William O.S. Gilly.

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

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On heaving round, the anchor came home, which it continued to do until
more than half of the cable was run in, when it held fast, but without
altering the position of the vessel. The captain then gave orders to
heave overboard the guns, and cut away the anchors from the bows; but
all these attempts to lighten the vessel were of no avail. The wind,
which had been moderate when she first struck, had increased to a
gale, and the ship beat with such violence upon the rocks, that it
appeared impossible that she could hold together many hours.

In this condition they were obliged to remain until daylight, exposed
to a cold north-east wind, and a pitiless storm of sleet and snow. The
officers did all in their power to sustain the courage of the men, but
unfortunately in many instances without success. Already symptoms of
insubordination had exhibited themselves, several had skulked below to
their hammocks, where they remained in defiance of every command and
entreaty of their officers.

The topmasts were got over side to shore the ship up, but the motion
was so violent that the lashings gave way. At daylight, as the weather
did not moderate, and there was no prospect of saving the ship, orders
were given to get up the provisions. This, however, had been delayed
until it was too late; the water had risen over the orlop deck, and in
a short time gained the lower deck. All that was saved was thirty bags
of biscuits, and these so damaged by the salt water, that they were
totally unfit for use.

The masts were about this time cut away, in order to ease the ship as
much as possible; they fell towards the shore about a cable's length
from the beach. The master was sent in the cutter to try to fasten a
rope to the shore, but the surf ran so high that the boat was stove,
and the crew with difficulty gained the beach.

In this condition, with very little prospect of saving the lives of
the crew, the captain, anxious for the preservation of the public
dispatches, entrusted them to the purser, who, with Captain Moray
(aide-de-camp to Lieut. General Sir George Murray), in charge of the
military dispatches, embarked in the life-boat, to which a small line
was attached. They had, however, no better success than the other
boat, for as soon as they reached the surf, the boat capsized, and the
two officers swam to the shore with the dispatches tied round their

Another cutter was then sent off in hopes that she would be more
successful, but she filled almost immediately; and the rope which was
fastened to her was obliged to be abandoned.

By this time it was impossible to stand upon the deck, the sea made a
fair breach over the ship, and the water having rushed into the cabin,
the few bags of bread that had been stowed there for protection were

The captain being unable from ill health to make any great exertion to
save his life, was lowered into the pinnace, into which were already
crowded as many men as she could hold, and they took another rope on
board, to make a last attempt to form a communication with the shore.
The boat had scarcely left the side of the ship before a sea struck
and upset her. The captain, supported by two men, made his way through
the surf with great difficulty and got on shore, followed by the rest
of the boat's crew, who, some by swimming and others by help of oars
and spars, saved themselves from destruction. The gig was now the only
boat left on board; she was lowered from the stern, and the first and
second lieutenants, with eighteen men, jumped into her. They were all
fortunate enough to reach the shore, and some of the men gallantly
returned to the vessel, and succeeded in landing about twenty others.
Again, the gig repaired to the wreck, and took off some more of the
crew, but this time she was unfortunately upset in the surf, though no
lives were lost.

When the men left on the wreck saw themselves thus deprived of the
last chance of escape, they raised the most piteous cries for
assistance, although they knew that their comrades had no means of
affording it. It has been said that 'man is a bundle of
inconsistencies,' and here was a proof of the assertion. These were in
all probability the very men who had betaken themselves to their
hammocks a short time before, and had refused to assist in providing
for their own safety; they had disobeyed orders, and despised
discipline, and now we find them imploring others for that deliverance
which they had neglected to provide for themselves. Most of them had
been drinking the spirits, and were so stupified that they were
incapable of taking advantage of the floating spars and planks to
which they might have clung, and so gained the land.

By drunkenness the bed of the ocean has been rendered a foul and
gloomy charnel house, where the bones of thousands of our fellow-men
await the summons of the Archangel's trumpets, when 'the sea shall
give up her dead.' The reckless seamen, though unprepared for another
world, hurry themselves into the presence of their Judge, to meet the
drunkard's doom.

