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A Christmas Tale of the Sea: 1855

Published January 30, 2008        by Matt

It was, if I mistake not, in 1855, the very year of the first election here under our present system of Responsible Government, that the thrilling incident on which this story is based really took place. Few of my readers will now remember it, because there are not so very many people alive today who were then old enough to be lastingly impressed with the details as they appeared in the newspapers of that time.

The marine disaster to which I refer occurred at the entrance of a small harbor on the Northern coast which was then called Indian Beach. I understand this name was taken from the long bank of sand that stretches around the head of the harbor, where, according to tradition, the last of "the noble Red Men" of New foundland used to meet every year at "the falling of the leaves", and hold a council before going into winter quarters. And there appears to be some ground for the tradition, because a few years ago, accompanied by one of the oldest inhabitants, I visited the Beach and examined the very spot where, while digging out some sand, the previous spring, he found two stone arrow-heads and a drinking bowl in a good state of preservation.

The fall of 1855 was an unusually backward one, and having been preceded by a wet summer, the fish crop was not harvested till the season was well advanced. As a result, the fishermen were late in getting "fixed up" and home for the winter. Only two schooners had "fitted out" from Indian Beach that year for the Labrador fishery, the resident population, for the most part, finding it more advantageous to look after "the ground", and at the same time prosecute the voyage during the caplin school.

One of those schooners had already arrived; the other, the Sea Nymph, was still absent, but hourly expected from St. John's, where she had landed her fish and taken on board a cargo of goods for the festive season; almost every family at the Beach having had something shipped by her. Eager eyes had been looking out for the Nymph for several days, and now Christmas Eve had come and still she did not put in an appearance.

It was generally believed that the schooner had left St. John's for home some days before (there was no telegraphic communication at that time), and as the wind had veered round from the southeast and risen to a severe gale, with snow-squalls and heavy sea, much anxiety was felt for her safety. The Sea Nymph was a staunch little vessel of fifty-two tons, and had a crew of five all told. These were handsome Harry Brewer - a young giant in appearance - captain; William Jones, second hand, John Eliott, Peter Goff and Eli Moores, seamen.

There was one passenger on board - a young Englishman named Ralph Wilson, - nephew of the only prominent business man at
Indian Beach - Mr. Andrew LeSage, of Jersey. Ralph had been in St. John's for some time, waiting for an opportunity to get north, and when the Sea Nymph was ready to sail, he gladly availed of Harry Brewer's offer of a passage. Ralph was engaged to his pretty cousin, Helen, Mr. LeSage's only daughter; and, although they had not seen each other since they were children, yet it was understood by the parents of both that they were to be married the following June, and that Helen would shortly return to Jersey with Ralph and her father for that purpose.

But when Ralph and his uncle made this arrangement they were apparently blissfully ignorant of the fact that an altogether different understanding had already been arrived at between Captain Brewer and Helen. Such, however, was the case. They had often met, and what more natural than that they should become attached to each other. Both were young and impressionable; and so it happened that one night, only a week before the Sea Nymph had left for St. John's, as they sat in the shadow of the big fir trees behind the Beach and looked out over the moonlit harbor, Harry and Helen decided to unite their fortunes without consulting anybody.

Thus the matter stood on the eventful afternoon alluded to, when the schoolmaster of the settlement rushed into Mr. LeSage's house with the startling intelligence that the Sea Nymph had been driven ashore at Shoal Point, near the entrance to the harbor, and, it was feared, all hands would be lost. Hurriedly putting on his coat and hat, Mr. LeSage ran out and over to the high ground above the Point, and, sure enough, there was the ill-fated schooner pounding on the rocks, with the sea making a clean breach over her. Already both masts had gone by the board, and it now seemed as if the hull itself must go to pieces in a few minutes.

