Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

THE GRIM TALE OF THE NOTTINGHAM GALLEY

WITHIN sight of Portsmouth Harbor, no more than a dozen miles off the coast where Maine and New Hampshire meet, lies Boon Island, small and rock-bound, upon which a tall lighthouse flings its bright message to seaward. It is in the track of the coastwise fleets of fishermen and trading schooners, of yachts and steamers, of the varied traffic which makes those waters populous; but Boon Island was a very lonely place two hundred years ago. And if it is true, as many mariners believe, that the ghosts of dead sailors return from Davy Jones' locker to haunt the scenes of their torments in shipwreck, then Boon Island must be tenanted by some of the crew of the Nottingham Galley.

The story survives in the narrative of the disaster as written by the master of the vessel. Captain John Deane. It was printed as a quaint and unusual little book, which is now exceedingly difficult to find, and the fifth edition bears the date of 1762. The tragedy of the Nottingham Galley was one of those instances, lamentably frequent, in which men were driven to the dire necessity of eating one another under the awful compulsion of hunger. Such a theme is abhorrent, but to realize how men felt in such circumstances, those who were otherwise kindly and brave, and long-suffering, is to add to one's perspective of human nature and to gain truthful glimpses of what the toilers of the sea have endured. When Captain John Deane took his pen in hand to set down his experience, it was as though his conscience had driven him to the task, and he expresses this prompting in a solemn preface, which reads:

 
As for my own part, I think I have just grounds to venture this small narrative into the American world as an humble acknowledgement to Almighty God for his wonderful preservation of us, and hoping it may be of use to others, should the like unhappy circumstances ever attend them. I had indeed thoughts of perpetuating the memory of our deliverance in a different manner, but my innocent intentions met with an unexpected opposition that induced me to have recourse to this present method; and I hastened the execution in 1727, whilst there were living witnesses in New England to attend the truth of our signal escape from Boon Island. And now I again recommend it to the serious perusal of all, but especially seafaring men, who of all others are most liable to sudden dangers, through the natural inconstancy of the Elements they converse with in pursuit of their lawful employments; and consequently ought to lead the most considerate, religious lives in order to face death, if it be God's Will, in the most dreadful form, with a Christian resolution. For, as to that set of men who affect to pass for Wits and Bravoes by giving a ludicrous turn to everything grave and solemn; and assuming an air of intrepidity, by horrid oaths and imprecations, before the too near approaches of danger, I have always observed them, first of all others, to sink under despair, upon a prospect of inevitable death; even so as shamefully to desert all the necessary means that offered for a possibility of their deliverance.
 

The Nottingham Galley, a small vessel of one hundred and twenty tons, sailed from London on September 25, 1710, touching at Ireland to take on some butter and cheese besides her cargo of cordage and general merchandise, which was consigned to Boston. She carried a crew of fourteen men and mounted ten guns as a proper precaution against pirates and privateers. Against the westerly winds of autumn the ship made crawling progress, and it was almost three months later before Captain Deane made a landfall on the snow-covered coast of New England. He did not know where he was and thick weather shut down so that for twelve days longer he was battering about and trying to work a safe distance offshore. The chronometer was then unknown, the "hog-yoke," or early quadrant, had nothing like the exactitude of the sextant, and most charts were incorrect. There were, of course, no lighthouses on the dangerous New England coast.

Captain Deane groped along with sounding lead and log-line and said his prayers, no doubt, until the Nottingham Galley struck on Boon Island in a dark night and almost instantly went to pieces. The crew got ashore after a bitter struggle, and "being assembled together, they with joyful hearts returned their most humble and sincere thanks to Divine Providence for their miraculous deliverance from so imminent a danger."

They were within sight of the mainland, as daylight disclosed, and the captain identified the nearest shore as Cape Neddick, while vessels could be seen passing in and out of Portsmouth Harbor. It was Christmas week, and the little island was blanketed in snow. The only shelter from the freezing winds was a tent which was made of a torn sail, and there was no fire to warm them. "They fought to procure this blessing by a variety of means," related Captain Deane, "such as flint, steel, and gunpowder, and afterwards by a drill of very swift motion, but all the materials in their possession naturally susceptible of fire being, on this occasion, thoroughly water-soaked, after eight or ten days' unsuccessful labor they gave over the fruitless attempt."

