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The wreck of the HMS Lowstoffe

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VICE Admiral Robert Plampin, commander of HMS Lowestoffe, which sank at Little Inagua in 1801 after three years under his command.

By Eric Wiberg

GREAT Inagua and Little Inagua boast some of the oldest and most enigmatic shipwrecks in The Bahamas, as they sit across the entrance to the Windward Passage.

The two Inagua islands’ 150-nautical-miles of reef-strewn coast are scoured by strong currents, which aside from Matthew Town are essentially uninhabited. One of the wrecks was the first ship that Lord Horatio Nelson, who died defeating Napoleon’s navy at Trafalgar in 1805. That ship was HMS Lowestoffe, which grounded at Little Inagua, and the man who commanded her “regularly visited and had numerous conversations with Napoleon” later while in command of Saint Helena. Napoleon’s spouse, Josephine, was from Martinique, and his nemesis Nelson’s wife, Frances Herbert Woolward, was from Nevis.

The Spanish 18-gun brig Infanta “was sailing in a fresh northeast wind and heavy seas in the Caicos Channel, when she was caught in a storm [and] collided with the reef north of Little Inagua, and was tipped over” in November 1788. The ship sank as survivors scrambled off. They managed to use “two launches and a boat to reach a deserted island, two miles from the reef they had struck", which has to have been Great Inagua. After a few days, some English ships “under the pretext of providing assistance to take them to Baracoa, Cuba, robbed them of their belongings".

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ADMIRAL Lord Horatio Nelson, whose career aged 18 to 19 leapt forward as Second Lieutenant of HMS Lowestoffe in 1777 and 1788 when he experienced his first command of the captured American merchantman Little Lucy.

In 1715, the Le Compte de Paix of the Royal French Senegal Company, “fell victim to the reefs surrounding the Bahamian island of Great Inagua losing a valuable cargo consisting of currency, gold dust, sugar, indigo, and ambergris". Salvors from Bermuda “managed to fend off an armed French ship protecting the site, and recovered” so much “more than 12,000 pieces of eight". The frigate HMS Statira wrecked at Little Inagua en route from Bermuda in convoy. The 38-gun ship was under the command of Captain Spelman Swaine on February 26, 1815 when the ship struck “a sunken rock, near the Island of Little Inague. By the greatest exertions, she swung off in half an hour, but she was found so leaky, that all hopes of saving her was abandoned, and soon after the crew was distributed in the different transports, she sunk". They landed at Port Royal a week later.

HMS Lowestoffe was built in 1761 as a 32-gun fifth-rate frigate, 131 feet long, 35 feet wide and 9.5 feet deep. Under the command of Captain William Locker, leader of the West Indies Station in 1777, HMS Lowestoffe sailed from the UK to the Caribbean “with a convoy of 18 sail of merchantmen, arriving at Port Royal, Jamaica, in July. The young Horatio Nelson was her Second Lieutenant [and] had passed his examination on 9 April". Impressed by Nelson, Locker appointed the 19-year-old “captain of the schooner Little Lucy, an American prize re-fitted as Lowestoffe's tender. For some weeks, the two ships worked in tandem hunting prizes in the waters of the Caribbean, [then], in July 1778, Nelson was transferred to HMS Bristol".

Lowestoffe sailed from Kingston on 22 July 1801, and met a convoy, including the ships Acasta, sloop Bonetta, schooners Musquito and Sting, and others, which sailed from Port Antonio after 27 July. The frigate was carrying a large quantity of specie, was 717 tons, had three masts, and was armed with 32 cannons: 26 12-pounders on the gun deck, four 6-pounders on the quarter deck, two others on the forecastle plus a dozen half-pound-shot swivel guns. They cleared the Windward Passage, and were sailing through the Caicos passage late on 10 August. Then, just 50 miles from clearing The Bahamas, “Pamplin realised that the strong currents known to run through the channel had reversed direction and Lowestoffe was running into shallow waters. He attempted to avoid grounding, but to no avail.”

At night, the ship ran broadside onto Little Inagua, probably on her port side at the northeast corner of the island. In desperation, “the crew threw stores and equipment [cannons] overboard to lighten the ship, and boats came from other ships in the convoy to try to pull her off. The attempts to refloat her failed, and her crew abandoned her by mid-afternoon". Sadly, five men were escaping in a small boat when it was overwhelmed in the surf and they were drowned when it capsized. “The change in currents also caused the wreck of five or six merchantmen.” Plampin “summoned HMS Bonetta and successfully transferred the money and all of the frigates crew into the tiny vessel.”

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“HMS Lowestoffe in Kingston Harbour with Port Royal, Jamaica beyond, with attendant schooners, one almost certain to be the Little Lucy, the first command of Lieutenant Horatio Nelson; A Brig and other boats at anchor off the coast in Jamaica.”

Usually losing command of a treasure-filled naval ship from apparent navigational error would set back a naval officer’s career. But Robert Plamplin was of a naval family, and went to sea at 13, and had been shipwrecked already. Plamplin took charge, effectively and quickly salvaged the many thousands of coins, and placed HMS Acasta in charge. Plampin and his officers returned to Jamaica and were tried. The court-martial at Port Royal on 3 September ruled that “Pamplin had sailed in a judicious manner, and exonerated him and his officers from blame". In April of 1803, Plamplin was paid the reward he had originally been promised for bringing it safely to Britain and was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing.

In exchanges with salvors, it would seem that folks have located and salvaged a number of cannons from this wreck. After all, to lighten ship in distress, the heavy cannons placed conveniently in front of gates were often thrown over, not retrieved, and relatively easy to find, and hard to pull out. In a bit of irony, the Royal Navy sank a modern Rothesay-Class frigate built in 1960 and with the similar name HMS Lowestoft as a target ship. It was scuttled on June, 16, 1986. Where, one might ask? Off Inagua. Nelson and Plamplin would have appreciated that.

Comments

truetruebahamian 1 month, 1 week ago

Thank you for this slice of Bahama naval history.

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