The Loss of the Duke William (part 3)

Heading home

On the 25th day of November, we sailed out of the bay of Causo [sic]. It blew strong at N.W. Captains Hurry, Beeton, Sugget, Whitby, Kelsey, and myself, agreed to make the best of our way to France with the people, and not to go to Louisbourg, as it was a very bad time of the year to beat on that coast. I was appointed to lead the fleet. We took leave of the agent, who was bound to Louisbourg. The third day after we had been at sea, it blew a storm in the night, being thick, with sleet, and very dark: parted company with three ships of the fleet: the storm still continuing; in a day or two parted company with the rest. The ship continued in very good order, and though the sea was mountains high, she went over like a bird, and made no water.

On the 10th of December, we saw a sail, which proved to be the Violet, Captain Sugget: on coming up, I asked how all were on board: he replied in a terrible situation; they had a great deal of water in the ship, her pumps were choked, and he was much afraid that she would sink before morning. I begged of him to keep up his spirits, and I would, if it were possible, stay by him, and spare him the pump which I got out of the Parnassus. I told him that, as the gale had lasted so long, I hoped after 12 o’clock, it would moderate; but unfortunately it rather increased. At changing the watch, at 12, I found that we went fast a head of him, and that before morning, if we did not shorten sail, we should run him out of sight. I consulted with Captain Moore and our mate, what was proper to do (we were then scudding under the foresail and treble reefed mainsail), and every one was unanimous that the maintopsail should be taken in, as the only way to save their lives was by keeping them company till the weather should moderate.

We then took in the maintopsail, and got our three pumps ready in case of necessity. The spare pump we had forced down an after hatch way, and shipped it into an empty butt; of which the French had brought several on board to wash in. We  aired [sic] them with spun yard, to bail in case of need; and every thing being prepared, we thought nothing could hurt us. Alas! We were too soon to find to the contrary. We thought now that the Violet gained on us; and at 4 o’clock we saw him very plain, for which I was quite glad.

On charging the watch, we found our ship still tight, and going very well, the carpenter assuring me there was no water to strike a pump. Being very tired with walking the deck so long, I thought I would go down and smoke a pipe of tobacco, to beguile the time, telling the mate to acquaint me immediately should there be any alteration. We had driven the board nest the lowest part of the pump, to see how much water was in the well; and every half hour, when the bell was struck, the carpenter went down. As he had yet found no water, I was quite happy in regard to our own situation.

The ship springs a leak

On my coming down, I bade a little negro boy I had as an apprentice, to get me a pipe of tobacco. Soon after I had filled and lighted my pipe, while sitting in the state, I was thrown from the chair by a blow which the ship received from a terrible sea. I sent the boy to ask Mr. Fox (the mate) whether any thing was washed over. He sent me word that all was safe, and that he saw the Violet coming up very fast. Being very much fatigued, I thought I would try to get a little sleep to refresh me; and, without pulling off my clothes, threw myself on the side of the bed. Before my eyes were closed, Mr. Fox came and told me, that the carpenter had found the water above the keelson, and that the ship must certainly have sprung a leak. I immediately arose, and took the carpenter with me into the hold, and, to my great surprise, found the water roaring in dreadfully. On examining it, I found it was a butt started, and the more we endeavoured to press anything in to stop it, the more the plank forsook the timber. I had made a mark with a piece of chalk to see how the water gained upon us. Finding our case desperate, I went to all the Frenchmen’s cabin, and begged them to rise; that, their lives were not in danger, but that their help was desired at the pump, as it would be of the greatest service. They accordingly got up, and cheerfully assisted.

By this time it was day light; when, to our great surprize and concern, we saw the Violet on her broad-side, a little distance from us; the fore yard broke in the slings, the foretopsail set, and her crew endeavouring to free her of the mizzen mast; as I suppose she had just then broached-too by the foreyards giving way. It came on a most violent squall for ten minutes, and when it cleared up, we saw the poor unfortunate Violet with near four hundred souls, was gone to the bottom! I must need confess it shocked the stoutest of us all, especially as our fate seemed to be near.

