On a frosty New Year’s Day in 1711, the York County coroner was summoned to examine a frozen body discovered in a tangle of seaweed on the beach at Wells, Maine. The emaciated body, covered with sores, had obviously died while trying to make landfall in the makeshift raft found nearby. But from where? Boon Island, a rocky ledge six miles off the coast, was a likely suspect.
The coroner, Lewis Bane, went to Cape Neddick where he convinced John Stover to take him to Boon Island. With a crew of three they boarded Stover’s fishing shallop and headed out to sea. As they approached, they saw something white at the highest point on the island. Then they got closer and saw a flapping white tent, with three figures outside of it waving their skinny arms.
With some difficulty, Stover maneuvered the shallop through the rocky ledge surrounding Boon Island and dropped anchor. They could see the three gaunt castaways wearing long beards and no overcoats. One identified himself as Capt. John Deane, and he shouted at them to come ashore and evacuate the castaways, or at least to build a fire.
Stover then boarded the small canoe they’d brought along and paddled to the island. The sight of the skeletal captain, covered with sores and blood, rendered him speechless. What he saw inside the tent shocked him even more.
The story of the Boon Island cannibals created an international sensation then, and still inspires books and essays. It destroyed John Deane’s reputation, though he spent a lifetime trying to repair it.
The Nottingham Galley
The Nottingham Galley set sail from London on Sept. 10, 1710 under the command of Capt. John Deane. Bound for Ireland with a cargo of rope, Deane brought along the ship’s principal owners: his brother Jasper and an English gentleman named Miles Whitworth.
They left in a convoy of merchant vessels protected by two Royal Navy warships. England was warring with France in the War of the Spanish Succession (called Queen Anne’s War or one of the French and Indian wars in New England). Merchant ships needed protection from the French privateers patrolling the Irish Sea.
The Nottingham Galley broke off from the convoy and sailed north to Killybegs, where Deane intended to add butter and cheese to his cargo. But Killybegs was an unlikely place to buy dairy products, and the waters swarmed with French privateers. Sure enough, the Nottingham Galley crew spied two sails likely belonging to privateers.
Two versions of events followed. Deane claimed he intended to evade the privateers. Three crewmembers published a dispute of Deane’s account, an unusual thing for ordinary sailors to do in the early 18th century.
The crew claimed the captain sailed toward the privateers hoping to be captured or to be forced to run aground. That way he could collect from the ship’s large insurance policy. Or perhaps, they hinted, Deane was smuggling goods to the enemy. Whatever his intent, the sailors wrote that he ‘endeavored to betray her [the Nottingham Galley] to the French.’
They crew also hinted at mutiny, a hanging offense. They wrote that Deane would have ‘bore down’ on the suspicious ships, ‘but the Men would not consent to it, because they perceiv’d them to be French men-of-war.’
Whether they mutinied or not, one thing does come through loud and clear: the crew despised Deane, who they viewed as a sadist as well as a traitor. Deane viciously beat the sailors, crippling two so they couldn’t work for a month. And he put them on short rations, which no doubt hurt their chances of survival on Boon Island.
The Nottingham Galley reached Canada – then held by the French – and John Deane dallied for a week off the Newfoundland coast. When a ship’s sails were spotted speeding toward them, Deane did a strange thing. Instead of fleeing a ship likely to belong to the enemy, he opened the bar for the crew. He, his brother and Whitworth donned their best clothes and awaited the arrival of the mystery ship.
Naturally, the crew suspected Deane was hoping for a French privateer. Perhaps he’d arranged an assignation when in Ireland. But whether he did or not, the ship turned out to be an English galley.
The Nottingham Galley sailed on, finally running into a sleet storm in the Gulf of Maine on December 10. Deane and the first mate, Christopher Langman, argued over what course they should take. Deane beat Langman bloody around the head, and Langman had to take to his berth.
Meanwhile the crew grew worried about the strengthening storm and the proximity to land. The ship was then about 12 miles north of Boon Island.
On December 11, the Nottingham Galley crashed against the ledge of Boon Island and splintered to pieces. The crew chopped down the mast, which landed fortuitously on the rocks. Using the mast as a guide, the men of the Nottingham Galley managed to crawl along the slippery rocks and reach safety on the island.
But how safe? They made it onto Boon Island at low tide, when it measures 700 feet by 300 feet. High tide leaves 150 feet exposed. In a storm, the sea can completely wash over the island, only 17 feet at its highest point.
The sailors made it through the night. But they had no overcoats, no food, nothing to make a fire with.
