Half Moon Kay, Bahamas

Wednesday 9 June – early this morning we attempted to weigh anchor, but several teeth of the wheel of the windlass having given way we were longer than we expected ere we left Port Royal for Honduras. His M. S. Victor and Slaney [2] preceeded us by a short time, the one for Carthagena and the other for Port au Prince. In consequence of two Charts of Jamaica being missing from the Atlas, M.r Geach would not undertake the responsibility of navigating the Packet out by the South Channel, (as he would have done had we been going out by the East Channel) – and consequently we had a pilot, a most unusual thing with us. The weather during the day was hazy and we kept the Island of Jamaica in sight till evening shrouded everything in darkness. Wind fresh and favourable.

Thursday 10th June – weather hazy and cloudy with one shower of rain. Breeze favourable

Friday 11th – pleasant weather & fav.bl wind.

Saturday 12 – cloudy & hazy w.r favourable wind.

Sunday 13th – passed the island of Bonacca at 1 A.M., and by day light we saw the island of Rattan but at a distance. These two islands are always made by those bound up to Belize – for unless they take their departure from them, they are apt to incur great danger, from the uncertain direction of currents. As the day advanced we were sorry to see that the weather was hazy, as it was of the utmost importance to us to get down to Half Moon Kay before night, and take a pilot on board. But altho’ the wind was fresh & favourable, and the distance between Rattan and Half Moon Kay not very great, such was the strength of the current setting us to the Norrard, while we wished to make southing, that whereas our Master had expected to see the land by noon, we vainly hoped till past six P. M., at which time the cry of land was heard. Knowing well our very ticklish situation, and that the slightest mistake would be followed by the risk of our lives, M.r Geach had been seated on the topgallant yard for several hours – and of course no music would have sounded half a sweet inn our ears as the announcement that our object was in sight. Immediately all eyes were directed to the quarter pointed out – and the eyelids of not a few were raised to their utmost extent in the vain hope of taking into their scope of vision, what hazy rather than distance rendered impossible to perceive from on deck. The more anxious among us mounted aloft and all of them declared that they could plainly distinguish Half Moon Kay with the light house upon in – so that not the slightest doubt was entertained but that we were all right & tight. For my own part, what with the extreme haziness and the red gleams of the sun, which set almost right over the island, I could see neither land, nor lighthouse – not even when the Captain & others saw it from on deck, was I more fortunate – a circumstance which convincingly proves, that the eye of a sailor at sea acquires a power, of vision, which is denied to the mere landsman, who frequently cannot discover what is seen by others for a considerable time.

It now being clearly decided that the land before us was the same on which there were a lighthouse and a pilot, the next consideration was, what was best to be done. The Master and Captain were of different opinion – the former wished to bear down for the island and receive a pilot on board; the latter considering that there might be danger in this, and that even if we got a pilot we could do nothing that night, determined to lay off & on all night, and to make for Half Moon Kay at dawn of day.

The resolution of our Capt.n not to proceed proves our safety.

In this determination, which might have been questioned by some, it was the will of providence to shew us that we had been saved from imminent and inevitable danger = and it ought to be a lesson to every one of us that he guides & protects us by these very means which we would have been inclined of ourselves to reject. It appears now, and indeed had been conjectured before, that a strong current was setting us to the Northward, but of the exact force of this current we were entirely ignorant. In consequence of this when we made the land, we mistook a small Kay situated amongst awful rocks for Half Moon – and the mistake was confirmed by the sight of a white house on it which was considered nem: cont: to be the light house. Had we proceeded as the Master had advised we must have gone ashore on a long reef and had we miraculously been able to preserve our lives, every thing else must have been lost. I say miraculously – for supposing us to have escaped drowning, which we might easily done as the water within the reef was smooth, and not more than waist deep, what great chance was there, that we should all have escaped the merciless maws of the innumerable sharks & alligators, which there swarm. The suddenly formed resolution of the Capt.n – a resolution not formed because he doubted the correctness of the Masters reckoning – for he himself said that he could see the light house – but because he thought a pilot could do nothing that night – was thus made the means, in the hands of providence of our preservation.

At daylight perceive our danger. –

You are not, however, to imagine that we were fully sensible of our danger, the same night – far from it, we continued tacking backwards and forwards, totally unconscious of our narrow escape. It was not until the morning had well dawned, that we thus discovered the danger which we had escaped last night and likewise which menaced in the morning. Depending on the accuracy of his observations, M.r Geach steered a course in the direction in which he had discovered the supposed lighthouse and entertained not the slightest suspicion of his error. As however he was a person, whose character is highly and honourable marked by extreme care and attention to the safety of the ship, he early resumed his former post at the mast head – and it would require no particul[ar] flights of imagination to conceive his alarm, when he discovered that we were running right into the mouth of the lion or in other words that instead of making out proper course to Half Moon Kay, we [were] steering for a wrong island which with its dreadful encircling breakers, was not much more than a mile ahead of us. The first impression of alarm was so great and so instantaneous, that he had almost dropped off the topgallant yard into the sea – Another ten minutes and we might have been struggling for life amidst reefs, and sharks more to be dreaded than these. Not a moment, you may be sure, was lost – instant orders were given, which were as promptly obeyed, so that in a very short time, we were beyond the reach of all danger, and to enhance our satisfaction and gratitude, was saw plainly the true Half Moon Key with its light house. It might naturally be supposed that we must have found out our mistake from the circumstance of our not having seen the light at all – this thing was taken into consideration and it was thought, that the island being very small and having but few inhabitants, the lamp either had not been lighted at all or had been allowed by neglect, to go out.

