Breakers! It was 9 p.m. on June 7, 1763, and a storm was blowing in the South China Sea. Sailors on watch aboard the Earl Temple spotted shallow-breaking waves about a mile ahead. The vessel was bound for Manila, where it was to have much-needed repairs done before heading for Canton (Guangzhou), China. Just three weeks had passed since the three-masted sailing vessel, an East Indiaman chartered by the English East India Company, had left the Dutch port of Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia). The vessel carried a cargo of iron, tin, and lead brought from Benkulen.
Several days before, the crew had begun to spot many coral reefs and small islands nearby. They were already uneasy as the ship began to steer a zigzag course on its way northeast.
Now the weather was stormy and visibility very poor. The captain ordered the crew to reef (shorten) the topsails because of the high winds.
When sailors cried out, "We see breakers ahead!" the man at the helm quickly spun the wheel to turn the great three-masted vessel to starboard (right). "The Commanding Officer upon Deck hearing the noise that was made on the forecastle ran foreward to see the Breakers and how far we were from them," survivors reported. "In the meantime the Ship's company were all in confusion, seeing the Ship was so near the Breakers and driving bodily upon them."
As the ship drew closer to the waves that indicated shallow water, probably a coral reef, sailors scrambled to lighten the ship. They threw some of the ship's cannons overboard. Then, in desperation, the captain ordered the masts cut away to lighten the ship. This task took less than six minutes. But the vessel already had six feet of water in its hold.
No use. Thirty minutes after the breakers had been spotted, the ship slammed into the reef.
The passengers wanted to lower the small boats, but some feared a panic. "Our officers said one to another that as soon as the boats were out, the People would get into them too fast and sink them," the account reads.
Knowing his vessel was doomed, Capt. William Foster "opened his linen chest and invited people to help themselves to linen or money, and then ordered everyone to save themselves as best they could."
By now the ship was on its side and disintegrating rapidly. At about 2 a.m., some of the crew, despite having been injured in the wreck, set out to swim to safety using broken pieces of the vessel for floatation.
Putting ashore on a deserted island
At daybreak, they saw no land, but kept swimming east. About 8 a.m. they spied a "sandy bank with a very large reef around it" and headed for it. As they got closer they saw a larger island farther east and headed for that one instead. It was about 1-1/4 miles around and "full of Trees." After landing on the island, they climbed a tall tree. From it one could see the reef and pieces of wreckage six miles away.
A few days later, about 40 more people from the Earl Temple put to sea on a raft they had made from bits and pieces of the ship. As they headed away from the reef, they saw wine casks from the wreck bobbing on the ocean's surface.
In the course of the next week, more sailors reached the island in small numbers. One group reported having spotted 16 men on a sandbar with a large quantity of the ship's provisions; another group came to the island on a raft made from part of a mast. "They had got canvass for sails," the survivors reported later, "and bolts and hinges of the Ports for an Anchor."
Finding food on the island was not a problem. Cooking it was, though. There were "plenty of birds, Eggs, Turtles and Grubs, which we were forced to eat raw as we had no fire upon the Island." They tried to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but did not succeed. A day or two later, "not having had any food from the time the Ship was cast away, we cut down a CocoNut Tree, the only one upon the Island, and [ate] the inside of the Tree, after eating we strove again to get fire, and as God stood our friend, procured it by rubbing the two bits of sticks; which we were as carefull of as our own lives."
A rescue mission goes awry
In the hope of rescuing the men on the sandbar, four of the sailors - Richard Velling, Thomas Ashton, John Armour, and Thomas Troop - took the raft used by the most recent arrivals and set out to find them. But the group was blown off course and never reached the men.
For three days the four drifted aimlessly, exhausted, hungry, and certain that they would perish at sea. Suddenly, they spotted a low island and the mast of a ship. On reaching the island, they found 15 Annamite (Vietnamese) traders. "Seeing us naked they gave us Cloathes, and began to ask us questions in their Tongue, but we could not understand them; we made motions, however, that our Ship was cast away so they let us live with them, and we fared as they did. They talk'd a good deal, and made motions that we should go with them to their Country...."
The traders had prepared to leave and were waiting for favorable winds when disaster struck again. A storm rose and destroyed the vessel. A month later, another storm lashed the little island, sweeping away most of the group's knives, cups, and pots. Worse, the gale drove off all the birds, which had been a vital source of food. Now the English and Vietnamese were both shipwrecked, with only two knives and one copper pot left among them.
For 15 months, they all lived side by side on the island, enduring hardships of all sorts. They dug wells for water, but the water was salty. When the hot weather returned, several men, including Thomas Troop, perished of thirst. To escape the heat, the men would lie in the ocean up to their necks.
Day and night, the men scoured the island to see if anything useful had washed up on-shore. Even the smallest stick was saved, for it might eventually prove useful.
A blessing from the sea
One day, incredibly, they spotted a small empty boat drifting by. It had two large holes in it, which they set about to repair using grass and bits of rags. They made a sail out of the bird skins they had been collecting to make jackets. "We sewed them together with canvass thread we had saved; our needles being the birds' bones." After six days, the boat was repaired. They tested it, and found it watertight.
The three Englishmen and two of the Vietnamese left in search of other survivors from the Earl Temple. When they failed to find the island where the men had last been seen, they gave up and headed for Annam (Vietnam). Despite more bad weather, they reached it in seven days.
For the Annamites, the ordeal was over. The Englishmen, however, spent almost another year and a half working as prisoner-laborers. Finally, they received permission to leave.
On Aug. 31, 1766, as passengers aboard a junk, the three Englishmen sailed into Canton - the very port that had been the Earl Temple's destination. Three years and not quite three months after they had been wrecked on a reef in the South China Sea, their ordeal was over.
Here, the account ends.
230 years later, a postscript
The three probably got home all right, since it's likely that they dictated their 16-page report in England. The account was filed in the East India Company's archives in London, where I found the little-known account. I believe it may possibly be the story of a shipwreck excavated in the Philippines in 1997.
*Part 1 appeared in the June 8 Kidspace.