William O.S. Gilly.

Narratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy; between 1793 and 1849 online

. (page 1 of 28)
Online LibraryWilliam O.S. GillyNarratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy; between 1793 and 1849 → online text (page 1 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

E-text prepared by Steven Gibbs and the Project Gutenberg Online
Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net)


Compiled Principally from Official Documents in the Admiralty



With a Preface by

Vicar of Norham and Canon of Durham

John W. Parker, West Strand







BETWEEN 1793 & 1850


Some time ago a friend suggested that a selection of the most
interesting naval shipwrecks might be made from the official documents
of the Admiralty, in illustration of the discipline and heroism
displayed by British seamen under the most trying circumstances of
danger: permission to search the records was accordingly asked, and
most kindly granted by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and
the present volume is the result.

The Author is well aware that the task of preparing these materials
for publication might have fallen into better hands; and whilst he
gratefully acknowledges his obligations to the Lords Commissioners of
the Admiralty, for allowing him to have access to their Records, he
desires also to express his most cordial thanks for the assistance he
has received from those friends, who have kindly revised and improved
his pages as they passed through the press. Without such aid, his own
literary inexperience would have left the work more defective than it
is. He is especially indebted to some naval friends for correcting
his errors in the use of nautical terms and descriptions.

A list of all the shipwrecks that have occurred in the Royal Navy
since the year 1793 has been appended to this volume, in the hope that
it may be useful as a table of reference. The ships are classed,
first, under the initial letter of their names; and secondly, they are
arranged in chronological order as regards the time of their wreck.



At the request of my son, the Author of this volume, I have undertaken
to write the Preface, and to say a few words on the very peculiar and
noble traits of character, which distinguish the British seaman on all
trying occasions, and especially in the terrible hour of shipwreck.

Many circumstances have combined to make me take a warm interest in
all that concerns the navy. In early life, having passed several
months in a line-of-battle ship during the war with France, I was an
eye-witness of scenes and events, which called forth some of those
qualities that are illustrated in the following pages. For the
restoration of my health, in the year 1811, I was advised to try the
effects of sea air and a change of climate, and was glad to accept the
opportunity offered me, by the captain of an eighty-gun ship, to take
a cruise with him off the southern parts of the French coast.

On one occasion, in a severe tempest in the Bay of Biscay, a flash of
lightning struck the ship and set her on fire. The calmness with which
orders were given and obeyed, and the rapidity with which the fire was
extinguished, without the least hurry or confusion, made a deep
impression on me. This was afterwards increased by the conduct of the
crew in a severe gale of wind, when it was necessary to navigate one
of the narrow channels, by which the squadron that blockaded Rochelle
and Rochfort was frequently endangered. The vessel had to pass between
two rocks, so near that a biscuit could have been thrown from the deck
on either. An old quarter-master was at the wheel; the captain stood
by to con and to direct his steering. At one fearful crisis, every
blast threatened to shiver a sail, or to carry away a spar, and a
single false movement of the helmsman, or the slightest want of
steadiness or of obedience on the part of any man on duty, would have
been fatal to the life of every one on board.

As they drifted on their path
There was silence deep as death,
And the boldest held his breath
For a time.

When the danger was over, the captain thanked the officers and men for
their conduct, and gave a snuff-box with five guineas in it to the
quarter-master, in admiration of his steady head and iron nerves.

I mention these incidents in my early experience as a sort of apology
for a landsman's presumption, in venturing to write this Preface to a
series of nautical details. In after years, the death of a dear
brother, a lieutenant in the navy, who lost his life in a generous
attempt to save a vessel from shipwreck on the coast of Sussex, moved
me to a still deeper concern for those whose employment is 'in the
great waters.'

