No.42 The Bumper Christmas Edition

The Annunciation: The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came . . .

The Engel Gabriel was a Dutch ship scuttled by the English at the Battle of Portland in 1653, during the First Anglo-Dutch War, and a name very much in tune with the times in the 17th century. Quite a few wrecks of the Anglo-Dutch wars bore names inspired by characters from the Bible, though such names were beginning to fall out of favour in the Protestant nations. We have an Angel Gabriel of unknown nationality which struck at Jury’s Gap in 1637 with a cargo of wine from Spain. You may also like to have a look at another Angel Gabriel, which was lost in a hurricane off the Maine coast in 1635.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds: The First Nowell that the Angel did say . . .

We have four wrecks in English waters called Noel, one of which was a French steamer which staggered from collision to collision off the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel in the English Channel, during a gale in 1897 which saw widespread casualties all over England. She ran first into a barque, which was at first feared to have gone down, but was later seen under tow with her bows ‘stove’. However, the Esparto steamer was not so lucky, and sank after being cut nearly in two. It took some time for the full story to emerge: the Noel‘s crew could not be rescued for a few days because they were ashore in a rather inaccessible location in the teeth of a howling gale, and could only communicate by signals from the master. In the meantime, the rest of the crew took shelter in the stern, the bows being ‘completely torn away, exposing the whole of the forepart of the ship, which is entirely submerged, having apparently settled over the bank’.

 . . . was to certain poor shepherds in the fields as they lay . . .

There is also a small flock (sorry!) of lost vessels named Shepherd, some probably for the surname. However, I particularly like the Shepherd and Shepherdess of 1766, which struck the Farne Islands: perhaps the name cashed in on the popularity of contemporary Arcadian subjects, for example, this Meissen couple from 1750.

O little town of Bethlehem . . .

The name Star of Bethlehem seems to have been current in fishing communities in the 1890s. Our first loss was a Grimsby trawler off Staithes in 1890, with three weeks’ worth of fish. I wonder if a local fisherman saw the name and was taken with it, since the next wreck, in 1892, was of the newly-built ship of the same name, operating out of Staithes, and also lost in that region. Finally, the last wreck to bear this name in English waters was a Scottish herring lugger from Banffshire in 1895, working the Great Yarmouth fishing grounds as so many Scottish fishermen did, up to the mid 20th century. Perhaps this last gives a clue as to why the name was popular: the crews followed the migratory herring as the shepherds and the wise men followed the star. Could anyone from a fishing community shed any light on this?

The Annunciation to the Magi: Star of the East, the horizon adorning . . . .

In the same way, a fishing vessel named Star of the East was run down by a steamer off the Eddystone in 1904, while returning from Newlyn to her home port of Lowestoft.

And finally . . . no Christmas would be complete without a nativity scene:

When the General Gascoyne struck the Burbo Bank off Liverpool, in 1837, inbound from Quebec and Montreal with deals, potash and passengers, she rapidly found herself in a perilous situation. Potash prices rose on the Liverpool markets with the loss of the ship and her cargo. This prosaic detail was rather overshadowed by what happened to the crew and human cargo who ‘were clinging to the poop and mizen rigging with a heavy sea breaking over them’ when the local tug Eleanor steamed to the rescue. Those on board either jumped off into the ship’s longboat or were taken off one by one by the Eleanor‘s crew, who boarded the ship at the risk of their own lives.

The accounts of what happened next are slightly conflicting: according to the Lancaster Gazette, a lady ‘far advanced in pregnancy’ promptly gave birth on board the Eleanor, suggesting the shock of shipwreck had brought on labour; according to the Times, she had been ‘only confined the previous day’, and was ‘rescued along with her infant’. Either way, this nativity was surely a miraculous rescue.

18. The Ship of the Desert

As camels are so often poetically named the “ship of the desert” it seems apt that a real ship might rejoice in the name of a camel. Or does it?

This week I have been channelling my inner Errol Flynn by buckling the swash through the Battle of the Gabbard, 1653, among others. I don’t want to spike my guns by revealing too much at this stage, but I do want to whet your appetite for the Battlefields project!

The ship in question is sometimes referred to as the Kameel in both primary and secondary sources, commanded by Joost Bulter, and is one of the six ships sunk in the battle. Only two have the potential to have been lost in English waters, since both were lost before nightfall on the first day – after which the Dutch bore up for the Flemish coast. One of these was the Kameel.

Earlier in the Anglo-Dutch wars Bulter was recorded as in command of a ship known as the Stadt en Land (Town and Country), but this wasn’t the right name either as the Stadt en Land seems not to have otherwise been recorded. It is suggested by one authority that Willem van de Velde the Elder, who drew many ship portraits (as did his son, the Younger – many of you will be familiar with the Younger’s drawing of the London) may have been to blame for the first misapprehension, by recording this ship with a camel carved on her counter-stern, and annotating it as ‘Kameel’. Perhaps this was her first name, if she was a hired ship. (Camel is certainly attested as the name of an English ship in the same period, one of the English fireships expended in the Second Anglo-Dutch War: the name seems to have gone out of fashion until we see a rash of CAMELS wrecked 1875-1896!)

At the same time another ship named the Stadt Groningen en Ommelanden is recorded, and it has been proposed by some that this was Joost Bulter’s ship. It would not be unusual for crews to shorten or otherwise alter the name of their ship: we know, for example, at a later date that the crew of the Bellerophon called her the Billy Ruffian, so that explanation sounds very plausible.

The Gabbard is not particularly well illustrated in Dutch marine paintings, possibly because they were, well, trounced, on this occasion. There is a atmospheric, albeit fairly general, scene by the minor artist Heerman Witmont in the National Maritime Museum, whose central feature is sails with prominent holes over clouds of smoke – no better way to convey the heat of battle! The technique is grisaille – pen and ink drawing on panel – not common, but characteristic of some Dutch marine artists and used by Willem van de Velde the Elder.

Resolution on the right duels Brederode on the left by the mutual firing of broadsides: Resolution flies the ensign of the Commonwealth. In the foreground is the detritus of war – wreckage floating in the foreground on a symbolically choppy sea. This foreground wreckage is very much a convention of marine paintings, particularly of battle scenes, and no wonder, with masts being constantly shot away and the like, but possibly it also subtly alludes to the Dutch losses in this encounter.