The Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates


Chapter 8

Arrival Home-Voyage to Europe-Singular Rock in the Ocean-Sudden Commencement of Winter-Voyage Ended-Another Voyage-Perilous Situation in the Chesapeake Bay-Criterion in Distress-Wrecked in a Snow Storm-Visit to Baltimore-On Board the Criterion Again-Cargo Saved-Another Voyage-Hurricane-Voyage Ended-Married-Another Voyage-Captain Reefing Topsails in his Sleep

THE purser of the cartel allowed each of us about a week’s amount of provision for our voyage. We were highly favored with good weather, and arrived in Boston the third day from New London, when we sold our remaining stock of provisions for enough to pay our passage money and redeem our clothing. A friend and neighbor of my father (Capt. T. Nye,) being in Boston on business, lent me thirty dollars on my father’s account, which enabled me to purchase some decent clothing to appear among my friends. The next evening, June 14 or 15, 1815, I had the indescribable pleasure of being at my parental home (Fairhaven, Mass.), surrounded by mother, brothers, sisters, and friends, all overjoyed to see me once more in the family circle; and all of them exceedingly anxious to hear a relation of my sufferings and trial during the six years and three months that I had been absent from them; for my position on board the British warships, and in prison for the past five years, rendered it extremely difficult, as I have before shown, for any of my letters to reach them. It was well known that for my six-and-a-quarter years’ suffering and labor I had nothing to show but a few old, worn garments, and a little canvas bag which I have had no use for since I was prevented from swimming away from the prison-ship in 1814, except my experience,-the relation of which caused the tears to flow so freely around me that we changed the subject for that time. AJB 96.1

My father had been told by those who thought they knew, that if ever I did return home I would be like other drunken man-o’-war sailors. He was away from home on business when I arrived, but returned in a few days. Our meeting quite overcame him. At length he recovered and asked me if I had injured my constitution. “No, father,” I replied, “I became disgusted with the intemperate habits of the people I was associated with. I have no particular desire for strong drink,” or words to this effect, which very much relieved his mind at the time. I now renewed my acquaintance with my present companion in life, which had commenced at an early age. AJB 97.1

In a few weeks after my return an old schoolmate of mine arrived at New Bedford in a new ship, and engaged me for his second mate to perform with him a voyage to Europe. Our voyage was to Alexandria, D.C., and load for Bremen, in Europe, and back to Alexandria. On our passage out we sailed round the north side of England and Ireland. Sailors call it “going north about.” This passage is often preferred to going on the south side of these islands through the English Channel. In this passage, north-west of Ireland, some over two hundred miles from land stands a lone rock rising some fifty feet above the level of sea, called by navigators, “Rockal.” Its form is conical, having the appearance of a sugarloaf, or light-house, in the distance. We had been running for it, and when we got our observation at meridian, we were drawing close up with this singular rock in the ocean. Our ship being under good headway, with a steady, flowing breeze, our captain ventured to run the ship close by it. The sea was rushing up its glassy sides, as it probably had been doing ever since the deluge, which had given it the appearance of a glassy polish on all its sides, This rock has always been a terror to the mariner when in its vicinity during a storm. What a tragic story could it tell, if it were intelligible, of the ten thousand terrific storms, and ten thousand times ten thousand raging seas rushing on all its sides; and how hundreds of heavy-laden ships, with one bound in a driving storm, dashed in pieces, and the poor heart-stricken mariners, unwarned and unprepared, engulfed at its base-their sad and tragic story never to be known until the resurrection of the dead! And yet it stands as unmoved and undisturbed as when it was first fashioned by its Creator. AJB 97.2

