July 1909. Sold to Ping An S.S.Co. with Wallen & Co. Shanghai, as managers. Renamed "Tsinanfu"
1910. Sold to J.Christensen, Bergen. Same name.
1914. Sold to Russian Vokunteer Association, registered in Vladivostock and renamed "Indigirka".
1917. Requisitioned by The Shipping Controller, Turner Morrison & Co Ltd. as managers. Name still "Indigirka".
May 1917. Jardine Mattheson & Co. Ltd. Hong Kong, appointed as managers. Renamed "Tsinan".
May 1919, Reverted to the Russian Volunteer Association as "Indigirka".
1923. Returned from China to Vladivostock.
1924. Incorporated into the Sovtorgflot' and by 1933 became a salvage depot ship.
Dec 12th. 1939. Struck a reef in Okhotsk sea off NW tip of Hokkaido and sank.
Events / Stories
Refer to the "Changsha I" for a description of this class of vessel.
The Inglorious Fate of the Indigirka
In the late 1880s, John Samuel Swire commissioned Clyde shipbuilders Scotts’ Shipbuilding & Engineering, to build a new class of steamship for the Far East-Australia trade. Launched in 1886, Changsha I, Taiyuan I, Chingtu and Tsinan I, with their sleek, yacht-like lines, were undoubtedly the prettiest ships ever owned by the China Navigation Company, and they were immediately popular with passengers.
By the 1900s, however, increasing competition in this trade, coupled with stringent import tariffs and immigration restrictions in Australia, meant that the line was no longer profitable for CNCo. From 1907, it was reduced to a two-ship service, using Changsha I and Taiyuan I, and in 1912, China Navigation cut its losses and withdrew from the trade altogether, selling these two vessels to its Australian agents, Geo. Yuill & Co., as the basis for the newly formed Australian-Oriental Line, which Yuill’s continued to operate until 1925.
Chingtu and Tsinan I had meanwhile been sold by CNCo in 1909, and after a couple of changes of name and ownership, were purchased in 1914 by the Russian Volunteer Fleet Association and re-registered as Yana and Indigirka. Yana (ex Chingtu) remained with the RVFA until 1923, when she was sold to a Japanese shipping company, and eventually wrecked near Hakodate in 1929. Indigirka was briefly requisitioned by the British Government during the First World War, but from 1919 was destined to spend the remainder of her long life with the Russian fleet. She was incorporated into the Sovtorgflot in 1924 and by the mid-30s, was being used as a salvage depot ship.
Unimaginable changes had overtaken Russia since the former Tsinan I had joined the Tsar’s fleet. The Romanov dynasty had been bloodily obliterated by the Revolution of 1917; the Bolsheviks had seized power, and in 1924, on the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin had embarked on the brutal reign that would end only with his death in 1953. As a means of crushing those he regarded as ideological enemies of the State – and “counter revolutionaries” included peasant farmers or “kulaks”, as well as writers, artists and churchmen - Stalin began to develop a system of penal colonies in the frozen wastelands of the northeast. These were the notorious slave labour camps – the “gulag archipelago” later made famous by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
One of the largest of these colonies was in the Kolyma region of Siberia, where huge gold deposits had been discovered in 1910. However, the Bolsheviks only began to exploit these reserves, using convict slave labour, in the early 1930s - by which time the Soviet Union was teetering on the edge of economic ruin. Over the next 20 years, thousands of men and women – not just Russians, but Poles, Czechs, Germans, Japanese, and possibly even American POWs – were given summary trials, sentenced to between five and 20 years’ hard labour, and herded onto trains to make the long journey east via the trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok or the neighbouring ports of Nakhodka and Vanino, and thence north by ship to Magadan, the port for the Kolyma camps. By the late 1930s, 200,000 convicts were working in the gold mines of Kolyma, producing with picks and shovels some 10 per cent of the world’s gold reserves in an area that enjoys the coldest weather in the northern hemisphere; an estimated 30-40 per cent did not live to complete their sentences.
It is not clear when Indigirka was first drafted into the infamous gulag fleet. By 1939, she was 53 years old and no longer held a licence to carry passengers, and it is probable that she made a single voyage only, brought in to shift a backlog of prisoners south before the Sea of Okhotsk froze over for the winter: it was destined to be her last. In November 1939, Indigirka left Magadan for Vladivostok, carrying some 1,170 men, women and children, including 250 fishermen returning home at the close of the season, 836 former convicts leaving Kolyma on completion of their sentences, and around 50 political detainees awaiting trial. On the evening of 12th December, while steaming into a blizzard, the ship struck a reef off Sarufutsu, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The majority of the passengers and crew were able to escape quickly, but when some of the discharged prisoners, locked below deck, attempted to break free, they were fired on by an armed guard, and forced back into the holds. Vladmir Petrov, in his book Soviet Gold: My life as a slave labourer in the Siberian Mines, described the scene, as recalled by a fellow prisoner:
“On one cold and windy day we were loaded in the hold of an old wreck – the little steamboat Indigirka. As former counter revolutionaries, we were assigned the worst place, the forward hold……The Indigirka struck a rock and a stream of water burst into the hold through the breach in her side. Something unimaginable broke out on the ship. People jumped off the bunks and rushed to the single narrow trapladder leading to the deck, knocking over and trampling on one another. But the first men to reach the top were merely pinned against the iron-bound hatch lids, locked from without…”
Within 15 minutes, those trapped below in the dark were up to their waists in freezing water, and as the ship gradually settled on her side and the hatch covers disappeared below the waves, all hope of escape seemed at an end. It was three days before a Japanese rescue team was able to cut through the hull of the capsized vessel to reach the mass of drowned and suffocated humanity inside, and they pulled only 27 survivors from the holds. A total of 745 people died in Indigirka, whose Captain and senior officers were later executed, (it was not wise to lose one of Stalin’s ships), and in the museum at Sarufutsu, a model of the little ship still commemorates the worst known incident of loss at sea involving a gulag ship.
With grateful acknowledgement to Mr M.J. Bollinger, for permission to use material from his book, “Stalin’s Slave Ships: Transports of the Kolyma Gulag”