A true tale,
The tragic sinking of the Francis Spaight
The West of Ireland in the year of 1835 must have been an inhospitable place. The majority of people were forced into a perpetual struggle to scratch out even the most basic forms of an existence. Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, an island with the majority of the population eking out a pitiful survival on small rented farms. Life in the cities was often slightly better but even there openings to employment were, outside of casual labour, few and far between. Many of the poorest people, whether living in a cramped city tenement or in a thatched hovel in the country, were ravaged by the ever present Tuberculosis as well as suffering from the threat of older diseases such as Cholera and Typhus. Life in 1835 could be hard and brutal and opportunities tended to be few and far between.
Anglo-Irish businessman Charles Spaight, a man notorious for clearing his estates and sending his poor tenants to Canada at 20 a head, on his own ships. Spaight was a man that would later state to a British parliamentary enquiry into the potato famine: "I found so great an advantage of getting rid of the pauper population upon my own property that I made every possible exertion to remove them... I consider the failure of the potato crop to be the greatest possible value in one respect in enabling us to carry out the emigration system."
When the Limerick ship Francis, Spaight, carrying approximately 300 emigrants to a new life in Canada, needed a new cabin boy they needed to look no further than fifteen-year-old Patrick O'Brien, a young man that had found occasional work stacking timber along the docks. Little is known about Patrick but we can state that he probably lived, with his mother Catherine, in a workhouse. Patrick must have seen his new position as a great chance that could eventually lead to a life, travelling the World, as a deckhand, a cook, or maybe even one day, a ship's mate.
Francis Spaight, was at the time, a well-known Limerick businessman and the owner of two ships that carried his name. The younger of the two ships was a newly completed freighter that was employed sailing east to ports such as Adelaide and Bombay, the older ship, the one that Patrick joined, was sailing West, to what was then termed, the New World.
The journey outwards was largely uneventful and having loaded up for the passage home, was making its way back to Limerick, having sailed on November 24th from the port of St. John's, New Brunswick, when on the night of December 3rd, the ship met heavy seas and was, in the words of the captain, thrown onto her "beam-ends". The mate and two other crew were lost in this incident. The remaining crew fought valiantly and were forced to cut the riggings in the middle of an Atlantic storm to bring the ship to right. With the ship finally righted the sailors found that all their provisions, with the exception of a small quantity of wine, had been lost. The only thing that had acted to keep the ship afloat was the cargo of timber they were carrying. After sixteen days of drifting in the North Atlantic, with biting cold, hunger and constant thirst, and with no hope of rescue in sight, the Captain, Thomas Gorman, made a decision. He called the crew together and it was decided that someone would have to be sacrificed to keep the rest alive. It was decided that the "Draw" should only be between the four cabin boys, as they were the only sailors that had no families to support. Lots were quickly drawn and it was discovered that Patrick O'Brien, the fifteen year old widow's son from Limerick, had drawn the short straw. It has been suggested that the draw was rigged and that O'Brien was selected as he was the weakest and, as a newly appointed cabin-boy, he held the lowest status on the ship's pecking order. In any event, on 18th of December, Patrick O'Brien bravely accepted his fate and offered his wrists forward to be slit. The resulting blood loss did not kill the unfortunate dehydrated child and the cook was finally compelled to end his misery by cutting the poor lad's throat. Two days later, on December 20t,h the ship's cook became "deranged" and was put to death, a third man followed, also described in the accounts as "deranged" on the 22nd.
On December 23rd, Angenora, a brig ship, also sailing from St. John's, came upon the wreck and set bravely about rescuing the "wretched creatures" they found. The survivors of the Francis Spaight, consisted of the Captain and ten men, six had died. The Captain had been engaged in eating portions of the remains of the unfortunate cabin boy when he was rescued. Upon their return to Limerick the Captain and the crew were put on trial for murder and were subsequently acquitted.
Spaight soon sold his other ship and on January 7th, 1846, the other Francis Spaight, now owned by a Mr. Joseph Shepherd, ran aground in Table Bay, near Capetown, and was wrecked with the loss of fifteen of the crew and eight rescuers.
The ship's owner, Francis Spaight, in a public appeal for the survivors of the Atlantic shipwreck and the relatives of those that had perished, wrote:
"It is only necessary to state here that the surviving sufferers have arrived in Limerick in a state of abject wretchedness, and some of them are mutilated by the frost and otherwise rendered helpless, as to be unable not only to obtain bread, but to labour for it during the rest of their lives. Without food, without clothing, and without hope, unless from the present appeal, they and the families of their deceased shipmates, implore the bounty of the citizens".
Francis Spaight, merchant prince, ship-owner, town councillor and magistrate, generously gave 10 of his own money to the fund. Jack London, in 1908, retold the story of the unfortunate Patrick O'Brien, in his story: "The Francis Spaight, a true tale retold", published by McMillan in "When God laughs and other stories" (1911).