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
An Account of the Loss of the Luxborough Galley by fire, on her Voyage from Jamaica to London; with the Sufferings of Her Crew in the Year 1727
By William Boys, Second Mate
On the 23rd of May, 1727, we sailed from Jamaica to London; and, on Sunday, the 25th of June, by a very good observation, found ourselves in the latitude of 41°45’ N. and, by account, in the longitude of 20°30’ E. from Crooked Island. Before we had dined, at about half past noon, the Captain’s cook discovered flames of fire through the lining of the forecastle, and ran aft on the quarter deck, in a terrible consternation, crying out, that the ship was on fire in the lazaretto, or store room.
At the same instant, the head of a puncheon of rum burst out, with an explosion resembling the report of a cannon, which at once alarmed the whole ship’s company. Two boys, sent by Isaac, the third mate and steward, to draw off a bottle of rum for the boatswain and carpenter, observing some liquor on the deck, out of an unhappy curiosity to determine whether it were spirit or water, for the water casks were all there, had put their candle to it, and in an instant the whole was in a blaze.
Finding themselves unable to extinguish the flame, they left the place, and hid themselves. We got forward immediately ripped off the tarpaulin, which was battened down, opened the forehatchway, and then saw the lazaretto in a liquid fire. The third mate, the surgeon, the carpenter, and myself, went below and endeavored to stifle the fire with swabs, rubs, blankets, our own clothes, and things of that sort; but finding all of our efforts in this way ineffectual, we set the pump to work in the head, which supplied water, by a spout, to a half-tub at the fore hatchway, from whence it was handed down to us.
In the meantime, the captain indiscreetly ordered a scuttle to be cut through the deck of this forecastle, which a view to pour water directly on the fire; but this vent-hole made the flames rage with redoubled violence, and the whole forecastle was soon in a blaze.
We, who were below, finding the fire to increase very much upon us, desired the people on deck to get out the boats, while we would still endeavor to quench the flames, which they promised to do; but when we could stay no longer below, for the great head and vehemence of the flames, and came upon deck, we found not the least preparation made to hoist out the boats; the captain and greatest part of the crew being on the quarter deck, crying to God for help, without using any means to save themselves.
Upon this I endeavored to persuade the people, that the boats were our only resource; and went myself up the main shrouds, and cut loose the runner which was seized to them; then got into the chains, unhooked the tackle, and carried it on the booms to the yawl, before I could get anybody to unloose the fore tackle. I was hoisted out of the boat, by desire of Ralph Kellaway, for fear, when she should be in the water, the men might run away with her, before the long-boat could be got out. As she was lowering down, he handed me the oars, one of which fell overboard, so that we had but three.
By the time she was in the water, there were seven or eight men in her, whom I entreated to return to the ship again, in order to get out of the long-boat; but they were unwilling to go back unless I would accompany them. Upon which I took hold of a rope, and was stepping into the ship, when I observed the captain dropping into the sheets from the chestree. I pressed him to go back with me, but he told me that the long-boat’s bow was on fire; and, at that instant, by a roll of the ship, I perceived the flames coming up the fore hatchway, above the long-boat’s bow. At the same time it became necessary to put off the boat, as the people were crowding into her from all quarters, and there were then in her twenty-two men and boys.
The boatswain, by a great effort, reached the boat, when at some distance; he was the last man that got into her, and was saved. As we passed under the ship’s quarter, the captain called to his brother, and entreated him to jump into the water, and swim to the boat; but he declined it, saying it was impossible the boat could swim many minutes; the being within a streak and a half of her gunwale, and the wind blowing very fresh at South West. We left sixteen men and boys in the ship, who all perished. They made an attempt to get out of the long-boat, and hove her bow off from the chucks, clear of the fore hatchway, as high as the gunwale; but, before they could bear her over the side, we saw her bow fall on the deck. Probably they could not stand near her, or the tackle was burned, and gave way. In somewhat less than half an hour after we quitted her, the ship was all on fire, as far as the bulkhead of the steerage; most of the unhappy men being then on the quarter deck.
