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Saturday 15 October 2011


A dahabeeah on the Nile at Cairo

A news item from the Suez Mail, relayed in New Zealand’s Southland Times on 25th February 1876, reads:
A melancholy accident has occurred on the Nile. While Mr Russell Gurney, and three daughters of the Rev J.H. Gurney, were on the river, a squall capsized the boat, and all the ladies were drowned. Divers are seeking to recover the bodies.
The New York Sunday Courier carries a fuller version of the story (from the London Times) in its 30th January edition that year:

Three Nieces of the Recorder of London Drowned in the Nile
[Egyptian Corres of the London Times]
Mr Russell Gurney himself had started on the Nile voyage first, leaving the rest of his party, consisting of his nephew and nieces, to follow him as rapidly as possible in a second boat, the Flora, with a dragoman, reis, or captain, and the ordinary crew. It is usual, on account of the sandbanks, shallows and many curves of the river, for dababeeahs on the Nile to moor at nightfall; but, in order to lose no time, the Flora pursued on after sunset, against, it is said, the opinion of the reis. At nine or ten in the evening they were some sixteen miles off Minioh, a strong northerly breeze blowing, with squalls. They were passing Gebel el Tayr, the Mountain of the Bird, whose lofty, precipitous cliffs rise abruptly from the river several hundred feet. The Nile, having no tributary for the last 3,500 miles of its course, only decreases in size as it nears its mouth, and is much wider here than it is at Cairo. It is as broad as the Thames at London bridge, and the winds rush down the ravines with great force. The Flora was under full sail – that big lateen sail, twice as big as the boat itself, which makes a dababeeah look like a great swan upon the water. As she rounded the point, a sudden squall took her, and before the sheet could be let go, she capsized in the darkness. The ladies in their cabins, most of the crew, the reis himself, were all lost in the deep, rapid stream, and only one passenger and the dragoman were able to reach the shore. A bright-eyed donkey-boy, well known to frequenters of Shepheard’s Hotel at Cairo, who had begged to be taken on the trip to avoid impressments as a soldier for the Abyssinian war, was among those lost.
As yet the bodies have not been recovered, but divers have gone up to the scene of the disaster, and it is hoped that their efforts will be attended with success. The sympathy for Mr Russell Gurney and his nephew is universal in Cairo, and the catastrophe has cast a great gloom over all English travellers in Egypt. It cannot be too strongly impressed on Nile tourists that the dababeeah is only a fair-weather boat. With its comfortable house on deck, its sixty feet or seventy feet of length, its enormous sail requiring a yard to hold it nearly double the length of the boat and, with  all this, having a draft of barely three feet, a Nile boat is very easily capsized, and accidents would be frequent if travellers did not, as a rule, prefer safety to speed, and always seek the shelter of the banks when there is anything like bad weather.

Rt Hon Russell Gurney, QC, MP (1804-1878)

Russell Gurney was in loco parentis, his brother John Hampden Gurney the sisters’ father having died in 1862. He had no children himself. It’s rather sad that the names of the victims aren’t recorded here or elsewhere: only the manner of their collective death survives to preserve their memory. I do know that the surviving nephew was Edmund Gurney (1847-1888). This tragedy shook him to the core of course, and may well have been the root of his fascination with spirits and the afterlife, of which I have written here previously.

I wish too that I knew the name of the Egypt correspondent of the Times who wrote this moving, poetic account of the accident.

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