Cannibalism at Sea! is a 25-part series covering the ultimate denial of civilization… the act of eating another human being.
Class of ship: Galley
Interesting and Authentic Narratives of the most Remarkable Shipwrecks, by R Thomas, A.M.
A Narrative of the Ship-Wreck of the Nottingham Galley by John Dean
Loss of the Nottingham Galley of London
The Nottingham Galley, of and from London, of 120 tons, ten guns, fourteen men, John Dean, commander, having taken in cordage in England, and butter, cheese, &c. in Ireland, sailed for Boston in New-England, the 25th of September, 1710. Meeting with contrary winds and bad weather, it was the beginning of December, when we first made land to the eastward of Piscataqua, and proceeding southward for the bay of Massachusetts, under a hard gale of wind at northeast, accompanied with rain, hail and snow; having no observation for ten or twelve days, we, on the 11th, handed all our sails, excepting our fore-sail and maintop sail double reefed, ordering one hand forward to look out. Between eight and nine o’clock, going forward myself, I saw the breakers ahead, whereupon I called out to put the helm hard to starboard, but before the ship could wear, we struck upon the east end of the rock, called Boon Island, four leagues to the Eastward of Piscataqua.
The second or third sea heaved the ship alongside of it; running likewise so very high, and the ship laboring so excessively, that we were not able to stand upon deck; and though it was not distant above thirty or forty yards,‘ yet the weather was so thick and dark, that we could not see the rock, so that we were justly thrown into consternation at the melancholy prospect of immediately perishing in the sea. I presently called all hands down to the cabin, where we continued a few minutes, earnestly supplicating the mercy of heaven; but knowing that prayers’, alone, are vain, I- ordered all up again to cut the masts by the board, but several were so oppressed by the terrors of conscience that they were incapable of any exertion. We, however went upon deck, cut the weather-most shrouds, and the ship heeling toward the rocks, the force of the sea soon broke the masts, so that they fell towards the shore.
One of the men went out on the bowsprit, and returning, told me he saw something black ahead, and would venture to go on shore, accompanied with any other person: upon which I desired some, of the best swimmers (my mate and one more) to go with him, and if they gained the rock, to give notice by their calls, and direct us to the most secure place. Recollecting some money and papers that might be of use, also ammunition, brandy, 61.c., I then went down and opened the place‘ in which they were; but the ship bilging, her decks opened, her back broke, and her beams ‘gave way, so that the stern sank under water. I therefore hastened forward to escape instant death, and having heard nothing of the men who had gone before, concluded that they were lost. Notwithstanding, I was under the necessity of making the same adventure upon the foremast, moving gradually forward betwixt every sea, till at last quitting it, I threw myself ‘with all the strength I had, toward the rock; but it being low water, and the rock extremely slippery, I could get no hold, and tore my fingers, hands, and arms, in the most deplorable manner, every sea fetching me off again, so that it was with the utmost peril and difficulty that I got safe on shore at last. The rest of the men ran the same hazards, but through the mercy of Providence we all escaped with our lives.
After endeavoring to discharge the salt water and creeping a little way up the rock, I heard the voices of the three men above mentioned, and by ten o’clock we all met together, when, with grateful hearts, we returned thanks to Providence for our deliverance from such imminent danger. We then endeavored to gain shelter to the leeward of the rock, but found it so small and inconsiderable, that it would afford none, (being about one hundred yards long and fifty broad,) and so very craggy that we could not walk to keep ourselves warm, the weather still continuing extremely cold, with snow and rain.
As soon as day light appeared I went toward the place where we came on shore, not doubting but that we should meet with provisions enough from the wreck for our sup ort, but found only some pieces of the masts and yard; among some old junk and cables heaped together, which the anchors had prevented from being carried away, and kept moving about the rock at some distance. Part of the ship’s stores with some pieces of plank and timber, old sails, canvas, 6Lc. drove on shore, but nothing eatable, excepting three small cheeses which we picked up among the rock-weed.
We used our utmost endeavors to get fire, having a small and flint with us, and also by a drill, with a very swift motion; but having nothing which had not been water soaked, all our attempts proved ineffectual.
