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Royal Naval Biography/Nesbitt, Alexander


ALEXANDER NESBITT, Esq.
[Commander.]

Was made a lieutenant into the Nautilus sloop. Captain Edward Palmer, on the Mediterranean station, Nov. 12th, 1805. In May following, he commanded the boats of that vessel, under the orders of Lieutenant Sir William Parker, Bart, of the Renommée frigate, whom he “gallantly supported” in a successful attack upon the Spanish national schooner Giganta, lying moored under the guns of Torre de Vieja, with boarding nettings up, and in every respect prepared for an obstinate resistance.

On the morning of Jan. 5th, 1807, the Nautilus was wrecked upon a rock, about four or five miles from Peri, a small uninhabited island in the Archipelago, between Cerigo and Cerigotto: the consequent sufferings of her officers and crew are thus described by one of the former:

“H.M. late sloop Nautilus left the Bay of Abydos, in the Hellespont, charged with despatches of an urgent nature to the Commander-in-chief off Cadiz. A fine fresh wind from the N.E. carried us rapidly clear of those celebrated castles which defend the entrance of the Dardanelles. On the 4th Jan. about 5 p.m., we made Falconera, and, shortly after, Anti-Milo, fourteen or sixteen miles N.W. of the extensive island of Milo, which we could not see, from the weather being thick and hazy. Here the pilot gave up his charge of the ship, never having been beyond it; but our captain, having so plainly seen Falconera and Anti-Milo, determined to go on during the night.

“The wind continued to increase; and though our ship had but little sail set, yet we went at the rate of nine knots an hour, for she was assisted by a high following sea, which, together with vivid lightning, made the night particularly awful. On the 5th, at 2-30 a.m., we distinguished high land, which we took to be the island of Cerigotto. We now thought that all was safe, and that we had left every danger behind us. We altered our course to get past this island, and continued to run without accident until 4-30, when breakers were discovered a-head, and immediately the ship struck with most tremendous violence. It is impossible to describe the sensations that predominated at a moment so distressing:– fear, hope, and despair, by turns prevailed. The greater part of those below immediately hurried on deck, which they had scarcely done before all the ladders gave way, and left many struggling in the water that had already rushed into the lower part of the ship. Upon deck all was now confusion and alarm; and when we clearly had ascertained our situation, we could not but consider our destruction as inevitable. Every sea lifted the ship, and then again dashed her on the rock with a force that carried every thing before it. In a very short time we had only the rigging to fly to; the lightning had ceased, the night was extremely dark, and we could not see the length of the ship from us. About an hour before day-light, the main-mast gave way, and we were enabled by it to reach a small rock above water; the struggling and confusion that we experienced in thus far escaping death is not to be described: several of our unfortunate shipmates were drowned, and one man had his arm broken. For a long time the ship sheltered us from the surf; but as our poor vessel broke up, we found our situation every moment becoming more perilous, and that we should soon be obliged to leave the part of the rock we were then on, to wade to another that appeared to be somewhat larger. It was therefore determined to follow the example of our first lieutenant; who, by watching the seas, had safely got to the other side. We had scarcely formed our determination, and prepared to put it in execution, than we had to encounter an immense quantity of loose spars, that were thrown immediately into the channel we had to pass; but we were compelled to be desperate, and at once to risk our fate. Many, in crossing from one rock to the other, were most severely wounded; and we all suffered more at this time, than in gaining the small rock; the loss of our shoes was most severely felt; our feet were dreadfully lacerated, and the legs of many were covered with blood.

“Day-light now began to appear, and soon shewed us the morning of the 5th of January, surrounded with horrors: to us a most memorable morning – what a sight had we to witness ! The sea all around was covered with the wreck of the ill-fated Nautilus; many of our unfortunate companions were seen floating away on spars, and other parts of the wreck: the dead and dying mixed together – without a possibility of our being able to afford them the least assistance. Our much admired ship was a perfect wreck – in two short hours had she been completely destroyed, and her crew placed in a situation that at once reduced them to despair. Our wild and affrighted looks plainly marked our grief and horror: when we considered our real situation, there was nothing left but resignation to the will of Heaven. We found ourselves placed on a barren coral rock, scarcely above the water; and which, from the writer’s recollection, might have been about three or four hundred yards long, and two hundred broad. We were at least twelve miles from the nearest islands, which we afterwards found to be those of Cerigotto, and Pora, at the western entrance of the Archipelago. It was now first reported that a small boat with several men had escaped; but her fate was uncertain: our only hope then was that a vessel might pass near us, and probably might see our signal of distress, which we had raised on a long pole fastened in a hole of the rock. From the neighbouring islands we could not expect relief; they were too far distant. But we were doomed to suffer still greater distress. To avoid the inclemency of the weather, which was extremely severe, we with much difficulty, by the help of a knife and a flint, and with some damp powder taken out of a small barrel washed on shore, endeavoured to make a fire; which after great trouble was accomplished. We then proceeded to make a kind of tent, with pieces of old canvass, boards, and such things as we could find of the wreck; and by these means were enabled to dry the very few clothes we had about us. We had now to pass a long night with little comfort, and without hope: but we were in some measure consoled with the thought, that our fire might perhaps be seen in the night, and he taken for a signal of distress; and it was to this circumstance, and to the exertions made by a brave shipmate, that we who now survive, next to Heaven, owe our existence. The boat, that has been mentioned as reported to have escaped, was a small whale boat, which at the time the ship struck was hanging over the quarter, into which the captain’s coxswain (George Smith), an officer, and eight men got; and by immediately lowering themselves into the water, most providentially escaped; they had, however, to toil at their oars for a considerable time, and at length reached the small island of Pora, after having rowed twelve miles against a very high sea, and with the wind blowing exceedingly hard. They found Pora to he scarcely more than a mile in circumference, on which were nothing hut a few sheep and goats that had been placed there by the inhabitants of Cerigo; who in the summer months come over for the breed of those animals, leaving as many as they think sufficient for the returning season. Some rain water in the hole of a rock, was all the fresh water they could find, and that was barely sufficient to last those that afterward remained for four days, although most sparingly used. Our more fortunate companions had not the least idea, that any but themselves could have escaped a destruction which appeared to them so inevitable; but our fire during the night, which they saw, made them conjecture that some had survived. With this idea the coxswain proposed to risk again the boat, and to endeavour to afford those that might be thus left every possible assistance: though this met with some little objection, yet this brave fellow was determined to assist us, and by his persuasions induced four others to accompany him.

“It was about nine o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, the second day of our shipwreck, that we discovered the whale boat coming towards us; when all uttered a cry of joy! If a reprieve gives to the mind of a criminal emotions that may be fatal to him, what must have been our sensations at the sight of our little boat – but alas, many were too, too sanguine, in this expectation: Why had not the rude and boisterous element rather have swallowed up at once those dear fellow-sufferers, who were afterwards doomed to a lingering and melancholy death: Merciful Providence! forgive the agonizing remembrance that inadvertently dared to ask the question. – The writer of this narrative not but with tears recollect their unhappy fate: the remembrance of their looks, their actions, and never-to-be-forgotten friendship are engraven on his heart: The last dying looks of his departed and lamented friends are still before him. It was his first intention to have given a more particular detail of the sufferings of these individuals; but a regard to the feelings of those relatives they have left, prevents him. It would be impossible to describe the surprise which the sight of so many survivors gave to the brave coxswain and his crew; they soon came near us, and we had the happiness to greet our more fortunate shipmates, and to devise a plan for our release: one difficulty occurred, that of their coming on shore to us, as the surf ran very high, and several of our people imprudently endeavoured to get into the bout. After some little consultation, the captain ordered the coxswain to take on board the pilot, who was a Greek, and to make the best of their way to Cerigotto; where the pilot informed us they would find some families of fishermen, who without doubt would readily relieve us. Soon after the departure of our boat, as if Heaven had decreed our destruction, the wind began to increase, and dark black clouds fast approached us: we had all the apprehensions of a violent storm: in about two hours it reached us, and blew with the greatest fury: the waves rose considerably, and soon destroyed our fire. The rock was nearly covered, and we were compelled to fly to a small part rather higher than the rest; the only part indeed that could afford us any shelter. There nearly ninety men passed a night of the greatest horror: a small rope fastened round the summit of the rock, and with difficulty holding on by each other, were the only means we had of preventing ourselves from being swept away by the surf, which every moment broke over us. The fatigues we had already gone through, and more particularly those of this night, were too much for many of my unfortunate shipmates: several became delirious – their strength was exhausted, and they could hold on no longer. Our affliction was still further increased before the morning, by the fears we entertained, which appeared probable, that the wind might draw more round to the north, so as to bring the sea to the place where we then were; in which case one wave would inevitably have swept all of us into oblivion. It may appear incredible that we could have sustained so many hardships as we had already gone through: one poor fellow, in crossing the channel between the rocks at an improper time, was violently dashed against the crags, so as to be nearly scalped, and presented a dreadful object to our view – he lingered out during the night, and the next morning expired. His more fortunate survivors were but ill prepared to meet the terrible effects of famine – our strength exhausted – our bodies without covering – and hope again exhausted: we feared for the safety of our boat – she might be lost. The storm came on soon after she left us, and before it was possible she could have reached the island. It is a great and merciful God that we have to thank as the cause of our preservation; the minds of every one of us will be ever impressed with an awful recollection of our miraculous deliverance, particularly when we remember the afflicting scene that day-light presented. The cold and wounded bodies of our departed shipmates were seen, who but one hour before had been cheering us to support our miseries; some expiring – all exhausted by fatigue. The sea all night passing over us, and the extreme severity of the weather had so completely exhausted us, that many had died from cold alone. It is now that the writer of this narrative has to relate an instance of inhumanity, that leaves on the character of the crew of a vessel, yet unknown, the greatest degree of infamy – whoever they were, they are a disgrace to the country to which they belong:– if they have the common feelings of men, they will surely experience some remorse when they learn that not less than thirty brave fellow-creatures fell a sacrifice to their unexampled cruelty. It was some time after daylight, when we perceived a vessel, with all sail set, coming down before the wind, and steering directly for us: as well as our weak state would permit, we made every possible signal of distress; which at last was seen, and the vessel hove-to and hoisted out her boat. What delight it gave us! We prepared immediately to form rafts to take us through the surf, not doubting but the boat was provided with every thing to relieve us: who then can judge of our agony, when this boat full of men, dressed after the manner of Englishmen, came within pistol-shot, looked at us for a few minutes, and then rowed off again to their ship: Still more to distress us, during the whole of the day, they were employed in taking up the wreck of our unfortunate sloop.