I got all the tubs before mentioned, and made gangways, the French men and women (who behaved with uncommon resolution) assisting. We then opened all the hatches, and as the water flowed fast into the hold, we filled the tubs and hauled them up, and turned them over the comings on the upper deck; which, with three pumps constantly at work, and bailing out on the gun room scuttle, must have vented a large quantity of water. A seam would not have hurt us; but the butt’s end was more than we could manage; though I flatter myself every method was tried we thought of service. We quilted the spritsail with oakum and flax, with one of the topgallant sails in the same manner, to see whether any thing would suck into the leak, to stop it; but all in vain.

We continued in this dismal situation three days; the ship, notwithstanding our endeavours, full of water, and expected to sink every minute. I had given all the liquor that we had left on board to the people, and all the provisions; the hold being full of water, and the ship swimming only by the decks being buoyed up with empty casks.

We give up hope

The people, about six o’clock on the fourth morning, came to me, and declared that they had done all in their power; that the vessel was full of water; and that it was in vain to pump any more. I told them I was convinced that what they said was but too true. I could not desire them to do more, for I was certain that they had behaved as brave men, and that we must trust to Providence, as there was no expedient left for us to save our lives. I then acquainted the priest with our situation; that every method of saving the ship and lives had been used; but that we expected the decks would blow up every moment. He seemed confused, but said he would immediately go and give his people absolution for dying; which he did, and I think a more melancholy scene cannot be supposed, than so many people, hearty, strong, and in health, looking at each other with tears in their eyes, bewailing their unhappy condition. No fancy can picture the seeming distraction of the poor unhappy children, clinging to their mothers, and the wives hanging over their husbands, lamenting their miserable fate. Shocking situation! Words cannot describe it! I then called the people to come with me down the main hatchway, and examine the leak in the hold. I told them we must be content with our fate; and as we were certain we had done our duty, we should submit to Providence, to Almighty will, with pious resignation.

I walked upon the deck with Captain Moore, desiring him to think, if he could, of an expedient to save us from perishing. With tears in his eyes, he assured me he knew of no method, as we had made use of all that could be thought of. Providence, I trust, put it in my mind to endeavour to hoist the boats out, that in case a ship should appear, we might save our lives, as the gale was more moderate. This I proposed to him. He said it would be impossible; for every body would endeavour to get into them. I said, I thought otherwise, as the sailors had behaved with uncommon resolution under the severe trial, and were very obedient to my commands. I flattered myself that they would still continue so, and they were all sensible, that in case the ship broached to, we must cut her masts away to hinder her from oversetting, and then it would have been out of our power to hoist the boats out. We had thrown over all the booms, &c. off the decks to ease the ship.

I then called the mates, carpenters, and men, and proposed getting our boats out; at the same time acquainting them that it was to save, if possible, every soul on board; and that in case any person should be so rash as to insist upon going into the boats, beside those whom I should think proper, I would immediately scuttle them. They all solemnly declared that my commands should be implicitly obeyed as though the ship was in her former condition. Such instances I believe are rarely to be found.

I went and acquainted the head prisoner whom we had on board, with what we were going to attempt. He was a hundred and ten years old, was the father of the whole island, and had a number of children, grand children, and other relations on board.1 He told me he was convinced that I would not do a bad action; as by experience, they had found what care I and my people had taken of them; and likewise was endeavours we had used to save the ship and their lives: they were therefore ready to assist in any thing I should propose. I assured them that I would not leave them, but would run the same chance with them; and that I thought it the only method to save our lives, in case Providence should send any ship to our assistance; and that it was certainly our duty to use all the means given us.

I asked Mr. Fox and the carpenter if they were willing to venture in the long boat; they answered bravely that they were; as, whether they died there or a mile or two further off, was a matter of very little consequence; and as there was no prospect but death if they stayed, they would willingly make the attempt.

