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    Re: The shipwreck of Admiral Shovell
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2007 Sep 16, 23:42 -0400

    Sorry for the delay in posting. I've been busy pondering another matter...
    I mentioned in a previous message that Sobel did not invent any of the
    legend of the shipwreck. George went all the way back to Rupert Gould's
    account and seemed to suggest that Sobel just copied from him and screwed up
    by quoting it, as if it were established fact. Here lies the problem: there
    are some six decades of re-telling of the story preceding Sobel's
    "Longitude" and after Gould. I think it's worth giving an example in detail
    to demonstrate, once and for all, that this was not somehow just Sobel being
    gullible. Or to put it differently, she was no more nor less gullible than a
    whole generation of people who had told the story.
    I think I've quoted this before, but it won't do any harm to mention it
    again. In JRAS Canada (the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of
    Canada) in 1974 there appeared an article by J.D. Fernie entitled "The
    Carpenter's Chronometers" telling the story of the quest for longitude.
    Fernie is an accomplished professor of astronomy, now emeritus, at the
    University of Toronto. He was a rather prolific writer on the history of
    astronomy. In 1974, after describing the general problem of finding
    longitude at sea, he wrote,
    "Meanwhile more and more ships ploughed the seas in dismal ignorance of
    their positions. Not only were valuable cargoes forever being lost in
    shipwrecks, the toll in lives was appalling. There was Sir Cloudsley Shovel,
    for instance, returning to England from Gibraltar in 1707 and running into
    heavy weather. His navigators all agreed the fleet was off Ushant, although
    an ordinary seaman had the temerity to advise his superiors that he reckoned
    otherwise. While he was being sentenced to swing from the yardarm for his
    mutinous attitude, the fleet sailed in accordance with the navigator's
    decree, ran head-on into the Scilly Isles and lost four ships and two
    thousand lives, Sir Cloudsley's among them. Some solution had to be found."
    This account by a respected, professional astronomer and a competent
    historian of astronomy is an almost perfect match for Sobel's re-telling.
    This doesn't make any aspect of the story any more true. But if you're going
    to tar Sobel's book as "unforgivable", you better be ready to tar an entire
    generation of authors writing about this topic. I suppose you could email
    Prof. Fernie and tell him his article was unforgivable if you want... Sobel
    didn't invent any of this, nor was she gullibly mis-reading Rupert Gould.
    Herbert Prinz previously pointed out (last year?) that he traced most of the
    late 20th century versions of the story to Brown's "Story of Maps" first
    published over fifty years ago, and I suspect he's right.
    As I've said, the Shovell story contains numerous elements. Some are bound
    to be purely mythical, some factual, however improbable, and probably quite
    a few which are undecidable (this latter case is often overlooked in
    historical discussions). As I wrote previously, I think it's useful to
    separate the legend into "social" aspects, like the story of the ring,
    Shovell's murder on the beach, the common sailor hanged hours before, from
    the navigational side, including the question of longitude, the frequently
    repeated statement that the vessels were "off Ushant", the infuence of the
    Rennell Current, and the questions of plotting and latitude versus longitude
    raised by W.E. May.
    The legends surrounding the shipwreck have been analyzed occasionally in the
    past 300 years, but before we get into it, I think it's worth seeing "yet
    another" version of the legend (this one appears to come directly from
    Scilly --it has a Scillonian hero. It is told as a parable for modern
    'whistleblowers' hindered by bureaucracy). Enjoy:
    "...But our whistleblower had other senses and what they told him chilled
    his heart. There was something on the wind. He began to detect a faint,
    familiar odor from his childhood. What was it? Then memories flooded in and
    filled him with dread: The kelp pits of Scilly! Our whistleblower was a
    native of the Scilly Islands, a cluster of rocky, dangerous islands off the
    Cornish peninsula at the entrance to the English Channel, The people of the
    islands burned seaweed to make fertilizer, and the burning kelp created a
    unique, unforgettable odor that immediately brought back memory of place.
    The smell meant they were steering directly toward the rocks of Scilly!
    There was not a moment to lose! He must notify his superiors! He slid down
    the ratlines and aproached the officer of the deck. (So far, so good. He was
    going through the chain of command like a good whistleblower should. No
    grandstanding, no running around the ship, yelling "WE'RE ALL BLEEPING
    DOOMED! WE'RE GOING ON THE ROCKS! )The officer of the watch was skeptical,
    but passed our whistleblower on to a bored lieutenant. The lieutenant
    thought it a very good story, but that as long a our whistleblower had not
    seen anything or heard anything, the nose thing must have been the product
    of ignorant superstition. Like most whistleblowers, our foretopman was
    getting impatient as he had the valuable, all important field knowledge of
    the problem but not the rank to do something about it.
    He asked permission to stand below the Quarterdeck. Permission was granted.
