The tale of a St Ouen sailor

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The tale of a St Ouen sailor

This article by Frank Le Maistre was first published in the 1983 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

After the death of Alfred Powell Slous, of Chandos, Bas du Mont Felard, in 1975, a trunk full of old documents was found, among which was a large envelope labelled "Papiers a M Joseph Powell". These papers were just a few of the many left by the above A P Slous, a native of St Ouen, one of these being an account of a St Ouenais sailor's horrible experiences in 1826, incidentally a far-back relation of the late Mr Slous. The manuscript, like so many more in deed boxes, etc, still extant in the Island, are always historical accounts of extreme interest. The above are in the possession of David Luke, godson and heir of the late Mr Slous.

Sailors' sufferings

This is an amazing description, of 158 years ago and of some 2,000 words, an almost incredible first-hand account by a matelot St Ouenais revealing most vividly the intense privations and sufferings, indeed the most abject and horrible miseries to which sailors in sailing ships were prone in former times, a fact to which too few give even a passing thought in these days of comfort and luxury. This exceptionally descriptive and detailed account also reveals the deep faith of past generations of our ancestors, exampled in this case in the sailors' terrible wretchedness and incredible agonies, eventually succumbing to cannibalism but, day after day, continually offering up prayers to the Almighty for deliverance.

The account, in his own hand, written on parchment-like paper for the most part in poor condition, but in excellent calligraphy, is by one Joseph Powell, of la paroisse de St Ouen. And it is worthy of note that the said Joseph Powell could write both in French and in English, this in the face of an obviously limited education. Certain letters to other folk were written in the latter language. He recovered from his dreadful ordeals, being one of only four out of fourteen to survive. He apparently was the strongest constitutionally; he says that trois de nous etant brulez de froit (not himself) - "three of us being burnt with cold" - when they were eventually rescued, somewhere au large du Cap Breton. He was back in Jersey to be married, in May 1827, dying years later (in 1878) aged 80, according to the Registre des Enterrements de la paroisse de St Ouen - de vieillesse. The story begins on 8 May 1826, he having obviously kept a diary. Two months later when recovering, evidently in hospital, he wrote also a shorter version, as a letter to his mother.

The Powell family was in St Ouen, and extended into several other parishes, for well over 200 years. The first, Richard Powel (with only one l) is described at his marriage to Rachel Le Blancq in the parish register of baptisms as "anglois" - English. Joseph Powell, (born 1798) was a grandson. The family, as all others of English origin in those days, became so 'Jersey' that even the name was pronounced in Jèrriais or Norman French - Po-ouelle. It only became extinct some few years back on the death of Philip John Powell (Ph'lippe Po-ouelle), a bachelor and well-known character in St Ouen and later in Sark where he died.

A distant relation of the latter, and also a descendant of Joseph the sailor, is Alfred Powell Le Feuvre, Constable of the parish of St Mary, but a native of St Ouen who was born at L'Etacq, and incidentally in the house which is most likely the one mentioned in a very interesting old lease of 1787, also among the papers, concerning Richard Powell (our Joseph's father) who apparently later bought that same house (the property is still there) and which belonged to the Powell Le Feuvre family till recent times.

The last Philip John Powell died 1972. We knew him well for very many years, and he was apparently a chip off the old block, being as tough as nails in every respect. He was probably the very last to recolter la feugiethe (cut bracken for litter), this in the very steep cliffs below Les Aineres on the north coast of St Ouen (for yours truly) circa 1955, some 6/700 large bundles or faggots (des dgerbes d'feugiethe) yearly in September, and trudging the whole lot most laboriously up these very arduous falaises (cliffs), several at a time tied and strung together with rope, on his back. And all this for a meagre wage. Finally, and perhaps the most amazing fact, he was exceedingly well off, and money did not interest him at all. All the above is surely a precious bit of Jersey history.

Le recit

The original story in French is not included, but will be added to this page when time permits.


For the benefit of those who can understand neither French nor Jerriais (many words are also broken up) a more or less literal English translation follows. This, also, may be found fascinating. [Editor's note: The text has been left as published but punctuation has been added (there was none whatsoever in the original) to aid readability]

8 May 1826 we left Jersey on board of the brig General Brock after having put back into port and had much Misfortune. Finally continuing our voyage with fairly agreeable weather until the 29th of the said month, the night around half an hour after twelve the night being very obscured with a Thick mist, we perceived to the Leeward of us a ship Coming like a thunderbolt. We did our possible to get us Clear of it but of no use; it ran into us to starboard on the bow and broke us in pieces; with this fatal blow all the people rushed on to the deck. This ship was Still entangled with us during the space of five minutes; it came to pass that we found ourselves four in this ship but myself I took one of the Ropes & I Slipped over on board of us (our ship). Immediately I ask for some light some was brought me. I went forward I noticed that the ship was broken in pieces. instantly I told the Captain that we were going to Founder. Immediately he called the ship (the other) for Mercy's sake to put across for us; they replied 'yes' but they came Straight with a back wind & in an instant we lost sight of them.

Anyway, seeing that the ship was Sinking so fast we immediately cut the lashing-rope of our lifeboat and as we were hauling it from its chocks, the water gained on us so fast that it floated on the deck. Those who were able to embark were of the number of Fourteen people; one remained in the hold as he had not the time to come on the deck before. As soon as we were Clear of the ship it sank like a lead. Seeing ourselves fourteen people in this little boat Reflecting on the fact that we had neither bread nor water, nor any provisions except a small cheese of holland of about three pounds, but still Hoping to see again the ship which had sunk us, we had in our boat two oars a Compass and a Lantern with light a Horn which we made to Blare. We rowed in our Estimation where we Hoped to find the ship. We spent our night in our boat in Calling out cries all together, Believing that they would hear us, but in vain for us.

