Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Storms that Changed History

Storm waves like these frequently pound New Island's
southwest coast, the site of several shipwrecks.


In the south Indian Ocean, the 'Roaring Forties' won the name by the ferocity of the frequent storms that sweep this region at roughly 40 degrees south latitude. Anyone sailing eastward in these latitudes made good time but there was a risk!

It was by chance on August 6, 1799 that the Lady Marie and the Swallowtail ran into such a storm. August is late winter in the Antipodes, and it is one of the worst months for storms. This one blew both ships northeast onto the broad beaches near Beastey Bay on New Island's southwest coast. It seems that sailcloth from a snapped mast on the Lady Marie fouled her rudder, and the ship could not steer. Swallowtail was forced to follow her lights and both ships were eventually caught up in huge surf and driven aground.

As the tide lowered and the wind let up, the convicts, crew and guards all found themselves on an entirely new land, not located on any of the captain's charts! The ships were both badly damaged and hopelessly stuck in the sand but still intact. The Swallowtail was by luck a Colony Supply Vessel loaded with tools, building materials, seeds, foodstuffs, cloth, and a library of books from how-to manuals to classic literature.

As soon as the tide receded, Captain Hayes ordered everyone to abandon both ships and remove everything salvageable before the next tide came in. Once everything was on the beach, the entire group fell into an exhausted sleep behind the dunes. And a good thing: both ships were reduced to splinters after another night of pounding by the waves.

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Almost four years later, in July 1803, the convict ship Closter ran aground in thick fog and heavy surf not far from present-day Palmer, about 18 miles from the 1799 wrecks. Again, quite by chance, the Closter carried 377 female convicts along with guards, crew and supplies. Due to mishandling of lifeboats, the captain and 21 of the crew were lost. It seems they were in such a hurry to abandon ship, they were dashed upon the rocks in the few lifeboats that were available. The rest were forced to wait out the tide, which dropped low enough so that most of the women were able to wade ashore. 13 were lost.

A hunting party from the Lady Marie had set up a camp in the nearby dunes and heard the shouting. They managed to rescue the survivors and, over some days, escort them back to the now established settlement of Beasty.

This uncharted island now had a population of over 900, by far the majority of which were women!

Next: Reinventing civilization