Burning Of The Prince A French East Indiaman
On the 19th of February 1752, a French East Indiaman, called the
Prince, sailed from Port L'Orient on a voyage outward bound. But soon
afterwards, a sudden shift of wind drove her on a sand bank, where she
was exposed to imminent danger,
and heeled so much that the mouths of
the guns lay in the sea. By lightening the ship, however, accompanied
by incessant and laborious exertions, she floated with the rise of the
tide, and, being again carried into port, was completely unloaded, and
underwent a thorough repair.
The voyage was resumed on the 10th of June, with a favorable wind, and
for several weeks, seemed to promise every success that could be
While in south latitude 8 30, and in 5 west longitude from Paris,
M. de la Fond, one of the lieutenants of the ship, was, just at the
moment of this observation, informed by a seaman, that smoke was
issuing from the main hatchway. The first lieutenant, who had the
keys of the hold, immediately ordered every hatchway to be opened to
ascertain the truth.
But the fact was too soon verified, and, while the captain hastened on
deck from the great cabin, where he sat at dinner, Lieutenant de la
Fond ordered some sails to be dipped in the sea, and the hatches to be
covered with them in order to prevent the access of air, and thus
stifle the fire. He had even intended, as a more effectual measure, to
let in the water between decks to the depth of a foot, but clouds of
smoke issued from the crevices of the hatchways, and the flames gained
more and more by degrees.
Meantime the captain ordered sixty or eighty soldiers under arms, to
restrain any disorder and confusion which might probably ensue; and in
this he was supported by their commander, M. de la Touche, who
exhibited uncommon fortitude on the occasion.
Every one was now employed in procuring water; all the buckets were
filled, the pumps plied, and pipes introduced from them to the hold.
But the rapid progress of the flames baffled the exertions to subdue
them, and augmented the general consternation.
The yawl lying in the way of the people, was hoisted out by order of
the captain, and the boatswain, along with three others took
possession of it. Wanting oars, they were supplied with some by three
men who leaped overboard. Those in the ship, however, desired them to
return, but they exclaimed, that they wanted a rudder, and desired a
rope to be thrown out. However, the progress of the flames soon
shewing them their only alternative for safety, they withdrew from the
ship, and she from the effect of a breeze springing up, passed by.
On board the utmost activity still prevailed, and the courage of the
people seemed to be augmented by the difficulty of escape. The master
boldly went down into the hold, but the intense heat compelled him to
return, and, had not a quantity of water been dashed over him, he
would have been severely scorched. Immediately subsequent to this
period, flames violently burst from the main hatchway.
At that time the captain ordered the boats to be got out, while
consternation enfeebled the most intrepid. The long-boat had been
secured at a certain height, and she was about to be put over the
ship's side, when, unhappily, the fire ran up the main-mast, and
caught the tackle; the boat fell down on the guns, bottom upwards,
and it was vain to think of getting her righted.
At length it became too evident that the calamity was beyond the reach
of human remedy; nothing but the mercy of the Almighty could
interpose; consternation was universally disseminated among the
people; nothing but sighs and groans resounded through the vessel, and
the very animals on board, as if sensible of the impending danger,
uttered the most dreadful cries. The certainty of perishing in either
element was anticipated by every human being here, and each raised his
heart and hands towards Heaven.
The chaplain, who was now on the quarter-deck, gave the people general
absolution for their sins, and then repaired to the quarter-gallery to
extend it yet further, to those miserable wretches, who, in hopes of
safety, had already committed themselves to the waves. What a horrible
spectacle! Self-preservation was the only object; each was occupied in
throwing overboard whatever promised the most slender chance of
escape, yards, spars, hen-coops and everything occurring, was seized
in despair, and thus employed.
Dreadful confusion prevailed. Some leaped into the sea, anticipating
that death which was about to reach them; others, more successful,
swam to fragments of the wreck; while the shrouds, yards and ropes,
along the side of the vessel, were covered with the crew crowding upon
them, and hanging there, as if hesitating which alternative of
destruction to choose, equally imminent and equally terrible.
A father was seen to snatch his son from the flames, fold him to his
breast, and, then throwing him into the sea, himself followed, where
they perished in each other's embrace.
Meantime Lieutenant Fond ordered the helm to be shifted. The ship
heeled to larboard, which afforded a temporary preservation, while the
fire raged along the starboard from stem to stern.
