Monday, March 29, 2021

In Their Footsteps: New England History - The Cannibals of Boon Island, Maine


    Boon Island is a rocky chunk of dry land just over 6 1/2 acres in size. It is located more than 7 miles off the coast of York, Maine. It is extremely isolated due to its proximity yet remains quite visible due to the lighthouse that rises from the rocks. The 133-foot granite Boon Island Lighthouse towers on the horizon making the island feel much closer than it is. The current beacon was built in 1855 with the original day beacon having been erected on the island in 1799. However Boon Island has history stretching back further than the implementation of a lighthouse on its rocks. This chapter though is far darker. It is a story of an unfortunate maritime disaster wrapped up in one of the most horrific acts known to man: cannibalism.

Boon Island Light as seen from York, Maine

    The legend of the cannibalism on Boon Island began more than 3,200 miles away in London. The main players were aboard a 120-ton merchant vessel named Nottingham Galley. Captained by John Deane it set sail for Killybegs, Ireland on September 10, 1710 with a cargo of rope. After an additional cargo of butter and cheese was put aboard the vessel it set sail on September 24th for Boston, Massachusetts. It is here that the story of the Nottingham Galley becomes much more complicated. The only certainty about the next leg of the journey is where it ended.

    There are two versions most commonly looked at as far as the next leg of the journey go. The first revolves around the fact that the port of Killybegs, Ireland was known to be a hotbed for French privateers. These were essentially pirates with government papers. Sure enough there were French privateering vessels in the area. The issue was the fact that England and France were at war at the time.

Boon Island Light in 2006 (Dk69/Wikipedia)

    One version of the story goes that Captain Deane sailed the Nottingham Galley toward the privateers in the hopes of being captured. This would have allowed him to collect from the ship's large insurance policy. Or perhaps Deane was smuggling goods to the French. Whatever the circumstances ended up being the interaction between the Nottingham Galley and the privateers did not occur. However Deane's treasonous intentions during the time of war soured the crew toward their captain to the point that mutiny was on their minds as they began across the Atlantic.

    Captain Deane was rumored to be a cruel and sadistic leader of the vessel. Two particular items of note were that he beat two of his crew so badly that they were unable to work for several weeks, and that he severely cut back rations to his crew. The latter would come back to haunt him. Needless to say the crew despised Deane. It only intensified when in early December the Nottingham Galley sighted Nova Scotia, Canada.

    Held by the French, Canada was seemingly the last place a British ship would want to be. Yet Deane dawdled offshore for nearly a week as if waiting for French vessels to see him. When a ship did approach the crew assumed it to be French. Deane did not retreat at all which further intensified the hatred of his crew toward him. Luckily it turned out to be a British galley, still the optics for Deane were terrible.

A model of a 1715 Swedish Galley Ship (Johan Jonson/Stockholm Maritime Museum)

    Things came to a head on December 10, 1710 when the Nottingham Galley was caught in a storm while traveling through the Gulf Of Maine. It was so bad that the ship pulled its sails down and left it to chance. Though they could see land it was far off. In reality it was Cape Porpoise and more than ten miles away. What made it worse was that Captain Deane had taken a different course which led the ship closer to shore. Later on reports from crew would say that if they had stayed on the right course they would have arrived safely in Boston. That would not happen.

    By nightfall on December 10th the heat between Captain and crew boiled over. They questioned his poor decisions to which Deane nearly killed one crewman and threatened others with a pistol. It was apparent to the crew that he cared more for protecting his authority than protecting the ship. Not long after these altercations the ship crashed into the rocky Boon Island on December 11th, splintering the vessel into pieces.

    The crew valiantly chopped down the Nottingham Galley's mast and used it as a guide to crawl up to higher ground on the island. During the highest of storm surges it is possible for the waves to crash over the entire island, so it is unknown just how much room for error the crew had as the waited out the storm. One thing was for sure, after making it through the night the crew was in trouble. They had no coats, no food, and nothing to make a fire, though they eventually were able to make a tent.

    Small bits of food from the ship floated ashore in the new few days as well as the men being able to find mussels to eat. The ship's cook died the second night. A makeshift boat was made but immediately crashed and sunk. Two crewman made a raft and sailed for the mainland. One was never seen again while the other's body washed back up on the island. The survivors could see Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire and though some ships passed close by they could not signal them.

    Days passed and a decision had to be made. The cold killed another crewman. This was the tipping point. The decision was made to use the dead man's body for food. At first some refused to eat their fallen comrade but eventually they all did what they had to do to survive. The decision to resort to cannibalism on Boon Island is debated. The crew blamed Captain Deane, while Deane blamed the crew. No matter who took the blame it was Deane, with training as a butcher, who did the cutting.

    On New Year's Day 1711 a body washed ashore in York and was found by coroner Lewis Bane. He surmised a ship could have wrecked out on Boon Island and asked fisherman John Stover to go investigate. Stover did indeed find the survivors of the wreck. Captain Deane and seven others swarmed Stover upon his arrival. The crew was stick thin, all with thick beards, and suffering from frostbite.

    The weather began turning stormy which meant Stover would have to return to shore without them but he promised to return as soon as the weather cleared. The crew begged him to build them a fire before leaving which he did. This was used to properly cook the rest of the crewman they had been eating, making the ordeal seem a little less gruesome.

    Three days later on January 4, 1711 the men were all rescued from Boon Island. Some were so weak from nearly four weeks stranded on the island that they had to be carried off to the waiting vessels. Once back ashore the stories came out. Captain Deane's painted himself in a very favorable light, while the crew had a far different recollection of the ill-fated journey.

Captain Deane's grave at St. Wilfrid's Church, Wilford, UK (David Skinner/Flickr)

    The crew's story was published as a pamphlet and handed out at coffeehouses back in London. It stated Deane was a traitor, a brutal coward, had caused the shipwreck, and worst of all had been the one to suggest cannibalism. Whether all true or not it ruined Deane's reputation and ran him out of London. He tried rebuilding his reputation by becoming commander of a Russian ship. It was working until he captured two Swedish vessels and subsequently turned them over to Britain. He was accused of taking bribes and was demoted after being court-martialed. Though it moved the needle more toward the Nottingham Galley's crew's version of the Boon Island story Deane still managed to retire in comfort after marrying a wealthy woman.

    Whichever version of events are seen as the truth are lost to history. The only things for certain are the Nottingham Galley's tragic shipwreck on Boon Island and the horrific events that followed which allowed some of the crew to make it off the island alive.


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