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When the disasters of our country's history are recounted, the sinking of the Cospatrick never features. It is New Zealand's forgotten tragedy, and yet the death toll was higher than other awful events we mark - Erebus (257 dead), Napier earthquake (256), Tangiwai (151) and the Wahine (51).

It is a horrific story of the loss of nearly 500 lives, of hopes burned and buried at sea, of cannibalism and lunacy.

The Cospatrick was an emigrant ship which set sail from England on September 11, 1874, bound for Auckland, carrying mostly poor country folk determined to start afresh in the new colony. Two months later, as it neared the southern tip of Africa, fire broke out on board.

Families waiting for its arrival in New Zealand grew anxious but their worst fears were not realised until word of the ship's fate reached Auckland by telegram weeks later.

"This is the most lamentable disaster, both as regards the loss of life and the horrors attending the sacrifice, that has ever occurred in connection with immigration to these colonies," wrote Auckland newspaper the Daily Southern Cross in January, 1875.

Auckland was in mourning - as sombre, perhaps, as the mood which descended on the city in the aftermath of the Erebus crash. And yet, for the most, we ignore the victims of the Cospatrick.

Dr Charles Clark hopes to change that. After a career as a research scientist, he has turned his investigative skills to history, delving into what happened on the Cospatrick and in the aftermath.

"It was a forgettable disaster because it occurred between two land masses ... and those travelling on board were voiceless poor people," says Clark, who has written Women and Children Last: The Burning of the Emigrant Ship Cospatrick. He hopes the book will revive the memory of those who lost their lives, and vanquish rose-tinted notions about the 19th-century flight of immigrants to New Zealand.

"Part of my motivation to complete it was to tell the story about the way the sea really was, rather than the way people romanticise it," says Clark, of Dunedin. "There's a lot of romance associated with the days of sail and it just wasn't like that. It was a hard, brutal existence."

The journey was dangerous and uncomfortable. The 435 passengers of the Cospatrick are history's witness to that fact, though as they stood at the dock on the Thames in London, full of hope for their promised life of prosperity in New Zealand, they probably would have been naively oblivious.

They came from virtually every county in England, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands. They were farm labourers and domestic servants, some lured to New Zealand by family members already there, some simply fleeing the hardship and the harsh industrial climate. Most were from rural villages, including 17 who came from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. (Locals there raised money for a Cospatrick stone memorial, unveiled in 1878.)

The crew of 44 included many experienced sailors. The captain was 39-year-old Alexander Elmslie, previously a master of several ships. On board were his wife, Henrietta, and the youngest of their three children, four-year-old Alexander jnr. The ship's doctor was James Cadle, a 32-year-old who joined the journey reluctantly, spurred only by the opportunity to visit a brother in New Zealand.

They set sail from the port of Gravesend aboard the two-decked, three-masted 191ft wooden ship, the passengers crammed into an area no bigger than about six small houses. Fatally, the cargo holds contained flammable spirits, including varnish and turpentine, as well as wine and beer, and consignments of goods to build the new colony. Six boats - in various states of condition - 12 life-jackets and eight lifebuoys were nothing more than a nod to safety.

Life on board was typically Victorian. Single men and women were strictly separated, Christian lessons were read. There were lessons for the children. Passengers helped with cooking and cleaning, men gambled and smoked. It was tedious, especially in the Doldrums.

On the night of November 17, 1874, a stillborn child was delivered. It was the first of many deaths of the night.

Screams of "Fire!" sent crew and passengers scrambling about 12.45am. An official inquiry later found that the fire was likely caused by people breaking into the cargo hold to steal alcohol, carrying candles. Clark expresses scepticism, saying it was a convenient finding which allowed the inquiry to lay the blame on people who could not answer back, and avoiding the serious questions around the dangerous nature of "colonial cargoes".

Whatever the spark, the blaze quickly took hold, particularly after an error of seamanship saw the ship turned into the wind, sending flames roaring down the length of the deck. Escape was barely an option. Four of the lifeboats were destroyed and there were fights for the meagre number of places of safety left.

