The wreck of the Libelle and other early European Visitors to Wake Island, Central Pacific
by Dirk H.R. Spennemann
The wreck of the Libelle

As mentioned, because of the low-lying character of its islands, Wake could not be seen from afar and thus proved to be a considerable shipping hazard. The fears by Sproule that a vessel at night might not see the reef until it was too late [43] was to come true less than ten years later, on the night of March 4th, 1866. [44] The barque Libelle, of Bremen (Germany), commanded by Captain Tobias, had been en route from San Francisco to HongKong via Honolulu, when it ran aground on the east reef. [45] The Libelle was a 650 ton iron-hulled barque with a reputation of being a fast and reliable vessel on the San Francisco-HongKong run. According to some sources, the Libelle was the third vessel lost by Captain Tobias. [46]

On board were among others four members of an English opera troupe en route to commence a tour of the Far East. The group was comprised of the then 50-year old opera singer Anna Bishop-Schultz (see below), her husband Martin Schultz, a diamond merchant from New York, her assistant-cum-maid Maria Phelan, and Charles Lascelles, her musical accompaniment.

In addition, on board were Eugene Miller Van Reed, a 28-year old American, being the Hawai'ian Consul General to Japan, and Kisabo a Japanese, being the envoy from the Shogun of Japan. [47] Both were travelling to Kanagawa (Japan) to negotiate a treaty between Hawai'i and the Shogunate, and to arrange for the recruitment of Japanese labour for Hawai'is canefields. [48] The two parties had met up on board the Ajax, which had taken them from San Francisco to Honolulu, and decided to continue the voyage from Honolulu to HongKong together. Further, there were five unnamed Europeans (three men and two women) in the cabins, and ten Chinese (six men, two women, two babies) in the steerage.

`Life' on Wake

The vessel had struck the reef in a gale during the night, when visibility was very low and there was little chance of avoiding the disaster. The vessel was firmly run aground with little water coming in even though the hull had been pierced. Throughout the night the ship gradually filled with water and the stern settled. This allowed the swell frequently to crash over the wreck, eventually washing off one of the three boats.

Some bedding and a few utensils had been taken from the cabins, and passengers and crew spent the night on board the vessel stuck on the reef. The next morning passengers and crew reached the shore without casualties despite the heavy surf. Because the ship had filled below deck, the cabins were inaccessible and only a few items and that bedding that had already been taken on deck could be taken ashore. The provisions taken ashore were quite limited, namely of a barrel of beef, several bags of flour and some kegs of wine.

A brushwood shelter was erected for the four European women and a camp organised. The island was found to be barren and no water could be found despite repeated digging for wells on various spots of the island. Even though the sailors caught seabirds and fish for breakfast on the morning of the second day, the lack of water became a serious problem, as the issue of wine in lieu of water was unsatisfactory and anyway, in view of the limited supply, a short term solution.

After three days of digging holes for wells, the crew succeeded in hoisting a 200 gallon water tank from the wreck onto dry land. Sea birds, which were found to be unafraid of people, could easily be caught and became a staple in the diet of the 30 stranded people.

All valuables and some of the cargo, especially the mercury, were brought ashore as well. The Captain, having salvaged the valuables and the mercury, buried the material on the atoll. Finally, after three weeks on the island without finding food or water (even though the prospecting for wells continued), it was decided to leave the island and to try to reach the Marianas in an open boat. The wreck of the Libelle had since sunk, and with it went any chance of a further salvage of food items.

Much consideration seems to have been given in finding a suitable point of departure, as the encircling reef and surf were prohibitive. The boats were dragged across the sand cay into the lagoon, and launched from there. On March 27th, they set out for Guam, some 1400 miles to the west, taking along all provisions that had been saved from the wreck. The 22 passengers and some crew were in a 22 foot longboat under the command of the first officer (or chief mate), while the Captain and the remainder of the crew sailed in the 20 foot gig. On April 8th, 1866, after thirteen days of sailing and depredation the longboat safely reached Guam, centre of the Spanish colony of the Marianas Islands. [49] The Captain with eight crew, however, perished in the gig. Subsequent searches mounted by the Governour of Guam failed to find any trace of either the gig or its crew. It was assumed that the gig had been swamped in the cross seas three days after leaving the atoll. Some sources claim that the perished party consisted of the Captain, four crew and three Chinese, the latter either crew or, more likely, passengers [50]

Anna Bishop

We are so well informed about the event because a then famous opera star was among the party, and the story of the open sea voyage was carried by a great number of newspapers of the day. [51]

