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Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalismby Andrew Vietze, Stephen Erickson
The wreck of the Nottingham Galley on Boon Island and the resultant rumors of insurance fraud, mutiny, treason, and cannibalism was one of the most sensational stories of the early 18th century. Shortly after departing England with Captain John Deane at the helm, his brother Jasper and another investor aboard, and a skeleton crew, the ship encountered French… See more details below
The wreck of the Nottingham Galley on Boon Island and the resultant rumors of insurance fraud, mutiny, treason, and cannibalism was one of the most sensational stories of the early 18th century. Shortly after departing England with Captain John Deane at the helm, his brother Jasper and another investor aboard, and a skeleton crew, the ship encountered French privateers on her way to Ireland, where she then lingered for weeks picking up cargo. They eventually headed into the North Atlantic later in the season than was reasonably safe and found themselves shipwrecked on the notorious Boon Island, just off the New England coast. Captain Deane offered one version of the events that led them to the barren rock off the coast of Maine; his crew proposed another. The story contains mysteries that endure to this day, yet no contemporary non-fiction account of the story exists. In the hands of skilled storytellers Andrew Vietze and Stephen Erickson, this becomes a historical adventure-mystery that will appeal to readers of South and The Perfect Storm.
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Boon IslandA True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism
By Andrew Vietze Stephen Erickson
Globe Pequot PressCopyright © 2012 Andrew Vietze and Stephen Erickson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Boone Island is the forlornest place that can be imagined ..." —Celia Thaxter, Isles of Shoals, 1870
The body was thin, emaciated even. His skin was a waxy white, marred with ulcers and blackened in places from freezing, eyes stuck in hollow sockets. The corpse had been discovered lying amid the tidal wrack on the long expanse of beach at Wells. Captain Lewis Bane, the coroner of the small town of York, Province of Maine, was summoned and led to the scene through a snowy woods. It was January first, early and cold, and the miles-long stretch of sand was windswept and desolate.
Surely this wasn't how Bane wanted to begin the New Year. Rather than a fresh start, it seemed history had found the village again—more death. Residents of York—fewer than 120 of them now—had been warring with the native Abenakis intermittently for the past thirty-five years and had barely held on. Hundreds and hundreds of Banes's neighbors, friends, and family—from southern Maine and throughout the small adjacent colony of New Hampshire—had been killed, wounded, or captured in raids on their settlements or picked off one by one in fields and forests. The region's English colonists always had to use caution when they ventured out from the relative safety of their garrison houses, and the party of men who led the coroner through narrow trails to the beach most certainly came with muskets in hand. The Indians might be watching from the trees.
If the Indians were there, waiting in ambush, they too were armed with muskets supplied by the French. The Abenakis had thrown in their lot with the great native leader of the Wampanoags, King Phillip, in 1675. And they found themselves drawn into a series of imperial wars, working in league with the French of Quebec. The colonists liked to name these global conflicts after their own English monarchs—perhaps it was a kind of political statement, subconscious or not. They called this one with the French and Indians Queen Anne's War, but it would be known as the War of Spanish Succession in Europe.
Few places in the world seemed farther from the machinations of a European court than the coast of Maine in 1711, a wilderness no-man's land dividing English America from French Canada. To the locals it was a mostly empty battleground over which warring parties traveled, and women and children hostages were carried away to be ransomed back again later. Bane's home of York occupied a place on the very edge of English civilization.
And indeed few places had suffered more than York. On a cold January day in 1692, the Abenakis and their French officers had slaughtered one hundred settlers and taken eighty more prisoners during the Candlemas Massacre, forcing the survivors on a grueling march to Canada. While such large-scale attacks were largely over, settlers still risked capture or worse every time they went out to visit a neighbor. The English who lived along in the woods north of the Piscataqua River were a people hardened by war, and Captain Lewis Bane, thirty-nine, owner of timberlands, prominent citizen, and county coroner, was a man accustomed to gruesome sights.
Here was yet another. Bane knelt and looked the dead man over. Had the Indians struck again? It had to be considered. The evidence before the coroner, however, suggested otherwise. There was no sign of struggle or violence. No blood or blunt-force trauma was evident, and the man's scalp was intact. His skin was pocked with chilblains—sores that came about as a result of freezing. But the biggest clue lay on the beach a couple hundred yards away. There Bane noticed a primitive raft, crudely put together from ships tackle. Clearly the man had been on a short journey—this was not the sort of craft anyone would choose to navigate the Gulf of Maine in winter—and had washed ashore. A gaunt body. A raft. A lifelong resident of this southern Maine community, Lewis Bane knew what that meant.
