No.42 The Bumper Christmas Edition

The Annunciation: The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came . . .

The Engel Gabriel was a Dutch ship scuttled by the English at the Battle of Portland in 1653, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, and a name very much in tune with the times in the 17th century. Quite a few wrecks of the Anglo-Dutch wars bore names inspired by characters from the Bible, though such names were beginning to fall out of favour in the Protestant nations. We have an Angel Gabriel of unknown nationality which struck at Jury’s Gap in 1637 with a cargo of wine from Spain. You may also like to have a look at another Angel Gabriel, which was lost in a hurricane off the Maine coast in 1635.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds: The First Nowell that the Angel did say . . .

We have four wrecks in English waters called Noel, one of which was a French steamer which staggered from collision to collision off the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel in the English Channel, during a gale in 1897 which saw widespread casualties all over England. She ran first into a barque, which was at first feared to have gone down, but was later seen under tow with her bows ‘stove’. However, the Esparto steamer was not so lucky, and sank after being cut nearly in two. It took some time for the full story to emerge: the Noel‘s crew could not be rescued for a few days because they were ashore in a rather inaccessible location in the teeth of a howling gale, and could only communicate by signals from the master. In the meantime, the rest of the crew took shelter in the stern, the bows being ‘completely torn away, exposing the whole of the forepart of the ship, which is entirely submerged, having apparently settled over the bank’.

 . . . was to certain poor shepherds in the fields as they lay . . .

There is also a small flock (sorry!) of lost vessels named Shepherd, some probably for the surname. However, I particularly like the Shepherd and Shepherdess of 1766, which struck the Farne Islands: perhaps the name cashed in on the popularity of contemporary Arcadian subjects, for example, this Meissen couple from 1750.

O little town of Bethlehem . . .

The name Star of Bethlehem seems to have been current in fishing communities in the 1890s. Our first loss was a Grimsby trawler off Staithes in 1890, with three weeks’ worth of fish. I wonder if a local fisherman saw the name and was taken with it, since the next wreck, in 1892, was of the newly-built ship of the same name, operating out of Staithes, and also lost in that region. Finally, the last wreck to bear this name in English waters was a Scottish herring lugger from Banffshire in 1895, working the Great Yarmouth fishing grounds as so many Scottish fishermen did, up to the mid 20th century. Perhaps this last gives a clue as to why the name was popular: the crews followed the migratory herring as the shepherds and the wise men followed the star. Could anyone from a fishing community shed any light on this?

The Annunciation to the Magi: Star of the East, the horizon adorning . . . .

In the same way, a fishing vessel named Star of the East was run down by a steamer off the Eddystone in 1904, while returning from Newlyn to her home port of Lowestoft.

And finally . . . no Christmas would be complete without a nativity scene:

When the General Gascoyne struck the Burbo Bank off Liverpool, in 1837, inbound from Quebec and Montreal with deals, potash and passengers, she rapidly found herself in a perilous situation. Potash prices rose on the Liverpool markets with the loss of the ship and her cargo. This prosaic detail was rather overshadowed by what happened to the crew and human cargo who ‘were clinging to the poop and mizen rigging with a heavy sea breaking over them’ when the local tug Eleanor steamed to the rescue. Those on board either jumped off into the ship’s longboat or were taken off one by one by the Eleanor‘s crew, who boarded the ship at the risk of their own lives.

The accounts of what happened next are slightly conflicting: according to the Lancaster Gazette, a lady ‘far advanced in pregnancy’ promptly gave birth on board the Eleanor, suggesting the shock of shipwreck had brought on labour; according to the Times, she had been ‘only confined the previous day’, and was ‘rescued along with her infant’. Either way, this nativity was surely a miraculous rescue.

No.41: The Barbary Corsair

Alarums and excursions:

In 1760-1 these news items appeared in the English press with a conflation of Turks and Algerians that was probably quite typical of the time.

‘London, October 2. An express has been received from Mount’s Bay, that between the 26th and 27th ult. an Algerine Chebeck, of 20 guns, and full of men, was driven ashore by a strong southerly wind, and entirely lost; 170 of the crew got on shore, which terribly affrighted the country people. It is 25 years since an Algerine cruizer was in any of our ports in England…’  (Newcastle Courant, 11.10.1760, No.4385, p1)

‘London, January 3. His Majesty’s frigate Bland is arrived at Falmouth, to convoy the Turks, which were stranded at Mount’s Bay, to Algiers.’ (Newcastle Courant, 10.01.1761, No.4398, p1)

Why were the local people so ‘terribly affrighted’? They clearly suspected the ship of being a Barbary Corsair, or Sallee Rover, from Salé in Morocco, privateers of the Mediterranean who sometimes ranged further north in feats of daring seamanship, since their lateen-rigged triangular sails were less suited to the rougher waters of the Atlantic. They were occasionally active in British waters in the 17th and 18th centuries, and ventured as far north as Iceland in 1627, when the Revd. Olafur Egilsson was captured – which was why people were so afraid. (A recent English translation of his travels and travails has been made available.)