It has been related that upon one occasion, when the shipwreck of a
large packet seemed inevitable, the sailors grew tired of working at
the pumps, and shouted 'to the spirit-room!' They saw death staring
them in the face, and to drown their terror for the moment, they
desired to die drunk. A post-captain in the navy, who was on board the
packet, knowing what would be the result if they got at the spirits,
took his stand at the door of the spirit-room, with a pistol in each
hand, and declared in the most solemn manner, that he would shoot the
first man who attempted to enter. The men seeing themselves defeated,
returned to the pumps, and by the blessing of God, the vessel was
brought in safe with all her crew.[15]

Unfortunate as was the situation of the helpless creatures on the
wreck of the Penelope, it was only a few degrees more wretched than
that of the officers and men on the shore. They had been cast at the
base of a steep mountain, bruised and benumbed by the cold; their
clothes were actually freezing on their backs, and they were without
provisions of any kind. Their first care was to search for wood and
kindle fires, which they at last succeeded in doing, and then they
dried their clothes - but before they could derive any benefit from the
fire, the intensity of cold had caused many of them extreme suffering;
they were frost-bitten in the hands and feet, and several lost their
toes. Some of the people were employed in constructing a tent with
branches of trees and blankets, others were searching for provisions
and securing such articles as were washed on shore from the ship. In
the evening, they found about sixty pieces of pork, - and with this and
some melted snow they satisfied the cravings of hunger and thirst.
Later in the evening several casks of wine, which had been stowed in
the ward-room, were washed on shore; but this, which might have proved
a blessing to all, was seized by a party of the men, - who broke open
the casks and drank to such an excess that they fell asleep, and were
found almost frozen to death. During the whole of the day the unhappy
men upon the wreck had never ceased supplicating their more fortunate
comrades to go to their assistance, but this was impossible; no human
effort could save them. As night drew on, their cries were redoubled,
and were still heard far above the howling and roaring of the
tempest, when darkness had hidden the ill-fated vessel from view.
About twelve o'clock three fearful crashes were followed by a still
more fearful sound - the last agonized shriek of many perishing

And then all was hushed,
Save the wild and remorseless dash
Of billows. BYRON.

At daylight, the remains of the Penelope were again visible, but in
three separate pieces; all that were left on board had perished, save
one man, who was washed on shore nearly lifeless.

The sufferings of these poor wretches must have been awful in the
extreme, for their agonies of mind appear to have surpassed those of
the body, and to have prolonged their lives by preventing them falling
into the torpor which precedes death from cold. So severe was the
frost, that the wreck had the appearance of huge masses of ice; and on
shore nothing but the very large fires that were kept burning could
have preserved the existence of the rest of the crew.

Upon the ship breaking up, the spirits floated on shore, when there
ensued such a scene of tumult and insubordination as, happily for the
honour of the service, seldom occurs in the British navy. The men
broke open the casks, and before the officers were aware of it,
scarcely a man was to be seen sober. This brought with it its own
punishment; many had drank to such a degree that they fell lifeless in
the snow. The officers then caused the remainder of the rum to be
stove, excepting a certain quantity placed under their own care; but
when discipline is once broken, it is not easily restored. The next
day, forty-eight men deserted, after plundering several of their
shipmates, and breaking open every trunk that was washed up. These
paid the penalty of their crimes, for many of them were found dead in
the woods by the Canadians.

We cannot do better than take up the account which is thus given by
one of the surviving officers: -

'With the remaining part of the crew the boats were hauled up, which
we began to repair the best way we could. Sails were made from a lower
and topmast studding-sail, which were fortunately washed ashore; a
cask of flour was also found, a part of which was made into dough, and
preparations were made to proceed to Quebec.

'On the third day, a Canadian boat was passing, when the captain
ordered her to be detained to proceed to that port. With the
assistance of the cooking utensils found in the Canadian boat, all the
pork that could be found was cooked and served out to the different
boats, which was a very short allowance for two days.

