The Loss Of Hms Centaur


The storm which proved fatal to the Ramilies was responsible for the

loss of many other ships in the same convoy, among which was the

Centaur of seventy-four guns, whose commander, Captain Inglefield,

with the master and ten of the crew, providentially escaped the general

fate. The captain's narrative affords the best explanation of the manner

and means by which this signal deliverance was effected.

"The Centaur" (says Captain Inglefield) "left Jamaica in rather a

leaky condition, keeping two hand pumps going, and, when it blew fresh,

sometimes a spell with a chain pump was necessary. But I had no

apprehension that the ship was not able to encounter a common gale of


"In the evening of September 16th, when the fatal gale came on, the ship

was prepared for the worst weather usually met in those latitudes, the

main sail was reefed and set, the top-gallant masts struck, and the

mizen yard lowered down, though at that time it did not blow very

strong. Towards midnight it blew a gale of wind, and the ship made so

much water that I was obliged to turn all hands up to spell the pumps.

The leak still increasing, I had thoughts to try the ship before the

sea. Happy I should have been, perhaps, had I in this been determined.

The impropriety of leaving the convoy, except in the last extremity, and

the hopes of the weather growing moderate, weighed against the opinion

that it was right.

"About two in the morning the wind lulled, and we flattered ourselves

the gale was breaking. Soon after we had much thunder and lightning from

the south-east, with rain, when it began to blow strong in gusts of

wind, which obliged me to haul the main sail up, the ship being then

under bare poles. This was scarcely done, when a gust of wind, exceeding

in violence anything of the kind I had ever seen or had any conception

of, laid the ship on her beam ends. The water forsook the hold and

appeared between decks, so as to fill the men's hammocks to leeward: the

ship lay motionless, and to all appearance irrecoverably overset. The

water increasing fast, forced through the cells of the ports, and

scuttled in the ports from the pressure of the ship. I gave immediate

directions to cut away the main and mizen mast, hoping when the ship

righted to wear her. The main mast went first, upon cutting one or two

of the lanyards, without the smallest effect on the ship; the mizen mast

followed, upon cutting the lanyard of one shroud; and I had the

disappointment to see the foremast and bowsprit follow. The ship upon

this immediately righted, but with great violence; and the motion was so

quick, that it was difficult for the people to work the pumps. Three

guns broke loose upon the main deck, and it was some time before they

were secured. Several men being maimed in this attempt, everything

movable was destroyed, either from the shot thrown loose from the

lockers, or the wreck of the deck. The officers, who had left their beds

naked, when the ship overset in the morning, had not an article of

clothes to put on, nor could their friends supply them.

"The masts had not been over the sides ten minutes before I was informed

the tiller was broken short in the rudder head; and before the chocks

could be placed the rudder itself was gone. Thus we were as much

disastered as it was possible, lying at the mercy of the wind and sea;

yet I had one comfort, that the pumps, if anything, reduced the water in

the hold; and as the morning came on (the 17th) the weather grew more

moderate, the wind having shifted in the gale to north-west.

"At daylight I saw two line-of-battle ships to leeward; one had lost

her fore mast and bowsprit, the other her main mast. It was the general

opinion on board the Centaur that the former was the Canada, the

other the Glorieux. The Ramilies was not in sight, nor more than

fifteen sail of merchant ships.

"About seven in the morning I saw another line-of-battle ship ahead of

us, which I soon distinguished to be the Ville de Paris, with all her

masts standing. I immediately gave orders to make the signal of

distress, hoisting the ensign on the stump of the mizen mast, union

downwards, and firing one of the forecastle guns. The ensign blew away

soon after it was hoisted, and it was the only one we had; but I had the

satisfaction to see the Ville de Paris wear and stand towards us.