After a prosperous passage we anchored in the river Weser, about thirty miles below Bremen. Winter commenced before we had discharged all our cargo, so that we were embargoed there until the spring. The closing up of these rivers often occurs in one night, and a long winter commences. It is astonishing also to see how rapidly ice will increase in the short space of a six-hour flood tide, even from fifteen to twenty feet thick along its banks. Up to this time we had seen no ice. We were enjoying a very pleasant day; the wind had changed to the east with a clear setting sun. Our captain and a pilot came on board to have the ship moored, and placed between “the slangs”-a kind of wharf running out from “the dyke” to the deep water for the purpose of breaking and turning the ice into the channel from vessels that take shelter there. The inhabitants had predicted ice in the river before morning. A few hours after dark, ice began to make, and increase so fast that with all our square sails filled with a strong wind, and all hands at the windlass, the ship could not be moved toward her anchor, during the flood tide against the running ice. In the morning at sunrise it was deemed advisable to cut the cable at the windlass and press her in between the slangs to save her from being cut to pieces by the ice, and ourselves from inevitable destruction. Fortunately she took the right sheer, and in a few moments the tide and ice bore her between the slangs to the shore along side of the dyke. Dykes are embankments thrown up to prevent the sea from overflowing the low lands. One end of our cables were immediately carried into the meadows and secured to sunken timber to hold us clear of the ice at the flowing and ebbing of the tide. At this time we judged the ice was twenty feet high inside of us on the shore, all of which had accumulated during the night. During the winter our ship was very much damaged by the ice. After repairing her thoroughly, we returned to Alexandria in the summer of 1816. AJB 98.1

I sailed again from Alexandria, chief mate of the brig Criterion, of and for Boston, Mass. From thence we loaded and sailed for Baltimore, where we discharged our cargo, and loaded again and sailed for New Orleans, in January, 1817. In this month commenced one of the severest cold winters known for many years. I will here relate one circumstance as proof of this. A ship from AJB 99.1

Europe with a load of passengers anchored in the Chesapeake Bay, about forty miles below Baltimore. Her passengers traveled on the ice to the harbor and city of Annapolis, distant about two miles. I was in the city of Annapolis at the time, endeavoring to procure cables and anchors to relieve the Criterion from her perilous situation, as I shall further show. AJB 100.1

As we sailed out of the harbor and down the river in the afternoon, we saw the ice was making around us so fast that we were in danger of being seriously injured by it. As we came to the mouth or entrance of the river, the pilot gave orders to prepare to anchor until daylight. The captain and myself objected, and endeavored to persuade him to keep under way and get out of the way of the ice. But he judged otherwise, and anchored in the Chesapeake, at the mouth of the Patapsco river, some sixteen miles below Baltimore. The tide was so low that we grounded on the bank. In this situation the ice cut through our plank before the rise of the tide. All hands were hard at work from early in the morning carrying out anchors and heaving the Criterion over the bank. At the top of the flood-tide we concluded we could sail over the bank, if we could save our anchor. While we were getting the anchor up with the long boat, the tide turned and the ice began to press so heavily upon us that we dropped it again and made our way for the vessel. As we came on the lee side, and were in the act of reaching to get hold of the vessel, the ice suddenly broke away from where it had been held for a few moments on the windward side, and crowded us away from her into a narrow space of clear water, which was made by the breaking of the ice against her broadside, and passing by her bow and stern. By the time we got our oars out to pull up to the vessel, we had drifted several rods to leeward, and the clear place of water so narrowed up that the oars lapped over on the ice and rendered them useless. We then laid hold of the broken edge of the ice to haul her up, but the ice broke in our hands so fast that we could not hold her. The captain and pilot were doing what they could by thrusting oars, and various floating things, and ropes, toward us, but we drifted as fast as the things did, so that in a few moments we were thoroughly enclosed in a vast field of ice that was hurrying us away from our vessel down the Chesapeake Bay as fast as the ebb tide and a strong north-west gale could move us. AJB 100.2