A household name, albeit fictional, who also spent time as a ‘guest’ of the Sallee Rovers, was Robinson Crusoe!

As was the case where privateers of any nationality were concerned, it was not uncommon for ships to be ‘taken and retaken’, captured by an opposing force, then recaptured by their own, or to suffer serial capture, as the two following ships with some connection to Corsairs demonstrate.

The Fountain was captured from the Algerians in 1664 and taken into the service of the Royal Navy. She was intended to be used as a fireship but was prematurely set ablaze by a shot from the Dutch side at the Battle of Solebay in 1672.

Similarly, the Dutch fluyt Schiedam, one of our Designated wrecks, was wrecked in Jangye-Ryn Cove, Cornwall, after serial capture. Laden with a cargo of timber from Spain, she was captured in the Mediterranean in 1683 by Barbary Corsairs. She was then captured by the English under Sir Clowdisley Shovell (shipwreck seems to have hung around his career: he just missed being wrecked in 1703 in the Great Storm, before being finally lost with his fleet in the Association disaster off the Isles of Scilly in 1707), and despatched for Tangier to act as a transport for England, on which voyage she was finally lost.

No.40: Mahratta I

Jute, Jam and Journalism

Following my call in a recent edition for ‘challenges’ I was asked to investigate what wrecks we might have in the jute trade for Dundee. So here’s the answer: Dundee was famous not only for jute, but for jam (well, marmalade!) and journalism, including those august publications, the Beano and the Dandy. So here are some jute ships which got into a jam, and I shall quote some journalism!

We have seven wrecks that were bound from Calcutta to Dundee with a cargo explicitly described as jute, or including jute, exactly half of our jute wrecks, as other consignments were bound for London and Liverpool. Some may have discharged their other cargoes from the East Indies in London, before sailing on to Dundee with the jute, as the Mahratta was intended to do (I shall talk more about her in a minute). Our earliest jute wreck, the clipper James Baines, was being unloaded in the Huskisson Dock in Liverpool in 1858 when she caught fire, a fate echoed by our last known jute wreck, the Falcon, in 1926. There was a certain inevitability about it: her cargo was jute and matches, a combustible combination if ever there was one.

The time span of the wrecks bound for Dundee with jute parallels that of the heyday of the jute trade, from the late 19th century to the early 1920s, by which time the industry was already in decline. The earliest Dundee-bound wreck was in 1884 on the coast of Northumberland, followed by the Bay of Panama, driven ashore in a snowstorm in 1891 along with three other ships nearby.

The most famous was the Mahratta I, which struck the Goodwin Sands in 1909, her fame heightened by the fact that her namesake, the Mahratta II, struck a mile to the north-east in 1939. Mahratta I shows a wide range of human response to shipwreck: she had a number of passengers on board, some of whom were phlegmatic, and some not. One woman refused to leave the ship until she absolutely had to, when the ship was beginning to break up, objecting to the Customs intending to enforce the quarantining of her pet dog even under the circumstances.

Sadly, after going aground on the Goodwins, the chief engineer committed suicide in his cabin, the sole casualty of this wreck, in which a 90-strong crew, the majority lascar sailors from India, and all the passengers, were saved. Likewise all the salvors, about 100 local boatmen pressed into saving as much of the cargo as possible, were themselves saved. As the salvage proceeded, the ship began to break up, and only 289 bales of jute were taken out of the wreck, out of a cargo of 10,000 tons that also included tea, coffee, rice, iron, gum, and rubber. Much of the jute is said to remain on board what is now a well scattered wreck.

One of the engineers provided a rational but vivid description of the ship’s disintegration, as reported in the Times of 12 April 1909:

‘The vessel was in charge of a Trinity pilot when she struck. Efforts were made to get her off under her own steam, but these failed, and tug services were accepted. Within a short time of the stranding water entered the liner and the main shaft was badly bent. The ship strained severely, and there was a continual grinding and snapping as plates sheered and buckled and heavy iron rivets broke away by dozens. The crew were put to work assisting the boatmen in salving the tea and throwing the jute overboard in order to lighten the vessel, but only about 200 tons had been got out when the Mahratta broke in two. Before this we had been working over our knees in water in the engine room. The ship parted with great suddenness at about 8 o’clock. The noise was like a cannon shot, followed by rending and tearing. The liner broke amidships, across the bunkers and the saloon. There was a great rush for the boats immediately by the labourers who had been assisting to jettison the cargo. One man was so scared that he caught hold of me round the body, and I had a difficulty to get clear from him.’

I hope that’s a good answer to the question, and please do keep coming with more!