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Sea StoriesThe Merchantman And The Pirate
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Loss Of The Catharine Venus And Piedmont Transports And Three Merchant Ships
The miseries of war are in themselves great and terrible, but the
consequences which arise indirectly from it, though seldom known and
little adverted to, are no less deplorable.--The destruction of the
sword sometimes bears only an inconsiderable proportion to the havoc
of disease, and, in the pestilential climates of the western colonies,
entire regiments, reared in succession, have as often fallen victims
to their baneful influence.
To prosecute the war with alacrity, it had been judged expedient to
transport a strong body of troops on foreign service, but their
departure was delayed by repeated adversities, and at length the
catastrophe which is about to be related ensued.
On the 15th of November 1795, the fleet, under convoy of Admiral
Christian's squadron, sailed from St. Helens. A more beautiful sight
than it exhibited cannot be conceived; and those who had nothing to
lament in leaving their native country, enjoyed the spectacle as the
most magnificent produced by the art of man, and as that which the
natives of this island contemplate with mingled pride and pleasure.
Next day, the wind continuing favorable, carried the fleet down
channel; and as the Catharine transport came within sight of the isle
of Purbeck, Lieutenant Jenner, an officer on board, pointed out to
another person, the rocks where the Halsewell and so many unfortunate
individuals had perished. He and Cornet Burns had been unable to reach
Southampton until the Catharine had sailed, therefore they hired a boy
to overtake her, and on embarking at St. Helens the former expressed
his satisfaction, in a letter to his mother, that he had been so
fortunate as to do so.
On Tuesday the 17th, the fleet was off Portland, standing to the
westward; but the wind shifting and blowing a strong gale at
south-south-west, the admiral, dubious whether they could clear the
channel, made a signal for putting into Torbay, which some of the
transports were then in sight of.--However, they could not make the
bay; the gale increased, and a thick fog came on; therefore the
admiral thought it expedient to alter his design, and about five in
afternoon made a signal for standing out to sea. Of the circumstances
relative to the Catharine, a more detailed account has been preserved
than respecting the other vessels of the fleet; and they are preserved
by a female, with whose name we are unacquainted, in these words.
"The evening of the 17th was boisterous and threatening; the master
said he was apprehensive that we should have bad weather; and when I
was desired to go on deck and look at the appearance of the sky, I
observed that it was troubled and red, with great heavy clouds flying
in all directions, and with a sort of dull mist surrounding the moon.
On repeating this to the other passengers, two of whom had been at sea
before, they said we should certainly have a stormy night, and indeed
it proved so very tempestuous that no rest was to be obtained. Nobody,
however, seemed to think that there was any danger, though the fog was
so thick that the master could see nothing by which to direct his
course; but he thought that he had sufficient sea-room.
The fatigue I had suffered from the tossing of the ship, and the
violence with which she continued to roll, had kept me in bed. It was
about ten o'clock in the morning of the 18th, when the mate looked
down into the cabin and cried, "save yourselves if you can!"
The consternation and terror of that moment cannot be described; I had
on a loose dressing gown, and wrapping it round me I went up, not
quite on deck, but to the top of the stairs, from whence I saw the sea
break mountain high against the shore. The passengers and soldiers
seemed thunderstruck by the sense of immediate and inevitable danger,
and the seamen, too conscious of the hopelessness of any exertion,
stood in speechless agony, certain of meeting in a few moments that
destruction which now menaced them.
While I thus surveyed the scene around me in a kind of dread which no
words can figure, Mr. Burns, an officer of dragoons, who had come up
in his shirt, called to Mr. Jenner and Mr. Stains for his cloak;
nobody, however, could attend to any thing in such a moment but
Mr. Jenner, Mr. Stains and Mr. Dodd the surgeon, now passed me, their
countenances sufficiently expressing their sense of the situation in
which we all were. Mr. Burns spoke cheerfully to me; he bade me take
good courage, and Mr. Jenner observed, there was a good shore near,
and all would do well.
These gentlemen then went to the side of the ship, with the intention,
as I believe, of seeing whether it was possible to get on shore. The
master of the vessel alone remained near the companion; when suddenly
a tremendous wave broke over the ship, and struck me with such
violence, that I was stunned for a moment, and, before being able to
recover myself, the ship struck with a force so great as to throw me
from the stairs into the cabin, the master being thrown down near me.
