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The Loss Of The Ramilies






BY G. H. WALKER.


Admiral (afterwards Lord) Graves having requested leave to return to
England in 1782, was appointed by Lord Rodney to command the convoy sent
home with a numerous fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies in the
month of July. He accordingly hoisted the flag on board the Ramilies,
of seventy-four guns, and sailed on the 25th from Bluefields, having
under his orders the Canada and Centaur, of seventy-four guns each,
with the Pallas frigate of thirty-six guns, and the following French
ships taken by Lord Rodney and Sir Samuel Hood, out of the armament
commanded by the Count de Grasse, viz., the Ville de Paris, of one
hundred and ten guns; the Glorieux and Hector, of seventy-four guns
each; the Ardent, Caton, and Jason, of sixty-four guns each. These
were originally British ships and had been in so many actions and so
long absent from England, as to have become extremely out of condition,
while that of the prizes was still more deplorable; and the following
authentic account of the various disasters which attended this
distressed convoy will be found equally melancholy and interesting.

Soon after the fleet had sailed, the officers of the Ardent united in
signing such a representation of her miserable plight as induced Admiral
Graves to order her back to Port Royal; and the Jason by not putting
to sea with the convoy, from the want of water, never joined him at all.
The rest proceeded, and after the vessels that were bound for New York
had separated, the whole convoy was reduced to ninety-two or three sail.

On September 8th, the Caton springing a leak, made such alarming
complaints, that the admiral directed her and the Pallas, which had
also become leaky, to bear away immediately and keep company together,
making for Halifax, which then bore north-north-west and was about
eighty-seven leagues distant.

The afternoon of September 16th, showing indications of a gale and foul
weather from the south-east quarter, every preparation was made on board
the flag ship for such an event, not only on account of her own safety,
but also by way of example to the rest of the fleet. The admiral
collected the ships about six o'clock, and brought to under his main
sail on the larboard tack, having all his other sails furled, and his
top-gallant yards and masts lowered down.

The wind soon increasing, blew strongly from the east-south-east with a
very heavy sea, and about three o'clock in the morning of the 17th flew
suddenly round to the contrary point, blowing most tremendously, and
accompanied with rain, thunder, and lightning; the Ramilies was taken
by the lee, her main sail thrown aback, her main mast went by the board,
and her mizen mast half way up; the foretop mast fell over the starboard
bow, the foreyard broke in the slings, the tiller snapped in two, and
the rudder was nearly torn off. Thus was this capital ship, from being
in perfect order, reduced within a few minutes to a mere wreck, by the
fury of the blast and the violence of the sea, which acted in opposition
to each other. The ship was pooped, the cabin, where the admiral lay,
was flooded, his cot bed jerked down by the violence of the shock and
the ship's instantaneous revulsion, so that he was obliged to pull on
his boots half-leg deep in water, without any stockings, to huddle on
his wet clothes, and repair upon deck. On his first coming hither, he
ordered two of the lieutenants to examine into the state of the affairs
below, and to keep a sufficient number of people at the pumps, while he
himself and the captain kept the deck, to encourage the men to clear
away the wreck, which by its constant swinging backwards and forwards by
every wave against the body of the ship, had beaten off much of the
copper from the starboard side, and exposed the seams so much to the sea
that the decayed oakum washed out, and the whole frame became at once
exceedingly porous and leaky.

At dawn of day they perceived a large ship under their lee, lying upon
her side, water-logged, her hands attempting to wear her by first
cutting away the mizen mast, and then main mast: hoisting her ensign,
with the union downwards, in order to draw the attention of the fleet;
but to no purpose, for no succour could be given, and she very soon went
down head foremost, the fly of her ensign being the last thing visible.
This was the Dutton, formerly an Indiaman, and then a store ship,
commanded by a lieutenant of the navy, who in his agitation leaped from
her deck into the sea; but, as might be expected, was very soon
overwhelmed by the billows. Twelve or thirteen of the crew contrived,
however, to slip off with one of the boats, and running with the wind,
endeavoured to reach a large ship before them, failing in which,
however, and afraid of filling if they attempted to haul up for that
purpose, they made up for another ship more to the leeward, who,
fortunately descrying them, threw a number of ropes, by the help of
which these desperate fellows scrambled up her sides and fortunately
saved their lives. Out of ninety-four or ninety-five sail seen the day
before scarcely twenty could now be counted; of the ships of war there
were discovered the Canada half hull down upon the lee quarter, having
her main-top mast and mizen mast gone, the main top damaged, the main
yard aloft, and the main sail furled. The Centaur was far to windward,
without masts, bowsprit or rudder; and the Glorieux without fore mast,
bowsprit, or main-top mast. Of these the two latter perished with all
their crews, excepting the captain of the Centaur and a few of his
people, who contrived to slip off her stern into one of the boats
unnoticed, and thus escaped the fate of the rest.