My early observation of the hazards of a sailor's career, and my
brother's sudden call to his last account, in the awful perils of a
storm at sea, taught me to reflect with painful solemnity on the many
thousand instances, in which our naval protectors are summoned in a
moment, prepared or unprepared, to stand before the throne of the
Eternal. Often have I asked myself and others, Can nothing be done to
elevate the hopes, and to place the fortitude of these men on a firmer
foundation than that of mere animal courage, or the instinct of
discipline? The present is an opportunity of pleading for the sailor
which I should be sorry to lose, and of suggesting something, which
may establish his good conduct on a basis more durable, and more
certain, than even the well-known courage and discipline of a British

I shall begin by noticing the extraordinary displays of
self-possession, self-devotion, and endurance, which shed lustre on
our naval service; and I will close my remarks with hints for the
improvement of these noble qualities.

The intrepidity and mental resources of a brave man are more
discernible in the hour of patient suffering, than in that of daring
action: and the contents of this volume form a record of heroic doings
and endurances, which exhibits the British seaman as a true specimen
of the national character. Duty is his watchword, and the leading
principle by which he is governed. Nelson knew the spirits he had to
deal with, when he hoisted the memorable signal, 'England expects
every man to do his duty.' He was well aware that the men who could
patiently and calmly face the toil and danger of a blockading fleet,
day and night, on the stormy waves of the Bay of Biscay, or on the lee
shores of the Mediterranean, such as his fleet had had to encounter,
wanted no other stimulus, in the presence of the enemy, than that
which he so confidently applied. Napoleon found to his cost, on the
field of Waterloo, that the word _Glory_ had no longer any power to
launch his battalions successfully against troops, who had learnt in
the British school of duty and obedience to confront death, not only
in the impetuous battle-charge, but in the more trying season of long
endurance in the Lines of Torres Vedras. Men who can wait, and bear
and forbear, and remain steadily at their post under every provocation
to leave it, are invincible opponents. The cool determination which
resisted the onset, and withstood the furious rush of the French
Guards, was part and parcel of the same character which made heroes of
the comrades of Nelson. To obey implicitly, and to feel that no
quality is superior to that of obedience, - to wait for your
commander's word, - to keep order, - to preserve presence of mind, - to
consider yourself one of many, who are to follow the same rule, and to
act in unison with each other, - to regulate your movements according
to the demands of the common safety, - to consider your honour to be as
much at stake in submitting to a command to remain stationary and not
to stir, as to dash forward, - these are the peculiarities, which
constitute the substantial excellence of the national character; and
the shipwrecks of the Royal Navy illustrate this national character
even more than the battles of the Nile and of Trafalgar. The perils of
a shipwreck are so much beyond those of a battle, that the loss of
life, when the St. George, the Defence, and the Hero, were wrecked in
the North Seas, in 1811, was far greater than that on the part of the
English in any naval action of late years. In order to place the
qualities of obedience and endurance - so characteristic of the British
seaman - in the strongest light, and to show by contrast that the
possession of them is the greatest security in danger, whilst the want
of them ensures destruction, I commend the following statement to the
attention of all who shall read this volume.

In the year 1816 two stately vessels were sailing on the ocean, in all
the pride of perfect equipment and of glorious enterprise. The one was
an English frigate, the Alceste, having on board our ambassador to
China; the other was a French frigate, the Medusa, taking out the
suite of a governor for one of the colonies of France on the coast of
Africa. The importance of the mission on which each ship was
despatched, and the value of the freight, would seem to assure us that
the Alceste and the Medusa were officered and manned by the best crews
that could be selected. Two nations, rivals in science and
civilization, who had lately been contending for the empire of the
world, and in the course of that contest had exhibited the most heroic
examples of promptitude and courage, were nautically represented, we
may suppose, by the elite who walked the decks of the Alceste and the
Medusa. If any calamity should happen to either, it could not be
attributed to a failure of that brilliant gallantry, which the English
and French had equally displayed on the most trying occasions.

