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Monday 19 June 2017

The Unfortunate Captain Peirce by Philip Browne - a review

Front cover of The Unfortunate Captain Peirce by Philip Browne

Tales of shipwreck and lives lost at sea were commonplace in Georgian England. For a maritime tragedy to grab the headlines and become talked about across the nation, it needed to pack a serious emotional punch.

The wreck of the Halsewell, an East Indiaman, off Dorset in early January 1786, had all the right ingredients. It was the captain’s final voyage, his daughters were just two of a bevy of young female passengers, even after reaching shore the survivors were in mortal danger, and there was a dramatic clifftop rescue. Added to that was the whiff of scandal, indeed several, around the behaviour of the sailors, the East India Company, and the tragic captain himself.

All of this story has been captured in the excellent book researched and written by Philip Browne.

More than just a shipwreck

I’ve read several shipwreck narratives and the problem for the author is that the wreck itself doesn’t provide enough material for an entire book.

Philip Browne addresses this by giving us the entire history of Captain Richard Peirce. It’s a thorough account of a sailor who rose through the ranks, and made his fortune, while travelling to and from India and China.

It makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the maritime history of late Georgian England, or the operation of the East India Company. Peirce’s voyages are described in detail, and the narrative gives plenty of insights into life aboard and around an East Indiaman.

East India House from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
East India House from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
The career of Richard Peirce

Richard Peirce joined the crew of an East Indiaman in 1759, aged 20. He presumably had earlier, undocumented, crewing experience. Philip Browne can’t trace his precise origins, and offers various theories as to his parentage and early life.

His first voyage to India, as a junior officer aboard the Houghton, was a round trip of twenty-nine months. After two more journeys to and from the east, each time at a more senior rank, he became captain of the Earl of Ashburnham in 1768.

As he tells Peirce’s story, Philip Browne provides considerable detail around the workings of the East India Company, and the opportunities it offered its officers to earn extra money from conducting private trade. As Peirce accumulated sea miles, his wealth increased, allowing him to marry and take a house in Kingston, outside London.

East Indiamen also carried passengers to India, including young women whose families wished them to find and marry a young man who was making his fortune in the east. It seems that on arrival, these women could soon expect to receive an offer, there being few eligible English women available.

In late 1778, Peirce was commander of a fresh, new ship, the Halsewell. He sailed her to and from the east twice, before setting out on his final journey in the freezing winter weather of very early January 1786.

The wreck of the Halsewell in 1786

The Halsewell East Indiaman from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
The Halsewell East Indiaman from The Old East Indiamen by EK Chatterton (1914)
Passengers aboard the Halsewell included two of Peirce’s daughters, both teenagers, who were journeying to India in anticipation of finding a husband. They were joined by other young ladies, including two cousins.

In snowy and icy conditions, Captain Peirce sailed his ship along the south coast and into a storm. The Halsewell took a battering and began several desperate days of attempted escape, ending with the ship being pulverised on the rocks of the Dorset coast.

The account of those final days was later published, based on the stories of several of the survivors. They told of how in the early part of the storm some of the sailors refused to obey commands to help, and how several feet of water accumulated in the ship’s hold before anyone spotted there was a problem.

As he tried to take his ship to shelter, Captain Peirce lost control of her to the weather. In the early hours of 6 January 1786, the Halsewell crashed against rocks at the base of a high cliff. There, in the darkness, the waves slowly pulled the vessel to pieces while the Captain, his daughters and many others cowered in his quarters. Survivors later described the scene, which various artists tried to capture in paintings and verse.

Those who somehow scrambled onto the slippery rocks were still in danger. No one knew they needed rescue, until some of them clawed their way up the cliff and walked inland to raise the alarm. Even then they may have feared for their lives, as local coastal communities had a reputation for being more interested in salvaging goods than caring for victims.

However, local quarrymen quickly set up ropes to lift survivors from the rocks, under the guidance of a local farmer and a clergyman. Being wrecked at the base of the cliffs meant the Halsewell offered little opportunity for immediate salvage.

Captain Peirce, his daughters, their cousins, and many others did not survive the wrecking of the Halsewell.

The aftermath of the wreck

Philip Browne continues the story beyond the wreck, exploring its impact on the nation. The loss of so many young women, presented through vivid eye-witness accounts of their fate, stirred emotions across the land.

Questions were asked about the ethics of shipping girls to India as brides, about the failure of sailors to do their duty, and about the competence of Captain Peirce. Had he overloaded his vessel, in order to maximise his profit from his final voyage?

The book explores these questions, and details how the story of the wreck was presented in various arts. It clearly made an impression on the nation, and even King George III went to visit the site of the disaster in 1789.

I recommend The Unfortunate Captain Peirce to anyone interested in late Georgian maritime history, or in the story of the East India Company and how our nation traded with India and China. Thoroughly researched and well-written, it achieves a good balance between telling a story and presenting facts.

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