They Asked if They Could Eat the Body
The story of Nottingham Galley and what happened three hundred years ago on Boon Island.
- By: Andrew Vietze
The captain reluctantly gave his consent, and the crew held a brief funeral for their friend. Then they beheaded him, cut off his hands and feet, and threw the parts into the sea. The body was quartered like a side of beef and cut into pieces. Because they had no fire to cook him, the men were forced to eat the ship’s carpenter raw. A few crewmembers objected due to their religious beliefs, but they, too, eventually relented. It was that or die.
The night was the sort sailors dread. Whatever the cold North Atlantic could throw at the Nottingham Galley it did. A gale drove the British merchant vessel through a dark tunnel of hail and rain and snow. The seas raged all around, lifting the 120-ton ship into the low clouds and then dropping it forcefully down again.
The fifteen-man crew had been fighting the weather ever since they shoved off at Killybegs, Ireland, on September 25, 1710, bound for Boston. Heavy with a load of dairy products and cordage, the Nottingham Galley had spotted land along the Down East coast in early December and set a course for Massachusetts Bay. But the weather grew worse, and for days they could see little but their own decks and rigging.
By the night of December 11, the snow was driving, the winds were blowing gale force, and visibility was virtually nil. The captain, a Royal Navy veteran from Nottingham named John Deane, ordered the sails reefed and a man forward to look out for hazards in the gloom. Somewhere between 8 and 9 p.m. the captain went to the bow to examine conditions for himself. And it wasn’t long before he spied breakers to port. Deane ordered the ship to cut hard to starboard, but it was too late. The boat came to a sudden, crunching halt, hitting a ledge with “great violence,” as the captain recalled later. Waves began to slam the side of the heavy vessel, each time forcing it down onto the rock. Deane told his men to cut the mast and see what they could find to drop it on.
“The weather was so thick and dark that we could not see the rock, so that we were justly thrown into consternation at the melancholy prospect of immediately perishing in the sea,” he’d write in a bestselling account of the tale.
The captain told the strongest swimmers to see if they could pull themselves out onto the ledge they’d hit and then went below to gather money, papers, brandy, and ammunition. But he found “the ship bulging, her decks opened, her back broke, and her beams gave way, so that the stern sunk under water. I was, therefore, hastened forward to escape instant death.” He bolted for the deck and followed his men, jumping off the ship into the black.
Many Mainers know what happened next. The wreck of the Nottingham Galley is one of the most renowned shipwreck sagas ever, holding its own with any chronicle of survival and despair. “A British historian told me this story was as famous a seafaring tale in the first half of the eighteenth century as the mutiny on the Bounty became in the second half,” says historian Richard Warner, who wrote the introduction to Boon Island, Kenneth Roberts’ novel about the incident. What separated this story from so many others, however, were the grisly events that unfolded among the castaways who were stranded on a small rock six miles off York for almost a month in winter.
Even in more modern times the story of Boon Island, the name of the tiny isle the Nottingham Galley hit, still resounds. Kennebunkport’s master of historic fiction, Kenneth Roberts, sold thousands of copies of his rousing 1955 account. Contemporary lighthouse lovers hear the tale when they inquire about the unique light on the island, Maine’s tallest beacon at 137 feet, which is now under the care of the Rockland-based American Lighthouse Foundation. University of Maine students studied the Nottingham Galley and helped raise cannons and other artifacts from her in 1995 when it looked like those cannons might be looted by unscrupulous divers. The guns made it to the Maine State Museum in Augusta, which is preparing an exhibit around them.
As is often the case, though, most people have heard only part of the story. There’s more to this dark episode — which happened exactly three hundred years ago this month — than most know.
Captain Deane barely made it off the boat before the sea claimed her, and when he did he was desperate to find firm ground. “I threw myself with all the strength I had toward the rock; but it being low water, and the rock extremely slippery, I could get no hold . . . every crash of the sea fetching me off again.”
When he was finally able to scratch his way onto Boon Island, Deane was amazed to find that all of his men were accounted for. They set about searching in the dark for some sort of shelter from the winds and water, but found the rock “so small and inconsiderable that it would afford none.” Thus, the group hunkered down as best they could and waited for the light to rise in the east and show them just how bad their situation was.
When the new day dawned the men had two objectives — explore their new home and look for anything they could salvage from their demolished ship that might help them against the elements. The former was easy — Boon Island was not much of an island at all — more a large rock. It was entirely exposed, with no vegetation or outcrops to provide any sort of cover, and it was all of a tenth of an acre, three hundred by seven hundred feet, barely rising out of the sea. At its very tip the isle was just fourteen feet above sea level. Any seaman knew that in another storm the water could easily rise that high, submerging the island.
