Laid down as the Canadiana in 1920 by the yard of Furness Withy and Co Ltd. Middlesbrough, this vessel was launched on the 15th November 1921 as the London Merchant for the Neptune Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. of London. The ship measured 450.4′ x 58.1′ x 38.3′ and weighed 7939 gross tons, 5048 net tons. Her twin steam turbin engines by John Brown of Clydebank delivered 1004 nhp. Immediately after her launch she had been renamed London Merchant and she spent her early years on routes from Vancouver to Panama and subsequently New York to Philadelphia before she was laid up near Tollesbury, River Blackwater in Essex for a number of years. She was purchased in 1935 by The Charente Steamship Company of Liverpool, renamed Politician and resumed her working career plying the coastal routes of Western Africa. With the outbreak of war in 1939 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty for war service and was to make eleven successful Atlantic crossings before the end of 1940.
In February 1941 the Politician left Liverpool for what was to be her final voyage under the command of 63 year old Captain Beaconsfield Worthington heading for Jamaica and New Orleans with a valuable general cargo. The cargo included 3 million pounds worth of Jamaican banknotes but the more important cargo that was to make the Politician world famous, stored in hold number 5, were 264,000 bottles of whisky. The bonded warehouses in Glasgow had been badly damaged in air raid attacks and so, to avoid further risk to the whisky, it was decided to sell the complete content of the bond and ship it to safety abroad.
The Politician set sail on 4th February and cleared the Mersey around 10:30 am. Her planned route was to take her through the Minch before turning west and heading for America. As the ship reached the Minch the weather deteriorated and the visibility dropped dramatically. The final entry in the ship’s log showed a course correction just after 4:00 am on the 5th when the ship was set on a heading of north 29 degrees east calculated to set her through the Minch between Skye and the Outer Hebrides. However at 07:40 am a warning shout from the looks out signalled land ahead off the starboard bow. Despite the efforts of the crew to avoid the ship running aground she ran at full speed onto the shallow sandy seabed at Ru Melvich, Eriskay and stuck fast. The hull was badly damaged and water was soon rushing into holds 1, 5 and 6 and the engine room.
The SOS messages from the ship placed them on south side of Barra which was at least 10 miles from their actual position so rescue attempts by HMS Abelia and the Barra lifeboat were delayed. The captain put 26 of his men into the ship’s boats to be picked up by local fishermen before the lifeboat arrived on the scene to take off the remaining crewmen. The captain’s initial reports suggested that the ship was salvable but when the salvors arrived on site a week later and began removing the cargo it was obvious that the ship would not be recoverable in its current condition. On the 24th the owners informed the underwriters that they were abandoning the vessel. The salvage of all the cargo except the whisky continued until the 12th March when the Customs authorities arrived in site and sealed hold No 5. On 21st March the work to remove the whisky began and around 13500 cases were successfully removed leaving approximately 2000 cases, most of them damaged, on board the ship. Over the following months workers tried to patch the holes in the hull with a view to refloating her and salving the remains of the cargo. More of the whisky was successfully removed, some of it illegally by the local islanders, before, on 22nd September, the final salvage attempt was made.
The ship was pumped full of air intending to set her down in shallow water, patch her further then refloat her to take her to be fully repaired. She did indeed refloat but when she was grounded on what was supposed to be a sandy beach she settled on more rocks, damaged the hull and a bulkhead and this time she was doomed. She was towed off these rocks but she quickly sank near the north side of the Sound of Eriskay. Ensuing storms did the final damage and she was abandoned where she lay. The final chapter of the salvage was in 1942 when a further team arrived on site. They cut off the forward section of the ship and towed it away to be scrapped. The stern section, with hold 5 still containing around 200 cases of whisky, was blown up on 6th August 1942 under the orders of HM Customs. How much of the whisky was ‘recovered’ by the islanders will never be known but it certainly brought some relief to the wartime restrictions to some of them before the ship was blown up.
The remaining wreckage of the stern section of the Politician lies in the Sound of Eriskay in position 57° 06.058’N, 007° 16.387’W (WGS84) in around 5 metres of water. The wreckage, which has been the subject of further salvage attempts (both legal and illegal) over the years rises only a metre or so above the sandy seabed and is often covered and uncovered by the shifting sands. Over the years the wreck has yielded a few more intact whisky bottles and can certainly provide an intriguing, if usually futile dive to discover any more of her famous liquid cargo.