Casting off

H.M.S. Mayfly set sail from Dartmouth on June 17th, 1774, to begin the long journey to the Promised Land. In command was Captain Brigham Tandy, a veteran of the South Seas and the Bering Strait, now in semi-retirement on the north Atlantic route.

Just before casting off, the Captain was in his cabin with Chief Purser  Abel Dawkins and ship’s surgeon Dr William Monteith, brought together to take part in one of Captain Tandy’s little ceremonies, the ‘Raising of the Glass’, his term for drinking to the success of the forthcoming voyage. All being well, these three gentlemen would re-assemble here at voyage end, for the corresponding ‘Lowering of the Glass’.

A few words were in order: ‘Gentlemen, good health and stout hearts, fair winds and stout timbers, clear skies and comely seas.’ Then all three; ‘Long live the Mayfly!’, and they downed their Amontillados. Then Captain Tandy: ‘Now, gentlemen: on deck!’, which was a bit like saying ‘How about we open the Gates of Hell?’

On a sailing ship, the constant baleful creaking of the timbers, struts and stanchions echoes and quivers along the ropes and lines of sails, through the spars and hawsers and down, deep down, into the cavernous hold below, from where it rises again like the clamorous calling of the dead.

That was the sound that greeted the Captain when he went on deck to oversee the casting off, the heaving-ho, and the heaving-to. ‘Full sail abaft’, he bellowed, and startled 14-year-old cabin boy Edwin Smart, who slipped on the wet rigging and caught his neck in a hauling rope, which tightened in a trice and strangled him.

Master Smart had dreamed of chasing sea-monsters in the Andaman Sea, of finding buried treasure in the Malaccas, and of wallowing in filth in the sweats and stews of Calcutta. They were still close enough to shore to offload his body and give it to his mother, who had travelled from Manchester to wish her son God speed on his first voyage.

Sailors are an ignorant, superstitious lot, so they saw the boy’s death as a bad omen, a harbinger of worse to come. Rabbits’ feet and lucky pennies were touched, rubbed, implored, from bow to stern, but in every case, furtively. ’Not for meself, like, but for the good of the ship’.

Twemlow, too, witnessed the strangulation, from his position near the mainmast. In fact, he took a very keen interest in it. ‘New sights, new sounds already’, he thought, as he watched the boyish features turning purple, the thin, flailing legs. And he heard the dry, desperate rasping from the narrow neck narrowing further. ‘Mayfly’, he smiled to himself, as he turned to look towards the horizon.



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