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THE SAILOR LOST IN PORT;
THE SINKING OF THE
ROYAL GEORGE,” ÎN 1782.
THEN a ship is lost at sea, no great surprise
mingles with our regret : we feel that only the
has befallen her, and soon forget the catastrophe. The destruction of a proud citadel of the sea by the hurricane of battle, when, like L'Orient, she explodes with a roar which deadens the tumult of the surrounding fight, or sinks sullenly beneath the battery's fire, with all the colours flying, is also an event which fails to astonish, as such an end was to be expected for some of the numerous ships built in the dockyards of Europe. But when a vessel, resting quietly in her harbour, and surrounded by all the emblems of peace, meets destruction, and goes down with scarcely a moment's notice, we are affected with a surprise somewhat similar to that which would seize upon
him who, gazing from a quiet eminence, sees a large city engulphed by an earthquake at his feet.
The sinking of the “ Royal George ” off Spithead, in the year 1782, is an incident of this impressive character, which excited at the period the sympathies of a whole nation, and lives to the present hour in the mournful traditions of the
Let the reader pass, in imagination, to Portsmouth, in the autumn of 1782, and picture to himself the spectacle visible in the naval rendezvous called Spithead. A fleet of nearly thirty
sail of the line, commanded by Lord Howe, lay in the narrow sea, preparing to aid the garrison of Gibraltar, where the lion-hearted Elliot held the keys of that rocky fortress. The fleet was preparing to relieve the fort from the Duke of Crillon's floating batteries, large fleet, and force of 100,000 men ; and all were expecting fresh glories for their admiral, who had this year been created a viscount. Near this fleet, in close company with these noble three-deckers—the Victory, Barfleur, Ocean, and others—floated the Royal George, of 100 guns, on the morning of August 29th. All was merriment on board the ship ; for her crew, consisting of eight hundred and sixty-five men, had just been paid ; and, with all a sailor's light-heartedness, were eager to spend the hardearned toils of war. From the shores, boats were putting off with most ill-looking Jew dealers and other “land-sharks,' all ready to cheat and victimize Jack. Little thought those trading swarms of the fate to which they hastened : thoughts of gain and fraud occupied the minds of many, and prevented them from admiring the noble prospect in Spithead roadstead, or feeling a patriot's honest pride at the sight of that grand array of maritime power. It was about nine in the morning ; breakfast was over, and the crew prepared to take on board a supply of rum, which a lighter had just brought alongside.
A piece of work was now in progress which is worthy of note, as from it resulted the ruin of the Royal George. The first thing that would have surprised a spectator was the position of the ship, which seemed to have heeled so much to the larboard or left side, that one could hardly stand upon the deck. This would soon be explained, however, by the nature of the operation. A pipe, which conveyed the water required for washing the decks and such-like purposes from the bottom of the ship, had got out of order ; and, to repair it, the ship's bottom had been raised out of the water on that side where the pipe was inserted. As this opening was about three feet under water-mark, it was necessary to depress the opposite side of the ship by that space, so that the left side of the vessel would be three feet deeper than usual in the water, and the starboard, or right side, three feet higher. This elevation brought the entrance of the pipe above the sea, and thus enabled the workmen to repair the
damage without taking the ship into dock. No danger could reasonably be expected from such a proceeding if conducted with proper attention ; and the Royal George was therefore hove over before breakfast, so as to bring her starboard side about three feet out of the water. This result was accomplished in the following manner. All the guns on the left side of the ship were unfastened and run out through the port-holes to their full length. This, of course, weighed the ship down considerably on that side, but not sufficiently to raise the pipe-opening above the sea. The guns on the opposite side were therefore drawn back towards the middle of the decks, which brought the vessel still more down on the larboard side, so low that water dashed in through the portholes.
All the weight of the guns being now towards one side, the opposite part was kept permanently above the sea ; and the carpenters began their work on the starboard, whilst the crew were unloading the rum-lighter on the larboard side. Matters went on easily for some time—Jews chaffering with sailors, seamen settling their “ accounts " with the Jews and one another. More than three hundred women, too, were soon on board, and the whole ship bore the aspect of a fair ; though a part of the crew was, of course, kept to the work of the vessel. It was noticed by a few on board that the ship had settled somewhat lower down since the first heeling over in the morning ; but this was attributed to the casks of rum placed on the larboard side ; besides which, the greater part of the crew were collected there, and contributed, of course, to sink the port-holes still lower in the water. Another cause soon combined to heave the ship further over ; for the wind, rising a little, increased the roll of the waves, and thus brought a large volume of water upon the lower deck, which, accumulating like a pool on the larboard side, sunk the vessel much deeper than had been originally contemplated. At this period, whole colonies of mice, driven from their holes by the unusual quantity of water poured upon their retreats, were running about the decks, hunted by the delighted sailors.