The men fashioned a tent from the remains of a sail, and they found some cheese and beef bones that floated ashore from the wreck. First mate Langman killed a seagull, which they ate raw because they couldn’t start a fire.
The cook died the second night. They weren’t hungry enough to eat him. They found some mussels, which they ate, and some cow hide, which they cut into small pieces and swallowed. The mate killed another seagull with a saucepan, and again they ate it raw.
Land was a tantalizing six miles away. When the weather cleared, they could see ships sailing in and out of Portsmouth Harbor. Three even passed Boon Island, but the castaways couldn’t get their attention. So they built a crude boat, which overturned immediately and smashed to bits.
Then a Swedish crewman fashioned a raft and a sail, and he set off with another sailor for the mainland. They floated toward shore, but the Swede was never seen again. The other sailor’s frozen body washed up on shore. His death allowed some of the others to live.
The weather continued to worsen. It snowed, and the men’s clothing froze to their bodies. That killed the ship’s carpenter, a fat man of 47. He stopped speaking and he died that night.
Somehow they came to the decision to cut up the carpenter and eat him. According to the crew, it was John Deane’s idea. According to Deane, the men overruled his objections to the deed.
Deane had trained as a butcher in England. He cut off the carpenter’s head, hands and feet so the corpse wouldn’t seem so human. He disemboweled him and cut up his breast in strips. Then he wrapped seaweed around ‘a few thin slices, washed in salt water,’ and distributed the pieces. The mate and two others refused to eat their former shipmate, but the next morning were the first in line for a serving.
When John Stover arrived, he first spoke with Deane, who led him to the tent. Inside, he saw seven sticklike men huddled together for warmth, sick, cold and covered with sores and vermin. In the words of one castaway, Stover was shocked by “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.”
They crawled to him, cried, and grabbed his ankles with their frostbitten hands. The captain begged him to take him back to the shallop in the canoe. But the weather was turning stormy, and the canoe capsized with the two men in it.
Stover promised he’d return immediately to rescue the castaways. The men begged him for a fire. So Stover built one for them, which allowed them to roast the carpenter. Eating his cooked flesh would cause them less disgust.
Stover returned to the shallop and made for shore as the storm grew worse. The rescuers barely made it.
Not for three days would the sea calm down enough to allow anyone to come close to Boon Island. Finally on Jan. 4, 1711, two sloops arrived and sent a canoe to the island. Some of the men had to be carried off; they were too weak to walk.
They were taken to a Portsmouth tavern, where they were fed slowly so as not to injure their bodies. Lt. Gov. John Wentworth paid for their care. A doctor administered to the castaways, cutting off frostbitten fingers and toes. The cabin boy lost half of his foot, the most severe amputation of the crew.
John Deane, staying at a friend’s house in Portsmouth, immediately wrote an account of the shipwreck in which he appeared heroic. Three crew members, still sick and weak, signed it. But then Christopher Langman and two others recanted.
He Said, They Said
When the crewmen returned to London, they published their own version of events and distributed it among London’s coffeehouses. In it, they portrayed Deane as traitorous, dishonest, brutal and cowardly. They blamed the shipwreck on him, because they’d be safely in Boston if he hadn’t dallied off the Newfoundland coast. He had cried and panicked when the ship ran aground. He had proposed cannibalism. And he had tried to turn the ship over to French privateers.
The common mariners’ pamphlet ruined his reputation as a gentleman and drove him out of London.
Deane would spend the rest of his life getting back his good name. He joined the Russian navy and commanded a frigate, capturing more than 20 enemy ships. But then something happened that favored the Nottingham Galley crew’s take on Deane’s character.
As commander of a Russian ship, Deane had captured two Swedish vessels when an English and a Dutch man of war appeared. Deane dawdled, just as he had off the privateer-infested coasts of Ireland and Canada. The English man of war seized his two Swedish prizes. Later, junior officers accused him of taking a bribe to deliver the Swedish ships to the English. A court-martial found him guilty, and he was demoted.
But the resilient Deane ended up spying for Britain and persuaded his superiors that he’d uncovered a conspiracy against the Crown. He married a wealthy woman and wrote another history of Boon Island. In 1728 he received a diplomatic appointment. He retired in comfort and died at the age of 81. The crew disappeared from history.
With thanks to “To Obviate a Scandalous Reflection”: Revisiting the Wreck of the Nottingham Galley by Stephen Erickson and Boon Island: A True Story of Mutiny, Shipwreck, and Cannibalism, by Stephen Erickson and Andrew VIetze. This story was updated in 2020.