At the same instant, the cabin, with a dreadful crash, broke in upon
us, and planks and beams threatened to bury us in ruins. The master,
however, soon recovered himself; he left me to go again upon deck, and
I saw him no more.
A sense of my condition lent me strength to disengage myself from the
boards and fragments by which I was surrounded, and I once more got
upon the stairs, I hardly know how. But what a scene did I behold! The
masts were all lying across the shattered remains of the deck, and no
living creature appeared on it; all was gone, though I knew not then
that they were gone forever. I looked forward to the shore, but there
I could see nothing except the dreadful surf that broke against it,
while, behind the ship, immense black waves rose like tremendous
ruins. I knew that they must overwhelm her, and thought that there
could be no escape for me.
Believing, then, that death was immediate and unavoidable, my idea was
to regain my bed in the cabin, and there, resigning myself to the will
of God, await the approaching moment. However, I could not reach it,
and for a while was insensible; then the violent striking and breaking
up of the wreck again roused me to recollection; I found myself near
the cabin-windows, and the water was rising round me. It rapidly
increased, and the horrors of drowning were present to my view; yet do
I remember seeing the furniture of the cabin floating about. I sat
almost enclosed by pieces of the wreck, and the water now reached my
The bruises I had received made every exertion extremely difficult,
and my loose gown was so entangled among the beams and fragments of
the ship, that I could not disengage it. Still the desire of life, the
hope of being welcomed on shore, whither I thought my friends had
escaped, and the remembrance of my child, all united in inspiring me
with courage to attempt saving myself. I again tried to loosen my
gown, but found it impossible, and the wreck continued to strike so
violently, and the ruins to close so much more around me, that I now
expected to be crushed to death.
As the ship drifted higher on the stones, the water rather lessened as
the waves went back, but on their return, continued to cover me, and I
once or twice lost my breath, and, for a moment, my recollection. When
I had power to think, the principle of self preservation still urged
me to exertion.
The cabin now broke more and more, and through a large breach I saw
the shore very near. Amidst the tumult of the raging waves I had a
glimpse of the people, who were gathering up what the sea drove
towards them; but I thought they could not see me, and from them I
despaired of assistance.--Therefore I determined to make one effort to
preserve my life. I disengaged my arms from the dressing gown, and,
finding myself able to move, I quitted the wreck, and felt myself on
the ground. I attempted to run, but was too feeble to save myself from
a raging wave, which overtook and overwhelmed me. Then I believed
myself gone; yet, half suffocated as I was, I struggled very much, and
I remember that I thought I was very long dying. The wave left me; I
breathed again, and made another attempt to get higher upon the bank,
but, quite exhausted, I fell down and my senses forsook me.
By this time I was observed by some of the people on the bank, and two
men came to my assistance. They lifted me up; I once more recovered
some faint recollection; and, as they bore me along, I was sensible
that one of them said the sea would overtake us; that he must let me
go and take care of his own life. I only remember clinging to the
other and imploring him not to abandon me to the merciless waves.--But
I have a very confused idea of what passed, till I saw the boat, into
which I was to be put to cross the Fleet water; I had then just
strength to say, "For God's sake do not take me to sea again."
I believe the apprehension of it, added to my other sufferings tended
to deprive me of all further sensibility, for I have not the least
recollection of any thing afterwards until roused by the remedies
applied to restore me in a farm-house whither I was carried. There I
heard a number of women around me, who asked a great number of
questions which I was unable to answer. I remember hearing one say I
was a French woman; another say that I was a negro, and indeed I was
so bruised, and in such a disfigured condition, that the conjectures
of these people are not surprising.
When recovering some degree of confused recollection, and able to
speak, I begged that they would allow me to go to bed. This, however,
I did not ask with any expectation of life, for I was now in such a
state of suffering, that my only wish was to be allowed to lie down
and die in peace.
Nothing could exceed the humanity of Mr. Abbot, the inhabitant of
Fleet farm-house, nor the compassionate attention of his sister, Miss
Abbot, who not only afforded me immediate assistance, but continued
for some days to attend me with such kindness and humanity, as I shall
always remember with the sincerest gratitude."