The only food washed ashore from the wreck consisted of three cheeses and some beef bones, which they shared without quarreling, and in fact, the spirit of these poor mariners was singularly unselfish and manly throughout. By vote it was agreed that Captain Deane should hold the same authority as he exercised on board ship. They felt certain of rescue, because they were within sight of port, and the captain encouraged them

 

with hopes of being discovered by fishing shallops or other vessels passing that way, although all the while he was conscious to himself that rarely anything of this kind happened at that unseasonable time of the year; however, he thought it good policy to put the best face on the matter and take this advantage of their ignorance and credulity; since he already too plainly observed their great dejection and frequent relapses into an utter distrust of Divine Providence.

 

A boat was built after infinite labor, by men who had nothing whatever to eat, and the surf beat it to fragments as soon as it was launched. In this hour of inexpressible disappointment they stood and watched three small sailing vessels pass the island at a distance of a few miles, and they could not kindle a smoke to make a signal. As a last hope, a raft was tied together of two bits of spar only twelve feet long, with a deck of plank four feet wide, a mere chip of a raft with a sail made of two canvas hammocks.

This was the project of a "Swede, a stout, brave fellow that had unhappily lost the use of both his feet from frost since he came upon the rock." It was his idea that two men might be able to paddle and sail this contrivance to the mainland and so effect a deliverance. At the first endeavor to get the raft clear of the breakers it upset and nearly drowned the Swede and another sailor who had offered to go with him. The latter was dragged out almost dead, but the Swede swam to the rocks and was for righting the raft and setting out again, although the mast and sail had been lost. The incident is worth describing in the words of Captain Deane.

 
The master then desired the Swede to assist in getting the raft out of the water in order to wait a more favorable opportunity; but the Swede, persisting in his resolution although unable to stand upon his feet, and as he was kneeling on the rock, caught hold on the master's hand and with much vehemency beseeching him to accompany him, said,

"I am sure I must die; however, I have great hopes of being the means of preserving your life, and the rest of the people's. If you will not go with me, I beg your assistance to turn the raft and help me upon it, for I am resolutely bent to venture, even though by myself alone."

The master used farther dissuasives, representing the impossibility of reaching the mainland in twice the time they might have done before they were disarmed of their mast and sail, but the Swede remained inflexible, affirming, "I had rather perish in the sea than continue one day more in this miserable condition." By this time another man, animated by his example and offering to go with him, the master consented and gave them some money that accidentally was in his pocket, fixed them on the raft, and helped them to launch off from the rock, committing them to the mercy of the seas. Their last words at parting were very moving and delivered in a pathetic accent, "Pray, Sir, oblige all the people to join in prayers for us as long as you can see us."

All to a man crept out of the tent at this doleful separation and performed the request with much devotion. About sunset they judged the raft to be half way to land and hoped they might gain the shore by two in the morning, but in the night the wind blew very hard, and two days later the raft was found on the shore of the mainland, about a mile distant from the body of the other man, driven likewise on shore with his paddle still fast to his wrist, but the bold Swede was never seen more.
 

The ship's carpenter died of hunger at the end of a fortnight, during which rock-weed and mussels had kept the breath of life in them. Inevitably men in their condition were bound to turn to thoughts of preserving their own existence a little longer by eating the body of the carpenter. How they discussed it and with what results is told by the unhappy Captain Deane.

 

The master returning to his tent with the most acute sense of the various miseries they were involved in, was ready to expire with faintness and anguish; and placing himself so as to receive some refreshment from sleep, he observed an unusual air of intentness in the countenances of all the people; when, after some pause, Mr. Whitworth, a young gentleman, his mother's darling son, delicately educated, amidst so great an affluence as to despise common food, began in the name of the assembly to court the master's concurrence in converting the human carcass into the matter of their nourishment; and was immediately seconded by a great majority, three only opposing on account of their esteeming it a heinous sin.

This affair had been thus consulted and concluded upon in the master's absence, and the present method concerted of making it known by a gentleman reputed to be much in his favor. The master remained in his former posture, observing an invincible silence, while they were urging their desires with irresistible vehemence; for nothing that ever befell him from the day of his birth, not even the dread and distress of his soul upon quitting the wreck when he did not expect to live a minute, was so amazingly shocking as this unexpected proposal. But after a short interval, he maturely weighed all circumstances and pronounced in favor of the majority, arguing the improbability of its being a sin to eat human flesh in a case of such necessity, providing they were in no ways accessory to the taking away of life.

 

The body of the carpenter was their sustenance until a shallop, sailing out of Portsmouth, discovered the fragments of a tent among the rocks and snow of Boon Island and a few figures of men feebly crawling out of the shelter. The crew of the Nottingham Galley were carried to the little seaport at the mouth of the Piscataqua, and there all of them recovered, although seriously crippled because of frozen hands and feet. At the end of Captain Deane's story is the following note:

 

At the first publication of this narrative, Mr, Whitworth and the mate were then living in England, and the master survived until the 19th of August, 1761. And out of sincere regard to the memory of Captain Deane, and that such an instance of Divine Providence should not be buried in oblivion, Mr. Miles Whitworth, son of the above Mr. Whitworth, now republishes this narrative, hoping (with a Divine blessing) that it may prove of service to reclaim the unthinking part of seafaring men trading in and to New England.