It appears that trying to make the harbor in the snowstorm, and believing his course to be all right, Captain Brewer suddenly, just at the entrance, discovered that the Nymph was too far to leeward to weather Shoal Point. She was running under close-reefed foresail, and therefore would not stay, even with much less wind, and it was impossible to wear her in time to escape the rocks; so he let go both anchors, as the only remaining hope of saving vessel and crew. But in that heavy sea the chains snapped like whip-cord, and, without any check whatever, the unfortunate Sea Nymph rushed on to her doom.

Shortly after she struck the snow ceased to fall, and then Captain Brewer and his crew could be seen hatless and huddled together on the forecastle deck. They were clinging to whatever they could lay hold of, the great waves at intervals going clean over the battered hull and drenching them to the skin. It was impossible to render any assistance from the land, as no boat available, no matter how well manned, and would have the slightest chance in that raging sea. For a time it seemed as if all hope of rescue had been abandoned by those on shore as well as on board.

Some of the former knelt and prayed to Heaven for help, while others wrung their hands in despair and sobbed audibly enough to be heard amidst the tempest. But there was one brave man among that crew of sturdy New foundland fishermen who had often faced "death in the tempest" and escaped, and who, in spite of the odds against him, hoped to escape again, and that man was Captain Harry Brewer. As the watchers on the shore stood there, expecting every moment to see the battered hull go to pieces, or roll over and disappear with its living freight, they suddenly saw a stalwart figure poise for a second on the weather bow of the wreck and then plunge into the angry waves as they seethed and foamed around him. The form was that of Harry Brewer!

Fastening a line about his waist, and hastily giving instructions to his shipmates as to what they should do in the event of his efforts proving successful, he made the heroic attempt to reach the shore by swimming. The struggle that ensued was one that taxed all his powers of endurance, great as they were. At times he disappeared from view for several seconds and then appeared again on the crest of some mighty wave, eliciting frantic shouts of encouragement from the overwrought crowd on shore, which, by this time, included almost every man, woman and child in the settlement. But Harry Brewer's brave heart and sinewy arms buoyed him up until a huge wave flung him against the shore, when some of those who would willingly risk their lives to save him, rushed into the sea, seized him with their strong hands, pulled him out of the receding water, and carried him to a place of safety, from which, exhausted as he was, he continued to superintend the work of rescue.

The crew on the wrecked vessel then fastened a stronger rope to the line brought ashore by their captain and, when this was hauled in, the task of getting the other men on shore was commenced. The end of the line on board was securely tied to the stump of the foremast; about ten feet above the deck, and then the men were pulled through the boiling sea to the shore, most of them being badly bruised and scarcely able to stand when lifted out of the water. The last to leave the schooner was Ralph Wilson, the passenger. Although a rather frail-looking man, as compared with the others, yet he won the admiration of all on board by his pluck and unselfishness during the trying ordeal through which they had passed. He might have been the first to be rescued, but he persistently refused till all the others had been landed. But brave as he was, the strain and exposure proved too much far him.

He was unconscious when kind hands and sympathetic hearts gently conveyed him to the hospitable home of his uncle. Here, under the careful nursing of Helen, he soon recovered consciousness; but next day, when the doctor called, he appeared to be suffering from a severe chill and great nervous prostration. He rallied, however, and was able to get about during the winter; but, with the approach of spring, he developed symptoms of tubercular disease, and in May returned to his home in England, where he died six months after his arrival there.

On the following Christmas Eve Captain Harry Brewer and Helen LeSage were married in the little school-chapel at Indian
Beach. In the fall of 1857 Mr. LeSage retired from business here and returned to Jersey, taking Harry and Helen with him.

The following year Ralph Wilson's father died, leaving most of his money and property to his niece, Helen. In the spring of 1893, the writer, whilst on board the outward bound Allan steamer, at Shea's wharf here, seeing some friends off, had an introduction to a gentleman named Brewer who was then on his way from Liverpool to New Yark. He appeared to be a good deal interested in Newfoundland affairs, and, in the course of our conversation, I ascertained from him that he was a son of Captain Harry Brewer, the hero of this eventful little Christmas story.