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Colonel Moffat And The Sarah Sands

Updated on August 28, 2010

In my hub 'A Family History - Gentleman Immigrant' wherein I share the writings of my aged Aunt Jean mention is made of my great-great-great grandfather Colonel Boland Moffat. His rank and the spelling of his name were not the only discrepancies I found between my own research into his roll in the sinking of the 'Sarah Sands', a British sailing ship that connected England with the Raj in India carrying both passengers and military personal. 

In the historical reports of this incident my ancestor's name is spelled Bowland Moffat and it would seem that he started this voyage as a Lieutenant Colonel in command of 333 soldiers of the 54th Foot. Further discrepancy lies in the tale past down over the past 160 some years within the family and the actual reports of the incident as they happened at the time.

The SS Sarah Sands

From William Makepeace Thackeray's Roundabout Papers -
From William Makepeace Thackeray's Roundabout Papers -
The Keep Military Museum
The Keep Military Museum

The family version of the story of the 'Sarah Sands' and the role played by 'Colonel' Moffat is one of a hero who saved the day.  Given that he was later awarded the Silver Cross, the highest medal awarded at the time, for his role in the events of November 11, 1857 it is not surprising that the family's view of his heroism has remained intact for 153 years. However, as I delved into the story I found that our simple version is not so simple as that. 

According to the report in the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, Dorset the progress of the Sarah Sands towards her destination was a slow and arduous one.  After two months of a troubled voyage there was an attempted mutiny when the crew became disgruntled over conditions and rations.  Naval personal aboard the ship put the ringleaders of the ragtag crew "in irons".  That was on October 25, 1857.  Just over two weeks later a fire was discovered aboard the ship.

A squall on November 7th had done away with the ship's foremast and four days later a smoke was seen to be coming from a rear hatch by a Sergeant Murphy.  The soldiers were immediately set to work throwing barrels of ammunition and powder kegs overboard and attempting to douse the fire with sea water as the lifeboats  were lowered to take women, children and the sick to safety.  And therein lies the deviation from my family's account of events.

It would seem that in getting his wife and two daughters into the lifeboat Lieutenant Colonel Moffat, (for indeed he was a Lieutenant Colonel at that time) despite his desperate pleas to the contrary, was rowed to the safety of shore along with the women and children.  He was not able to re-board until the crisis had seemingly passed.  The soldiers worked through the night and there again the family account varies as my aunt reports "the beautiful Sarah Sands became a burning hulk and did not make it to port".  In truth it was a burned out hulk but it did make it to Port Louis, Mauritius on 23 November, 1857 and was greeted to a "heroes welcome". 

The Fire Aboard The SS Sarah Sands Broke Out 600 Miles From Ceylon And 800 Miles From Mauritius

show route and directions
A markerCeylon -
Sri Lanka
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B markerPort Louis, Mauritius -
Port Louis, Mauritius
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When news reached London of the heroic efforts and the bravery of the 54th Foot Regiment the Duke of Cambridge who was Commander-In-Chief had high praise for the regiment's conduct.  It would seem however that his praise did not extend to my great-great-great grandfather Lieutenant Colonel Moffat.  Indeed, quite the opposite and it was found, by a Court of Inquiry that in his seeing his wife and two daughters aboard the life craft he had "deserted his post".  The Adjutant-General found Lieutenant Colonel Moffat to have been "distracted by" his family and "further the motive may excuse the man, but not the soldier"  He was placed on half-pay and demoted.  It is future army records that show him from that time forward as Colonel Moffat.  

It seems that it does not end there and I can only imagine that it was the proverbial 'salt on the wound' when he later received highest award, the Silver Cross, from the Royal Humane Society for his courageous actions aboard the Sarah Sands.  His medal was sent to him by 'post' to where he was serving in India and it is reported that he never acknowledge its receipt or gave thanks for it. 

The 'tattered and torn' remains of the Regimental Colours saved from the Sarah Sands were taken out of service in and put in the Norwich Cathedral in January of 1868.  They are now hung in the Sherborne Abbey along with this poem:

A moth-eaten rag
On a worm-eaten pole,
It doesn't seem much
To stir a man's soul

'Tis the deeds that were done
'Neath the moth-eaten rag
When the pole was a Staff
And the rag was a Flag.

An Australian Newspaper Report

The Australian newspaper, 'The Argus', in an article dated January 4, 1858 gives a detailed accounting of events aboard the SS Sarah Sands on November 11th and 12th of 1857 along with an explanation about how it was that she made it to Port Louis despite the deplorable mess she was in. The article states that the "affairs of the 54th, whom we saw on board, informed us that all the facts were faithfully related" and goes on to say that "all efforts would have been made in vain if the vessel had not been iron, and divided into water tight compartments."

No mention whatsoever is made of Lieutenant Colonel Moffat but it was reported that "The officers of the ship were all at their posts doing their duty with readiness".

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling wrote of the SS Sarah Sands in his book - 'Land And Sea Tales For Scouts And Guides. In his journals Kipling refers to and cites the written accounting (1870) of Lieutenant Fredrick Schotel of the 54th Foot. "......Anyway, three of the ladies were the wife and daughters of Lieutenant-Colonel Moffat, who assisted them into a boat commanded by Mr. Very, the Third Officer, who immediately pulled away from the ship before Moffat could return on board, saying that his orders from Captain Castle were to keep clear until told to return. Major Brett saw him in the boat at some distance from the ship, and at once took command of the firefighters, despite the reports in The Times of 29th and 30th December, 1857 which give a stirring account of the Colonel's activities. He was not, so far as I can tell, employed again, even though his absence from his post was not his fault."


Indian Mutiny Medal
Indian Mutiny Medal

A Corporal P. McAndrew was also awarded the Silver Cross for his heroic efforts aboard the ill-fated SS Sarah Sands and it turned up at auction on July 23, 2009 at Spinks minus the clasp. Page 106 of the auction catalog gives an account of the events leading up to and of the fire along with displaying a picture of McAndrew's medal. (

The Indian Mutiny Medal awarded to Sergeant Walter Searles who served aboard the SS Sarah Sands is currently at auction with The Royal Humane Society.  "On September 1852 Walter enlisted in his local unit, the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment, and with the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny travelled out to India aboard the SS Sarah Sands, being present during the famous fire aboard that vessel on 11 November 1857. Searles subsequently saw active service in the Mutiny and in recognition of this received the Indian Mutiny Medal, his medal being impressed ‘SERJT WALTER SEARLES, 54TH REGT’. On 10 March 1865 Walter transferred to the Unattached List. The 54th regiment returned to England in April 1866. Searles appeared before a Regimental Board at Chatham on 25 April 1874, which approved his discharge, this finally taking place on 5 May 1874."

As to what happened to my great-great-great grandfather's medal, I have no idea.


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    • raisingme profile image

      raisingme 7 years ago from Fraser Valley, British Columbia

      Thank you. At this late stage in my life I am discovering all sorts of things about my ancestors that I didn't know. One of them wrote a number of songs including the "Bonnie Banks of Loch Lommand that my father had me sing 'ad nauseum' as a child - without mention that his family had played any part in it whatsoever. And then this amazing Aunt and her the heroic part she played in both the First Balkan War and WW1. Fascinating stuff! I hope you get the opportunity to read it all.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Washington

      Fascinating history lesson on Colonel Moffat and the Sarah Sands - very well presented!