A Celebration of Women Writers

"Discipline." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


Perhaps there have never been occasions, when the habit of instantaneous obedience to the voice of duty has produced more touching instances of forbearance and unselfishness than in the confusion and despair of a shipwreck. What a wreck can be without such qualities, has been but too well proved by the horrible scenes that took place after the loss of the French ship Meduse, when brutal selfishness was followed by savage violence and cannibalism too shocking to be dwelt upon; though memorable as an example, that "every man for himself", is the most fatal of all policies, even were self-preservation the primary object.

In British ships of war, unshrinking obedience, heeding nothing but the one matter in hand, is the rule. "As a landsman," says Colonel Fisher, an engineer officer, who was on board the Plover gunboat in the hottest fire on the Peiho River, "I was much struck with the coolness with which the navigation of the vessel was attended to; the man in the chains cries the soundings, the master gives his orders to the man at the helm and the engineers below; the helmsman has no eyes or ears but for the master's directions and signals .... All seem intent on what is their duty at the time being, and utterly unmindful of the struggle raging round them." And this when not only were they being shot down every moment, but when each comparatively harmless ball rocked the gunboat, sent splinters flying, or brought the yards down upon their heads. Where such conduct is regarded as a mere matter of course, from the grey-headed admiral down to the cadet and the cabin-boy, no wonder that multitudes of deeds have been done, glorious because they placed duty far above self, and proved that Nelson's signal is indeed true to the strongest instinct of the English sailor.

The only difficulty is to choose among the instances of patient obedience on record; and how many more are there, unknown to all but to Him who treasures up the record, until the day when "the sea shall give up her dead!" Let us cast a glance at the Atalante, bewildered in a fog upon the coast of Nova Scotia, and deceived by the signal guns of another ship in distress, till she struck upon the formidable reefs, known by the name of the Sisters Rocks, off Sambro Island. The wreck was complete and hopeless, and a number of men scrambled at once into the pinnace; but the captain, seeing that she could never float so loaded, ordered twenty of them out, and was implicitly obeyed, so entirely without a murmur, that as the men hung clinging to the weather gunwale of the ship, they drowned the crashing of the falling masts with their cheers.

As soon as the pinnace was lightened, she floated off, but immediately turned bottom upwards. Still the crew never lost their self-possession for one moment, but succeeded in righting her, and resuming their places, without the loss of a man. They then waited beyond the dash of the breakers on the reef, for Captain Hickey and their companions, who were still clinging to the remains of the ship. There were two other boats, but too small to hold the whole number, and an attempt was made to construct a raft, but the beating of the waves rendered this impossible, so the men already in the pinnace were directed to lie down in the bottom, and pack themselves like herrings in a barrel, while the lesser boats returned through the surf to pick off the rest–a most difficult matter, and indeed some had to be dragged off on ropes, and others to swim, but not one was lost. The captain was of course the last man to quit the wreck, though several of the officers were most unwilling to precede him even for a moment, and by the time he reached the boat, the last timbers had almost entirely disappeared, amid the loud cheers of the brave-hearted crew.

Nothing was saved but the admiral's despatches, which the captain had secured at the first moment, and the chronometer. This last was the special charge of the captain's clerk, who had been directed always to hold it in his hand when the guns were fired, or the ship underwent any shock, so as to prevent the works from being injured. On the first alarm he had caught up the chronometer and run on deck, but being unable to swim, was forced to cling to the mizen mast. When the ship fell over, and the mast became nearly horizontal, he crawled out to the mizen top, and sat there till the spar gave way and plunged him into the waves, whence he was dragged into one of the boats, half-drowned but grasping tight his precious trust. A poor merry negro, who held fast to his fiddle to the last moment, as he clung to the main chains, was obliged to let his instrument go, amid the laughter and fun of his messmates, who seem to have found food for merriment in every occurrence. No one had a full suit of clothes, but an old quartermaster, named Samuel Shanks, who had comported himself throughout as composedly as if shipwrecks befell him every day, and did not even take off his hat, except for a last cheer to the Atalante as she sunk. He recollected that he had a small compass seal hanging to his watch, and this being handed to the captain, in his gig, and placed on the top of the chronometer, it proved steady enough to steer by, as the three boats crept carefully along in the dense fog. They landed, after a few hours, on the coast, about twenty miles from Halifax, at a fishing station, where they were warmed and fed.

Thence the captain took the most exhausted and least clothed of the party in the boats to Halifax, leaving the others to march through the half-cleared country. Before night the whole ship's company assembled, without one man missing, in as complete order as if nothing had happened.

Here perfect discipline had proved the means of safety, and hope had never failed for a moment; but we have still fresh in our memories an occasion where such forbearing obedience led to a willing self-sacrifice, when safety might have been possible to the strong at the expense of certain destruction to the weak.

The Birkenhead, a war steamer used as a transport, was on her way to Algoa Bay with about 630 persons on board, 132 being her own crew, the rest detachments from the 12th, 74th, and 91st Regiments, and the wives and children of the soldiers. In the dead of the night between the 25th and 28th of February, the vessel stuck on a reef of sunken rocks on the African coast, and from the rapidity with which she was moving, and the violence of the waves, became rapidly a hopeless wreck. On the shock, the whole of the men and officers hurried on deck, and the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, calling the other officers about him, impressed on them the necessity of preserving order and silence among the men, and placed them at the disposal of the commander of the vessel.

Sixty were placed at the pumps, others to disengage the boats, and others to throw the poor horses overboard, so as to lighten the ship, while the rest were sent to the poop to ease the forepart of the ship. Everyone did as directed, and not a murmur nor cry was heard. They were as steady as if on parade, as ready as though embarking in a British harbour.

The largest boat was unhappily too much encumbered to be got at quickly enough, but the cutter was filled with the women and children, and pushed off, as did two other small boats. The other two large ones were, one capsized, the other stove in by the fall of the funnel, which took place immediately after the cutter was clear of the ship, only twelve or fifteen minutes after the ship had struck. At the same time the whole vessel broke in two parts, crosswise, and the stern part began to sink and fill with water. The commander called out, "All those that can swim jump overboard and swim for the boats."

But Colonel Seton and the officers with him besought their men to forbear, showing them that if they did so, the boats with the women must be swamped. And they stood still. Not more than three made the attempt. Officers and men alike waited to face almost certain death rather than endanger the women and children. Young soldiers, mostly but a short time in the service, were as patiently resolute as their elders. In a few moments the whole of these brave men were washed into the sea, some sinking, some swimming, some clinging to spars. The boats picked up as many as was possible without overloading them, and then made for the shore, which was only two miles off, hoping to land these and return for more, but the surf ran so high that landing was impossible, and after seeking till daylight for a safe landing place, they were at last picked up by a schooner, which then made for the wreck, where thirty or forty were still hanging to the masts in a dreadful state of exhaustion.

A few, both of men and horses, had succeeded in swimming to the shore, but some were devoured by the sharks on the way, and out of the whole number in the ship, only 192 were saved. But those who were lost, both sailors and soldiers, have left behind them a memory of calm, self-denying courage as heroic as ever was shown on battlefield.



Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Jessie Hudgins.

This chapter is dedicated by Jessie Hudgins:
"With a little love and a little work... for my grandchildren."

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom