On the 29th of August 1782, the Royal George, a hundred gun first rate that was a sister ship to Nelson’s Victory, was anchored in the sheltered waters of Spithead. Her gun ports were open to allow much needed fresh air and sunlight into the ship. On board was her crew of eight hundred, together with approximately four hundred visitors, mainly the wives and children. In her stern cabin, Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt worked away at his desk. The ship was due to depart for Gibraltar later that day, once work was completed on her hull. To allow access to the planking that needed attention, she had been heeled over to port by moving all her starboard guns onto the centre line of the ship.
Some say it was a gust of wind, others the incompetence of the officer of the watch, while still more point to a delivery of supplies that was made to the now conveniently low port side of the ship. Whatever the cause, shortly after seven in the morning, she heeled over even further. Water flooded in through the open lower port lids, which made her tilt even more, and the Royal George began to settle. Admiral Kempenfelt tried to escape, only to find that the pronounced angle of the ship had jammed shut his cabin door, and he drowned, along with nine hundred others that day.
Nine hundred perished, in a slowly sinking ship anchored in the middle of the fleet, close to shore, surrounded by a calm, August-warm sea. Yet such huge loss of life was perfectly usual. Most ship’s that were wrecked in the eighteenth century numbered their survivors in single figures, so the three hundred odd that were rescued from the Royal George can count themselves lucky .
But why did sailors perish in such colossal numbers? Part of the reason was the lack of any practical rescue equipment onboard – no life boats or buoyancy aids as we would recognise them today. That said, all the contemporary accounts of the sinking, point to the promptness with which the ships around the Royal George got their boats in the water to offer what help they could. The principal reason for the disaster is that most seamen in the eighteenth century could not swim.
This fact seems remarkable to a modern ear. Why would any sane person planning to go to sea not take the precaution of learning? And why did a navy that constantly battled with finding precious sailors in time of war not seek to teach them? It was not that the skill of swimming was unknown. Granted, most of our modern strokes had yet to be invented, but there were some noted swimmers at the time. Sir Edward Pellew, the famous frigate captain, is one example. In 1796 he swam out to the wreck of the Dutton, a troop ship that had run aground in Plymouth Sound, with a rescue line. His action resulted in most of the passengers and crew being saved. This was an event so noteworthy compared with the normal huge loss of life from wrecks that he was made a baronet for his actions.
Any writer setting their work in the 18th century needs to try and get into the minds of their subjects. The crew of the Royal George were not modern individuals in fancy dress. Most contemporary sailors could not swim, because they chose not to learn for reasons that made perfect sense to them. It was an age still dominated by strong notions of fate, and few professions seem to have been more fatalistic than sailors. If fate had ordained that their ship was to strike a reef, then what could they do to oppose such forces? Their pitiful efforts to oppose fate by learning to swim would hardly alter matters. Besides, once flung into the water, what were their options? In an era before rescue services, there were really only two. A swift end by drowning, or the swimmer’s long, lingering battle against numbing cold, exhaustion and the endless sea.
Philip K Allan is a new author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available as a Paperback or e-book from Amazon, Smashword and all good online vendors