Ann & Amelia

© Copyright Andrew C.A. Jampoler, 2015, For Permission to Use Contact Andy



AUGUST 31, 1833

 Andrew C. A. Jampoler


London to Calcutta


In 1892 Robert Louis Stevenson finished The Wrecker, his seventh novel and the second of three written with his American-born stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. [1]  Nine chapters into this long adventure story the authors set a scene in San Francisco’s Merchants’ Exchange Building. There, on California Street between Montgomery and Sansome Streets just a few blocks uphill from the bayfront, “the boys” are disposing at auction what is left of a British brig, Flying Scud.  Under the command of Captain Jacob Trent and heavy with a cargo of rice, silks, teas, and ”China notions” insured for £10,000, the two hundred-ton brig had left Hong Kong for San Francisco the previous December.  She now lies holed on the sands at Midway Island, abandoned by Trent and the other survivors of his crew after their providential rescue by HMS Tempest, roughly 3,400 nautical miles west southwest of the city where her fate is being settled.

There’s keen interest in the remains of the vessel at the Merchants’ Exchange, stimulated by the easy money to be made reselling her cargo and her “. . . copper, lead, rigging, anchors, chain, even the crockery” known to be at the wreck site.

Like all the others recently held at the exchange, this auction has been fixed, or so it is thought until the bidding accelerates, driven upward by a mysterious participant and by a growing suspicion that the distant wreck conceals a fortune in opium, then selling for $40 a pound landed in Honolulu.  In the end, ownership of what’s left of Flying Scud goes entirely on a gambler’s hunch not for the $100 “the boys” had quietly agreed upon among themselves at the outset, but for five hundred times that much.

Writing nearly ten years after his Treasure Island was published, Stevenson was a mature storyteller by 1892 but describing the auction need not have taxed the imagination of even his apprentice, Osbourne.  Such was the frequency of shipwrecks during the nineteenth century that similar scenes, granted most minus this one’s casino atmosphere and surprises, occurred in real life almost daily in some port or coastal city.

So it happened that nearly sixty years before the fictitious Flying Scud ended up on a mid-Pacific reef, at 10:00 the morning of November 10, 1833, the remains of the very real and once-handsome East Indiaman Ann & Amelia were auctioned at Berck-sur-Mer, France, near to where she had run aground during a great storm in the English Channel the last weekend that August.  Notice of the sale, to be conducted by M. Alexandre Adam, one of the prosperous Adam banking family of the region, was published in L’Annotateur, the daily newspaper of Boulogne-sur-Mer, the chief town of the arondissement.

Built in 1816 of Burmese teak in Chittagong by James Macrae for Joseph Somes, the shipping magnate, Ann & Amelia had spent her first decade at sea in local and Far East trade.  Ann & Amelia’s two previous voyages under H.E.I.C. charter were in 1825-26, China to Quebec, Captain Henry Ford, and 1829-30, China to Halifax and Quebec, Captain William Nichols. [2]    The shipwreck, very near the end of her third charter since being taken up for East India Company service in 1826, happened five months out of Calcutta and just days from her destination, almost exactly a year after Ann & Amelia departed the Company’s London docks on what became her last outbound voyage.

The French coast between Calais and Berck—often the fearsome “lee shore” of mariners’ nightmares—was a popular place for an abrupt end to a voyage in the age of sail. A contemporary census conducted in September 1833 by Captain Henry Ducie Chads, R.N., in connection with his Admiralty investigation of the near-simultaneous loss of the British female convict transport Amphitrite a few dozen miles to the north at Boulogne-sur-Mer, named eighteen British-registry vessels driven on shore there during the decade immediately before Ann & Amelia went aground. [3]  (Most shoved there by wind and waves, but some deliberately grounded, those masters trusting in their ships’ stout hulls and planning—hoping—to float off safely behind the weather.)  Including the ships of other nations might have multiplied that count by several times.  According to an inventory done in 2010 by the Musée de la Marine d’Étaples, 1,610 vessels were wrecked, run aground, or capsized along this same stretch of shoreline from 1800 to 1900, more than one a month on average through the century. [4]

At the end of August 1833 as many as a hundred merchant ships and fishing vessels were lost in or badly damaged by a sudden, violent mid-summer storm that thrashed the North Sea and the English Channel.  Described then as the worst in the memory of Lloyd’s oldest underwriter and the subject of stunned reporting in newspapers on both sides of the water, the storm might have approached or even equaled the terrific destruction of Daniel Defoe’s notorious tempest of November-December 1703.  (Described the next year by Defoe in a book that drew on eyewitness accounts he’d solicited through newspaper advertisements.)  Among the many vessels then fighting for her survival in the Channel was Georgiana, a 406 ton merchant ship sailing between Calcutta and London, and like Ann & Amelia also chartered by the Honorable East India Company.