“All that melancholy time we anxiously watched the return of our boat, thinking to send her to the vessel; but we saw nothing of her, and our fears that she was lost were still further confirmed. But how can any descriptioD be given of the agitation – the despondency – that we this day experienced. We had nothing before us but the most gloomy prospect of death: our fellow-creatures had seen our distress, and instead of relieving us, had taken advantage of our misery: if it were just to utter an anathema against the most abandoned of men, with how much justice would it be allowed to us to utter it on those villains who had so inhumanly abandoned us. Our thirst was now become intolerable; and some were desperate enough to resort to salt water to allay it: instances were cited of its terrible effects, but without avail; and we had soon the grief to learn by experience, what we had to expect in following the examples of out companions – in a few hours it brought on a violent madness, with which nature could not struggle, and she was consequently soon exhausted. Full of every idea that could terrify our imagination, we had again to pass a most miserable night. The weather was, however, considerably more moderate, and we had hopes to pass this night with more comfort than the last: we endeavoured to preserve ourselves from the cold, by pressing close to each other, and by covering ourselves with the few rags we had left. We soon found ourselves particularly drowsy, but could not sleep: the ravings of our companions, who had drank the salt water, were truly horrid; all that could be said to console them was ineffectual. In the middle of the night we were unexpectedly hailed by the crew of the whale boat; our first cry was. Water! they had none! they could not procure any but earthen vessels, and these could not have been conveyed through the surf. The coxswain, however, informed us, that in the morning a large fishing vessel would take us off the rock, and with this we were obliged to be content: it was some consolation to learn that our boat was safe, and that we had so far succeeded in procuring relief. All anxiously awaited the coming of the morning – Alas, the fourth morning came, more gloomy than those that had preceded it: no boat – no vessel appeared – there was not the least mitigation of our sorrow and our distress: all that we had heard from the boat now appeared like a dream – an illusion of our distempered brain: but still we clung to some distant hope, and that preserved us. The sun for the first time had this day cheered us with his rays, and we could not but feel gratitude for having so far escaped death: but to preserve ourselves still longer, what were we to do? Our misery and hunger were extreme: we knew that unfortunate men in our situation had been reduced to adopt means that even then we thought of with disgust. Yet when those horrid means were the only ones left to preserve life, we might in some measure be excused in adopting them. Such were the ideas that were then suggested to us, and we prepared for the mournful event – it cost us thousands of tears. With the most awful sense of the dreadful alternative that became men in our unhappy state, we selected a young man who had died the night before; and having offered our prayers to Heaven to forgive us, we tasted human flesh: how far it relieved us is uncertain; many had not power to masticate; their throats were completely ulcerated, and the saliva had ceased to flow. Toward evening death made hasty strides, and many brave men fell; amongst whom was our beloved captain and first lieutenant. An eulogium is due to their virtues: their memories deserve more than the writer’s feeble ability has power to dictate. * * * * * * The sullen silence that was preserved by every one, plainly marked our grief and increased our despair: we had again to pass another night, which to all of us appeared endless. We could not obtain any sleep: we thought the morning never would come!

