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Sea StoriesWreck Of The Rothsay Castle Steamer
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Shipwreck Of The French Ship Droits De L'homme
On the 5th of January, 1797, returning home on leave of absence from
the West Indies, in the Cumberland letter of marque, for the recovery
of my health, saw a large man of war off the coast of Ireland, being
then within four leagues of the mouth of the river Shannon. She
hoisted English colours, and decoyed us within gun-shot, when she
substituted the tri-coloured flag, and took us. She proved to be les
Droits de L'Homme, of 74 guns, commanded by the ci-devant baron, now
citizen La Crosse, and had separated from a fleet of men of war, on
board of which were twenty thousand troops, intended to invade
Ireland. On board of this ship was General Humbert, who afterwards
effected a descent into Ireland (in 1799) with nine hundred troops and
six hundred seamen.
On the 7th of January went into Bantry Bay to see if any of the
squadron was still there, and on finding none, the ship proceeded to
the southward. Nothing extraordinary occurred until the evening of the
13th, when two men of war hove in sight, which afterwards proved to be
the Indefatigable and Amazon frigates. It is rather remarkable that
the captain of the ship should inform me, that the squadron which was
going to engage him was Sir Edward Pellow's, and declared, as was
afterwards proved by the issue, "that he would not yield to any two
English frigates, but would sooner sink his ship with every soul on
board." The ship was then cleared for action, and we English
prisoners, consisting of three infantry officers, two captains of
merchantmen, two women, and forty-eight seamen and soldiers, were
conducted down to the cabin tier at the foot of the fore-mast.
The action began with opening the lower deck ports, which, however
were soon shut again, on account of the great sea, which occasioned
the water to rush in to that degree that we felt it running on the
cables. I must here observe, that this ship was built on a new
construction, considerably longer than men of war of her rate, and her
lower-deck, on which she mounted thirty-two pounders French, equal to
forty pounders English, was two feet and a half lower than usual. The
situation of the ship, before she struck on the rocks, has been fully
elucidated by Sir Edward Pellow, in his letter of the 17th of January,
to Mr. Nepeau. The awful task is left for me to relate what ensued.
At about four in the morning a dreadful convulsion, at the foot of the
fore-mast, roused us from a state of anxiety for our fate, to the idea
that the ship was sinking. It was the fore-mast that fell over the
side; in about a quarter of an hour an awful mandate from above was
re-echoed from all parts of the ship; Pouvores Anglais! Pouvores
Anglais! Montez bien vite nous sommes tous perdus!--"poor Englishmen!
poor Englishmen! come on deck as fast as you can, we are all lost!"
Every one rather flew than climbed. Though scarcely able to move
before, from sickness, yet I now felt an energetic strength in all my
frame, and soon gained the upper deck, but what a sight! dead, wounded
and living, intermingled in a state too shocking to describe; not a
mast standing, a dreadful loom of the land, and breakers all around
us.--The Indefatigable, on the starboard quarter, appeared standing
off, in a most tremendous sea, from the Penmark rocks, which
threatened her with instant destruction. To the great humanity of her
commander, those few persons who survived the shipwreck, are indebted
for their lives, for had another broadside been fired, the commanding
situation of the Indefatigable must have swept off at least a thousand
men. On the starboard side was seen the Amazon within two miles, just
struck on the shore. Our own fate drew near. The ship struck and
immediately sunk! Shrieks of horror and dismay were heard from all
quarters, while the merciless waves tore from the wreck many early
victims. Day-light appeared, and we beheld the shore lined with people
who could render us no assistance. At low water, rafts were
constructed, and the boats were got in readiness to be hoisted out.
The dusk arrived, and an awful sight ensued. The dawn of the second
day brought with it still severer miseries than the first, for the
wants of nature could scarcely be endured any longer, having been
already near thirty hours without any means of subsistence, and no
possibility of procuring them.
At low water a small boat was hoisted out, and an English captain and
eight sailors succeeded in getting to the shore.--Elated at the
success of these men all thought their deliverance at hand, and many
launched out on their rafts, but, alas! death soon ended their hopes.
Another night renewed our afflictions. The morning of the third,
fraught with still greater evils, appeared; our continued sufferings
made us exert the last effort, and we English prisoners, tried every
means to save as many of our fellow creatures as lay in our power.
Larger rafts were constructed, and the largest boat was got over the
side. The first consideration was to lay the surviving wounded, the
women and helpless men in the boat, but the idea of equality, so
fatally promulgated among the French, destroyed all subordination, and
nearly one hundred and twenty having jumped into the boat, in defiance
of their officers, they sunk her.--The most dreadful sea that I ever
saw seemed at that moment to aggravate our calamity; nothing of the
boat was seen for a quarter of an hour, when the bodies floated in
all directions; then appeared, in all their horrors, the wreck, the
shores, the dying and the drowned! Indefatigable in acts of humanity,
an adjutant general, Renier, launched himself into the sea, to obtain
succours from the shore, and perished in the attempt.
Nearly one half the people had already perished, when the horrors of
the fourth night renewed all our miseries. Weak, distracted, and
destitute of every thing, we envied the fate of those whose lifeless
corpses no longer wanted sustenance.--The sense of hunger was already
lost, but a parching thirst consumed our vitals. Recourse was had to
urine and salt water, which only increased the wants; half a hogshead
of vinegar indeed floated up, of which each had half a wine glass; it
afforded a momentary relief, but soon left us again in the same state
of dreadful thirst. Almost at the last gasp, every one was dying with
misery, and the ship, now one third shattered away from the stern,
scarcely afforded a grasp to hold by, to the exhausted and helpless
The fourth day brought with it a more serene sky, and the sea seemed
to subside, but to behold, from fore to aft, the dying in all
directions, was a sight too shocking for the feeling mind to endure.
Almost lost to a sense of humanity, we no longer looked with pity on
those whom we considered only as the forerunners of our own speedy
fate, and a consultation took place, to sacrifice some one to be food
for the remainder. The die was going to be cast, when the welcome
sight of a man of war brig renewed our hopes.
A cutter speedily followed, and both anchored at a short distance from
the wreck. They then sent their boats to us, and by means of large
rafts, about one hundred, out of four hundred who attempted, were
saved by the brig that evening.--Three hundred and eighty were left to
endure another night's misery, when, dreadful to relate, above one
half were found dead the next morning!
I was saved about ten o'clock on the morning of the 18th, with my
brother officers, the captain of the ship, and General Humbert. They
treated us with great humanity on board the cutter, giving us a little
weak brandy and water every five or six minutes, and after that a
bason of good soup. I fell on the locker in a kind of trance for near
thirty hours, and swelled to such a degree as to require medical aid
to restore my decayed faculties. Having lost all our baggage, we were
taken to Brest almost naked, where they gave us a rough shift of
clothes, and in consequence of our sufferings, and the help we
afforded in saving many lives, a cartel was fitted out by order of the
French Government to send us home, without ransom or exchange. We
arrived at Plymouth on the 7th of March following.
To that Providence, whose great workings I have experienced in this
most awful trial of human afflictions, be ever offered the tribute of
my praise and thanksgiving.
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