Old-time shipwrecks are a richer, quirkier subject than most of us imagine. In 1841 the Nautical Magazine listed 50 ‘Causes of the loss of ships at sea, by wreck or otherwise’. In addition to ‘Mistaking of headlands’, ‘Driving on a lee shore’, ‘Sleeping on watch’, ‘Shifting of cargo’ and so on, the list includes:
Teetotality – coffee instead of rum etc.
Drunkenness, revelry etc.
Presence of captains’ wives, and other women.
A dead-and-alive set; no devil on board.
Discord and dissension; the devil let loose.
This list is reproduced as an appendix to Terence Grocott’s meticulous catalogue of doom, though without any hint as to how exactly captains’ wives and other women contributed to maritime disasters. Did they spread a fatal, deadening sobriety or an excess of devil? This book suggests some additional causes of shipwreck, among them ‘Boys larking with gunpowder’, ‘Youths showing off to women’ and ‘Inveterate stupidity of sightseers’.
Grocott’s title is reminiscent of the speciality subjects mugged up by retired civil servants for Mastermind, but then he is indeed a retired civil servant. Why, the reader may wonder, did he choose the period 1793 to 1816? Was this age richer in horrors than any other? There is no way of knowing. Quoted here is an estimate of 1812 that ‘perhaps not less than five thousand natives of these islands perish yearly at sea.’ The wrecks in this book, we are assured, form only a small proportion of those occurring in the period. They are simply the calamities unearthed after a seven-year trawl mainly through the Times, the Nautical Chronicle, the Annual Register and two West Country newspapers, with an occasional glance at James Fenimore Cooper’s history of the US Navy. The craft involved range from men-of-war and merchantmen to schooners, jollyboats and even small pleasure-craft, the capsizing of which would not normally count as shipwrecks.
The author is not concerned with the loss of vessels in famous naval battles. It is the natural disasters that occupy him – disasters that too often followed on the heels of great victories, but which history has chosen to forget. Only two days after the Battle of Trafalgar, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Quebec-bound transport Aeneas, carrying men of the 100th Regiment, broke up with the loss of ‘about 230 souls, the greatest pan in the prime of life, full of health, vigour and spirits’ (the Times). They died ignorant of Nelson’s victory and their own fate was not known in Britain until many weeks later. A bare two months after Trafalgar came the ill-conceived Weser expedition, which began as a troop convoy of 120 sail from the Downs but, thanks to foul weather and thick river ice, never reached its destination and cost the lives of a thousand men and women. Far worse was Nature’s rout of the Baltic Fleet in 1811, when three ships went down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the loss of two thousand men, as well as many women and children. Even Waterloo was followed by a marine horror, with some six hundred veterans of the battlefield, heading for Ireland, lost in winter storms. For anyone who thought the naval wars against France were simply a matter of ships called La Révolution, Le Droit du Peuple and Ça Ira being seen off by Indefatigable, Impregnable and Implacable, this handbook to history comes as a timely corrective.
The shipwrecks listed include the one in which Lord Elgin temporarily lost his marbles and that in which the frigate Lutine gave up her bell to Lloyd’s. In four hundred pages many frantic images recur: women, with babies, lashed to the mainmast; crewmen racing aloft in the hope that, when the ship settles, the mast-top will still be above the waves; the pitching overboard of cargo and cannon to lighten ship and the jettisoning of masts; the battening down of hatches, causing panic and asphyxiation below; the frenzied toiling at the pumps, which be come choked with wheat, coffee or potash according to cargo; the improvising of rafts, which owners did not provide; the scramble for hen-coops in a corpse-filled sea; the crew drinking themselves senseless to blunt the horrors of near-certain death; and, on the adjacent cliffs, country folk aghast at a catastrophe they can do nothing to alleviate.
