again. Problems occur when this valve isn't fully opened and it deprives the steam of venting. Then pressure rises rapidly until inevitably, there's a steam explosion.

The Sultana was only rated to carry roughly 350 passengers. Yet, the limit was dangerously exceeded. Seeing it as an investment in his soon-to-be-rich future, Captain Mason bribed the government official to let him transport as many soldiers as he could fit on the ship.

On the day the Sultana set off, the Mississippi river was particularly risky to navigate due to the melting of snow from up north. The uprooted trees choked the water as far as the eye could see.

At around 7 pm, she finally reached Memphis, Tennessee. Here, she unloaded 120 tons of sugar from her cargo along with about 200 men. These men would- no doubt- be counting their lucky blessings just a few hours after their debarkation. That night, just shy of 2 am, the boilers were being overworked, and the allowable steam pressure in each had crossed the limit. To make matters worse, the boilers were made out of a type of metal that cracked and became brittle when heated and cooled repeatedly. Given the nature of a steam engine, this should have probably tipped off its constructors and warned them against its use. Suddenly, one of the four boilers exploded. The soldiers were packed in so tight that many were right up against the boiler room itself, and the blast instantly killed hundreds. The massive explosion led to a huge release of superheated steam, literally cooking hundreds of men alive. Some survived the initial explosion, but sadly the fast river current and the raging inferno doomed the survivors to death. Bodies from the wreck continued to wash up months after the incident.

According to some theories, Confederate sympathizers, embittered by their loss in the war, had sabotaged the ship in order to kill as many "damned Yankees" as they could. In the end, though the Sultana killed more than the Titanic, she remains relatively obscure, and perhaps that is because her sinking got overshadowed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Sultana’s story could not spread as it was not able to compete with headlines as “President Murdered!” Hence, the sinking of the Sultana disappeared in the lingering fog of the Civil War.

To end with, we know that one thing is pretty clear: the Sultana did not sink due to technicalities, but it sunk due to the immaterialistic aspects of greed, incompetence and recklessness.

-Devansh Rastogi