Friday, April 16, 2010

The Evolution of the Story of a Shipwreck

Here are excerpts from a series of newspaper articles about an event that happened to one of my husband's ancestors in 1874. His name was Patrick Humphries. It is interesting to see how the
accounts differ. Here's a map to give you an idea of where in Sydney Australia this happened:

Now here are some basic facts to compare the stories to:

-A fishing boat called the Mermaid left Watson's Bay on Feb 8, 1874.

-There were 4 passengers on board.

-A storm hit shortly after 2PM when they were a couple of miles off Dee Why.

-The boat sank beneath their feet.

-There were 3 oars for 4 people.

-One of those who had an oar didn't make it.

-Of the 3 that made it, 2 had an oar to cling to, the other man didn't.

-The 3 landed at Curl Curl, where they hid in the bushes until a policeman brought them brandy and clothes from Manly.


1. Here's a newspaper report with information from a signaling station:


STORM AND LOSS OF LIFE. The following memorandum was received this morning by Inspector Ferris from the signal station on the South Head:-"The fishing boat Mermaid was capsized and sank off Deewy yesterday. One man, named Manuel Jocento, was drowned; the other three men swam ashore."

2. The article continues with information from a police report:

From Senior-constable Carton, stationed at Manly Beach, we were enabled to gather the following additional particulars this morning:-"Shortly after 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon a very fierce squall came up from the north-east and broke over the Heads and Manly Beach suddenly, and with terrific violence. It continued for over a quarter of an hour, during which time it did a great amount of damage to the timber at Manly, sweeping down the trees and scattering them in all directions. The windows of the station house and other houses were threatened to be broken by the heavy fall of hail, combined with the terrific force of the wind.

During this storm-which seems to have been confined to the locality of the Heads and Manly, -the Mermaid, fishing boat, was running home when she was caught in the squall, capsized, and sank about a mile from the shore off Deewy.

The occupants of the boat were residents of Watson's Bay, named Patrick Humphries, Henry Bowman, John Blanket (a Maori, a servant of the Hon. John Robertson), and Manuel Jocento. When they were thrown into the water, they divested themselves of all their clothes except their shirts, and struck out for the shore. There was a tremendous sea running at the time, and the men found themselves making very little headway, and drifting fast round the North Head. Jocento became exhausted and sank, but the other men buffeting with the waves for over an hour, were finally enabled to reach the land at Curl Curl.

The men hid in the bush, until some boys who were passing by discovered them in then- unhappy plight, and gave information to Senior-constable Carton, who immediately procured some clothes and a bottle of brandy from the lodgers at Lambourne's Hotel, and took them down to the men.

They were much exhausted, so much so that they were all convinced that had they been in the water ten minutes longer they must have given up and sank. When they were sufficiently recovered, Carton put them into a waterman's boat, and they were taken across to Watson's Bay.

3. The Sydney Morning Herald TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 1874.

FATAL BOAT ACCIDENT OUTSIDE THE HEADS. At 11 a.m., on Sunday, four men named Patrick Humphries, Henry Bowman, John Blanket (a Maori), and Emanuel Jacinto, left Watson's Bay in a fishing boat and proceeded outside the Heads under sail. Off Long Reef, at between 2 and 3 p.m., and when the boat was about three miles from the shore, she was suddenly struck by a cyclonic squall, which fairly lifted her out of the water and capsized her, leaving the crew struggling in the waves. Having ballast on board, she immediately sank.

The men being all excellent swimmers at once struck out for the shore. Humphries, Bowman, and Blanket succeeded in effecting a landing at Curl Curl, after being over two hours in the water, but, Jacinto unfortunately was drowned. Tho survivors' state that they saw a shark swimming near them shortly after the boat went down, and it is supposed that Jacinto was seized by it.

On reaching Manly Beach the men were kindly received by Mr. John Woods, who supplied them with brandy and tea. Messrs. Lambourne and Barcett also provided them with dry clothing, after which they were sent over to Watson's Bay by senior-constable Carton in one of Mr. B. Skinner's boats.

4.This is a letter to the editor. Patrick Humphries says this is an accurate account:

Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday, March 4 1874 and republished Monday 26 May 1890 at Humphries' request:



The 8th February last commenced with as lovely a morning as ever brightened our coast, and having had for some days previously exceedingly unpleasant weather, the people of Watson's Bay rejoiced at the change, and many boats that had been long laid up were put in requisition.

A fisherman, named Henry Bornan, a Dutchman, determined to try for the first time the first-class fishing boat Mermaid, which he had lately rented, and with him there went forth to sea Emanuel Jesson, otherwise Jacinto, a Portuguese ; John Blanket, a Maori ; and Patrick Humphries, an Australian, and native of Watson's Bay.