 

The tale of the Nottingham Galley suggests other episodes in which living men of a ship's crew were chosen by lot to be sacrificed as food for the others. As dramatic as any of them was the fate of the American sloop Peggy, which became waterlogged while homeward bound to New York from the Azores. Food and water gone, there were wine and brandy in the cargo, unluckily, and the sailors got drunk and stayed so much of the time. On Christmas day a sail was sighted, and the ship bore down to speak the drifting hulk of the Peggy. For some reason this other vessel, after promising to send bread and beef aboard or to take the people off if they so preferred, filled away and resumed her course. Captain Harrison of the Peggy had taken to his bed with rheumatism, but he crawled on deck to watch the faithless ship abandon him while his crew cursed like madmen and shouted their appeals for help.

For sixteen days the people of the Peggy lived on candles, whale-oil, and barnacles scraped from the ship's side. Then the crew, led by the mate, invaded Captain Harrison's cabin and told him they could hold out no longer. They had eaten the leather packing of the pump, they had chewed the leather buttons off their jackets, and liquor would not keep them alive. It was now their intention to cast lots for a victim, and the captain was asked to supervise the business. He refused to have anything to do with it, which excited a hubbub of anger, and the mate announced that nobody would be exempted. The captain was to stand his chance with the rest. They tramped out of the cabin, remained a little while in the steerage, and returned to say that the lots had been drawn, and a negro slave who was in the cargo had received the fatal number.

Captain Harrison, bed-ridden as he was, had the courage to tell the men that he suspected them of dealing unfairly with the poor negro, and that he had not been allowed a chance for his life. While they were wrangling, the slave came running into the cabin to beg the captain's protection; but he was dragged out and shot and turned over to the cook and the big copper pots in the galley. For nine days this sufficed to keep the crew alive, while Captain Harrison steadfastly refused to touch the food they offered him. Then the mate and the men trooped into the cabin again and roughly demanded that the skipper take charge of the lottery.

This time he consented in order to be certain of fair play. Painfully raising himself upon his elbow, he tore up strips of paper and wrote numbers on them. In grim silence the six men who were left alive closed their fingers upon the slips of paper, and a seaman named David Flat groaned as he discovered that his was the ticket of death. Otherwise there was no noise in the cabin.

 

The shock which this produced was so great that the whole crew remained motionless for a considerable time; and so they might have continued much longer had not the victim, who appeared perfectly resigned to his fate, expressed himself in these words:

"Dear friends and messmates, all I have to beg of you is to dispatch me as soon as you did the negro, and to put me to as little torture as possible."

David Flat then turned to another seaman, James Doud, who had put the bullet into the slave and said:

"It is my wish that you should shoot me."

 

Doud was much affected, but consented to attend to the obsequies of unfortunate David Flat, who was the most popular man in the forecastle. The victim then requested a brief respite in which he might prepare his soul to meet its Maker. This was very readily granted, and meanwhile the cook kindled a fire and got the water hot. Friendship was stronger than hunger, however, and there was so much reluctance to execute the sentence that it was determined to grant David Flat a respite until eleven o'clock of the following morning,

 

trusting that Divine Goodness would in the interval open some other source of relief. At the same time they solicited the captain to read prayers, a task which, collecting the utmost effort of his strength, he was just able to perform.

 

It was a scene to linger in one's memory, the waterlogged sloop with her sails streaming in useless ribbons from a broken mast, the little cabin with the skipper almost dead in his bunk, and the group of starved and wistful seamen who bowed their heads while he brokenly whispered the words of the prayer-book. As soon as he had finished, they crept out to rejoin David Flat, who had preferred to be absent from his own funeral service. Through the companionway the captain overheard them talking to him

 

with great earnestness and affection, and expressing their hope that God would interpose for his preservation. They assured him also that although they had never yet been able to catch a single fish, they would again put out their hooks and try whether in that manner any relief could be obtained.

 

There was little comfort for David Flat in this commiseration, and the situation benumbed his mind so that he was in a stupor, which changed to raving madness during the night. At eight o'clock next morning Captain Harrison was thinking of this faithful seaman of his who had only three hours more to live, when two of the others came into the cabin and took hold of his hands. Their agitation was apparent, but they seemed unable to speak and explain themselves, and he surmised that they had concluded to put him to death instead of David Flat. He therefore groped for his pistol, but the sailors snatched it away, and managed to tell him that a sail had been sighted, a large vessel to leeward which had altered her course and was beating up to them as fast as possible.