While they were looking about, the men discovered a few pieces of canvas sail and wood fragments from their ship jammed into crevices. These they used to make a tent that all the men could crawl into. That was the only good news, though. The other wood they collected was too wet to ignite, providing no relief from the bitter cold, which from that first day began to eat away at exposed flesh.
Captain Deane was fairly certain he knew where they were because he could see the mainland. For the first few days, the men held out hope that a fishing vessel would pass by and see their tent, on top of which they tied a flag. They lay inside the meager structure in quarters so cramped they had to roll over as a unit if anyone wanted to relieve the pressure of rock on their side. After three days, they began to cut their boots off, fearing that they’d lose their feet otherwise. “Many whose legs were blister’d, pull’d off Skin and all, and some the nails of their toes,” recalled Captain Deane.
The first death came on day two. The ship’s cook could take no more. They laid him where the sea could carry him away. And, though no one admitted it at the time, the desperate men were already harboring cannibalistic thoughts. They had no food other than rockweed, three small cheeses, and boot leather. There was no “mentioning eating of him, tho’ several with my self afterwards acknowledged, had Tho’ts of it,” wrote the captain.
The sailors of the Nottingham Galley were not the only castaways Boon Island had known. Indeed, so many ships have hit the ledges of the island it seems cursed. That was how the island was first discovered — another English vessel, the Increase, ran aground on it in 1682, stranding four men for thirty-one days. Lucky for them, they made landfall in July, when the temperatures were not deadly, seagulls were laying eggs, and fish were biting. The crew spied smoke from a native ceremony atop Mount Agamenticus and signaled back with a fire of their own. Rescuers arrived shortly thereafter.
Groundings of this sort became so common that, according to legend, local fishermen left a cache of food on the island to help the misfortunate souls who would inevitably become marooned there. Some say this “boon” is the source of the island’s name.
“It’s dangerous because of the rocks that are just below the surface of the water not far from the island,” says Wendy Starkey, a York attorney who swam from the Nubble to Boon Island to raise money for the preservation of southern Maine lighthouses in 2006 and knows the area well. These ledges extend out like arms underneath the water, grabbing at the hulls of vessels that venture too close. “It’s not that it’s a curse,” Starkey says, “boats just don’t do well when they run onto shoals.”
In 1799 Congress appropriated four hundred dollars for the construction of a lighthouse to warn sailors away from the island, and a wooden tower was built. It lasted five years before being overwhelmed in a storm. A beacon was put in place shortly thereafter and three of the workers died when their boat overturned as they pulled away from the island. A new light was erected, and this, too, was washed away in 1831. Today’s light was built in the 1850s as the tallest in New England, and the imposing granite tower has managed to stay in place for more than a century and a half, despite its keeper’s house being demolished in a storm in 1978.
Even with the state’s largest beacon atop it, Boon Island continues to take its toll. In 1921, two fishermen were rescued after spending almost four days in an open boat just off the island. A fisherman was lost nearby in 2000, and that same year, two boaters went missing after their sixteen-foot powerboat overturned. Just last March a kayak was found floating near the island, but the Coast Guard suspended the search for its New Hampshire owner after combing four hundred square miles.
From Boon Island the mainland can be seen on the horizon, and this proved maddening for the men of the Nottingham Galley, almost taunting them. They decided that reaching that distant shore was their best hope for salvation and began constructing a crude vessel using reclaimed timber, investing a great deal of their limited energy in the effort. Two men set off for the mainland upon it and were never seen again.
Despairing when no rescuers appeared, the men began to construct another vessel. They had found a hammer among the wreckage and used stones to serrate the blade of a cutlass, making it into a saw. Freezing temperatures meant the men were only able to withstand a few hours a day outside the tent, but they finally finished the raft, and around the twenty-first of December, the captain and a crewman waded it out into the sea and hopped aboard. But the “swell of the Sea heav’d her long shore, and overset her upon us, (whereby we again narrowly escap’d drowning and stav’d our poor boat all to pieces,” remembered Deane later). Not only did they lose their second boat, but also their precious tools.
This was almost too much for the men to bear. “We were now reduc’d to the most deplorable and melancholy Circumstance imaginable, almost every Man but myself weak to an extremity, and near starved with Hunger and Cold; their Hands and Feet frozen and mortified, with large and deep ulcers in their legs.”
Their hopes were elevated after about a week, when they saw three boats, “about five leagues from us,” as Captain Deane would write. The men were elated, certain they were saved, sure that some of their wreckage had washed ashore and search parties were out looking for them. But they weren’t seen and saw no more ships.
