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18th-century engraving of the Scilly naval disaster

3 deadly shipwrecks that changed the course of history

Image: 18th-century engraving of the Scilly naval disaster with the HMS Association in the centre | Public Domain

Every new voyage a ship makes across the ocean is filled with risks. Whether the most high-tech naval ship or the most rudimentary sailing boat - no amount of preparation and planning can predict with 100% certainty what the conditions will be like on the open waters. And while each shipwreck is a tragedy in its own right, every so often, a wreck comes along that is so devastating it prompts significant change. Here are four British shipwrecks that changed history.

1. HMS Association

Launched in 1697, HMS Association was a 90-gun ship. Having served with distinction for over ten years, the HMS Association was on the last leg of a return journey from a Mediterranean campaign when disaster struck.

The flagship of a squadron of 21 ships, as the HMS Association entered the mouth of the English Channel, she struck a rocky outcrop just off of the Isles of Scilly. Wrecked, the ship sank in a matter of three to four minutes, and all 800 people on board lost their lives.

With the ship's location falling short of where the squadron was originally reckoned to be, three more ships that followed her (HMS Eagle, HMS Romney, and HMS Firebrand) were also wrecked in the maelstrom, bringing the total death toll to 2,000, making it one of the worst maritime disasters in British history.

Determined to prevent another catastrophic navigational error of its kind, the Board of Admiralty launched the Longitude Act - a competition to try and find a better way of navigating longitude. It wasn’t long until someone came up with an answer.

John Harrison, a carpenter by trade, was an amateur clockmaker who, when he heard about the scheme, thought he might be able to provide a solution. After years of testing and trialling, Harrison’s new maritime timekeepers not only allowed sailors to keep time at sea but undoubtedly saved countless lives with their improved ability to navigate longitude.

2. RMS Lusitania

When Cunard Lines launched their new passenger liner, the RMS Lusitania, in 1906, they couldn’t have possibly known just how big of an effect she would have on world affairs. Briefly the largest passenger ship in the world, the Lusitania also held the 1908 record for the fastest time crossing the Atlantic.

On the return leg of her 202nd voyage, the Lusitania met with her unfortunate end. As well as her human passengers, the Lusitania was loaded with 173 tonnes of rifle shells and ammunition destined for the front lines of WWI. Despite the number of civilians, the ammunition on board made the Lusitania a key military target.

Torpedoed by a German U-boat on the Southern Irish coast, it took 18 minutes for the Lusitania to sink. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 passed away, including 128 American nationals.

While Germany felt justified in the sinking of the Lusitania, arguing that using a passenger liner to transport ammunition made those ships a fair military target, the sentiments in Britain and America were wholly different. The loss of American civilians prompted fierce debate and turned American public opinion against Germany. While it wasn’t the main cause of America’s declaration of war on Germany just two years later, it significantly contributed to their entry into WWI.

3. The White Ship

When Henry I refused his space on the White Ship, there was no way he could have known just how much his life was going to change. The ship's captain, Thomas FitzStephen, was the son of Stephen FitzAirard, who had sailed with Henry’s father, William the Conqueror, during the Norman Conquest. So it was no surprise that Henry trusted Thomas’ capabilities as a captain of the White Ship.

Having already made other arrangements for his return to England, Henry agreed that his retinue should take the newly refitted ship home in his stead. This choice saved his life but changed the course of British history forever.

Five of Henry's children were included on board that fateful day in November 1120, including William Adelin - his only legitimate heir. Before the ship had set sail, crew members had asked William for wine which he had been only too happy to provide for them. Concerned with the level of drunkenness on board, some party members disembarked. By the time the ship set off, there were nearly 300 people on board joining in the revelry.

Emboldened by the alcohol, the party petitioned the ship's captain to set off early to beat the King’s ship that had already set sail. The White Ship had only just been refitted and was one of the fastest ships of its day, so both party and captain were confident that they could reach England first. Unfortunately, this confidence caused their downfall. Setting out in the dark, the ship hit a rock and quickly capsized.

William Adelin initially managed to escape the wreck in a lifeboat but died when he returned to try and rescue his sister, Matilda. Swarmed by others trying to escape the quickly sinking ship, William ended up drowning with the others on board. The only survivor, a French butcher, survived by clinging to a rock.

The loss of the only legitimate heir to the English throne led to a succession crisis. A period in English history known as The Anarchy. Despite declaring his daughter, Matilda, as the next heir, when Henry I died, his throne was snatched by his nephew Stephen of Blois (who had, coincidentally, been one of the people to exit the White Ship due to the heavy drinking).

The ensuing civil war for succession led to a breakdown in law and order across the country and dragged on for 15 years. Eventually, a compromise was reached with the treaty of Wallingford that decreed Stephen would remain king, but Matilda’s son, Henry, would be his heir.