"The Loss of the Magpie Schooner." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
Among those men who have performed the most gallant and self-devoted deeds in the most simple and natural way, we should especially reckon captains in the navy. With them it is an understood rule, that, happen what may, the commanding officer is to be the last to secure his own life–the last to leave the ship in extremity. Many and many a brave life has thus been given, but the spirit nurtured by such examples is worth infinitely more than ever the continued service of the persons concerned could have been. And for themselves–this world is not all, and have we not read, that "He who will save his life shall lose it, and he who will lose his life shall save it"?
The Newfoundland coast is a peculiarly dangerous one, from the dense fogs that hang over the water, caused by the warm waters of the Gulf stream; which, rushing up from the equator, here come in contact with the cold currents from the pole, and send up such heavy vapour, that day can sometimes scarcely be discerned from night, and even at little more than arm's length objects cannot be distinguished, while from without the mist looks like a thick sheer precipice of snow.
In such a fearful fog, on the morning of the 20th of June, 1822, the small schooner, Drake, struck suddenly upon a rock, and almost immediately fell over on her side, the waves breaking over her. Her commander, Captain Baker, ordered her masts to be cut away, in hopes of lightening her so that she might right herself, but in vain. One boat was washed away, another upset as soon as she was launched, and there only remained the small boat called the captain's gig. The ship was fast breaking up, and the only hope was that the crew might reach a small rock, the point of which could be seen above the waves, at a distance that the fog made it difficult to calculate, but it was hoped might not be too great. A man named Lennard seized a rope, and sprang into the sea, but the current was too strong for him, he was carried away in an opposite direction, and was obliged to be dragged on board again. Then the boatswain, whose name was Turner, volunteered to make the attempt in the gig, taking a rope fastened round his body. The crew cheered him after the gallant fashion of British seamen,. though they were all hanging on by ropes to the ship, with the sea breaking over them, and threatening every moment to dash the vessel to pieces. Anxiously they watched Turner in his boat, as he made his way to within a few feet of the rock. There it was lifted high and higher by a huge wave, then hurled down on the rock and shattered to pieces; but the brave boatswain was safe, and contrived to keep his hold of the rope and to scramble upon the stone.
Another great wave, almost immediately after, heaved up the remains of the ship, and dashed her down close to this rock of safety, and Captain Baker, giving up the hope of saving her, commanded the crew to leave her and make their way to it. For the first time he met with disobedience. With one voice they refused to leave the wreck unless they saw him before them in safety. Calmly he renewed his orders, saying that his life was the last and least consideration; and they were obliged to obey, leaving the ship in as orderly a manner as if they were going ashore in harbour. But they were so benumbed with cold, that many were unable to climb the rock, and were swept off by the waves, among them the lieutenant. Captain Baker last of all joined his crew, and it was then discovered that they were at no great distance from the land, but that the tide was rising, and that the rock on which they stood would assuredly be covered at high water, and the heavy mist and lonely coast gave scarcely a hope that help would come ere the slowly rising waters must devour them.
Still there was no murmur, and again the gallant boatswain, who still held the rope, volunteered to make an effort to save his comrades. With a few words of earnest prayer, he secured the rope round his waist, struggled hard with the waves, and reached the shore, whence he sent back the news of his safety by a loud cheer to his comrades.
There was now a line of rope between the shore and the rock, just long enough to reach from one to the other when held by a man at each end. The only hope of safety lay in working a desperate passage along this rope to the land. The spray was already beating over those who were crouched on the rock, but not a man moved till called by name by Captain Baker, and then it is recorded that not one, so summoned, stirred till he had used his best entreaties to the captain to take his place; but the captain had but one reply–"I will never leave the rock until every soul is safe."
Forty-four stout sailors had made their perilous way to shore. The forty-fifth looked round and saw a poor woman lying helpless, almost lifeless, on the rock, unable to move. He took her in one arm, and with the other clung to the rope. Alas! the double weight was more than the much-tried rope could bear; it broke halfway, and the poor woman and the sailor were both swallowed in the eddy. Captain Baker and three seaman remained, utterly cut off from hope or help. The men in best condition hurried off in search of help, found a farmhouse, obtained a rope, and hastened back; but long ere their arrival, the waters had flowed above the head of the brave and faithful captain. All the crew could do was, with full hearts, to write a most touching letter to an officer, who had once sailed with them in the Drake, to entreat him to represent their captain's conduct to the Lords of the Admiralty. "In fact," said the letter, "during the whole business he proved himself a man, whose name and last conduct ought ever to be held in the highest estimation, by a crew who feel it their duty to ask, from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that which they otherwise have not the means of obtaining; that is, a public and lasting record of the lion-hearted, generous, and very unexampled way in which our late noble commander sacrificed his life, in the evening of the 23rd of June." This letter was signed by the whole surviving crew of the Drake, and in consequence, a tablet in the dockyard chapel at Portsmouth commemorates the heroism of Captain Charles Baker.
