It is a truth as old as sailing itself: sailors are afraid of fire. To this day a fire aboard ship is something that will get the adrenaline pumping in every man jack on deck as surely as combat. That awful unwelcome guest must be smothered as soon as possible or the consequences can be catastrophic. And that's in a ship made of steel.
When ships were made of wood it wasn't just the wood you had to worry about. Ships were routinely filled with flammables such as tar, pitch, alcohol and of course black powder. Even in the most unkempt freebooter these items were generally kept in separate areas and a powder room or magazine was designated only for the storage of that necessary combustible. But not everyone is careful, or sober, aboard every ship and accidents unfortunately happen. We'll deal with this subject in the heat of battle in another post but here are some infamous accidents that did no one any favors aboard the ships they struck.
Jean Baptiste Labat in his 1722 Voyages Among the Islands of America tells the story of a "rogue" gunner aboard a British ship who was secreting barrels of black powder among the splinter netting and rolled up hammocks. His plan was to sell "the King's powder" for his own profit. Unfortunately some stray spark, most probably from the galley stove on the gun deck, ignited one of the barrels and sixty of the gunner's fellow seaman were killed in the ensuing explosion. The gunner, who survived the firestorm, was hanged.
Before the late 18th century, when ships lanterns were installed in all but the most ill-fitted out ships, open candle flames were not uncommon. Men also smoked aboard ship, particularly pipes, and then there was that pesky need to cook food. A bucket of tar or pitch could easily catch fire by accident. There is also documentation of barrels of rum being opened and stray sparks falling into them setting the liquor aflame. Barrels of alcohol have been known to explode in such situations.
There are repeated and awful descriptions in maritime literature from witnesses of such accidents. They speak of men screaming in agony as they jump overboard, whether they could swim or not, or literally blowing up when the fire reached the powder magazine. Burns were not an uncommon injury aboard ship what with the unstable nature of the sea. Galley stoves were frequent culprits as were cannons but a ship on fire was a true terror for the men, boys and animals aboard. One witness, in a boat near HMS Queen Charlotte when she exploded while at anchor off Leghorn in the Mediterranean in 1800, described the "loathsome sweet smell" of burning flesh.
In navies, the danger was sometimes doubled by the urge to be prepared. Some fighting Captains would keep their guns loaded in preparation for battle. If fire got out of control on such a ship, the cartridges filled with black powder in the cannons would "cook off". The guns would discharge their shot and hit or even sink boats heading for the ship to try to affect rescue. This was another factor in the horrible loss of life aboard Queen Charlotte.
Probably the most famous and impressive of all accidental fires aboard a buccaneer occurred on New Years Day 1669 on Henry Morgan's flagship Oxford. Morgan had called a meeting of his Captains, as he always did before setting out on a raid, and with 12 ships and 900 men in attendance he led a counsel while at anchor off Ile a Vache. (Cow Island, a speck of land south of what is now the port of Les Cayes in Haiti, was so named because the Spanish had "seeded" it with cattle for the benefit of their navy; the buccaneers, of course, took full advantage of the largess.)
Once an agreement to sack Cartagena (a mission that never materialized thanks to what happened next) was made, Morgan his Captains and their men began to celebrate. Huge bowls of rum punch were brought out for the captains and the common sailors dipped into hogsheads of rum on deck. Soon most if not all the buccaneers were drunk and the 26 gun Oxford resembled nothing so much as a yacht on a holiday cruise. You know, if one of those things was full of firearms and combustibles.
Alexander Exquemelin tells us that the boys "...drank many healths and discharged many guns as the common sign of mirth among seaman used to be." The sun set in the west and candles were lit so that the party could continue. Morgan presented a fine feast in his cabin and, just as supper was commencing, a thunderous crack was followed by a massive explosion. The powder room had been touched, somehow, by flame.
Half the captains at table with Morgan were killed instantly. The other half, Morgan included, were thrown into the sea but almost miraculously survived. 200 men lost their lives in the explosion itself and others died later from splinter wounds and burns. Oxford was a total loss.
Morgan's unbelievable escape was the talk of the Spanish Main. Most Spaniards agreed that such impossible luck signalled that Morgan was indeed the Devil incarnate. The people of Cartagena, however, whose city was quite literally saved by a freak accident, saw the whole thing as a miracle. Their patron, Nuestra Senora de La Popa, had caused the explosion herself so that Morgan's raiders would leave their city alone.
Divine intervention or no, it didn't stop Morgan's famous raid on Panama. And fires aboard ship, regardless of her nationality or occupation, continued to be the bane of every sailor afloat. Who can begrudge them a healthy dose of respect, and fear?