The Queen of Swansea, a Christ­mas tragedy

The Central Voice - - Editorial - David J. Clarke Sto­ries From Our Shores David J. Clarke is a grad­u­ate of Memo­rial Uni­ver­sity’s Doc­toral pro­gram in his­tory, and he is the au­thor of eight books fo­cus­ing on cen­tral New­found­land. He can be reached at bay­man­[email protected]

For many of us, my­self in­cluded, Christ­mas re­ally is the very best time of the year.

De­spite its com­mer­cial­ism, there’s some­thing mag­i­cal about the sea­son that noth­ing so crass as the mod­ern world can erase. Per­haps it’s our happy mem­o­ries of days long past, or the whis­pered prom­ise of new mem­o­ries shared with loved ones, that makes this time so beloved; very fit­ting as we cel­e­brate the Prince of Peace’s birth.

Yet, Christ­mas can be a sad time for those deal­ing with loss, or spend­ing the hol­i­day alone. Per­haps know­ing that Christ­mas is meant to be a time of re­joic­ing makes sad­ness even more painful. For all that, Christ­mas is a sea­son of hope, and it is that hope which sus­tains us as a new year ap­proaches.

In the 2,000-year his­tory of Christ­mas, there were few peo­ple more in need of hope than Dr. Fe­lix Dowsley and his com­pan­ions dur­ing what was, for them, the ter­ri­ble Christ­mas of 1867. Sadly for these un­for­tu­nates, there was no sea­sonal mir­a­cle.

Dowsley was a pas­sen­ger on the 360-ton Welsh brig­an­tine, Queen of Swansea. On Dec. 6, 1867 the ves­sel sailed from St. John’s, bound for the cop­per min­ing town of Tilt Cove. Trans­port­ing a cargo of tim­ber, the Queen had on board six pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing Dowsley and Wil­liam Hoskins, the lat­ter of whom was headed to Tilt Cove with his sis­ter to spend Christ­mas with their par­ents. Their pi­lot was Cap­tain Pa­trick Dug­gan of LaS­cie, a mariner with con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence in New­found­land wa­ters. After clear­ing port in St. John’s, the brig­an­tine seemed to van­ish, as if swal­lowed up by the cruel At­lantic.

The mys­tery was solved a few months later when mem­bers of a New­found­land schooner crew put ashore on Notre Dame Bay’s Gull Is­land to go bird­ing. Lo­cated a few kilo­me­tres off LaS­cie, Gull Is­land is a small, for­bid­ding hunk of gran­ite on which land­ing can be dif­fi­cult, even in the best of weather. To their hor­ror the mariners dis­cov­ered the bod­ies of sev­eral peo­ple, a num­ber of them ly­ing un­der a frozen piece of can­vas. The men quickly re­al­ized they’d found the miss­ing pas­sen­gers and crew of the Queen of Swansea, while let­ters dis­cov­ered with some of the bod­ies filled in the de­tails of their tragic end.

On Dec. 12, 1867 a ter­ri­ble storm saw the ves­sel stranded, wedged into a nar­row gulch on the is­land. The ship was se­cured with ropes, al­low­ing the pas­sen­gers and crew to make it to shore. Safe for the mo­ment, this was only the be­gin­ning of their suf­fer­ing. Dug­gan, along with pas­sen­ger John Power, and two crew­men, re­turned to the Queen, manag­ing to off­load some sup­plies. Trag­i­cally, the lines snapped and the brig­an­tine drifted out to sea, re­mov­ing any chance of the sur­vivors us­ing its wood for shel­ter or ex­tract­ing ad­di­tional food.

Although en­dur­ing un­speak­able hard­ships, this piti­ful band man­aged to sus­tain them­selves for sev­eral weeks. De­spite his suf­fer­ing, Dowsley penned three let­ters to his wife, de­tail­ing the tri­als of he and his fel­low vic­tims as they strug­gled to keep alive. Though bat­tered by the wind, and chilled by the cold, the group’s main tor­ment was a lack of wa­ter. Dowsley’s se­cond let­ter lamented that, “I am al­most mad with the thirst. I would give the world for one drink of wa­ter, but I shall never get it now.”

Some­how, the hu­man will to en­dure kept Dowsley go­ing for at least a week longer, and on Christ­mas Eve he com­posed his fi­nal mis­sive to his beloved Mar­garet.

“We are still alive and only that...The place where we are shel­tered, if I can call it a shel­ter, is up to our an­kles in wa­ter. Oh what a sad Xmas Eve and Christ­mas Day it is for me. I think I can see you mak­ing the sweet bread and pre­par­ing ev­ery­thing for to­mor­row...If I was home and to have you and the chil­dren be­side me, I think the trial would be small com­pared to what it is now. But we can never see one an­other again in this world. I had no idea we should have lasted so long...There is no hope for de­liv­er­ance. My suf­fer­ings have been be­yond de­scrip­tion since I landed on this is­land...Oh, my dar­ling, if I could but once see you and the chil­dren I would be sat­is­fied. Em­brace them all for me...”

How long he lasted after that melan­choly Christ­mas Eve, we will never know. At least some good came out of the tragedy, as a manned light­house was es­tab­lished on Gull Is­land, en­sur­ing no one would ever again met the same fate as Dowsley, Hoskins, and their fel­low vic­tims.

May none of us ex­pe­ri­ence such a sor­row­ful Christ­mas as did the pas­sen­gers and crew of the Queen of Swansea in 1867. In­stead, let us give thanks for the many bless­ings we have, hold our loved ones a lit­tle tighter this hol­i­day sea­son, and take the time to show kind­ness to those not so for­tu­nate as we.

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