Christmas came and brought with it a small gift — a seagull. The men stoned it and for the first time in weeks were able to gnaw on meat. Perhaps this small sustenance gave them the hankering for more flesh, because days later, when the ship’s carpenter died of starvation, they made the unthinkable decision to eat him.
“After abundance of mature thought and consultation about the lawfullness or sinfullness on the one hand and the absolute necessity on the other, judgment, conscience, etc, were oblig’d to submit to the more prevailing arguments of our craving appetites,” the captain wrote.
He and his mate, Christopher Langman, abstained for the first night, “but next morning complied and earnestly desir’d to partake with the rest.” The others took to the meat heartily, to the dismay of Deane. “I found they all eat with abundance and with utmost greediness, so that I was constrain’d to carry the quarters farther from the tent (quite out of their reach) least they shou’d prejudice themselves by overmuch eating, as also expend our small stock too soon.”
Unbeknownst to the castaways, the wreckage of their raft — and the body of one of its pilots — had indeed washed up on the mainland, and search parties were sent out to find where they came from. Locals knew where to look, and twenty-four days after the Nottingham Galley went aground, a rescue vessel pulled up at Boon Island. Its crew was horrified at what they found. They made an extrication plan, and eventually the men were ferried to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The dark tale of Boon Island didn’t end when the men reached the mainland, though. Even as they were recuperating in Portsmouth, the survivors began to give depositions. Dean was first, writing, “Protest,” a legal document in which he described the circumstances of the wreck and his version of the grievous events that followed, while his crew were convalescing at a local tavern.
Deane’s story is largely what most remember of the event today. First mate Christopher Langman, who had been at odds with the captain at various times during the ordeal, was still too weak to read Deane’s document thoroughly and signed his name alongside the signatures of the rest of the crew.
When he got his wits back, though, Langman quickly repudiated the captain’s account and wrote his own, making a deposition before a justice of the peace in Portsmouth. His testimony was corroborated by two of his fellow sailors, the boatswain, Nicholas Mellen, and seaman George White. Langman accused Deane of intentionally grounding the ship for the insurance money that the owners, Deane and his brother, would receive.
And he said the captain had even tried to lure privateers into taking the ship — twice — on the crossing, and that Deane had assaulted Langman when he tried to stop him from hitting the shoal.
These were bold accusations, and it’s unclear how seriously they were taken by authorities. When Deane returned to England, he published a book about his travails: A Narrative of the Sufferings, Preservation, and Deliverance of Captain John Deane and Company: In the Nottingham Galley of London, castaway on Boon-Island, Near New England, on December 11, 1710.
“It sold very well, and it was reprinted several times,” says historian Richard Warner, who has written a novel based on the life of Captain Deane.
Soon after, Langman came out with his own book in which he vilified Captain Deane. It was he who “propos’d the sleying and eating of the Carpenter’s dead body,” Langman wrote, “and told us, It was no Sin since God was pleas’d to take him out of the World and that we had not laid violent Hands upon him.” The mate cast the captain as the hungriest of cannibals, maintaining that “ . . . the Captain’s Pretensions of being moved with Horror at the Thought of it, are false, for there was no Man that eat more of the Corpse than himself. . . . ”
Like Kenneth Roberts, who called Langman “a liar and a coward,” Warner doesn’t think much of the mate’s account. “The idea that anyone would intentionally run aground on Boon Island in the middle of winter,” Warner laughs, “I don’t think it holds any water at all. Most of the other people that were there at Portsmouth when they landed — a lot of them sea captains themselves — rallied around Deane. His reputation was even promoted by [renowned moralist preacher] Cotton Mather.” Warner figures Langman saw how well Deane’s book was selling and saw an opportunity to “make mischief and a lot of money.”
But Deane’s reputation was tarnished both by the wreck and the ensuing controversy, and he didn’t do himself any favors when he disappeared, running off to become a lieutenant in the Russian navy. Three years after Boon Island, he was given his first command — to take a fifty-gun man-o-war from Archangel to the Baltic — in the winter. By the time his ship docked in Trondheim, Norway, half his crew was dead, raising even more questions about his abilities. After winning many medals for the Russian navy he turned on the Czar and returned to the country as a British spy. He died at the age of eighty-one in Britain.
None of the rest of the crew of Nottingham Galley ever returned to the sea. And to this day no one is certain which cannibal was more honest — captain or mate. Was Deane a hero? Was Langman a liar? Were the men right to eat their comrade? Where lies the truth? It’s awash
- By: Andrew Vietze