At night we stowed ourselves under our canvas, in the best manner possible, to keep each other warm. The next day the weather clearing a little, and inclining to a frost, I went out, and perceiving the main land, I knew where we were, and encouraged my men with the hope of being discovered by fishing shallops, desiring them to search for and bring up any planks, carpenter’s tools, and stores they could find, in order to build a tent and a boat. The cook then complained that he was almost starved, and his countenance discovering his illness, I ordered him to remain behind with two or three more the frost had seized. About noon the men acquainted me that he was dead; we therefore laid him in a convenient place for the sea to carry him away. None mentioned eating him, though several, with myself, afterwards acknowledged that they thought of it.
After we had been in this situation two or three days, the frost being very severe, and the weather extremely cold, it affected most of our hands and feet to such a degree as to take away the sense of feeling, and render them almost useless ; so benumbing and discoloring them as gave us just reason to apprehend mortification. We pulled off our shoes, and cut off our boots; but in getting off our stockings, many, whose legs were blistered, pulled off skin and all, and some, the nails of their toes. We then wrapped up our legs and feet as warmly as we could in oakum and canvas.
Now we began to build our tent in a triangular form, each side being about eight feet, covered it with the old sails and canvas that came on shore, having just room for each to lie down on one side, so that none could turn, unless all turned, which was about every two hours, when notice was given. We also fixed a staff to the top of our tent, upon which, as often as the weather would permit, we hoisted a piece of cloth in the form of a flag, in order to discover ourselves to any-vessel that might approach.
We then commenced the building of our boat with planks and timber belonging to the wreck. Our only tools were the blade of a cutlass, made into a saw with our knives, a hammer, and a caulking mallet. We found some nails in the clefts of the rock, and obtained others from the sheathing. We laid three planks flat for the bottom, and two up each side, fixed to stanchions and let into the bottom timbers, with two short pieces at each end, and one breadth of new Holland duck round the sides to keep out the spray of the sea. We caulked all we could with oakum drawn from the old junk, and in other places filled up the spaces with long pieces of canvas, all of which we secured in the best manner possible. We found also some sheet lead and pump-leather, which proved of use. We fixed a short mast and square sail, with seven paddles to row, and a longer one to steer with. But our carpenter, whose services were now most wanted, was, on account of illness, scarcely capable of affording us either assistance or advice; and all the rest, excepting myself and two others, were so benumbed and feeble as to be unable to move. The weather, too, was so extremely cold, that we could seldom stay out of the tent more than four hours in the day and some days we could do nothing at all.
When we had been upon the rock ‘about a week, without any kind of provisions, excepting the cheese above mentioned, and some beef bones, which we eat, after beating them to pieces, we saw three boats, about five leagues from us, which, as may easily be imagined, rejoiced us not a little, believing that the period of our deliverance had arrived. I directed all the men to creep out of the tent and halloo together, as loud as their strength would permit. We likewise made all the signals we could, but in vain, for they neither heard nor saw us. We, however, received no small encouragement from the sight of them, as they came from the southwest; and the wind being at north-east when we were castaway, we had reason to suppose that our distress might have been made known by the wreck driving on shore, and to presume that they had come out in search of us, and would daily do so when the weather should permit. Thus we flattered ourselves with the pleasing but delusive hope of deliverance.
Just before we had finished our boat, the carpenter‘s axe was cast upon the rock, by which we were enabled to complete our work, but then we had scarcely strength sufficient to get her into the water.
About the 21st of December, the boat being finished, the day fine, and the water smoother than I had yet seen it since we came there, we consulted who should attempt to launch her; I offered myself as one to venture in her; this was agreed to, as I was the strongest, and therefore the fittest to undergo the extremities to which we might possibly be reduced. My mate also offered himself, and desiring to accompany me, 1 was permitted to take him, together with my brother and four more. Thus commending our enterprise to Providence, all that were able came out, and with much difficulty, got our poor patched-up boat to the water-side. The surf running very high, we were obliged to wade very deep launch her, upon which I and another got into her. A swell of the sea heaved her along the shore and overset upon us, whereby we again narrowly escaped drowning. Our poor boat was staved to pieces, our enterprise totally disappointed, and our hopes utterly destroyed.
What heightened our afflictions, and served to aggravate our miserable prospects, and render our deliverance less practicable, we lost, with our boat, both our axe and hammer, which would have been of great use to us if we should afterwards have attempted to construct a raft. Yet we had reason to admire the goodness of God in producing our disappointment for our safety; for, that afternoon, the wind springing up, it blew so hard, insomuch that, had we been at sea in that imitation of a boat, we must, in all probability, have perished, and those left behind, being unable to help themselves, must doubtless soon have shared a similar fate.