The unfortunate sufferer who gives the preceding account, was tended
with great humanity by Mr. Bryer, while a wound in her foot, and the
dangerous bruises she had received, prevented her from quitting the
shelter she first found under the roof of Mr. Abbot, at Fleet. As soon
as she was in a condition to be removed to Weymouth, Mr. Bryer, a
surgeon there, received her into his own house, where Mrs. Bryer
assisted in administering to her recovery such benevolent offices of
consolation as her deplorable situation admitted. Meantime the
gentlemen of the south battalion of the Gloucester Militia, who had
done every thing possible towards the preservation of those who were
the victims of the tempest, now liberally contributed to alleviate the
pecuniary distresses of the survivors. None seemed to have so forcible
a claim on their pity as this forlorn and helpless stranger; and she
alone, of forty souls, except a single ship-boy, survived the wreck of
the Catharine. There perished, twelve seamen, two soldiers' wives,
twenty-two dragoons and four officers, Lieutenant Stains, Mr. Dodd of
the hospital-staff, Lieutenant Jenner, the representative of an
ancient and respectable family in Gloucestershire, aged thirty-one and
Cornet Burns, the son of an American loyalist of considerable
property, who was deprived of every thing for his adherence to the
British Government.--Having no dependence but on the promises of
government to indemnify those who had suffered on that account he,
after years of distress and difficulty, obtained a cornetcy in the
26th regiment of dragoons, then going to the West Indies, and was thus
lost in his twenty-fourth year. This officer had intended embarking in
another transport, and had actually sent his horse on board, when
finding the Catharine more commodious, he gave her the preference,
while the other put back to Spithead in safety. The mangled remains of
Lieutenant Jenner were two days afterwards found on the beach, and
interred with military honors.
But the Catharine was not the only vessel which suffered in the
tempest. Those who on shore had listened to it raging on the preceding
evening, could not avoid feeling the most lively alarm for the
consequences; and early on the morning of the 18th of November,
several pilots and other persons assembled on the promontory called
the Look-out at Weymouth. Thence they too evidently discovered the
distress and danger of many of the transports.
Soon after, a lieutenant of the navy, residing at Weymouth, applied to
the major of a militia regiment, for a guard to be sent to the Chisell
Bank, as a large ship, supposed to be a frigate, was on shore. This
was immediately granted, and the major himself marched along with a
The violence of the wind was so great, that the party could with
difficulty reach the place of their destination. There they found a
large merchantman, the AEolus, laden with timber for government, on
shore. Lieutenant Mason of the navy, and his brother, a midshipman,
perished in her, and a number of men who would probably have been
saved had they understood the signals from shore. The men of Portland
who crowded down to the scene of desolation, meant to express, by
throwing small pebbles at them, that they should remain on board, to
make them hear was impossible, because they foresaw the ship would
drive high on the bank. Should that be the case, they might soon leave
her without hazard; and accordingly those who continued on board were
saved, though many of them were dreadfully bruised.
Not far from the same place, the Golden Grove, another merchantman,
was stranded, and in her Dr. Stevens and Mr. Burrows of St. Kitts,
were lost. Lieutenant Colonel Ross, who was also there escaped on
shore. These two vessels had struck against a part of the
Passage-House, almost in the same spot where a French frigate, the
Zenobia, had gone to pieces in 1763.
But the scene of distress was infinitely greater about four miles to
the westward, where, as already related, the Catharine was wrecked.
Along with her, nearly opposite to the villages of Fleet and
Chickerell, the Piedmont and Venus, two transports, and soon after the
Thomas, a merchantman, shared the same fate.
One hundred and thirty-eight soldiers of the 63d regiment, under the
command of Captain Barcroft, were on board the Piedmont; also
Lieutenant Ash and Mr. Kelly, surgeon of the same regiment. Of all
these, only Serjeant Richardson, eleven privates, and four seamen,
survived the catastrophe; all the rest perished.
Captain Barcroft's life had passed in the service. While yet a very
young man, he served in America during the war between England and her
colonies; and being then taken prisoner, was severely treated. On
commencement of the war which has so many years desolated Europe, he
raised a company in his native country, and served with it on the
Continent during the campaign of 1794. Under a heavy fire of the
enemy, he was one of the last men who retreated with it along a single
plank, knee-deep in water, from the siege of Nimeguen. In a few months
after the disastrous retreat on the Continent, in the winter 1794, he
was ordered to the West Indies, and, in the outset of his voyage,
perished in the tempest.
