A Dog’s Heroism During The Wreck Of HMS “Harpooner”

Whether our canine friends risk themselves out of a conscious sense of duty, or whether they act out of blind instinct, is a question that dog lovers and animal behaviorists will endlessly debate.  It is not an unimportant question.  For if it is true that dogs may, under some circumstances, feel the pull of obligation, then it must follow that they are capable of the noblest emotions, and the stirrings of love.  This was the question that the following sea-story raised.  Buried in a volume of forgotten nautical lore, it describes the heroics of a service dog named King during the wreck of the British transport Harpooner in Newfoundland in 1816.

In early November 1816, the Harpooner left Quebec for London with 383 or 385 passengers (accounts differ on the precise number) aboard, most of whom were military veterans on their way home after service in the War of 1812.  The ship’s captain, Joseph Bryant, had bought a Newfoundland dog named King before leaving Quebec.  Aboard ship, the dog had distinguished himself by his good temper and reliability.  On November 9 the ship was passing near Newfoundland when a tremendous storm blew in.  The ship was battered by freezing sleet and rain.  It soon became clear that the vessel was being blown rapidly towards the cliffs of Saint Shotts, where it faced certain destruction.  Late that night the ship hit a reef and was unable to move; hammered by waves, it was only a matter of time before all aboard would perish unless some way could be found to get the passengers and crew to shore.  A brief first-hand account of the disaster, published in 1818 by one Lt. Edward Chappel of the Royal Navy, described it this way:

On Sunday, the 10th of November, a few minutes after nine o’clock in the evening, the Second Mate, on watch, called out, “The ship’s aground!” at which time she lightly struck on the outermost rock of St. Shotts (near Cape Pine), in the Island of Newfoundland.  She beat over, and proceeded a short distance; when she struck again, and filled.  Encircled among rocks, and the wind blowing strong; the night dark, and a very heavy sea; she soon fell over on her larboard beam-ends: and, to heighten the terror and alarm, it was perceived a lighted candle had communicated fire to some spirits in the Master’s cabin, which, in the confusion, was with difficulty extinguished. The ship still driving over the rocks, her masts were cut away, by which some men were carried over board.  The vessel drifted over near the high rocks towards the main.  In this situation, every one became terrified; the suddenness of the sea rushing in, carried away the births and stanchions between decks, when men, women, and children were drowned; and many were killed by the force with which they were driven against the loose baggage, casks, and staves, which floated below.  [Edward Chappel, Voyage of HMS Rosamond to Newfoundland, London:  J. Mawman (1818), p. 304]

Another account of the disaster relates that the dog King sprang into action and “rushed up to his master [Captain Bryant] and seized his coat sleeve” when a fire broke out in the ship’s cabin.  Prompt action by the dog enabled the captain and a few helpers to extinguish the fire.  But the question now become a matter of survival.  The ship was lodged on the rocks and was taking a terrible beating.  Early in the morning on November 10, Captain Bryant decided the time had come to try to carry the terrified passengers ashore.  He had one of his mates (named Hadley) launch a jolly-boat (a small boat used for routine duties) with four other men to try to find an appropriate landing ground.  But the rough seas had not yet subsided; the boat was hurled against the rocks, and destroyed.  The five men saved themselves, but discovered that the rocks on which they were stranded were still a considerable distance from the Newfoundland beach.

Something needed to be done quickly.  The Harpooner was beginning to break up on the reef; and if the ship came apart, hundreds of lives would be lost.  Captain Bryant’s idea was to float a log-line (a line used for measuring a ship’s speed) from the ship to the rocks where the five men were now perched, and then to ferry the passengers from the ship to the rocks.  The ship was lost, but at least the passengers would find security on the rocky perch where the jolly-boat had crashed.  This, at least, was the idea.  But it proved difficult in execution.  Every time Captain Bryant tried to extend the log-line from the ship to the rocks, the boiling waves and angry currents would defeat him.  Time was running short.  Something had to be done.

And then he got the idea of tying the line to the dog King, and letting the men on the rocks guide the through the waves.  With no other options, Captain Bryant tied the line to King, directed him to the rocks, and told him to leap into the white-capped waters.  As the men on the rocks whistled and shouted out to the dog, King paddled through the strong currents and undulating waves.  There were moments when he was plunged under water, and the mean feared he had been swept away; but every time he emerged, his black head directed determinedly forward.  And yet a piece of wood got caught in the line, threatening to choke the dog.  Captain Bryant hauled King back to the ship, removed the wood, and ordered the dog to dive again into the sea.  This he did.

With great difficulty, King reached the rocks to safety.  Several times it looked as if he had been swept out to sea; and it took several attempts for Hadley and his men to pull King out of the water before he was thrown against the rocks.  But the log-line was carried to the rocks, and suddenly there was a chance that the passengers would have some way to safety.  Now that a line extended from the ship to the rocks, the captain tied a heavier, stronger line to the log-line, which Hadley then pulled over.  Hadley’s men then built a tripod with wood pulled out of the water.  There was now a strong line extending about a hundred yards from the ship to the rocks; and some crewmen took the opportunity to pull themselves over to the rocks to safety.  Lt. Chappel described the drama this way:

They hailed us from the top, and reported their situation; saying, to return was impossible, as the boat was staved.  The log-line was thrown from the wreck, with a hope that they might lay hold of it; but darkness, and the tremendous surf that beat, rendered it impracticable.  During this awful time of suspense, the possibility of sending a line to them by a dog [i.e., King], occurred to the master: the animal was brought aft, and thrown into the sea with a line tied round his middle; and with it he swam towards the rock upon which the Mate and seamen were standing.  It is impossible to describe the sensations which were excited at seeing this faithful dog struggling with the waves, reaching the summit of the rock, and dashed back again by the surf into the sea, until at length, by his exertions, he arrived with the line; one end of which being on board, a stronger rope was hauled and fastened to the rocks; and by this rope the seamen were enabled to drag many on shore from the wreck.

Eventually a block and sling arrangement was secured to the rope, and passengers began to be ferried across the line to the rocks.  It was a laborious and exhausting process, since the line could only hold one person at a time.  One passenger fell to his death in the sea while being pulled across, and nothing could be done to save him.  Some passengers lost patience, and resolved to swim for shore.  All of them were drowned.  After an entire day of work, there were still 140 passengers left on the Harpooner.  Incredibly, a soldier and his pregnant wife were pulled across to safety with great exertion; she gave birth to a healthy child two hours later.

And yet the tides of Fate, rolling inexorably and mercilessly forward, could not be fully surmounted.  The progress of the rescue was too slow to save all.  Eventually the line, worn out from hard use and friction against the rocks, frayed and snapped.  No other lines were available.  The ship now began to crack and groan, her final gasps before dying. On November 11, the end had come.  The ship broke in two; the passengers still remaining on the ship were engulfed by the waves; and Fortune finally suppressed their cries with her own watery shroud.  Captain Bryant was among the dead.  He refused to leave his ship until he had delivered as many to safety as possible.

Lt. Chappel reports that 206 souls perished in the wreck.  The freezing and exhausted survivors on the rocks built a fire and tried to make do as best they could.  After a day, the raging sea had relented; some survivors swam to shore and found an inhabited residence about a mile away.  As terrible as the tragedy had been, it might have been much worse.  Had not King been able to carry the log-line through the churning, frigid sea, none would have escaped the Harpooner.  Of the 177 survivors, the saving of at least 155 souls can be directly attributed to the heroic actions of the dog King.



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