An all too frequent scene is that of sailors, deeming themselves safe at last, broaching spirits in such quantities that they die on the spot. Fourteen crewmen of the half-submerged merchantman Margaret succumbed after fishing up a pipe of brandy from the hold; 15 men of the frigate Blanche died of rum on the coast of France, leaving their more fortunate mates to be locked up for seven years, until Napoleon’s fall. There were worse forms of captivity than internment. Sailors of the 44-gun Resistance, lost off Sumatra, were seized by pirates and sold as slaves to a sultan, fetching various sums in the marketplace or in ransom. Castaways from the schooner Betsy, wrecked in the South China Sea, were enslaved in the South Natuna islands ‘entirely naked and subsisting on sago’. Happily no such fate befell the survivors of the East Indiaman Sydney, who reached those treacherous parts after four thousand miles of tropical seas in a longboat, possibly a record. In the wine-laden galliot which picked up the crew of the frigate Apollo, rank distinctions were observed: the 22 officers crowded for three days into the galliot’s cabin, where they ate, drank and slept in a space seven feet square, while the sailors shared the hold with the wine, their main source of sustenance. Sometimes events were such as to inspire a career change. Men of the merchantman Hercules, wrecked off South Africa, decided to abandon business in great waters and signed on with Dutch farmers, leaving their captain to walk 150 miles to Cape Town.
In waters nearer to home a friendly reception for the shipwrecked was by no means guaranteed. There are two accounts of American ships being attacked and pillaged by Irish country people, hundreds strong. In the Nabby merchantman, off Bantry, five ‘savages of the place’ died of avarice when the ship broke up under them; and in the Shannon estuary huge mobs fired with muskets for three hours on the stranded Romulus using handmade shot cut from lead bars. In Wales the welcome varied. Crewmen of the St Patrick packet, wrecked off Anglesey with the loss of 28 passengers, reached shore only to be robbed by copper miners.
In open boars, sooner or later, the problem was ‘Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink’. Ropes were chewed to extract residual rain. Drinking one’s own urine helped, so did slitting the throats of any domestic animals. That left human blood. Fleeing from the Liverpool slaver Thomas, which had been taken over by her mutinous cargo, crewmen in their escape boat eventually ‘fell into the dreadful expedient of eating each other’. Lots were cast to determine the first victim and fortunately the surgeon accompanying the party had brought his instruments. After dividing a vein he pressed his lips to the cut, while the others watched anxiously. ‘Of those who glutted themselves with human flesh and gore some perished with raging insanity whilst others who had refused to eat their comrade still preserved theirs.’ (Or was thai wishful reporting?) On the disabled whaler Flora the mate ate part of a man who had just died; then, when he himself died, in delirium, the crew began to eat him and used part of his flesh to catch a shark, ‘which proved a great relief to them’. Aboard the crippled brig Polly parts of a victim were found pickled against emergency. Faced with these and other examples of involuntary cannibalism, the reader needs to ask himself whether, if lying in hospital awaiting an organ transplant, he would turn away the liver hacked from a providential traffic victim and rushed to him by helicopter. Would he be likely to lapse into raging insanity at the thought of prolonging his life by an intake of dead man’s flesh?
No one who has seen Turner’s seascape Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming In will forget the spectacle of manacled wretches tossed in turbulent waves. (Ruskin seemed indecently carried away by the painterly qualities of this canvas.) It was not only the dead and dying who were ditched in crisis. A brief report in the Times in 1807 tells of the arrival in Barbados of a distressed Portuguese Guineaman which had left Angola with seven hundred slaves and had been forced to throw overboard two hundred of them to prevent the others from starving. This item occupies only five lines. A report of eight lines tells how a French privateer cruising off Charleston captured the American Montezuma, carrying 348 ‘prime slaves’. So how did the privateer dispose of his lucky haul? Be sure that if the author knew he would tell us. In a history composed of contemporary news reports, many dramas go unresolved.
When men-of-war ran aground their captains could expect a court-martial. It is noticeable in these pages that high commanders tend to be honourably acquitted, the blame being laid on faulty charts or compasses, or force majeure; it is the masters and pilots who are likely to end up serving six months in the Marshalsea Prison. However, the captain of the Adventure brig achieved exquisite disgrace by being hanged at Execution Dock for scuttling his ship. One is reminded intermittently of Conrad’s Lord Jim, that indelibly disgraced ship’s officer who, against his instincts, dropped into an escape boat with other officers, abandoning his imperilled cargo of many hundreds of pilgrims to near-certain death. The only pilgrim-carrier to come to grief in this book is the small vessel on Lough Derg which was carrying 74 of the faithful to St Patrick’s Purgatory. All were lost. ‘The Roman Catholic Prelate of Clogher had tried in vain to dissuade the people from the pilgrimage, probably because he was aware the boat was overloaded,’ said the Times.