Several of the merchant ships also approached us, and those that could

hailed, and offered their assistance; but depending upon the king's

ship, I only thanked them, desiring, if they joined Admiral Graves, to

acquaint him of our condition. I had not the smallest doubt but the

Ville de Paris was coming to us, as she appeared to us to have

suffered the least by the storm, and having seen her wear, we knew she

was under government of her helm; at this time, also, it was so moderate

that the merchantmen set their top-sails; but approaching within two

miles she passed us to windward: this being observed by one of the

merchant ships she wore and came under our stern, offering to carry any

message to her. I desired the master would acquaint Captain Wilkinson

that the Centaur had lost her rudder as well as her masts, that she

made a great deal of water, and that I desired he would remain with her

until the weather grew moderate. I saw this merchantman approach

afterwards near enough to speak to the Ville de Paris, but am afraid

that her condition was much worse than it appeared to be, as she

continued upon the tack. In the meantime all the quarter-deck guns were

thrown overboard, and all but six which had overset on the main deck.

The ship, lying in the trough of the sea, laboured prodigiously. I got

over one of the small anchors, with a boom and several gun carriages,

veering out from the head door by a large hawser, to keep the ship's bow

to the sea; but this, with a top-gallant sail upon the stump of the

mizen mast, had not the desired effect.

"As the evening came on it grew hazy, and blew strong in squalls. We

lost sight of the Ville de Paris, but I thought it a certainty that we

should see her the next morning. The night was passed in constant labour

at the pumps. Sometimes the wind lulled, the water diminished; when it

blew strong again, the sea rising, the water again increased.

"Towards the morning of the 18th I was informed there was seven feet

water upon the kelson; that one of the winches was broken, that the two

spare ones would not fit, and that the hand pumps were choked. These

circumstances were sufficiently alarming; but upon opening the after

hold, to get some rum up for the people, we found our condition much

more so.

"It will be necessary to mention that the Centaur's after hold was

inclosed by a bulk head at the after part of the well: here all the dry

provisions and the ship's rum were stowed upon twenty chaldron of coals,

which unfortunately had been started on this part of the ship, and by

them the pumps were continually choked. The chain pumps were so much

worn as to be of little use; and the leathers, which, had the well been

clear, would have lasted twenty days or more, were all consumed in

eight. At this time it was observed that the water had not a passage to

the well, for here there was so much that it washed against the orlop

deck. All the rum--twenty-six puncheons--all the provisions, of which

there was sufficient for two months, in casks, were staved, having

floated with violence from side to side until there was not a whole cask

remaining; even the staves that were found upon clearing the hold were

most of them broken in two or three pieces. In the fore hold we had a

prospect of perishing; should the ship swim, we had no water but what

remained in the ground tier, and over this all the wet provisions and

butts filled with salt water were floating, and with so much motion that

no man could with safety go into the hold. There was nothing left for us

to try but baling with buckets at the fore hatchway and fish-room; and

twelve large canvas buckets were immediately employed at each. On

opening the fish-room, we were so fortunate as to discover that two

puncheons of rum, which belonged to me, had escaped. They were

immediately got up and served out at times in drams; and had it not been

for this relief, and some lime juice, the people would have dropped.

"We soon found our account in baling; the spare pump had been put down

the fore hatchway, and a pump shifted to the fish-room; but the motion

of the ship had washed the coals so small that they reached every part

of the ship, and the pumps were soon choked. However, the water by noon

had considerably diminished by working the buckets; but there appeared

no prospect of saving the ship if the gale continued. The labour was too

great to hold out without water: yet the people worked without a murmur,

and indeed with cheerfulness.

"At this time the weather was more moderate, and a couple of spars were

got ready for shears to set up a jury fore mast; but as the evening came

on the gale again increased. We had seen nothing this day but the ship

that had lost her main mast, and she appeared to be as much in want of

assistance as ourselves, having fired guns of distress; and before night

I was told her fore mast was gone.

