The Queen of Swansea, a Christmas tragedy
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.