Shortly after we saw the whole quarter deck burst up at once in a flame to the tasserel, Ralph Kellaway being then in the mizzen top, with the mizzen mast head on fire, Isaac Holroide on one of the quarter ladders, and another man on the other, their bodies in the water, and the fire foaming out of the cabin windows over their heads. The main mast fell first over the larboard side, and carried with it the mizzen top-mast. The foremast burned away soon after. The guns went off, from time to time, as the metal grew hot; but her upper works were wholly destroyed, and nearly three hours collapsed, before the powder in the powder room took fire, through the scuttle, under which it lay, was in the lazaretto, covered with flaming spirit from the beginning.
The explosion rent her to pieces, and we saw no more of her. Could we have staid by the ship, we probably might have saved some provisions, after she blew up; but we were obliged, from the first, to put the boat right before the sea, with two oars, to prevent her filling. As soon as our attention was disengaged from the ship, and our comrades on board, we began to reflect on the horrors of our own situation.
I came into the boat in my shirt and drawers, having thrown the rest of my clothes on the fire. We had not time to take with us a morsel of victuals, or drop of drink, we had neither mast, sailor compass; and were at least 120 leagues from the nearest land. It blew and rained hard the two first days and nights, and the sea ran high, of that we were obliged to sit close together abaft, on the gunwale, to keep out the waves. At this time we might have saved a considerable quantity of rain water; but that apprehensions of immediate destruction obliterate every thought of providing our future wants.
On Wednesday it was fine weather; and then, as kind Providence had so wonderfully preserved us hitherto, we began to entertain some hope of deliverance; and contrived to make a sail, by sewing together three frocks and a shirt, with a sail needle and some twine, which were fortunately in the pocket of one of the one of the boys, and had been used by him, at Jamaica, as a fishing line.
Mr. Scrymsour, the day before, picked up a piece of stick in the sea, which, when welded to the broken blade of an oar in the boat, formed a tolerable yard. One of the oars served for a mast; and we fixed the thimble of the foresheet to the head of it, through which we reeved halyards formed of our garters; and these were converted likewise into a tack and sheet. We then ripped up the bottom boards, under which we found several nails, left by the carpenter when he repaired the boat. A calking mallet was likewise discovered, and we were enabled to nail the boards to the gunnel, where the boat was straight, by way of a washstreak; and where the founded abaft, we nailed ships of the men’s frocks, which, with ropeyarns found in the stern-sheets, we drew tight over our shoulders, to keep out of the sea; all which answered bravely.
Thus equipped, we hoisted our sail, and steered as well as we could to the northward, knowing Newfoundland to be in that quarter; for on the day the ship was burnt, I had worked my day’s work, immediately after my meridian observation, and pricked off my reckoning on the draught; and I took particular notice of our bearing and distance from Newfoundland. We judged our course, a few days, by the sun, the stars and the Captain’s watch, which went pretty well; but afterwards it proved foggy, and we could not then judge which way we went. On the fifth day it blew a storm, about noon, when the gale was at its height, and our little boat in the utmost jeopardy, it was proposed to throw overboard the two boys, who let the ship on fire, in order to lighten the boat; which I opposed strongly; but at the same time, thought it expedient to cast lots, and give all an equal chance, which the captain would not consent to.
However, we continued to talk of these measures till the evening, when John Horn, who had been delirious with terror from the time he entered the boat, and one of the boys, both died; and then, the boat being lightened, and the wind abating, we had no further occasion to consider the subject. The next day, in the afternoon, three more died raving, and crying out incessantly for water, as was the case with all the rest that died afterwards; and it was no small fatigue to us to restrain the poor wretches from jumping overboard, to cool and refresh themselves in the sea.