Towards six o'clock in the Morning, not being able to see them again we decided all together to row for the Land but with the Heart very Anguished Not having Great Hope of seeing her ever again. For our first day God granted us some fairly agreeable weather, though very much cold & some mist, the wind and the sea against us, but we had Still our Bodies Sustained by the nutriments of the previous days and by our Estimation we rowed twelve leagues. The night was dark and our heart was filled with Great aches to see ourselves in this sad Situation. Hunger thirst and every other Thing was Beginning to penetrate us. The next day towards the eleven of the morning the wind grew and the sea became rough which troubled us to row and we estimated to have rowed four or Five leagues. The night passed with a strong breeze of wind & the sea Covered us at each instant. We prayed God all together to give us of his Succour, but he had put us to the test to show us How much he is mighty. Our third day the wind blew with force from the side of WSW which sent us to the North so that the cold penetrated us for want of clothing.

Day five

The night came again in its turn dark and obscure augmented our melancholy praying to God to deliver us of it, to shorten our sad adventures (plight). The Fifth day towards six o'clock of the evening we had finished rowing, having no strength, but on looking on all Sides we perceived a ship about two miles windward of us which was bearing on the east. We Reanimated ourselves with an extreme ardour, although without strength, but we made use of all we had to row for this ship; calling with all our strength in making signals with some handkerchiefs and some Scarves attached to an oar, but they never did see us. We remained in the most cruel anguish seeing ourselves deprived of all our hope. One of our fellow creatures Was at the agony of death & it pleased God to redeem him around ten o'clock. Looking at him with a great sadness in hoping our turn at any hour the night was very sad with us.

The next day about eight o'clock in the morning we were looking at our poor brother dead near to us talking together to cast him at the sea, but a young Boy at the instant tormented with the Great pains that the hunger and the thirst were making him suffer proposed that he had heard it said that in some such occasions similar to ours that there had been some who had eaten the flesh of the corpses and he asked if it was permitted to him to satisfy his heart on this occasion. But nobody opposed this, at the instant he took a small hatchet and cut the two thighs of this poor unfortunate; he ate some of it himself & gave some of it to all. We all ate some of it ever so little but in crying and in looking at each other & saying that the will of God be done and saying all together if we die let it be done the same thing of my flesh, but above all let us resolve not to destroy ourselves. Each other after having a little eaten of what was for us so horrible & knowing that the necessity compelled us, we brought ourselves to Cut the Throat of this corpse & to drink his blood & we found that this was the only thing which could give us a little refreshment. But reflecting on this sad state our Heart melted inside of us.

The following night a frightful tempest of wind arose from the part of the NE; the force of the cold made the sea Freeze on us; the sea broke on us like Mountains, Believing at each instant we would be Engulfed in it. Around eleven o'clock a young Man died from us who died very peacefully. The tempest continuing all the rest of the night with very much pains to Keep our boat on the water by the force of the water which came inside during the night. Three of our poor survivors became out of their Mind by the force of what the hunger the thirst & the hard cold did make them endure. The next Morning around ten o'clock the wind and the sea had a little appeased. Being all wet the cold had struck us so strongly that it was impossible for us to talk even one word, but we asked God by his Grace to redeem us from our miseries, but in vain he did wish to try us still more.

Two of These poor Unfortunates who had lost their Mind expired in the arms of death. In the Course of the day we were obliged to appease our thirst of their blood and our hunger of their Flesh. As we had done to the first, we did also the last, the tenth day. Our number was reduced to eight persons living, but almost all Unconscious nor without being able to move, all Being Lying down in the bottom of the boat for never to lift the head again, any more we had asked god a Thousand & thousand times to engulf us in the abyss of the waters if such had been his good pleasure. But towards Four o'clock in the evening, the wind freshening, I raised my head & I looked at the wind it appeared to me that I saw some Thing black before my eyes, For we had the eyes dead in our head. But fixing my sight a little while I perceived that it was a Ship which was quite close to us I cried out with all my strength that I was seeing a ship quite close to us and some yet Understood the word which I said but not being able to do other Thing than to raise the hands and open their mouth in calling, without being able to let out any word.


But by the grace of god this ship came alongside of us and took us aboard of it to the Number of eight persons; but the poor folk seeing us in this sad situation remained so touched to see us in such that it was impossible for them to tell us one word. But coming to themselves the Captain asked me what was the state of our Misfortune and I Related a Summary and immediately they made all diligence to give us all which was necessary for us and they took all the cares possible to save our life.

The Name of this Ship was Anne of Liverpoul, Captain Forbas coming from Bonnevista, & it was going for pietou but the wind was Contrary & the tenth day the Captain had said that if he could make land of Cap Breton he would put us there, For he saw that the people were dying day by day. For there had died four since we had been aboard, namely one Named Edouard Luce the first, the second Charles Mahier, the third Captain Pierre Land, the fourth Francois de la Marre. These poor Folk Being too Advanced in the great torments that we had suffered and some from between them had the feet & the hands burnt by the cold that it would have been impossible to Heal them, and they expired in the arms of death when it pleased God to call them.

We remained to the Number of Four surviving & the next day which was the eleventh day that we were on board it pleased god to make us arrive on land, which was at Lantres des brasdorlay, having dropped the Anchor near the place where Monsieur Doffice Keeps a business; & as soon as he heard of us he immediately made us put ashore upon which he treated us with much humanity. The next day he sent to fetch the Doctor at Sidny (Sydney, Le Cap Breton) and at the end of two days he came to where we were & he found us very weak and three of us being burnt with cold in such a manner that he could not move & the doctor had them Taken by a boat to Sidny to have of his Succour and in a short while he cut away half of a foot to one of them & one Out to one of the others.

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