'On the sixth day of our misery, the weather moderated, the boats were
launched, and all hands embarked; sixty-eight persons in all,
including two women. The wind was favourable, but light; with rowing
and sailing, we got to Great Fox River that night, at which place we
were hospitably entertained with potatoes and salt at a Canadian hut.
Next morning we sailed for Gasper Bay, and reached Douglas Town in the

'The captain and officers were accommodated at Mr. Johnston's, and the
crew lodged at the different huts around the place. After three days'
rest, we walked nine miles over the ice to where the transports lay;
leaving the sick at Douglas Town. The captain hoisted his pendant on
board the Ann, transport, and put a lieutenant in each of the others,
and an equal number of men. When the ice broke up, which was seven
days after we got on board, we dropped down to Douglas Town, and
embarked the sick, one of whom died, and two deserted. The next
morning we sailed for Quebec, where we arrived on the 28th, many of us
not having a change of clothes of any description.'

In concluding the above narrative of the loss of this vessel, we will
quote the language of Captain Galloway, who thus deprecates, in strong
terms, the disgraceful conduct of the majority of the crew of the
Penelope: - 'I feel it my duty,' he says, 'to state to you the infamous
conduct of the whole of the crew, with a very few exceptions. From the
time that the ship struck, their behaviour was not in the character of
British seamen in general; they had neither principle nor humanity;
some, in consequence, have suffered severely, and several died from

Captain Galloway died in 1846.


[15] _Parliamentary Report_, 255.


At the close of 1815, the Court of Directors of the East India Company
having represented to the British Government the impediments thrown in
the way of our trade with China, by the impositions practised by the
local authorities at Canton, it was determined to send an embassy to
the court of Pekin.

Lord Amherst was selected to undertake the mission, and Mr. Henry
Ellis was appointed secretary to the embassy.

The Alceste, a frigate of 46 guns, under the command of Captain,
afterwards Sir Murray Maxwell, was fitted up for the reception of the
ambassador and his suite.

On the 9th of February, 1816, the expedition sailed from Spithead,
and arrived in the China seas about the middle of July following. It
is not in our province to give any account of the proceedings of the
embassy, which have already been so ably described, and are well

His excellency, having accomplished the object of his mission, took his
departure from China on the 9th of January, 1817, arrived at Manilla
on the 3rd of February, and finally sailed from thence in the Alceste,
on the 9th of the same month.

Captain Maxwell directed the ship's course to be steered towards the
Straits of Gaspar, in preference to those of Banca, as affording, at
that period of the monsoon, the most convenient and speedy egress from
the China seas; and though this passage is not so often taken as that
of Banca, the Gaspar Straits appeared by the plans and surveys laid
down in the Admiralty charts, as well as in those of the East India
Company, to be, not only wider, but to have a much greater depth of
water, and to offer fewer difficulties to navigation.

Early on the morning of the 18th of February, they made the Island of
Gaspar, and in a short time, Pulo Leat, or Middle Island, was descried
from the mast-head. The weather was remarkably fine and clear, - a mild
breeze blowing from the north-west, and the surface of the water
gently agitated by the current, which perpetually sets through the
straits, either to the south-east or south-west, according to the

The sea, which is usually so clear in these climates, had been greatly
discoloured that morning by a quantity of fish spawn, a circumstance
of not unfrequent occurrence in those seas; and the navigation being
thus rendered more dangerous, unusual precautions were taken for
ensuring the safety of the ship. A man was stationed at the
foretopmast head, and others at the fore-yardarms. Captain Maxwell,
with the master and other officers, was upon deck, 'steering, under
all these guarded circumstances,' (writes an eye-witness,) 'the
soundings corresponding so exactly with the charts, and following the
express line prescribed by all concurring directions, to clear every
danger, - and it was the last danger of this sort between us and
England, - when the ship, about half-past seven in the morning, struck
with a horrid crash on a reef of sunken rocks, and remained
immoveable.' 'What my feelings were,' says Captain Maxwell, 'at this
momentary transition from a state of perfect security to all the
horrors of a shipwreck, I will not venture to depict; but I must
acknowledge, it required whatever mental energy I possessed to control
them, and to enable me to give with coolness and firmness the
necessary orders preparatory to abandoning the ship, - which a very
short period of hard working at all the pumps showed the
impracticability of saving.'