Women and children hardly stood a chance - hence the name of the book. In the finest tradition of the sea, though, Captain Elmslie stayed with his ship to the end, in the process sacrificing the life of his wife and child.

Only 60 people had made it to the boats, though as the days unfolded many would have wished they had come to a quick end, rather than endure the torture of drifting without food, fresh water, or warmth, in the middle of nowhere. Some died of injuries and hypothermia. Others succumbed too quickly to the temptation of drinking saltwater. Some went mad and leapt overboard. During a storm, one of the boats disappeared altogether.

After about a week at sea, the 21 remaining survivors were desperate and turned on the bodies of the dead. Two bodies were cut open and the livers sliced into portions.

"The scene was one of great barbarism," writes Clark. "The flesh of each corpse was deeply incised and, in grisly communion, the survivors pressed their lips to the wounds and sucked the blood and tissue fluid from them."

Still, the sustenance was not enough, and more died. Hopes of rescue, cruelly raised then dashed when a ship passed by without seeing them, faded. Then, 10 days after the disaster, the British Sceptre, a cargo ship bound for Dundee from Calcutta happened across the boat. Six were on board - three of the original crew, two passengers who would die within days, and one body.

The crew members - second mate Henry McDonald, quartermaster Thomas Lewis, and young seaman Edward Cotter - were dropped at St Helena for hospital treatment, before being returned to London. Their story caused a sensation in British newspapers.

One enterprising reporter went to sea to meet the men before they landed in England and paid them for an exclusive interview - an early example of chequebook journalism which caused outrage on Fleet St.

For the families of the dead, the toll of the Cospatrick disaster was hard to bear. For the three survivors, the pressure was crushing, the book reveals.

Lewis, who later lost a leg in an accident at sea, seems to have coped best. He died in his village in 1894. Cotter became something of a disreputable figure, and a drunk. He featured in a music hall show and briefly enjoyed celebrity status, such was the Victorian fascination with shipwreck survivors - and cannibalism. He lived until 1941, aged 84. McDonald was the saddest of the three. He turned dark and threatening, before his mental state collapsed. He died in the Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum a little more than 10 years after being rescued.

Tracing the stories of the survivors was poignant for Clark, particularly given his affinity with the sea. Following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Clark joined the British merchant navy. Having decided at 15 he wanted to go to sea, he worked his passage from Wellington to England, where he attended the Prince Of Wales sea training school in Dover.

He had both good experiences and bad during a six-year sailing career, travelling around the world, "but it wasn't something I wanted to spend my whole life at". After various other jobs, he turned to chemistry, specialising in inorganic compounds during his work at the Australian National University and Otago University in Dunedin, where he lives by the sea and owns a small boat.

In 2001, his wife gave him the book Custom of the Sea which included a couple of pages on the Cospatrick. After being unable to find a book about the disaster itself, he started research, travelling to Britain several times. He has had no contact with families of those who died, "the ancestors," historian James Belich once wrote, "of thousands of New Zealanders who might have been".

Some victims already had New Zealand relatives. Kerikeri business owner Barbara Morton says the story of a great-great-uncle lost at sea in a fire was part of family folklore for generations, though no one knew the details. Several years ago when she began researching the family history, she went looking for signs of her ancestor, Michael McQuillin, a 22-year-old Irish labourer who had set sail for Auckland to join his sister. Finding his name on the Cospatrick passenger list was a breakthrough, tinged with sadness at the thought of what might have been. "It is a New Zealand disaster."

South Otago history enthusiast Carolyn Deverson points out that if we can remember the Titanic so well, even though it had no New Zealand links, undoubtedly the Cospatrick deserves a place in our history. "It's a story worth preserving in the country's psyche," she says.

Additional reporting by David Hastings

* Women and Children Last: The Burning of the Emigrant Ship Cospatrick, by Charles R. Clark, Otago University Press, $40.