The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 
The loss of HMS Megaera in 1871 

Royal NavyLossesLoss of MegaeraBlackwoods (2/5) ◄► (4/5)


As I have more than once mentioned the two Frenchmen whom we found living on the island, and as they two constituted the inhabitants when we arrived, it will he proper to say a word about them, as a first essay at depicting life in St Paul's. These men were employed at a remuneration of 40 francs a-month (7s. 6d. English, a-week) for living in this lively place, and looking after the four boats and the few sheds which I have mentioned as having been found, and also some few stores which we found afterwards. They looked out for whale-ships arriving, and got casks of fresh water filled during the rainy season so as to be ready for them. These men had in charge a register, in which each captain made notes concerning the island. They had also a decent library of French books; but this appeared to be a relic of an older time when there had been as many as fifteen men resident, who, with occasional help from crews of whalers, built the sheds and huts, which are used for boiling oil and salting fish when the vessels remain some little time off the island, as they sometimes do. There were, besides, other evidences that a little labour had at some time or other been bestowed on the place, for we found terraced gardens round the crater-sea facing the north (the reader will remember that we were in the southern hemisphere), to catch the warm sun. The gardens, however, had of late been sadly neglected. The only trees in the place were the cabbages which had shot up into shrubs.

Our two Frenchmen lived in a small wooden cabin, not liking the larger huts on account of the rats. They had come from the island of Reunion or Bourbon. One of them, styled "the governor," was thirty years of age, and lame. The other, the subject, was twenty-five years old. The governor had been on St Paul's off and on for eight years, going away occasionally for what sailors call a "burst up," or "spree." The other was a strong active young man, a splendid climber. He was of much use to us. The governor described his subject as a very bad man: the subject spoke of the governor as a very good man. There was a tradition of a third person, a black man, having been on the island not so very long ago; but both the good and the bad man gave very unsatisfactory accounts of what became of him. Jack rather jumped at the conclusion that the governor and governed had killed and eaten him; and this idea seemed the more plausible when there was found to be one house, the door of which the Frenchmen would never let us keep open, as if the nigger had been immolated thereabout. Whether the two inhabitants felt any terror of blood-guiltiness, or whether, when they found some melodramatic imaginings rising in Jack's mind, they fostered the fancies according to the instincts of their race, I cannot determine. The nigger may have gone away in a whaler, or he may have gone quietly to earth, or he may have gone down the French gullets. It is a very nice point in the early history of St Paul's, and possibly the future scholars of that island may rend each other's gowns, or fly at each other's throats, in their burning desire to put the matter rightly before a distant posterity. But let us leave the early settlers and the mythic period for a while, and record contemporary facts.

As soon as the first batch of us were housed on shore, Captain Thrupp issued a code of orders suited to our new circumstances, and, as draft after draft landed, the last comers fell readily into the routine of camp life. Instead of watches we had guards. Sanitary inspectors were appointed, and an executive staff to carry out their decrees. Exploring bands were told off. A signal station was established on the heights, 860 feet above the camp, and thither was at last carried or hauled up, with much exertion of force and of nautical skill, the spar which, on the 18th June (the day on which the Captain had decided to remain), a party of officers had, in their first outburst of zeal, raised to 500 feet high, and there left it on a ledge of the precipice. When this spar became a flagstaff, as it soon did, it displayed the British ensign upside down. For night-signals we had a beacon ready to kindle, blue-lights, and rockets, and there was always a gun ready loaded.

We had landed a very fair stock of provisions: the question was, how long it might be necessary to make these provisions last. There were 13,000 lb. of biscuit, about six weeks' full allowance of flour, salt meat, preserved meats, tea, rum, chocolate, and a very little sugar. Now five or six ships generally pass the island every month, and we calculated that in three months after we should have sent notice of our misfortune to Australia, we might hope for relief. The problem therefore was to make our provender last four months. Officers and men were put on ⅓ allowance of bread, ⅔ allowance of salt meat, ½ allowance of sugar, ¼ allowance of tea. But this was not all that we depended on, for it was soon discovered that a large quantity of fish could be caught on most days. It also became known that there were flocks of wild goats on the island, and these we made occasionally help out our messes. The work was hard and the diet was not high, but yet we had a chance of getting on fairly, if only passing ships did not disappoint calculation.