Of the few who reached the shore from the Piedmont, there was scarce
one who was not dreadfully bruised, and some had their limbs broken.
An unfortunate veteran of the 63d, though his leg was shockingly
fractured, had sufficient resolution to creep for shelter under a
fishing boat which lay inverted on the further side of the bank. There
his groans were unheard until a young gentleman, Mr. Smith, a
passenger in the Thomas, who had himself been wrecked, and was now
wandering along the shore, discovered him. In this ship, the Thomas,
bound to Oporto, the master, Mr. Brown, his son, and all the crew,
except the mate, three seamen and Mr. Smith, were lost. The last was
on his way to Lisbon; but his preservation was chiefly in consequence
of his remaining on board after all the rest had left the ship, or
were washed away by the waves. She had then drifted high on the bank,
when he leaped out of her and reached the ground.
Though weak and encumbered by his wet clothes, he gained the opposite
side of the bank, but on gazing on the dreary beach around him, he
considered himself cast away on an uninhabited coast. At length he
observed a fishing-boat, and approaching it, heard the groans of the
unfortunate old soldier, whom he attempted to relieve. But alone he
found himself unable to fulfil his intention, and it was a
considerable time before he observed any means of assistance near. At
last, perceiving a man at some distance, he hastened to him, eagerly
inquiring whether a surgeon could be procured for a poor creature with
a broken limb, who lay under the boat. Probably the man showed little
alacrity, for Mr. Smith found it necessary to purchase his good
offices by a gift of half a-guinea, which he imagined would induce him
to seek what was so much required. But the man, pocketing the
half-guinea with the greatest composure, said he was a king's officer,
and must see what bales of goods were driven on shore; then telling
Mr. Smith there was a ferry about four miles off, by which he might
get to Weymouth. The youth was thus disappointed of his humane design,
and the soldier died in that deplorable condition before any other aid
In the Thomas, the vessel to which Mr. Smith belonged, he witnessed
scenes not less distressing. Mr. Brown, the master of the vessel, was
carried away by an immense wave just as he was stripping off his
clothes to endeavor to save himself. His son exclaiming, "Oh my
father, my father! my poor father!" instantly followed. The bodies of
both were afterwards found and interred at Wyke.
Of ninety-six persons on board the Venus, only Mr. John Darley of the
hospital staff, serjeant-major Hearne, twelve soldiers, four seamen
and a boy were saved. Mr. Darley escaped by throwing himself from the
wreck at a moment when it drifted high on the stones; he reached them
without broken limbs, but, overtaken by the furious sea, he was
carried back, not so far, however, that he was incapable of regaining
the ground. Notwithstanding the weight of his clothes and his
exhausted state, he got to the top of the bank, but there the power of
farther exertion failed, and he fell. While lying in this situation,
trying to recover breath and strength, a great many people from the
neighboring villages passed him; they had crossed the Fleet water in
the hopes of sharing the plunder of the vessels which the lower
inhabitants of the coast are too much accustomed to consider their
Mr. Darley seems to have been so far from meeting with assistance
from those who were plundering the dead, without thinking of the
living, that although he saw many boats passing and repassing the
Fleet water, he found great difficulty in procuring a passage for
himself and two or three fellow-sufferers who had now joined him. But
having passed it he soon met with Mr. Bryer, to whose active humanity
all the sufferers were eminently indebted.
Before the full extent of this dreadful calamity was known at
Weymouth, the officers of the South Gloucester Militia, with equal
humanity, were devising how they might best succour the survivors, and
perform the last duties to the remains of those who had perished. On
the morning of the 19th of November, one of them, accompanied by Mr.
Bryer of Weymouth, rode to the villages where those who had escaped
from the various wrecks had found a temporary shelter. In a house at
Chickerell, they found Serjeant Richardson and eleven privates of the
63d regiment; two of the latter had fractured limbs, and almost all
the rest either wounds or bruises. In other houses the sufferers had
been received, and were as comfortably accommodated as circumstances
The gentlemen then crossed the Fleet water to the beach, and there,
whatever idea was previously formed of it, the horror of the scene
infinitely surpassed expectation; no celebrated field of carnage ever
presented, in proportion to its size, a more awful sight than the
Chisell Bank now exhibited. For about two miles it was strewed with
the dead bodies of men and animals, with pieces of wreck and piles of
plundered goods, which groups of people were carrying away, regardless
of the sight of drowned bodies that filled the new spectators with
sorrow and amazement.