The coroner looked up and out to the horizon, on which sat a sliver of gray barely rising above the brine in the distance, a narrow band of rock separating sea from sky. And it had a reputation.
Bane turned and hurried off the beach. He traveled the eleven miles south through the frozen woods to Cape Neddick, a fishing hamlet on the small tidal river of the same name. There he found John Stover, a fisherman who owned a small work boat with a single sail known as a shallop. The coroner commandeered both Stover and his shallop to set out in search of signs of a wreck.
From a line of local fisherman, Stover must have thought this a dubious exercise. Putting out to sea in winter was always a treacherous proposition, and in this case, there had been no reports of any local vessels going missing, and most European seamen knew better than to cross the North Atlantic this time of year. No cannon fire had been heard, indicating a naval engagement with the French or even a signal of distress from a sinking ship. No smoke had been spotted above the islands, and without fire, what were the chances of finding anyone alive on an island in the Gulf of Maine in January?
Still, Bane and Stover were able to convince three others to set sail immediately. It was still morning when they got underway, pushing off from Cape Neddick and following the narrow salt river out to the open sea. The sails of their small shallop filled, and they cleared the harbor and set a course due east, rising and falling on the chop. Their boat was fairly ideal for the Maine coast, an oak-framed vessel with a pine hull and central mast. A shallow draft and the ability to use oars made it able to navigate no matter the weather. But no one liked heading out on days like this.
Six miles offshore was a lonely rock called Boon Island. A tiny isle bereft of vegetation, it was surrounded by ledges that reached out like the tentacles of a kraken, and it was the last resting place of several ships. The island made it on to nautical charts, in fact, thanks to an English merchant vessel called the Increase, which slammed on to it in July 1682 in a thick fog during a spring storm. Legend has it that her four-man crew lived off fish and bird's eggs for thirty days until one day they spotted smoke rising from Mount Agamenticus, a hill a few miles from the coast, where the Abenakis were said to be engaged in a religious ritual. The stranded men built a signal fire in response, which the Indians interpreted as a sign from the Great Spirit calling them to the Island. They immediately flew to their canoes and made for the rock, where they found the stranded men. Of course, that was back when relations with the Abenaki were more amicable. The island was then considered a "boon" from God.
Another story claims Boon Island took its very name from the scuttling of ships. So many vessels were said to have foundered there that fishermen left a cache of food on the island—a "boon" for castaways. It might have come from a fisherman named Boone or, more ominously, was a misspelling of Bone, which seems darkly appropriate for such a cursed piece of rock.
Stover and his men focused their attention on the isle ahead as it rose slowly up out of the waves. Rectangular in shape, Boon Island is roughly 700 feet long and 300 feet at its widest point at low tide. At high tide much of the island is inundated, reducing its length to as little as 150 feet. The tallest crags atop it stick their heads just 15 feet above sea level, meaning that in storms the whole island can be washed over. It is a barren, desolate rock where nothing can live.
During their hour-long crossing, something bright and white atop the isle caught the eyes of Stover, Bane, and the others. The men maneuvered in slowly, aware of the rocks that lurked just beneath the surface, jagged points that reached out even for boats with little draft, like the shallop. As they drew in closer, they were astonished to spot panels of sailcloth flapping in the winter wind, a cruel and feeble shelter against the brutalities of a North Atlantic winter. Standing outside it, they observed three men, as insubstantial as phantoms, frantically waving. The New England fishermen were dumbfounded. Against all odds shipwreck survivors were alive on Boon Island.
Gesturing and shouting and jumping up and down, the castaways urged their rescuers in to fetch them off the rock. Stover, though, was cautious. The surf was high and the ledges threatened everywhere—there simply was no good place to land. The seasoned sailor decided to drop anchor where he was—about a hundred yards away. He waited there until high tide, when the water would be smoother and there would be more clearance over the hazards below.