There was one man, however, who did not like the state of things, and kept anxiously watching the position of the ship as she lay with half her side on the sea.
This was the car
penter. A few of the more steady sailors also felt uneasy ; but the management of the ship was not their province: that was left to the care of the lieutenant in charge. The carpenter at length observed that the vessel was settling more and more in the water ; and plucking up his courage, resolved to remind the lieutenant of the dangerous state of affairs. He, accordingly, went on deck, and requested the officer to permit the ship to be hove over a little towards the other side, so that no more water might enter her port-holes. The lieutenant, however, paid little attention to the carpenter's statement, who was therefore compelled to retire, hoping for the best, but dreading the result. The careful man did not long remain below. He saw clearly that unless the ship were soon righted, all would go down, and therefore resolved again to call the lieutenant's attention to the perilous condition of the vessel. He, accordingly, went to that officer, and assured him that the ship was endangered by her position, and entreated him to give orders to right the vessel. The conceited superior inquired, with an oath, whether the carpenter thought he could command the ship himself. This settled the question, and the man retired. But a strange feeling of uneasiness began to affect the older sailors, who, to say the truth, had little confidence in the lieutenant, and did not like the state of their noble ship. The Royal George was, at this moment, in a most crowded state, there being more than twelve hundred souls on board, of whom above three hundred were women.
A few minutes before the final alarm arose, the admiral's barber came out of the cabin, where he had been shaving Kempenfelt, then seated quietly in his room, and little expecting the summons to eternity which he, an old man of seventy, and so many of his crew, were about to hear. The lieutenant, who had so rudely repulsed the warning of the carpenter, took fright in a few minutes after the man departed, and ordered the drummer to beat to quarters, that the guns might be righted. The crew did not wait for the roll of the drum, for all saw the danger, and crowded down the hatchways as fast as possible, each eager to right his own gun, and thus lessen the weight on the vessel's sunken side.
But the alarm, unfortunately, came too late ; for as the crew rushed down, the ship gave a heavy lurch and began to sink ; upon which, Captain Waghorn ran to the admiral, crying out that the ship was going down, and endeavoured to wrench
open the cabin-door. This he was unable to effect, in consequence of the inclined position of the ship having strained the wood-work, and so jammed the door against the flooring The crew, at this critical moment, tried to right the ponderous guns ; but the decks were too much inclined, and it was like trying to push the pieces up a hill. Not a gun could, therefore, be righted ; and the sea came pouring in like a cataract upon
the men, as the ship almost settled down upon
her larboard broadside. In an instant the approaching ruin became evident to all ; and the reader may imagine the horror of the moment, when more than a thousand human beings rushed with desperation towards the open ports on the starboard side, hoping to leap out into the sea. When the ship took her last terrific lurch, and fell completely upon her side, hundreds of heads were struggling, all crowded together, in the port-holes, from which few escaped, as most fell back into the sinking vessel. No sooner did the terror-stricken multitude fall back into the ship than a blast of air issued from between decks, produced by the water filling up the cavities and expelling the air from every part. The hull of the Royal George at last disappeared, with all on board, who were drawn down in the vortex created by the sinking of so huge a body ; and even those who had escaped from the port-holes, or jumped from the decks, were unable to resist the strong suction.
When the ship sunk, she righted, and came to the bottom in an upright position—a result partly caused by the masts and yards of the sinking Royal George striking the rum-sloop, the resistance of which tended to restore the ship to her equilibrium. Her top-masts and upper-rigging remained, therefore, above water, to mark, as it were, her: burial-place. When the keel touched the bottom, the moment which gave a chance of escape to any of her crew arrived. Then the downward whirl of the water ceased, and it began to bubble upwards ; thus assisting the efforts of each swimmer who was unentangled by the rigging or unimprisoned between decks. Many, therefore, rose to the surface, and, clinging to the rigging and spars, waited the arrival of boats from the surrounding ships.