Anna Bishop (nee Riviere), born London 9th Jan 1810, was an English soprano, who m made her debut in 1831 shortly before her marriage to the British opera and song composer Henry Bishop. She sang mainly sacral music and English songs written by her husband, and, touring the provinces quickly attained a reputation. In 1839 she sang Italian opera, in Dublin, Edinburgh and London accompanied by Harpist Nicholas Bochsa. Soon after, she eloped with Bochsa to Hamburg, leaving her husband and three children, and beginning a life on the road. The public scandal of the elopement and the somewhat shady reputation of Bochsa (as a forger and bigamist) brought her immediate fame in the press. From 1839 she and Bochsa gave performances in all major European towns (except in France, where Bochsa would have been arrested). They performed in St. Petersburg for a year, where she gave 260 concerts, and in Naples for 27 months, where she appeared 327 times in 20 different operas. After a brief stint back in England, she toured from 1847 to 1852 New York, Mexico, Cuba and California, New York again, San Francisco and then Sydney. After Bochsa's death in Sydney (6 Jan 1856) she toured Chile, Argentina and Brazil, returning to New York in 1858, where she married Martin Schultz, a diamond merchant. In 1858-59 she toured England again, followed by a tour of North America including Canada and Cuba. Leaving from San Francisco via Honolulu on a tour of the Far East, they came to be stranded on Wake.

As a traveller on concert tour she carried with her a voluminous wardrobe, some special stage costume pieces, props and stage-jewellery as well as a great deal of real jewellery. The main loss, however, were her music scores, many of them originals, specifically written for her by Bochsa, and her scrap books and letters. All of these things were lost in the wreckage on Wake and had to be replaced, where possible.

After her stay on Guam, she continued her tour and sang at Manila, HongKong, Singapore and various locales in India, returning to England via Australia. After a return to New York she embarked on another world tour, including paces such as Sydney, Cape Town and Madeira. She died on 18 or 19 March 1884 in New York. Anna Bishop has been called one of the most popular English singers of her generation, and judged to have possessed a brilliant voice and a masterly technique. [52]

The cargo

The cargo of the vessel, as cleared at San Francisco on January 23rd, consisted of 1 case of cigars, 4098 qt. sacks of flour, 30 cases of hardware, 150 packages of old iron, 1000 flasks of mercury (quicksilver), 1 case of seeds, 2050 sacks of wheat and 10 kegs of wine - a cargo in total valued at $51,555.27. In addition, the vessel carried "treasure", ie. coins, precious stones and the like, with a value of $93,943.08, dispatched by Messrs.Macondray & Co, of San Francisco on consignment for a trading house in HongKong. The treasure was buried on the island to await further salvage. [53]

Several secondary sources mention that the cargo or the "treasure" was valued at $300,000. [54] Unless the dollars referred to a different currency, for example the (cheaper) Bolivian or Peruvian Dollars versus the U.S. Dollars there seems to be some confusion and exaggeration over the years. The total value of the cargo including specie was about $150,000, which at the exchange of 2:1 to the Chilean Dollar could account for the discrepancy in reporting.

Initial salvage

After arrival in Guam, the shipwrecked were hospitably received by the Spanish governor, Francisco Moscoso y Lara. The Spanish, "havtarget="footnotes">[ing] no store there" provided the survivors "with a few materials to make up a little clothing." [55] A schooner, the Ana, incidentally owned by the son-in-law of the Spanish governor, the British citizen Johnston, was chartered and dispatched by the governor of Guam to search in the vicinity of the central Marianas and further east for the gig with the Captain and the remaining crew. The Ana was also given the orders to sail for Wake and, with the first officer as a guide, to recover the treasure buried on the atoll. [56] By the laws of salvage at the time, the salvage party, ie. Johnston and his crew, had the rights to one third of the proceeds, while the Spanish crown would claim the remaining two thirds. [57] Until the search for the crew had been completed, and until some sort of inquest had been held into the loss of the vessel, the passengers were bound to stay on Guam. It would appear that only Mr. van Reed because of his "official position," [58] and the Japanese citizen were allowed to leave Guam. After four weeks they left for HongKong on board of the Sydney barque Finculo which had stopped over en route from Australia.

The others were kept back in Guam until the treasure had been safely recovered. Apparently the salvage party took two days to find the treasure, as all marks left had been "thrown down and washed away by the sea". It seems that what was recovered was the specie, but not the general cargo. Davies in his biography of Anna Bishop claims that 800 flasks of mercury were recovered by the Ana, which, in the light of the subsequent salvage operations and their successes, appears to be unlikely. According to several secondary sources the "treasure" has never been recovered. This seems to be more a lore of "hidden treasures" than reality, especially in the light of the Ana recovery party and subsequent salvage misions.. In addition, given the reasonable secrecy with which sea voyages could be undertaken in those days, the specie could well have been recovered but not declared.

The Ana returned on 21st June 1866, and on 25th June 1866 the passengers were allowed to leave Guam--on board the Ana which took them to Manila.