On June 27 Georgiana, under Captain Walter Young’s command and with a crew of 36, had left St. Helena in the South Atlantic in company with Ann & Amelia.  The latter, bigger and faster than her consort, finished her voyage hard aground at Berck-sur-Mer about the time that Amphitrite broke up at Boulogne with terrible loss of life.  But the more fortunate, or perhaps better led, Georgiana found shelter in the Downs anchorage that weekend.  Despite losing both her anchors off Deal, Georgiana nevertheless survived days of “excessive hard gales” to reach Gravesend three days later.  From her log book we learn that on Saturday, August 31, Georgiana‘s barometer showed 28.30” of mercury. [5]  Such 1ow atmospheric pressure is typically associated with a Category 3 hurricane, one capable of generating winds of 96-113 knots (111-130 MPH), and of producing “devastating” damage on shore.  A single data point does not a great storm make, but coupled to contemporary newspaper accounts, Georgiana’s barometer does give us a reliable idea of the catastrophe that swept down on the Channel coast that weekend storm and wreaked havoc on Channel shipping.

Three wrecks during that storm prompted extensive coverage in the British and Continental press: the Scottish smack Earl of Wemyss atop the mud and peat “scurves” off north Norfolk;  HM Chartered Transport Amphitrite on the sands fronting Boulogne’s elegant, beach-front spa; and Ann & Amelia near the fishing village of Berck.

Thursday, August 29, the Earl of Wemyss left London on the 400 mile passage for Leith with Captain Henry Nesbit in command and more than twenty passengers aboard.  The majority of them were women and children.  By mid-day Saturday, a survivor reported later, the smack was adrift on seas “like mountains of snow.” After dark, Earl of Wemyss went aground four hundred yards off-shore Brancaster.  Soon after sunrise on Sunday storm-driven seas broke over four unprotected skylights on deck, shattering their glass and drowning everyone in the ladies’ cabin below.

A magistrate’s inquiry was convened to determine “whether there had been any loss of life by culpable negligence, or loss of property by dishonesty.”  The captain’s incompetence was made manifest. So, too, was evidence that the dead, “whilst their bodies were yet warm,” had been ghoulishly stripped of their valuables by the son-in-law of the aged lord of near-by Brancaster Manor after it became possible to move between the wreck and the shore—putting into practice the general belief that coastal residents were “the lawful heirs of all drowned persons” and so entitled to the property a generous Providence had cast at their feet.

The Earl of Wemyss was quickly exposed as a tragic instance of incompetent seamanship in extremis coupled to ghoulish greed on land.   Amphitrite and Ann & Amelia, however, were examples of something else.  Their stories became, among other things, highly public case studies of the behavior of French customs officers, douaniers, at shipwreck sites, studies fueled by suspicion that, countenanced by old, xenophobic laws, the douaniers’ heartless behavior on the beaches at Boulogne and Berck had perversely multiplied the number of British lives lost. These latter wrecks raise a question, what were French coastal life-saving and salvage practices during the early nineteenth century, and they offer at least a suggestion of its answer.


The wreck of Amphitrite saw all but three aboard—more than one hundred women, perhaps as many as a dozen of their children, and most of her crew—drowned in sight of horrified, impotent observers on the beach at Boulogne as the evening tide came in. The death toll was even more tragic because at the time Boulogne was home to the only life-saving humane society in France, an institution deliberately modeled on its counterpart in England by members of the expatriate Anglican congregation, who in 1825 had been the Société Humaine’s founders.


Public outrage focused on the master and the surgeon superintendent and his wife (all three victims of the storm); on the British consul resident at the port, a Scot named William Hamilton, on government contracting procedures that had, it was charged, permitted an unfit ship to be chartered and dispatched to the other side of the world; and on the local douaniers, who in an effort to suppress “le traditionnel pillage” had prevented at bayonet point an aggressive search after dark along the waterline for survivors.

The Berck auction announcement reported that salvaged items on offer included Ann & Amelia’s hull, her masts, spars and sails (the latter generally in “very good condition”), chain in various sizes, cable, forty-five or fifty water casks, four compasses, nearly 6,000 pounds of red copper and around 10,000 pounds of scrap iron, blocks, guns, and anchors, as well as countless miscellaneous other objects.  All that remained of what until the last Saturday in August had been a veteran merchant ship, representative of the high technology of the early nineteenth century and when on the water a model of purposeful human organization. The callous treatment of Ann & Amelia‘s crew and passengers at Berck, where few died but many more might have, by local douaniers and their obstruction of salvage attempts were offered as evidence to substantiate the case against customs officials at the scene of the mass drowning up the coast at Boulogne.