The men on deck had been similarly affected, losing all power of speech for the moment; but presently they hurried into the cabin, with strength renewed, to shout at the captain that a ship was coming to save them. They tried to make poor David Flat comprehend the tremendous fact, but he was babbling of other things, and his wits were still all astray. During the business of the death-sentence, which had been conducted with such extraordinary dignity, the men had remained sober, keeping clear of the brandy-keg, but now they proposed to celebrate. Captain Harrison succeeded in dissuading all excepting the mate, who filled a can and sat down by himself to liquor up. And so they were making a decent finish of it, although their nerves were tortured beyond endurance, when the breeze died out, and the other ship lay becalmed two or three miles away. They remembered the dreadful disappointment of Christmas day, when another ship had deserted them after steering close enough to hail the sloop.

This blessed stranger, however, lowered a boat, and the oars flashed on the shining sea until the rescuers were alongside the Peggy.

 
As the captain was incapable of moving, they lifted him out of the cabin and, lowering him into the boat with ropes, he was followed by his people, among whom was David Flat, still raving. Just when putting off, it was discovered that the mate was missing. He was immediately summoned and, after his can of liquor, had no more than ability to crawl to the gunwale, having forgot everything that had happened. The unfortunate drunken wretch having been got down, the saviors rowed away to their own ship, which they reached in about an hour.
This vessel was the Susannah of London, commanded by Captain Thomas Evers, who was engaged in the Virginia trade and was now returning from Virginia to London. He received the Peggy's people with all possible tenderness and humanity. The Susannah proceeded on her voyage, and though in a very shattered condition and so much reduced in provisions that it was necessary to put her people on short allowance, she reached England early in March. The mate, as also James Doud who shot the negro, and one James Warren, a seaman, died during the passage. Lemuel Ashley, Samuel Wentworth, and David Flat, who was to have been shot for food, all survived. Flat continued raving mad during the voyage, but whether he afterwards recovered is not ascertained. When Captain Harrison came on shore, he made an oath to the truth of the preceding melancholy facts in order that the interests of his insurers might be preserved.
 

In the case of the English ship Barrett, which was wrecked in mid-Atlantic in January, 1821, the method of choosing the man who should die to serve as food was sufficiently novel and ingenious to merit attention. She was a much larger vessel than the Peggy, with a crew of sixteen, and had sailed from St. John, New Brunswick, in command of Captain Faragar, with a cargo of timber for Liverpool. Heavy gales blew her canvas away and strained her hull until it filled with water. Rations were reduced to two ounces of bread and a pint of water a day until this was almost gone. Then a sail was descried, and a brig bowled down to pass within hail, the master promising to send aboard what provisions he could spare. Then the wind chopped around to the westward, and, precisely as had happened to the sloop Peggy, the brig hauled her braces, sheeted her topsails home, and went driving away on her course.

Mr. MacCloud, the mate of the Barrett, was a hardy young Scot with the endurance of iron and the soul of a hero. Day after day the ship wallowed in the wicked winter weather of the Western Ocean, and only the timber in the flooded hold kept her afloat. Cold and hunger laid the crew low until only the mate and three men were able to stand a watch on deck; but he kept a little canvas on her and tended the tiller and somehow jammed her along until they had sailed six hundred miles toward the Irish coast.

 

Every eatable was consumed: candles, oil—all were gone, and they passed the long, dreary, stormy nights of sixteen and seventeen hours in utter darkness, huddled together in the steerage, imploring the Almighty to help them, yet feeling reckless of existence. Such was their condition about the middle of January, and no one but the mate paid the slightest attention to the vessel.

 

Captain Faragar succumbed to the strain, and died with a farewell message to his wife and children. The time came at length when one of the sailors, more brutalized than the rest, broke out with the words:

 

"Here we are, sixteen of us, perishing for food, and what prospect is there before us? Would n't it be better—"

He hesitated, while his companions held their breath and comprehended what was in his mind.

"Damn all ceremony!" was the conclusion which they expected and yet dreaded to hear. "One man must die that the rest may live, and that 's the bloody truth of it."

