An Apocryphal Tale of the Sea
This is a tale of sailors coming home from war. A tale of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the British Navy, and his tragic odyssey that ended less than 30 miles from the shores of Albion—with all souls perished. The vessel, the HMS Association, was a 90-gun, triple-decked man-of-war returning to England after the siege of Toulon during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was the flagship of the Admiral's fleet of 21 ships that set sail from Gibraltar in late September 1707.
The Admiral and crew anticipated arriving in glory, having forced the scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon. And they were to be home for Christmas ... for some with their families, for others in the taverns, pubs, and brothels. Some were to be freed from impressment; others were to start anew as apprentices in the trades. All, or most, had expectations of a welcoming home and hopes for better times.
On sailing past Ouessant, off the northwest coast of France, in its approach to the English Channel, the Association was off course. A seaman, hailing from a fishing village on the Cornish coast and familiar with the waters and their dangers, calculated the ship's longitude to be too far west and at risk of striking the rocks in the Isles of Scilly. In vain did he attempt to persuade the Admiral to change course by making a hard turn to the starboard. His impudence so infuriated the Admiral, that he, also fearing mutiny, had the sailor hung at the yardarm.
The Admiral himself was not unacquainted with the deadly rocks of Scilly having led a naval patrol between Ireland and the Isles almost 20 years before. Indeed, it was his service in repelling the former king, James Stuart, and a supporting French fleet at Bantry Bay in the south of Ireland that led to his knighthood by the new king, William of Orange, in 1689.
Around 8pm on October 22, 1707, the Association struck the Outer Gilstone Rock—the outermost reef of the archipelago. Government mandated navigational improvements in the 1714 Longitude Act and the Bishop Rock Lighthouse installed less than two miles away in the mid-nineteenth century were far too late to save the frigate. A recent addition to the British Navy in 1697, the Association sank in somewhere between two and four minutes depending on the witness from neighbouring ships. The great ship, having survived the Storm of 1703 in which gale force winds swept it and its crew from an Essex harbour across the North Sea through the Skagerrak and into the Cat's Gate off the Göteborg coast, was dashed to pieces in the turbulent, churning waters by yet another ferocious storm in the North Atlantic whose rapacious bloodlust for ships and men caused more terror than the wrath of God.
By 8:15, the Association had sunk into the Atlantic, grounded on the reefs of Scilly—a name of uncertain origin, somewhat surprisingly not thought to have come from Scylla, the ancient Greek nemesis of seafarers. One man survived. Odysseus, in the person of Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was washed ashore miles from the shipwreck, shirtless and bloody, wrapped as if bundled up in seaweed, and unconscious. Four British men-of-war were sunk that night with upwards of 2,000 men dead.
The Admiral's body was discovered by a young woman dressed well for the rough North Atlantic climes in sealskin coat and boots who was reconnoitering along the beach, having discerned the sails of a fleet of ships unusually close to the treacherous rocks. She surveyed the body with great attention to detail, observing that it was not the body of an ordinary seaman, concluding that by age he must be a senior officer, and then pausing with the utter astonishment of grand good luck as she fixated on the man's extraordinary emerald ring.
All around was a sensory jumble of crashing waves, driving rain, howling and bitterly cold westerlies, distant muffled screams of drowning men, nearby splintering and snapping timber as the ocean pounded the ship against the rocks, tumultuous, briny ocean white with foam and spray against a grey, dark night pierced by the plaintive barking of seals herding their young away from the storm.
As the man gurgled, spilling seawater from his nose and mouth, she knelt motionless, mesmerized by the green jewel, indifferent to the violent storm and death all around. Placing the palms of both hands over the man's mouth, she held him down as he struggled for air until finally his body lay inert and limp in the sand. The ring finger she severed with a fishing knife as the finger was quite swollen.
Returning home to her father and younger brother, she withheld the secret of the ring, thinking that perhaps she could use it to better advantage someday.
Over time the family learned that the dead man on their beach was a British admiral returning from war at sea in the Mediterranean.
She remembered that her lover had been forcibly recruited by a press gang, as many coastal lads were, to serve on a British naval ship and that the ship's name was the Association. With the Admiral dead, she had no fear of her theft being discovered, but with the disappearance and probable death of her lover, her dreams of using the emerald as a down payment on a new life all but perished in the shipwreck. Hope arrested, she nonetheless buried the ring in a small tin box in her 'favourite place' in the middle of the island at its highest point. There it would remain ... her private treasure now a memorial, but one day ... maybe one day ....
Three decades after her crime, lying on her deathbed, she confessed to killing the Admiral, but she never spoke of the ring to anyone save her younger brother whom she made promise that he would use it to leave the Isles for England, forever. No longer bound by ties to the island, the boy— now a man of 35—sought out the Admiral's family to return the jewel, but alas, his simple, honest gesture was rewarded with a murder conviction and a date with the Tyburn Gallows.
The islanders who initially buried the Admiral's body cursed the grave that no grass should ever grow there, but the British Navy returned the body to London where it was interred with great dignity and splendour in Westminster Abbey.
Much of the preceding as it relates to the characters after the shipwreck is based on the notes of a Canadian Ph.D. student who while investigating maritime disasters off the Cornish coast found some letters of the clergyman, a distant relative of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, who had attended the younger brother as he awaited trial and then execution.