Wednesday, December 5, 2012

200 years ago today brig Plumper lost

The Fundy coast of New Brunswick did not take the War of 1812 terribly seriously as a national conflict.  W. Stewart McNutt provided some interesting insight into this era in his book “New Brunswick: a history, 1784 to 1867” which was published almost fifty years ago. 

The primary effort in this region of the Province was to capitalize on the hostilities for economic gain for the provincial ports.  This attitude played before the backdrop of the American Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade the sailing of any American or foreign vessel from the United States to foreign ports for commercial purposes.  This ill-conceived attempt to build domestic industry and markets by cutting the United States commercially from the influence of foreign trade, was quickly countered by the Free Ports Act, passed by the British government, to open specified ports of the Maritime Provinces to American shipping.  Halifax, Shelburne and Saint John were the first, with St. Andrews added in 1811.  Indeed, the many coastal indentations of Passamaquoddy Bay, next to the American border, made St. Andrews a preferred port because of better opportunities for smuggling.  The border ports of New Brunswick and Maine, therefore, became beehives of illicit trade.

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Great Britain thought it to be of strategic advantage to encourage New Englanders to continue a profitable exchange of goods across the border, in spite of the wishes of Washington, the motive being to deepen political divisions within the country.  The result was an air of neutrality in the Bay of Fundy, where greed for trade took precedence over bellicose politics.  Indeed, the citizens of Eastport, Maine, unanimously voted to maintain good relations with the people of New Brunswick.

Breaking the American embargo was a most lucrative business opportunity, so the war effort of New Brunswickers was primarily directed at trade with the enemy.  American vessels that had broken the embargo and sailed into the Bay of Fundy were hospitably received.  Below the border there were indignant allegations that some Yankee skippers deliberately surrendered the vessels as "prizes" to the British Navy, were safely escorted to Saint John where their valuable American cargoes were unloaded at a good price that enabled them to "ransom" their vessels and sail home with the proceeds of profitable trade.

To carry out this trade, American vessels had to elude their own country's warships, but were then hospitably received and escorted by the British Navy.  Privateers, on the other hand, had been given letters of marque to prey upon enemy vessels, and their motives were directed toward personal gain rather than national economic strategy.  As a result, there was a delicate tension in effect, where privateers hunted for American vessels with lucrative cargoes, but these same vessels obtained escort by His Majesty's navy, intent on assisting the trade that enriched New Brunswick ports.  The busy shipping activity took that place during the war of 1812 would appear entirely confusing to any outside observer.  Besides keeping privateers in check and escorting illicit American trade, naval vessels were also used to move about soldiers, militia and other citizens among the ports, as land transport was almost non-existent.

Because of the activity of privateers around the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, from either side of the border, passengers wishing safe passage and those shipping valuables, travelled aboard naval vessels, being afforded the protection of powerful guns and the authority carried by these.  Considering the slight threat from engagement with U.S. naval ships and the clear dominance over privateer armament, His Majesty's naval vessels represented the most secure marine conveyance. One such naval vessel was the Brig Plumper, belonging to the Royal Navy.  A Saint John newspaper recorded the movement of vessels such as these, for their arrivals always sparked interest in the port, for this was the way that the most influential persons of the day might arrive in the city.

After arriving in Halifax on November 30, 1812, with a convoy of six vessels, His Majesty's Brig Plumper then set out from Halifax for Saint John with a full complement of seamen and several passengers.  But even the dominance of the Royal Navy could not prevail against the unforgiving elements.  At four o'clock on Saturday morning, December 5, 1812, the Plumper ran ashore at Red Point, a little over a mile down shore from Dipper Harbour, which is in turn a little over 20 miles down the shore from Saint John.  The spot she struck is exposed to strong winds blowing in from the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, a shallow cove below a steep and rugged cliff.  In the darkness, confusion and heavy seas, with the brig fast breaking up and going to pieces, those on board attempted to reach the shore, so near, and yet beyond grasp for so many.

When daylight arrived and the survivors huddled on the bleak shore took stock of their situation, they found that their cold, wet, bedraggled group numbered only thirty.  The only officer to make it ashore was midshipman Stephen Hall, who landed safely along with the pilot, Samuel Simpson; the rest were sailors and marines.  Their commander, Lieut. Bray, had been lost, along with the brig's master, Captain Marley.  In total, forty-five persons were lost - officers, crew, marines and passengers.

Shortly after daylight, messengers were despatched through the thick woods to Dipper Harbour, and thence the message was taken on to Saint John, conveying the news of the catastrophe and a summary of the lost and survivors.  The report also noted that the Plumper had been carrying nearly $30,000 in specie, but added that it was expected to be saved.  The authorities in Saint John wasted no time in responding.  On Sunday, December 6, H. M. Schooner Bream and the government sloop Brunswicker set sail for Dipper Harbour to pick up the survivors at the wreck and assist in saving what could be recovered.

On Monday evening, December 7, the Bream arrived back in Saint John with the survivors picked up from the wreck of the lost Plumper.  The newspaper of the following week published a list of those who were lost in the tragedy and those who survived.  But no mention was made of the specie, whether recovered or lost.

The notion of treasure persisted down through the following century and a half; I recall hearing of it from an old hard-hat diver in the 1960's.  In the early 1970's, a Saint John diver, Gary Austin, scoured the bottom thoroughly in the area of the lost Plumper, looking for clues to the existence of the shipwreck and possible treasure.  With all the speculation on the possibility of gold and silver coins, green-eyed divers took a keen interest in what he was doing.  Gary had cooperated with the New Brunswick Museum in what he was doing, and his responsible approach was rewarded by a letter in September, 1972, from a provincial Minister of the New Brunswick Government, declaring "the site of an historic wreck considered that of HMS Plumper to be an historic site and also a protected site".  Enough was found to suggest that this could indeed be the site of the Plumper wreck:  heavily encrusted cannon, pieces of old iron encased in thick concretion.

I visited Gary Austin and, with his cooperation and directions, dived on the wreck site in August, 1973.  The remains of the Plumper lie in fairly shallow water in, very exposed to rough sea, under a cliff of red rock at Red Point.  The sea floor there is made up of rocks, boulders and rubble, with rocks moved about in every storm.  Whatever might be left of the wrecked brig would be badly beaten up, strewn about and buried.

When I first went down on bottom, I could see no sign of wreckage anywhere.  To be satisfied that this was actually a wreck site, I wanted to find at least some traces of shipwreck.  Finally I found some badly decomposed fragments of very old iron, scattered, partly buried in rubble.  Certainly the divers working on this site faced a daunting task.  Were it not for the dreams of the existence of buried treasure, I doubt that anyone would have bothered with this shipwreck site.  Considering the unstable bottom, subject to heavy sea breaking to bottom, the New Brunswick Museum should count itself fortunate to have acquired as many items from this site as it did. 

The story and scant remnants of the Plumper are a direct link to the interesting naval activities of the War of 1812.  While we cannot diminish the importance of this catastrophe in loss of life, with forty-five lives being snuffed out that bleak December morning, it was the intrigue of sunken treasure, whether or not there was any actually there, that piqued such intense interest in this shipwreck.  Were it not for the dreams of treasure, perhaps these traces of this shipwreck would never have been found, and the Plumper would have been a forgotten tragic event.  But dreams of gold and silver kept the Plumper alive in the lore of the Bay, and with her story we are reminded of the interesting role of the Southwest Fundy coast in the 1812 hostilities between Great Britain and the United States.