Loss of the Abigail, December 1801

I can almost see the light at the end of the dissertation research tunnel. A couple of short research trips to go, a couple of dozen hours of internet database searching left and I’ll be done collecting material! After that I’ll only have to finish writing it up and, of course, begin the dreadful task of editing it down into a coherent, persuasive argument. Ah the joys of “dissertating,” as they say.

At least I’ve got to read about more shipwrecks than I thought possible when this project began. Here is one example, pulled at random from a survey of shipwreck reports in American newspapers in 1801 and 1802.  it takes the from of a letter, from the captain of the wrecked brig Abigail to the vessel’s owners, and was published in The Philadlephia Gazette and Daily Advertiser on February 20, 1802. It is representative of contemporary shipwreck narratives that appeared in newspapers all across the fledgling nation.

Loss of the Abigail. Letter from Captain Vrendenburgh, of the brig Abigail, to his owner in this city [Philadelphia].

It is with great regreat that I am obliged to inform you of as melancholy a disaster as ever yet befell any vessel. We left the Capes the 12th Dec. with a pleasant breeze from the W.N.W. bound for Bordeaux—it continued fine weather and a good wind until the 17th, then began to blow a gale. We prepared everything necessary for such an event, having the topsails handed, the top gallant yards and masts, &c. on deck. On the 18th the gale increased with great violence, attended with squalls of hail and snow, which obliged us to scud before it under a reefed foresail; and at half past 12 o’clock at night, in lat. 40, long. 57, the mate and five men being on deck, a heavy sea broke over her stern, which washed them all overboard except the mate, who held on by the rigging—the other five we never saw after. The mate was much hurt, but has since recovered. The same stroke carried away the boat over the stern, all the quarter boards and stantions, the companion, binnicle, compasses, hen-coops, part of the larboard quarter, and the main boom. The vessel broached to; and immediately, another sea broke in on her decks fore and aft and stove the long boat. The brig then being level with the sea, with so great pressure of water on her decks, expected every moment she would have sunk: the cabin nearly filled with water, discharged itself in the hold amongst the cargo. The remainder of the ship’s company, consisting of myself, the mate, and the cook, with a passenger and three little boys (who were of very little assistance) began to clear the decks and cut away the cotton bales, water casks, and long boat, which was then stove in pieces—We rigged the pumps and found a great quantity of water in her hold; we kept the pumps going until the next morning, employed at the same time nailing canvas over the companion way, and different places about the stanchions and the bits, which were broken off—all the while blowing a tremendous gale, which continued until the 20th, at six o’clock, A.M. and then abated.—At 4 o’clock we were ?able, and steered to the southward to gain the first port; we endeavored for Charlestown. On the 27th Dec. the weather being moderate and the wind continually from the westward, finding it impossible to make Charlestown we concluded to bear away for the West Indies, and set the fore-top-sail, the weather having a good appearance. At 10 o’clock the same night, we met with a most violent squall from S.W. so sudden that before we were able to clue the fore-top-sail down, and secure it, the top-mast was carried away in the cap, and all went over the larbord side together; we then cut away everything that tended to hold it, for fear of loosing and carrying away the head of the foremast—It was near six o’clock the next morning before we had the wreck cleared, being worn out with fatigue, and scarcely able to stand or more. On the 29th, we found the leak increasing, and were not able to keep her free with both pumps. We therefore determined to discharge part of the cargo, and accordingly began in the cabin and staterooms, and threw overboard all the beeswax and pimento; then broke open the hatches and bulk-head, discharged the pimento, pepper, and whatever first came to hand, the pumps going the same time. The next day at 4 o’clock, P.M we found the leak decreasing, and desisted from discharging, desirous to save and preserve all that lay in our power. The brig at present remains a perfect wreck.

The following are the names of the unfortunate men who were swept overboard and drowned. Viz. William Perry, Dennis Stone, James Hamilton, John Patterson, and Thomas Baker.

A second letter from Captain Vrendenburgh appeared in a number of New York, Phidelphia and Boston papers a few days letter:
Since writing the foregoing we made Cape Francois on the 18th of Jan. bearing S.W. about 6 or 7 leagues distance, and at 7 o’clock in the evening we had got inside of the Cape, running in for the shipping in the harbour, and about half past 7 we struck on a reef of rocks. The sea heaving up further on, the brig bilged and was half full of water before 9 o’clock—we made a signal of distress, and at 10 o’clock 15 American boats came to our assistance and employed themelves all night in discharging the cargo—we have the greatest part of it now on shore, but it is chiefly damaged. The brig is not gone to pieces and lost. I am now reduced to a skeleton by fatigue and hardships, being 31 days on board with only two besides myself to work the vessel, and had little hopes of reaching any port whatever, having only a main top-sail, a fore-sail and main stay-sail—all our other sails lost. Spoke nothing the whole passage.

P.S. I have put the whole of the business in the hands of the consul, Mr. Lear.


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Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture

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