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THE SAILOR WRECKED ON HIS NATIVE COAST :
EAST INDJAMAN, IN
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE “ HALEWELL,'
THE YEAR 1786..
that one wreck is more terrible than another may seem common-place enough, and does but amount to the assertion that some calamities are
surrounded with circumstances of a more gloomy character than the general class of evils which affect man. But he who is conversant with maritime adventures will be able at once to select cases of shipwreck which stand out in most fearful prominency from the average perils of the sea, fixing the attention on the dark scene, to the exclusion, for a time, of other events. To be wrecked close to one's native shores, and that at the very commencement of an important voyage, is certainly a case of this nature, presenting a crowding succession of sorrowful scenes, and exemplifying the sudden destruction of bright hopes at the very moment when fancy colours the future with those glowing tints which so often cast their glories on the beginnings of human works. Those who have witnessed thc departure of a ship to some distant colony may be acquainted with the different feelings then so visibly depicted on every countenance. A certain expectancy brightens cach eye, overcoming the regrets which crowd around the last “good night
to our native land. Hopefulness is the presiding feeling of the time ; for some are leaving the long known and bitterly felt struggles of crowded civilization for regions where wide fields are open to enterprize and labour ; and does not imagination discourse
sweetly of the happy future and a quiet old age in distant lands? Others have honour, with all the pomp and circumstance of successful ambition, spread out, glittering in the distance: and these have few regrets, for the future, with its long-sounding tale of good fortune, lies before them. Such are the feelings which predominate in many--perhaps in the majority—of those who leave their native land for distant climes; all of which are so rudely blighted and destroyed by a wreck at the outset, ere the vigour of fresh-budded hopes has yielded before the agency of time and the disagreeables of the voyage. The loss of the “ Halsewell,” an East India ship, on the coast of Dorsetshire, in the year 1786, has suggested the above remarks ; and the facts of this longremembered and most melancholy wreck shall now be briefly placed before the reader.
This ship left the Downs on Sunday, January 1st, in 1786, with two hundred and forty persons on board, many being ladies of great beauty and accomplishments, who, having finished their education in England, were going out to their relatives in India. Many gentlemen destined for the services then so tempting to the ambitious and energetic, when the East was regarded as a field for securing both fame and wealth, were amongst the passengers.
The British power was then on the point of commencing that magnificent march which has led the soldiers of England to the capital of Lahore. The French strength had been broken, the power of Hyder Ali checked, and the fame of Clive still shone like a bright star over the troubled land of India, promising future Plasseys to those who sought them. All saw that the work had but begun in India : the rage of Tippoo Saib was the spirit of the tempest which must soon break over the Mysore country. To India, therefore, did the adventurous spirits of the time press ; and amongst the passengers on board the Halsewell were many who hoped to return to England with wealth sufficient to place them on a level with princes. Something must, however, be suffered ere such glittering prizes are gained ; and it seemed as if their hardships were about to commence with the hour of their departure from England.
A snow-storm came on before the vessel could clear the channel, the sea rose furiously, and that tempest began which hundreds and thousands had bitter reason for remembering during their lives. Frost and snow were joined with thunder and lightning ; and all these elements were aided in their destructive operation by a hurricane continually shifting to all points of the compass. The Halsewell might have braved the gale had she been fairly out at sea ; but the storm caught her with the coast on the lee, and she was therefore compelled to watch not only against the perils of the sea, but those of the land. To increase the danger, a leak was discovered on Tuesday night, but not before five feet of water stood in the hold ; and on the next day, the main and mizen masts were cut away in order to save the ship from destruction, as she had by this time become nearly unmanageable. All thoughts of pursuing the voyage were now given up, and the captain set the ship for Portsmouth ; but the wind blowing upon the land, brought the vessel too near the coast, and it was feared that she would not be able to weather the rocky points to leeward. It was, therefore, resolved to beat up for Studland Bay, with the hope of anchoring there till the storm ceased; but to reach this harbour it was necessary to pass St. Alban's Head--a rocky and dangerous promontory, to weather which every effort was now made. All was in vain, the ship being driven more upon the coast instead of keeping her course off the land ; and about eleven on Thursday night, the dreaded mass of St. Alban's Head loomed through the darkness. To pass the headland was impossible, as it was not much more than a mile from the vessel, and the wind blew directly upon the rocky coast. The sails were instantly taken in, and one of the anchors let go, which, it was hoped, would arrest their progress towards the shore. For about an hour the ship kept her place, during which period each swell of the sea had been watched with that breathless awe which the near presence of death creates ; for all felt that the crisis had come, and knew full well that upon a piece of straining rope and the anchor’s firm grip the lives of the whole company depended. At length a fatal movement was perceived in the ship : she had drifted from her anchorage, and was hurrying on the rocks. But all resources were not yet exhausted: the sheet anchor was now let go, and the Halsewell was again stayed in her course to destruction. At this critical moment, when every man was summoned, by the terrible