Ann & Amelia’s outbound voyage to Calcutta with Captain William Compton in command had been an uneventful one. After several weeks of preparation for sea under the watchful eye of First Officer Benjamin Simpson, on August 7, 1832, Ann & Amelia was cast loose from the East India Company wharf and hauled into the dock. Once in the stream she finished loading, took on board mail and passengers (a fifty three-man strong detachment of company troops under a Captain Thompson, accompanied by two unnamed women and children), and on August 10 set off down the Thames on what became a five and one-half month crossing to Calcutta.


Soon the steady rhythm of her passage was set by near-daily pumping of the bilges and weekly divine services. (Almost every week. . . Captain Compton’s Sunday observations were not conducted with religious regularity.) Day after day First Officer Simpson’s and Second Officer Skelton’s signatures alternated in the logbook below reports of weather observations, the winds, sails aloft, estimates and fixes of ship’s position, and special events. Only once, on November 22, was barometric pressure recorded. Early afternoon that Thursday, in the empty waters some 850 nautical miles due south of Madagascar, Skelton noted the barometer had fallen to 29.405” and that the sky had take on “a very wild appearance.” He then prudently made “every preparation for strong gales.”  At voyage’s end Skelton’s craven character and insubordination in a moment of crisis would cost him his life and three others theirs, but on the outbound voyage he apparently managed one of the ship’s two watch sections with ability.


On some days, Ann & Amelia failed to make good as many as 100 miles; on a relatively few good days Simpson or Skelton estimated that her progress down track approached 200 miles. October 3, without ceremony, Ann & Amelia crossed the equator southbound near 23˚ west longitude.  Much later, on December 20, she re-crossed the equator northbound near 90˚ East, and a few days later still sailed uneventfully through Christmas and New Year’s Days. All these events were allowed to pass without observance or special mention in the log.

Excitement first interrupted monotony on September 15, near 12˚ 45′ North 26˚ 16′ West (some 250 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands), when William Fowler, one of thirty-one seamen on the crew, fell overboard from his perch on the mizzen chains while painting.  Few sailors could swim in the nineteenth century, so a fall into the water while underway was almost always a death sentence. So it was with Fowler. He was unable to save himself by grasping the grating or any of the other floating objects immediately thrown over the side, and the ship’s boat that was quickly launched to attempt a rescue didn’t find him. [6]

A second noteworthy event followed Fowler’s death by a month. First Officer Simpson recorded in the ship’s log on October 15 that the embarked troops “behaved in a very disorderly manner, refusing to work for the non commissioned officers when ordered by them also being ordered by the officers of the ship and did not do any duty until being severely reprimanded by Captain Compton.”  There’s no record of any punishment imposed in response to this flash of indiscipline bordering on mutiny, perhaps because the military detachment’s forty-seven privates were too large a force to be confronted by their officer in charge, his six N.C.O.s, and the ship’s crew.  (The only other lapse noted in the log was an incident of stealing in mid-November, somehow resolved when Private Patrick Flarhty’s knapsack and kit, he was the suspected thief, were summarily tossed over the side.)

Three months out, on Monday, November 6, Ann & Amelia stood in to Table Bay at Cape Town for “refreshment,” to take on drinking water. The necessity for this unplanned port call had emerged during a “consultation” held the Friday before by the master with his two senior officers, to review water consumption to date and the adequacy of the remaining supply. Compton’s “consultation” suggests a collegial leadership style, unusual in an age when a merchant ship’s master at sea enjoyed the power and perquisites of the captain of warship, or of a tyrant ashore. This and other things hint that Compton took a light strain on the line, leaving it to his hard working first officer to manage most of the ship’s business in port and underway.


Remarkably, only a gallon per person per day had been consumed or lost from leaking casks during the previous months underway. The three, Compton, Simpson, and Second Officer Skelton, concluded that at current usage rates the 4,670 gallons still on board would last only forty days—not long enough even with favorable winds.  Hence Tuesday found Ann & Amelia at anchor in seven fathoms at Table Bay, with forty fathoms of chain out.  Wednesday and Thursday were spent taking in and stowing water casks. Caution proved to be a good thing.  Ann & Amelia’s next opportunity to get more to drink wasn’t until late January.


Once out of Cape Town Captain Compton took Ann & Amelia across the Indian Ocean in two legs: the first generally east along the 40˚ south parallel, to ride the powerful westerlies beyond the Cape; the second north, roughly up the 90˚ east meridian, into the Bay of Bengal.  His route very generally followed the sea lane first opened by the Dutch early in the seventeenth century, which had been by 1630 or so worn into a groove by Dutch ships of the Vereinigde Oost-indische Compagnie.

