In late March 1932, newspapers carried reports about an Argentine ship named the S.S. Chaco that was carrying a large number of criminals. These criminals, mostly European, were being deported and sent back to their native lands, but on arrival it was discovered that no harbour would let them land.
According to early newspaper reports, the boat held 33 “undesirables.” Mostly political prisoners: Communists and anarchists, as well as some ex-convicts. But rumours spread that the ship held many more, such as gangster, white-traffickers and spies.
Its journey was the subject of much speculation and gossip, and even reports in the newspapers were contradictory. On April 22, reports spread that the ship had vanished. It was anchored off the mouth of the Elba, near Prussia. They’d apparently contacted the harbour authorities about a passenger who was ill and needed treatment. Then, the next morning, the ship had gone. This sparked rumours of mutiny.
This would appear to be fiction, since on April 25 it was reported that the ship had docked at Barcelona on April 11 and was still there. Also, it was stated that only fifteen prisoners remained on board. It appears that, despite the media’s portrayal of this ship as hopelessly sailing from dock to dock, it had been able to relieve itself of some of its cargo.
On May 10, as the ship passed through the Kiel Canal on her way to Poland, police lined the quay to keep people away from the vessel. A communist deputy arrived and almost sparked a riot as he tried to board the ship. Finally he was allowed on, and he told the captain that the Polish prisoners would probably be shot soon after landing there, but he was unable to change the captain’s mind.
By now, it was reported that there was one Englishman on board and that, after visiting Gydnia in Poland, the Chaco was expected to leave four prisoners at Lithuania before turning to Britain.
On May 24, another newspaper carried the headline that the Mystery Ship had vanished again. Reading the story, though, makes it clear that it just hadn’t arrived at the mouth of the Thames on the day it was expected.
By May 31 it was docked in London, with two armed sentries and two policemen guarded the gangway. The Times reported that the ship was now empty of prisoners, although it had held 240 at the beginning of its journey from Buenos Aries.
The ship was then loaded up with armaments, so I suppose the authorities were confident the ship was no longer a risk.
“Warship’s Cargo of Outcasts,” Aberdeen Journal, Friday 25 March 1932
“The Modern ‘Flying Dutchman’,” Nottingham Evening Post, Wednesday 30 March 1932
“The ‘Mystery’ Ship,” Nottingham Evening Post, Thursday 21 April 1932
“Mystery of the S.S. Chaco,” Nottingham Evening Post, Friday 22 April 1932
“ ‘Deportee Ship’ Mystery,” Evening Telegraph, Monday 25 April 1932
“Argentine Prison Ship Drama,” Nottingham Evening Post, Tuesday 10 May 1932
“ ‘Mystery Ship’ at Poland,” Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 11 May 1932
“Chaco Vanishes: Mystery Ship’s Cargo of Deportees,” Gloucester Citizen, Tuesday 24 May 1932
“Argentine Ship in the Thames,” The Times (London, England), Tuesday, May 31, 1932; pg. 10