the perils of questioning authority -- 12/06/17

Today's selection -- from Longitude by Dava Sobel. Until the mid-1700s, a ship's navigator had no reliable way to calculate longitude, which resulted in countless shipwrecks and untold losses to major seafaring powers such as Britain and the Netherlands. The shipwreck of one of England's premier fleets in 1707 was so devastating it compelled Parliament to offer an enormous financial prize to anyone who could solve the problem. But woe to any mere sailor in England's Navy with the impertinence to question the ship's navigational calculations. One sailor who did, only hours before the shipwreck, was hanged for his audacity:

"'Dirty weather,' Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell called the fog that had dogged him twelve days at sea. Returning home victorious from Gibraltar after skirmishes with the French Mediterranean forces, Sir Clowdisley could not beat the heavy autumn overcast. Fearing the ships might founder on coastal rocks, the admiral summoned all his navigators to put their heads to­gether.

"The consensus opinion placed the English fleet safely west of Île d'Ouessant, an island outpost of the Brittany peninsula. But as the sailors continued north they discovered to their horror that they had mis­gauged their longitude near the Scilly Isles. These tiny islands, about twenty miles from the southwest tip of England, point to Land's End like a path of stepping­stones. And on that foggy night of October 22, 1707, the Scillies became unmarked tombstones for two thousand of Sir Clowdisley's troops.

"The flagship, the Association, struck first. She sank within minutes, drowning all hands. Before the rest of the vessels could react to the obvious danger, two more ships, the Eagle and the Romney, pricked them­selves on the rocks and went down like stones. In all, four of the five warships were lost.

"Only two men washed ashore alive. One of them was Sir Clowdisley himself, who may have watched the fifty-seven years of his life flash before his eyes as the waves carried him home. Certainly he had time to reflect on the events of the previous twenty-four hours, when he made what must have been the worst mistake in judgment of his naval career. He had been approached by a sailor, a member of the Association's crew, who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet's location during the whole cloudy passage. Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbid­den in the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew. However, the danger appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concerns known to the officers. Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot.

"No one was around to spit 'I told you so!' into Sir Clowdisley's face as he nearly drowned. But as soon as the admiral collapsed on dry sand, a local woman combing the beach purportedly found his body and fell in love with the emerald ring on his finger. Be­tween her desire and his depletion, she handily mur­dered him for it. Three decades later, on her deathbed, this same woman confessed the crime to her clergyman, producing the ring as proof of her guilt and contrition.

"The demise of Sir Clowdisley's fleet capped a long saga of seafaring in the days before sailors could find their longitude. Page after page from this miserable history relates quintessential horror stories of death by scurvy and thirst, of ghosts in the rigging, and of landfalls in the form of shipwrecks, with hulls dashed on rocks and heaps of drowned corpses fouling the beaches. In literally hundreds of instances, a vessel's ignorance of her longitude led swiftly to her destruc­tion."



Dava Sobel


Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time


Walker Publishing Company, Inc.


Copyright 1995 by Dava Sobel


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