Saturday, 28 September 2013

On the Lee-Shore: A Page from Naval History

Last week's discussion of club-hauling reminded me of a page of naval history on which I have done some research.

As a teenager, I learned a song with the lyrics "She's like the swallow that flies so high, she's like the river that never runs dry, she's like the sunshine on the lee-shore, I love my love, and love is no more."

The song was clearly written by a land-lubber. For a sailor, there is absolutely nothing romantic about a lee-shore. What it presages is death. Trapped between the wind and the rocks, the only hope for a mariner who finds himself on a lee-shore is to club-haul the vessel, an emergency U-turn with a success rate significantly less than 50%. This is the position in which Captain Philippe Dauvergne, the commander of HMS Rattlesnake, found himself on the 11th October 1781. He was on the barren, rocky coast of the island of Trinidada, in the South Atlantic.

     Philippe Dauvergne. The picture is in the public domain.

His attempt to club-haul the vessel failed, and the ship ran aground. Remarkably, Dauvergne managed to save all but four of his crew. Other ships were in the area, and Captain Edward Pasley of HMS Jupiter offered to evacuate Dauvergne and his men.  Dauvergne's commands, however, were to establish a colony on the island, and he insisted on seeing this through. Pasley sailed away, leaving Dauvergne and his companions on the island. This was Robinson Crusoe with a cast of 24 men and one woman (Rebecca Stephens, the wife of a Warrant Officer). Pasley also left them with "a bull, a calf, a he-goat and a she-goat, a ram and three ewes."

The island of Trinidada. Picture: John Vergeris, licensed under CCA.

We know little of what happened on the island, since no log-book survives. There are descriptions of the island in Pasley's published sea-diaries, in Frederick Marryat's novel, Frank Mildmay, and in Edward Knight's (1889) non-fiction account, The Cruise of the Alerte. Reading between the lines of these accounts, I think it likely that Dauvergne established a village of stone-built houses on the east side of the island (Knight thought this to have been a Portuguese penal colony), and that he planted beans and maize (the maize may not have been entirely successful, but the beans clearly were, since they were growing wild on the island when Knight visited). There also seems to have been a disastrous fire on the western side of the island, which may have been started accidentally by members of Dauvergne's crew. They must have suffered many difficulties, not least on account of the land-crabs, which Knight describes as having raided his supplies and nipped himself and his companions on a nightly basis.

             A land-crab. Picture: Gargolylesoftware, licensed under CCA.

When, on 27th December 1782, HMS Bristol arrived off the coast of Trinidada, and put a party ashore, Dauvergne and his men were close to starvation. They were taken aboard the ship, which was en route for India. There Dauvergne was court-martialled and exonerated. A treaty had, by this stage, been concluded between Britain and Portugal, ending any British claims to Trinidada. It is now a Brazilian naval outpost. I did, at one stage, have the intention of writing a novel about the Trinidada episode, but gave up when I realised that I had no prospect of ever visiting the island. It seemed to me that the physicality of the place would have been so firmly imprinted on the minds of those who had been trapped there that I could hardly do justice to their experience without seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching it myself. It will, however, feature in one of my short stories.

HMS Bristol and HMS Hector. William Elliott, 1784 (the picture is in the public domain).

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Dauvergne returned to his native Jersey, where he established La Correspondence, a network of spies that liaised closely with royalists in France. Trinidada was far behind him, but it is unlikely that he, or any of his companions, ever forgot the eighteen months they spent in one of the most barren and inhospitable places on Earth.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. A very interesting story, Mark. I'm intrigued, though, when you say that when HMS Bristol arrived Dauvergne and his MEN were near starving. No mention of the wife, the poor and only woman on the island. There's a story begging to be told there, for sure.

  2. We don't even know for certain that the woman (though there clearly was one) was Rebecca Stephens. I think it overwhelmingly likely that she was. Even if this was the case, we know nothing of who she was, but here's my guess, which forms the basis of my short story (this is fiction, not history - I have not a shred of evidence). Might she, perhaps, have been a native American? If she was, for example, an Iroquis, it would explain the presence of the beans, which might have made the difference between life and death for the entire crew. That's the line I take in my story, which I'm afraid I can't share as it's entered for a certain prize, the terms of which include a stipulation that no part of it can previously have been published. I'll be having breakfast tomorrow at Costa Coffee...

  3. I wonder if 'sunshine on a lee-shore' is expressing relief that it isn't stormy approaching the lee shore?