When high tide finally flooded in around noon, Stover pulled anchor and followed the directions of one of the castaways to a safe place just off the island. From there the rescue party could shout back and forth to the stranded sailors, who were dangerously thin, sporting long unruly beards, and wearing little, despite the winter temperatures. The shipwrecked men looked much like the man Bane had seen on the beach that morning—wraithlike, without overcoats, the clothing they had in tatters—little to cover their scant human frames except sores and frostbite.
The castaways told the fishermen that there were ten of them left and they'd survived more than three weeks since their ship, the English merchant vessel Nottingham Galley, went aground on December 11, during a fierce winter storm. They'd abandoned ship with virtually nothing to help them withstand the ravages of the season, living on the rock with no fire, only a couple of small cheeses for food, and just their raggedy sailcloth tent to protect them from the elements. Two of their comrades had died of exposure and two had left on a raft to get help, never to be seen again.
This, of course, accounted for the body on the beach.
One of the men identified himself as John Deane, captain of the Nottingham Galley, and he begged Bane and the fishermen to attempt an evacuation. Captain Deane was ready to be pulled through the waves by rope and buoy if one could be thrown to him. Stover and his men understood the madness in this idea, given the temperatures of the water off Maine this time of year—five or six degrees above freezing—and the frail condition of the captain. But they also realized the gravity of the situation.
Aboard the shallop was a small canoe, which one of the rescuers agreed to take ashore. He would test the waters, so to speak, and see if it would be possible, given the blustery conditions, to get the men safely off the rock. A pall was falling across the skies, and the seas were beginning to heave. No one wanted a repeat of the event that had landed the men there in the first place. The Maine fisherman dropped his canoe into the choppy water, eased himself aboard, and negotiated the waves and rocks with difficulty, but at last made shore.
What the Cape Neddick fisherman saw when he was able to stand on Boon Island rendered him speechless. He was horrified by the captain's "thin and meagre Aspect"—and Deane was one of the healthiest survivors. The captain led the shocked rescuer to the tent, sailcloth luffing in the growing breeze, and pulled the flap open to reveal the other seven men. They were lying huddled together on the rocky ground, and the sight and smell of them repulsed the rescuers' senses. As Deane observed: "He was perfectly affrighted at the Ghastly Figure of so many dismal Objects, with long Beards, nothing but skin and bone; wild staring Eyes, and Countenances, fierce, barbarous, unwash'd and infected with Human gore."
Some of the shipwreck victims crawled toward their savior, gathered around him, clutching his ankles with their swollen, frostbitten hands and sobbing. Bane, Stover, and their small crew had moved with such haste—or perhaps with no serious expectation of finding anyone alive—that they'd neglected to bring any food, so the fisherman had nothing to offer. Instead he provided the only consolation he could—he built a fire right inside the tent.
The rescuers decided the evacuation would begin not with the most infirm but the most able. Deane followed the fisherman back to his canoe and climbed in with him, pushing off toward the shallop. The two men paddled with all their strength, but the waves drove the little craft against a rock and tipped it over, leaving the pair stumbling through frigid water up to their chests. The cold of the water forced the air out of their lungs and held them there as if frozen in place. The wind bit at whatever flesh remained above the sea.
Still extremely weak, Deane "had a very narrow escape from drowning," as he recalled later. Any physical exertion was difficult for him, but the two men managed to haul themselves back onto the island, where they stood soaking wet in the chilling air. Obviously, this wasn't going to work. Most of the shipwrecked men were in far worse shape than their captain, confined to the tent and too sick to risk further exposure, too weak to swim if they capsized. (Perhaps this is what Deane was thinking selecting himself to be rescued first.)
The fisherman retrieved the canoe and, now alone, laboriously made his way back through the rolling seas and past the hateful ledges out to Stover's shallop. Stover yelled to the castaways that he'd return with help as soon as he possibly could. As the skies above began to blacken with storm clouds, the shallop pulled away from the crew of the Nottingham Galley's island prison, leaving the stranded men stranded still.
Frustrated that they could do no more, Stover and the rest of the rescue party turned their sailboat for home, making plans to speed south to the larger city of Portsmouth as soon as they landed to alert the authorities there. As the men talked, the seas began to buffet their small vessel. The storm they'd seen organizing overhead suddenly overtook them, and waves pitched their boat around as if it were a piece of weightless wood.