“Daring the course of this night, was suggested by many the possibility of forming a raft that would carry us to Cerigotto, as the wind was favorable, and might aid us in reaching that island: at all events it appeared better to do this, than to remain where we were, to die of hunger and thirst. Accordingly at day-light we prepared to put our plan in execution: some of the larger spars were placed together, and great hopes were entertained that we should succeed. The eventful moment of launching the raft through the surf came; but it brought only disappointment; a few moments destroyed a work that some of our strongest men had been labouring at for hours, yet this was not sufficient for the few who were become from this disappointment absolutely desperate. Five men resolved to trust themselves to a few small spars they had weakly lashed together, on which they had scarcely room to stand, and, bidding us farewell, they launched out into the sea: in a short time we had the grief to see those poor fellows swept away by the current, which they did not know was so strong among those islands, and a few minutes took them for ever from our sight.

“Towards the afternoon, our whale boat again arrived, and the coxswain informed us, that he had found great difficulty in prevailing on the Greek fishermen to trust themselves in their boats; they were afraid of the weather, and would not permit our own men to take their boats without them: he gave us hopes that the next day, if the weather remained fine, they might be induced to fetch us: he spoke of the fatigues he had undergone, and the sorrow he had experienced in not yet relieving us. While he was relating these circumstances, twelve or fourteen of our men plunged themselves into the water, and very nearly reached the boat: two got so far that they were taken in, one man was drowned, and the rest providentially again reached the rock. The coxswain saw the danger of his situation, and immediately left us. How we envied those two men who had escaped; but those who returned were very justly censured for the step they had taken: had they accomplished their object in reaching the boat, they certainly would have swamped her, and then our fate would have been determined for ever. The events of this day entirely occupied our minds, but it increased our weakness. Toward evening, the writer of these pages found himself fast approaching to annihilation; his eyesight began to fail; his senses were confused; and his strength was most visibly exhausted: he turned his eyes on the setting sun, perhaps the last sun he was ever again to witness – he was struck with unutterable grief. This last night of our miserable situation passed, without his being scarcely sensible of its events; and he cannot but feel gratitude to an Almighty Providence in escaping from such a night of danger. He was astonished in the morning to find himself alive, and more particularly when he found that several very strong men had fallen in the night. We were reflecting on their fate, and considering this day as the last of our lives, when unexpectedly the cry of The boats are coming! was heard: now does language fail in relating the extravagant joy that possessed us; the little blood we had left, rushed to our hearts at the long expected moment of relief. Our little boat with four large fishing vessels was very near us, and shortly after the crew landed: they brought with them a large quantity of water, of which they suffered us to drink most plentifully. Ah! little did we before this moment know, how many blessings we had enjoyed in simply possessing fresh water; more delicious than the finest wines, more grateful than it is possible to convey an idea of. We trust that our prayer of thanksgiving reached the throne of God.

“Anxious to leave a spot on which so many of our dear friends had terminated a life of sufferings, we eagerly prepared for our departure for the island of Cerigotto; where we arrived about six o’clock in the evening, after passing six days from the night before the ship struck: until the following Saturday at noon, we had not taken the least kind of sustenance, unless the little we had with so much disgust received might be called so, and it was not every one that partook of it. It undoubtedly was an unparalleled instance of a most miraculous deliverance, and of a series of sufferings scarcely credible. Had we been left until the next day, very few would have survived to tell the melancholy tale: our loss amounted to fifty-eight men, out of 122, the number on board at the time of our shipwreck, of which eighteen, as we supposed, were drowned when the ship struck: five were lost on the small raft, one was drowned in trying to get to the boat, and thirty-four perished by famine.”

Mr. Nesbitt, who was then second lieutenant of the Nautilus, obtained a commander’s commission in Jan. 1809; married, in 1811, Maria, youngest daughter of William Fisher, Receiver-General for the county of Norfolk; and died, we believe, in the year 1824.