It is a common and no less apposite remark that truth is stranger than fiction, and the longer we live, the more are we convinced of the force of the above axiom.
The story which we are about to relate is one of the most remarkable incidents in a sailor’s life, and, as a tale of horror, cannot be exceeded even in the pages of romance.
In the year 1826, the Magpie, a small schooner under the command of Lieutenant Edward Smith, had been despatched in search of a piratical vessel, which had committed serious depredations on the western shores of the Island of Cuba.
In the prosecution of this object, she was cruizing on the 27th of August, off the Colorados Roads, at the western extremity of the Island. The day had been extremely sultry, and towards the evening the schooner lay becalmed, awaiting the springing up of the land breeze, a blessing which only those can appreciate who have enjoyed its refreshing coolness after passing many hours beneath the burning rays of a tropical sun.
About eight o’clock a slight breeze sprung up from the westward, and the vessel was standing under reefed mainsail, whole foresail, and topsail, and jib. Towards nine, the wind shifted to the southward, and a small dark cloud was observed hovering over the land. This ominous appearance, as is well known, is often the precursor of a coming squall, and seems as if sent as a warning by Providence.
The lurid vapour did not escape the practised eye of the mate of the watch, who immediately reported the circumstance to Mr. Smith. All hands were turned up, and in a few minutes the schooner was placed in readiness to encounter the threatened danger.
In the meantime, the cloud had gradually increased in size and density. The slight breeze had died away, and a boding stillness reigned around. Suddenly a rushing, roaring sound was heard, the surface of the water, which a moment before was almost without a ripple, was now covered with one white sheet of foam, the schooner was taken aback; in vain her commander gave the order to cut away the masts—it was too late, and in less than three minutes from the first burst of the squall, the devoted vessel sunk to rise no more.
At this fearful juncture, a vivid flash of lightning darted from the heavens, displaying for a moment, the pale faces of the crew struggling in the water; the wind ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the ocean, as if unconscious of the fearful tragedy that had so lately been enacted upon its surface, subsided into its former repose.
At the moment of the vessel going down, a gunner’s mate, of the name of Meldrum, struck out and succeeded in reaching a pair of oars that were floating in the water,—to these he clung, and having divested himself of a part of his clothing, he awaited in dreadful anxiety the fate of his companions.