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Horrific Boon Island Wreck Has Portsmouth Link


No stone unturned

Boon_Island_book_coverIn 1710 seacoast residentmussels finally discovered the plight of the men stranded on Boon Island when the frozen body of one of the sailors on the raft washed onto the beach at York. Locals put to sea to investigate. On Boon Island they discovered “the Ghastly Figure of so many Objects, with long Beards, nothing but skin and bone, wild staring Eyes, and Countenances fierce, barbarous, unwashed, and infected with Human gore.”

But for many days the heavy storms prevented the rescue party from getting the survivors off the island. Locals could not even get supplies to the men stranded on Boon until the weather cleared. It was during these final days that they resorted to cannibalism. Trained in England as an apprentice butcher, the captain beheaded and disemboweled the corpse before cutting the meat into strips to make it appear less human.

The gruesome details of how the crew of the Nottingham Galley consumed the  ship’s carpenter have been known for three centuries. Captain Deane wrote a full report soon after he and the emaciated survivors arrived in Portsmouth, NH. Deane published no less than three versions of the shipwreck saga in his lifetime, each slightly different.

Captain Deane’s account became the bloody heart of an historical novel by Maine author Kenneth Roberts. Boon Island (1956) was Roberts’ shortest, last, and least critically admired book. His best known novel Northwest Passage (1937) also has strong Portsmouth connections. (Portsmouth librarian Dorothy Vaughan was among the researchers for the novels.) Roberts won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1957 for his carefully researched historical fiction, and died a few months later.

Roberts’ accepted Captain John Deane’s testimony as gospel and made him the hero of the novel. But a newly published nonfiction book offers a much more detailed and complex, yet no less thrilling, version of the wreck and its aftermath. The title tells all. Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism (Globe Pequot Press, 2012) leaves no sea-weed covered stone unturned in its updated analysis of the ancient tragedy.

Co-author Andrew Vietze is a skilled veteran writer of six books and a seasonal ranger at Baxter State Park in Maine. Stephen Erickson of Portsmouth is working on his doctorate in early American history. Erickson says he bumped into the Boon Island legend while writing a novel (“a terrible one,” he says) set on the Isles of Shoals. He abandoned the novel to research the Nottingham Galley a few years ago at the British Museum in London. Erickson published an academic essay on the shipwreck in New England Quarterly and hoped to write a book. Meanwhile Vietze, author of the acclaimed Becoming Teddy Roosevelt , had a contract to expand his own Boon Island article in DownEast magazine into a book. The writers decided to pool their resources and their Boon Island is a superb collaboration. It is both well-researched history and a page-turning mystery that begs to be a motion picture.

A Portsmouth story too

Boon_Island_roberts_coverThe authors alternate the action from the cold isolated ledge at sea to the village of York, ravaged by Indian raids, to the evolving colonial seaport of Portsmouth, to the bookshops and coffee houses of London. A key twist in the plot takes place here in Portsmouth where the gaunt, half-dead sailors began their recovery housed at a local tavern in January 1711. Here Vietze and Erickson start unpacking the alternate version. Though weak and hospitalized, three of the Boon Island survivors refused to sign off on Deane’s legal account of the tragedy. They swore an oath, instead, that their half-crazed captain was covering up the true story of the Nottingham Galley.

New Hampshire’s lieutenant governor John Wentworth, whose 1695-era house once stood across from modern day Prescott Park, played a role in the tale. So did Portsmouth’s well-known magistrate Samuel Penhallow, who reported the seedy details of cannibalism to his friend, the powerful Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Mather sermonized on the events at Boon as evidence of God’s mighty wrath. He warned the people of Portsmouth and New England to guard against the “outrageous wickedness among the strangers lately broke into your Neighborhood.”

Rather than sign-off on Deane’s deposition, three of the sailors hired a lawyer and wrote their own version of the truth. Deane’s family was in debt, the crewmen claimed, and he wanted his ship to be captured by privateers or wrecked in order to collect the insurance money. The captain whipped and starved his crewman, took unnecessary risks at sea, and feasted more than the rest on the ship’s dead carpenter, they said.

The war of words continued back in England as each side published its version of the tragedy in various pamphlets. These booklets were the hot viral media of the 18th century.  Educated readers devoured them and they sparked the conversation in the court of public opinion. Deane’s reputation was sullied, in part, because of the negative impression he had made on the people of Portsmouth in America. Popular opinion here tended to favor the lowly sailors who had nothing to gain and much to loose by taking on their powerful captain.


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Monday, February 19, 2018 
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