"The Centaur laboured so much that I had scarcely a hope she could

swim till morning. However, by great exertion with the chain pumps and

baling, we held our own; but our sufferings for want of water were very

great, and many of the people could not be restrained from drinking salt


"At daylight (the 11th) there was no vessel in sight; and flashes from

guns having been seen in the night, we feared the ship we had seen the

preceding day had foundered. Towards ten o'clock in the forenoon the

weather grew more moderate, the water diminished in the hold, and the

people were encouraged to redouble their efforts to get the water low

enough to break a cask of fresh water out of the ground tier; and some

of the most resolute of the seamen were employed in the attempt. At

noon we succeeded with one cask, which, though little, was a seasonable

relief. All the officers, passengers, and boys, who were not of the

profession of seamen, had been employed in thrumming a sail, which was

passed under the ship's bottom, and I thought had some effect. The

shears were raised for the fore mast; the weather looked promising, the

sea fell, and at night we were able to relieve at the pumps and baling

every two hours. By the morning of the 20th the fore hold was cleared of

the water, and we had the comfortable promise of a fine day. It proved

so, and I was determined to make use of it with all possible exertion. I

divided the ship's company, with officers attending them, into parties,

to raise the jury fore-mast; to heave over the lower-deck guns; to clear

the wreck of the fore and after holds; to prepare the machine for

steering the ship, and to work the pumps. By night the after hold was as

clear as when the ship was launched; for, to our astonishment, there was

not a shovel of coals remaining, twenty chaldrons having been pumped out

since the commencement of the gale. What I have called the wreck of the

hold was the bulkheads of the after hold, fish-room, and spirit-rooms.

The standards of the cockpit, an immense quantity of staves and wood,

and part of the lining of the ship were thrown overboard, that if the

water should again appear in the hold we might have no impediment in

baling. All the guns were overboard, the fore mast secured, and the

machine, which was to be similar to that with which the Ipswich was

steered, was in great forwardness; so that I was in hopes, the moderate

weather continuing, that I should be able to steer the ship by noon the

following day, and at least save the people on some of the western

islands. Had we had any other ship in company with us, I should have

thought it my duty to have quitted the Centaur this day.

"This night the people got some rest by relieving the watches; but in

the morning of the 21st we had the mortification to find that the

weather again threatened, and by noon it blew a storm. The ship laboured

greatly and the water appeared in the fore and after hold, and

increased. The carpenter also informed me that the leathers were nearly

consumed; and likewise, that the chains of the pumps, by constant

exertion and the friction of the coals, were considered as nearly


"As we had now no other resource but baling, I gave orders that scuttles

should be cut through the deck to introduce more buckets into the hold,

and all the sail-makers were employed, night and day, in making canvas

buckets; and the orlop deck having fallen in on the larboard side, I

ordered the sheet cable to be tossed overboard. The wind at this time

was at west, and being on the larboard tack, many schemes had been

practised to wear the ship, that we might drive into a less boisterous

latitude, as well as approach the western islands; but none succeeded;

and having a weak carpenter's crew they were hardly sufficient to attend

the pumps, so that we could not make any progress with the steering

machine. Another sail had been thrummed and got over, but we did not

find its use; indeed, there was no prospect but in a change of weather.

A large leak had been discovered and stopped in the fore hold, but the

ship appeared so weak from her labouring that it was clear she could not

last long. The after cockpit had fallen in, the fore cockpit the same,

with all the store-rooms down: the stern post was so loose that, as the

ship rolled, the water rushed in on either side in great streams, which

we could not stop.

"Night came on, with the same dreary prospect as that of the preceding

day, and was passed in continual labour. Morning came (the 22nd) without

our seeing anything, or any change of weather, and the day was spent

with the same struggles to keep the ship above water, pumping and baling

at the hatchways and scuttles. Towards night another of the chain pumps

was rendered quite useless, by one of the rollers being displaced at the

bottom of the pump, and this was without remedy, there being too much

water in the well to get to it; we also had but six leathers remaining,

so that the fate of the ship was not far off. Still the labour went on

without any apparent despair, every officer taking his share of it, and

the people always cheerful and obedient.