No wonder that the newly escaped crew, who had watched the grave, resolute face, and heard the calm, firm answers, felt as if such bravery were unexampled, and yet–thanks to Him, who braced the hearts of our seamen–it is such fortitude as has been repeated again and again upon broken ships, and desolate rocks, and freezing icebergs, among wild winds and wilder waves.
From the cold fogs of Newfoundland, let us turn to one of the most beautiful of all the tracts of old ocean, that of the Caribbean sea, where the intense blue of the tropical sky is reflected in a sea of still deeper blue, sparkling and dimpling under the full power of the sunbeams, and broken by the wooded islands, forming the most exquisite summer scenery in the world.
But these most beautiful of seas are also the most treacherous. This is the especial home of the hurricane, and of brief furious squalls, that rise almost without warning, except from slight indications in the sky, which only an experienced eye can detect; and from the sudden sinking of the mercury in the barometer; but this often does not take place till so immediately before the storm, that there is barely a minute in which to prepare a vessel for an encounter with this most terrific of her enemies.
In these seas, in the August of 1826, the little schooner, Magpie, was cruising, under the command of a young lieutenant named Edward Smith, in search of a piratical vessel, which had for some time been the terror of the western shores of the island of Cuba. The 26th had been a remarkably sultry day, and towards evening the Magpie lay becalmed off the Colorados rocks, when, at about eight o'clock, a slight breeze sprung up from the west, and the sails were spread, but in less than an hour, the wind shifted to the southward, and a small dark lurid vapour was seen under the moon. This was the well-known signal of coming peril, and instantly Mr. Smith was summoned on deck, the sails furled, and the vessel made as ready as human skill could make her for her deadly encounter. The cloud was rapidly increasing, and for a few seconds there was a perfect stillness, till upon this came a rushing, roaring sound, distant at first, but in the space of a breath, nearer and nearer; while the sea, still as a lake elsewhere, was before the black wall that moved headlong on, lashed into one white sheet of foam, flying up like flakes of snow. It was upon them! The lieutenant's voice was heard calling to cut away the masts; but even then the ship was on her side, and in a few seconds more she was gone from beneath the crew! A gunner's mate, named Meldrum, saw for one moment, by the light of a vivid flash of lightning, the faces of his comrades struggling in the water, then he swam clear of the eddy made by the sinking ship, and found something floating, and grasping at it, obtained first one oar and then another. The gust, having done its work, had rushed upon its way, and the sea was as still and calm as if its late fury had been only a dream.
Meldrum listened breathlessly for some sign of his shipmates, and presently, to his great relief, heard a voice asking if anyone was near. It was that of Mr. Smith, who, with six more, was clinging to a boat, which had floated up clear of the ship. So many rushed to her in their first joy, that she at once capsized, and though all the ship's company, twenty-four in number, were clinging to her, some were stretched across the keel, and she was thus of course utterly useless except as a float.
Mr. Smith ordered them all to quit their position, and allow her to be righted. They obeyed, and he then placed two in her to bale out the water with their hats, directing the others to support themselves by hanging round the gunwales till the boat could be lightened enough to admit them. Just as the baling commenced, one of the men cried out that he saw the fin of a shark, and the horror of becoming a prey to the monster made the men forget everything; they struggled to get into the boat, and upset it again! Again, however, the lieutenant's firmness prevailed, the boat was righted, and he bade the men splash the water with their legs by way of frightening away the enemy. All went on well, and at length the boat was able to hold four men–morning had come, and hope with it, when at about ten o'clock, the cry "A shark! a shark!" was renewed, and at least fifteen of these creatures were among them. Once more, in the panic, the boat was overturned, but after the first moment, the calm, unflinching voice of Edward Smith recalled the men to their resolution; the boat was righted, the two men replaced, and the others still hung outside, where the sharks, at first in a playful mood, came rubbing against the men, and even passing over the boat. At last a cry of agony came from one of the men, whose leg had been seized by a shark, and blood once tasted, there was little more hope; yet still Smith kept his men steady, as, holding by the stern, he cheered the balers, and exhorted the rest to patience till the boat could safely hold them. But the monsters closed on their prey; shriek after shriek and reddening water showed when one after another was torn from the boat, and at last but six remained, when, as the lieutenant looked into the boat for a second, he ceased splashing, and at that moment one leg was bitten off. Still, in order not to startle his men, he endured the anguish without a cry or moan, and they were not aware of what had happened till the other limb was seized by the ravenous teeth, when with a groan he could not repress, his hands quitted their hold. Two of the men were in time to grasp him and to lift him into the boat, and there, mangled and convulsed with agony as he lay, he still turned his whole mind to the safety of his crew. Calling to him a lad named Wilson, whom, as the youngest and therefore the most sheltered from danger, he thought the most likely to survive, he desired him to tell the admiral that he was going to Cape Ontario in search of the pirate when the disaster occurred. "Tell him," he added, "that my men have done their duty, and that no blame is attached to them. I have but one favour to ask, and that is, that he will promote Meldrum to be a gunner."