emergency, to the exercise of the highest coolness and courage, the sailors shewed themselves utterly unworthy of being ranked with British seamen. The dastards slunk below, and refused even to man the pump, which the officers and soldiers were compelled to work. It is to be feared that the vessel had been provided with an inefficient crew—a pack of
skulks,” willing enough to enjoy the advantages of sunshine and the benefits of liberal pay, but shrinking from duty at the very moment most fitted to call forth the true sailor's best energies. The time was, however, approaching when these cowards would be forced to take their chance with the rest on the storm-beaten decks ; for the sheet-anchor, after holding for about two hours, gave way, and the ship again drifted towards the precipitous rocks of St. Alban's head, which, frowning through the storm, quietly waited to shiver upon its foam-beaten ramparts the doomed vessel.
It was now two o'clock in the morning : the Halsewell was surging forwards ; the dark rocks every instant becoming more distinct ; and the thunder of the sea breaking against the perpendicular cliffs seemed like the boomings of distant minute guns. Liglits were displayed from all parts of the ship to alarm the coast, and guns fired at intervals with the like object : but what purpose could be answered, even if the whole country should be roused, since no boat could put off from such a shore with the least chance of braving the tempest ? The captain and his officers saw the coming crash, which must in a few minutes end the agony of their suspense ; and also felt that no human power could prevent the blow. The feelings of the captain were not those of dread : pity for the young and beautiful around filled his soul ; and the fearful crisis was for him deepened in its agony by the presence on board the Halsewell of his two daughters, whose personal sufferings were forgotten in fear for their father's safety. The ladies, though exhausted by the anxieties of their situation, remained quiet ; not distracting the officers by useless outcries or unavailing terror. One only yielded, probably through physical weakness, to the surrounding horrors, and fell on the floor in violent convulsions. The captain had just kissed his daughters, and endeavoured to compose the ladies by holding out some prospect of escape, when he saw that, the hour of ruin had come ; for, looking towards the shore, ing cliff.
all beheld, close upon them, the black rampart walls of rock, their steep sides yawning over the approaching ship, which, with long plungings, surged onwards to her doom, groaning in her struggles, as if gifted with a knowledge of her coming fate.
A few more heaves of the labouring vessel, and then was heard and felt the shock of her whole side striking with the heavy, dead force of a battering-ram full upon the rock. For a moment she recoiled, and fell back into the foaming sea ; then again struck with greater violence, all her timbers, from stem to stern, trembling with the crash. The side was beaten in by the shock ; and, rolling towards the land, she fell with her whole broadside upon the splinter
The rending of the timbers drove the sailors on deck, where human labour was now of little use. Some rushed to the battered side of the Halsewell, hoping to leap from the decks upon
the rock ; but the face of the cliff being nearly perpendicular, like the wall of a house, prevented the boldest from seeking a footing during the night upon such a steep ; whilst the vast height of the rock seemed to prohibit all attempts at escape. Neither the captain nor officers could understand one peculiar and frightful appearance of this rock, which actually overhung the ship, as with a black canopy of stone. The ship, in fact, seemed wedged into the entrance of some yawning cavern, into which the waves beat with a deafening
The ladies were all grouped together in that part of the ship called the round-house, in which about fifty were crowded, whom the officers encouraged to hope for deliverance in the morning, when the country must take the alarm. That the ship would hold together was now the only hope which could be entertained, no other means of escape being for an instant expected ; and upon the probability of this the officers dilated to the passengers, as wave after wave swept with thundering fury over the hull. The mate was, however, doubtful respecting this chance of deliverance, as he felt the decks creak and groan with the shock of the billows. He, however, had given the ladies every reason to hope that the morning light would find the ship whole. What, then, was the agony with which he saw that the sides of the Halsewell were falling in, and the deck splitting up!