"During the night the water increased, but about seven in the morning of

the 23rd I was informed that an unusual quantity of water appeared, all

at once, in the fire hold, which, upon my going forward to be convinced,

I found but too true; the stowage of the hold ground tier was all in

motion, so that in a short time there was not a whole cask to be seen.

We were convinced the ship had sprung a fresh leak. Another sail had

been thrumming all night, and I was giving directions to place it over

the bows, when I perceived the ship settling by the head, the lower-deck

bow ports being even with the water.

"At this period the carpenter acquainted me the well was staved in,

destroyed by the wreck of the hold, and the chain pumps displaced and

totally useless. There was nothing left but to redouble our efforts in

baling, but it became difficult to fill the buckets, from the quantity

of staves, planks, anchor stocks, and yard-arm pieces which were now

washed from the wings and floating from side to side with the motion of

the ship. The people, till this period, had laboured, as if determined

to conquer their difficulties, without a murmur or without a tear; but

now, seeing their efforts useless, many of them burst into tears, and

wept like children.

"I gave orders for the anchors, of which we had two remaining, to be

thrown overboard, one of which (the spare anchor) had been most

surprisingly hove in upon the forecastle and midships when the ship had

been upon her beam-ends, and gone through the deck.

"Every time that I visited the hatchway I observed the water increased,

and at noon washed even with the orlop deck; the carpenter assured me

the ship could not swim long, and proposed making rafts to float the

ship's company, whom it was not in my power to encourage any longer with

a prospect of their safety. Some appeared perfectly resigned, went to

their hammocks, and desired their messmates to lash them in; others were

lashing themselves to gratings and small rafts: but the most

predominant idea was that of putting on their best and cleanest clothes.

"The weather, about noon, had been something moderate, and as rafts had

been mentioned by the carpenter, I thought it right to make the attempt,

though I knew our booms could not float half the ship's company in fine

weather; but we were in a situation to catch at a straw. I therefore

called the ship's company together, told them my intention, recommending

them to remain regular and obedient to their officers. Preparations were

immediately made for this purpose; the booms were cleared; the boats, of

which we had three, viz., cutter, pinnace, and five-oared yawl, were got

over the side; a bag of bread was ordered to be put in each, and any

liquors that could be got at, for the purpose of supplying the rafts. I

had intended myself to go in the five-oared yawl, and the coxswain was

desired to get anything from my steward that might be useful. Two men,

captains of the tops of the forecastle, or quarter-masters, were placed

in each of them, to prevent any person from forcing the boats or getting

into them till an arrangement was made. While these preparations were

making, the ship was gradually sinking, the orlop decks having been

blown up by the water in the hold, and the cables floated to the

gun-deck. The men had for some time quitted their employment of baling,

and the ship was left to her fate.

"In the afternoon the weather again threatened, and blew strong in

squalls, the sea ran high, and one of the boats (the yawl) was staved

alongside and sunk. As the evening approached the ship appeared little

more than suspended in water. There was no certainty that she would swim

from one minute to another; and the love of life began now to level all

distinctions. It was impossible, indeed, for any man to deceive himself

with a hope of being saved upon a raft in such a sea; besides that, the

ship in sinking, it was probable, would carry everything down with her

in a vortex, to a certain destruction.

"It was near five o'clock, when, coming from my cabin, I observed a

number of people looking very anxiously over the side, and looking

myself, I saw that several men had forced the pinnace and that more were

attempting to get in. I had immediate thoughts of securing this boat

before she might be sunk by numbers. There appeared not more than a

moment for consideration; to remain and perish with the ship's company,

to whom I could not be of use any longer, or seize the opportunity,

which was the only way of escaping, and leave the people, with whom I

had been so well satisfied on a variety of occasions that I thought I

could give my life to preserve them--this, indeed, was a painful

conflict, such as, I believe, no man can describe, nor any have a just

idea of who have not been in a similar situation.

