Captain Josiah A. Mitchell

Excerpts from the Account of the Burning of the Clipper Ship Hornet
by Mark Twain, Sacramento Daily Union, 1866

“At seven o’clock on the morning of the 3d of May, the chief mate and two men started down into the hold to draw some “bright varnish” from a cask. The captain told him to bring the cask on deck – that it was dangerous to have it where it was, in the hold. The mate, instead of obeying the order, proceeded to draw a can full of the varnish first. He had an “opening light” in his hand, and the liquid took fire; the can was dropped, the officer in his consternation neglected to close the bung, and in a few seconds the fiery torrent had run in every direction, under bales of rope, cases of candles, barrels of kerosene, all sorts of freight, and tongues of flames were shooting upward through every aperture and crevice in the deck…

The ship was moving along under easy sail, the watch on duty were idling here and there in such shade as they could find, and the listlessness and repose of morning in the tropics was upon the vessel and her belongings. But as six bells chimed, the cry of “FIRE!” rang through the ship, and woke every man to life and action. And following the fearful warning, and almost as fleetly, came the fire itself. It sprang through hatchways, seized upon chairs, table, cordage, anything, everything – and almost before the bewildered men could realize what the trouble was and what was to be done the cabin was a hell of angry flames…

josiah-mitchell-sketch

Captain Josiah Mitchell

Captain Mitchell ordered the three boats to be launched instantly, which was done – and so hurriedly that the longboat (the one he left the vessel in himself) had a hole as large as a man’s head stove in her bottom. A blanket was stuffed into the opening and fastened to its place. Not a single thing was saved, except such food and other articles as lay about the cabin and could be quickly seized and thrown on deck. Forty minutes after the fire alarm the provisions and passengers were on board the three boats, and they rowed away from the ship – and to some distance, too, for the heat was very great. Twenty minutes afterward, the two masts with their rigging and their broad sheets of canvas wreathed in flames, crashed into the sea….

All night long the thirty-one unfortunates sat in their frail boats and watched the gallant ship burn; and felt as men feel when they see a tried friend perishing and are powerless to help him. The sea was illuminated for miles around, and the clouds above were tinged with a ruddy hue; the faces of the men glowed in the strong light as they shaded their eyes with their hands and peered out anxiously upon the wild picture, and the gunwales of the boats and the idle oars shone like polished gold…

At five o’clock on the morning after the disaster, in latitude 2º 20′ north, longitude 112º 8′ west, the ship went down, and the crew of the Hornet were alone on the great deep, or, as one of the seamen expressed it. ‘We felt as if somebody or something had gone away – as if we hadn’t any home any more.’

Captain Mitchell divided his boat’s crew into two watches and gave the third mate charge of one and took the other himself. He had saved a studding sail from the ship, and out of this the men fashioned a rude sail with their knives; they hoisted it, and taking the first and second mates’ boats in tow, they bore away upon the ship’s course (northwest) and kept in the track of vessels bound to or from San Francisco, in hope of being picked up…

Their Water, Provisions, Etc.

Here is the list: Four hams, seven pieces of salt pork, one box of raisins, 100 pounds of bread, twelve two-pound cans of oysters, clams and assorted meats; six buckets of raw potatoes, a keg with four pounds of butter in it, twelve gallons of water in a forty-gallon ‘scuttle-butt,’ four one-gallon demijohns full of water, three bottles of brandy, the property of passengers; some pipes, matches and a hundred pounds of tobacco; had no medicines. That was all these poor fellows had to live on for forty-three days – the whole thirty one of them! Each boat had a compass, a quadrant, a copy of Bowditch’s Navigator and a nautical almanac, and the captain’s and chief mate’s boats had chronometers….

Rations.

Of course, all hands were put on short allowances at once. The first two days they only allowed one gill of water a day to each man; but for nearly a fortnight after that the weather was lowering and stormy, and frequent rain squalls occurred. The rain was caught in canvas… There were luxurious occasions when there was plenty of water to drink, but after that how long they suffered the agonies of thirst for four long weeks!..

Hoping against Hope.

For seven days the boats sailed on, and the starving men eat their fragment of biscuit and their morsel of raw pork in the morning, and hungrily counted the tedious hours until noon and night should bring their repetitions of it.

The nights were very dark. They had no lantern and could not see the compass, and there were no stars to steer by….

Sumptuous Fare.

On the fifth day a notable incident occurred. They caught a dolphin! and while their enthusiasm was still at its highest over this stroke of good fortune, they captured another. They made a trifling fire in a tin plate and warmed the prizes – to cook them was not possible – and divided them equitably among all hands and ate them…

The Boats Separate.

The eighteenth day was a memorable one to the wanderers on the lonely sea. On that day the boats parted company. The Captain said that separate from each other there were three chances for the saving of some of the party where there could be but one chance if they kept together.

