On the evening of October 22nd, 1707 a tragedy of such catastrophic proportions occurred in the waters off of England, the reverberations are still felt today.
Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was a hero of Britain's numerous wars, including the Dutch Wars and the War of Spanish Succession. Contemporary paintings show him as portly, with an unsmiling, stern countenance, but he is reputed to have been much loved by those who served under him. In fact, the reverence showed to him by those he led, the people of the country he defended, and his monarch, Queen Anne, is considered to be equal to that of the iconic Horatio Nelson.
The fleet had recently departed from its lackluster campaign against the French at Toulon, and collected in the port below the towering Rock of Gibraltar. Britain typically brought its ships home in September to avoid the severe sea conditions encountered in winter. Shovell had already stayed longer than conventional wisdom considered prudent, but there was more to be done against the French. He decided to split his fleet, leaving roughly half in Gibraltar to continue operations, and the other half, with the Admiral in his 90-gun ship, the Association, to return to England.
Warships that plied the seas during the height of the Baroque period were a marriage of art and might. Ornate, gold gilt carvings adorned the bow and stern and intricately painted frieze covered the upper works. In contrast, the decks were lined with massive cannon, ready to reduce to debris any foe that stood before them. The Association was a perfect example of this marriage with her 90 guns standing ready to hurl destruction at enemy warships and shore installations, and the finest craftsmanship and artwork English artisans could create, gleaming at her sides. A magnificent example of the engineering capabilities of her time, she inspired awe in all that saw her.
The Admiral set sail with his reduced fleet of 21 ships cutting through increasingly rough seas. Conditions only worsened as they proceeded northward towards the English Channel. Visibility dropped so that vessels could barely see each other through the dense fog while seas rose to buffet mercilessly the returning vessels. Without any means of visually determining their position, the ships had to rely on a method called ‘dead reckoning', calculated from the ship's last known position and advanced based on estimated speed and course. Admiral Shovell was convinced he was at the entrance to the English Channel and continued his northeasterly heading, leading the fleet. The logbooks of the other ships in company suggest that at least one other member of the convoy of vessels spotted the imminent danger and tried to warn the Association. Cannons were reputedly fired to gain the attention of the men on the Admiral's ship, but to no avail. Tragedy was about to unfold.
The Association struck the rocks of Gilstone Ledges on the Scilly Isles – well west of where Admiral Shovell believed his position to be. The Association lit lanterns to indicate her precarious position as she struck the rocks, then a short time later, nothing more of her could be seen. The seas had buffeted the wounded vessel until she disappeared beneath the waves. Two more ships followed her with the same chilling result. Ironically, very few sailors of that period had the ability to swim, otherwise the death toll might have been much less. On that horrible night, 2000 men, Admiral Cloudeley Shovell among them, lost their lives due to a simple navigational error. From the three ships, only one man survived. Among the dead were two of Admiral Shovell's stepsons who had followed their benefactor in hopes of a career in the Navy. Bodies continued to wash onto the shores of the small collection of isles for days afterward, along with the smashed wreckage that once had to belonged to the finest warships afloat. Legend has it that the island's inhabitants found the bloated body of Admiral Shovell lying washed up on the shore. Some even suggest that the Admiral survived and was beaten to death by a woman who wanted to steal his emerald ring, although this must surely be a fanciful tale at best.
In one terrible evening, Britain paid a nearly unbearable price. 2000 of her finest fighting men, a beloved, courageous leader in the form of Admiral Shovell, and three of Her Majesty's finest fighting warships were lost– not to the French in glorious battle, but to a relatively simple function of mathematics. Queen Anne is said to have been heartbroken at the loss of her gallant Admiral.
In the years following, King George I offered an enormous reward to anyone who could accurately compute longitude, so that such a needless loss never recurs. The development of an accurate timepiece eventually solved the problem and the rest, as they say, is history.
© 2005 Bill Abbott