The Loss of the Duke William (part 1)

Extract from the Naval Chronicle, for 1807: Vol. XVII, January to June; Part One – p.396-401 in a series on the Correct Relation of Shipwrecks.

Narrative of the voyage and loss of the Duke William, Transport, which foundered at sea, with upwards of three hundred French prisoners on board, in the year 1758; and of the escape of her crew, in open boats.1

From the original Manuscript of Captain Nicholls, her Commander.

In  1758 I fitted out the Duke William with all expedition; took in King’s stores, and lay at Spithead, to wait for orders. At length I was ordered to Cork, under convoy of the York man of war, Captain Hugh Pigott, to take in soldiers for America.

Arrival in Ireland

Just before we came near the Irish coast, it came on a thick fog, by which we lost the man of war and the other ships. I stood in as near as produce would let me. As the man of war had shortened sail in the fog, he was the longer in standing in, and just as he came near the land it cleared up, and the wind blew off the land, so that I was a long way to leeward, In the morning, as soon as I saw the man of war and the fleet to windward, I made all the sail the ship could carry; and, as she went very fast, just as the man of war had got his Pilot on board, we had gained so much, that the pilot boat came directly to me, and put a Pilot on board; but the flood tide being come away, I could not weather Powerhead, the entrance of the harbour. It came to blow in the night at —-, so that we were driven as far as Bellerotten island.

The next day, it blowing very hard, I was obliged to bear away for Waterford. When we came off Credenhead, I fired several; guns for a Pilot; but none coming off, and not being acquainted with the harbour, we brought the ship up, though the sea was very high. At last a pilot boat came off, and we took an old man out of her. The boat went on shore immediately. We went to work to get the anchor, and just got apeak when the vial broke, and she ran away, with all the cable, before we could prevent it; and, by the time we could heave it in again, and get the ship under sail, it was almost dark. The Pilot said, if I would mind the ship, and do as he should tell me, he would carry her in in safety. I was under the fore-top-sail treble reefed, and got a range of the sheet cable overhauled.

We ran for some time, and could just see the land. I asked him several times, if I should bring the ship up: he said, no, till I found the water shoaling very fast. I then made all clear to bring up; but at the same time asked him which side was the deepest water. He confessed he did not know, and I then brought up; and, when day-light appeared, to my great surprise, I found high rocks astern of us, and very near; so that for our lives we could not veer away a cable. We had let the sheet anchor go in the night, and as we had wore away upon the best bower, that it might bear likewise, it was, thank God, the means of our preservation. We got down yards and top-masts, hoisted the signal of distress, and fired a great many guns.

At last we saw a large boat coming from the windward. As soon as he came near enough, we hove him a rope, and wore the boat clear of the counter. A man in the boat said, if I would give him fifty pounds, he would come on board. I told him I would give it. He then came up the stern ladder; but, as soon as he found we was so near the rocks, he declared, that, for all the ship was worth, he would not stay on board. I told him he came off as a Pilot, acquainted with the harbour, and he should stay. I then called to the people in the boat, to hoist their sails, for I was going to cut the boat adrift, which I did immediately. The Pilot was in great confusion. I said it was in vain to complain, and if by cutting the cables he could carry the ship to a place of safety, I was ready to do it. He said he could not take charge of her, nor could venture to carry her in, for he was afraid that she would be run on shore, and all to pieces against the rocks, before she would veer; and if she did veer, there had been a large French East Indiaman lost upon the Bar, which made the Channel very narrow, and he did not know the marks to carry her clear of the wreck.

The ship rode very hard; and, it being Sunday, there was a great number of people ready to plunder her, should she strike. As she pitched so much, I was greatly afraid that at low water she would strike. There were two English frigates in the harbour, which, soon as the weather came more moderate, sent their boats to assist us. The Custom-house smack also came to our assistance, and put his Mate on board as a Pilot, and being a man well acquainted with the harbour, he confesses it was a very narrow escape.

To Cork

We lay there three weeks before we could get out to proceed for Cork; during which time I had several threatening letters from Captain Pigott, that he would write to the Navy Board against me, and would put another Master on board to command the Duke William, as soon as I should arrive at Cork. He several times declared that he would fight me the first opportunity. Some of the Masters wrote to me of this, that I might be upon my guard. I had certificates signed, by the two Masters of the man of war, of our distress; likewise by the Captain of the Custom-house smack, and by several Pilots, that the whole time I had lain there it was impossible to get out of the harbour.

At last Captain Pigott sent Captain Adam Drake (who commanded a tender at Cork) to see what I was doing. He told me that Captain Pigott had ordered him to acquaint me, that I must not go into Cork harbour, but if possible cruise off and on till he came out, and he would put all the soldiers on board the other transports, that I was to carry to America, and they were to put them on board of me. I got off Cork in the evening, and it being fine weather, came to anchor. In the morning, the York, with the transports, came out and put the soldiers on board me.

Dissatisfied with Captain Pigott’s message, I dressed myself, and went on board his ship. He, seeing me coming, ordered his men not to man the side, nor to put any ropes over, as is customary. Not paying any regard to this, I sprang up the ship’s side. Coming on the quarter-deck, I asked for Captain Pigott, and was told that that was him walking on the larboard side, with Lord Howe, (who was going out to America Colonel of the Black Cuffs, General Anstruther’s regiment). I immediately went up to him, and told him I had taken the liberty of waiting on him, to know what were his commands.