We were all thinly clad in our working-dress, and but little room to move about to keep ourselves from freezing. We had now been in the boat from about two o’clock in the afternoon. At the going down of the sun we looked every way to learn how we should direct our course, if the sea should break up the ice that bounds us. We judged ourselves from twelve to fifteen miles distant from our vessel as she was waning from our view. The distant shore to leeward appeared unapproachable on account of ice. The prospect of deliverance before another day seemed hopeless, even if any one of us should survive the cheerless, bitter cold night before us. A few scattered lights to windward on the western shore of Maryland, some seven or eight miles distant, still gave us a ray of hope, though they were at the time unapproachable. About nine o’clock in the evening the ice began to break away from us, and soon left us in the open sea. We manned our oars and pulled for one of the above-named lights on the windward shore, all of which were extinguished in a few hours. AJB 101.1

After about six hours’ incessant rowing against the wind and sea, the boat struck the bottom about an eighth of a mile from the shore, so loaded with ice that had made from the wash of the sea, both outside and in, that she filled with water soon after we left her, and froze up, leaving the shape of her gunwale level with the ice. AJB 102.1

The second mate waded through the water and ice to the shore to look for a house, while we were preparing to secure the boat. He soon returned with the joyful news that there was one not far off, and the family were making a fire for us. It was now three o’clock in the morning, and we had been about thirteen hours in the boat, with hardly any cessation from laboring and stirring about to keep from freezing, except the last fifteen or twenty minutes. AJB 102.2

I now requested all to get out of the boat. The acute pain on getting into the water, which was about three feet deep, was indescribable, while the frost that was in us was coming to the surface of our bodies. I called again to get out of the boat when I saw that “Tom,” my best man, was at the side of the boat so fast asleep, or dying with the frost, that I could not wake him. I hauled him out of the boat into the water, keeping his head up until he cried out, “Where am I?” and got hold of the boat. One I saw was still in the boat. “Stone!” said I, “why don’t you get out of the boat?” “I will,” said he, “as soon as I get my shoes and stockings off!” He was so bewildered he was not aware that his feet (as well as those of all the rest of us) had been soaking in water and ice all night. We got him out, and all of us started together. By the time we had broken our way through the newly-made ice to the shore, we were so benumbed that we could not crawl up the cliff. I directed the sailors to follow the shore to the first opening, and I would come along with Stone as soon as I could get his shoes on. AJB 102.3

On entering the house I perceived there was a great fire, and the men lying with their feet to it, writhing in agony from their swollen limbs and acute pain. I requested them to remove from the fire. As in the good providence of God we were now all in a place of safety, and I was relieved from my almost overwhelming anxiety and suspense, I moved to the opposite corner of the room, and sank down with exhaustion. As soon as I was relieved by our kind host and his companion, feeling still faint, I got out of the house on the deep snow, where it appeared to me I could hardly survive the excruciating pain which seemed to be racking my whole frame, and especially my head, caused by the frost coming out of my whole body. Thus the Lord delivered and saved me. Thanks to his name. AJB 103.1

By keeping away from the hot fire until the frost came out of my body, I was the only one that escaped from frozen limbs and protracted sickness. Many years after this I fell in with “Tom,” in South America. He told me how much he had suffered, and was still suffering, since that perilous night. AJB 103.2

Captain Merica and his companion (for this was the name of our kind friends,) provided us with a warm meal, and very kindly welcomed us to their home and table. After sunrise, by the aid of a glass, we saw that the Criterion was afloat, drifting in the ice down the bay toward us, showing a signal of distress-colors flying half mast. It was not possible, however, for any human being to approach them while they were in the floating ice. We expected they were in a sinking condition, as she was cut through with the ice before we were separated from her. As the Criterion passed within four miles of the shore where we were, we could see the captain and pilot pacing the deck, watching to see what would be their destiny. We hoisted a signal on the cliff, but they appeared not to notice it. We saw that the Criterion was careened over to starboard, which kept the holes made by the ice on her larboard side out of the water. Before night the Criterion passed us again, drifting up the bay with the flood tide, and so continued to drift about for two days, until in a violent northeast snow storm, she was driven to her final destination and burying-place. AJB 103.3