"The love of life prevailed. I called to Mr. Rainy, the master, the only

officer upon deck, desired him to follow me, and immediately descended

into the boat, at the after-part of the chains; but not without great

difficulty got the boat clear of the ship, twice the number that the

boat would carry pushing to get in, and many jumping into the water. Mr.

Baylis, a young gentleman fifteen years of age, leaped from the chains

after the boat had got off, and was taken in. The boat falling astern,

became exposed to the sea, and we endeavoured to pull her bow round to

keep her to the break of the sea, and to pass to windward of the ship;

but in the attempts she was nearly filled, the sea ran too high, and the

only probability of living was keeping her before the wind.

"It was then that I became sensible how little, if any, better our

condition was than that of those who remained in the ship; at best, it

appeared to be only a prolongation of a miserable existence. We were,

all together, twelve in number, in a leaky boat, with one of the

gunwales staved, in nearly the middle of the Western Ocean, without a

compass, without quadrant, without sail, without great-coat or cloak,

all very thinly clothed, in a gale of wind, with a great sea running! It

was now five o'clock in the evening, and in half an hour we lost sight

of the ship. Before it was dark a blanket was discovered in the boat.

This was immediately bent to one of the stretchers, and under it, as a

sail, we scudded all night, in expectation of being swallowed up by

every wave, it being with great difficulty that we could sometimes clear

the boat of the water before the return of the next great sea; all of us

half drowned, and sitting, except those who baled, at the bottom of the

boat; and without having really perished, I am sure no people ever

endured more. In the morning the weather grew moderate, the wind having

shifted to the southward, as we discovered by the sun. Having survived

the night, we began to recollect ourselves, and to think of our future


"When we quitted the ship the wind was at north-west or

north-north-west. Fayal had borne east-south-east two hundred and fifty

or two hundred and sixty leagues. Had the wind continued for five or six

days, there was a probability that running before the sea we might have

fallen in with some of the Western Islands. The change of wind was death

to these hopes; for, should it come to blow, we knew there would be no

preserving life but by running before the sea, which would carry us

again to the northward, where we must soon afterwards perish.

"Upon examining what we had to subsist on, I found a bag of bread, a

small ham, a single piece of pork, two quart bottles of water, and a few

of French cordials. The wind continued to be southward for eight or nine

days, and providentially never blew so strong but that we could keep the

side of the boat to the sea; but we were always most miserably wet and

cold. We kept a sort of reckoning, but the sun and stars being somewhat

hidden from us, for twenty-four hours we had no very correct idea of our

navigation. We judged, at this period, that we had made nearly an

east-north-east course since the first night's run, which had carried us

to the southeast, and expected to see the island of Corvo. In this,

however, we were disappointed, and we feared that the southerly wind had

driven us far to the northward. Our prayers were now for a northerly

wind. Our condition began to be truly miserable, both from hunger and

cold; for on the fifth we had discovered that our bread was nearly all

spoiled by salt water, and it was necessary to go on allowance. One

biscuit divided into twelve morsels for breakfast, and the same for

dinner; the neck of a bottle broken off, with the cork in, served for a

glass, and this filled with water was the allowance of twenty-four hours

for each man. This was done without any sort of partiality or

distinction; but we must have perished ere this, had we not caught six

quarts of rain water; and this we could not have been blessed with, had

we not found in the boat a pair of sheets, which by accident had been

put there. These were spread when it rained, and when thoroughly wet

wrung into the kid with which we baled the boat. With this short

allowance, which was rather tantalising than sustaining in our

comfortless condition, we began to grow very feeble, and our clothes

being continually wet, our bodies were in many places chafed into sores.

