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Charles Dickens and a Maltese seaman

An old UK newspaper cutting showing shipmate Ġużeppi Ruggier.

An old UK newspaper cutting showing shipmate Ġużeppi Ruggier.

Charles Dickens made his mark as a journalist before he became an established novelist, but even then he still occasionally published serial essays based on current events.

Most of the survivors owed their lives to Ġużeppi Ruggier
- Raymond Agius

The first reminiscence in his collection entitled The Uncommercial Traveller (1860) deals with ‘The Shipwreck’. Dickens introduces the reader to a placid seaside scene not far from the village of Moelfre in Angelsey in North Wales.

He describes people going about their business on the rocky shore or in vessels just off it. However, their task turns out to be a very grim one as they deal with the recovery of a famous shipwreck.

The clipper Royal Charter, when launched in 1855 was one of the more innovative ships of her time – fast and well endowed with sail, and one of the first to also boast of an auxiliary steam engine.

She had been returning from a round trip to Melbourne with more than 500 people on board.

Most were passengers enriched by the Australian gold rush, and by Dickens’ account her precious cargo was worth £350,000 at that time.

Just hours away from her home port of Liverpool, on the night of October 25th, 1859, the vessel was caught in what was later to be dubbed ‘a perfect hurricane’ in which reputedly 133 ships sank.

Her engine was overwhelmed and she was relentlessly driven onto the rocks as her anchors snapped in spite of the captain’s orders for the ship to be de-masted.

Dickens’ writing has to be read in full to be appreciated – no summary could do it justice. He described how, one by one, men were tossed off the ship’s lifeboat until all were drowned. The force of the sea was brought home to the reader by his depiction of a gold ingot embedded in the wreckage of the iron hull.

Dickens gave a vivid and heart-rending account of the tragic loss of life, the dead bodies laid out, and the suffering of the bereaved. In his inimitable style he eulogises the character and work of the man he perceived to be the unsung hero, namely Reverend Hughes, the church minister who caringly disposed of the dead and helped comfort their loved ones.

Dickens visited the wreck of the Royal Charter more than two months after the calamity. He had probably been too busy and had no urgent cause to visit the wreck sooner since he no longer earned a living primarily as a journalist.

So by the time Dickens penned his account for The Uncommercial Traveller, the 40 or so survivors of this terrible ordeal had dispersed.

Most of them owed their lives to one man, a brave seaman who was known to his shipmates at the time as ‘Joseph Rogers’. However to his relatives in Malta, where he was born, he had been and still is known as Ġużeppi Ruggier.

How had Ruggier, this unassuming seaman, become ‘The hero of the Royal Charter’? On the deck of the distressed vessel, at the mercy of the seas, Ruggier saw the inevitable predicament of the passengers and crew. The scene was immortalised in A Volunteer – a famous painting exhibited in 1860 by Dickens’ friend Henry Nelson O’Neil.

Ruggier tied a line around his waist and jumped into the maelstrom of raging waves and debris between the ship and the rock face. After being washed back to the ship three times, he finally made it to the shore where he was helped by local villagers who had gathered.

As a result of Ruggier’s heroism in bringing the rope to shore, a breeches buoy (bosun’s chair) was set up, for the time-consuming task of hauling people to safety one at a time. Unfortunately the ship broke apart before most could be saved.

Eight days after the shipwreck the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in London resolved that its “Gold medal and £5 be presented to Joseph Rogers in testimony of his heroic conduct in swimming ashore with a line from the Steam Ship Royal Charter, whereby many lives were saved.”

This was very prestigious as in the two centuries of the existence of this institution the medal has only been awarded for gallantry about 120 times. Ruggier was ack­now­ledged as a hero in the press in Britain and Australia. He went on to make about 25 round trips to Australia.

The day following his death in Liverpool, 38 years after the shipwreck, The Times of London published his obituary which asserted that “he accomplished what had seemed to be an impossible feat of swimming”.

The event including a bronze sculpture of Ruggier, with a Maltese cross on the reverse, is now commemorated by two monuments near the shipwreck, as well as in various museums and books.

The Ruggier story is but one of the many collective memories housed at the Malta Maritime Museum, which incidentally is a short walk from Ruggier’s birthplace. The museum strives to raise cultural awareness of Malta’s maritime past which is rich in human stories such as Rogers’ life.

Currently the museum has a temporary showcase containing artifacts from the Royal Charter and photos of Ġużeppi Ruggier. It is hoped this will eventually form part of a permanent display about Maltese heroes and their link to the sea.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. the Maritime Museum, on the Vittoriosa Waterfront, in collaboration with the British Council, will host a Victorian evening to celebrate all that is Dickensian and Victorian at the Malta Maritime Museum.

This event forms part of the British Council’s global Dickens 2012 programme to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens.

Tickets are on sale now from all Heritage Malta sites at €3.

More information about Ruggier can be found on www.agius.com/maltese/ruggier.htm.

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