Sea Stories

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 desired. 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 horror. 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 them. 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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