A Tale of Shipwreck from my Family Tree

A Ship Aground, Yarmouth  - J M W Turner

A Ship Aground, Yarmouth - J M W Turner

As Christmas is a time for curling up in peace with a good story, I thought I’d share this funny little tale from my own family tree.

My mum and great-uncle have been tracing our ancestry back several generations, and during their ongoing investigations my great-uncle discovered a family heirloom - a letter from 1845, written by my great-great-great-great-uncle William Smith to his mother.

The letter was sent from Singleton, New South Wales, and describes how William was stuck on a desert island for five years after his ship was wrecked and his crew murdered and eaten by cannibals.

Fascinated by the tale, my great-uncle examined the letter closer, but after consulting historical records he discovered that not only were the geographical details of the ship’s journey impossible to plot, the place known as Milanther Island didn’t even exist.

After a few more reports, censuses and legal records, he finally uncovered the truth. William Smith had not travelled to Milanther Island on the ‘Friendship’ schooner, nor had he suffered a shipwreck. Instead, he was sent to Sydney on a convict ship in April 1831, arrested for breaking into a warehouse and stealing goods. He spend the next ten years in the custody of the authorities in Sydney, after which he was released on parole for four years. On serving his sentence, he wrote this letter to his mother in an effort to explain his long absence from England and protect his family from the embarrassing truth.

My great-uncle sent his findings to my mum with this message:

‘I am proud to say William was an ancestor of mine, and full of admiration for his tenacity in enduring his period of captivity and his wonderful imagination and storytelling abilities!’

I would have loved to hear a first hand account of this treacherous tale - perhaps its due to William that I love writing and storytelling so much! The letter has been copied below with as much accuracy as possible, and divided into paragraphs for clarity. Enjoy!

July 3rd 1845
New South Wales

My Dear Mother,

I hope you will excuse my not writing to you, as I never expected to write to you again, which you will find related under. Twenty nine of us stout, able men set sail in the ‘Friendship’ schooner on the 2nd of February to trade in the South Sea Islands and on the Coast of Japan. After calling and trading at New Zealand and the Cape of Good Hope, we put into the island of Sierraleone on the Coast of Africa. After trading with the natives of the African Coast we set sail for Stewards Island. From thence we traded with different islands in the South Seas.

On bearing up for the Milanther Island we experienced a most dreadful storm for 8 days. We had to cut away the masts fore and aft the bulwarks and comings washed away. On the fourth day we had to heave everything overboard to lighten the vessel, expecting every moment to go to the bottom. The gale increasing with dreadful fury, on the 5th day the ‘Friendship’ sprang a leak. After overhauling her we found 9 feet of water in her hold. A dreadful sea, running all hands to the pumps in spite of all our exertions and cheering one another up, the water still gaining on us we kept the pumps at work night and day.

On the 7th day the storm became more furious. The men exhausted, our situation now became dreadful, some praying, expecting every moment to be the last. On the 8th day the storm abated so that with great danger we could lower a boat. On overhauling the vessel we found it dreadfully damaged, all hands being summoned up on deck to consult of the best way to be done as it was impossible to save the vessel. On the ninth day the sun appearing and was taken at 12 o’clock. It was found we were about 70 leagues from the Milanther Island.

On the 10th day, finding our vessel so much shattered and unable to live one day more, most of the men refusing to work at the pump, others trying to save the vessel, finding it impossible as she was now sinking fast. On the 11th day, about 8 in the morning, we manned the boats and saw the vessel go to the bottom. The sea getting calm, we now set sail for the Milanther Island, the largest island on the South Sea, and the most horrid cannibals of natives in the known world. On the third day after losing the vessel we came in sight of the island about sundown in the evening.

We thought the best thing to lay to until morning, knowing the natives to be very wild, and was agreed on thinking we could come on terms with them and barter. The wind now blowing very hard, we tried to put into some bay near land for shelter. The natives, seeing our situation, surrounded us with one hundred canoes. We put on to the island, when to our utmost dismay the Captain and 8 of our crew were murdered instantly. We finding no way of escaping, as we were surrounded by water and land by those cannibals, as soon as some of our boat crew jumped on shore they met the same fate.

Then one of the chief’s daughters jumped into the boat, threw her arms around my body. Not knowing what it meant, she was joined by her father who threw a cloak made of skins over my body. That was a sign my life was to be spared. After seeing my companions, 28 in number, all murdered I was now escorted about ten miles from the beach by the woman that saved my life and two hundred natives, not knowing what my fate was to be when arriving at my destination, stripped of everything, the young woman taking me to her hut, giving me a large cloak made of skins. I was made to partake of yams, cocoa nuts, fish and other produce of the island. In the course of a few days, I found the woman who saved my life was to be my wife, she never leaving me night or day.

Not knowing what had become of my companions in the boats, I could not make it out what had become of the bodies until after being two years on the island, I found they had been eaten by the natives. I found one of the boats dry on the beach after repairing her as well as circumstances would allow, making sails of skins, getting what provisions I could. I was determined to make my escape from this scene of despair sailing my frail boat to find some thousands of miles across the ocean. After seven weeks sail making on the island, leaving two children behind me, I arrived in Sydney after being 5 years, 14 days from that port.

For want of space I must now conclude, my dear mother, in good health, your most affectionate, loving son William Smith.

Give my love to my brother and his family. Direct for me to the care of Mr Samuel Ellwell-Maitland, iron-founder, New South Wales. I hope you will write as soon as possible, as I intend to leave for England by the return of post.