He asked me if I commanded the Duke William. And, upon my replying in the affirmative, he flew into a violent passion, called me several names, assured me that he had written to the Navy Board against me, and that he would put a better and a more capable man in my room. I replied, that I had waited upon him, thinking it was my duty so to do; but his threatenings I despised, as I was conscious that I had behaved as I ought; that I had commanded some years, and was esteemed a capable man; and that I was greatly of the opinion, without vanity, that he had not a better seaman on board: if he had, I should be glad to see him; but he should put no man over me in my own property. He had a rattan in his hand, which he shook, over me, and trembled with extreme passion. I told him, that if he struck me, let the consequence be what it would, I should return it. I then went to the side, to go into the boat, when he ordered an officer to call the rascally fellow back. I replied, I was an honest man, and he certainly could not mean me. Seeing me advancing towards the boat, he desired the same officer to call the Master back; at which I returned for his commands. He asked me, whether I had an inventory of my provisions? I said, no: upon which he told me to go on board and get one, and immediately ordered the side to be manned.

As soon as I got an account of my provisions, I returned on board the York. When the Lieutenant informed Captain Pigott that I was come, he desired me very civilly to walk into the cabin, and behaved quite genteelly.

To the New World

We sailed the day after, and saw two ships, the America, of 64 guns, and a frigate, cruising off Cape Clear. Upon the York’s making signal for them to come between us, they stood directly towards us; but, through a mistake of the helm, the York ran on board the America, his sprit-sail taking her main-shrouds, and his bowsprit carrying all her weather shrouds away. Before she could get clear, she had her main-mast pulled away, with the fore-top-mast and mizzen-top-mast, having nothing left but the fore-sail, though the moment before she had three top-gallant sails set, and every stay-sail. The York got a little damage in her head.

We proceeded to Halifax, where we arrived safe; and from thence we went to besiege Louisbourg. After we had landed the troops, the transports and some of the men of war went into Gabarus Bay.

Creating a base ashore

Our people falling sickly, we petitioned Admiral Boscawen to let us have a small Peninsula, to put them on shore, and we would defend it, which he granted. Accordingly all the Masters of the transports armed themselves, and people, and went on shore together, where Captain James Wilson was appointed our General; C. Price, Ben. Sugget, Samuel Hurry, and myself, Captains; each having a Lieutenant under him. We had two small woods of trees between us and the main wood, which it was agreed to cut and burn down, to prevent the Indians from lying in ambush there. We then drew lots, which was to have the first guard. It fell to me; and, with Captain George Hurry, who was my Lieutenant, and a party of forty sailors, all armed, I posted myself between the large wood and the small one, where the sailors were cutting down the trees. We staid two hours, when I was relieved by Captain S. Hurry and another party of sailors.

At night, having completed our work, we returned on board, having met with no obstructions from the Indians, who we were certain were in some parts of the wood, as they had taken Captain Golden, of London, Mr. Hutchins, his Mate, and three or four others, a day or two before, and carried them off.

In the morning, by a signal from General Wilson’s ship, we manned our boats, arming ourselves and people. We carried iron crows, shovels, axes, &c. I believe between four and five hundred of us went to work, and cut a ditch, six feet wide and four feet deep, from one part of the Peninsula to the other, as a guard against the Indians. By having cleared away the two small woods, we had a prospect of about a mile, from our trench to the main wood. We planted cannon, and several swivels, which we put upon stumps of trees cut down for that purpose. At our head quarters we hoisted the English flag.

Admiral Boscawen, and some Captains of men of war, came down with our Agent, to see what we had done for our defence. He was much pleased with our performance, and made us an offer of some pignets and chevaux de fries, which were accepted. He then gave our Agent orders to send on board the Anna Maria, Captain Roderick Wilson, for as much as was necessary. In a short time we got them driven; placed cheveaux de fries to hinder any surprise; and got our sick men on shore. The next day the Admiral ordered a Lieutenant of marines, and thirty men, to remain constantly as a guard to protect us; which we thought very kind, as the sailors were in general sickly.

Walking about the island, I saw a convenient place for an arbour to shelter myself and people. I sent on board for a dozen men, and a Carpenter, who brought with him a saw, axe, &c. With shovels and crows we cleared away the rubbish and briars; and having cut down several small spruce trees, of which there was a prodigious quantity, I marked out with them, fronting my arbour, a large space of ground as my property.

The other Masters, seeing what I had done, followed my example; so that, in a short time, the whole island was converted into arbours. The Captains, Coffin and Spry, sent their gardeners, with seeds, &c. I made my arbour very complete, having set it round thick spruce trees; and, driving down stakes in the middle, and lashing pieces to them, I wove all the tops over with spruce boughs. I had a table, and half a dozen seats, made after the same manner. I made likewise a fine walk from the arbour to the gate, with small pebbles, which the people got from the beach; and planted a row of trees on either side of the walk, which was upwards of twenty yards in length, and the breadth as wide as the garden. I stuck trees in the manner of a little shrubbery; and, as it was allowed to be very pretty, and the first ever attempted to be made on that island, it was called the Garden of Eden.

There were several Yarmouth Captains there;2 and, being all in a mess, we built another house, pretty large, to dine in, which we called Mansley Barn, after a large barn near Cromer, on the Norfolk coast. Our people recovered surprisingly: some of them by a ground sweat; which is by digging a hole in the ground, as high as their chins, and after stripping them, and putting them in, throwing the earth over them for a few minutes. For a little while the earth seems very cold; but it soon brings them into a gentle perspiration, which carries off the disorder. There was not one died that was served in that manner.

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  1. We have added in some headings and paragraph breaks to make the narrative easier to read on screen
  2. Captain Nicholls came from Great Yarmouth