Finally, in mid-January, Ann & Amelia entered the Hugli River, the westernmost of the mouths of the Ganges on the Bay of Bengal. After several short, up-river legs and overnights at anchor the steamer Irrewaddy took her in tow on January 24 the rest of the way. And soon after that, Ann & Amelia reached Calcutta; her log that day recorded the shift from underway to in port watches.


Calcutta to Disaster


The turn-around in Calcutta, the capital and chief commercial city of British India—disembarking the troops, unloading; cleaning, re-caulking and painting; tending to the ballast, spars and sails’, stowing cargo, stores, mail and dispatches aboard, and finally embarking passengers—took two months exactly. All preparations for sea were again supervised by the indefatigable Simpson while the captain evidently dallied ashore. His presence on board noted in infrequent log entries.

These many evolutions were a near-duplicate of the practiced process that had seen Ann & Amelia readied for the voyage out in 1832, done in Calcutta by the same officers and “people” who were to ride the ship back, less the late Seaman Fowler and Third Officer Davis, the latter no longer on the crew list.  Davis’ unexplained absence opened promotion opportunities for Fourth Officer Rider and Fifth Officer Young, each of whom now moved up a space in the pecking order—and a chair at the wardroom table.  In her hold Ann & Amelia now carried hundreds of bales of silk and boxes of indigo, and thousands of bags of saltpeter for London, and many sacks of rice consigned to the colony on tiny St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic, where victuals were always in short supply. On departure she drew 17 feet 2 inches forward and 17′ 3” aft.

March 24, 1833, Ann & Amelia dropped off her pilot at the mouth of the river and finally got underway on blue water for her destination.  In addition to some male passengers on board when the ship entered the Bay of Bengal, there were also nine women and seven children. Her next landfall was almost three months off, at St. Helena on June 21.

The passage home began ominously enough. At two in the morning, March 24, the day the pilot went ashore and Ann & Amelia headed into the bay, Midshipman Robert Percival, the senior of the six most junior officers on board, “departed this life.”  From that, a superstitious sailor—and most were—might have feared that Ann & Amelia‘s return voyage to London was not going to be as tranquil as the outbound one to India had been.

Second Officer Skelton’s entry in Ann & Amelia‘s 1og for the day explains only that Percival “died of a formation of matter in the bowels,” and in the next sentence returns to business with an unemotional “All sails set.”  A perfunctory notation later the same day records that at 5:00 PM Percival’s body was “committed to the deep with the usual ceremony.”  There’s no indication how long the young officer had been ill or what role, if any, the ship’s new surgeon, Dr. Collicott, had played in the diagnosis and treatment of Percival’s deadly condition.  Collicott joined the crew in Calcutta. The surgeon outbound had been one Doctor Shaw, who evidently stayed behind in India.  A second death from disease, dysentery this time “after a long illness,” came July 5 in the South Atlantic.  Here, too, the “usual ceremony” was enacted, this one starring an unnamed deceased.  And those—one outbound, two inbound—were all the deaths en route, until the end of the voyage.


The ship’s track from the top of the Bay of Bengal to the Cape of Good Hope was half a great catenary arc, dropping past the subcontinent and through the Indian Ocean well west of the right angle that had defined the outbound route. At the end of the first week of May Ann & Amelia passed fewer than two hundred miles south of Cap Sainte Marie on Madagascar, some six hundred miles closer to that tip of land than she had been at the end of November when heading the other way.

On May 7 Simpson noted in the log “one of the Hon E. I. Company’s invalids confined on the poop on bread and water for drunkenness and mutinous conduct in using most abusive language to captain and officers.”  After six uneventful weeks at sea, the diversion this nameless passenger’s outburst offered might have been welcome entertainment. May 16 Seaman John Brown received the same sentence, for being insolent to Second Officer Skelton.

Brown’s punishment was the last report of anything noteworthy, other than occasional understated logbook entries describing Ann & Amelia, propelled by strong winds, pitching and rolling through heavy rain and high seas, until after the ship departed St. Helena late afternoon Thursday, June 27. Squally weather punctuated long, dull days and nights at sea otherwise marked by little else than pumping the bilges (sometimes as often as three times a day, the goal seemed to be less than one foot of water in the hold) and constantly trimming the sails and yards to the wind for best speed and sea-keeping.