But a calamity of the most fearful nature did befal both, out of which
the Alceste's crew were delivered with life and honour untouched, when
that of the Medusa sank under a catastrophe, which has become a
proverb and a bye-word to mariners. Both ships were wrecked. For an
account of the good conduct, of the calm and resolute endurance, and
of the admirable discipline to which, under Providence, the
preservation of the crew of the Alceste is to be attributed, see pages
204-226 of this volume. A total relaxation of discipline, an absence
of all order, precaution, and presence of mind, and a contemptible
disregard of everything and of everybody but self, in the hour of
common danger, filled up the full measure of horrors poured out upon
the guilty crew of the Medusa. She struck on a sand-bank under
circumstances which admitted of the hope of saving all on board. The
shore was at no great distance, and the weather was not so boisterous
as to threaten the speedy destruction of the ship when the accident
first happened.

There were six boats of different dimensions available to take off a
portion of the passengers and crew: there was time and there was
opportunity for the construction of a raft to receive the remainder.
But the scene of confusion began among officers and men at the crisis,
when an ordinary exercise of forethought and composure would have been
the preservation of all. Every man was left to shift for himself, and
every man did shift for himself, in that selfish or bewildered manner
which increased the general disaster. The captain was not among the
last, but among the first to scramble into a boat; and the boats
pushed off from the sides of the frigate, before they had taken in as
many as each was capable of holding. Reproaches, recrimination, and
scuffling took the place of order and of the word of command, both in
the ship and in the boats, when tranquillity and order were
indispensable for the common safety.

When the raft had received the miserable remnant, one hundred and
fifty in number, for whom the boats had no room, or would make no
room, it was found, when it was too late to correct the evil, that
this last refuge of a despairing and disorderly multitude had been put
together with so little care and skill, and was so ill provided with
necessaries, that the planking was insecure; there was not space
enough for protection from the waves, and charts, instruments, spars,
sails, and stores were all deficient. A few casks of wine and some
biscuits, enough for a single meal only, were all the provision made
for their sustenance. The rush and scramble from the wreck had been
accomplished with so little attention to discipline, that the raft had
not a single naval officer to take charge of her. At first, the boats
took the raft in tow, but in a short time, though the sea was calm and
the coast was known to be within fifteen leagues, the boats cast off
the tow-lines: and in not one of the six was there a sufficient sense
of duty, or of humanity left, to induce the crew to remain by the
floating planks - the forlorn hope of one hundred and fifty of their
comrades and fellow-countrymen! Nay, it is related by the narrators of
the wreck of the Medusa, that the atrocious cry resounded from one
boat to another, '_Nous les abandonnons_!' - 'we leave them to their
fate,' - until one by one all the tow-lines were cast off. During the
long interval of seventeen days, the raft struggled with the waves. A
small pocket compass was the only guide of the unhappy men, who lost
even this in one of the reckless quarrels, which ensued every hour
for a better place on the raft or a morsel of biscuit. On the first
night twelve men were jammed between the timbers, and died under the
agonies of crushed and mangled limbs. On the second night more were
drowned, and some were smothered by the pressure towards the centre of
the raft. Common suffering, instead of softening, hardened the hearts
of the survivors against each other. Some of them drank wine till they
were in a frenzy of intoxication, and attempted to cut the ropes which
kept the raft together. A general fight ensued, many were killed, and
many were cast into the sea during the struggle; and thus perished
from sixty to sixty-five. On the third day portions of the bodies of
the dead were devoured by some of the survivors. On the fourth night
another quarrel and another fight, with more bloodshed, broke out. On
the fifth morning, thirty only out of the one hundred and fifty were
alive. Two of these were flung to the waves for stealing wine: a boy
died, and twenty-seven remained, not to comfort and to assist each
other, but to hold a council of destruction, and to determine who
should be victims for the preservation of the rest. At this hideous
council twelve were pronounced too weak to outlive much more
suffering, and that they might not needlessly consume any part of the
remaining stock of provisions, such as it was, (flying fish mixed with
human flesh.) these twelve helpless wretches were deliberately thrown
into the sea. The _fifteen_, who thus provided for their own safety by
the sacrifice of their weaker comrades, were rescued on the
seventeenth day after the wreck by a brig, sent out in quest of the
wreck of the Medusa by the six boats, which reached the shore in
safety, and which might have been the means of saving all on the raft,
had not the crews been totally lost to every sentiment of generosity
and humanity, when they cast off the tow-lines.

