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History Of The Shipwreck Princess Louisa

(An excerpt from the pamphlet that accompanies each coin)

The Princess Louisa was built in 1733 at Deptford in south-east London by Bronsdon and Wells, a famous firm of shipbuilders who built ships for the Royal Navy as well as very fine merchantmen.  She was designed for the service of the East India Company, the immensely powerful company which had a monopoly of England's trade with Asia, and so, although privately owned by a syndicate of merchants and businessmen, she had to conform to specifications laid down by the Company.  At this period, this meant that she was a three-masted, two decker ship, about 104 feet in the keel, just over 33 feet in breadth and with a depth of hold of 14 feel, 2 inches.  She had a pronounced rake in her bow and a smaller one in her stern, where her roundhouse and great cabin were built up from the deck, and would have been about 120 feet long overall at the level of her upper deck.  She mounted 30 guns and was rated at 498 tons like all East Indiamen of this period, though this tonnage was an administrative fiction and the Princess Louisa would have been rather bigger, about 550 tons.  Many of the ships built for the East India Company were named for royalty and the Princess Louisa was named in honour of the youngest daughter of King George II, an eight-years-old girl who was to become the Queen of Denmark in the same year that the ship met its tragic fate.

Ships like tThe Princess Louisa were the largest, and indeed the most beautiful, in the British merchant marine and were exceeded in size in the contemporary world of merchant ships only by the larger galleons of Spain and Portugal.  They had evolved during the 130 years that England had been trading with the east and were now big but graceful ships, strong, fast, well-armed and eminently suited for the long and dangerous passages that they had to make.  Management of the ship was entrusted to one of the owners known as the ship's husband, in this case a businessman with wide-ranging interests called Thomas Hall, and he now had to fit out the ship, a process which could double her cost as sails, cordage, guns, provisions and the innumerable range of artifacts necessary for successful operation were purchased from specialists in the port of London.  Once the ship was ready for sea, he made a charter-party for the voyage with the East India Company, an immensely complex document which covered every conceivable occurrence but, most importantly, laid down the amount of freight which was to be paid to the owners by the Company.

East Indiamen were designed to make four voyages to the east in their working lives, making the immense and arduous voyage from England south round the Cape of Good Hope and then into the Indian Ocean, calling at ports in Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and China, depending on the vagaries of trade.  The Princess Louisa set sail for her maiden voyage in November 1733 under the command of Captain Richard Pinnell.  She loaded coffee at Mocha in Arabia and then sailed to Bombay to load more cargo and was back in England in April 1735, a voyage of seventeen months which was described by the young nephew of one of the owners as "very pleasant, I like the seas very well."  This was fairly short for an East India voyage which averaged between 18 months and two years.  Once back in England, the ship underwent a long process of overhaul and refitting so that it was not till late in 1736 that the Princess Louisa set out on her second voyage, this time to Calcutta and back, and not till 1739 that she sailed on her third voyage to Madras, Calcutta and Bombay.  These three voyages had their share of alarms and adventures, as did all voyages to the Indian Ocean, but they were on the whole successful and profitable, so that owners and crew were not particularly apprehensive when the Princess Louisa got ready for her fourth and fatal voyage early in 1743.

This time she was captained by John Pinson, his second voyage in command, and she was chartered to sail to Bombay and Persia.  The crew consisted of six mates, purser, surgeon, boatswain and 91 other officers and seamen, and she also carried 14 soldiers for the service of the Company in India, a total of 115 men.  This was about average for the period, though some East Indiamen carried considerable numbers of paying passengers in addition to their crews.  The Princess Louisa's cargo is listed in the Commerce Journal of the East India Company and it was a typical cargo, woolen textiles for the Persia market and a mixed cargo for Bombay consisting of gunpowder, iron guns, sailcloth, cordage, iron, lead, and rather unusually ivory or "elephants' teeth", 822 tusks in all.  However, the Company could never find sufficient goods with a market in Asia to pay for what they wanted to bring home and so much the most valuable part of the cargo was money, 20 chests of Spanish and Spanish American pieces of eight, a total of 69,760 ounces of silver.  If this fourth voyage had been successfully completed, the return cargo would have been silk and cotton textiles, indigo, pepper and spices, saltpeter for gunpowder manufacture and a host of other things.