The carpenter very soon reported the water above the tanks in the main
hold, and in a few minutes more, over the orlop deck.

The quarter boats had been instantly lowered to sound, and reported
deep water all round the reef, ten fathoms immediately under the
stern, and seventeen about a quarter of a cable further off, - so that
it was but too evident that the preservation of the crew depended
solely upon the vessel's remaining fast where she was.

The first care of Captain Maxwell was for the safety of Lord Amherst
and his suite; the boats were quickly hoisted out, and before
half-past eight, he had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing the
ambassador and all his attendants safely embarked in them.

For the better protection of the embassy, an officer was sent in the
barge, with a guard of marines, to conduct them to Pulo Leat, between
three and four miles distant, and from which it was hoped that plenty
of water and abundance of tropical fruits might be procured.

Meanwhile the officers and men exerted themselves most indefatigably
to save some of the provisions, - a task by no means easy of
accomplishment, as the holds and everything in them were submerged in
water. Towards the afternoon, the boats returned from the shore, and
the men reported that they had had great difficulty in landing his
excellency, from the mangrove trees growing out to a considerable
distance in the water; and it was not until they had pulled three or
four miles from the place where they first attempted to land that they
were enabled to reach terra firma. They also stated that neither food
nor water could be discovered on the island. Unpromising as
appearances were, there was no alternative but to seek shelter on the
inhospitable shore. Accordingly, every preparation was made, and by
eight o'clock P.M., the people were all landed, excepting one
division, who remained on board the wreck, with the captain, first
lieutenant, and some other officers.

About midnight, the wind had greatly increased, and the ship became so
uneasy from her heeling to windward, that fears were entertained for
the safety of those on board. To prevent her falling further over, the
topmasts were cut away, and as the wind became more moderate towards
daylight, the ship remained stationary, and all apprehensions were
removed. The boats did not return to the wreck till between six and
seven o'clock in the morning, and they brought no better tidings as to
the capabilities of the island to furnish food and other necessaries
for the subsistence of so many human beings.

A raft had been constructed during the previous day, upon which the
small quantity of provisions they had been able to collect, together
with some of the baggage of the embassy, and clothes and bedding of
the officers and men, had been transported to the shore.

In the course of the forenoon, Captain Maxwell thought it right to
confer with Lord Amherst as to his further movements; he accordingly
quitted the wreck, and went on shore. He left the vessel in charge of
Mr. Hick, the first lieutenant, with orders that every effort should
be made to get at the provisions and the water, and that a boat should
remain by the wreck for the safety of the men in case of any
emergency. Captain Maxwell reached the shore about half-past eleven
A.M., and we may imagine the bitterness of his distress on finding the
ambassador, surrounded by his suite, and the officers and men of the
Alceste, in the midst of a pestilential saltwater marsh.

The scene is well described by Mr. McLeod. 'The spot in which our
party were situated was sufficiently romantic, but seemed, at the same
time, the abode of ruin and of havoc. Few of its inhabitants (and
among the rest the ambassador) had now more than a shirt or a pair of
trousers on. The wreck of books, or, as it was not unaptly termed, 'a
literary manure,' was spread about in all directions; whilst
parliamentary robes, court dresses, and mandarin habits, intermixed
with check shirts and tarry jackets, were hung around in wild
confusion on every tree.'

The situation in which Captain Maxwell was placed was, indeed, a most
trying one, and such he felt it to be, for, from the lowest seaman to
the ambassador himself, every one looked to him for relief and
direction in his perilous position. Captain Maxwell was fully
competent to meet the emergency; and, said he, 'I had the consolation
left me, to feel with confidence that all would follow my advice, and
abide by my decision, whatever it might be.'

