The Fake Shipwreck (Snippets 44)


The Shipwreck by Claude Jospeh Vernet (1772)

In 1831 an exciting account of a shipwreck was published by ‘editor’ Miss Jane Porter.  The only survivors were a husband and wife and their dog, who survived by a lucky set of circumstances:

One of the men said we should have a hurricane: “The hurricane months are over, you blackguard,” replied the captain angrily. The man, however, appeared to know what he was talking about, and I, for one, believed him; but the captain laughed at him, after his choler had subsided. I then thought it quite time to insist on the dead lights being put in, to secure the cabin windows against the violence of the sea, if it should break up against them: and well it was that I had been firm to have it done; for the windows were scarcely secured by their wooden outside shutters, when it began to thunder and rain in torrents; it was one cascade of water from the heavens. My poor dear wife had gone below into the cabin a little before the storm came on; she had been induced to descend, by the awful blackness that totally overspread the sky, which until then had been cheeringly bright in some one quarter or other; and although I did not remain five minutes after her, I was thoroughly wetted to the skin, before I could get off deck and run down the ladder. I had scarcely entered the cabin, when the wind arose suddenly, and with such violence, that the brig in an instant seemed on her beam ends…

I wanted to go on deck, but was not able to effect it; the companion door would not move, and the sea was dashing over the quarter deck. I, however, got the people there, to open one of the side doors a little, and I peeped out. The wind howled horribly, and the sea was all in a foam: the brig was running before the wind, sometimes on one point of the compass, sometimes on another, just as the gale happened to chop round; which it sometimes did, and then the sea broke over the brig, while she was veering to the wind. Two of the hands, and the yawl, had been washed overboard. We continued to be driven by the storm for eight or ten hours, I cannot tell in what direction; but about two or three o’clock in the morning, they called out, ” Breakers, breakers! land! breakers!” I was below with my wife in the cabin. Being no seaman, I could do no good on deck; but, hearing this, I got up the ladder to the companion door. All was again fast down, and they could not open it; in fact, all hands were too much absorbed by the awfulness of their situation. In a few minutes the vessel struck, and we, who were below, were thrown violently on the cabin floor. The poor dog, our faithful Fidele, howled mournfully as he was driven to the further end of the cabin: this, at such a moment, had a powerful effect on us. ” We are indeed lost!” said my wife, as she recovered a little from the fall she had just received. I did not now wait to console her by my words: I renewed my efforts to force the companion door, and get upon deck; but it was perfect darkness where we were, and I could not find anything to add to my own ineffectual strength, nor could I make any one on deck attend to me; they could not hear me for the noise made by the howling of the wind and the breaking of the sea; yet I sometimes heard them, and could discover that they were cutting away the wreck of the mainmast, which lay over the side making ready to get the long boat over the gunwale, to escape, if possible, from the perishing vessel. I now became frantic; I knocked with my hands, and hallooed with all my power, but to no purpose. By accident I stumbled over an empty stone bottle at the foot of the ladder, with the bottom of which I struck the companion door so violently that I succeeded in arresting the attention of the captain. He unbolted it, telling me at the same time, “We are all lost!” but that the men were trying to launch the long boat, our only chance; for, although it was likely she would swamp in the breakers, it was quite certain the brig would go to pieces in a few minutes; and if Mrs. Seaward and I chose to go, we must be up in a second, for “look there!” said he; crying out at the same time, “another shove, lads, and she’s all our own!” the long boat was launched; and I returned down the ladder, with all speed…

The moment I rejoined my dear wife, I urged her instantly to accompany me to the deck, telling her our situation. “No!” said she, “I will not stir, and you will not stir; they must all perish; a boat cannot endure this storm. “Let us trust in God, Edward,” continued she, “and if we die, we die together.” “It is done” I replied; ” we will not stir.”…

More than hour passed away with us thus, in dismal darkness below; but we enjoyed the light of God’s presence; offering up prayer to him, in short but emphatical ejaculations; and he heard us: we felt the influence of his peace, and were resigned to his will…

On ascending the ladder, I pushed open the lee half of the companion door, when a gleam of joy rushed upon me, on perceiving that the day had dawned, and that the water to leeward was quite smooth. The brig now lying on the innermost part of the reef, I discovered high land a-head and astern, and a fine sandy beach abreast of us, little more than a mile off. I hastened below to my dear wife, into the dark cabin, exclaiming, “Come to me, my love; come on deck; it is daylight!” Without a word, she made her way to me, and ascended the ladder. On emerging from darkness into light, her feelings overcame her, and she poured forth her heart to God.

Subsequently, letters were discovered written by Jane Porter’s brother, Dr William Ogilvie Porter, which stated that the ‘true story’ was actually a fiction he created.  I wonder how many people read this in the 19th Century in the belief that they were reading about real historical events.  The problem of fake memoirs and journals persists to this day, remaining a difficult issue for publishers to tackle.

Coming soon on Windows into History: a series of Christmas History articles.  There is not quite enough time before the end of this month to cover another travel journal in sufficient depth, so there will instead be a few more ‘snippet’ articles for the rest of November.  If you would like to be kept informed of new posts on Windows into History, please click the ‘follow’ button on the right of the screen.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Fiction, History, Snippets, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Fake Shipwreck (Snippets 44)

  1. And then the question is, although one truth seems more plausable than the other, which one of them is actually the truth…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Fake Shipwreck (Snippets 44) | Practically Historical

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