Causes of the Danger in going to Belize

Monday 14th – the storm of impending danger having thus happily blown over, it must have been no small joy to the Master to receive on board a pilot for Belize at 10 oClock, who of course relieved him of all further responsibility. Being secured from all danger under his care, we had full leisure to cast our eyes around and contemplate the manifold dangers which beset the passage to Honduras, in the form of reefs, rocks, kays &.c And, as I shall now shew, the unfavourable opinion entertained by Captain King, who scrupled not to affirm that many Packets would be lost or irremediably damaged was not wholly without a reasonable foundation. One of the principal causes of danger is the current, which again is dependant upon the wind. The force and positive direction being unknown, vessels are often hurried to destruction at a time, when from their reckoning, they ought to be 30 or 40 miles distant from any cause of alarm – and thus the greatest skill in navigation, and the most scrupulous care and attention are placed on a par with ignorance and carelessness. Again, the most dreadful consequences may ensue from your mistaking the different Kays and reefs, which you may see – a mistake which a stranger is exceedingly apt to commit from their very great similarity. Thus supposing the Master of a vessel to see land (and the land is generally low), he will probably look to his courses & reckoning and imagine himself near a certain Kay, from which, he is told in his book of directions, to steer a particular course, whereas in sad reality, the strong current has carried him in sight of a very different Kay, from which if he follows the course laid down for another Kay, he rushes unwittingly into inevitable destruction. Many, many have been the vessels which have been lost in this manner, and several of the most dangerous Kays, exhibit melancholy proofs of the fact in the shape of the hulls, spars, and rigging of ill fated vessels.

A third and equally important, cause, with the two I have mentioned, of danger is the incorrectness and disagreement of all the charts. In some for instance Half Moon Kay is placed to the Westward instead of the Eastward – and the lighthouse in a totally wrong position. In some, certain places are put down 30 or 40 miles out of their position, which is thereby a great hardship, in so much as this add[s greatly ?] to the difficulties and dangers of the Navigator, who has already too many to contend with. It is astonishing that Government in consideration of the great commerce carried on with Honduras, does not order an accurate survey to be made especially as in this time of unusual peace, they have many unemployed vessels – and what more noble undertaking could be asked upon than to save so many lives and so much British Property, which will continually be endangered until the navigation of the Bay is simplified & ascertained by each Kay, reef and flat being accurately laid down in the Charts. I am told that a Captain, who has traded much to Honduras, has this year published a Chart of the Bay – and that it is admitted to be the most accurate of any yet published. This is well – but we unfortunately had not the advantage of it.

In going to Belize almost all vessels make the Island of Bonacca, next the island of Rattan, from the middle of which she taken their departure very early in the morning, and shape their course for Half Moon Kay which, it is well for them if they can reach early in the day, as then they are always sure of having a pilot. This as I have already mentioned, was the plan we adopted, but having a strong current and light winds, we did not see Half Moon Kay till 7 P.M. – by which we were nearly involved in the same fate as thousands who had gone before.

After the pilot had been received on board and the bright light of day disclosed to our view the horrors we had providentially escaped, you may easily imagine that it [was] with, a spirit of gratitude to the almighty as well as of curiosity, that we contemplated a remarkable reef of great extent but a few miles distance from us. We could easily observe the sullen waves breaking over the rocks, which scarcely showed their heads above water – and that whilst on our side of the breakers the sea rose in billows on the other it lay calm and tranquil as the sleep of an infant. The colour too of the water within and without the rocks was totally different – the former being of a beautiful light green and the latter of the deepest blue – presenting a contrast, which a knowledge of the dreadful cause, alone prevented us from admiring with pleasure. The reason of the light and peculiar colour of the calm water was its shallowness – and the nature of the rocky bottom. Its depth was not more than 3½, 4, or 5 feet – and consequently had we been wrecked drowning would have been the least of our dangers. There sharks and alligators innumerable disported themselves in the clear waters, and it is probable that we would have met our fate from these voracious animals, long ere assistance could have been rendered to us from Half Moon Kay.

At different intervals on this sea of green, were descried several insulated rocks of greater or less extent, and seeming from their grotesque appearance like ancient castles – inaccessible to all human means.

Right before us lay Half Moon Kay, one of the four Southern Kays, and not far from it was the rock which from a white house on it we had mistaken for the other. Half Moon Kay is an island of very small extent – is covered with trees & has a Light House upon it, which may be truly said to be invaluable. The number of inhabitants is about 30 some of whom are pilots, while others employ themselves in turtling and fishing. Nothing is grown upon the island, and all their supplies must come from Belize & the sea. Within the compass of a very few miles the other Southern Kays lie, /as present nothing remarkable. Leaving these we found the whole way to Belize interspersed with numerous Kays, which are all of them low and nearly covered with wood. With a fair wind and a clear sky, and smooth water, we seemed as if on a party of pleasure – and I was strongly reminded of Loch Lomond with its many islands. We passed Sournef, apparently a cluster of 15 or 20 separate islands, but in reality connected – we saw English Kay – Gaffe’s Kay – and many others of dissimilar sizes and forms, but all beautiful. The approach to the mainland was slow and gradual, but our view of it was obstructed by the bright beams of the setting sun – and at 5 P.M. we came to anchor in front of the town of Belize, which is the only English Settlement here.

Read on … Belize