Sea-fishing not only afforded us frequent sport but provided many a meal. Rocket-sticks, or split plank, made us rods for angling in the shallows; and we had plenty of lines, though, rather a limited supply of hooks, for foraging in the deep waters. One kind of large fish we called salmon, although its flesh is white and it eats more like mullet. There are red fish too, and a large sort of sardines, with golden bellies and greenish-grey backs. We named another kind snappers, besides which we had cray-fish, five fingers, snooks, and cabots. Learned books say that the sardines of the Indian Ocean are a deadly poison; if so we must have been poison-proof, for we ate plenty of them and were none the worse for it. We have caught as much as 700 lb. of fish in one day, and 120 to 180 lb. were not uncommon. Of the fish we called salmon, specimens were taken weighing over 60 lb. The cabot (a name which we got from the Frenchmen) is an ugly fish, with his lower jaw projecting beyond the upper; but, if not beautiful, he has the intrinsic merit of being very good for the table. This was the largest fish; one weighed 81 lb. after it was cleaned. So great draughts of fishes were, of course, not taken without considerable expenditure of gear, and we began to be embarrassed by the failure of our hooks. The smiths exerted their skill to remedy this defect, but the business was not exactly in their line, and they could hardly work fast enough for the constant demand. On the 1st August a cask containing near 3000 hooks was discovered in the cargo. Three thousand pounds of gold would have been valueless in comparison; these iron implements which could help us to get meat for the pot, these were the treasures for us, and we rejoiced extravagantly over the welcome steel.

There were on the island flocks of wild goats, altogether perhaps 100 in number. Of these we destroyed a few. The addition so made to our means of sustenance was scarcely of importance, but the chasing and shooting at the animals gave us occupation, and sport, and so had its value.

Our exploring parties did not find the island very rich in vegetable productions. Something like spinach was found, of which the Frenchmen taught us to make a salad. We tried some roots and some foxglove-leaves, and even took to cooking grass. But it was soon evident that we should benefit but little in the way of sustenance by anything we might find growing. There were ferns and tree-mosses, and some few interesting plants, but these unfortunately were not good to eat.

As may have been guessed, the men's clothing deteriorated rapidly from the hard work and constant exposure. Canvas leggings were ordered to be made for all hands very soon after our landing; and, one pair after another, all the legs on St Paul's were at length clad in these very comfortable and useful envelopes. After we had been two months ashore, new shoes were issued to the whole crew. We had some new sails with us which had been put on board for the Clio, Blanche, and Rosario. These were held sacred for a time, and we covered our tents and huts with what had belonged to the wreck. But the Megaera's canvas was so old and thin, that stern necessity compelled us at last to appropriate the "suits" of the other ships, which were thus allowed to wear out and get rotten.

There was plenty for all hands to do during the whole of our stay. We assembled in the morning and had prayers. Then there was building, road-making, fishing, shooting, exploring, and looking out for ships, to occupy the time. Once a-day the tents were all inspected by a medical officer. Sanitary parties came round and collected refuse, fish-bones, &c., which were afterwards put into a boat, taken to deep water, and cast into the sea. Planks were furnished to spread the hammocks on at night, and the tents were supplied with dry leaves and fresh grass three times a-week. We got some quoits made, and we tried golf on the tableland at the top of the crater's rim, but without much effect. So well were we cared for, or so fortunate were we, that there were never more than five at a time in the sick-bay, and these were often laid up by accidental hurts rather than disease. We had one bad case of rheumatism, a man having been wet through one stormy night when his tent-cover could not keep out the weather; and we had an accident which might have proved fatal. About nine o'clock one night, towards the end of July, we were startled by seeing lights on the signal-hill, which we hailed to know what was the matter. The answer which came down through the fog was, "We have lost a marine, and think that he has fallen over the cliff." Immediately we lighted what lanterns we could lay our hands on, and volunteers started in search, two to each lantern, taking with them Bryant and May's matches. The doctor and lieutenants went up, but the Captain remained below to give orders in case the man should be found. At two o'clock they all returned unsuccessful An hour before day - that is to say, about five o'clock - the parties started again; and by-and-by came shouts, "He is found, quite dead." Whereupon the first lieutenant shouted back, "Send his body down." He had been found on the narrowest possible ledge, on which he had been stopped in his fall by the merest accident. There were 300 feet of cliff above him, and 600 feet below, all perpendicular. The accident was a more shocking one than we had imagined, and the truth surpassed the report, except in one particular - the man was not dead though he had had this terrible fall, and lain out all night He was brought down in a cot. It was soon ascertained, that he had no bone broken, though he was terribly bruised and scratched. For two days it seemed as if he would scarcely recover, but he rallied at last and got well. There were a few other bad falls. There was a good deal of distress from chilblains. And there were some not very bad cases of diarrhoea and dysentery. No doubt there would have been more sickness had not the utmost care been taken to make men change their clothes after getting wet.

