Many and great are the dangers to which those who lead a seafaring life are exposed. The lightning’s flash may strike a ship when far away from port, upon the trackless deep, or the sudden bursting of a particular kind of cloud, called a waterspout, may overwhelm her, and none be left to tell her fate. But of all the perils to which a ship is liable, I think that of her striking on a sand-bank, or on sunken rocks is the greatest. There must be men and women now living on the Kentish coast, in whose memory the disastrous wreck of the Melville Castle, with all its attendant horrors, is yet fresh. It is a sorrowful tale, doubly so, inasmuch as acts of imprudence, and still worse, of obstinacy, may be said to have occasioned the loss of four hundred and fifty lives.
In the first place, the Melville Castle, or as I suppose we should call her the Vryheid, was in a very decayed state; she had been long in the East India Company’s service, and was by them sold to some Dutch merchants, who had her upper works tolerably repaired, new sheathed and coppered her, and resold her to the Dutch government, who were then in want of a vessel to carry out troops and stores to Batavia.
The Melville Castle was accordingly equipped for the voyage, painted throughout, and her name changed to the Vryheid. On the the morning of November, 1802, she set sail from the Texel, a port on the coast of Holland, with a fair wind, which lasted till early on the following day, when a heavy gale came on in an adverse direction.
The captain immediately had the top-gallant masts and yards struck to make her ride more easily; but as the day advanced, the violence of the wind increased, and vain seemed every effort of the crew to manage the ship. There were many mothers and little children on board, whose state was truly pitiable. The ship was scourged onward by the resistless blast, which continued to increase until it blew a perfect hurricane.
About three in the afternoon, the mainmast fell overboard, sweeping several of the crew into the sea, and severely injuring four or five more. By this time they were near enough to the Kentish coast to discern objects on land, but the waves which rolled mountains high prevented the possibility of any help approaching. By great exertion the ship was brought to anchor in Hythe Bay, and for a few moments hope cheered the bosoms of those on board; it was but a few, for almost immediately she was found to have sprung a leak; and while all hands were busy at the pumps, the storm came on with increased fury.
In this dismal plight they continued till about six o’clock the following morning, when the ship parted from one of her largest anchors, and drifted on towards Dymchurch-wall, about three miles to the west of Hythe. This wall is formed by immense piles, and cross pieces of timber, supported by wooden jetties, which stretch far into the sea. It was built to prevent the water from overflowing a rich, level district, called Romney Marsh.