The Ville de Paris appeared to have received no injury, and was
commanded by a most experienced seaman, who had made twenty-four voyages
to and from the West Indies, and had, therefore, been pitched upon to
lead the ship through the Gulf; nevertheless, she was afterwards buried
in the ocean with all on board her, consisting of above eight hundred
people. Of the convoy, besides the Dutton before mentioned and the
British Queen, seven others were discovered without mast or bowsprit;
eighteen lost masts, and several others had actually foundered.

In the course of this day the Canada crossed upon and passed the
Ramilies. Some of the trade attempted to follow the Canada, but she
ran at such a rate that they soon found it to be in vain, and then
returned to the flag ship. The Ramilies had at this time six feet of
water in her hold, and the pumps would not free her, the water having
worked out the oakum, and her beams amid ship being almost drawn from
her clamps.

The admiral therefore gave orders for all the buckets to be manned, and
every officer to help towards freeing the ship; the mizen-top sail was
set upon the fore mast, the main top-gallant sail on the stump of the
mizen mast, and the tiller shipped. In this condition, by bearing away,
she scudded on at so good a rate that she held pace with some of the
merchantmen.

The day having been spent in baling and pumping, with materially gaining
on the water, the captain, in the name of the officers, represented to
the admiral the necessity of parting with the guns for the relief of the
ship; but he objected that there would then be left no protection for
the convoy. At length, however, he consented to their disposing of the
fore castle and aftermost quarter-deck guns, together with some of the
shot, and other articles of very great weight. The ensuing night was
employed in baling and endeavouring to make the pumps useful, for the
ballast, by getting into the well, had choked and rendered them useless,
and the chains had broken as often as they were repaired. The water had
risen to seven feet in the hold. The wind from the eastward drove a vast
sea before it, and the ship, being old, strained most violently.

On the morning of the 18th nothing could be seen of the Canada, she
having pushed on at her greatest speed for England. The frame of the
Ramilies having opened during the night, the admiral was prevailed
upon, by the renewed and pressing remonstrances of his officers,
although with great reluctance, to let six of the forwardmost and four
of the aftermost guns of the main deck be thrown overboard, together
with the remainder of those on the quarter-deck; and the ships still
continuing to open very much, he ordered tarred canvas and hides to be
nailed fore and aft from under the sills of the ports on the main deck
under the fifth plank above, or within the water ways; and the crew,
without orders, did the same on the lower deck. Her increasing
complaints required still more to be done. The admiral directed all the
guns on the upper deck, the shot, both on that and the lower deck, and
various heavy stores, to be thrown overboard; a leakage in the
light-room of the grand magazine having almost filled the ship forward,
and there being eight feet of water in the magazine, every gentleman was
compelled to take his turn at the whips or in handing the buckets. The
ship was besides frapped from the fore mast to the main mast.

Notwithstanding their utmost efforts the water still gained on them the
succeeding night, and the wind blowing very hard, with extremely heavy
squalls, a part of the orlop deck fell into the hold: the ship herself
seemed to work excessively, and to settle forward.

On the morning of the 19th, under these very alarming circumstances, the
admiral commanded both the bower anchors to be cut away, all the junk to
be flung overboard, one sheet and one bower cable to be reduced to junk
and served the same way, together with every remaining ponderous store
that could be got at, and all the powder in the grand magazine (it being
damaged); the cutter and pinnace to be broken up and tossed overboard,
the skids having already worked off the side. Every soul on board was
now employed in baling. One of the pumps was got up; but to no purpose,
for the shot lockers being broken down, some of the shot, as well as the
ballast, had fallen into the well; and as the weather moderated a
little everything was made ready for heaving the lower-deck guns into
the sea, the admiral being anxious to leave nothing undone for the
relief of the ship.