For two centuries East India Company ships had been stopping regularly at St. Helena, a forty-plus square mile outcropping of volcanic basalt in the South Atlantic now known chiefly not as the Company’s isolated first colony and long-time watering hole for homeward-bound vessels (both true), but as the place of Emperor Napoleon’s exile in October 1815.  Elba in the Western Mediterranean—twice St. Helena’s size and only 145 miles from Antibes, on the French coast—had been too porous to hold the great general for long after May 1814, but St. Helena was impermeable.  After almost six years’ confinement, Napoleon died miserably and somewhat mysteriously (the cause of death at age fifty-two is still unknown) in chambers at “Longwood,” his rambling quarters cum prison on the island, in May 1821.

st_helenaFriday, June 21, Ann & Amelia dropped anchor in twelve fathoms off St. Helena’s James Valley, the narrow cleft in the rocks that was the cramped site of the island’s capital town. She sailed the following Thursday, having passed the intervening days taking on fresh water, off-loading rice, doing ship’s work, and swinging impatiently at anchor.  The ship gave better than she got, riding nearly a foot higher on departure, 16’ 6” forward, 16’ 2” aft, than she did on arrival.

Departure was delayed by the Honourable East India Company’s resident agent, who ordered Ann & Amelia to sail together with another Company chartered vessel, the ship-rigged Georgiana, in port on Sunday from Calcutta and also heading for London.  (The two had met by chance at sea June 7 near 35˚ South 15˚ East, not far off Cape Town, after which Ann & Amelia covered the 1,800 miles into St. Helena in fourteen days; it took the 400 ton Georgiana sixteen.)  Ann & Amelia was ready for sea Wednesday morning, June 26, but the two didn’t leave port until Thursday night, delayed in part by a trial on board Georgiana of a crewmember accused of assaulting her first officer.

Those thirty-six hours and the time lost until July 18 (the last time Georgiana was in sight, “far astern” of Ann & Amelia) to keep company with the slower, smaller ship might have been fatal. Had Ann & Amelia not been so hobbled, two months later and many miles farther down track she might have escaped the full fury of late August’s storm in the English Channel and evaded grounding and destruction.
english_channel_1900Finally shed of her dowdy consort, Ann & Amelia made good progress after mid-July. Friday, August 9, she was near the Azores in sight of Pico, the towering black volcanic cone that is the islands’ (and metropolitan Portugal’s) tallest mountain peak.  The next log entries describe “vivid lightning” and heavy weather, but once northeast of the archipelago, Ann & Amelia enjoyed smooth sailing again.  According to the entry in the deck log, at noon Tuesday, August 27, Ann & Amelia was at 49˚ 01′ North 9˚ 13′ West, sailing through fine weather.  The navigational fix (logged as combining “observed latitude” and “longitude by chronometer”) put Ann & Amelia some 150 miles west southwest of Lands End in the Atlantic approaches to the English Channel, and roughly 400 miles west of Amphitrite, then out of Margate Roads for the Downs and a planned overnight pause in her progress toward Australia. [7]  At the end of the week the two would abruptly end their voyages within twenty miles of one another.

That day and the next passed bright and clear with light airs, conditions good enough to permit repairs on deck to a torn mainsail. Thursday was pleasant also, with breezes blowing gently from the west through a summer sky. When a jolly boat came alongside Ann & Amelia that afternoon to put the pilot on board, everyone would have taken his arrival as proof that the long voyage was practically over. By then other preparations for arrival had been underway for several days: chains had been bent to both anchors and scrubbing the ship’s sides commenced. Since passing Saugor Island at the entrance to the Hugli River months ago their ship had sailed some 12,000-p1us nautical miles, the rough equivalent of four back-to-back crossings of the North Atlantic.  After spending most of two seasons of the year at sea Ann & Amelia‘s crew and passengers must have been eager to arrive at the company’s docks on the lsle of Dogs, and finally to stand on land. (Under steam and through the Suez Canal forty years later Calcutta to London would take in weeks what the long way ‘round under sail had taken in months.)

Friday’s skies remained clear through noon even while the morning’s moderate westerlies gained strength. At midday Friday the logbook entry reported “out all reefs and made all sail,” suggesting a press for maximum speed. Not far to the east, however, the convict transport Amphitrite was already ensnared by the storm, and during the afternoon the weather around Ann & Amelia progressively deteriorated. As the hours passed under darkening, squally skies the watch worked continuously to reduce sail and rig the ship for heavy weather. By 10:30 PM she could no longer remain on course and hove to instead, “the weather being too thick to run with head to NE.”

