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THE HELL VOYAGE


We want to thank www.cuttysark.org.uk and The Cutty Sark Trust for allowing us to use the information from their website.

John Willis, the owner of Cutty Sark ordered her to Wales to fill up with coal, and as he despatched her so quickly, her crew was made up of various men and boys from other vessels in his fleet, who just happened to be in London at the time. One of these men, the First Mate - Smith, was a hard despotic character, and not well liked by the crew. When the ship docked at Penarth, the crew deserted, leaving Captain James Wallace to scratch a crew together from those available in the port. He had great difficulties finding men of sufficient calibre and experience, but eventually, Cutty Sark set sail with an assorted crew from around the world, on 4 June - a Friday.

It is an old superstition that bad luck will befall a vessel that sets sail on a Friday!

On board was an old seaman who prophesied doom and disaster, and almost immediately Cutty Sark had to drop anchor in the Severn to ride out a wild south-westerly gale, which delayed their departure for a further three days.

Cutty Sark then made fantastic speed on her outward passage, much to the disgust of the old sea-croaker! In the strength of the trade winds Cutty Sark fell in with Titania who was also bound for Anjer for orders. For the next four days the two clippers raced side by side with every sail set, but then their courses differed, although it was clearly understood by both crews that it was a race to Anjer!

Once Cutty Sark reached the doldrums, that area of the Atlantic where winds are few and far between, Smith had the opportunity to work his watch with spite and fervour. He directed most of his spite against John Francis, one of the black seamen, who was particularly clumsy and incapable, and so often left himself open for criticism. In shifting the mainsail, Francis managed to get his hand mangled in a block, and in severe pain talked back to the mate who was swearing at him from the deck below. The watch began to show sympathy for Francis and very shortly the whole ship was in uproar. So much so that Captain Wallace called the apprentices and officers to the poop and armed them. By the time the men came down, Captain Wallace decided that Francis should either apologise to Smith, or accept a beating from him.

Despite his injured hand, Francis decided to fight, and the Captain let them proceed for about fifteen minutes, all the time brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot anyone who interfered. The fighting was vicious and without rules, so the Captain called it to a halt, ruled the matter at an end and warned the men that the next one who abused one of his officers would be clapped in irons!

For a while, this cleared the air, and Cutty Sark made excellent speed, passing through terrific squalls unscathed. Then at about 3am one morning, the Captain gave the order to alter course, and Smith barked an order to Francis who was on the fo'c's'le head. Francis didn't comply, and when he ignored the second order, Smith ran forward full of rage to impose his authority on Francis in any way he saw fit! Francis met him with insolence and a raised capstan bar. A short and brutal struggle ensued, resulting in Smith wresting the bar from Francis and dealing him a severe blow over the head with it. Francis died three days later never having regained consciousness.

John Francis was buried at sea, and whilst he had never been very popular with the crew, they hated Smith far worse. The ship became very silent, and the crew sullen and surly. The mate was sent to his cabin, and not seen on deck again for the rest of the voyage.

Cutty Sark arrived in Anjer on 18 August having made a very fast passage, so fast in fact, that her orders weren't waiting for her, because John Willis hadn't expected her to reach port so soon! Whist the ship was at anchor Smith persuaded the kind-hearted Captain to help him escape, so, early the next morning when the small native boats came to the starboard side selling their wares to the crew, and through the hullabaloo of the bartering, Smith slipped over the port rail onto a waiting boat that was to take him to an American ship also lying at anchor, and one much in need of a 'man-handler'.

It wasn't long before the crew realised he had escaped and refused to work until Smith was found. Despite his popularity, Captain Wallace was unable to pacify them and eventually agreed to take a party ashore to see the authorities. The native police searched boats at anchor, but no crew-member of Cutty Sark was allowed to accompany the searches - Smith was not found. After much fuss the crew realising they had been hoodwinked still refused to work.

At this moment the orders arrived. Cutty Sark was to set sail for Yokohama. Captain Wallace decided to man the ship with his apprentices and petty officers. The more determined of the crew tried to interfere, but the Captain armed his officers and the ringleaders were captured and clapped in irons. The rest of the crew retired sulkily to the fo'c's'le and the ship sailed out into the Java Sea.

Bad luck struck again with the wind dropping and the ship becoming becalmed for three days. The ship now rang with the dreadful prophecies of the old seaman. He described the evils that would befall the poor Cutty Sark and all on board with such a wealth of horror that some of the hands became really frightened. The whole ship's company felt tragedy in the air - it was not long coming.

Captain Wallace now had time to reflect what a predicament he had placed himself in by helping Smith to escape. He realised that there would be an official investigation when the ship reached Yokohama, and that he would be held responsible for allowing the Mate to escape. The best he could expect would be the suspension of his certificate, and he had an old mother and young wife to look after. The once jovial skipper became care-worn and morose. Unable to sleep, day and night he stood gazing out to sea or walking the decks with bowed head. The crew were sullen, the atmosphere stagnant and the Captain was indifferent to all around him.

On the fourth day after leaving Anjer the watch had just been called at 4am when the Captain who was standing at the break of the Poop deck with the carpenter, asked him if the second mate was on deck. 'Chips' replied that he was just coming up. Whereupon Captain Wallace left the carpenter, walked aft, called the helmsman's attention to the course, then deliberately stepped onto the taffrail and jumped overboard.

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The man at the wheel quickly threw over two life-bouys and put the helm down. The crew, who had for so long refused to work, flung themselves upon a boat which had been used at Anjer and so was still in the davits, and managed to get it in the water in record time. The sea was as calm as a mill-pond, the life-bouys were picked up but no trace of the Captain was ever found. The frenzied activity of the circling sharks was all that told of the fate of a fine seaman and good man.


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