During the 1982 South Atlantic conflict between Britain and Argentina over control of the archipelago known to the British as the Falkland Islands and to Argentines as the Islas Malvinas, David Miller, then a British soldier, heard a tale of three ships, a shipwreck, a rescue and betrayal and a remarkable story of survival on the islands during the early 1800s.
He was intrigued and, after the war, he researched further. The result is his book The Wreck of the Isabella (publisher Leo Cooper, UK).
The Isabella set off from Australia for England, on 4 December 1812. After rounding Cape Horn, her master, an incompetent drunk named George Higton, failed to steer sufficiently south of the Falkland Islands and on 8 February, the ship was blown onto Eagle Island in the archipelago.
The ship could have been saved, but for the drunkenness of the crew and Higton’s poor leadership. Some of the crew broke through the hull to get at a liquor store – ending all hopes of refloating the ship.
Two weeks later, six men set off in the longboat to search for a rumoured Spanish settlement on the islands. Failing that, their mission was to try and reach the mainland – some one thousand miles away, across open ocean.
As the days turned into weeks, the 48 people left behind on Eagle Island began to give up hope of ever seeing their shipmates again.
Sixty-three days after the shipwreck, the castaways on the island were discovered by the crew of the American sealing brig, the Nanina. The Americans knew that the United States had been at war with Great Britain when they sailed from New York in April 1812, but the shipwrecked Britons did not know it.
Nonetheless, Charles Barnard, the American captain, offered to take all the castaways to South America or to the United States, even though this would destroy the purpose of his sealing voyage. All he asked, in compensation, were the rights to the Isabella’s cargo, and this was agreed.
Soon, Barnard told the castaways about the war adding that, for all he knew, it may have been over, but in any event, it would make no difference to his humanitarian offer.
The Americans and British worked together well. They moved stores and went on joint hunting trips. But one day while Barnard, another American and three Britons were on a hunting trip, the 13 British castaways who had been accommodated on the Nanina, overpowered the three remaining American crewmen and took possession of the American ship. They then sailed for the wreck of the Isabella on Eagle Island – abandoning Barnard’s group in the process.
Why did the Britons turn on their rescuers? Under a century-old British system, captured enemy ships, especially merchantmen, were taken to a British port where they were sold, and the proceeds divided among the crew. This prize money was what the Britons were thinking of when they took control of the US vessel.
Meanwhile, the longboat with the six men that had left for the mainland on 22 February, miraculously arrived in Buenos Aires. There, aboard a British frigate, they repeated their story to Captain Peter Heywood. He could not sail for the Falklands, however, because his was the only major warship in the area and was required on station for military and diplomatic reasons.
With no suitable merchantmen in the area that could be chartered, Heywood turned to the armed brig HMS Nancy – the third ship in this tale. Despite the Nancy’s appalling state of repairs, Heywood ordered her captain, Lieutenant William Peter D’Aranda, to rescue the Isabella’s castaways.
On arriving at the shipwreck site, D’Aranda declared the Americans there as prisoners-of-war, to the dismay of the British castaways. He also claimed the Isabella’s cargo, despite protestations from the Americans, that their prior claim had already been agreed with the castaways.
D’Aranda also attempted to take the Nanina as a war prize, but the attack fizzled out when his boarding party found that the ship was already in British hands.
The rights and wrongs of the seizure of a US ship, while its crew was busy rescuing shipwrecked Britons, was to exercise courts and governments in England and the United States for a number of years.
British duplicity is a reoccurring theme in this story. The Britons who had accompanied Charles Barnard on the hunting trip – while his ship was being seized by their companions – now abandoned him on New Island. When they did this, they did not know that they themselves had been abandoned by the Britons who had seized the Nanina.
Despite the fact that he had been left with nothing but the clothes he stood in; Barnard survived as an American Robinson Crusoe. Ironically, the men that had abandoned Barnard returned after 66 days and asked him to take them back. Having found themselves, in turn, abandoned by their shipmates, they had fared less well than Barnard, not having his survival skills.
Barnard took them back – if for no other reason than because he wanted to be reunited with his faithful dog, Cent. However, the ringleader, Samuel Ansell, continued terrorising the other men.
When Ansell threatened his colleagues’ lives, he too was abandoned on an island. Later, Barnard relented, though the others begged him not to do so. And now Ansell, tamed by his own Robinson Crusoe experience, became subservient to Barnard, even learning to read from him – the last twist to a story full of reversal of fortune and betrayal.