Lieutenant Fond had, until this moment, been engrossed by nothing but
adopting every means to preserve the ship; now, however, the horrors
of impending destruction were too conspicuously in view. His
fortitude, notwithstanding, through the goodness of Heaven, never
forsook him; looking around, he found himself alone on the deck, and
he retired to the round-house. There he met M. de la Touche, who
regarded the approach of death with the same heroism which, in India,
had gained him celebrity. "My brother and friend," he cried,
"farewell."--"Whither are you going?" asked Lieutenant Fond. "To
comfort my friend, the captain," he replied.
M. Morin, who commanded this unfortunate vessel, stood overwhelmed
with grief for the melancholy state of his female relatives,
passengers along with him. He had persuaded them to commit themselves
to the waves on hen-coops, while some of the seamen, swimming with one
hand, endeavored to support them with the other.
The floating masts and yards were covered with men struggling with the
watery element, many of whom now perished by balls discharged from the
guns as heated by the fire, and thus presenting a third means of
destruction, augmenting the horrors environing them. While anguish
pierced the heart of M. de la Fond, he withdrew his eyes from the sea;
and a moment after, reaching the starboard gallery, he saw the flames
bursting with frightful noise through the windows of the round-house
and of the great cabin. The fire approached, and was ready to consume
him. Considering it vain to attempt the further preservation of the
ship, or the lives of his fellow sufferers, he thought it his duty, in
this dreadful condition, to save himself yet a few hours, that these
might be devoted to Heaven.
Stripping off his clothes, he designed slipping down a yard, one end
of which dipped in the water; but it was so covered with miserable
beings, shrinking from death, that he tumbled over them and fell into
the sea. There a drowning soldier caught hold of him. Lieutenant Fond
made every exertion to disengage himself, but in vain; he even allowed
himself to sink below the surface, yet he did not quit his grasp.
Lieutenant Fond plunged down a second time; still he was firmly held
by the man, who then was incapable of considering that his death,
instead of being of service, would rather hasten his own. At last,
after struggling a considerable time, and swallowing a great quantity
of water, the soldier's strength failed; and sensible that M. de la
Fond was sinking a third time, he dreaded to be carried down along
with him, and loosened his grasp, no sooner was this done, than
M. de la Fond to guard against a repetition, dived below the surface,
and rose at a distance from the place.
This incident rendered him more cautious for the future; he even
avoided the dead bodies, now so numerous, that to make a free passage,
he was compelled to shove them aside with one hand, while he kept
himself floating with the other; for he was impressed with the
apprehension, that each was a person who would seize him, and involve
him in his own destruction. But strength beginning to fail, he was
satisfied of the necessity of some respite, when he fell in with part
of the ensign-staff. He put his arm through a noose of the rope to
secure it, and swam as well as he could; then perceiving a yard at
hand, he seized it by one end. However, beholding a young man scarce
able to support himself at the other extremity, he quickly abandoned
so slight an aid, and one which seemed incapable of contributing to
his preservation. Next the spritsail-yard appeared in view, but
covered with people, among whom he durst not take a place without
requesting permission, which they cheerfully granted. Some were quite
naked, others in nothing except their shirts; the pity they expressed
at the situation of M. de la Fond, and his sense of their misfortunes,
exposed his feelings to a severe trial.
Neither Captain Morin, nor M. de la Touche ever quitted the ship, and
were most probably overwhelmed in the catastrophe by which she was
destroyed. But the most dismal spectacle was exhibited on all sides;
the main-mast, consumed below, had been precipitated overboard,
killing some in the fall, and affording a temporary reception to
others. M. de la Fond now observed it covered with people, driven
about by the waves; and at the same time, seeing two seamen buoyed up
by a hen-coop and some planks, desired them to swim to him with the
latter; they did so, accompanied by more of their comrades, and each
taking a plank, which were used for oars, they and he paddled along
upon the yard, until gaining those who had secured themselves on the
main-mast. So many alternations only presented new spectacles of
The chaplain was at this time on the mast, and from him M. de la Fond
received absolution; two young ladies were also there, whose piety and
resignation were truly consolatory; they were the only survivors of
six, their companions had perished in the flames or in the sea. Eighty
persons had found refuge on the main-mast, who, from the repeated
discharge of cannon from the ship, according to the progress of the
flames, were constantly exposed to destruction. The chaplain, in this
awful condition, by his discourse and example, taught the duty of
resignation. M. de la Fond observing him lose his hold on the mast,
and drop into the sea, lifted him up. "Let me go," said he. "I am
already half drowned, and it is only protracting my sufferings."--"No,
my friend," the lieutenant replied, "when my strength is exhausted,
not till then, we will perish together;" and in his pious presence he
calmly awaited death. After remaining here three hours, he beheld one
of the ladies fall from the mast and perish.--She was too remote to
receive any assistance from him.
