Regency Wrecks: Voyage to Paradise (part two)

It is perhaps ironic that Alceste was leaving China just as Medusa’s captain was being brought to trial. Captain Maxwell had already lost Daedalus and was having the depths continuously sounded as his ship passed between steep rock reefs. When she did strike one, it was at speed and the ship’s carpenter reported the worst. To get her off the reef would cause her to sink instantly. The ship had to be abandoned, the only refuge a nearby, waterless mangrove island surrounded by pirate-infested waters.

Maxwell had indeed landed in the basket. With the loss of two ships to his name, he must redeem himself in some spectacular way or sink into ignominy and disgrace.

William Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst by Davies (1803)

William Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst by Davies (1803)

Lord Amherst and his embassy were sent in the ship’s barge and cutter toward Java, leagues to the south. Hopefully they would reach that distant island and send back a rescue party. Maxwell did not dare go with them, He had to remain behind with his crew and remaining passengers, numbering 200 men and one woman.

Once Amherst and his embassy had disappeared beyond the stifling horizon, Maxwell wasted no time setting about his redemption. Soon the wreck would be spotted by inhospitable natives and he would have to be ready. Provisions were stowed in a cool cave and the crew was set to digging a well, searching for fresh water, for they had sent the bulk of their water supplies with his lordship. With the remaining lifeboats, a crew was sent back out to the Alceste to salvage what remained on her.

Sea-dyaks on proas (multi-hulled Micronesian sailing vessels) caught the salvage crew by surprise and chased them back to the mangrove island. These ruthless Malay pirates had the reputation for murdering anyone on board ships they captured and were even known to commit cannibalism. It soon appeared that the Dyaks were most concerned with the wreck and its contents–principally anything that was metal–and seemed content to plunder the Alceste rather than assault the makeshift fortress Maxwell and his men had hastily constructed.

Eventually, the Dyaks set fire to the Alceste and withdrew with their booty. This gave Maxwell a chance to send another boat out to the wreck and retrieve flour, wine and beer that had been exposed by the destruction of Alceste’s upper works.

The Dyaks were bound to return for the castaways on the island, who were by now starving, thirsty and ragged. When the pirates appeared, they had more boats, including a flagship, perhaps carrying a “rajah.” They continued to plunder the wrecked vessel and made forays to capture the remaining boats on the island. These were repelled but eventually, the time of a great attack had come.

Captain Maxwell addressed his men:

“My lads, you must all have observed the great increase in the enemy’s force, and the threatening posture they have assumed. I have reason to believe they will attack us this night. I do not wish to conceal our real state, because I do not think there is a man here who is afraid to face any sort of danger. We are in a position to defend ourselves against regular troops, far less a set of naked savages, with their spears and krises. ..Let every man be on his alert, and should these barbarians this night attempt our hill, I trust we shall convince them that they are dealing with Britons.”

Morning came without the expected attack. Instead, a much larger force of Dyaks had arrived by boat. The situation could not be more desperate. The relief ship that was supposed to have been sent by Lord Amherst had not arrived. Perhaps he felt compelled to abandon such an unlucky captain. Or perhaps his lordship and his party had met with some grim fate before they could get to Java.

With this in mind, it became rapidly clear to Maxwell that they had to get off the island or be slaughtered. To get off the island, he and his men needed boats. The Dyaks had them.

Maxwell sent his marines down to the shore to capture them. Wading into the sea, they aimed their muskets but were unable to keep steady aim in the strong tide. The Dyaks surged forward on their swift proas, screaming with savage delight. Then one piercing cry from the direction of the Alceste came–a pirate lookout, pausing in his plunder, was gesturing wildly toward the open sea.

On the searing horizon, the topmast of the Honorable East India Company’s Ternate appeared, and she was armed to the teeth. She had been sent by Lord Amherst to rescue his favorite captain–sent the very day the Alceste’s barge had landed in Java.

Captain Maxwell was soon on his way back to England. The ship carrying him stopped at St. Helena and the captain was presented to Napoleon. Perhaps Maxwell was looking a bit chagrined, this captain who had lost two French frigates and was on his way home to be court-martialed. However, the exiled emperor received him with great courtesy and remarked, rather sourly, that he should not be blamed by the British government. At least what he had lost had been taken from another to begin with.

L’emperor had lost much more than just Meduse, Minerve and Corona.

Vous êtes très méchant. Eh bien!” he said to Maxwell.

Shipwreck of the Minotaur by JMW Turner (1810)

Shipwreck of the Minotaur by JMW Turner (1810)

Regency Wrecks: Voyage to Paradise (Part One)

“I see the boat on the lake! Cpatain Murray Maxwell
And Charon,
Ferryman of the Dead, Calls to me, his hand on the oar:
‘Why linger? Hasten! You delay me!’
Angrily he urges me.”– Alcestis, by Euripedes (438 BC)

She was once known as the Minerve, a proud, 38-gun Armide-class frigate of the French Navy. Like Corona, she had been captured by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Towed to Plymouth, she was refitted and renamed Alceste, for the queen who would be called upon to die in place of her husband, Admetus, one of Greek mythology’s Argonauts.

Perhaps this was an omen.

In 1807, before he was to wreck Daedalus, Captain Maxwell was given the command of Alceste. Instructed to go to the Mediterranean, Maxwell and his ship raided Spanish shipping carrying supplies for Napoleon’s armies. Their greatest success came during the Adriatic Campaign when Alceste intercepted a convoy of French frigates. After a heated battle, a large ship Pomone and an accompanying storage vessel carrying 200 cannon surrendered to Maxwell. The ships and cargo were sold for prize money. By 1812, Alceste had made her captain a wealthy man.

Who knows what might have been her fate had Maxwell gone down with the Daedalus the next year?

But he did not. A court martial proceeding cleared him from all blame for the loss of the former Corona. Captain Maxwell had money, friends–and a second chance with Alceste.

Lord Amherst was to go to China and establish relations with its emperor. He chose Captain Maxwell to transport him and his diplomatic mission. The captain was given command of Alceste once again. Unfortunately, Amherst’s mission was doomed to failure. As an Englishman, he had opposed one emperor in Europe and saw no reason to kowtow to another, refusing to offer tribute as to an overlord.

La Pomone contre les frégates HMS Alceste et Active, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

Pomone fights the frigates HMS Alceste and Active, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

Angrily Alceste was directed to withdraw with her insulted passengers aboard, and sailed to the mouth of the Pearl River. There she was confronted by a blockade of junks. These were summarily disposed of by the frigate’s numerous cannon, the first shot marked with a note the said something like, “here’s your bloody tribute.”

With this parting shot, the Alceste set sail for England. The last peril she had to pass was the Gaspar Strait.