Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Behind the Art: Lord Ashburton

The barque Lord Ashburton set sail from Toulon, France, on November 17, 1856, bound for Saint John in ballast.  She sailed under the command of Captain Evan Clarke Crerar, a thirty-seven year old native of Pictou, Nova Scotia, a captain with an established reputation for skill and resourcefulness at sea.  Her crew was made up of twenty-eight others, men of a variety of nationalities.

The Lord Ashburton had been built in 1843, by Briggs & Co., at Brandy Cove, near St. Andrews, New Brunswick, a pleasant little cove where there is now an important biological research station, operated by the federal government of Canada. 
At one o'clock in the morning on Monday, January 19, 1857, the Lord Ashburton struck a rugged headland at the northern end of Grand Manan Island.  As the wave which carried her onto the rocks dropped back, the barque, caught aground forward, listed badly offshore and her three masts immediately snapped off. 
In short order the stern was breaking apart and as the breakers tore the ship open, water poured over the decks.  In the darkness men scrambled to cling to whatever they could find to hold themselves against the waves washing over the vessel.  Very soon the captain, his three officers and many of the crew were swept overboard and drowned.  Ten of the crew jumped over the side in the lee of the ship's fore quarter and, grasping pieces of flotsam adrift from the collapsing wooden hull, they supported themselves while they paddled and stroked for their lives to reach shore. 
One of the survivors was James Lawson, a native of Bornholm, Denmark.  Amid the howling confusion, the blackness, icy sea spray and driving snow, he paddled, stumbled and clawed his way ashore, swept back, struggled to shore again, and again.  He finally made it and fell exhausted to the beach. 
In desperation, Lawson made his way over the rocks and up the cliff in the dark and blinding snowstorm.  The wind howled over the crest of the cliff as he stumbled through the snowdrifts and into the woods searching for some sign, any sign, of civilization.  Unwittingly he had walked in the wrong direction, away from the village of North Head.  At first grey light, he came upon a lone hay barn and limped, half crawling, into it and lay down to die.
Meanwhile, a dog at the James Tatton home, near Eel Brook, and closer to the scene of the wreck, howled all night with such a sense of urgency that Tatton left his house at daybreak to investigate.  He found Lawson's tracks in the snowdrifts and followed the trail to the barn, discovered Lawson and moved the exhausted seaman as quickly as possible to the nearby home of Elijah Bennett.
Quickly men gathered to render what assistance they could to the survivors.  The once stalwart ship was a forlorn wreck, submerged aft, a gaping hole in her forward quarter, masts gone, tethered tatters of canvas heaving on the rolling seas.  Strewn along the beach were remnants of the ship and its voyage, boxes and pieces of the ship tumbled and windrowed, torn clothing limply clinging to rocks.

Of those who and managed to reach shore, four had made it up to the top of the cliff (including Lawson, and others were badly frozen too).  Six men were found huddled against the base of the cliff, but of these, two were dead.  Bodies were strewn along the beach, those drowned having been washed ashore and left by the tide.  Men carefully and respectfully gathered the cold and battered remains.  Shocked shipmates identified their dead comrades, and all were accounted for; the bodies of the captain, three mates and seventeen crewmen were all there.
The survivors were taken to Saint John.  James Lawson had to have part of both feet amputated as a result of frostbite and remained a patient at the marine hospital for over five years.  Being Danish, his command of English was poor, he was crippled and had no trade.  But during his stay in the hospital he learned to work with leather and learned harness and shoe making.
James Lawson returned to Grand Manan and settled there.  He set up shop and became the recognized boot and shoe maker of the community.  Indeed, his cobbler's bench is now part of the collection of the Grand Manan Museum.  He became a British subject, married an Island girl and raised a family there.  His oft retold story of the wreck of the Lord Ashburton became a well known piece of Island tradition. As years went by, wide-eyed school children listened enthralled by the old man's story told in their classroom, of the night of terror he suffered on bleak Ashburton Head.  James Lawson died in February, 1918, at the age of eighty-four.

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