NEARLY HALF A century ago, when I was a teen-aged teacher at the Newfoundland out-port of La Scie, I rowed one day with a friend to Gull Island, a steep granite rock a few miles offshore. Landing was hazardous, even in a calm, and before the day was out the weather turned so stormy that we had to take refuge for four days with the lighthouse keeper, Ephraim Whelan.
Whelan showed us around his domain — little more than 1,000 yards long and half that width — and told us the island’s legend, surely one of the most macabre in all Newfoundland’s long history of violent seafaring. On a cliff 500 feet atop a deft into which waves dashed furiously, he pointed down. “That’s where the Queen of Swansea was driven ashore in the winter of 1867,” he said, “in just such weather as this.”
Halfway up the cleft was a wide shelf. “That’s where 11 people, two women among them, died after weeks of starvation and freezing cold. The story has it, though, that before the rest died two of their number were chosen by lot and eaten in the desperation of hunger.”
Back on the mainland I tried to find details of this strange tale of a cannibal island in Newfoundland waters. It proved a frustrating quest. There must have been full reports in the St. John’s newspapers at the time. But the files, and any official records, were destroyed in the great St. John’s fire of 1892. For years T gathered what scraps of information 1 could from archives, and from descendants of the victims and others involved. I believe that what follows is the most complete assembly of what has hitherto been a largely untold story.
THE QUEEN OF SWANSEA was a brigantine of 360 tons. She traded across the Atlantic from her home port of Swansea, Wales, with a crew Q| Cornish seamen. On December 6, 1867, she sailed from St. John’s for Tilt Cove, then a copper-mining town, with a light cargo of mine timber and 80 tons of stone ballast. She also carried six passengers, one of them a Miss Hoskins, who was sailing with her brother William from Swansea for a Christmas reunion with their parents at Tilt Cove. Another passenger was Felix Dowsley, an apothecary. To many Newfoundlanders he was “the doctor” — possibly the only doctor they ever had. The captain was John Owens; the pilot was Patrick Duggan, the only man aboard with long experience of Newfoundland’s northern waters.
After the Queen sailed through the St. John’s Narrows she was never seen again. A week later some wreckage, including the cover of Duggan’s trunk, drifted ashore at TwiUingate. Searches were made along the coast but no further trace of the vanished Queen was found.
Four months later a homeward - bound sealing schooner skippered by Captain Mark Rowsell, of Leading Tickle, was becalmed near Gull Island. Two sealers set out in a dory to shoot birds as a change in diet for the weary crew. In a little gulch at the island their first shot wounded a bird, which flew on and fell on land. One man went ashore in pursuit. Before he reached the bird, he noticed a rope hanging down the cliff, and nearby, to his horror, a pile of bones that seemed to be the skeletons of two men. Then the sealers discovered a few yards away a piece of canvas so frozen into a bank of ice that they could not budge it. They cut it open, and found beneath a grisly pile of frozen bodies.
When Captain Rowsell surveyed the scene he knew that he had found the victims of the Queen. He sailed into nearby Tilt Cove, where he picked up a Mr. Gill, apparently a coroner, and Richard Mullowney, Patrick Duggan’s brother-in-law. With several volunteers they went to the island with axes, crowbars and hastily made coffins.
The finding of the bodies did not in itself tell the full horror of those weeks on Gull Island, but scribbled notations were found in the clothing of three of the doomed men. In his first of three letters, Felix Dowsley related that in the early hours of December 12 the Queen was in Notre Dame Bay nearing her destination when a violent gale arose and a heavy snowstorm blotted out all visibility. At 6 a.m. without warning she crashed head-on into the gulch at Gull Island and beached herself on a sloping rock. A sailor scrambled ashore and fixed a rope around a rock to keep the vessel from sliding back into the sea. Ropes tied to each person enabled the crew to get the entire company safely ashore and to a higher ledge beyond the waves.
With daylight, four men, one of them Patrick Duggan, the Newfoundland pilot, volunteered to return to the ship in hopes of salvaging materials that might make the difference between certain death and possible survival. They slid back on the rope from shore, but no .sooner were they on deck than a wave of unusual size ripped the ship from her rocky cradle.
Helplessly, the men on the ship and the people on shore gazed at each other, while the slowly sinking vessel drifted out of sight to her unknown graveQ
The survivors faced a scarcely better fate. They had no shelter, no food, no water, and no means of making fire. No one knows when the last of them lay down together to
Dr. Howse, former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, was born in TwiUingate, Newfoundland, and took his PhD in Edinburgh. Author of numerous books and articles, he is minister of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto.
die. But it was weeks later, after the incredible will of human beings to live, their incredible capacity to suffer, had been stretched to the full. Some suggestions of the agony were left by the three who wrote letters.
Captain Owens, in sailor fashion, first gave the approximate latitude and longitude of their position, listed the number of people on board and the names of the four who perished with the ship. He added: “God have mercy on our souls! We shall all perish here without food, clothes or fire.”
Dowsley’s first letter to his wife, “My Darling Margaret,” written five days after the wreck, was a rambling 700-word description of dreadful misery — most of all thirst, the “dreadful feverish thirst ... I would give all the money I took with me, yes! all I ever saw, for one drink of water.”
Yet he instructed his wife carefully as to her future. (She would have better prospects in the United States.) And he bade affectionate farewells to her and “the darling children.” But there was also an ominous foreboding of the greater horror to come: “You know I was never very robust. I very much fear I shall be the first victim; if so you will not have the gratification of getting my body, as they will use it for food.”
A day later Dowsley wrote again, a single paragraph: “I am almost mad with the thirst ... we are all wet and frozen. I am now going under the canvas to lie down and die.’
But he did not die then. Six days later, on Christmas Eve, he wrote his final note. Snow had come, and thirst at least was relieved, though only by “the dirty snowwater which melts under our feet, up to our ankles. What a sad Christmas Day it is for me,” Dowsley lamented. “We are still alive, but only that. I had no idea we should have lasted so long. Our case is now hopeless.”
William Hoskins’ note was brief, but it opened a new dimension of horror, already hinted at in Dowsley’s first letter. Hoskins wrote :
“We are starving and frozen, and must draw lots so that some might keep alive longer, should help come.” A later sentence added: “We have drawn. The lot fell on my poor sister. I have offered myself and am taking her place. The horror of it all!”
Horror was the final word about the Queen of Swansea. The skeleton of William Hoskins was one of the two found some distance away from the bodies under the canvas. (The other was one of the ship’s crew.) In addition, the shoulder of one of „the crew was badly chewed. Who can guess what manner of collective madness dragged its slow length to death?
One bitter irony remains. Three days after the wreck, as was later calculated, two boats from the mainland were gunning for birds within two miles of the island. But the big bulk of rock between the boats and the shipwrecked crew apparently cut off the sound of guns that could have meant rescue.
AFTER THE STORY of the Queen was known, a clamor arose for a lighthouse on Gull Island. It was built in 1884, and its first keeper was Captain Mark Rowsell, the man who brought home the frozen bodies from the Queen of Swansea. □
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