When evening approached, there being twenty merchant ships in sight, the
officers united in beseeching him to go into one of them; but this he
positively refused to do, deeming it, as he declared, unpardonable in a
commander-in-chief to desert his garrison in distress; that his living a
few years longer was of very little consequence, but that, by leaving
his ship at such a time, he should discourage and slacken the exertions
of the people by setting them a very bad example. The wind lulling
somewhat during the night, all hands baled the water, which, at this
time, was six feet fore and aft.

On the morning of the 20th the admiral ordered the square and
stream-anchors to be cut away, and within the course of the day all the
lower-deck guns to be thrown overboard. When evening came the spirits of
the people in general, and even of the most courageous, began to fail,
and they openly expressed the utmost despair, together with the most
earnest desire of quitting the ship, lest they should founder in her.
The admiral hereupon advanced and told them that he and their officers
had an equal regard for their own lives, that the officers had no
intention of deserting either them or the ship, that, for his part, he
was determined to try one night more in her; he therefore hoped and
entreated they would do so too, for there was still room to imagine that
one fair day, with a moderate sea, might enable them, by united
exertion, to clear and secure the well against the encroaching ballast
which washed into it; that if this could be done they might be able to
restore the chains to the pumps and use them, and that then hands enough
might be spared to raise jury masts, with which they might carry the
ship into Ireland; that her appearance alone, while she could swim,
would be sufficient to protect the remaining part of her convoy; above
all, that as everything that could be thought of had now been done for
her relief, it would be but reasonable to wait the effect. He concluded
with assuring them that he would make the signal directly for the trade
to lie by them during the night, which he doubted not they would comply
with.

This temperate speech had the desired effect; the firmness and
confidence with which he spoke, and their reliance on his seamanship and
judgment, as well as his constant presence and attention to every
accident, had a wonderful effect upon them; they became pacified,
returning to their duty and their labours. Since the first disaster, the
admiral had, in fact, scarcely ever quitted the deck; this they had all
observed, together with his diligence in personally inspecting every
circumstance of distress. Knowing his skill and experience, they placed
great confidence in them; and he instantly made, according to his
promise, a signal for all the merchantmen.

At this period, it must be confessed, there was great reason for alarm,
and but little for hope; for all the anchors and guns, excepting one,
together with every other matter of weight, had been thrown overboard,
and yet the ship did not seem to be at all relieved. The strength of the
people was likewise so nearly exhausted, having had no sleep since the
first fatal stroke, that one half of the crew were ordered to bale, and
the other to repose; so that, although the wind was much abated, the
water still gained upon them, in spite of all their efforts, and the
ship rolled and worked prodigiously in a most unquiet sea.

At three in the morning of the 21st, being the fourth night, the well
being broken in, the casks, ballast, and remaining shot rushed together
and destroyed the cylinder of the pumps; the frame and carcase of the
ship began to give way in every part, and the whole crew exclaimed that
it was impossible to keep her any longer above water.

In this extremity the admiral resolved within himself not to lose a
moment in removing the people whenever daylight should arrive; but told
the captain not to communicate any more of his design than that he
intended to remove the sick and lame at daybreak, and for this purpose
he should call on board all the boats of the merchantmen. He,
nevertheless gave private orders to the captain, while this was doing,
to have all the bread brought upon the quarter-deck, with a quantity of
beef, pork, and flour, to settle the best distributing of the people
according to the number of trade ships that should obey their signal,
and to allow an officer to each division of them; to have the remaining
boats launched, and as soon as the sick were disposed of, to begin to
remove the whole of the crew, with the utmost dispatch, but without
risking too many in a boat.

