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Pitcairn Sea Tales -- 5

"She soon struck on some unseen rocks . . ."

--from Mutiny of the Bounty and Pitcairn Island by Rosalind Amelia Young

Toward the close of January, 1875, the Liverpool ship Cornwallis, of the firm of Balfour, Williamson & Co., homeward bound from San Francisco, came in sight of Pitcairn Island. The captain in his boyhood had read the story of the mutineers of the Bounty and their subsequent settlment of the isolated rock, and decided that he would make a call at the place where, just eighty-five years before, Christian and his guilty party had landed. Taking with him his apprentices, they left the ship in charge of the first officer, and came ashore in their own boat, accompanied by some of the island men who had gone off to the ship.

But a very short time had elapsed after they landed when the ship was observed to be losing her ground, and, as if impelled by some unseen power, she drifted shoreward, coming on swiftly and surely to destruction. The people on shore watched with breathless anxiety and terror the doomed ship, and earnest but unavailing prayers went up that the fearful catastrophe might be averted.

The poor captain, half frantic, rushed with his young men and all the island men that were within call, to the landing place, to launch the boat and put off to the vessel, that was every moment nearing the rocks. But no effort could save her, and she soon struck on some unseen rocks a few feet from the shore. Had there been ten minutes more time, she would have been saved, as the water clear to the shore is very deep, and a few minutes more would have sufficed to steer the ship clear of danger.

A few of the islanders that had remained on the ship when the boat first went off, terrified beyond control at the approaching shipwreck, now hastily got into their boat and started for the shore. Meeting the captain’s boat returning, they also went back to where the ship now lay, a helpless wreck. The excitement that prevailed was great, and soon everybody was near the scene of the disaster. The other men who had been engaged about their several duties when the disaster took place, now returned from the fields, and, seeing what had happened, were quickly on the rocks near where the ship lay. Swimming off to the vessel, they were soon engaged with the others who had been before them in rendering what assistance they were able, and in a short time after the ship struck, all the crew had been safely landed.

Little else was saved. The mate wished to make a return trip to the vessel in spite of the wind, that was now increasing into a gale, and at the cry, “Who will volunteer?” a ready response was given, but the darkness coming on, and the threatening weather, made it advisable to delay the effort until the next morning. The boat was once more drawn up to a place of safety, and in the gloomy darkness, with feelings still more gloomy, the captain and the crew of the Cornwallis accompanied by the islanders, men, women, and children, formed a silent procession up the steep hill path that led to the village.

All that could be done for the strangers thus unexpectedly thrown amongst them was done as well as their limited means afforded, and everyone willingly gave up sleeping rooms to the shipwrecked men during their enforced stay, being content that their unexpected guests should enjoy whatever could be provided for their comfort.

The chief anxiety experienced was how to find enough to feed their guests should their stay be a long one, for this addition to their numbers was confessedly a tax upon them in the matter of food supplies, the islanders themselves being obliged to be careful in the use of what they had, as the island had not yet recovered from the effects of the long-continued drought of the previous years.

Not a thing was saved from the ship. The heavy seas rolled over the poor vessel during the night, and by morning the gale had increased to such fury that it was hopeless to attempt a return to the ship, each oncoming wave threatening to overturn it or break it in pieces. The deepest sympathy was felt for the distressed captain and his company of officers and men, but nothing could be done to alleviate the misery of their condition.

On the second day after the ship had become a wreck, she turned over and broke up by the violence of the waves. The sea around was strewn with wreckage, which floated away to leeward. The ship’s lifeboat, uninjured, was among the things that were scattered from the ship on breaking up, and in the hope of rescuing it a crew of the islanders started to launch the captain’s gig. With brave hearts and strong arms they waited for a moment’s lull in the angry waves to give them an opportunity of getting safely over the dreadful surf that rolled ceaselessly in to shore. At last the moment came, and at the command, “Pull ahead,” with a strength that seemed more than human, the boat was got beyond the danger of the breakers, that threatened to engulf her. In due time the lifeboat was reached. Being full of water, each man took turns to bail the boat. Wind and tide being both against them, the work was exceedingly heavy, but courageous hearts and willing hands insured success, and after several hours’ hard battling with the sea, the gig and lifeboat were both landed in safety.

A sad accident occurred a short while the men were engaged in rescuing the boat. A boy twelve years of age had, with some of his companions, gone down to the rocks near which the ship was wrecked, to get something that floated ashore. In attempting to reach his object, he was suddenly struck down by a heavy sea, and washed off into the boiling waters. The only aid that could be rendered was by means of a rope thrown to him, but before it could be brought the poor boy had sunk, bruised and killed by the wreckage that was tossing around. The poor, distracted mother witnessed the fearful scene, and in her agonizing grief made her way to the place where her boy was taken off, and would have thrown herself into the sea, as if such a sacrifice could avail to save her boy, but the arms of strong men who had followed held her back, and she was carried with great difficulty and in an unconscious state up the rocky steep to her home, where pitying friends received her and attended her through the long, dreary months of illness that followed. The father was not present when the accident took place, so word was sent to him where he was at work. He was with difficulty restrained from casting himself into the angry sea in the remot hope of finding the body of his son, but at length submitted to be led home; nor was the body every seen again, although a search was kept up for several days.

The American ship Dauntless had come in during the day, and Captain Wilbur waited until next morning, when, on learning what had taken place, he kindly offered to take the whole crew of the Cornwallis on his ship, and give them a passage to New York, whither he was bound. The ship was wrecked on Saturday, and by Tuesday noon all her crew had left, leaving only the poor remains of the good ship to remind the people of the sad occurrence.