"On the 13th day it fell calm, and soon after a breeze of wind sprang up

from the south-south-west and blew to a gale, so that we ran before the

sea at the rate of five or six miles an hour under our blanket, till we

judged we were to the south ward of Fayal and to the westward sixty

leagues; but the wind blowing strong we could not attempt to steer for

it. Our wishes were now for the wind to shift to the westward. This was

the fifteenth day we had been in the boat, and we had only one day's

bread and one bottle of water remaining of a second supply of rain. Our

sufferings were now as great as human strength could bear, but we were

convinced that good spirits were a better support than any great bodily

strength; for on this day Thomas Matthews, quarter-master, the stoutest

man in the boat, perished from hunger and cold; on the day before he

complained of want of strength in his throat, as he expressed it, to

swallow his morsel, and in the night drank salt water, grew delirious

and died without a groan. As it became next to a certainty that we

should all perish in the same manner in a day or two, it was somewhat

comfortable to reflect that dying of hunger was not so dreadful as our

imagination had represented. Others had complained of these symptoms in

their throats; some had drunk their own urine; and all but myself had

drunk salt water.

"As yet despair and gloom had been successfully prohibited; and as the

evenings closed in, the men had been encouraged by turns to sing a song,

or relate a story, instead of supper; but this evening I found it

impossible to raise either. As the night came on it fell calm, and about

midnight a breeze of wind sprang up, we guessed from the westward by the

swell, but there not being a star to be seen, we were afraid of running

out of the way, and waited impatiently for the rising sun to be our


"As soon as the dawn appeared we found the wind to be exactly as we had

wished, at west-south-west, and immediately spread our sail, running

before the sea at the rate of four miles an hour. Our last breakfast had

been served with the bread and water remaining, when John Gregory,

quarter-master, declared with much confidence that he saw land in the

south-east. We had so often seen fogbanks, which had the appearance of

land, that I did not trust myself to believe it, and cautioned the

people (who were extravagantly elated) that they might not feel the

effects of disappointment, till at length one of them broke out into a

most immoderate fit of joy, which I could not restrain, and declared he

had never seen land in his life if what he now saw was not land.

"We immediately shaped our course for it, though on my part with very

little faith. The wind freshened, and the boat went through the water at

the rate of five or six miles an hour; and in two hours' time the land

was plainly seen by every man in the boat, at a very great distance, so

that we did not reach it till ten at night. It was at least twenty

leagues from us when first discovered; and I cannot help remarking, with

much thankfulness, the providential favour shown to us in this instance.

"In every part of the horizon, except where the land was discovered,

there was so thick a haze that we could not have seen anything for more

than three or four leagues. Fayal, by our reckoning, bore east by north,

which course we were steering, and in a few hours, had not the sky

opened for our preservation, we should have increased our distance from

the land, got to the eastward, and of course missed all the island. As

we approached the land our belief was strengthened that it was Fayal.

The island of Pico, which might have revealed it to us, had the weather

been perfectly clear, was at this time capped with clouds, and it was

some time before we were quite satisfied, having traversed for two hours

a great part of the island, where the steep and rocky shore refused us a

landing. This circumstance was borne with much impatience, for we had

flattered ourselves that we should meet with fresh water at the first

part of the land we might approach; and being disappointed, the thirst

of some had increased anxiety almost to a degree of madness, so that we

were near making the attempt to land in some places where the boat must

have been dashed to pieces by the surf. At length we discovered a

fishing canoe, which conducted us into the road of Fayal about midnight,

but where the regulation of the port did not permit us to land till

examined by the health officers; however, I did not think much of

sleeping this night in the boat, our pilot having brought us some

refreshments of bread, wine, and water. In the morning we were visited

by Mr. Graham, the English consul, whose humane attention made very

ample amends for the formality of the Portuguese. Indeed, I can never

sufficiently express the sense I have of his kindness and humanity both

to myself and people; for I believe it was the whole of his employment

for several days to contrive the best means of restoring us to health

and strength. It is true, I believe, there never were more pitiable

objects. Some of the stoutest men belonging to the Centaur were

obliged to be supported through the streets of Fayal. Mr. Rainy, the

master, and myself, were, I think, in better health than the rest; but I

could not walk without being supported; and for several days, with the

best and most comfortable provisions of diet and lodgings, we grew

rather worse than better."

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