But when least in expectation of it, he saw the yawl close at hand, at
five in the afternoon. He cried to the men that he was their
lieutenant, and requested to be allowed to participate in their fate.
His presence was too necessary for them to refuse his solicitations,
they needed a conductor who might guide them to the land; thus they
permitted him to come on board, on condition that he should swim to
the yawl. This was a reasonable stipulation; it was to avoid
approaching the mast, else, the rest actuated by the same desire of
self-preservation, would soon have overloaded the little vessel, and
all would have been buried in a watery grave. M. de la Fond,
therefore, summoning up all his strength and courage, was so happy as
to reach the seamen. In a little time afterwards, the pilot and
master, whom he had left on the mast, followed his example, and
swimming towards the yawl were seen and taken in.
The flames still continued raging in the vessel, and as the yawl was
still endangered by being within half a league of her, she stood a
little to windward. Not long subsequent to this, the fire reached the
magazine; and then to describe the thundering explosion which ensued
is impossible. A thick cloud intercepted the light of the sun, and
amidst the terrific darkness nothing but pieces of flaming timber,
projected aloft into the air, could be seen, threatening to crush to
atoms in their fall, numbers of miserable wretches still struggling
with the agonies of death. Nor were the party in the yawl beyond the
reach of hazard; it was not improbable that some of the fiery
fragments might come down upon them, and precipitate their frail
support to the bottom. Though the Almighty preserved them from that
shocking calamity, they were shocked with the spectacle environing
them. The vessel had now disappeared; the sea, to a great distance,
was covered with pieces of the wreck, intermingled with the bodies of
those unhappy creatures who had perished by their fall. Some were seen
who had been choked, others mangled, half consumed and still retaining
life enough to be sensible of the accumulated horrors overwhelming
The fortitude of M. de la Fond was still preserved, through the
favour of Heaven, and he proposed approaching the wreck, to see
whether any provisions or necessary articles might be picked up. He
and his companions being totally devoid of every thing, were exposed
to the hazard of a death even more painful than that which the others
had suffered, in perishing of famine. But finding several barrels,
which they hoped might contain something to relieve their necessities,
they experienced great mortification, on ascertaining that they were
part of the powder that had been thrown overboard during the
conflagration of their unfortunate vessel.
As night approached, they providentially discovered a cask of brandy,
about fifteen pounds of salt pork, a piece of scarlet cloth, twenty
yards of linen, a dozen of pipe staves, and a small quantity of
cordage. When it became dark they durst not venture to retain their
present station until day-light without being endangered by the wreck,
from the fragments of which they had not then been able to disengage
themselves. Therefore they rowed as quickly away as possible from
among them, and bent all their care to the management of the yawl.
The whole began to labor assiduously, and every article which could be
converted to use was employed; the lining of the boat was tore up for
the sake of the planks and nails; a seaman luckily had two needles,
and the linen afforded whatever thread was necessary; the piece of
scarlet cloth was substituted for a sail; an oar was erected for a
mast, and a plank served for a rudder. The equipment of the boat was
soon completed, notwithstanding the darkness of the night, at least as
well as circumstances would allow. Yet a great difficulty remained,
for wanting charts and instruments, and being nearly two hundred
leagues from land, the party felt at a loss what course to steer.
Resigning themselves to the Almighty, they offered up fervent prayers
for his direction.
At length the sail was hoisted, and a favorable breeze soon wafted
M. de la Fond from amidst the bodies of his miserable comrades.
Eight days and nights the adventurers advanced without seeing land;
naked and exposed to the scorching heat of the sun by day, and to
intense cold by night. But to relieve the thirst which parched them,
they availed themselves of a shower of rain, falling on the sixth, and
tried to catch a little of it in their mouths and with their hands.
They sucked the sail, which was wet with the rain, but from being
previously drenched with sea water, it imparted a bitterness to the
fresh water which it received. However, they did not complain, for
had the rain been heavier, it might have lulled the wind, in the
continuance of which they rested their hopes of safety.
In order to ascertain the proper course, the adventurers paid daily
observance to the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and the
position of the stars pointed out how they should steer. All their
sustenance in the meantime was a small piece of pork once in
twenty-four hours, and this they were even obliged to relinquish on
the fourth day, from the heat and irritation it occasioned of their
bodies. Their beverage was a glass of brandy taken from time to time,
but it inflamed their stomachs without assuaging the thirst that
consumed them. Abundance of flying fish were seen; the impossibility
of catching any of which only augmented the pain already endured,
though M. de la Fond and his companions tried to reconcile themselves
to the scanty pittance that they possessed. Yet the uncertainty of
their destiny, the want of subsistence, and the turbulence of the
ocean, all contributed to deprive them of repose, which they so much
required, and almost plunged them in despair. Nothing but a feeble ray
of hope preserved them under their accumulated sufferings.