Saturday, August 31, began with threatening conditions and ended in disaster.  First Officer Simpson recorded that morning came with a “hard gale and thick weather,” and with winds out of the north-northwest.  At 4:30 in the afternoon the Isle of Wight was visible off the port beam, meaning the ship had averaged only three knots since the noon fix on Tuesday. During her final seven hours afloat, Ann & Amelia was pushed by the storm nearly due east across the Channel, to what the stranded survivors later would discover was Berck-sur-Mer.

berck_chartSimpson’s account of Ann & Amelia‘s last hours is a vivid description of what it meant to be “embayed on a lee shore,” to be cornered by the wind and inexorably driven toward land.  “Set the foresail,” he wrote, “ordered the main topsail to be set.  Found it split. Split the foretop sail in attempting to set it. At 5 [AM] the fore sail blew to pieces.  Unbent it and bent another. 7 [AM] unbent the main topsail. . . Hard gales and heavy rain.”  In the North Sea, the first mate in Earl of Wemyss, David Reid, was watching her sails tear away, too. Later he told a board of inquiry even if they’d been made of leather instead of canvas, the sails would not have held up against this tempest. Back aboard Ann & Amelia,


At 1 [PM] the weather being so thick hauled the foresail up and brought the ship to the wind on the starboard tack.  At 2:30 sounded in 16 faths.  came around to SW.  At 5:30 sounded in 27 faths. wore to NE.  6: 15 sounded in 17 faths.  Gale increasing to a complete hurricane. Wore to SW.  Soundings 17, 18, 17, and 14 faths.  Wore to NE. Shoals on this tack. Wore around the other way. Shoals to 13 faths.  At 8 found the ship 15 in broken water, wore up ENE and got out of it. Water shoaled to 9 faths., then I wore round on the starboard tack.  Kept wearing. Water still shoaling both tacks.  Blowing a complete hurricane.  All our sails blown away excepting the foresail. The last sail that was set was the fore topmast stay sail, which was blown away immediately after it was set.  Heavy surf all around the ship.  Sea breaking on both sides.



And then, inevitably, “at 11:45 the ship struck the ground, surging dreadfully.”  Ann & Amelia had been driven to her death by the wind as efficiently as if she were wild game chivvied by a beater into the field of fire.

Simpson’s next entry described what followed the impact: “The topmasts went a few minutes after the ship struck. Sea breaking over her in every direction.  Cut away the main and foremasts.  Mr. Skelton, 2nd officer, Lt. Frazier, 7th Bengal Cavalry (without orders) lowered the starboard quarter Boat at the same time calling for volunteers. . . .  The boat had scarcely left the ship when she was dashed to pieces and a1l perished excepting Lt. Frazier (who reached the shore by swimming).  Midnight the gale blowing with great violence seas breaking over the ship fore and aft.”  The four who drowned when the boat broke up included Second Officer Skelton, Midshipman Shunkburgh, and Seamen Gardner and Teesdale.  Consul Hamilton reported in a September 4 letter forwarding to the Foreign Office dispatches recovered from both wrecks and the mail from India, that Skelton and Frazier had taken “possession of the only boat on board unknown to the master” in their failed attempt to reach shore, clarifying what Simpson had meant by his phrase “without orders.”

Minutes later the crew began to collect the spars to assemble a raft from them, but, Simpson continued, “at 1:30 the ship began to 1ay more quiet. Found the tide was leaving the ship fast.  Lashed the mainmast to the [?] rail and ring bolts to act as a shore to keep the ship from falling over. At 3 found the water leave the ship so fast that at daylight we could walk on shore.  Sent the dispatches, passengers and a great quantity of luggage on shore also a quantity of the ship’s stores.”

Beginning Monday, September 2, and during the next two weeks when the tide permitted, Ann & Amelia‘s cargo was hauled ashore by a gang of French laborers more than fifty strong.  By the time the last of the company’s cargo was discharged from the wreck on September 14, almost six hundred bales of silk, nearly seven hundred boxes of indigo, and thirty-seven hundred bags of saltpeter had crossed the beach, joining salvaged chains, cables, guns, and anchors.


The Douaniers on the Beach at Berck-sur-Merdouaniers_1830


Still stranded in Berck on September 22, Captain Compton described the great gale now three weeks past in an emotional letter to William Hamilton, His Majesty’s Consul at Boulogne. At the time Hamilton, consul there for the past eleven years, was defending himself from a vindictive London newspaper reporter’s charges that he had failed to exercise sufficient vigor in connection with the wreck of the convict transport, and that he bore personal responsibility for Amphitrite’s many deaths.  “At about 2 o’clock on the Sunday morning,” Compton wrote, “finding the water leaving the ship as the tide ran out I desired the 1st Officer and two men to see whether they could reach the shore, the water appearing shoal.  What followed after Compton attempted to land his a passengers and crew suggests that the worst interpretations of the behavior of the douaniers at Boulogne may not have been wrong.  Only four of Ann & Amelia‘s crew drowned Saturday night, but many more on board might have died:


In a short time they returned informing me they had succeeded, but that we would not be allowed to land, for the Guard drove them into the sea again. I answered never mind them as we must, instantly giving orders for the ladies to prepare. In half an hour l had the happiness of seeing them safe over the ship’s side, the remainder of my crew & passengers following, remaining to the last myself.  I had requested Mr. Robio a French gentleman passenger, to go and see what he could do with the Guard on shore for I must insist on landing. He returned twice to me, calling & begging to me to come on shore with the hope of my having more influence with the Guard, informing me at the same time, they were threatening to drive the ladies back into the water, many both passengers and crew calling to me to the same effect. On my getting to them I found the ladies sitting in greatest misery scarcely out of the water surrounded by about a dozen soldiers with their muskets presented threatening if we did not return to the ship to fire at us.  I called for their Head, and told them I had no one sick (my surgeon being present), explained our situation, all to no effect. Go back, go back was the answer. This being impossible I took the ladies and marched off to a small hut or Guard House.  They attempted to stop me, once or twice on the way.  On reaching it some little kindness was shown by those within by kindling a fire.  Fortunately the hut had one separate apartment, about six feet square where the ladies took shelter. In this horrid place, we were kept until 12 of the day, when a health officer arrived from whose appearance 1 hoped something better.  Alas I was again to be disappointed.  I instantly on seeing him gave him my word, also my surgeon’s that no disease existed amongst us, begging of him at once to allow the ladies to be removed to the village. . . . It was two hours before I could get the permission. He first kept mustering my crew over & over again, then wished the passengers to be called out in the same way, ladies also.  I told him it was impossible. He then went where they were, 4 or 5 individuals following & stood gazing at them for some time with such a want of sympathy and delicacy towards them that it really was disgusting.


(The practice across the Channel was not appreciably different, so L’Annotateur told its readers. If survivors of a foreign registry shipwreck were discovered ashore in Great Britain, the practice was to isolate them in a suitable empty building. Should one be unavailable, these unfortunates were to be isolated on the beach in a kind of corral made from salvaged spars and line from the wreck, tented over by sailcloth, and kept there until disposition instructions arrived from London.)

The humanity shown to the crew and passengers wading ashore through the surf from her beached hull had consisted, her master reported sarcastically, “in the Douane refraining from firing upon people escaping from a watery grave.  I have given what I fear you will think a very long statement, but I wish to be as minute as I possibly could be,” Compton concluded to Hamilton, relating his experience to Amphitrite’s, “so that you may be made acquainted with every particular, the better able to judge how far correct the reports at Boulogne are.”

Spared drowning, Captain Compton could now mourn the loss of his fortune, his share in the ship and its cargo, and all his personal possessions on board, down to the perishables in his private cuddy stores.  “The wreck of my ship has been to me a very severe loss (not being insured,)” he wrote from home on December 7 to the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston. “How hard, my Lord, after getting a great part of my property safe on shore, to have it taken from me and destroyed.  At least to the amount of £600 in nautical instruments and stores alone. The ship has become a total loss, entirely from the officer of the French Marine not allowing her to be secured in the first bed she made.”

On board Amphitrite, beached mid-afternoon in front of the port of Boulogne near where the River Liane meets the Channel, the loss of life albeit not of property on Saturday, August 31, had been much greater. There a large audience of citizens, vacationers, and resident expatriates had watched aghast at the failure of two brave efforts to warn the crew of their mortal danger, soon followed by the destruction of the ship under the incoming tide, and the death by drowning of all but three aboard.  In time, roughly half the bodies were recovered and buried in the city’s English Cemetery.

Prompted by extensive, horrified coverage in British newspapers and by letter-writing and petition campaigns directed at the foreign secretary, the Foreign Office quickly asked the Admiralty to launch an investigation of the “melancholy event.” The investigator selected was Henry Ducie Chads, the senior survivor of HMS Java’s fatal duel with USS Constitution in December 1812, and now a captain on half-pay in his seventh year awaiting orders.

During the next three weeks Chads inquired into every aspect of the wreck of the convict transport but one, the allegations that the douaniers had behaved with callous indifference to human life, the same charge leveled by Captain Compton.  Chads had been warned off this line of inquiry by the foreign secretary when the two met privately in London just before the captain’s departure for France.  In correspondence to Second Secretary of the Admiralty John Barrow after his investigation was complete (Chads exonerated everyone except, perhaps, the surgeon-superintendent’s wife), he explained that he had agreed with Palmerston it would be “improper and indelicate” of him to pursue this line of inquiry.