The Princess Louisa set sail from Portsmouth on her last voyage on 20 March 1743 in company with another East Indiaman, the Winchester commanded by Captain Gabriel Steward, 26 smaller merchantmen and, since this was a time when England was at war with Spain, a naval escort in the form of the 70-gun two-decker warship, H.M.S. Sterling Castle.  However, the early stages of the voyage were uneventful and once clear of the cruising grounds of the Spanish privateers, the two East Indiamen parted from their consorts and sailed south towards the Cape Verde Islands, the Winchester struggling to keep up with the Princess Louisa who was the better sailer.

On 17 April, four weeks out of Portsmouth, Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands was sighted and the two ships set a course to pass through the islands.  As night fell on the following day, both ships shortened sail as they entered dangerous water, the Princess Louisa's lights clearly visible about a miles ahead of the Winchester.  By midnight, the island of Maio could just be seen to the south-west and about an hour later the Princess Louisa fired her guns as a signal of danger.  Shortly afterwards, the Winchester saw her sister ship "in or very near the breakers" on a reef, just in time to tack and save herself from sharing the same fate.  At daybreak, the stricken ship could be seen "among the rocks without ever a mast standing and the sea making a free passage over her."  The Winchester launched two boats to try and save the men from the Princess Louisa, but the sea was too high to get close and they had to pull away from the reef, while the men on the wreck despairingly "waved their hats and called to us, but we could not distinguish what they said."  A second attempt was equally unsuccessful and, by now, the upper works of the Princess Louisa had all been washed away and there was not a man to be seen.  Reluctantly, the Winchester hoisted in her boats and set sail again, "there being no possibility of saving anything."  "I am afraid", wrote Captain Steward in his log, "there is not a man alive of the to tell their tale."

This was too pessimistic, as we can tell from a letter written by Stephen Lightfoot, surgeon of the Princess Louisa.  By his account, the ship ran onto the reef off the island of Maio at half past one in the morning.  She struck several times before she was held fast by the rocks and, although severely damaged, she remained in one piece until nine in the morning when she broke in two, her forepart veering round to the poop.  By now, the breakers were crashing over her "to a very great height" and, once it was clear that the Winchester's boats could not help them, there was no choice but to abandon ship and let each man try to save his own life.

Lightfoot saved himself by clutching onto a piece of wreckage, and "by its assistance and swimming got safe on shore, though not without great difficulty, for the breakers broke over my head several times; when I had got near land a large shark swam by me, but never offered to attack me."  Forty other men, including the captain and most of the senior officers, saved their lives in similar ways, most of them being badly cut and bruised in their passage to land and some severely sunburned, like Lightfoot himself who had stripped naked before committing himself to the sea.  The remaining 74 men aboard the Princess Louisa were all drowned, most of them according to Lightfoot, in the forecastle where despairing of saving their lives, they had drunk themselves into oblivion, drinking off whole bottles of brandy to ease their passage into the next world.  Nothing was saved from the ship, except what was washed up on the coast of Maio, and both survivors and corpses were stripped of their valuables by the islanders, even the naked Lightfoot being relieved of his diamond ring and a pair of gold buttons which he had hoped to save by carrying them in his mouth.

Soon Portuguese officials arrived to prevent further looting and the survivors made various arrangements to return to England, some taking passage on a ship sailing to Barbados and some to Virginia before they eventually got home to tell their story.  Captain Pinson and his surviving officers were found not guilty of negligence in losing their ship and were seen to be the victims of unknown currents and inaccurate charts.  Reports on the condition and location of the wreck convinced the East India Company that salvage was unlikely to be successful, though they were prepared to sign a contract on terms very favorable to the salvors, a private syndicate headed by the ship's own husband, Thomas Hall.  The syndicate fitted out a galley and a sloop, both well-armed, in an expedition designed to combine privateering with the salvage of the Princess Louisa.  However, they were unsuccessful in both ventures and one of their vessels was captured by the French on the way home and taken into Bayonne, thus leaving the treasure of the Princess Louisa to be discovered by Arueonautas two and a half centuries later.

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