The eighth night was passed by M. de la Fond at the helm; there he had
remained above ten hours, after soliciting relief, and at last sunk
down under fatigue. His miserable companions were equally exhausted,
and despair began to overwhelm the whole.
At last when the united calamities of hunger, thirst, fatigue and
misery, predicted speedy annihilation, the dawn of Wednesday, the 3d
of August, shewed this unfortunate crew the distant land. None but
those who have experienced the like situation, can form any adequate
idea of the change which was produced. Their strength was renovated,
and they were aroused to precautions against being drifted away by the
current. They reached the coast of Brazil, in latitude 6 south, and
entered Tresson Bay.
The first object of M. de la Fond and his companions was to return
thanks for the gracious protection of Heaven; they prostrated
themselves on the ground, and then in the transport of joy rolled
among the sand.
They exhibited the most frightful appearance; nothing human
characterized them, which did not announce their misfortune in glaring
colors. Some were quite naked; others had only shirts, rotten and torn
to rags. M. de la Fond had fastened a piece of the scarlet cloth
about his waist, in order to appear at the head of his companions.
Though rescued from imminent danger, they had still to contend with
hunger and thirst, and remained in ignorance whether they should meet
men endowed with humanity in that region.
While deliberating on the course they should follow, about fifty
Portuguese of the settlement, there established, advanced and inquired
the cause of their presence. Their misfortunes were soon explained,
and the recital of them proved a sufficient claim for supplying their
wants. Deeply affected by the account now given, the Portuguese
congratulated themselves that it had fallen to their lot to relieve
the strangers, and speedily led them to their dwellings. On the way
the seamen were rejoiced at the sight of a river, into which they
threw themselves, plunging in the water, and drinking copious draughts
of it to allay their thirst. Afterwards frequent bathing proved one of
the best restoratives of health, to which they all resorted.
The chief man of the place next came, and conducted M. de la Fond and
his companions to his house, about a half a league distant from the
spot where they landed. He charitably supplied them with linen shirts
and trowsers, and boiled some fish, the water of which was relished as
delicious broth. Though sleep was equally necessary as this frugal
fare, the survivors having learned that there was a church within half
a league, dedicated to St. Michael, repaired thither to render thanks
to Heaven for their miraculous preservation. The badness of the road
induced such fatigue as compelled them to rest in the village where it
stood, and there the narrative of their misfortunes, added to the
piety which they exhibited, attracted the notice of the inhabitants,
all of whom hastened to minister something to their necessities. After
remaining a short interval they returned to their host, who at night
kindly contributed another repast of fish. Something more
invigorating, however, being required by people who had endured so
much, they purchased an ox for a quantity of the brandy that had been
saved from the wreck.
Paraibo was distant fifteen leagues, and they had to set out barefoot,
and with little chance of finding suitable provisions on the journey.
Thus they smoke-dried their present store, and added a little flour to
it. In three days they began to march, and, under an escort of three
soldiers, advanced seven leagues the first day, when they were
hospitably received by a person, and passed the night in his house.
On the following evening, a serjeant and twenty-nine men arrived to
conduct them to the commandant of the fortress, who gave them a
friendly reception, afforded them supplies, and provided a boat to
carry them to Paraibo. About midnight they reached the town, where a
Portuguese captain attended to present them to the governor, from whom
also they experienced the like attention. Being anxious to reach
Fernambuc, to take advantage of a Portuguese fleet, daily expected to
sail for Europe, the governor, in three days more, ordered a corporal
to conduct the party thither. But at this time M. de la Fond's feet
were so cruelly wounded, he was scarce able to stand, and on that
account was supplied with a horse. In four days he arrived at
Fernambuc, where, from different naval and military officers, he met
with the utmost attention and consideration; he and all his companions
got a passage to Europe in the fleet.
M. de la Fond sailed on the 5th of October, and reached Lisbon in
safety on the 17th of December; thence he procured a passage to
Morlaix, where having rested a few days to recruit his strength, he
repaired to Port L'Orient, with his health greatly injured by the
calamities he had suffered, and reduced to a state of poverty, having
after twenty-eight years service, lost all he had in the world.
By this deplorable catastrophe, nearly three hundred persons perished.
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