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HMS Ringarooma and a time Tom Crean was in Quarantine

Before Tom Crean set out on his first expedition to Antarctica in December 1901, his time in the Navy until he walked up the gangplank of RRS Discovery had been pretty eventful yet its a period in the timeline of his career that has never before been explored.

After writing the book I’d filled in many missing gaps in Tom Crean’s timeline yet his story happens to be one that keeps giving. Recent research led me to discover new information which led me to write up the following post. Like all the events in this remarkable man’s life nothing about them were conventional.

HMS Ringarooma and a time Tom Crean was in Quarantine Tom Crean Book
Circa 1900-01 – An image of the young Tom Crean while he was assigned to HMS Ringarooma  Colourised by Matt Loughrey – My Colorful Past

In 1895, Tom Crean’s first seagoing assignment had seen him come close to armed engagement in Nicaragua. After a two-year period of training on his return from the South American Station, Crean’s term of service would be ledgered to HMS Ringarooma from February 15th 1900 although it appears he didn’t commence service on Ringarooma until over two months later.

The Admiralty, seeking to relieve existing crews of the Australian Station, commissioned the cruiser HMS Diana to ferry replacement crews to man the Australian Squadron of Royal Navy ships, Ringarooma, Boomerang and Torch.

Although the National Archives contain a record of the ship’s log for the journey, it would not include a list of names of those who were aboard. It is though, almost certain that among their number would be Tom Crean.  The ship left Plymouth bound for Sydney on 27th February 1900. Carrying 450 men, Diana arrived at Sydney on 21st April where Crean commenced his service three days later on 24th April, 1900 under the command of Captain Frederick St. George Rich.

At just 23-years-old Tom Crean had already clocked up many thousands of miles across the worlds seas and oceans from the Americas to Australia and his time aboard Ringarooma would prove just as eventful as his previous missions. The pre-Antarctic seafaring career of Crean was an unhappy time for him and one needs look no further than the demotions in his Naval record to provide some evidence of this.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been demoted and it was perhaps his experiences as a young sailor that gave him cause to regret his decision to sign on the dotted line when joining up in 1893. His one and a half years service aboard Ringarooma would only add to his woes. 

In the land-grabbing days of empire, tensions were high between French and British ships sailing to the outlying islands around Australia as they sought sovereignty of territory as yet unclaimed by either nation. Safeguarding their territorial assets meant continuing tours of duty to pacify and govern their subjects and to ward off any threats to their dominions.

HMS Ringarooma and a time Tom Crean was in Quarantine Tom Crean Book
HMS Ringarooma – Tom Crean’s penultimate ship assignment before joining the crew of RRS Discovery

One such ship making a tour sought to consolidate British interests that had already been laid claim to, was HMS Ringarooma. The particular mission of Ringarooma during the southern hemisphere’s winter month of June 1900, was to undertake a three month tour labelled  a “punitive mission.” It would be a mission to bring to heel warring tribes of what was then known as the New Hebrides, (modern day Vanuatu), a grouping of 80 islands 1,000 miles east of the northern coast of Australia.

Prior to the mission, from May 30th 1900, Ringarooma, with Tom Crean aboard, would be subjected to a restriction we are all experiencing at present – Lockdown, albeit for a far shorter period than our current constraints. The ship was forced to lay for 7 days in quarantine in the New Caledonian port of Noumea before returning to Sydney, the ship’s home port. The reason for quarantine was an infectious outbreak similar to that we are all currently experiencing during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In January 1900, a month before Tom Crean stepped aboard HMS Diana bound for Sydney, the first case of bubonic plague, (the Black Death), had been verified and Australia’s largest city was in the grip of a huge threat to its population. Health scientists quickly identified the causes and with measures put in place to curtail the spread of the disease, the number of deaths up to August 1900 had been kept to the relatively low figure of 103.

Following the ship’s enforced isolation, Ringarooma, with the 23-year-old Tom Crean aboard, would visit almost every island in the New Hebrides where on some, it was reported that:

Letters received by Ringarooma state that there has been a good deal of fighting on Tanna Island. Cannibalism was found to exist on many of the Islands, it is seen in its worst form on Aoba where the people seem really fond of human flesh.”

The aforementioned Aoba Island, where it was confirmed that humans had partaken in cannibalism, is today known as Ambae Island and its beauty inspired the mythical creation of Bali Ha’i in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. more popularly known today for references to it in the musical South Pacific.

Michener’s World War 2 depiction of Aoba and the civility of its natives was a million miles away from the reality of what the officers and crew of HMS Ringarooma bore witness to in 1900.

Before the ship finally made its return into Sydney on 3rd October 1900, word of another notable incident was splashed across the front pages.

While on a training exercise off the coast of the archipelago’s second largest island, Malakula Island, Ringarooma misfired one of its torpedoes and it dropped into the sea below.  At a cost then of £250, (equivalent to over £30,000 in today’s currency), retrieval of the valuable armament was of great importance.

Ship’s divers descended the depths in an attempt to salvage the valuable armament but soon the crew above sensed the divers violently tugging at the ropes indicating an eagerness to be hauled back up. safely on board they were bleeding from the nose and were in a state of exhaustion. They had landed upon a submarine volcano and had to escape the bubbling, waters that threatened to boil them alive. It was a narrow escape and they lived to tell the tale.

Further missions around the islands saw the Captain issue warnings to the natives for a number of disputes, over land seized by French or English settlers. Another saw Ringarooma commandeer a vessel caught trading illegally. Policing the southern posts of the empire where unwelcoming natives were contemptuous of their new masters, brought little in the way of job satisfaction to the crew on what was for them a ‘displeasure’ cruise.

Unsurprisingly, it was reported that all crew members were ecstatic when the mission was at an end. One officer was quoted as stating:

“Sydney is a heaven, after three months in the Islands,” 

Unrest continued aboard Ringarooma when, a month after her return in November 1900, three of the crew, described as ‘Stragglers’ went AWOL. It was a month later again, on 19th December 1900, that Tom Crean himself was demoted from Petty Officer 2nd Class to Able Seaman, a status he would maintain for 4 years and throughout his first expedition to Antarctica.

The reasons for his downgrade at this time are unclear and we are left to wonder whether discontent of the ship’s crew was related to the after-effects of their tour from hell.

With cannibalism, the Black Death and the potential for armed conflict all forming a part in Tom Crean’s fledgling naval career, it was perhaps a great relief to him that a certain Commander Robert Scott would inadvertently rescue him from more of the same had he not been recruited to join RRS Discovery in December 1901.

To discover the story of Tom Crean in an account that forms the most complete documentation of his life, click here where the 2nd edition Kerry-made version of his biography, Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero  is currently on special offer.

In March 2020, to coincide with the centenary of his retirement, I also released a hardback version which can be purchased on Amazon and other online book stores.

References used in the compilation of this article

The Times, 17th February 1900 – Naval & Military Intelligence.  HMS Diana took relief crews to three vessels serving in Australasian waters – Ringarooma, Boomerang, and Torch – and brought back the time-expired officers and men to England. 

ADM 53/13345 – The National Archives – Ship’s Log for HMS Diana between 15th February and 30th July 1900.

Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Saturday 21 April 1900, page 5 (Arrival of HMS Diana)

Telegraph (Launceston, Tas. : 1883 – 1928), Wednesday 10 October 1900, page 5 (Return of Ringarooma from tour of New Hebrides)

Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Wednesday 29 August 1900, page 6 (Cannibalism)

Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), Wednesday 7 November 1900, page 2 (‘Stragglers’ reference)

© Tim Foley 2020

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