In fact, from the very first of the calamity which befel the Medusa,
discipline, presence of mind, and every generous feeling, were at an
end: and the abandonment of the ship and of the raft, the terrible
loss of Life, the cannibalism, the cruelty, the sufferings, and all
the disgraceful and inhuman proceedings, which have branded the modern
Medusa with a name of infamy worse than that of the Gorgon, - the
monster after which she was called, - originated in the want of that
order and prompt obedience, which the pages of this volume are
intended to record, to the honour of British seamen.

In the history of no less than forty shipwrecks narrated in this
memorial of naval heroism, - of passive heroism, the most difficult to
be exercised of all sorts of heroism, - there are very few instances of
misconduct, and none resembling that on board the Medusa.

This contrast is marked and stated, not in an invidious spirit towards
the French, but because there is no example on record, which furnishes
such a comparison between the safety which depends on cool and orderly
behaviour in the season of peril, and the terrible catastrophe which
is hastened and aggravated by want of firmness, and confusion.

'It is impossible,' said a writer in the _Quarterly Review_, of
October, 1817, 'not to be struck with the extraordinary difference of
conduct in the officers and crew of the Medusa and the Alceste,
wrecked nearly about the same time. In the one case, all the people
were kept together in a perfect state of discipline and subordination,
and brought safely home from the opposite side of the globe; in the
other, every one seems to have been left to shift for himself, and the
greater part perished in the horrible way we have seen.'[1]

I have brought the comparison between the two wrecks again under
notice to show, that as certainly as discipline and good order tend to
insure safety on perilous occasions, so, inevitably, do confusion and
want of discipline lead to destruction. In the one case, intrepidity
and obedience prompted expedients and resources: in the other case,
consternation was followed by despair, and despair aggravated the
catastrophe with tenfold horrors.

It is not to be concealed, that occasional instances of
insubordination and pusillanimity have occurred in the British navy.
Some such appear in this narrative, and they invariably have produced
their own punishment, by leading always to disaster, and often to
death; and they serve as beacons to point out the fatal consequences
of misconduct, under circumstances either of drunkenness,
disobedience, panic, selfishness, or confusion.

The selfish cowardice, noticed in page 94, on the part of the men in
charge of the jolly-boat of the Athenienne, and of some of the crew of
the launch of the Boreas, (see p. 136,) and the tumult, intoxication,
and desertion of the majority of the crew of the Penelope, which were
followed by the prolonged sufferings and painful deaths of the
culprits, (see pp. 200-204,) are but a few dark spots in the
shipwrecks of the Royal Navy, to set off by contrast the many bright
pages, which describe innumerable traits of character that do honour
to human nature.

As a direction to some of these noble traits, every one of which will
make the reader warm to the name of a British sailor: and, if he be
one himself, will bring the blood from his heart to his face in a glow
of emulation and honest pride, - I ask him to turn for examples of
perfect discipline to pages 13, 23, 63, 70, 71, 75, 110, 173, 188,
194, 216, 223, 229, 231, 268, 269, 278, 279, 280. Here he will behold
the portraits of men on the brink of destruction, steady, 'as if they
were moving from one ship to another in any of the Queen's ports,' and
unmoved by images of death under the most appalling forms; and he will
say, 'Lo! these are triumphs of order and subordination, and examples
of such resolute defiance of the terrors of the last enemy, when
covered with the shadow of death, that no exploits in battle can
exhibit fortitude that will compare with them.'

For instances of generous thought for others, of self-devotion and of
disregard of personal safety, I refer the reader to pages 58, 59, 67,
68, 69, 96, 128, 129, 169, 186, 190, 194, 231, 234, 269, 270.