As a result of the Spanish government's action of taking two thirds of the salvage proceeds, litigation ensured that involved the San Francisco agents, the HongKong merchants for whom the consignment was destined, and the Spanish government in Guam. [59]

Salvage operations

The event, as well as the amount of specie involved, could not be kept secret for long, and vessels going from Guam to Honolulu must have brought news of the event. Following this a number of vessels, mainly from Honolulu, but apparently also from China, went in the following two years to Wake to salvage some of the cargo, mainly the flasks of quicksilver. These wrecking voyages were not uncommon at the time, often conducted on a speculative basis, and many isolated atolls and reefs provided rich pickings.

At least five vessels are on record as having gone to Wake (table 3). The first was the Hokulele of Hawaii under the command of Thomas R. Forster, which sailed on 9th May and returned on 22nd June 1867 having salvaged 247 flasks of mercury, while a vessel from China had salvaged another 248 flasks. [60] Little is known about the latter vessel, but it is possible that this trip was brought about by the returning Chinese survivors of the Libelle wreck.

It appears that the teams camped on Wake or Peale Islands for the duration of the individual salvage exercises. Some even stayed longer: the vessel Moi Waihine, which had brought one salvage party, was blown away three days after arrival and apparently perished in a gale, marooning the salvage party on Wake for five or six months until another, different salvage vessel, the Cleo, arrived. In view of the problem encountered by the Libelle survivors one wonders how this group managed to obtain enough water to survive. [61] The salvage party returned to Honolulu on April 29th, 1868 with some anchor, copper and 240 flasks of mercury.

Early salvage parties, such as that landed by the Moi Wahine, comprising Captain English, T.R. Forster (who had already come some months previously with the Hokulele) and 8 Hawaiian divers, simply used skin diving techniques to salvage the cargo from the sunken wreck. Other salvage parties, such as that of the Caroline Mills, Capt. Nicholas (or Nickols), brought state of the art diving equipment (`submarine armour') in order to retrieve the cargo, indicating the importance and value which was attached to it. [62] The Caroline Mills had left Honolulu in January 1867 on a three months wrecking cruise. While the main objective had been to salvage from the wreck of the Libelle, the voyage also included a visit to Bokak Atoll in the Marshalls. The Caroline Mills returned on April 24th, with some flasks of quicksilver, as well as material garnered from Bokak. [63]

But despite all these salvage operations the shipwreck of the Libellewas not `picked clean.' Brass fittings of the vessel, anchor chains, a ship's block and some lava rock carried as ballast in the vessel, as well as lignum-vitae deadeyes were found on the beach as late as 1940. The anchor of the Libelle, found by Taussig in 1898 had been salvaged in 1935 by members of the Pan American Airways construction team and placed as a marker before the entrance of the PAA hotel, [64] which subsequently became one of the few attractions available to trans-Pacific air travellers on their stop-over on Wake. [65]


Table 3. Chronology of events of the wreck of the Libelle
DateEventNewspaper reports
1866, January 23Libelle clears customs in San Francisco 
1866, January 24Libelle leaves San Francisco 
1866, February 16Libelle arrives Honolulu 
1866, February 18Libelle leaves Honolulu 
1866, March 4Libelle wrecked on Wake 
1866, March 27Shipwrecked leave for Guam 
1866, April 8Longboat arrvies at Guam 
1866, April 10Schooner Ana sails to search for survivors and to salvage some of the cargo 
1866, May 7Eugene Van Reed and Kisabo are allowed to leave Guam for HongKong in the Finculo 
1866, May 7Anna Bishop writes letter to San Francisco 
1866, May 13Eugene Van Reed writes letter to US press from HongKong 
1866, May 31 China Mail
1866, June 21Ana returns from Wake 
1866, June 25Passengers are allowed to leave, depart for Manila 
  Alta California
1866, July 31  Boston Daily Advertiser
1866, July 31  New York Semi-Weekly Times
1866, August 1  Boston Daily Advertiser
1866, August 1  The Daily Herald (Newburyport, Mass.)
1866, August 2  New York Observer
1866, August 4  New England Farmer (Boston)
1866, August 18  Hawaiian Gazette (Honolulu)
1866, August 23  Boston Daily Advertiser
1866, September 1  The Friend (Honolulu)
1866, October 15  Evening Standard (New Bedford, Mass.)
1867, JanuaryCaroline Mills leaves on wrecking voyage 
1867, April 22Caroline Mills returns to Honolulu 
1867, April 27 Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu)
1867, May 1 The Friend (Honolulu)
1867, May 9Hokulele leaves Honolulu for Wake 
1867, May 31Hokulele arrives at Wake 
1867, June 7 Boston Daily Advertiser
1867, June 7 Daily Evening Traveller (Boston)
1867, June 7 The Boston Daily Evening Transcript
1867, June 22Hokulele arrives at Honolulu 
1867, SeptemberMoi Wahine from Hawaii arrives at Wake, a salvage party is landed 
1867, SeptemberMoi Wahine blown off in gale and perishes 
1868, MarchSalvage party rescued by Cleo 
1868, April 29Cleo arrives at Honolulu 

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). The wreck of the Libelle and other early European Visitors to Wake Island, Central Pacific.

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 1992-2000
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