« PreviousContinue »
“Women, this is the only time you can be of real use to us, and that is by keeping yourselves quiet and not spreading fear among
They were quieted; they seemed to trust me.
I posted a strong guard on the steward's store-room and fore hatchway, with orders about the liquor, and then essayed to keep the men from crowding up from the orlop to the gun deck. With other men—with men placing less confidence in their officer than they did in me—this might have been a difficult task. But I had only to give the order; I had only, as it were, to show myself among them—they were satisfied; whatever I wished was done. And so complete was the confidence that I only ordered what was best for the common good that many in the orlop deck returned to their hammocks. Meanwhile, you must remember that the lost ship was bounding from shock to shock, with her broadside to the wind and waves, as she drove with many a heavy crash to the beach. The heavy seas broke over her side and poured down the hatchways. Her timbers seemed to open from each other at every lurch over, and her beams to wrench out of their places. This was one of our most awful moments, for we could not know to what exact point of the beach we were driving—and we did know that a reef of rocks ran out from the most probable part. And so violent were the shocks with which her broadside struck the ground that the whole frame of the ship seemed to quiver and to be compressed together, as if she had been made of pasteboard. It was a moment when human arm or human ingenuity could do or devise nothing for us; when our fine old sailor of a Captain remained quiet and motionless; when many, many of our young fellows thought destruction was not far off; and yet it was during these moments that the quiet—ay, and order—of a parade-ground prevailed. They listened to my words, and seemed to long for my return among them as every now and then I went through and along the decks.
At length the ship seemed to have driven well into the shallow water, and the Captain began to work with his men to send out the whole of each chain and part from it altogether, so that no drag might be on the ship to prevent her driving as high as possible on the beach. But now the hurricane of the tempest and of the waters increased tenfold, and to add to the terrors of these hours one of the most awful storms of thunder and lightning of the most vivid description began to rage over us. Everybody here says that they never saw such lightning or heard such peals of thunder. After the weight of the sea and wind combined seemed unable to drive the ship higher on the beach, and before she had made a bed for herself in the sand, she continued for at least an hour to roll over to the weather and to the shore alternately with the rising and receding surges. Every now and then a sea broke over us and came rushing down the hatchways. During this period I stationed myself under the main hatchway on the orlop deck, and here stood my old and attached friend Cahill. It was the most central part of the ship, and it was better to be among the men of the lowest deck, to prevent the panic which might strike them if they fancied that they, who were in the part of the ship from whence escape in the event of her breaking up would be most difficult, were deserted by their officers. Although this was my headquarters, as it were, yet every ten minutes I left my post to go round both decks and give that comfort to the poor fellows which I saw that my presence gave. At one time I bethought me of Mrs. Ward, and repaired to her cabin. I had at the commencement begged Ward to devote himself to her; and this he did, for he never left her side; nor did I care, during the rest of the time the troops remained on the wreck, to call on him for assistance. I found them with their child in their cabin, and was greeted at once by Mrs. Ward with the anxious inquiry, ‘Oh, Captain Gordon, is the danger over ?’ Ward looked all despair. I could not say what I did not feel—that danger there was none, and could only reply ‘that our trust must be in God's mercy.” Finding the cuddy out of which my cabin door opened filled with the ship's company, it struck me that in the confusion the cabins in that part of the ship might be plundered; and accordingly I secured whatever money I had on board, and on my return to our post advised Cahill to do the same. He was a great comfort to me during the most critical moments of our dangerous position. And then when, for a few minutes, thought would turn to home, and when a feeling of dire desolation crept over the mind, at the reflection of what would be the sufferings of you dear ones should another be taken from you by another wreck, his calm and deep resignation to whatever God might will, his peaceful assurance that what for some time appeared our impending deaths would usher his soul to heaven and Christ—then, I say, my spirit too was calmed. There was another beautiful instance of Religion's power to strengthen and render fearless the soul in the hour of peril. A poor weak woman, wife of one of our sergeants, whose life had been for months despaired of and who for some time had never left her cot—she, with her young family surrounding her bed, ceased not to speak to them and to all within sound of her voice words of religious hope and comfort. At about six the thunder and lightning ceased. A heavy rain came on, and the hope of safety at length dawned upon us. The wind began to fall a little, and the ship, although dreadfully wrenched, was evidently settling into her bed in the sand, for she did not heave over so much. At half-past six I went on deck again to see what our position was with regard to the shore, and brought down below deck the cheering intelligence that daylight was beginning to dawn, and that we appeared to be close to the shore. At a little after half-past six the ship had become comparatively steady, except when a heavy mass of water made her heave over to the shore—and I allowed some of the men to come up. We could just distinguish the indistinct forms of a few people on the beach opposite to us. By seven o’clock I allowed all who liked to come on deck. A furious and heavy surf was raging round us and the wind still blew with violence; but, provided our ship held together, all appearances were in our favour. There was still a grey haze over the land, through which now two or three hundred people could be discerned, some on horseback, watching our situation with eager anxiety. But there was a sight, not a quarter of a mile off, which was almost sufficient to distract our attention from our own impending dangers. The Waterloo, a convict ship, had like ourselves been driven from her anchorage, and just outside the line of breakers had been able to bring up again on three cables. But there she was, pitching tremendously, and our experienced Captain, taking hold of my arm and pointing to her, said, ‘That man ought to slip her cables and run her ashore; she will go to pieces.’ It has since been ascertained that the first mate, who was in command, did try to slip his cables, but the bolts or shackles would not move. At this moment a firing of small-arms commenced, and the horrible idea gained among us that the soldiers' guard on board were firing down on the convicts to keep them below. It was not so much the reflection that the soldiers were obliged thus to quell the mutiny of the convicts, but it was the indescribable feeling of awe and admiration with which such an exhibition of the stern discipline of the British Army filled the mind. A dreadful and inevitable death seemed to impend over both guard and prisoner; that death would soon reduce both to a common and undistinguishable level. But yet the British soldier, faithful to his trust, was doing there his duty, unrestrained by any reflection of expediency, unshaken even by the consideration that in a few short minutes the sentence he was executing on his fellow-creature might perchance rise in judgment against him at the bar of their common God. (We afterwards heard that our idea was an erroneous one ; the firing of small-arms was resorted to as a signal of distress.) The morning having cleared, preparations were made for o a line on shore, and grog and biscuit served out to all on oard. Three successive attempts to send a line on shore failed. First by a man who was a first-rate swimmer trying to carry one tied round his waist; he failed owing to the immense power of the back draught of water. A line tied to the lifebuoy, in a similar manner, got no further than the ship's head. A shot fired off with a line attached likewise failed. At length the second cutter was lowered with five seamen. She was watched with much anxiety, and, bounding over the rolling breakers, she was tossed safely on the beach. By this means two large hawsers, attached to anchors in the sand, were made fast to the ship, and presently we observed two large surf boats being conveyed in waggons along the beach towards us. We could plainly distinguish the General and all his Staff, with all the officers of the garrison, foremost among the crowd of at least two thousand people and more who were assembled. Very few seemed to care to watch the convict ship, as it was thought she would certainly be able to hold on, and the belief was the wind would fall with the advancing day. | And now I intended to assemble the officers and non-commissioned officers, and to read the service of thanksgiving to the whole of the troops; but the first surf boat being launched in quicker time than I thought possible, and from the still threatening appearance of the weather, I saw that every moment might prove only too precious (as the Captain had no confidence whatever in the ship holding together until dark), and proceeded to make arrangements for the disembarkation, which were shortly done as follows. The women and children to disembark first, the sick second, the detachments of the 27th Regiment and Cape Mounted Rifles third, the 91st by companies, according as the lot should be drawn; and first, I made the lot be drawn as to which wing should first disembark. The right wing gained the draw. Then the companies of the right wing drew. The men to disembark with their new clothing and great-coats on, their knapsacks on their backs, and with their arms and accoutrements. This disembarkation did not commence until half-past eight, and the women, children, and sick were not out of the ship until ten. Of these there were au least a hundred ; and of the latter, two men and one woman were in an utterly helpless state. One of the sick men was suffering from the effects of the dreadful typhus fever, which had so fatally attacked us, and we scarcely hoped that he would reach the shore alive. After the first boatload (the boat carried thirty persons) of the first company for disembarkation had left the ship's side, one of the two boats, which up to that hour had been employed in our disembarkation, was taken away from our wreck, to be employed— alas! but too fruitlessly—in endeavouring to save the lives of the soldiers, crew, and convicts on board the Waterloo. During all our own pressing anxieties we were, now and then, able to turn our eyes towards our hapless companion. Up to ten o'clock she held on to her anchors, pitching tremendously just outside the line of breakers. On shore it was thought that she would ride it out. Our Captain knew that this was impossible. I was at the lee gangway, superintending the filling and departure of each boat, when a little after ten old Young, who was near, called my attention to the Waterloo. Her cables had one after the other parted, and there she was turned with her broadside to the heavy surf, which, while it rolled her from side to side with tremendous violence, was unable to drive her high into the shoal water. The wind by this time had a little increased. Through its deafening roar, combined with the loud and furious lashing of the resistless surf, no sounds of the human voice, raised to its highest pitch of mortal agony, could reach the ear; but we saw too fearful evidence that piercing sounds were raised to Heaven with all the intensity of despair when we know that the human arm is powerless to save. Suddenly her mainmast went by the board and, in rolling over, tore up part of the quarter-deck with it, and there disclosed clusters of doomed wretches, clinging to every plank and spar which, holding on to others, seemed to give a better chance of safety. One small boat gallantly pushed through the surf, but dared not approach too close to the dissolving wreck and the crowds who would have rushed into her. The surf boat which had been taken from us had by this time arrived, and, a rope having been got ashore from one part of the wreck, succeeded in saving many. Many an able swimmer leaped into the boiling surge, but his strength availed him nothing there, for so rapidly did the rotten coffin in which these poor creatures had been embarked break up that the masses of floating beams and spars, dashing violently against each other, soon rendered unavailing all a swimmer's art. In twenty minutes from the time her masts went over the side not one fragment of the treacherous sepulchre, which twenty-four hours before bore all the semblance of a good ship, held together to testify that a ship had once floated on the waters. Oh what a scene of fear and awe our eyes had to look upon Out of more than three hundred souls about two hundred died then and there. One poor woman, out of several on board, alone was saved. They were the wives of the soldiers of the guard, and she lost her husband and her children. About eighty or ninety were saved. The thousands assembled on the shore, before whose eyes this scene of horror had been enacted, as if satiated with the sight of all this mortal agony, cared not to