Sea Stories

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 survivors. 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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