They proceeded to the northward along the coast several miles, and anchored off the headland called D. Y., but had not been there very long before appearances to the northward warned them of a change of weather. They therefore got their boat underway, with the intention of coming home, but when about one mile and three-quarters from the shore, in a line with D. Y. Head, Bluefish Head, and North Head, the severest northerly gale known on our coast since the settlement of the colony overtook them, and completely swamped their boat, which from the weight of the stone ballast she carried sunk from under their feet to the bottom.

I shall not attempt to describe the terrible position of the four unfortunate men ! Nearly two miles from shore, their boat gone, and the sea raging mountains high ! They were good swimmers, all of them, and instead of desponding they bravely determined to battle to the last for dear life. They had but three oars, two of which having floated near to Jesson and Bornan respectively, were seized by them as some slight means of aid in their calamity. The other oar reached at the same time the hands of both Humphries and Blanket ; whilst to only one of them could it be of the slightest use.

Then, in that boiling sea, those two men acted towards each other with such bravery and generosity as has never been surpassed, if indeed equaled, in any age or country. Blanket said to Humphries, ' Pat, you take the oar ; you have a wife and little children, I have no wife, no children, am an old man, never mind me.'

To which Humphries replied, 'No, Blanket ; you are old and weak, I am young and strong ; you keep the oar.' Humphries remained with the oar the shortest possible time necessary to enable him to get his clothes off, and then darted away, leaving it with Blanket.

Nothing but their glorious heroism had those two men in common. One an aboriginal native of New Zealand, between 60 and 70 years of age ; the other a young Australian, of European parentage, of but 29 years.

After three hours battling with the sea, Humphries landed about three or four miles north of North Head. Bornan landed about 20 minutes after Humphries, and Blanket 15 minutes after Bornan, all near the same place ; but, alas! poor old Jesson was never seen more.


5. Here's a letter written 16 years later:

Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 19 May 1890


Several years ago he [Blanket] was capsized in a fishing boat some distance outside Sydney Heads, the only other occupant being a well-known Fisherman of Watson's Bay, whose name I forget.

When the boat sank from under them, leaving the two men floating, Blanket secured an oar, but his comrade was not fortunate enough to find any support, then Blanket performed a grandly heroic deed. He went to his friend and made him take his oar, saying " You got wife and children, Bill, I got nobody," and then struck out for the shore without any support.

Both men were saved or the heroic incident would never have been known. I relate this from memory as I heard it at the time. I shall be glad if someone who remembers the circumstances better than I do will give them to you more completely. They are worth recording in letters of gold.

May 17. HENRY T. FOX.

6.This is written by the same guy who wrote the account which Humphries said was accurate. Notice how he gets some details wrong:

Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 22 May 1890


What happened was this. Three boatmen-Jacinto, Humphries, and Blanket-were out fishing four or five miles north of Watson's Bay, and about two miles from the coast, when a terrific gust of wind upset their boat. Blanket, a New Zealand native, got possession of an oar, and seeing his friend, Patrick Humphries, getting the worst of it with the waves, made his way to him and handed him the oar, saying, "'You take it, Pat you have a young wife and little children, save your life; I have no wife, no children, it don't matter about me."

In the attempt to reach the shore-two miles of a swim-they lost sight of each other, and each thought the other drowned. However, Humphries got on shore, and so did Blanket, a mile or more apart but poor Jacinto was seen no more.


7. Humphries writes to the paper to correct the previous letters to the editor:

Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 26 May 1890


Mr. Fox is very much " at sea " though (as I suppose he ought to be), in his narration of what he "remembers" as the particulars of a capsize which occurred about 16 years ago, and in which "Blanket" played a heroic part. Now, as I am the Bill referred to, I will, instead of narrating the circumstances of this sad affair, as requested by Mr. Fox, forward you the enclosed letter from Sir John Robertson, which states the actual facts correctly, and which is taken from an issue of the Herald of February, 1874, immediately after the occurrence took place. Of a truth it is simply marvelous how the particulars of an incident which occurred but 16 years ago, and which attracted so much attention at the time, should become so twisted and contorted, as also in the case of the Dunbar wreck. No wonder that people doubt supposed historical and biographical facts, and disbelieve that Homer and Shakespeare ever existed.

Watson's Bay, May 23.

The paper then reprinted the letter to the editor, #4 above. This series of articles shows you how quickly the details of an event are forgotten. On the other hand memorable words are preserved quite well.

My computer is busted and I'm using an old one to type this so I'm just going to give the websites of these articles instead of giving in-line citations:

1 and 2:

The map is from Google Earth @2010 MapData Sciences Pty Ltd PSMA

1 comment:

Maryellen said...

Hi there,

I am the great great granddaughter of Emanuel Jacinto, the Portugease man that drowned.

My mother grew up in Watson's Bay Sydney.

thank you for your post.

Maryellen Hargreaves