Our first discovery in the way of native water was a hot sulphurised spring, from which it was not considered wholesome to drink. There was, however, near to it, a bed of clay that lathered like soap, and that was very useful. We soon, however, found the pools of rainwater before mentioned over the highest part of the island. They are about 400 yards from the summit, on the side farthest from the camp. Our first supplies from these sources were obtained by sending up parties with barricos, which, when filled, they brought all the way by hand; but we soon improved on this method, and established hose or tubing between the summit and the camp. It was then necessary only to carry the water in barricos from the ponds to the summit, and from the summit it came down through our aqueduct So a party remained on the heights during the operation, which had now become a simple one. The pools held about three tuns; but they filled again after every rain, so that until a dry season should occur we had plenty of water for our needs, after using what we got from the ship. But we were obliged, of course, to keep the prospect of this dry season always before us; and our only resource when it should arrive would be the condenser, and what we could contrive to store while the rain might last (before we left we had cut other ponds large enough to hold ten tuns, and we had stored a great deal in casks). Now the condensing apparatus could make about 360 gallons of fresh water a-day with coal, and about half that quantity with turf and a little wood. Thus, as the coal made it far more productive than other fuel, it was necessary to husband all the coal that we had been able to save, so as to be prepared against the worst. So the cooks were not allowed coal at all, but had to burn dry grass, or to collect pieces of wreck. Baking, therefore, was out of the question.

At first, before we knew the extent of our resources, fresh water was allowed for drinking and cooking only; and for a week we remained in a deplorable state of dirt. Extraordinary devices were resorted to, by those who still cared for appearance, to hide dirty shirts; and as for our skins, it is better not to talk about them. But when we began to have a store of casks and found that our ponds were replenished almost as fast as we emptied them, things were not pushed quite so close. The luxury of a first tub after that long privation is not a thing to describe; only they who experienced it can understand it. And another consequence of the improved water supply was, that one of the cooks made an attempt at brewing, and his beer attracted considerable custom. It should be added that we found a number of hot springs between high and low water marks; and by digging a little above the high-water line we found a fine one whose temperature was 175° Fahrenheit, the stones near it being quite hot. This we fenced in, so that we had always plenty of hot water for washing ready to our hands, and no precious coal expended in heating it.

Spite of our signals and endeavours, we did not, as I shall show, communicate with any ship for a month after our arrival. It was therefore thought necessary further to reduce the allowance of food; and from 9th July to 13th August we had but four ounces of bread and half a pound of salt meat; but on the latter date, as our prospects had begun to improve, we returned to the original rate. On and after 27th August we were on full allowance, being assured of relief. The rice which we found on the island was left there for the use of the Frenchmen, being their only provision of food. After our arrival the Governor and his subject were rationed by us the same as our own people, which was not a restricted diet for them, whatever we may have thought of it.

After the ship broke up, we got some of the cases of powder which were washed on shore, and which ought to have been found wind and water tight, and with dry powder inside. It was all, however, very wet; but bad as it was we collected it, and made two small magazines in the rocks for its reception, expecting that we should require it, if for no other purpose, for removing the part of the wreck which lay on the bar. The necessity for a blast did not, however, arise.

It will scarcely be supposed, when times were so bad for the ship, that the boats had at all a pleasant season of it. They were swamped more than once, and, but for very careful handling, must have been capsized in one or other of the many squalls and gales that we had to put out in.

Our cutter went away in tow of a Dutch barque, having gone out to her, and being unable to return; and the lifeboat, which went out to rescue the cutter's crew, stove in her port gunwale, and got back with the utmost difficulty. She could not have floated ten minutes longer.

Some of us took to gardening, and tried to grow vegetables from seed which we had among the ship's provisions. There were daring attempts at raising onions and potatoes, and the celery-seed which we brought for our pea-soup went into the ground for the chance of our having a crop of celery. Mushrooms, or something very like them, we found on the island, and ventured to eat. They did not agree with everybody.

During our stay the island was visited by penguins, which come every year about that season to lay their eggs on the tufts of grass among the rocks. They are beautiful birds, with white breasts, grey backs, pink eyes, and long golden feathers on their heads. It was at first thought that they might be good for food, and somebody stated that, if buried in the earth for forty-eight hours after they were killed, they make a tolerable dish. I believe some tried them according to the recipe; but, hungry as we were, nobody wanted to try them a second time. Had they been eatable, we should no doubt have treated them with small ceremony; but as there was no reasonable object to be gained by killing them, they were taken under official protection, and their destruction forbidden. It was proper to make a decree on their behalf, because they are of a sociable and confiding nature, and might have suffered much from thoughtless attacks if left to the mercy of the men. As they came waddling and sometimes tumbling along, like people jumping in sacks, they would quietly pull up to stare at us, and let us stroke them on the back, calling up Cowper's lines [in "The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk" by the poet William Cowper, 1731-1800] -

"They are so unacquainted with man, Their tameness is shocking to me."

