The Queen Charlotte was, perhaps, one of the finest ships in the
British navy. She was launched in 1790, and her first cruise was with
the fleet fitted out against Spain, in consequence of the dispute
respecting Nootka Sound. Lord Howe, who was the commander and chief of
the fleet, was then on board of her; and she also bore his lordship's
flag on the first of June. After which she was sent to the
Mediterranean, and was the flag-ship of the commander in chief on that
station. In March, 1800, she was despatched by that nobleman to
reconnoitre the island of Cabrera, about thirty leagues from Leghorn,
then in the possession of the French, and which it was his lordship's
intention to attack. On the morning of the 17th the ship was
discovered to be on fire, at the distance of three or four leagues
from Leghorn. Every assistance was promptly forwarded from the shore,
but a number of boats, it appears, were deterred from approaching the
wreck, in consequence of the guns, which were shotted, and which, when
heated by the fire, discharged their contents in every direction.
The only consolation that presents itself under the pressure of so
calamitous a disaster is, that it was not the effect either of
treachery or wilful neglect, as will appear by the following official
statement of the carpenter:--
"Mr. John Braid, carpenter of the Queen Charlotte, reports, that
twenty minutes after 6 o'clock in the morning, as he was dressing
himself he heard throughout the ship a general cry of 'fire.' On which
he immediately ran up the after-ladder to get upon deck, and found the
whole half-deck, the front bulk-head of the admiral's cabin, the
main-mast's coat, and boat's covering on the booms, all in flames;
which, from every report and probability, he apprehends was occasioned
by some hay, which was lying under the half-deck, having been set on
fire by a match in a tub, which was usually kept there for signal
guns.--The main-sail at this time was set, and almost entirely caught
fire; the people not being able to come to the clue garnets on account
of the flames.
"He immediately went to the fore-castle, and found Lieut. Dundas and
the boatswain encouraging the people to get water to extinguish the
fire. He applied to Mr. Dundas, seeing no other officer in the
fore-part of the ship (and being unable to see any on the
quarter-deck, from the flames and smoke between them) to give him
assistance to drown the lower-decks, and secure the hatches, to
prevent the fire falling down. Lieut. Dundas accordingly went down
himself, with as many people as he could prevail upon to follow him:
and the lower-deck ports were opened, the scuppers plugged, the main
and fore-hatches secured, the cocks turned, and water drawn in at the
ports, and the pumps kept going by the people who came down, as long
as they could stand at them.
"He thinks that by these exertions the lower-deck was kept free from
fire, and the magazines preserved for a long time from danger; nor did
Lieut. Dundas, or he, quit this station, but remained there with all
the people who could be prevailed upon to stay, till several of the
middle-deck guns came through that deck.
"About nine o'clock Lieut. Dundas and he, finding it impossible to
remain any longer below, went out at the fore-mast lower deck port,
and got upon the fore-castle; on which he apprehends there were then
about one hundred and fifty of the people drawing water, and throwing
it as far aft as possible upon the fire.
"He continued about an hour on the fore-castle; and finding all
efforts to extinguish the flames unavailing, he jumped from the
jib-boom, and swam to an American boat approaching the ship, by which
he was picked up and put into a Tartan then in the charge of Lieut.
Stewart, who had come off to the assistance of the ship.
(Signed) "JOHN BRAID."
Leghorn, March 18, 1800.
Capt. Todd remained upon deck, with his First Lieutenant, to the last
moment, giving orders for saving the crew, without thinking of his own
safety. Before he fell a sacrifice to the flames, he had time and
courage to write down the particulars of this melancholy event, for
the information of Lord Keith, of which he gave copies to different
sailors, entreating them, that whoever should escape might deliver it
to the admiral.
Thus fell victims to perhaps a too severe duty, the captain and his
first lieutenant, at a time when they still had it in their power to
save themselves; but self-preservation is never a matter of
consideration in the exalted mind of a British naval officer, when the
safety of his crew is at stake.
Lord Keith and some of the officers were providentially on shore, at
Leghorn, when the dreadful accident occurred. Twenty commissioned and
warrant officers, two servants and 142 seamen, are the whole of the
crew that escaped destruction out of nearly 900 souls on board, that
for nearly four hours exerted every nerve to avoid that dreadful
termination which too surely awaited them.