We were now reduced to the most melancholy and deplorable situation imaginable; almost every man but myself was weak to an extremity, nearly starved with hunger and perishing with cold; their hands and feet frozen and mortified; large and deep ulcers in their legs; the smell of which was highly offensive to those who could not creep into the air, and nothing to dress them with but a piece of linen that was cast on shore. We had no fire: our small stock of cheese was exhausted, and we had nothing to support our feeble bodies but rock-weed and a few muscles, scarce and difficult to be procured, at most not above two or three for each man a day; so that our miserable bodies were perishing, and our disconsolate spirits overpowered by the deplorable prospect of starving, without any appearance of relief. To aggravate our situation, if possible, we had reason to apprehend, lest the approaching springtide if accompanied with high winds should entirely overflow us. The horrors of such a situation it is impossible to describe; the pinching cold and hunger; extremity of weakness and pain; racking and horrors of conscience in many; and the prospect of a certain, painful, and lingering death, without even the most remote views of deliverance! This is, indeed, the height of misery; yet such alas! was our deplorable case: insomuch that the greater part of our company were ready to die of horror and despair.
For my part, I did my utmost to encourage myself, exhort the rest to trust in God, and patiently await their deliverance. As a slight alleviation of our fate, Providence directed towards our quarters a sea-gull, which my mate struck down and joyfully brought to me. I divided it into equal portions, and though raw, and scarcely affording a mouthful for each, yet we received and eat it thankfully.
The last method of rescuing ourselves we could possibly devise, was to construct a raft capable of carrying two men. This proposal was strongly supported by a Swede, one of our men, a stout, brave fellow, who, since our disaster, had lost the use of both his feet by the frost. He frequently importuned me to attempt our deliverance in that way, offering himself to accompany in, or, if I refused, to go alone. After deliberate consideration we resolved upon a raft, but found great difficulty in clearing the fore-yard, of which it was chiefly to be made, from the junk, as our working hands were so few and weak.
This done, we split the yard, and with the two parts made side-pieces, fixing others, and adding some of the lightest planks we could find, first spiking, and afterwards making them firm. The raft was four feet in breadth. ‘We fixed up a mast, and out of two hammocks that were driven on shore we made a sail, with a paddle for each man, and a spare one in case of necessity. This difficulty being thus surmounted, the Swede frequently asked me whether I designed to accompany him, giving me to understand, that if I declined, there was another ready to offer himself for the enterprise.
About this time we saw a sail come out of Piscataqua River, about seven leagues to the westward. We again made all the signals we could but the wind being northwest, and the ship standing to the eastward, she was presently out of sight, without ever coming near ifs; which proved an extreme mortification to our hopes. The next day, being moderate, with a small breeze toward the shore in the afternoon, and‘ the raft being wholly finished, the two men were very anxious to have it launched; but this was as strenuously opposed by the mate, because it was so late, being two in the afternoon. They, however, urged the lightness of the nights, begged me to suffer them to proceed, and I at length consented. They both got upon the raft, when the swell, rolling very high, soon overset them, as it did our boat. The Swede not daunted by this accident, swam on shore, but the other being no swimmer, continued some time under water; as soon as he appeared, I caught hold of and saved him, but he was so discouraged that he was afraid to make a second attempt. I desired the Swede to wait for a more favorable opportunity, but he continued resolute, begged me to go with him, or help him to turn the raft, and he would go alone.
By this time another ‘man came down ‘and offered to adventure; when they were upon the raft, I launched them off, they desiring us to go to prayers and also to watch what became of them. I did so, and by sunset judged them half-way to the mainland and supposed that they might reach the shore by two in the morning. They, however, probably fell in with some breakers, or were overset by the violence of the sea and perished ; for, two days afterwards, the raft was found on shore, and one man dead about a mile- from it, with a paddle fastened to his wrist; but the Swede, who was so very forward to adventure, was never heard of more.
We, who were left on the desolate island, ignorant of what had befallen them, waited daily for deliverance. Our expectations were the more raised by a smoke we observed, two days afterwards in the woods, which was the signal appointed to be made if they arrived safely. This continued every day, and we were willing to believe that it was made on our account, though we saw no appearance of anything toward our relief. We supposed that the delay was occasioned because they were not able to procure a vessel so soon as we desired, and this idea served to bear up our spirits and to support us greatly.