Accordingly, at dawn, the signal was made for the boats of the
merchantmen, but nobody suspected what was to follow, until the bread
was entirely removed and the sick gone. About six o'clock the rest of
the crew were permitted to go off, and between nine and ten, there being
nothing farther to direct and regulate, the admiral himself, after
shaking hands with every officer, and leaving his barge for their better
accommodation and transport, quitted for ever the Ramilies which had
then nine feet of water in her hold. He went into a small leaky boat,
loaded with bread, out of which both himself and the surgeon who
accompanied him were obliged to bale the water all the way. He was in
his boots, with his surtout over his uniform, and his countenance as
calm and composed as ever. He had, at the going off, desired a cloak, a
cask of flour, and a cask of water, but could get only the flour; and he
left behind all his stock, wines, furniture, books, charts, etc., which
had cost him upwards of one thousand pounds, being unwilling to employ
even a single servant in saving or packing up what belonged to himself
alone, in a time of such general calamity, or to appear to fare better
in that respect than any of the crew.

The admiral rowed for the Belle, Captain Forster, being the first of
the traders that had borne up to the Ramilies the preceding night in
her imminent distress, and by his anxious humanity set such an example
to his brother-traders as had a powerful influence upon them--an
influence that was generally followed by sixteen others.

By three o'clock most of the crew were taken out, at which time the
Ramilies had thirteen feet of water in her hold, and was evidently
foundering in every part. At half-past four the captain and first and
third lieutenants left her, with every soul excepting the fourth
lieutenant, who stayed behind only to execute the admiral's orders for
setting fire to her wreck when finally deserted. The carcase burned
rapidly, and the flame quickly reaching the powder, which was filled in
the after magazine, and had been lodged very high, in thirty-five
minutes the decks and upper works blew up with a horrid explosion and
cloud of smoke, while the lower part of the hull was precipitated to the
bottom of the ocean.

At this time the admiral, in the Belle, stood for the wreck to see his
last orders executed, as well as to succour any boats that might be too
full of men, the swell of the sea being prodigious, although the weather
had been moderate ever since noon of the foregoing day. There were,
however, at intervals, some squalls, with threats of the weather soon
becoming violent. It was not long before they were realised, for within
two hours after the last of the crew were put on board their respective
ships, the wind rose to a great height, and so continued, without
intermission, for six or seven successive days, so that no boat could,
during that time, have lived in the water. On such a small interval
depended the salvation of more than six hundred lives!

Upon their separation taking place, the officers who were distributed
with portions of the crew among the Jamaica men, had orders
respectively to deliver them to the first man of war or tender they
should meet with, and to acquaint the Secretary of the Admiralty by the
earliest opportunity of their proceedings. A pendant was hoisted on
board the Belle, by way of distinction that she might, if possible,
lead the rest. Some of the traders kept with her, and others made the
best of their way, apprehensive lest they should soon fall short of
provisions, as they had so many more to feed.

The Silver Eel transport, which had sailed from Bluefields with the
invalids of Sir George Rodney's fleet, and was under the command of a
lieutenant of the navy, had been ordered to keep near the Ramilies.
That ship was accordingly at hand on September 21st, the day of her
destruction, and in consequence of several deaths on the passage, had
room enough for the reception of all those that were now ailing or
maimed, and was consequently charged with them, being first properly
fitted for their accommodation.

The Silver Eel parted from the admiral in latitude 42 deg. 48' N. and
longitude 45 deg. 19' W.; after seeing the Ramilies demolished, and being
ordered to make for the first port, ran into Falmouth, October 6th, on
the afternoon of which day one of the trade ships, with a midshipman and
sixteen of the crew of the Ramilies, reached Plymouth Sound. Another
of the same convoy having on board another portion of the crew, with the
captain and first lieutenant, anchored in the same place before daylight
the next morning. The Canada, however, having exerted her utmost
speed, had, prior to all these, on the 4th of the same month got to
Portsmouth, where she spread the news of the dispersion of this
miserable fleet, which being conveyed to France, her privateers
immediately put to sea in hopes of making prize of them. Some of the
Jamaica men, with part of the crew of the Ramilies, fell in
consequence into their hands; two of the West India men were captured
in sight of the Belle, but she herself, with the admiral and
thirty-three of his crew, arrived safe, though singly, on October 10th,
in Cork Harbour, where was the Myrmidon frigate. The admiral
immediately hoisted his flag on board the latter, and sailing with the
first fair wind, arrived, on the 17th, in Plymouth Sound.





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Previous: The Story Of Lord Rodney



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