Saturday, May 19, 2012

The migrants who didn’t make it to Buenos Aires

When the Italian transatlantic steamer the Sirio foundered off the coast of Spain on a hot afternoon in August 1906, 300 passengers, most of them Italian and Spanish migrants on their way to a new life in Argentina, lost their lives in tragic circumstances.

The disaster has a lot in common with the recent Costa Concordia incident. Both ships ran aground caught sailing too close to the coast and both captains abandoned ship before their passengers had the chance to be rescued. But the Sirio was not a cruise. It was a ship which spent her life transporting migrants to the New World and a new life.

Built in Glasgow by the firm Robert Napier and Sons, the Sirio was owned by Navigazione Generale Italiana. She had 5,332 horsepower, weighed over 4000 tons and could reach a speed of 14.6 knots. She was launched on 26 March 1883, made her first crossing on July 15 1884 and would go on to make a total of 135 regular trips on her route from Genoa, Italy to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is estimated that during her lifetime the Sirio transported around 175,000 migrants to Argentina and Brazil.

The route that the ship sailed for twenty-five years never changed and tended to take fifteen days. Stops were made in Barcelona, Cádiz, the Canary Islands, Cabo Verde, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Montevideo before arriving at the final destination of Buenos Aires. It is also clear however that the Sirio often made unofficial stops along the Spanish coast in Murcia, Almería and Málaga, where she would pick up illegal migrants, charging them 100 pesetas for a trip across the Atlantic.

Captain Giuseppe Picone
When the Sirio departed from the Federico Guglielmo port of Genoa on 2 August 1906, there was no reason to suggest that the journey would be any different. This was the ‘South American Line’. Fifteen days of luxury at sea for the first class passengers and fifteen days at sea for the rest.

First class was truly first class. Until the First World War, the ornate interiors of ships, particularly Italian ships, were modelled after great country houses, which were seen as the epitome of high life. The Sirio was no different. Segregated from the rest of the ship, her first class passengers, who paid on average 750 lire-oro for their ticket, enjoyed five star luxuries of palatial quality. The third class passengers paid around 160 lire-oro to sail from Genoa and were stored on the ship in conditions described as ‘inhumane’.

In total the Sirio had capacity for nearly 1300 passengers. But on the fateful journey of 2 August 1906, Captain Piccone stated that he was carrying 635 third class passengers and 70 first and second class. There was also a crew of a 127 on board. 

On 4 August 1906, two days after leaving Genoa, she was sailing along the coast of Cape Palos near Cartagena in Murcia, Spain on what was an extremely hot and uncomfortable afternoon. There were other ships in the area but the Sirio was the closest to the coast, at a distance of some 1500 metres from land.

The coast of Cape Palos, Murcia
The Hormigas Islands, two miles off the coast of Cape Palos, are difficult to navigate. Hormiga Grande is the larger of the islands and measures 200 metres by 60 metres. 450 metres away is Hormiga Chica, a much smaller island. Between these two there are also various large rocks and reefs, serving to further complicate navigation.

The Captain, 68 year old Giuseppe Piccone, had 46 years experience and a flawless record. But as his ship attempted to sail past the islands on what the Captain of the Marie Louise, a French steamer sailing nearby, testified was ‘a dangerous course’, he was not on deck and the Sirio ran aground on a reef. The impact was ‘tremendous’. Fisherman on the coast stated they heard an ‘almighty bang’ and it is reported that the vast majority of passengers lost their balance and fell to the deck.

The Sirio opened up as though she had been sliced apart and immediately took on masses of water. She was soon up at an angle of 35° and within four minutes her stern had sunk below sea level.

Shamefully, Captain Piccone was one of the first to abandon ship and so there was no ordered evacuation. Panic set in. The nearby Marie Louise, which eventually saved 25 passengers, could hear the screams coming from the Sirio as pandemonium ensued. People trampled upon one another in attempts to get to the lifeboats and some were even murdered by their fellow passengers as fights broke out.

She actually managed to remain poking out of the sea for sixteen days after the incident but eventually broke in two and sank to the bottom of the ocean after a large thunderstorm hit the area. Experts suggest therefore that had there been an orderly evacuation with the Captain and crew taking control of the situation, hundreds would have been saved. But sadly there was not. The vast majority of the deaths were a result of panic.

Ultimately Captain Piccone, who was on what was to be his last Atlantic crossing to the Americas, came under immediate fire from the press. From the first moments of impact he apparently froze and was unable to react to the gravity of the situation. He did not assume any of his responsibilities as Captain and there are even reports he attempted to commit suicide.

He gave various explanations for the disaster. These included ignorance of the waters, which is unlikely as nautical charts were considered more than adequate at the time and Piccone had made the journey on numerous occasions.

Recovered bodies from the Sirio
It is more plausible that with an inexperienced third officer at the helm, the Sirio struck the reef as she sailed dangerously close to the islands picking up illegal migrants from points on the coast. But while the negligence of Captain Piccone, who reportedly died of grief less than a year later, led to hundreds of deaths, the bravery of local fishermen and the crews of nearby ships helped save hundreds more.

For twenty-five years the SS Sirio served thousands of Italian and Spanish migrants who at the beginning of the twentieth century abandoned Europe and made Argentina the destination for their new lives. But on this fateful voyage the migrants aboard did not make it to Buenos Aires and that dream of a new life ended in tragedy, as did the life of the SS Sirio.

El Naufragio del Sirio by Luis Miguel Pérez Adán.



  1. I had no idea about this event, very informative post.

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