Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Fate of the "Withywood"; Reconciling Participant Accounts with Conflicting Data

British Merchant Ships of the Jamaica Fleet in the Central Atlantic Hurricane, Sept. 17, 1782

I am writing an article for the Journal of the American Revolution on the disaster that struck a large British convoy in the middle of the Atlantic in the last months of the War of American Independence.  In fact, I'm fairly certain I have enough research material now and a compelling narrative for the first full length book on the story of Admiral Graves' ill-fated Jamaica Fleet. The article comes first, and there is plenty that won't make it into the 4,500 words or so that I hope will be in the finished piece. From time to time, I will share a vignette or two from my broader research here, and explore the challenges of reconstructing 18th century events at sea from contemporary eyewitness statements that are sometimes at variance with subsequent facts.

Participant accounts of battles on land are similar in some ways to those of survival at sea. Laurence Babits and Joshua Howard1 adopt a methodology for their groundbreaking re-evaluation of the Battle of Guildford Court House that treats veterans' pension declarations and contemporary battle reporting as artifacts.  The
authors weigh the relative credibility of individual testimony and look for internal consistency and evidence of event sequencing. Richard Fox, Jr. pioneered a similar approach that uses native American oral history in combination with battlefield archeology and combat modeling to offer a dramatically different interpretation of the Battle of Little Big Horn2.

Traditional archeology is little help in evaluating the fate of wooden ships that seemingly vanished without a trace, but treating contemporary newspaper accounts, Admiralty reports and reprinted survivor letters as artifacts helps to avoid some of the pitfalls that come with over-reliance on eyewitness testimony that every prosecutor knows but not every historian fully appreciates.

Consider the fate of just one merchant ship from the 90 or so sail that were part of the Jamaica Fleet when it encountered a powerful hurricane on September 16th and 17th East of the Banks of Newfoundland.  Withywood, Captain Thomas Evers, was a veteran of the Jamaica trade, a square rigged ship of 350 tons with three decks and sheathed against shipworm3 .  She took her name from a place in Jamaica known for its woody, creeping plants or "withes".

One of the very first reports of the storm to reach England was published in the October 4, 1782 edition of the twice-weekly shipping insurance newspaper "New-Lloyd's List":

"The Withywood, Evers, from Jamaica to London, foundered in the Gale, off the Banks of Newfoundland. Crew taken up by the Thetis, arrived at Bristol."

The same edition reported that Thetis, Captain Major, arrived at Bristol from Jamaica on October 2nd.

A variation on this account was published in the Glocester Journal4 on October 7th, 1782:

"The Thetis, Capt. Major, one of the Jamaica fleet, is arrived at Bristol. She brings advice of the Withywood, for London, belonging to the same fleet, having foundered."

Other papers repeated the story, such that by October 10th Withywood was authoritatively listed among the small but growing number of merchant ships that were known to have foundered in the Gale5.   One early newspaper report of the dispersal of the Jamaica Fleet by the hurricane listed Withywood as dismasted instead of having foundered

There is also the apparent smoking gun - reprinted in the "Pennsylvania Packet" (Vol. XLI, No. 977) on December 17, 1782  - which contains an excerpt from a letter written by the Captain of the Withywood describing how the ship foundered and he and the crew were rescued by Thetis:

Captain Edwards could easily be a misspelling of Captain Evers and the case seems conclusively in favor of the assertion that Withywood went down.  

The problem is that b
arely three months after she was reported lost at sea by “New-Lloyd's List”, a ship named Withywood, under Captain Evers, appears in the January 24, 1783 edition of the same paper.  It records that she departed from Graves End for Jamaica three days before, in company with a second ship that is known to have survived from the homeward-bound fleet.  The next edition of “New-Lloyd’s List” shows Withywood at the Downs with a large number of merchant ships preparing to proceed once more in convoy to Jamaica, and subsequent reports reveal she was among those that reached their destination safely7..

A review of Lloyd’s Registry of Shipping between 1780 and 1786 makes it clear that there is only one ship named Withywood in each year and her Captain in every case is Thomas Evers.  Her specifications are nearly identical in almost every respect.   Her tonnage is the same, but there are important differences from year to year that reveal we are dealing with two ships named Withywood, not one.

Lloyd's Registry in 1783 has an odd correction for the name of Withywood's Captain, with the name J. Young struck through and that of T. Evers added below.  Withywood was a late addition to the Registry, with her name appearing after those that were recorded in alphabetical order.  There are slight but important differences in her record.   Prior years indicated that Withywood was a constant trader, but no such designation is made in 1783.  Most significantly they have different dates and places of building.  The 1784 edition of the Registry provides yet another vital clue.  The former name of Withywood is listed in that year beneath her entry: Loyal Briton.  And indeed, Loyal Briton is described in Lloyd's Registry for 1780.

The inescapable conclusion is that Withywood, Captain Evers, did indeed founder in the gale, and that Loyal Briton was renamed Withywood and Captain Evers made master of her to continue in the Jamaica trade.

Thomas Evers died in 1799, “The London Gazette8” printed the following notice:

“Captain Thomas Evers of the Ship Withywood, Debtors and Creditors.
All Persons having any just Claim or Demand on the Estate or Effects of Thomas Evers, late of London, Master Mariner, and Commander of the Ship Withywood, trading to Jamaica, deceased, are peremptorily desired to send the Particulars thereof to Mr. Thomas Trundle, Crosby-Square, London…”

 1. Babits, Lawrence E. and Joshua B. Howard (2009); Long, Obstinate, and Bloody; The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.  See also Babits, Lawrence E. (1998); A Devil of a Whipping; The Battle of Cowpens, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, in which the author first combined the techniques of battlefield archeology with traditional historical inquiry by treating participant accounts as artifacts.
2. Fox, Richard A. Jr. (1993); Archeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
3. Lloyd's Register of Shipping (1782)

4. "The Glocester Journal" October 7, 1782, Vol LX1, No. 3156, Printer/Publisher R. Raikes

5. "The Hereford Journal" October 17, 1782, Vol XIII, No. 637

6. “The Oxford Journal” October 5, 1782

7.  “New-Lloyd’s List”  January 24, 1783 No. 1434; , January 28, 1783  No. 1434; and  June 13, 1783  No. 1472

8.  “The London Gazette”  December 21, 1799 Issue 15215, Page 1320

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