    (Our whistleblower was still going through correct procedures!) Now the
    quarterdeck was where the officers stood. No seaman was allowed on the
    quarterdeck: that would mean mutiny. The quarter deck was about 6 feet above
    the main deck, so that the ship's officers could keep an eye on everything.
    Standing below the quarterdeck to state your grieveance or make a suggestion
    was very dangerous business in the 18th century British Navy. You
    automatically risked demotion, flogging, keelhauling or worse for suggesting
    that everything was not hunky-dory on one of His Majesty's ships.
    Understandably, few availed themselves of the "privilege".
    Our whistleblower dedided to take the risk.
    He stated his opinion on the fleet's position to Sir Cloudsley, Admiral of
    the Red. The Admiral was apoplectic. He could understand a request for more
    water or more bread, but to have his professonal competence questioned by
    ruffian foretopman! Well!
    Our whistleblower begged Sir Cloudsley to consider the possibility that his
    calculations could possibly be in error,that a course change might be in
    order or at least the fleet hove to until the fog cleared.
    At this point, our whistleblower made a fatal error. In the emotion of his
    argument, he happened to rest his hand on one of the planks of the
    quarterdeck to steady himself. He had touched the quarterdeck! Mutiny!
    Sir Cloudsley ordered the marines to seize our whistleblower and hang him. "
    Clearly this version has dramatized dialogue. That's obvious, even blatantly
    obvious. No one would have recorded such small details, and no records
    survived from the shipwrecked vessels in any case. But it has a feature from
    the earliest versions of the legend that disappears late in the 19th
    century. The sailor who "smells trouble" literally *smells* the Scillies.
    This is a much more realistic story than the later versions, which begin
    after about 1875 (very roughly), and claim that the sailor was keeping his
    own navigational account, supposedly doing his own calculations. And indeed
    the islanders did cook seaweed. A common sailor well-acquainted with those
    waters might very well have been able to smell the land. This is a globally
    common primitive navigational technique. That doesn't make it "true" --just
    a lot more likely than the more common version. It's an interesting variant
    on the story, no matter what.
    George and a few others have argued that a sailor wouldn't have been hanged
    because the Admiral had no legal right to hang him. If I'm ever on trial,
    I'm going to have to try that logic: "Your honor, I couldn't have robbed the
    bank, because it's illegal to rob banks!" But there is real evidence against
    the hanging, and it goes all the way back to 1709 though it was only
    published in 1883. James Herbert Cooke described and quoted notes taken just
    two years after the shipwreck in "The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell".
    There was a story current on the islands in 1709 of a common sailor who
    doubted the Admiral's navigation. This sailor was mocked by other crewmen,
    but there's no story of a hanging. The hanging surely must have been a later
    addition. Shovell did officiate over a court martial a few months earlier at
    Toulon which led to the hanging of a would-be deserter --sailors WERE
    HANGED. This is documented. Since the story of the hanging was a well-known
    feature of the Shovell shipwreck on Scilly by 1823, that story must have
    been mixed in decades later by the Scillonians.
    It is interesting that some commentators worry that Sobel and others who
    have told the story as usually read worry that they may be hurting the
    reputation of a great and noble mariner. It's interesting because, of
    course, Shovell is guilty of an enormous error in judgement that killed some
    1500 men, cost England four valuable naval vessels and also roughly 100,000
    pounds in treasure (Shovell was mariner, warrior, and also diplomat and
    banker... To put this in perspective, this "cash on hand" account was
    probably five times greater than the largest sum offered as the prize for
    discovering the longitude --a huge amount of money). Shovell's reputation
    was damned by his own mistake. And what would have been the fate of that
    sailor supposedly executed on the Association if the execution was pure
    myth, as seems likely? Would he have lived to a ripe old age?? No. He would
    have died a miserable death two or three hours later from hypothermia or
    drowning along with 1500 comrades. I wouldn't shed any tears for Shovell's
    In some ways, Shovell reminds me of Edward Smith of Titanic infamy. Like
    Smith, Shovell was a competent, respected, successful commander, but he made
    a fatal error very similar to Smith's. He failed to do something that all
    men of action find difficult to do --he failed to stop and wait. If he had
    only waited until daylight, the accident would very likely never have
    happened. Like Smith, in command of the Titanic, Shovell should have stopped
    his vessel and waited until dawn. He did not, and 1500 people died, and that
    is his legacy. Also like Smith and the Titanic, the shipwreck of Shovell and
    his little fleet led to revolutions both in the theory and practice of
    navigation at sea.
    The book that I mentioned from 1883, "The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley
    Shovell" is available for download from google books. It is also transcribed
    here http://www.hmssurprise.org/Resources/SIR_CLOUDESLEY_SHOVELL.html where
    I first found it, and it is also largely re-printed in "Admiral Shovell's
    Treasure" by McBride and Larn, which is filled with other details.
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