I proposed to Captain Moore, the carpenter, and mate, their going in the cutter, which they agreed to. As the sea was too high to lower the boats into the water with the runners and tackles, I told them we would get the cutter over the side, and have a proper painter made fast to her, before she dropped into the water; and that they should have two axes to cut the runners and tackles when they should think it the most convenient time. We accordingly got the cutter over the sides; and the ship lying pretty quiet, they cut the tackles, and she dropped into the water very well, and the painter brought her up. We went then to work on the long boat. Daylight was, thank God! fairly come upon us, which gave us great spirits, as we flattered ourselves that if it pleased the Almighty to send a ship, it would be in our power to save all our lives, as the weather was now brave and moderate to what it had been. The mate and carpenter cut the runners; and the long boat fell into the water as well as the cutter had done; and, having a proper painter made fast, she brought up extremely well.

Help in sight?

There were people at the fore and maintopmast heads, to look out for a sail; when, to our unspeakable joy, the man at the maintopmast head, cried out that he saw two ships right astern, making after us. I went and acquainted the priest and the old gentleman with the good news. The old man took me in his arms, and cried for joy. I ordered the ensign to be hoisted to the maintopmast shrouds, and to get the guns all clear to fire. It was very hazy, and the ships not far from us when we discovered them first. As soon as we hoisted our signal of distress they hoisted English colours, and seemed to be West Indiamen, of about three or four hundred tons. We kept loading and firing as fast as possible, when we perceived that they spoke each other; and, setting their foresail and topsails, they hauled their wind, and made from us.

I, imagining that the bigness of the ship, and her having so many men on board, it being war time, might occasion a distrust, ordered the mainmast to be cut away, to undeceive them. We had people all the time placed at the shrouds, to cut away in case of necessity. One of the shrouds, not being properly cut, checked the mainmast, and brought up right athwart the boats. I ran aft myself, and cut both the boats painters, or else they would have been stove to pieces, and sunk immediately. A dismal thing, to be obliged to cut away the only thing that could be the means of saving our lives, and to see the ships so basely leave us!

Left to our own devices

No idea can reach our distress. Driven from the greatest joy to the utmost despair, death now appeared more dreadful. We had only the foresail hanging in the brails; and the braces of both preventers being rendered useless, by the falling of the mainmast, and the yard flying backwards and forwards by the rolling of the ship, we were fearful that she would overset directly.

We ran from the boats till we could but see them, and finding that they did not endeavour to join us, though they had each oars, foremast, and foresail, I consulted with the boatswain what was proper to be done in our dismal condition. I told him, that I thought, at all events, we should bring the ship to, though I confessed it a terrible attempt, to hazard her oversetting. He said it appeared too hazardous, as the vessel steered very well. However, finding that the men in the boats did not attempt to join us, I called all the people aft, and told them my resolution. They said it was desperate, and so was their condition; but they were ready to do whatever I thought best. Captain Moore seemed to be quite against it. I then acquainted the priest, the old gentleman, and the rest of the people; who were pleased to say, that, let the consequence be what it would, they should be satisfied, I had acted for the best, and they were all resigned to what might happen.

I ordered men to every foreshroud, and one, with an axe, to the foremast, to cut it away, in case I should have occasion to do so. I must say, that my situation was dreadful, to think that my doing a thing, which, though in my judgement it was right, might be the means of sending nearly four hundred souls to eternity. But the Almighty gave me resolution to persevere in it. I gave orders to bring the ship to. In hauling out the mizen, which had been greatly chafed, it split. We then got as new stay-sail, and bent it to bring her to, which had the desired effect; though it was a long time first, and we were once afraid that we should be obliged to cut away the foremast, by a large sea striking her on the starboard quarter. The next sea hove her to, and she stayed very well.

When they saw from the yawl, that we were laying to for them, they shipped their foremast, and ran us on board. As there was too much wind, and a large sea, to sprit the sail, they came on board holding the sheets in their hands. As soon as she came, I sent some men into her to row and fetch the long boat. They soon joined her, got her foremast up, and set sail, as did the cutter, and, to our great joy, came safe to us.

Read on …

  1. Nichols does not name him but this may be Noël Doiron who was a community leader who perished in the Duke William. Up to this point Nichols has only mentioned the priest as being the leader of the Acadians but he survived as we shall see