On the mangled remains of the unfortunate victims, death appeared in
all its hideous forms. Either the sea or the people who had first gone
down to the shore, had stripped the bodies of the clothes which the
sufferers had wore at the fatal moment. The remnants of the military
stock; the wristbands, or color of a shirt, or a piece of blue
pantaloons, were all the fragments left behind.
The only means of distinguishing the officers was the different
appearance of their hands from those of men accustomed to hard labor;
but some were known by the description given of them by their friends
or by persons who were in the vessels along with them. The remains of
Captain Barcroft were recognised by the honorable scars he had
received in the service of his country; and the friends and relatives
of him, and several more, had the satisfaction of learning that their
bodies were rescued from the sea, and interred with military honors.
Early in the morning of the 20th of November, a lieutenant of the
militia regiment who had been appointed to superintend the melancholy
office of interment, repaired to the scene of destruction. But from
the necessary preliminaries of obtaining the authority of a magistrate
to remove the bodies, not more than twenty-five were buried that day.
The bodies of Captain Barcroft, Lieutenant Sutherland, Cornet Graydon,
Lieutenant Ker and two women, were then selected to be put into
coffins. Next day, those of Lieutenant Jenner and Cornet Burns, being
found, were distinguished in the like manner.
The whole number of dead found on the beach, amounted to two hundred
and thirty-four; so that the duty of interment was so heavy and
fatiguing, that it was not until the twenty-third that all the
soldiers and sailors were deposited. Of these there were two hundred
and eight, and they were committed to the earth as decently as
circumstances would admit, in graves dug on the Fleet side of the
beach, beyond the reach of the sea, where a pile of stones was raised
on each, to mark where they lay. Twelve coffins were sent to receive
the bodies of the women, but nine only being found, the supernumerary
ones were appointed to receive the remains of the officers.
Two waggons were next sent to the Fleet water to receive the coffins,
in which the shrouded bodies of seventeen officers and nine women had
been placed, and on the 24th were carried to the church-yard at Wyke,
preceded by a captain, subaltern and fifty men of the Gloucester
Militia, and attended by the young gentleman before mentioned, Mr.
Smith as chief mourner. The officers were interred in a large grave,
north of the church-tower, with military honors, and Lieutenant Ker in
a grave on the other side of the tower. The remains of the nine women,
which had been deposited in the church during the ceremony, were next
committed to the earth.
Two monuments have been erected in commemoration of the unfortunate
sufferers, the first bearing the following inscription:
To the memory of Captain Ambrose William Barcroft, Lieutenant Harry
Ash and Mr. Kelly, surgeon of the 63d regiment of Light Infantry; of
Lieutenant Stephen Jenner, of the 6th West India regiment; Lieutenant
Stains of the 2d West India regiment and two hundred and fifteen
soldiers and seamen and nine women, who perished by shipwreck on
Portland Beach, opposite the villages of Langton, Fleet and
Chickerell, on Wednesday the eighteenth day of November, 1795.
On the second monument is inscribed,
Sacred to the memory of Major John Charles Ker, Military Commandant of
Hospitals in the Leeward Islands, and to that of his son, Lieutenant
James Ker, of the 40th regiment of foot, who both departed this life
on the 18th of November 1795, the first aged 40 and the latter 14
The fate of both was truly deplorable, and is a melancholy example of
the uncertainty of human affairs.
They were embarked in the Venus transport, and left Portsmouth the
15th of November, with a fleet full of troops, destined to the West
Indies, under the command of General Sir Ralph Abercrombe.
A storm having arisen on the 17th which lasted till the next day, many
of the ships were lost, and the Venus wrecked on Portland Beach.
The major's body could not be found, although it is possible it may
have been among the many others which were driven ashore and buried in
His son's corpse was ascertained, and lies interred under this stone,
which was raised by his brother, John William Ker, Esq.
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