In 1707, Britain was embroiled in yet another of its seemingly interminable wars with France and Spain. Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was the British naval commander in the Mediterranean. Working in close cooperation with the British Army under Earl Peterborough, quite an unusual occurrence, Shovel had helped take Barcelona and had effectively blockaded Toulon.
The fleet, however, was falling apart. Having been at sea nearly constantly for three years the ships were in need of a complete refit. In October, Sir Cloudesley departed for shipyards in the Channel ports.
Autumn weather in the North Atlantic can nasty and Sir Cloudesley’s fleet was in for a particularly bad time. These were the days before the chronometer and the calculation of longitude was impossible. The weather prevented accurate latitude calculations so the fleet moved ahead under dead reckoning. In this case the operative word was “dead.”
Sir Cloudesley had been at sea for about 40 years and was well aware that they were uncertain of their location (the old saying attributed to Davy Crockett, “I’ve never been lost but one I was bewildered for three days,” comes to mind) and called the navigational equivalent of a council of war:
“Abt. one or two aft. noon on the [22nd] Octr Sir C. call’d a council & examd ye masters wt lat. they were in; all agreed to be in that of Ushant on ye coast of France, except Sr. W. Jumper’s Mr of ye Lenox, who believ’d ’em to be nearer Scilly.”
In Sir Cloudesley’s defense, one doesn’t know what else he could have done other than take the overwhelming opinion of the masters of the fleet, again demonstrating majority rule isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
Three hours later, the master of HMS Lenox (70) was proven correct when the fleet piled onto the rocks surrounding Scilly.
First was HMS Association (90), Sir Cloudesley’s flagship, running onto Gilstone Ledge, pictured below in nicer weather, followed by HMS Romeny (54).
Then HMS Eagle (70) plowed into Bishop Rock, pictured below. Of course, in 1707 Bishop Rock did not have a huge lighthouse affixed to it.
HMS Phoenix, fireship, was badly holed. HMS St. George (96) hit the rocks but the wave action lifted it over and it survived. HMS Firebrand, a fireship, was badly damaged and managed to limp into Smith Sound, adjacent of St. Agnes, as sink. (a cool site plan for Firebrand’s wreck is here.).
Over 2000 officers, sailors, and marines died that afternoon.
Sir Cloudesley’s body was discovered then next day and his body was buried on the beach. He was a national hero before his death and this was compounded by his tragic death. Queen Anne ordered his body exhumed and buried in Westminster Abbey.
Most importantly, the problem of determining longitude was raised to the level of a national strategic imperative. In 1714, Parliament created the Longitude Prize which established a significant financial incentive for anyone who could devise a means of determining longitude at sea. Eventually a self-taught English clockmaker, John Harrison, claimed the prize despite being ill-used by Britain’s scientific and political establishments in the meantime.