It was outrageous of Dr Johnson to say that no man would be a sailor if he had contrivance enough to seek safety in a gaol. What reduced life expectancy in the Navy was the spongy, broken-backed nature of so many of its fighting ships. Since great oaks could not be felled fast enough to replace lost men-of-war, outworn vessels were plugged, stretched and stiffened in a fashion suggestive of the used-car trade at its worst. Even the device of undergirding, or frapping, popularised by the apostle Paul when in trouble off Crete, was still in use – running cables under the keel and tightening them to hold the hull together. The decrepit 74-gun Blenheim was so ‘wretchedly hogged’ that the builders strongly remonstrated against her putting to sea. ‘Hogged’ meant that she drooped both fore and aft. ‘In fact her stern fell so much that she rose like a hill amidships to such an extent that a person at the door of the poop cabin could not see the sentry on the forecastle.’ The flag-captain who complained of the state of the Blenheim was apparently told by Admiral Troubridge (one of Nelson’s Band of Brothers) that if he was afraid he might go ashore. He then wrote a farewell letter to his wife and took the Blenheim out into the Indian Ocean, where all aboard went down in a cyclone, including Admiral Troubridge.
To relieve the roll-call of mass drownings we are given frequent items which shed peculiar light on the seafaring life; as, for instance, the incident in Plymouth Sound when two hundred men of the 74-gun Mars fell overboard through broken stanchions while crowding to see two seamen being flogged round the fleet; or the decision by a French privateer not to sink a British prize on finding that her captain was a Mason. There are many accounts of excesses by the press gang, whose dirty tricks included stranding the obstructive on buoys. When the Aurora frigate bore down on a whaler from the Davis Strait off St Abb’s Head the crew hid under hatches to avoid impressment. As they refused to surface, ‘the boatswain of the Aurora, holding a grenade in one hand with a lighted match in the other, asked Captain Essington if he should fire the grenade amongst the people, which his captain then ordered him to do; but on being told by the master of the Sarah and Elizabeth that the ship was full of oil and would blow up, he desisted.’ Instead Essington ordered his marines to fire down the hatches, killing one man and wounding three. Most of the crew were then put aboard Aurora, in irons. Essington, escaping prosecution, became Sir William Essington, Rear-Admiral of the Blue. At Poole officers of the Impress Service fired on the Maria from Newfoundland, killing the pilot and four men. This set Poole in an uproar and two lieutenants were charged with wilful murder, but we are not told the outcome. Happier to relate, in 1801 John Newton, forty years a naval lieutenant, was paid off at Plymouth with the tribute that ‘never was there a more orderly set of men than the seamen and landmen in Newton’s service’ and recording that ‘the gallant veteran’ had raised three thousand men in Plymouth in nine years. No one can doubt that without this arbitrary form of recruitment the history of those times would have been very different. It is worth recalling that when Britain first introduced conscription, in 1916, ‘press gangs’ of police and military pounced on railway stations, boxing halls and public arenas, using strong-arm tactics, short of grenades, against those who resisted being ‘combed out’.
This is an extraordinary compilation, scrupulous as to time and place and told in tight-lipped style. The effect on the cockles of the heart is to warm them on one page and freeze them on the next, as fortitude is overtaken by folly and worse. How splendid to read that a survivor of Anson’s round-the-world voyage of 1740-44 (one ship left out of six, but £500,000 in treasure) lived to the age of 109, having never known a day’s illness since going to sea in 1714 (one for Dr Johnson, there); but how dismaying to learn of the 84-year-old ex-marine who hanged himself in a Pontefract poorhouse, convinced to the end it was his firing-squad bullet that had killed Admiral Byng. Moral lessons abound. Was nepotism ever so cruelly punished as when the brigantine Nymph was crushed by ice off Riga and the captain went down with five nephews and an intended son-in-law, all members of his crew?
Inevitably the book fuels speculation about the extent of the sea’s toll today. Great tankers still snap in two and vanish; ill-designed, overcrowded ferries still roll over and drown their thousands. In days of sail shipwrecks may have left the shores strewn with spars, bales, Bibles and the odd naked female corpse, but they did not overwhelm miles of coastline with stinking black oil. And because it seems impossible that wrecks can happen in days of advanced navigational aids we are reduced to accounting for lost shipping by imbecile theories like the curse of the Bermuda Triangle.