Sea Stories

Loss Of The Amphitrite Convict Ship

The following particulars of the loss of this vessel are copied from a letter dated Boulogne-sur-mer, Sept. 1, 1833. The shocking event which is announced by the title to this letter, has, I assure you, filled the town with dismay, and must lead

to a most narrow and rigid investigation. I cannot attempt to describe the afflictions not only of the English, but the French, at this most distressing event, and I only express the general opinion when I say that the British public demands that an inquiry be instituted into the conduct of all parties concerned in this deplorable affair. The Amphitrite convict ship sailed for New South Wales from Woolwich on the 25th of August. Capt. Hunter was the commander; Mr. Forrester the surgeon; and there were 108 female convicts, 12 children and a crew of 16 persons. The captain was part owner of the vessel. When the ship arrived off Dungeness, the gale of the 29th began. On Friday morning the captain hove the ship to, the gale being too heavy to sail. The vessel was about three miles to the east from Boulogne harbor on Saturday at noon, when they made land.--The captain set the topsail and main-foresail in hopes of keeping her off shore. From three o'clock she was in sight of Boulogne, and certainly the sea was most heavy and the wind extremely strong; but no pilot boat went out to her, and no life-boats or other assistance were dispatched. I observed her from three o'clock till about half past four in the afternoon, when she came round into Boulogne harbor and struck on the sands. By four o'clock it was known that it was a British ship, but some said it was a brig; others said it was a merchant vessel, though all said it was English. It appears from the statement of three men who have been saved out of the crew--all the rest having perished, that the captain ordered the anchor to be let go, in hopes of swinging round with the tide. In a few minutes after the vessel had gone aground, multitudes rushed to the beach, and a brave French sailor, named Pierre Henin, who has already received the thanks of the Humane Society of London, addressed himself to the captain of the port, and said that he was resolved to go alone, and to reach the vessel, in order to tell the captain that he had not a moment to lose, but must, as it was low water, send all his crew and passengers on shore. You will recollect that up to the time of her running aground no measure was adopted, and the captain was not warned from shore of her danger. As soon as she had struck, however, a pilot-boat, commanded by Francois Heuret, who has on many occasions shown much courage and talent, was dispatched, and by a little after five came under her bows. The captain of the vessel refused to avail himself of the assistance of Heuret and his brave companions, and when a portion of the crew proposed going on shore the captain prevented them. Two of the men saved, state that they knew the boat was under the bows, but that the rest were below making up their bundles. The crew could then have got on shore, and all the unfortunate women and children. When the French boat had gone, the surgeon sent for Owen, one of the crew, and ordered him to get out the long boat. This was about half past five. The surgeon discussed the matter with his wife and with the captain. They were afraid of allowing the prisoners to go on shore. The wife of the surgeon is said to have proposed to leave the convicts there, and to go on shore without them. In consequence of this discussion, no long boat was sent out. Three of the convict women told Owen, that they heard the surgeon persuaded the captain not to accept the assistance of the French boat, on account of the prisoners who were on board. Let us now return to Pierre Henin. The French pilot-boat had been refused by the surgeon and captain--the long-boat had been put out, through a discussion as to saving the convicts--and it was now nearly six o'clock. At that time Henin went to the beach, stripped himself, took a line, swam naked for about three quarters of an hour or an hour, and arrived at the vessel at a little after seven. On reaching the right side of the vessel, he hailed the crew, and said, "Give me a line to conduct you on land, or you are lost, as the sea is coming in." He spoke English plain enough to be heard. He touched the vessel and told them to speak to the captain. They threw (that is, some of the crew, but not the surgeon or captain) two lines, one from the stern and one from the bow. The one from the stern he could not seize--the one from the bow he did. He then went towards the shore, but the rope was stopped. This was, it is believed, the act of the surgeon and captain. He (Henin) then swam back, and told them to give him more rope to get on shore. The captain and surgeon would not. They then tried to haul him in, but his strength failed and he got on shore. You perceive, then, that up to this moment also the same obstacle existed in the minds of the captain and surgeon.--They did not dare, without authority, to land the convicts, and rather than leave them on board, or land them without such authority, they perished with them. The female convicts, who were battened down under the hatches, on the vessel's running aground, broke away the half deck hatch, and frantic, rushed on deck. Of course they entreated the captain and surgeon to let them go on shore in the long-boat, but they were not listened to, as the captain and surgeon did not feel authorized to liberate prisoners committed to their care. At seven o'clock the flood tide began. The crew seeing that there were no hopes, clung to the rigging. The poor 108 women and 12 children remained on deck, uttering the most piteous cries. The vessel was about three quarters of a mile English from the shore, and no more. Owen, one of the three men saved, thinks that the women remained on deck in this state about an hour and a half. Owen and four others were on the spars, and thinks they remained there three quarters of an hour, but, seeing no hope of being saved, he took to swimming, and was brought in a state of insensibility to the hotel. Towsey, another of the men saved, was on a plank with the captain. Towsey asked who he was? He said "I am the captain," but the next moment he was gone. Rice, the third man, floated ashore on a ladder. He was in the aft when the other men took to the raft. When the French pilot-boat rowed away, after being rejected by the captain, he (Rice) saw a man waving his hat on the beach, and remarked to the captain that a gentleman was waving to them to come on shore. The captain turned away and made no answer.--At that moment the women all disappeared, the ship broke in two. These are the facts of this awful case. The French Marine Humane Society immediately placed hundreds of men on the beach; and the office, or lodging, being close to the shore, as soon as the corpses were picked up they were brought to the rooms, where I assisted many of my countrymen in endeavoring to restore them to life. Our efforts were fruitless except in the cases of the three men, Owen, Rice and Towsey. I never saw so many fine and beautiful bodies in my life. Some of the women were the most perfectly made; and French and English wept together at such a horrible loss of life in sight of--ay, and even close to, the port and town.--Body after body has been brought in. More than 60 have been found; they will be buried to-morrow. But alas! after all our efforts, only three lives have been saved out of 136.

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