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Bill Thayer

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Part I
Chapter 9
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part II
Chapter 1

Part One
Early Adventures

 p46  10 The Loss of HMS Julia

After most of the garrison had sailed away in mid‑May of 1817, the temporary marooning of Lieutenant Aitchison and his remaining contingent lasted much longer than they had expected.

At last, on September 28, in angry weather, there was a distant speck among the seething waves. The lieutenant's spy‑glass revealed a sloop-of‑war flying a Union Jack. The gunners scurried about, packing the stores and their kit.

It was not until October 1 that the storm gave way to what Captain Jenkin Jones later described as 'a light breeze and beautiful weather'. The sunshine made a decorative picture of the triangular peak and the tiny huts on the green ledge like a Japanese print of Fujiyama. And the captain now lost no time in anchoring HMS Julia in seventeen fathoms of water about two miles off shore.

As an ironic quirk for the patient artillerymen on shore, her call was only incidentally for their relief. Her primary mission was to transfer the Tristan camp's unused supplies and a stock of water to dry barren Ascension Island, where a garrison was still kept. Since Ascension was 'only' 700 miles north of St Helena and on the direct route to Europe, the British Admiralty feared that it might still be used in a rescue raid  p47 on Napoleon's prison isle. If all had gone well, Lieutenant Aitchison's party were expected to make the 1,000‑mile voyage to Ascension as passengers in the Julia, before they could double back to the Cape.

Had all gone well. . . .

As Captain Jones afterwards wrote in his laconic report to Admiral Plampin, he 'saw the brig in a state to slip and make sail, and directed the First Lieutenant to do so on the least appearance of bad weather, or a sea setting in'. He then went ashore to give instructions about the loading of the stores. At 6 P.M. he ordered that, to make the most of the 'extremely fine weather', the boats should continue working until eight o'clock, after which he would return to the brig.

At eight the yawl left the shore with water. At half past eight it was impossible to launch the captain's boat, so suddenly had the sea set in. There was almost no wind, and so far as Captain Jones could make out in the dark, 'the brig rode pretty easy'. (Augustus Earle later explained that the hazard which makes Falmouth Bay so peculiarly dangerous to shipping at anchor is 'the swell that sets in before the wind'.)

In the calm night, Captain Jones could only settle down to sleep at the camp.

'At half past three A.M.,' he wrote, 'I was awoke by the dreadful report of HM brig being on shore, and on running to the beach, I found her so perfect a wreck that her starboard bow was laying under her starboard quarter.'

From the survivors the captain learned that towards half past two, heavy rollers had suddenly set in. His beautiful sloop gave a plunge. She parted first one cable and then another, losing her anchor. Since there was no wind to give the officers any hope of getting off to sea, they agreed to run her on the beach. Orders were shouted to cut the mainmast away. But before it could be done, the vessel grounded. A great breaker swept her within ten yards of the beach. The mainmast fell inshore, and the survivors escaped by crawling along it. A second huge wave stove in her decks, and she split in two.

'Out of eighty-four officers and men,' wrote the unhappy captain, 'including myself and boat's crew, I only mustered twenty-nine.'

The fifty-five dead sailors — or as many bodies as could be recovered, in the first shaky light — were buried together in a communal grave at the east end of Big Beach. (Again, the volcano of 1961 has chosen to desecrate their resting-place.)

 p48  The shocked artillerymen, having dug the huge grave, had to wait seven more weeks until HMS Eurydice delivered them from the island. The broken hull of the Julia lay under their eyes for a fortnight. A smooth sea barely rippled like a blue lake against the fine black volcanic sand. Then another sudden surf rushed in with giant stones which gnashed against one another on that same beach with a sound like thunder. They piled up so quickly that within an hour the wreck of the Julia was almost wholly buried beneath them.

For years, fragments of the brig were strewn over the shore. The first colonists used the wood in their houses and fences. A high pole was erected in the thick grass beyond the beach to mark the crew's grave. It finally disappeared, but everyone who has lived on Tristan always knew the spot, and the treacherous rocks are still called Julia Reef (now augmented by the new lava). For of the many recorded shipwrecks in the islands, before or after, the Julia's was the most fatal.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20