Still our principal want was that of provision, having nothing to eat but rock weed, and a very few muscles; indeed, when the spring-tide was over, we could scarce1y get any at all. I went myself as no other person was able, several days at low water, and could find no more than two or three apiece. I was frequently in danger of losing my hands and arms, by putting them so often into the water after the muscles, and when obtained, my stomach refused them, and preferred rockweed.
Upon our first arrival we saw several seals upon the rocks, and supposing they might harbor there in the night, I walked round at midnight, but could never meet with anything. We saw likewise, a great number of birds, which perceiving us daily there, would never lodge upon the rock, so that we caught none.
This disappointment was severe, and tended to aggravate our miseries still more; but it was particularly afflicting to a brother I had with me, and another young gentleman, neither of whom had before been at sea, or endured any kind of hardship. They were now reduced to the last extremity, having no assistance but what they received from me.
Part of a green hide, fastened to a piece of the mainyard, being thrown up by the sea, the men importuned me to bring it to the tent, which being done, we minced it small and swallowed it.
About this time I set the men to open junk, and when the weather would permit I thatched the tent with the rope yarn in the best manner I was able, that it might shelter us the better from the extremities of the weather. This proved of so much service as to turn two or three hours rain, and preserve us from the cold, pinching winds which were always very severe upon us.
Toward the latter part of December, our carpenter, a fat man, and naturally of a dull, heavy, phlegmatic disposition, aged about forty-seven, who, from our first coming on shore, had been constantly very ill, and lost the use of his feet, complained of excessive pain in his back, and stiffness in his neck. He was likewise almost choked with phlegm, for want of strength to discharge it, and appeared to draw near his end. We prayed over him, and used our utmost endeavors to be serviceable to him in his last moments; he showed himself sensible, though speechless, and died that night. We suffered the body to remain till morning, when I desired those who were most able, to remove it; creeping out myself to see whether Providence had sent us anything to satisfy the excessive cravings of our appetites. Returning before noon, and not seeing the dead body without the tent, I inquired why they had not removed it, and received for answer, they were not all of them.- able; upon which, fastening a rope to the body, I gave the utmost of my assistance, and with some difficulty we dragged it out of the tent. But fatigue, and the consideration of our misery, so overcame my spirits, that being ready to faint, I crept into the tent, and was no sooner there, than, to add to my trouble, the men began to request my permission to eat the dead body, the better to support their lives.
This circumstance was, of all the trials I had encountered, the most grievous and shocking to see myself and company, who came hither laden with provisions but three weeks before, now reduced to such a deplorable situation; two of us having been absolutely starved to death, while, ignorant of the fate of two others, the rest, though still living, were reduced to the last extremity, and requiring to eat the dead for their support.
After mature consideration of the lawfulness or sinfulness, on the one hand, and absolute necessity on the other, judgment and conscience were obliged to submit to the more prevailing arguments of our craving appetite. We, at length, determined to satisfy our hunger, and support our feeble bodies with the carcass of our deceased companion. I first ordered his skin, head, hands, feet, and bowels, to be buried in the sea, and the body to be quartered, for the convenience of drying and carriage, but again received for answer, that none of them being able, they entreated I would perform that labor for them. This was a hard task; but their incessant prayers and entreaties at last prevailed over my reluctance, and by night I had completed the operation.
I out part of the flesh into thin slices, and washing it in salt water, brought it to the tent and obliged the men to eat rock-weed with it instead of bread. My mate and two others refused to eat any that night, but the next morning they complied, and earnestly desired to partake with the rest.
I found that they all eat with the utmost avidity, so that I was obliged to carry the quarters farther from the tent, out of their reach, lest they should injure themselves by eating too much, and likewise expend our small stock too soon.
I also limited each man to an equal portion, that they might not quarrel or have cause to reflect on me or one another. , This method I was the more obliged to adopt, because, in a few days, I found their dispositions entirely changed, and that affectionate, peaceable temper they had hitherto manifested, totally lost. Their eyes looked wild and staring, their countenances fierce and barbarous. Instead of obeying my commands, as they had universally and cheerfully done before, I now found even prayers and entreaties vain and fruitless; nothing was now to be heard but brutal quarrels, with horrid oaths and imprecations, instead of that quiet submissive spirit1 of prayer and supplication they had before manifested.