They are to be seen by hundreds at a time, and their queer doings well repay the trouble of watching them. When they are landing in the surf, they look out for a big wave and dive into it. It carries them along till they reach a rock, when they come to anchor for a while, and turn and look round for another big strong wave, again diving into which they are washed along another stage, and so at last on to the rocks on shore, where they collect in groups, and hold council as to the method of climbing the hill. The sailors got to be on such good terms with them, that they showed them the best way, - that is, our new road - up the mountain. One day six of these birds landed and marched up the middle of our camp, followed by at least fifty men, whose propinquity did not discompose them in the least, nor seem to be noticed by them. They made straight for the Captain's house, which, having been formerly an oil-shed, they had probably made a house of call on former visits. On this occasion, however, they found their way barred by a sentry, whereupon they held a council outside with the utmost sang-froid, looking coolly round at the spectators, and only interrupting the proceedings to peck at any man who might go too near them. It seemed to have been resolved at this council to effect by stratagem what could not be done directly, and accordingly some of them attempted to attract the attention of the sentry to one side, while others stood ready to slip in, But as the ruse, was penetrated and baffled by the acute sentinel, they bore the disappointment with the calmness of philosophers, and tumbled quietly and slowly on their upward way. The Frenchmen said that they lay their eggs on the grass by the 1st September, and that the said eggs are very good to eat.

From our first arrival, divine service on Sundays was regularly and solemnly performed. While any of us remained on board the wreck, there was service both on board and on shore when the sea was too rough to allow the whole to assemble in one place. The thanksgivings and hymns of praise were repeatedly read and devoutly joined in, and for a lesson after our landing the men listened to the account of St Paul's shipwreck with great attention. St Paul's ship, like our own, had been run on shore, and great as had been the perils with which those ancient voyagers were encompassed, not one of them perished. We ourselves found that God had not forgotten to be gracious, and the incidents of the lesson filled us - filled all of us, I hope - not only with gratitude for past mercies, but with a lively trust for the future. I cannot but believe that every man who at our simple open-air service stood uncovered before his Maker, was impressed by the conviction that he had been a special object of divine favour. I think, too, that the impression will be lasting.

I cannot close this account of our life on the inland without mentioning that, from the first, we all, officers and men, did what we could to keep our spirits up, and to make the time pass as pleasantly as circumstances would permit. Besides their daily avocations, which have been mentioned, the officers played whist and backgammon; the men had quoits, and Jack's great inspirer, a fiddler. On the evening of the day after the ship was beached, when every one had been working hard, and it was impossible to read, and not good to think too much, the Captain had a whist-party - a most sensible arrangement; and afterwards we generally managed to pass the time agreeably with some kind of game, or in a smoking-party, the Captain always joining some of the officers after the day's work was done. As we got settled, we began to have somewhat grand ideas, and got up entertainments. On one occasion the first-lieutenant feasted all the warrant-officers, and there was great singing of songs and general hilarity. The fiddler happened to be seated near a box of mixed biscuits, which temptation was too much for the hungry musician, who would surreptitiously dash his hand into the coveted cakes, cram his mouth full of them, and then fiddle away furiously, to make people believe that he had no thought but of his music. The little trick was several times repeated to the amusement of many; but the fiddler himself seemed quite satisfied that he had the joke all to himself. Neither was he the only person who congratulated himself that night. The boatswain, in the fullness of his heart, rose to address the company. "Gentlemen," said he, solemnly, -"gentlemen, I assure you that this evening, for the first time, the waistband of my trousers is quite tight. I have been starving almost, but not now, gentlemen - not now, thank God."

There are plenty of scenes and jests which all of us will think about, and probably talk about, around mess-tables and over sea-coal fires. But with all the merriment we could put on, very ugly thoughts would present themselves now and then during the weary weeks that we remained at St Paul's without communicating with a ship. Our provisions, scantily as we consumed them, could last only a moderate time; the island produced nothing for our subsistence; and so, if we were left much longer to ourselves, there might be horrors in store for us such as we read of in tales of shipwrecks, and of disabled vessels wandering on the trackless seas. They may be very exciting to read about, but, as I am a man, it is not exhilarating to imagine that before many days are over your head, you may be an actor in such scenes!

We had among us no less than nine men who had suffered shipwreck before - in the Orpheus, Osprey, Bombay, Captain, Trinculo, Perseverance, Race-horse; one of them - an old cook - had been five times wrecked in three years.

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