The Lost Arctic Voyagers [Part 2 of 2] (1854 December 9)


We resume our subject of last week.

The account of the sufferings of the shipwrecked men, in DON JUAN, will rise into most minds as our topic presents itself. It is founded (so far as such a writer as BYRON may choose to resort to facts, in aid of what he knows intuitively), on several real cases. BLIGH's undecked-boat navigation, after the mutiny of the Bounty ; and the wrecks of the Centaur, the Peggy, the Pandora, the Juno, and the Thomas ; had been, among other similar narratives, attentively read by the poet.

In Bligh's case, though the endurances of all on board were extreme, there was no movement toward the "last resource." And this, though Bligh in the memorable voyage which showed his knowledge of navigation to be as good as his temper was bad (which is very high praise), could only serve out, at the best, "about an ounce of pork to each person," and was fain to weigh the allowance of bread against a pistol bullet, and in the most urgent need could only administer wine or rum by the teaspoonful. Though the necessities of the party were so great, that when a stray bird was caught, its blood was poured into the mouths of three of the people who were nearest death, and "the body, with the entrails, beak, and feet, was divided into eighteen shares." Though of a captured dolphin there was "issued about two ounces, including the offals, to each person ;" and though the time came, when, in Bligh's words, "there was a visible alteration for the worse in many of the people which excited great apprehensions in me. Extreme weakness, swelled legs, hollow and ghastly countenances, with an apparent debility of understanding, seemed to me the melancholy presages of approaching dissolution."

The Centaur, man-of-war, sprung a leak at sea in very heavy weather ; was perceived, after great labour, to be fast settling down by the head ; and was abandoned by the captain and eleven others, in the pinnace. They were "in a leaky boat, with one of the gunwales stove, in nearly the middle of the Western Ocean ; without compass, quadrant or sail : wanting great coat or cloak ; all very thinly clothed, in a gale of wind, and with a great sea running." They had "one biscuit divided into twelve morsels for breakfast, and the same for dinner ; the neck of a bottle, broke off with the cork in it, served for a glass ; and this filled with water was the allowance for twenty-four hours, to each man." This misery was endured, without any reference whatever to the last resource, for fifteen days: at the expiration of which time, they happily made land. Observe the captain's words, at the height. "Our sufferings were now as great as human strength could bear ; but we were convinced that good spirits were a better support than great bodily strength ; for on this day Thomas Mathews, quartermaster, perished from hunger and cold. On the day before, he had complained of want of strength in his throat, as he expressed it, to swallow his morsel, and in the night grew delirious and died without a groan." What were their reflections? That they could support life on the body? "As it became next to certainty that we should all perish in the same manner in a day or two, it was somewhat comfortable to reflect that dying of hunger was not so dreadful as our imaginations had represented."

The Pandora, frigate, was sent out to Otaheite, to bring home for trial such of the mutineers of the Bounty as could be found upon the island. In Endeavour Straits, on her homeward voyage, she struck upon a reef ; was got off, by great exertion ; but had sustained such damage, that she soon heeled over and went down. One hundred and ten persons escaped in the boats, and entered on " a long and dangerous voyage." The daily allowance to each, was a musket-ball weight of bread, and two small wineglasses of water. "The heat of the sun and reflexion of the sand became intolerable, and the quantity of salt water swallowed by the men created the most parching thirst ; excruciating tortures were endured, and one of the men went mad and died." Perhaps this body was devoured? No. "The people at length neglected weighing their slender allowance, their mouths becoming so parched that few attempted to eat ; and what was not claimed, was returned to the general stock." They were a fine crew (but not so fine as Franklin's), and in a state of high discipline. Only this one death occurred, and all the rest were saved.


We are brought back to the position almost embodied in the words of Sir John Richardson toward the close of the former chapter. In weighing the probabilities and improbabilities of the "last resource," the foremost question is – not the nature of the extremity ; but, the nature of the men. We submit that the memory of the lost Arctic voyagers is placed, by reason and experience, high above the taint of this so easily-allowed connection ; and that the noble conduct and example of such men, and of their own great leader himself, under similar endurances, belies it, and outweighs by the weight of the whole universe the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber. Utilitarianism will protest "they are dead ; why care about this?" Our reply shall be, "Because they ARE dead, therefore we care about this. Because they served their country well, and deserved well of her, and can ask, no more on this earth, for her justice or her loving-kindness ; give them both, full measure, pressed down, running over. Because no Franklin can come back, to write the honest story of their woes and resignation, read it tenderly and truly in the book he has left us. Because they lie scattered on those wastes of snow, and are as defenceless against the remembrance of the coming generations, as against the elements into which they are resolving, and the winter winds that alone can waft them home, now, impalpable air ; therefore, cherish them gently, even in the breasts of children. Therefore, teach no one to shudder without reason, at the history of their end. Therefore, confide with their own firmness, in their fortitude, their lofty sense of duty, their courage, and their religion.["]

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About this document ...

  • Written by: Charles Dickens
  • Published in: Household Words
  • Publication issue: 246
  • Date: 1854 December 9
  • Page(s): 385-393
Sunken ship