His first care was for the safety of Lord Amherst; and in a short
conference with his excellency and Mr. Ellis, the second commissioner,
it was arranged that the embassy should proceed to Batavia in the
barge and cutter, with a guard of marines to defend the boats from any
attack of the pirates. Mr. Ellis promised that if they arrived safely
at Batavia, he would himself return, in the first vessel that should
put off, to the assistance of those who remained on the island.

A small quantity of provisions, and nine gallons of water, was all
that could be spared from their very scanty store; but at sunset every
heart was exhilarated by hope and sympathetic courage, on seeing the
ambassador strip, and wade off to the boats, with as much cheerfulness
as if he had stepped into them under a salute. At seven o'clock, the
barge, under the charge of Lieutenant Hoppner, and the cutter,
commanded by Mr. Mayne, the master, containing in all forty-seven
persons, took their departure for Batavia, accompanied by the anxious
thoughts and good wishes of their fellow-sufferers, who were left to
encounter new dangers.

Captain Maxwell's first order was to direct a party to dig in search
of water. The men had begun to suffer greatly from thirst, as for the
last two days they had had scarcely a pint of water each - one small
cask only having been saved from the ship. The next step was to remove
their encampment to higher ground, where they could breathe a purer
air, and be in greater safety in case of attack.

In a short time the island presented a scene of bustle and activity
strangely at variance with the dreary solitude it had exhibited two
days before; and the once silent woods resounded with the voices of
men, and the strokes of the axe and the hammer. One party was employed
in cutting a path to the summit of the hill, another in removing
thither their small stock of provisions. A few men were on board the
wreck, endeavouring to save every article that might prove of general

About midnight, the men who had been employed for so many hours on a
most fatiguing and harassing duty, and exposed to the burning rays of
a vertical sun, began to suffer most painfully from increased thirst,
and it was at that moment when they were almost bereft of hope that
they experienced one of the many merciful interpositions of Providence
by which the Almighty displays His tender care for His creatures: a
plentiful shower of rain fell, which the people caught by spreading
out their table cloths and clothes; and then, by wringing them, a
degree of moisture was imparted to their parched lips, and their
hearts were revived, and prepared to hear the joyful news, which was
communicated by the diggers soon after midnight, that they had found
water in the well, and a small bottle of this most dearly prized
treasure was handed to the captain. So great was the excitement of the
people on receiving the announcement, that it became necessary to
plant sentries, in order to prevent their rushing to the well and
impeding the work of the diggers.

On the morning of the 20th, the captain called all hands together, and
pointed out to them the critical nature of their position, and the
absolute necessity of their uniting as one man to overcome the
difficulties by which they were surrounded. He reminded them that they
were still amenable to the regulations of naval discipline, and
assured them that discipline would be enforced with even greater
rigour, if necessary, than on board ship; and that in serving out the
provisions the strictest impartiality should be observed, and all
should share alike until the arrival of assistance from Lord Amherst.

During this day, the well afforded a pint of water to each man; the
water is said to have tasted like milk and water, and when a little
rum was added to it, the men persuaded themselves it resembled
milk-punch, and it became a favourite beverage with them.

The people were employed during the 20th much in the same manner as on
the previous day, but very few things could be obtained from the ship,
every article of value being under water.

On Friday, the 21st, the party stationed on board the wreck observed a
number of proahs full of Malays, apparently well armed, coming towards
them. Being without a single weapon of defence, they could only jump
into their boats without loss of time, and push for the land. The
pirates followed closely in pursuit but retreated when they saw two
boats put out from the shore to the assistance of their comrades. The
Malays then returned to the ship and took possession of her. In an
instant all was activity and excitement in the little camp.

'Under all the depressing circumstances attending shipwreck,' writes
Mr. McLeod, 'of hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and menaced by a ruthless
foe, it was glorious to see the British spirit stanch and unsubdued.
The order was given for every man to arm himself in the best manner he

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Online LibraryWilliam O.S. GillyNarratives of Shipwrecks of the Royal Navy; between 1793 and 1849 → online text (page 17 of 28)