Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Blood, Guts and Shipwreck

Tales of shipwreck, disaster and survival always make a compelling story; particularly so when based on a true account written by the Captain of a doomed ship.

The external appearance of a slim volume within the Raymond Burton Special Collection entitled A narrative of the loss of The Shannon of Hull on the 26th of April, 1832 gives little clue to the tale of drama described within its thirty close-typed pages…

Reproduced with permission of Wellcome Library, London under a Creative Commons Attribution only licence

On 27 March 1832 the 360 tonne whaling ship Shannon sailed out of Hull with a crew of 29 men and boys under the eye of Captain George Davey. On leaving the Humber they steered north to Lerwick in Shetland (picking up an additional 20 crew to make a total of 49) before starting on their journey to the whaling grounds in the Davis Straits, off the coast of Canada.

Four months later, following a hellish journey, the surviving crew – only 19 sailors – limped home to Hull on August 25.

The journey to the whaling grounds meant sailing though dangerous and unpredictable ice fields and at 3.30 am on April 26 with the wind blowing a gale, the Shannon ran stem on an iceberg with a tremendous crash. The water rushed in rapidly through the breach and the sea broke over the crew in huge waves. Isolated more than 170 miles from the nearest landfall the vessel drifted at the mercy of the elements. Seamen clung to anything that would float but, battered with each succeeding wave, gradually lost their strength. Their cries for assistance became frantic, until at last they ended in dreadful stillness. Sixteen men and three boys were missing following the night of the collision, lost in the frozen waters. The survivors clung to the floating hulk of the ship.

On Tuesday 1 May, crew member O'Neil died of hunger. The remaining crew had now been without fresh water since the ship was struck, and some in desperation turned to drinking sea water which produced a thirst that couldn't be quenched. In desperation the ship’s surgeon 'bled' O'Neil by opening one of his veins and taking a "shoe-full" from him...
"His blood was then divided among us, and that draught, which at one time our hearts would have sickened to look at, and we should have turned from with horror and disgust now became welcome and palatable...to us in our thirsty state was quite sweet."
All hope of rescue had faded by the morning of Monday 2 May and the remaining crew prepared for death when at 2.00pm two Danish Brigs sailed into view and came to their aid. At the time of the rescue the crew had dwindled from 49 to 27, through the rigours of six nights and seven days exposed to the northern cold. All were frost-bitten – with the exception of the Captain – their hands and feet blistered and swollen.

Sadly, rescue did not assure survival. Two crew members died on the 3 May from the effects of having drunk so much salt water. Two more died on the 21 and the 24 May. On the 24, Thomas Walker from Hull died from "mortified feet". On the 25, the cook died: "his whole body was discoloured and in a dreadful state of gangrene". So intolerable was the smell, reportedly, that none could undress him; his body was sewed up in his hammock and committed to the deep.

The survivors returned to the north of England – there to be greeted by a warm, dry summer and a raging cholera epidemic (an epidemic which, ironically, was just abating in Canada).

Details from:  A Narrative of the Loss of the Shannon of Hull on the 26th of April, 1832 by Davey, George (Hull : W Stephenson [1832]) found in the Raymond Burton Yorkshire Collection (available through Special Collections)

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