“Guns over the side!” Aground at Cape Bear 1838

In the days before reliable charts were available grounding was an ever-present danger for vessels sailing in unfamiliar waters. Engaging local pilots who knew the area sometimes reduced the obvious dangers but was no guarantee of safety.  In many cases, especially off Prince Edward Island where the shoals were often sand and not rock, damage might not be immediate but in the case of strong tides and storm winds the situation could turn critical in a short period of time.

Taking the ground at low tide sometimes meant nothing more than keeping the ship from moving and then waiting until the water depth increased as the tide came in. Crew would be ordered to set out anchors to help haul the ship off and offloading cargo or simply sending it over the side helped lighten the ship. (Jettisoning heavy goods gave rise to jetsam, which sank, as opposed to flotsam which was material that floated.)

H.M.S. Malabar

However in the case of foul weather the situation could turn critical very quickly. Such was the case when the HMS Malabar struck Cape Bear Reef on Friday, 19 October 1838. The Malabar was not a new vessel. It had been built for the Royal Navy in Bombay Dockyard in India and was launched in 1818. The vessel was old, although not so old as to be obsolete, but she was very big by standards of the day. She was 1700 tons, 174 feet long, 47 feet wide and had a depth of hold of 20 feet.  The Malabar was one of eleven Repulse class vessels built between 1800 and 1819. Carrying between 500 and 700 crew  vessels of the class were the battle workhorses of the Royal Navy carrying 74 guns; 56 heavy guns on the two gun-decks and the lighter guns on the quarterdeck and forecastle.

The ship had been heading to Pictou where it had been ordered to join HMS Medea and other vessels bound for Quebec. It was nearly low water and the ship had two local pilots aboard and crew members were taking soundings in the bow. Northumberland Strait had not been thoroughly charted but Sailing Directions from 1840 warned that vessels “must avoid coming too near the east point [Cape Bear] from which a ridge of sunken rocks stretches off about a mile.”

Cape Bear. Detail of 1851 Chart of the eastern section of Northumberland Strait from surveys of Captain H.W. Bayfield. Soundings are in fathoms.

The Malabar was being pushed by the tide and the S.E wind had been increasing. Following the grounding and in a scramble to get the vessel off,  the ship’s crew were ordered to throw over her heavy guns from the main and lower decks as well as a considerable quantity of round shot to lighten the load. Kedge anchors were set and was probably in this process that one of the ships boats was lost and two of the crew drowned. The ship lost all of its false keel on the rocks and the rudder was unshipped to protect it from being damaged. Fortunately for the Malabar, Joseph Wightman of nearby Three Rivers stood by with his own ship and gave what ever assistance he could. Finally the ship was able to get off the rocks, leaving her anchors, hawsers and the guns and shot on the reef. With Wightman’s help they were able to get the Malabar to Three Rivers where in more sheltered waters temporary repairs could be made.  Captain Pascoe of the Royal Marines on the Malabar was dispatched in a four-oared cutter to bring news of the grounding to the fleet. Rowing for more than 20 miles, the cutter arrived in Pictou at 2 o’clock on Saturday morning with the news that in spite of the loss and damage the Malabar was leaking only three inches of water an hour which could be managed with the pumps. She intended to set out for Halifax dockyard for more permanent repairs. The rest of the fleet then left Pictou for Quebec. At Halifax the warship, although badly leaking, was deemed fit cross the Atlantic and was ordered to Plymouth to go into dry dock for repairs.

Joseph Wightman was recognized by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for his efforts in saving the Malabar and was awarded £100 (about $3,000 today) but in addition, the captain and officers of the ship ordered a tea and coffee set in a case to be presented to Wightman with the inscription: ” Presented to Mr. Joseph Wightman, by Capt. E. Harvey and the Officers of H.M.S. Malabar, for the important service he rendered to that ship when in danger on the rocks, off Cape Bear, Prince Edward Island 19th October, 1838.

Ordinarily the story might have ended there with the ship repaired and sailing off into history. However there was the small matter of the guns and iron shot which had been jettisoned. Fortunately we have an account written by a visitor from Montreal who came to the Island three years later. After spending a few days on the Island the unidentified tourist was returning to Pictou on the steamer Pocahontas and added the following to his account which was later published in the Montreal Herald: 

I forgot to mention that we met in with an incident during our voyage from Georgetown to Pictou, which not only took away from the monotony; but added to its charm. This was our falling in with a schooner of Cape Bear, the Allandale, at anchor, for the purpose of getting up the cannon and shot thrown overboard by H.M.S. Malabar 74, in October 1838, when she ran ashore on a reef in 3 fathoms water. On that occasion 36 thirty-two pounders, weighing from 51 to 56 cwt each, and 100 tons shot were consigned to the deep and the actual spot having been discovered by diving for the purpose, the government offered half price for all which could be delivered to the ordnance department at Halifax. The guns are worth about £50 stg.; and the shot is worth £4 per ton even as old iron, so that the speculation will be a good one. On board the steamer was a gentleman with a diving bell, which was to be used for the purpose of enabling a person to fix ropes round the guns by which they might be hauled up, and to put the shot into iron buckets. Previous to our coming up to the schooner, one of the men on board of her had dived and had succeeded in securing two guns, which I saw in the hold of the vessel— they were very much rusted. I tried on a portion of the diving dress, which is very heavy on land, but is necessarily so to prevent the diver involuntarily coming to the surface of the water. I would have descended in it had the tide permitted but as it would not change for 2½ hours, I was obliged to forego the novel gratification. The diver told me that he could remain under water with the greatest ease from breakfast time till dinner time, and that although the soles of his shoes were of lead, and two inches thick, he could walk as light as with pumps in a ball room.

The salvage effort was being undertaken by James Fraser a druggist and entrepreneur of Pictou. The attempt was one of pioneer undertakings in underwater salvage on the Maritime coast. At the salvage prices quoted above recovery of the entire weight of jetsam could have yielded £2,200, a value of about $400,000 today.  While the number of guns and weight of iron recovered is not known  Fraser was unsatisfied with the proceeds awarded by the naval authorities.

The Malabar  was hulked in 1848 but remained as a naval vessel until sold in 1905.

If there are still cannon and shot from the Malabar still waiting to be salvaged after more than 180 years beneath the sea they are well hidden by the rocks of Cape Bear reef.


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