Waves and spray penetrated clothing to the skin and filled up the craft's relatively shallow hull, as wave after wave after wave tossed the little boat and crashed over its sides. There was no room on the boat to pace to keep warm. But there was plenty of opportunity for exercise, nonetheless, for the men aboard were forced to bail for their lives in a life-threatening battle against the rising water, which sloshed around, numbing their feet beyond feeling.
Would Boon Island claim yet another vessel?
By the time the shallop approached the mainland, the storm was raging and Stover didn't dare attempt a landing for fear of being dashed upon the rocks. A ship's best chance in a storm—to avoid a fate similar to that of the Nottingham Galley—is to stay out to sea and ride it out. The men aboard Stover's shallop didn't have that kind of time; they could only stay out for so long before risking death from the cold. Hours passed, and the waves hammered relentlessly as the dark clouds blackened into night. The storm refused to abate. If anything it intensified. Without food the men aboard Stover's boat lost strength, so that the bailing became less vigorous, and the lack of movement increased the threat of hypothermia. One way or another they had to get ashore, rocks or no rocks.
On the mainland the scattered community of settlers who lived around York worried and watched the coast. Closely knit, intermarried, and forced together still more than usual in these dangerous times, hundreds of people had some connection—a father, a brother, a cousin, or a friend—with the men on the shallop. The leaders of the community, like Bane himself, carried a special burden for the safety of the fisherman—they had sent these men out into danger on official business.
Eyes straining through the wintery precipitation, someone by some miracle caught sight of them making their way for the shore. The shallop would be dashed against the rocks. They would need help getting out of the water. Word went out: Stover and his men were coming in.
But, as one observer noted: "The next morning early the Shallope by the Violence of the weather was drove on shore and cast away."
Chapter TwoThree days later, when the castaways finally came ashore to the safety of the mainland, Captain John Deane was like something from a nightmare. He looked like he'd just stepped out of a casket, his hair wild and stringy, his skin pocked with sores, his frame shockingly bony. Mostly, though, it was the eyes, which were wide with unconstrained glee. As soon as the canoe bearing him docked, on the Piscataqua River in Kittery, Province of Maine, just downstream from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the captain leaped from the boat and darted across the lawn of a local home. It was well after dark—about 8 p.m.—and he had two things on his mind.
Exuding a desperate energy, Deane burst into the house, where he found the matriarch home with her children. The sailor's appearance was "to the terrible Affrightment of the Gentlewoman and her Children, who took the first Opportunity to make a fair Escape." The captain then, "unmercifully hungry," took the occasion to head to the kitchen to "rumage the Pot." He found some beef and some turnips. "Resolving thereupon to stand Cook for once," Deane spread his findings on the table and began to eat. He had already "secured some small portion in his Belly" when the men who had paddled him ashore arrived and "unacceptably restrained him from eating any more at that time."
This was no random home invasion, however. Deane was the invited guest of Captain Jethro Furber, a Portsmouth shipmaster whom he knew from the small world of North Atlantic trade. Furber and Captain William Long, an Englishman recently arrived, like Deane himself, had put together a fleet of sloops to rescue the castaways on Boon Island as soon as they could safely do so. Word had come from York of the plight of the crew of the Nottingham Galley, but evacuation had been impossible for several days. The storm that had overtaken Lewis Bane, John Stover, and their crew had lingered, making conditions simply too dangerous to venture out on the Gulf of Maine. Stover, Bane, and their fishermen friends had barely survived their own shipwreck; when they finally made it to shore, they made good on their promise to send help.
Furber and Long pushed off from Portsmouth in a fleet of four sloops almost as soon as the skies broke on the morning of January 4. As they neared the island, the rescuers could see smoke rising from a hole in the center of the makeshift tent. Like Stover had before them, the local sailors drew their vessels as close as they dared and then launched a large canoe—this one more seaworthy than Stover's—to transport the survivors. Deane and one or two others were able to walk under their own power, but some "strong Men, brought the rest, two or three at a time, most of them on their backs from the tent to the canoe, though none of them were free of vermin."
Excerpted from Boon Island by Andrew Vietze Stephen Erickson Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Vietze and Stephen Erickson. Excerpted by permission of Globe Pequot Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Andrew Vietze is the former managing editor of Down East: The Magazine of Maine and has written for a wide array of print and online publications. He is the award-winning author of six previous books. Stephen Erickson holds an MA in American history from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and has completed PhD course work in Early American History at the College of William and Mary.
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