Undercutting charges in the press that douaniers had “prevented with determination anything be it living or dead from passing the mean high water line without prior permission and the payment of duties”’ Chads reported to Barrow that “the accusations against the French ‘Employees are exaggerated, & made at a time of greatest excitement & horror at the events & the term of ‘inhuman’ to them is not applicable… The French Authorities I understood were personally on the spot. There can be no reason to doubt but that their motives & exertions were dictated by humanity, & I do not believe their actions in this instance were the cause of loss of life and if delay in saving anybody occurred it was from the cause I have before named, an endeavour to protect the bodies.”

A much more critical view of the role of the douaniers on the beach at Boulogne sur Mer (and by extension, substantiating Colton’s account of events at Berck sur Mer) came, surprisingly, from the editor of L’Annotateur, who—not yet a generation after the long Napoleonic wars—could have been expected to have reacted defensively to any British criticism of the conduct of French civil servants. He didn’t.

Under French regulations, officers from customs, the port authority (the Marine), and the police had distinct roles to perform on scene, L’Annotateur explained. The Douane’s scope was limited to preventing the smuggling of wreck cargo into France.  The Marine was responsible for the rescue of crew and passengers, and the Gendarmerie was charged with the preservation of order and the protection of property at the scene.  “But that’s not the way things happen,” L’Annotateur observed. “Customs intervenes in every aspect of the grounding, because this service is usually rather intrusive, and because above all, it has a strong, united, compact, flexible, and dedicated organization supporting its commander.”  In contrast, the Marine organization is an “old, complicated machine wherein all the wheels are worm-eaten by old age. The result is that (the Marine almost completely disappears behind Customs, which shows itself very jealous to extend its power as much as possible.”


Very few marine superintendents will open themselves to Custom’s disfavor. The triumph of tax considerations over more commendable humanitarian ideals is, therefore, made certain from the beginning of every grounding. . . Al1 errors, all mistakes, a11 wrong measures which are so often and so unnecessarily mourned flow from this. Customs is strict, dominated by iron rules; it has only one objective, which totally excludes any humanitarian ideas. Consequently, where these ideas should prevail, they come in second. Most often they are not visible through the concerns which occupy customs officers. This is not Customs’ mistake. . . it is the Marine’s mistake.


Drawing a lesson from the calamities just past, the paper’s editor concluded that a new civil organization was required, un force publique spéciale, “able to protect efficiently the belongings, to save men’s lives, and to fight together with smartness and method against the obstacles presented by seawater.”


Beginning mid-morning November 10 and for a few days following, what remained of Ann & Amelia was on put up for sale at auction on the beach at Berck and a salvage store in the small port and fishing village. The ubiquitous Adamses, bankers, businessmen, and politicians of Boulogne and other towns along the Pas de Calais, were the auctioneers. The distress sale of Flying Scud‘s remains was the beginning of a story, but the auction of Ann & Amelia‘s marked the end of one. Parted out and sold, Ann & Amelia disappeared from the record.



[1] R. L. Stevenson and L. Osbourne. The Wrecker (London: Cassell & Co., 1892). Osbourne (1868-1947) was twelve when his divorced mother, Fanny, married the well-known novelist, and only twenty-four when The Wrecker was published. Osbourne, too, wrote fiction but he never attained the distinction of his famous Scottish step-father, who died in Samoa in 1894, soon after the publication of his tenth story, The Ebb-tide (also jointly credited to Osbourne).

[2] BL IOR/L/MAR/B8OB and C.

[3] TNA ADM 1/1688,”Papers Connected with the enquiry into the loss of the Amphitrite convict ship held by Captain Chads to be lodged in the Record Office.”

[4] Fortunes de Mer de Berck Calais (1800-2002), exhibition at the Archives municipales de Boulogne-sur-Mer June l4-August 13, 2010.

[5] IOR L/MAR B156l-J in the collection of the British Library.

[6] Logbook for the Ship Ann & Amelia BL shelfmark L/MARB8OD. September 15, 1832.  The entry was signed by 2nd Officer Skelton.

[7] Inexplicably the routine that for months had Simpson and Skelton signing alternate half-days in the logbook was interrupted on June 20, after which date First Officer Simpson alone signed it until July 20, when no one did.  Beginning suddenly on August 13 occasional entries appear over the signature of Captain Compton himself, with the remainder unsigned.  Simpson emerges and resumes signing the log once the ship is in extremis, and his is the only signature that appears in Ann & Amelia‘s logbook during the crisis until the last entry on Saturday, September 14.