Escape from a Ship on Fire

From the "Missionary Annual" for 1833.

Many of the party, having retired to their hammocks soon after the commencement of the storm, were only partially clothed, when they made their escape; but the seamen on the watch, in consequence of the heavy rain, having cased themselves in double or treble dresses, supplied their supernumerary articles of clothing to those who had none. We happily succeeded in bringing away two compasses from the binnacle, and a few candles from the cuddy-table, one of them lighted; one bottle of wine, and another of porter, were handed to us, with the tablecloth and a knife, which proved very useful; but the fire raged so fiercely in the body of the vessel, that neither bread nor water could be obtained. The rain still poured in torrents; the lightning, followed by loud bursting of thunder, continued to stream from one side of the heavens to the other,--one moment dazzling us by its glare, and the next moment leaving us in darkness, relieved only by the red flames of the conflagration from which we were endeavouring to escape. Our first object was to proceed to a distance from the vessel, lest she should explode and overwhelm us; but, to our inexpressible distress, we discovered that the yawl had no rudder, and that for the two boats we had only three oars. All exertions to obtain more from the ship proved unsuccessful. The gig had a rudder; from this they threw out a rope to take us in tow; and, by means of a few paddles, made by tearing up the lining of the boat, we assisted in moving ourselves slowly through the water, providentially the sea was comparatively smooth, or our overloaded boats would have swamped, and we should only have escaped the flames to have perished in the deep. The wind was light, but variable, and, acting on the sails, which, being drenched with the rain, did not soon take fire, drove the burning mass, in terrific grandeur, over the surface of the ocean, the darkness of which was only illuminated by the quick glancing of the lightning or the glare of the conflagration. Our situation was for some time extremely perilous. The vessel neared us more than once, and apparently threatened to involve us in one common destruction. The cargo, consisting of dry provisions, spirits, cotton goods, and other articles equally combustible, burned with great violence, while the fury of the destroying element, the amazing height of the flames, the continued storm, amidst the thick darkness of the night, rendered the scene appalling and terrible. About ten o'clock, the masts, after swaying from side to side, fell with a dreadful crash into the sea, and the hull of the vessel continued to burn amidst the shattered fragments of the wreck, till the sides were consumed to the water's edge. The spectacle was truly magnificent, could it even have been contemplated by us without a recollection of our own circumstances. The torments endured by the dogs, sheep, and other animals on board, at any other time would have excited our deepest commiseration; but at present, the object before us, our stately ship, that had for the last four months been our social home, the scene of our enjoyments, our labours, and our rest, now a prey to the destroying element; the suddenness with which we had been hurried from circumstances of comfort and comparative security, to those of destitution and peril, and with which the most exhilarating hopes had been exchanged for disappointment as unexpected as it was afflictive; the sudden death of the two seamen, our own narrow escape, and lonely situation on the face of the deep, and the great probability even yet, although we had succeeded in removing to a greater distance from the vessel, that we ourselves should never again see the light of day, or set foot on solid ground, absorbed every feeling. For some time the silence was scarcely broken, and the thoughts of many, I doubt not, were engaged on subjects most suitable to immortal beings on the brink of eternity. The number of persons in the two boats was forty-eight; and all, with the exception of the two ladies, who bore this severe visitation with uncommon fortitude, worked by turns at the oars and paddles. After some time, to our great relief, the rain ceased; the labour of baling water from the boats was then considerably diminished. We were frequently hailed during the night by our companions in the small boat, and returned the call, while the brave and generous-hearted seamen occasionally enlivened the solitude of the deep by a simultaneous "Hurra!" to cheer each others' labours, and to animate their spirits. The Tanjore rose in the water as its contents were gradually consumed. We saw it burning the whole night, and at day-break could distinguish a column of smoke, which, however, soon ceased, and every sign of our favourite vessel disappeared. When the sun rose, our anxiety and uncertainty as to our situation were greatly relieved by discovering land ahead; the sight of it filled us with grateful joy, and nerved us with fresh vigour for the exertion required in managing the boats. With the advance of the day we discerned more clearly the nature of the country. It was wild and covered with jungle, without any appearance of population: could we have got ashore, therefore, many of us might have perished before assistance could have been procured; but the breakers, dashing upon the rocks, convinced us that landing was impracticable. In the course of the morning we discovered a native vessel, or dhoney, lying at anchor, at some distance: the wind at that time beginning to favour us, every means was devised to render it available. In the yawl we extended the tablecloth as a sail, and in the other boat a blanket served the same purpose. This additional help was the more seasonable, as the rays of the sun had become almost intolerable to our partially covered bodies. Some of the seamen attempted to quench their thirst by salt water: but the passengers encouraged each other to abstain. About noon we reached the dhoney. The natives on board were astonished and alarmed at our appearance, and expressed some unwillingness to receive us; but our circumstances would admit of no denial; and we scarcely waited till our Singalese fellow-passenger could interpret to them our situation and our wants, before we ascended the sides of their vessel, assuring them that every expense and loss sustained on our account should be amply repaid.