The Tragedy of the Seas (1841)

What can convey a more exalted idea of human daring and fortitude, than the boldness with which man rushes forth to encounter the storms and waves of those two mighty elements, the air and ocean? What can speak louder in praise of human ingenuity, than the wonderful art by which he is enabled to boldly steer from the land until it fades in the horizon, and nothing is to be seen but the heavenly concave above and a watery waste around him ?

So asks Charles Ellms in the preface to The Tragedy of the Seas, a book which, as its title suggests, is dedicated to the times when such waterborne adventures go wrong — a colourful compendium of thirty-seven nautical catastrophes that took place in bodies of water around the world between 1803 and 1840. We read of ships wrecked on coral reefs, capsized in hurricanes, and reduced to cinders after lightning strikes. The celebrated French navigator De Blosseville sails on a voyage of discovery to the Arctic Ocean never to return. A steamer violently explodes on the Ohio River killing dozens. The most fatal involves 116 passengers succumbing to hunger and cold after the barque Mexico was stranded off Long Island in January 1837. There is enough pulsating action, compelling characterisation, and technical information in the book’s 432 pages to keep your average deckhand entertained for an entire Atlantic crossing.

The writer of the book, Charles Ellms, was a Boston stationer and author of three other popular adventure books including The Pirates Own Book (1837) and Robinson Crusoe’s Own Book (1842). In his introduction to The Tragedy of the Seas Ellms declares that “The Narratives that follow are plain, true, and unvarnished; and if the hand that guided the rudder in the hour of misfortune was prevented, by the physical elements, from steering a correct course, nothing has prevented truth, that moral magnet of the mind, from invariably guiding the survivor in his narration.” Some modern readers are less certain than Ellms about his magnetic relationship to truth. Boyd Childress, writing for Williams College, Connecticut, believes he was never shy of embellishment: “It is difficult to determine where accuracy ends and Ellms begins.”

Ellms maximises the drama in part by playing to nineteenth-century stereotypes of savagely violent indigenous peoples. We learn of two survivors of a whale ship wrecked off the Palau Islands being captured and “subjected to unheard-of Sufferings among the barbarous Inhabitants”. Another shipwreck off the coast of East Florida leads to the “MASSACRE OF THE OFFICERS AND PART OF THE CREW by the Seminole Indians.” There is more to the book however than fire and fury, blood and guts. The open ocean is a great stage for displays of fortitude and ingenuity too. An Englishman called James Brock looks certain to die when his yawl capsizes off Yarmouth but manages to swim fourteen bitterly cold miles to safety. The Frigate Pique is extricated by her sailors from a “PERILOUS SITUATION ON THE ROCKS OF LABRADOR, where she lost her Keel; and the Passage across the Atlantic, during which SHE LOST HER RUDDER, AND WAS STEERED FIFTEEN HUNDRED MILES WITHOUT ANY.” We learn of a posse of sailors who, after three days trapped in their cramped sleeping quarters in the mid-Atlantic, set themselves free by cutting through the deck itself. Perhaps most extraordinary is the tale of a stray Japanese vessel carried diagonally across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean until by chance it reached the Sandwich Island 11,000 miles and eleven and a half months later. “For the last three months,” Ellms relates “they had been without water: they had a large supply of rice, it being the principal part of the cargo; and they allayed their thirst by washing their mouths and soaking their bodies in salt water.”