University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Loss of the Halsewell East-Indiaman

Naval Disasters

On January 1, 1786, The Halsewell, a merchant ship just returning from a voyage to Madras, India, took on a full compliment of accomplished seamen, a company of soldiers, and passengers— including the family of the Captain and other crew members.  This was to be the last leg of the ship’s third voyage and also the end of Commander Richard Pierce’s career, as he was set to retire.

Setting off for London, the ship was caught in a heavy gale for four days and finally forced onto cliffs on the south coast of England at Dorsetshire.

The shipwreck took place on January 6, 1786 before daybreak.  At this point, much of the crew had all but given up and were hiding below decks.  The ship ran aground against high, treacherous cliffs that ripped the vessel nearly in half.  It was here that many of the stronger men were able to escape by swimming a short distance to a small cave.  However, many of those that attempted this feat were swept away by the sea or simply pounded to death against the sharp rocks.  The women and Captain were not so lucky, before all on board realized that this perilous escape was an option, the battered ship capsized and sank.  According to the account given in “Remarkable Shipwrecks,” Captain Pierce died clutching his daughters to him.

All but 74 of the more than 240 crew and passengers died, including the Captain’s two daughters and two other women relatives, and the wives and daughters of friends and fellow officers.

The loss and the sufferings of the survivors stunned the whole nation.  King George III and several members of the Royal Family traveled to the coast to see the site of the catastrophe.  A memorial poem, written in 1786 by an unknown author, titled “Monody on the Death of Captain Pierce,” lamented the tragic loss of life on The Halsewell and further fueled the grief and interest of the nation.  Years later, the novelist Charles Dickens wrote “The Long Voyage,” a short story that tells the dramatic tale of the ship’s sinking.

A full account of the loss of the Halsewell is told in Remarkable Shipwrecks, published in 1813 (details below).

Further Information
Remarkable Shipwrecks; Or, A Collection of Interesting Accounts of Naval Disasters
The full account of the wreck of The Halsewell and other shipwrecks

Monody on the Death of Captain Pierce
Memorial poem, written months after the tragedy

The Long Voyage
Charles Dickens’ short story based on the loss of The Halsewell

Details about the book:  Remarkable Shipwrecks, A Collection of Interesting Accounts of Naval Disasters, with Many Particulars of the Extraordinary Adventures and Sufferings of the Crews of Vessels Wrecked at Sea, and of Their Treatment on Distant Shores.  Together with an Account of the Deliverance of Survivors.  Selected from Authentic Sources.  Hartford [England]:  Andrus and Starr, Publishers; John Russell, Jr., Printer, 1813.

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