This, together with the dismal prospect of future want, obliged me to keep a strict watch over the rest of the body, lest any of them, if able, should get to it, and if that were spent we should be compelled to feed upon the living, which we certainly must have done, had we remained in that situation a few days longer.
The goodness‘ of God now began to appear, and to ‘make provision for our deliverance, by putting it into the hearts of the good people on the shore- to which our raft was driven, to come out in search of us, which they did on the 2d of January, in the morning.
Just as I was creeping out of the tent I saw a shallop half way from the shore, standing directly toward us. Our joy and ‘satisfaction, at the prospect of such speedy and unexpected deliverance, no tongue is able to express, nor thought to conceive. .
Our good and welcome friends came to an anchor to the south-west, at the distance of about one hundred yards, the swell preventing them from approaching nearer; but their anchor coming home obliged them to stand off till about noon, waiting for smoother water upon the flood. Meanwhile our passions were differently agitated; our expectations of deliverance, and fears of miscarriage, harried our weak and disordered spirits strangely.
I gave them an account of all our miseries, excepting the want of provisions, which I did not mention, lest the fear of being constrained by the weather to remain with us, might have prevented them from coming on shore. I earnestly entreated them to attempt our immediate deliverance, or at least to furnish us if possible, with fire, which, with the utmost hazard and difficulty they at last accomplished, by sending a small canoe, with one man, who, after great exertion, got on shore.
After helping him up with his canoe, and seeing nothing to eat, I asked him if he could give us fire. He answered in the affirmative, but was so affrighted by my thin and meagre appearance that, at first, he could scarcely return me an answer. However, recollecting himself, after several questions asked on both sides, he went with me to the tent, where he was surprised to see so many of us in such a deplorable condition. Our flesh was so wasted, and our looks were so ghastly and frightful, that it was really a very dismal spectacle.
With some difficulty we made a fire, after which, determining to go on board myself with the man, and to send for the rest, one or two at a time, we both got into the canoe; but the sea immediately drove us against the rock with such violence that we were overset, and being very weak, it was a considerable time before I could recover myself, so that I had again a very narrow escape from drowning. The good man with great difficulty got on board without me, designing to return the next day with better conveniences, if the weather should permit.
It was an afflicting sight to observe our friends in the shallop, standing away for the shore without us. But God, who orders everything for the best, doubtless had designs of preservation in denying us the appearance of present deliverance: for the wind coming about to southeast, it blew so hard that the shallop was lost, and the crew with extreme difficulty, saved their lives. Had we been with them it is more than probable that we should all have perished, not having strength sufficient to help ourselves.
When they had reached the shore they immediately sent an express to Portsmouth, in Piscataqua, where the good people made no delay in hastening to our deliverance as soon as the weather would allow. To our great sorrow, and as a farther trial of our patience, the next day continued very stormy, and though we doubted not but the people on shore knew our condition, and would assist us as soon as possible, yet our flesh being nearly consumed, being without fresh water, and uncertain how long the unfavorable weather might continue, our situation was extremely miserable. We, however, received great benefit from our fire, as we could both warm ourselves and broil our meat.
The next day, the men being very importunate for flesh, I gave them rather more than usual, but not to their satisfaction. They would certainly have eaten up the whole at once, had I not carefully watched them, with the intention of sharing the rest next morning, if the weather continued bad. The wind, however, abated that night, and early next morning a shallop came for us, with my much esteemed friends captain Long and captain Purver, and three other men, who brought a large canoe, and in two hours- got us all on board, being obliged to carry almost all of us upon their backs from the tent to the canoe, and fetch us off by two or three at a time.
When we first came on board the shallop, each of us eat a piece of bread, and drank a dram of rum, and most of us were extremely sea-sick: but after we had cleansed our stomachs and tasted warm nourishing food, we became so exceeding hungry and ravenous, that had not our friends dieted us, and limited the quantity for two or three days, we should certainly have destroyed ourselves with eating.
Two days after our coming on shore, my apprentice lost the greater part of one foot; all the rest recovered their limbs, but not their perfect use ; very few, excepting myself, escaping without losing the benefit of fingers or toes, though otherwise all were in perfect health.