When the storm abated, with the aid of a spyglass, we saw the Criterion lying on Love Point, on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, distant about twelve miles. As there was no communication with the sufferers only by the way of Baltimore, and thence around the head of the bay, across the Susquehanna, I decided to proceed to Baltimore and inform the consignees and shippers of her situation. Captain Merica said it was about thirty miles distant, and a good part of the way through the woods, and bad roads, especially then, as the snow was about one foot deep. Said he, “If you decide to go I will lend you my horse.” Said his companion, “I will lend you a dollar for your expenses.” After a fatiguing journey from morning until about nine in the evening, I reached Baltimore. The consignees furnished me with money to pay our board on shore as long as we were obliged to stay, and orders to merchants in Annapolis for cables and anchors, if we needed them, to get the Criterion afloat again. AJB 104.1

Some two weeks from the time we were separated from the Criterion, the weather moderated and became more mild, and the drifting ice much broken. Captain Merica, with some of his slaves, assisted us to cut our boat out of the ice and repair her. With our crew somewhat recovered, and two stout slaves of Captain M.’s, we run our boat on the ice until we broke through into deep water, and climbed into her. Then with our oars and borrowed sail we steered through the broken ice toward the Criterion. As we drew near her, we saw that she was heeled in toward the shore, and a strong current was hurrying us past her into a dangerous place, unless we could get hold of a rope to hold us. We hailed, but no one answered. I said to the men, “Shout loud enough to be heard!” Two slaves, fearing we were in danger of being fastened in the ice, set up such a hideous noise that the cook showed his head at the upper, or weather side, and disappeared immediately. We caught a hanging rope as we were passing her bow, which held us safely. The captain and pilot, in consternation, came rushing toward us, as I leaped on the deck of the Criterion to meet them. “Why,” said Captain Coffin, as we grasped each other’s hands, “where did you come from, Mr. Bates?” “From the western shore of Maryland,” I replied. “Why,” said he, “I expected all of you were at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay! I buried you that night you passed out of our sight; not supposing it possible for you to live through the night.” AJB 105.1

The Criterion had parted her cables and lost her anchor in the violent storm that drove her to the shore. Her cargo was yet undamaged. The captain and pilot consented for me to take part of the crew and return back and procure cables and anchors from the city of Annapolis, which we accomplished, but were prevented from returning for several days, on account of another driving storm, in which the Criterion bilged and filled with water, and those on board abandoned her in time to save their lives. AJB 105.2

During the winter, with a gang of hired slaves, (our men were on the sick list), we saved nearly all the cargo, in a damaged state. The men that were chosen to survey the Criterion, judged there was one hundred and seventy tons of ice on her hull and rigging, caused by the rushing of the sea over her and freezing solid. After stripping her, in the spring, she was sold for twenty dollars! AJB 106.1

I returned to Baltimore and commenced another voyage as chief mate of the brig Frances F. Johnson, of Baltimore, for South America. Our crew were all black men, the captain’s peculiar choice. I often regretted that we two were the only white men on board, for we were sometimes placed in peculiar circumstances, in consequence of being the minority. AJB 106.2

With the exception of some dry goods, we disposed of our cargo in Maranham and Para. The last-mentioned place lies about one hundred miles up from the mouth of the river Amazon, the mouth of the river being on the equator. Here we took in a return cargo for Baltimore. On our homeward voyage we stopped at the French Island of Martinico. After taking our place among the shipping near the shore, and remaining a few days, the captain and myself were unexpectedly ordered on board by the commodore, who reprimanded us because we had failed to comply with a trifling point in his orders, for which he ordered us to leave the place in the morning. We considered this ungenerous and severe, and without precedent; but we obeyed, and had but scarcely cleared ourselves from the island when a dreadful hurricane commenced (which is common in the West Indies about the autumnal equinox), which caused such devastation among the shipping and seamen that about one hundred vessels in a few hours were dashed in pieces and sunk with their crews at their moorings, and some driven to sea in a helpless condition, leaving but two vessels saved in the harbor in the morning! AJB 106.3