The magnanimity and utter unselfishness of Capt. Mitchell throughout this distressing voyage, are among its most amazing features. No disposition was ever shown by the strong to impose on the weak, and no greediness, no desire of food, was ever evinced. On the contrary, they were thoughtful of each other to the utmost of their ability. When the time came to part company, Mitchell and his crew, although theirs was much the more numerous party, took only one-third of the meager amount of provisions left…

At eleven o’clock in the forenoon the boats were all cast loose from each other, and then, as friends part from friends whom they expect to meet no more in life, all hands hailed with a fervent ‘God bless you boys; Good-bye!’.

Religious Services.

The third mate does not remember distinctly, but thinks morning and evening prayers were begun on the nineteenth day. They were conducted by one of the young Fergusons, because the Captain was without his spectacles, as they had been burned with the ship…

Further Reduction of Rations.

What these men suffered during these next three weeks no mortal man may hope to describe. Their stomachs and intestines felt to the grasp like a couple of small balls, and the gnawing hunger pains and the dreadful thirst that was consuming them in those burning latitudes became almost insupportable….

The Last Ration!

On Monday, the thirty-eighth day after the disaster, ‘we had nothing left,’ said the third mate, ‘but a pound and a half of ham bone – two ounces of food to each man.’ This was the last division of food the Captain made…

The Awful Alternative.

The men seem to have thought in their own minds of the shipwrecked mariner’s last dreadful resort – cannibalism; but they do not appear to have conversed about it! They felt that some one of the company must die soon -…

The Captain’s Birthday.

Captain Mitchell was fifty-six years old on the 12th of June – the fortieth day after the burning of the ship. He said it looked somewhat as if it might be the last one he was going to enjoy…

Land Ho!

At eleven o’clock on the 15th of June, after suffering all that men may suffer and live for forty-three days, in an open boat, on a scorching tropical sea, one of the men feebly shouted the glad tidings, ‘LAND HO!’ The land was the island of Hawaii, and they were off Laupohoehoe and could see nothing in shore but breakers…. Two of Captain Spencer’ s natives saw the boat, knew by the appearance of things that it was in trouble, and dashed through the surf and swam out to it. When they climbed aboard there were only five yards of space between the poor sufferers and a sudden and violent death. Fifteen minutes afterwards the boat was beached upon the shore and a crowd of natives were around the strangers dumping bananas, melons, taro, poi – anything and everything they could scrape together that could be eaten – the Kanaka girls and men took the mariners in their arms like so many children and carried them up to the house, where they received kind and judicious attention…

Remarks.

The hardest berth in that boat, I think, must have been that of provision-keeper. This office was performed by the Captain and the third mate; of course they were always hungry. They always had access to the food, and yet must not gratify their craving appetites…

The young Fergusons are very highly spoken of by all the boat’s crew, as patient, enduring, manly and kind-hearted gentlemen. The Captain gave them a watch to themselves – it was the duty of each to bail the water out of the boat three hours a day…

Captain Mitchell.

To this man’s good sense, cool judgment, perfect discipline, close attention to the smallest particulars which could conduce to the welfare of his crew or render their ultimate rescue more probable, that boat’s crew owe their lives. He has shown brain and ability that make him worthy to command the finest frigate in the United States, and a genuine unassuming heroism that entitle him to a Congressional medal. In the above remarks I am only echoing the expressed opinions of numbers of persons…

The Sick

Captain Mitchell, one sailor, and the two Fergusons are still at Hilo. The two first mentioned are pretty feeble, from what I can learn. The Captain’s sense of responsibility kept him strong and awake all through the voyage, but as soon as he landed and that fearful strain upon his faculties was removed, he was prostrated – became the feeblest of the boat’s company….

The seamen here are doing remarkably well, considering all things. They already walk about the hospital a little; and very stiffed-legged, because of the long inaction their muscles have experienced…

When they came ashore at Hawaii, no man in the party had had any movement of his bowels for eighteen days, several not for twenty-five days or thirty, one not for thirty-seven, and one not one for forty-four days. As soon as any of these men can travel they will be sent to San Francisco…

I have written this lengthy letter in a great hurry in order to get it off by the bark Milton Badger, if the thing be possible, and I may have made a good many mistakes, but I hardly think so. All the statistical information in it comes from the 3rd mate, and he may have made mistakes, because he tells his story entirely from memory, and although he has naturally a most excellent one, it might well be pardoned for inaccuracies concerning events which transpired during a series of weeks that never saw his mind strongly fixed upon any thought save the weary longing for food and water. But the log-books of the Captain and the two passengers will tell the terrible romance from the first day to the last in faithful detail, and these I shall forward by the next mail if I am permitted to copy them.”