In the long list of heroes, which these references to examples of
indomitable courage and unhesitating self-devotion will unfold, it is
almost wrong to mark out one more than another for observation, and
yet the following stand so prominently forward in the front rank of
heroism, that it is impossible to refrain from noticing them. Captain
Lydiard sacrificed his life in his desperate endeavour to rescue a boy
from the wreck of the Anson, (pp. 128, 129.) Captain Temple, of the
Crescent, and more than two hundred of his crew, displayed a noble
disregard of themselves, when they permitted the jolly-boat, their own
last hope of escape, to take off as many as it would hold, and leave
them to perish. There was no rushing, no struggling, to get away from
the sinking ship, but with orderly care they helped the boat to push
off, bade her God speed, and calmly waited their fate, (p. 153.) The
resolution of Captain Bertram, of the Persian, to brave the danger of
taking some men off a raft into his over-crowded gig, was generously
followed by the crews of the other boats, who threw their clothing and
provisions overboard to make room for the additional weight, (p. 191.)

I may refer also to the magnanimous contest between Captain Baker, of
the Drake, and his officers and men, each insisting on being the last
to make his way from the ship to a rock (p. 231), and which ended in
Captain Baker refusing to stir until he had seen every man clear of
the wreck. A second struggle for precedency in glorious self-devotion
took place, when the same commander declared, that all his crew should
pass from the rock to the mainland, by help of a line, before he
himself would consult his own safety, (p. 234.) The rope broke, and
the last means of communication between the rock and the shore was
severed, while the captain of the Drake and three of his companions
were waiting their turn to escape. They met their fate with intrepid
composure, (p. 235.) Lieutenant Smith, of the Magpie, offered another
memorable example, when his schooner was upset in a squall, and he
took to his boat with seven men. The boat capsized, and while the
struggling crew were endeavouring to right her, they were attacked by
sharks. The lieutenant himself had both his legs bitten off; but when
his body was convulsed with agony, his mind retained and exercised all
its energies, and his last words were expressive of dying
consideration for others. 'Tell the admiral, if you survive,' said he,
to a lad named Wilson, 'that my men have done their duty, and that no
blame is attached to them. I have but one favour to ask, and that is,
that he will promote Meldrum to be a gunner,' (p. 270.) And richly did
Meldrum deserve the distinction. When all in the boat had perished but
himself and another, a brig hove in sight, but did not seem to notice
the speck on the ocean. Meldrum sprang overboard, and swam towards the
ship, and was thus the means of saving his companion's life as well as
his own.

In a volume like this, 'the dangers of the seas' come before the
reader in such rapid succession, that he has scarcely time to think of
the many other awful perils and sufferings, besides those of wind and
storm, which put the mariner's fortitude to the test. The narratives
in pages 2, 3, 9, 36, 69, 70, 113, 115, present to view the horrors of
a ship on fire.

In pages 12, 169, 171, 196, 226, 242, we learn something of the
terrible consequences of being exposed to fogs and mist, ice and snow.
In page 27, we have a vivid picture of a combination of these terrors;
and in pages 217, 268, the most appalling of all the dangers a sailor
has to encounter is brought in view.

We will hope that the rigours and perils of the blockade system, which
occasioned so fearful a loss of life at different periods of the late
war, but especially in the disastrous year 1811, are at end for ever.
From page 154 to 159, and from 168 to 186, the accounts of the loss of
life in the Baltic and North Seas alone occur in fearful succession;
and the magnanimity with which hundreds, nay, thousands of our bravest
officers and men met death on that most perilous of all services, has
rendered the names of British blockading ships memorable in the annals
of hardship, hardihood, and suffering. Many invaluable lives perished
from the inclemency of the weather; men were frozen to death at their
posts. It is recorded of one devoted officer, Lieutenant Topping, that
rushing on deck in anxiety for his ship, without giving himself time
to put on his clothes, 'in fifteen minutes he fell upon the deck a
corpse, stricken by the piercing blast and driving snow,' (p. 169.)

In page 174, we read of the bodies of the dead, victims to the cold

Online LibraryWilliam O.S. GillyNarratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy; between 1793 and 1849 → online text (page 1 of 28)