He then shook each man by the hand and bade him farewell, with a cheering word for all as long as he could speak; but, as the long day of burning sun, without food or water, passed by, his strength failed, and he had lost the power of speech, when at sunset, on another alarm of the sharks, a startled movement of the men caused the boat to be again upset, and his sufferings were ended in the waves.
The brief grave records of courts-martial speak only of the facts that concern the service, and they do not tell us of the one anchor of hope that could alone have braced that dying sailor's soul to that unmurmuring patience through the anguish, thirst, and heat of that tropical day; but no one can doubt that a man, who thought so much of others, so little of himself, whose soul was on his duty, and who bore the extremity of agony so long and uncomplainingly, must have been upheld by that which alone can give true strength. Indeed, we know that Edward Smith was one of the best loved and most promising of the sons of a Hampshire family, brought up by a widowed mother, and that he was especially valued by the Admiral on the station, Sir Lawrence Halstead.
The only officer now left was a young mate named Maclean, who, with the spirit of his lieutenant, again persuaded the men to right the boat, which was now able to hold them all, for only four were left, himself, the gunner's mate, Meldrum, the boy Wilson, and one more. Twenty hours of struggling in the water, with, latterly, the sun broiling their heads, and not a morsel of food nor a drop of drink, had, however, nearly worn them out; the oars were lost, and though the approach of night rendered the air cooler, yet the darkness was unwelcome, as it took away all chance of being seen and picked up by some passing vessel. At about three o'clock at night, poor young Wilson and the other man lost their senses from the sufferings they had undergone, and both jumped overboard and perished.
Maclean and Meldrum collected themselves after the shock, and steadily continued to bale out the water, till the boat was so nearly dry, that they could lie down in her; and so spent were they, that deep sleep came to them both; nor did they wake till the sun was glaring upon them far above the horizon. What a wakening!–alone in a frail boat, their companions gone, water all round, and swarming with the cruel sharks–the sun burning overhead, and themselves now thirty-six hours without food, and parched with the deadly thirst, which they had the resolution not to attempt to slake with salt water, well knowing that the momentary relief would be followed by worse suffering, perhaps by frenzy. They durst not even speak to one another, but sat, one in the bow, one in the stern, in silent patience, waiting for death.
Hours passed away in this manner; but towards eight in the morning a white speck was seen in the distance, and both opened their parched lips to shout "A sail!–a sail!" They shook hands, with tears of joy and hope, and strained their eyes as the vessel came nearer, and the dark hull could be seen above the horizon. Nearer, nearer–scarcely half a mile from them was the vessel, when, alas! she altered her course: she was sailing away. They shouted their loudest, and waved their jackets; but in vain–they were unseen, and were being left to perish!
The gunner's mate now rose up. He was the elder and the stronger man, and he quietly announced his intention of swimming to the vessel. It was a long, fearfully long distance for a man fasting for so many hours; and more terrible still than drowning was the other danger that was hidden under the golden ripples of those blue waters. But to remain was certain death to both, and this attempt gave the one last hope. The brave man gave his last wishes in charge to his officer, made the one entreaty, that if Mr. Maclean saw a shark in pursuit, he would not let him know, shook hands, and, with a brief prayer for the protection of the Almighty, sprang overboard.
Maclean was strongly tempted to swim with this last companion, but conquered the impulse as only leading to a needless peril, cheered and waved his jacket. Once he thought he saw the fin of a shark, and made a splashing, in hopes of scaring it from pursuit, then watched the swimmer with earnest hope. Meldrum swam, straining every nerve, splashing as he went to keep away the sharks, and shouting, but no one appeared on deck; and when he had accomplished about two-thirds of the way, his strength failed him, and he was about to resign himself to float motionless, all easy prey to the sharks, when a head was seen in the vessel. He raised his arms, jumped himself up in the water, and was seen! The brig was hove-to, a boat was put out, and he was taken into it, still able to speak and point the way to his companion.
The brig was American; and, at first, the history of the last day and night was thought so incredible, that the destitute pair were taken for escaped pirates; but they were, at last, set on shore at Havannah, and thence conveyed to Port Royal by the first man-of-war that touched there.
At the court-martial held by Sir Lawrence Halstead these facts came out. Meldrum could not be prevailed on to tell his own story; but when his young officer had related it, both burst into tears, and embraced before the court. Not an officer present but was deeply affected; and Meldrum was, of course, at once promoted, according to the dying request of Lieutenant Smith. He died in the year 1848, but the name of the Magpie schooner will ever remain connected with the memory of undaunted resolution and unwearied patience.
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