Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Day It All Went Wrong

The picture above certainly belays the events we are going to talk about today, but it is fitting none the less. Today's horror took place in the Pacific Ocean on a windjammer differing from this one only in its size. Her name was Frank N. Thayer, she displaced 1,600 tons and as 1885 drew to a close she was carrying a cargo of hemp and tar from the Philippines to the United States.

The merchant vessel was Captained by Robert K. Clarke and on this voyage he had company. His young wife, whose name comes down to us only as Mrs. Clarke and their five-year-old daughter Carrie were also on board. The cruise from New York to Manila had been relatively uneventful until an outbreak of cholera struck the ship. Captain Clarke was forced to leave ill crew members on shore at Manila and take on new - and unknown - hands for the arduous trip back to the States.

The events that followed are discussed in detail in Joan Druett's Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains Under Sail and her research and descriptions are brilliant. One thing that Ms. Druett does not discuss in detail is the not uncommon event that seamen recruited in South Sea ports often had ulterior motives besides simply shipping out and getting paid. As we will see again on Friday when we discuss the bloody mutiny on the whaler Globe, many times the new hands were old criminals. I would purpose that this was the case on the Frank N. Thayer as well.

The men, described as "Malays" by Clarke, were most probably a mix of odd sailors who had previously deserted or been dismissed from other merchantmen. One of the new men, who appears to have been the sort of guy who stepped up to "ringleader" early on, fell ill as the ship cruised out into the Pacific. Clarke did not ship a surgeon but did carry a medicine chest and the man was treated to the best of the Captain and his wife's ability. Evidently the treatment worked, but not to the ringleader's satisfaction.

The new men probably already plans in place to take the ship and her cargo, however our now recovered ringleader got out of hand. Angry at the Captain's medical administrations, full of rage already or just insane, the man persuaded the others who had been picked up in Manila to not just mutiny but to riot. In the middle of the night, the sailor at the wheel had his throat cut. He was tossed overboard to be followed by the slashed and bleeding bodies of the first and second lieutenants. Other long time members of the Frank N. Thayer crew who tried to stand up to the mutineers were treated to the same.

Captain Clarke came up on deck to see what the trouble was. He received a cut across his chest so deep and so broad that his lung was exposed. As the chaos continued on deck, Clarke managed to retreat back to his cabin, rouse his wife and child and load two revolvers which he then handed to Mrs. Clarke. He instructed her to shoot on sight any man who came at her with intent to harm, but to save the last rounds for herself and Carrie should the worst occur.

Meanwhile, someone - either the now frenzied mutineers or the regular crew - had set fire to the extremely combustible cargo. What was left of the old time Frank N. Thayers managed to launch a boat from the fo'csul. The Captain's wife saw her now fading husband and her daughter into the boat and then she turned back into the mayhem.

Mrs. Clarke ran through the black smoke, gore and rioting on deck to the great cabin. She retrieved the necessary instruments of navigation - the sextant, chronometer and charts - and hurried back to the boat. Once Mrs. Clarke had returned, the boat was launched into the black ocean. Mrs. Clarke bandaged her husband's crippling wound, settled her daughter in and then stitched blankets together to make a sail. Six days later what remained of the crew made it to shore with only dehydration and sunburn to show for it. Captain Clarke survived his wounds.

Frank N. Thayer most probably burned to the waterline and what became of the men on board her is undocumented. The area of the Pacific where she went down is notoriously full of sharks, however, so it is very possible that at least some were devoured. The insurance company declared the ship a total loss.

Mrs. Clarke - the woman without a first name - is one of those unsung heroes of the sea that did what was necessary at the time, most probably without giving it a lot of thought until after the fact. That she made sure her family survived may very well have been her greatest reward.

It may be over for Mrs. Clarke but we're only half way through Horror on the High Seas Week. Tomorrow: Torture Porn Part II - Henry Morgan loves the ladies!

4 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another good one. Mrs. Clarke was remarkable indeed. I don't know why, but the ship's name, "Frank N. Thayer" makes me chuckle. Maybe because it's too close to Frank N Furter or maybe because I'm just a chucklehead...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Its kind of a funny name for a ship really. But then, there have been lots of those...

Marge said...

I am the great-great granddaughter of Captain & Mrs. Clarke...if you have a great interest in the tales of this era feel free to contact me @ denali1999@comcast.net I actually have the pistols used to wound the malays that mutinied the ship...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Marge! So pleased to hear from you. Your great-great grandparents truly were heroes. I'll certainly be in touch. Thank you so much for stopping by; hope you make it a habit.