Our thirst now became intolerable, as may be conceived; when I relate the method we had recourse to for allaying it. We all of us drank our own urine; but the quantity we evacuated was very inconsiderable. Everyone but the captain, surgeon and myself, drank seawater, which by a false taste they thought to be quite fresh. We washed our mouths with it, but swallowed none. The sail was frequently lowered, and drained of every drop of moisture we could wring form it; then we sucked it all over, as we did every one of his neighbor’s clothes when wet with fogs or rain.
Twice we saved some water, to the quantity, in the whole, of about three quarters of a pint apiece; but these sparing and irregular supplies availed but little to alleviate the torment of thirst, under which we languished. The sensation of hunger was not so urgent; but we all saw the necessity of recruiting our bodies with some more substantial nourishment; and it was at this time we found ourselves impelled to adopt the horrible expedient of eating part of the bodies of our dead companions, drinking their blood. Our surgeon, Mr. Srymsour, a man of the utmost humanity, first suggested the idea; and, resolute to set us an example, at the first morsel himself; but at the second mouthful, turned his face from as many as he could, and wept.
With great reluctance we brought ourselves to try different parts of the bodies of six, but could relish only the hearts, of which we ate three. We drank the blood of four. By cutting the throat a little while after death, we collected more than a pint form each body.
Here I cannot but mention the particular respect shown by the men to the superior officers; for the carpenter, boatswain, George Mould, and the boy, who were employed in the melancholy business of collecting the blood, in a pewter bason that was in the boat, and the rest of the people, would never touch a drop, till the captain, surgeon, and myself, had taken as much as we thought proper. And, I can truly affirm, we were so affected with this strong instance of their regard, that we always left them a larger share than of right belonged to them.
This expedient, so shocking in relation, and so distressing to use in the use, was undoubtedly the means of preserving those that survived; as we constantly found ourselves refreshed and invigorated by this nourishment, however unnatural. On the seventh day, our number was reduced to twelve. At night the wind came up moderately at SSE as we judged, and increased till it blew a storm, which continued with very thick weather till about four the next morning, when it cleared up, and we found the wind to be about ENE still blowing hard, and the sea breaking, in a tremendous manner, all around us; but it pleased kind Providence that no very heavy seas struck the boat, which must have occasioned the instant destruction; though we shipped as much water as we could possibly managed to bail out.
During the gale we were obliged to sail before the wind, which carried us much out of our way, and greatly diminished our expectation by reaching land. Our only hope now was to be seen and taken up by some vessel, if the weather should be clear, which instead was seldom the case.
When foggy, and in the night, we frequently made as loud a noise as we could, that we might be heard by any passing vessel. In the day time, our deluded fancies often represented to us the forms of ships, so plain and near us, that we called to them a long time before we were undeceived; and, in the night, by the same delusion, the effect probably of fever, we heard bells ring, dogs bark, cocks crow, and men talk on board of ships close to us; and blamed these phantoms for their cruelty in not attending to our distress.
On Wednesday, July 5, Mr. Guishnent died; our thirst terribly urgent and our strength greatly exhausted. On the 6th, died Mr. Steward 9son of Dr. Steward, of Spanish Town, in Jamaica), and his servant, passengers. In the afternoon, we found a dead duck, which looked green, and was not sweet; but we ate it, and heartily praised God for it, though, in a happier situation, it would have been an objective offensive and disgustful.
July the 7th, in the forenoon, we took a formal leave of one another, and lay down in the bottom fot he boat with a dead boy, which we tried, but had not the strength to throw overboard, never expecting to get up again. We covered ourselves with the sail, which we had lowered some time before, though despair of its being of further use to us. After a while, finding myself uneasy, and wanting to change my posture, about one in the afternoon, I laid my hand on the gunwale, to raise myself a little; and, in the act of turning, thought I saw land; but said nothing, till I was perfectly satisfied of its reality, having frequently suffered the most grievous disappointment in mistaking fog-banks for land.
When I cried out, Land! Land! And we were all convinced that it was so, good god! What were our emotions and exertions! From the lowest state of desponding weakness, we were at once raised to ecstasy, and a degree of vigor that was astonishing to ourselves. We hoisted the sail immediately. The boatswain, who was the strongest man in the boat, crawled to the stern, and took the tiller. Two others found strength to row, from which we had desisted, the four proceeding days, though weakness.