It was with much difficulty we cleared ourselves from the island during the day, because of the sudden changing of the wind from almost every quarter of the compass. We were pretty well satisfied that a violent storm was at hand, and made what preparations we deemed necessary to meet it. We fortunately escaped from the most violent part of it, with but little damage, and arrived safely at St. Domingo. A sloop from New York city came in a few days after us, the captain of which stated what I have already related respecting the storm and disaster at Martinico. Said he, “We arrived off the harbor of Martinico at the commencement of the hurricane, and as we were driven at the mercy of the storm, in the darkness of the night, while we were endeavoring to hold ourselves to the deck around our boat, which was lying bottom upwards, strongly lashed to ringbolts in the deck, she was taken by the violence of the wind from our midst, and not one of us knew when, or how, or where she had gone.” The miracle with them was that they survived the storm. But still more wonderful with us, that we, while attending to our lawful business, should in such an unexpected and unprecedented manner be driven from the place where none but the omniscient eye of Jehovah could tell of the terrible destruction that in a few hours was to come upon those we left behind. Surely, through his saving mercy and providential care, we were hurried out of the harbor just in time to be left still numbered among the living. AJB 107.1

“God moves in a mysterious way, AJB 108.1

His wonders to perform.” AJB 108.2

Capt. Sylvester here gave me the command of the F.F. Johnson, to proceed to Baltimore with the homeward cargo, while he remained in St. Domingo to dispose of the balance of the outward cargo. At the time of sailing I was sick, and fearing my disease was the yellow fever, I had my bed brought upon the quarter-deck, and remained exposed to the open day and night air, and soon recovered my health. We arrived safely in Baltimore, the beginning of January, 1818. From thence I returned to my father’s in Fairhaven, Mass., having been absent some two years and a half. Feb. 15, 1818, I was united in marriage to Miss Prudence M., daughter of Capt. Obed Nye, my present wife. AJB 108.3

Six weeks subsequent to this I sailed on another voyage, chief mate of the ship Frances, Captain Hitch, of New Bedford. We proceeded to Baltimore, Md., where we loaded with tobacco for Bremen, in Europe. From thence we proceeded to Gottenberg in Sweden, where we loaded again with bar iron for New Bedford, Mass. AJB 108.4

I will here relate an incident which occurred on our passage from Bremen to Gottenberg, to show how persons are wrought upon sometimes in their sleep. We were passing what is called “the Scaw,” up the Cattegat, not a very safe place in a gale, in company with a large convoy of British merchantmen bound into the Baltic Sea. Capt. H., unusual for him, remained on deck until midnight, at which time the larboard watch was called. The night was uncommonly light, pleasant, and clear, with a good, wholesale, flowing breeze,-all the convoy sailing onward in regular order. Capt. H. requested me to follow a certain large ship, and be particular to keep about so far astern of her, and if we saw her in difficulty, we could alter our course in time to avoid the same. Before my four-hours’ watch was out, Captain H. came up to the gangway, saying, “Mr. Bates, what are you about, carrying sail in this way? Clew down the topsails and reef them! Where is that ship?” “Yonder,” said I, “about the distance she was when you went down below!” I saw his eyes were wide open, but still I could not believe he was in his right mind in addressing me in the peremptory manner he did. Said I, “Capt. Hitch, you are asleep!” “Asleep!” said he! “I never was wider awake in my life! Clew the topsails down and reef them!” I felt provoked at this unusual arbitrary treatment without the least cause, and cried out at the top of my voice, “Forward there? Call all hands to reef the topsails!” This waked up the captain, inquiring, “What’s the matter?” Said I, “You have been giving orders to reef the topsails!” “Have I? I did not know it. Stop them from doing so, and I will go down again out of the way.” AJB 109.1

As Capt. H. was part owner of the ship, with the prospect of making a few thousand dollars with a cargo of iron, he loaded the ship very deep, but did not seem to apprehend any particular danger until we encountered a snow-storm as we entered the North Sea, which determined us to go “north about,” and brought us in the vicinity of “Rockal” in a violent storm in the night, which aroused our feelings and caused deep anxiety until we were satisfied we were past all danger from it. AJB 110.1