 

They agreed with him, nodding their heads and refusing to look at one another. Then followed a long dispute over the fairest manner of letting chance decide the choice. It was obvious that every man had a natural anxiety to feel assured of no loaded dice or marked cards in this momentous game. There were objections to the traditional lottery of high and low numbers, and finally it was decided that sixteen pieces of rope-yarn should be cut by the mate. Fourteen of these were to be of precisely the same length, one a little shorter, and another shorter still. The sixteen pieces of rope-yarn were to be shoved through a crack in the bulk-head of the steward's storeroom, the ends all even and just long enough for a man to take one in his fingers and pull it through the crack. The one who pulled out the strand that was a little shorter was to be dished up for his messmates, and the man who drew the strand that was shorter still had the unpleasant duty of acting as butcher.

The mate cut the rope-yarn, as requested, and arranged the sixteen lengths all in a row in the crack of the bulkhead. The men stood waiting the word, very reluctant to pluck out the ends of tarry cord, until Mr. MacCloud exclaimed:

"My lads, let us put it off until to-morrow. We have endured thus far, and a few hours longer cannot make much difference. Who knows what Providence may have in store for us?"

Some consented, while others were for going through with it at once. To-morrow came, and no help was in sight. They shambled into the steward's storeroom and pulled the rope-yarns through the crack. Presently there was one man less on the muster-roll of the Barrett. Two or three days later the ceremony was repeated. Before it became necessary to doom a third man, the mate came below, a spy-glass in his hand, and he was trembling so violently that he clutched the table for support. "A sail," he stammered, and they followed him on deck, where the winter day was dying into dusk. In desperate need of making some sort of signal, Mr. MacCloud emptied a powder-flask upon the windlass, fired a pistol into it, and a thick column of smoke billowed skyward.

The other ship observed it, and hoisted an ensign. Twelve of the Barrett's company were alive, and they were safely transferred to the Ann of New York, bound to Liverpool. The waterlogged Barrett drifted on her aimless course, a derelict haunted by fearful memories, and from a crack in the bulkhead of the steward's storeroom still hung the ends of a row of rope-yarns which had been made ready for the next game of chance.

In 1799 six soldiers of the British artillery garrison at St. Helena concocted a plot to desert and stow themselves away in an American ship, the Columbia, which was then in harbor. Their escape was discovered soon after the Yankee crew had smuggled them on board, and they could hear the alarm sounded and could see the lanterns glimmer along the sea-wall. Afraid that the Columbia would be searched, the fugitive red-coats stole a whale-boat from another ship, and the sympathetic American skipper gave them a bag of bread, a keg of water, a compass, and a quadrant. It was rather to be expected that a New England mariner who could remember Bunker Hill and Saratoga would lend a hand to any enterprise which annoyed the British army and diminished its fighting strength.

 
The six deserters pulled out to sea in the hope of finding the island of Ascension, which lay eight hundred miles to the northwest of St. Helena. Corporal Parr had been a seaman, and he thought he knew how to shoot the sun and figure out his position; but after a week of fine weather it was his uneasy conviction that they must have run past Ascension. With a sail made of their shirts stitched together, they bore away for the coast of South America on the chance of finding Rio Janeiro. Provisions were so short that they limited themselves to one ounce of bread and two mouthfuls of water a day.

After a fortnight at sea they were chewing their leather shoes, and Private John Brown, in a statement prepared after the rescue, explained how they selected one of their number to be used as food for the others.

 
Parr, Brighouse, Conway, and myself proposed to scuttle the boat and let her go down, to put us out of our misery, but the other two objected, observing that God, who had made man, always found him something to eat. On the twenty-second day M'Kinnon proposed that it would be better to cast lots for one of us to die in order to save the rest, to which we consented. William Parr, being seized two days before with the spotted fever, was excluded. He wrote the numbers and put them into a hat, and we drew them out blindfolded and put them in our pockets.
Parr then asked whose lot it was to die, none of us knowing what number we had in our pocket, and each praying to God that it might not be his lot. It was agreed that Number 5 should die, and the lots being unfolded, M'Kinnon's was number 5. We had concluded that he, on whom the lot fell, should bleed himself to death, for which purpose we had provided ourselves with sharpened nails which were got from the boat. With one of these M'Kinnon cut himself in three places, in his foot, hand, and wrist and praying God to forgive his sins he died in about a quarter of an hour.
 

Three of the deserters lived to reach the South American coast, and were taken to Rio in a Portuguese ship. One might think that Private John Brown had suffered enough for his crime of running away from the Royal Artillery, but Captain Elphinstone of H. M. S. Diamond had him put in irons and sent to Cape Town. There he was pressed into the navy, but his conscience gave him no rest, and after receiving his discharge he made his way to St. Helena and gave himself up. To the officers who conducted his court martial he explained:

"I was determined to surrender myself at the first opportunity in order to relate my sufferings to the men of this garrison and to deter others from attempting so mad a scheme."