At four o’clock another man died, and we managed to throw both the dead bodies overboard. The land, when I first discovered it, was about six leagues off. The wind was favorable, and with sail and oars we went three or four knots. About six o’clock we perceived some shallops in with the land.
We steered for the nearest, and came up with her about half past seven, just as she was getting under sail, to carry in her fish. We halloo’d to them as loud as we could; and they lowered their sail, to wait for us; but, when we were close on board, to our great grief and astonishment, they hoisted their sail again, and were going to leave us; our moans, however, were so piteous and expressive, that they soon brought us to, and took us in tow.
They mistook us for Indians, or rather, as they told us, did not know what to think of us, our whole aspect was so unaccountably dismal and horrible. They gave us biscuit and water; but the latter only was acceptable, having totally lost our appetite for solid food.
At about eight in the evening we got on shore in Old St. Lawrence harbor, Newfoundland; and were most kindly treated by Captain le Cras, of Guernsey, the admiral of the harbor. They made chowder for us, and gave us beer made of the tops of juniper, fermented with molasses. We lay all night before a large fire, expecting a good night’s rest, but could get very little sleep, on account of violent pains all over us.
Captain Kellaway died about three o’clock in the morning, having been speechless six and thirty hours before. We buried him as decently as we could; the matters and officers of the vessels, that could be spared, attending the funeral, and minute guns being fired during the ceremony of interment. Our bodies were soon covered with boils and sores, for which Mr. Scrymsour prescribed warm bathing, and we were much relieved by it.
We were treated with the utmost degree of tenderness and humanity buy these people, who were all from Guernsey and Jersey; and though in the height of the fishing season, they spared us a man to attend constantly upon us. It was eleven days before any of us could walk aboard.
On the 20th of July we left this place, and sailed for Placentia, in a sloop commanded by Captain Machoon, of Guernsey, who was bound to another port; but with great kindness, went out of his way to carry us to Placentia. We arrived at Burin in the evening, where we were entertained in the most friendly manner by Mr. peter Carey, of Guernsey, who gave Mr. Scrymsour and me two shirts apiece, besides a waistcoats and a pair of stockings; to the other men one shirt, a waistcoat, and a pair of stockings each; and to young Kellaway he gave some of his own son’s clothes.
On the 23rd we sailed, and got to Placentia the 24th, in the morning, with our little boats astern; in which we went on board the Ludlow Castle, a man of water, commanded by Captain John St. Loo, who entered us immediately for victuals, and gave us leave to live on shore, at the kind invitation of Governor Gladhill; who paid for the board of the surgeon and me at the tavern there, and sent the rest to the barracks, where they were taken good care of, and recovered raft.
When I told Captain St. Loo the number of persons who came from the Luxborough in our boat, he knew not how to give credit to my story; and, one calm morning, he ordered as many men as could be safely stowed in her, to be carried on shore to the tent, just abreast of the ship, at a small distance; when they could crowd no more than twenty in her, with any prospect of working on the boat.
But alas! We were forced to lie on one another, at first, the most uneasy situations, till death made room for us.
On the 4th of September, we all, except George Mould, who went to New England, sailed for Biddleford in the Vine brigantine, Captain Webster; having been supplied, by Captain St. Loo, with five weeks provisions, for five men, of all species; and arrived safe in Biddleford harbor the 1st of October, after escaping great danger from the crazy state of our vessel. At Barnstable, the mayor paid our horse-hire to Ilfracomb. From thence we went by water to Bristol, where the merchants on Change collected four pounds fifteen shillings for our fare to London, in the stage coach; at which place we arrived on the 14th of October.
The boat, in which we were saved, was built at Deal, in Kent, in November, 1725, by Mr. Stephen Bradly. She was sixteen feet long, five feet three inches board, and two feet three inches deep, with eight streaks; pretty sharp for rowing well, and made to row with four oars.