By Bob Gordon
Founded by the Royal Navy in 1749 on the shores of a remarkable natural harbour, Bedford Basin, Halifax has been a navy town since. A challenge to the French at Fortress Louisbourg and in violation of a treaty with the Mi’kmaq, Halifax was born on the front line. It grew to become the most important Royal Navy base in the western Atlantic.
Since 1910, when the Naval Service of Canada was established (and renamed the Royal Canadian Navy one year later), the naval presence has brought a host of benefits to Halifax including infrastructure, investment and employment. Also, Halifax has often paid a price for this military significance. The massive explosion in 1917 killed over 1,900 and left 6,000 homeless. During VE-Day celebrations on May 7, 1945, rioting broke out that carried into the next day, ravaged the central business district and left three dead. Only two weeks before VE-Day, HMCS Esquimalt was torpedoed within sight of the lights of Halifax. Six months earlier, HMCS Clayoquot met the same fate on Christmas Eve 1944. In this roll call of naval tragedy, HMS Tribune is conspicuous in its absence. Despite the loss of approximately 250 lives within hailing distance of the shore, the men are unmourned. With a legitimate claim to being the largest shipboard naval disaster in Canadian history, the fate of HMS Tribune is all but forgotten.
Originally christened La Charente Inférieure of the Marine royale française when it was launched at Rochefort in 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars, HMS Tribune was a fifth-rate frigate mounting 34 guns and eight 32-pounder carronades (some sources suggest a total of 44 barrels). At 900 tons, she was long — over 40 metres — and lean, with a draft of less than four metres and a beam of 11.5 metres. The Halifax Royal Gazette, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, described her as “one of the finest frigates in her majesty’s service.”
A year after the frigate was launched, in 1794, the newly minted French revolutionary government determined that a vessel named after a minor river flowing into the Bay of Biscay lacked revolutionary vigour. She was more appropriately renamed La Tribune, evoking ancient Roman democracy. In mid-1796, La Tribune was under the command of Citoyen John Moulson (or Moulston), an American who had served in the French Navy for 16 years.
She was captured off the south coast of Ireland near Scilly by HMS Unicorn, commanded by Captain Thomas Williams, in June 1796. The capture was announced with glowing praise in The London Gazette on June 18, 1796: “Intrepidity and judicious Management were never more strongly manifested than in this Instance, which reflects the highest Honor on Captains Williams and Martin, and on every Individual under their Command.” Williams’s conquest earned him a knighthood. Two days later a prize crew brought La Tribune into Portsmouth Harbour and shipwrights began repairs and refitting. Additionally, all the ordinance was replaced with canon and carronade cast by the Royal Artillery at Woolwich.
The following spring, on April 29, 1797, she was rechristened HMS Tribune and brought into Royal Navy service. Captain Scory Barker was assigned to command a fortnight later. Within weeks she was briefly thrust into the limelight. In July, inclement weather prevented the courts martial of the Spithead mutineers from convening on HMS Royal William and the venue was moved to HMS Tribune. Captain Barker welcomed aboard Sir John Orde, Rear Admiral of the White, presiding, his entourage, the accused, witnesses, et al. Two days later the crew of HMS Tribune contributed to the military justice system in a less pleasant manner. They provided the witnesses to the execution of the death sentences delivered by Rear Admiral Orde.
Two months later HMS Tribune was operational. Flying the Union Jack, she set sail from Torbay on September 22, 1797 under Captain Barker. She was detailed to escort a resupply convoy to the Quebec and Newfoundland fleets. En route HMS Tribune lost track of its convoy and headed for Halifax alone, arriving in the early morning of Thursday, November 23.
Two months out and hours from port, a debate broke out between the captain and the master. Captain Barker favoured waiting for a local pilot. Reportedly, the master, John Clegg, objected vehemently arguing that “he had beat a 44-gun ship into the harbour, that he had frequently been there, nor was there any occasion for a pilot since the wind was favourable.” The fateful decision was taken to proceed immediately under the master and the Captain returned to his cabin.
The book Remarkable Shipwrecks, Or a Collection of Interesting Accounts of Naval Disasters: With Many Particulars of the Extraordinary Adventures and Sufferings of the Crews of Vessels Wrecked at Sea, and of Their Treatment on Distant Shores, which was published in Connecticut in 1813, only 16 years after the mishap, describes the moments before disaster struck: “By twelve o’clock the ship had approached so near the Thrum Cap shoals that the master became alarmed, and sent for Mr. Galvin, master’s mate, who was sick below. On his coming upon deck, he heard the man in the chains sing out, ‘By the mark five!’ ... the master ran, in great agitation, to the wheel, and took it from the man who was steering, with the intention of wearing the ship; but before this could be effected, or Galvin was able to give an opinion, she struck.” The sickening thud of the ship hitting the shoal brought the captain back on deck.
Initially, distress signals were run up and acknowledged by the nearby shore installations. Boats were dispatched to aid the stricken ship. However, the winds prevented the military boats, save one, from reaching it. Then, efforts were made to lighten the ship by dumping cannon and other heavy objects. Accompanied by a rising tide, these efforts were successful: “about half past eight o’clock in the evening the ship began to heave, and at nine got off the shoals.” Ultimately, however, freeing her from the shoal sealed the fate of the Tribune and her crew.
Afloat it was discovered the frigate had two metres of water in its hold and that the chain pumps could not keep up with the inflow. The ship was sinking. Additionally, the battering on the shoal had damaged the gudgeon and pindle, ripping the rudder from the hull. It hung lifeless and useless from the stern of the ship. Adrift and rudderless with a gale rising, the ship floated across the harbour entrance and finally ground ashore off Herring Cove on the west side of the channel.
Remarkable Shipwrecks describes the terrifying events that followed: “The scene, before sufficiently distressing, now became peculiarly awful. More than 240 men, besides several women and children, were floating on the waves, making the last effort to preserve life.” Their cruel fate was rendered bitterer still by the small, but insurmountable gap that separated them from the safety of dry land. “The place where the ship went down was barely three times her length to the southward of the entrance into Herring Cove. The inhabitants came down in the night to the point opposite to which the ship sunk, kept up large fires, and were so near as to converse with the people on the wreck.”
Earlier, a handful of officers had reached land in the jolly boat. However, Captain Barker, fearing for his career prospects, refused to proclaim the order to abandon ship. A captain in the Royal Navy knew that it was career suicide to issue such a fateful order, that he would never again receive an operational command. Consequently, the crew and passengers, hundreds of stranded souls, found themselves trapped on the floundering vessel in the dead of night with a gale rising. Throughout the night in the wind, water and chill they slowly expired.
There are conflicting reports on fatalities, calculations complicated by an inaccurate crew manifest and the presumed presence of ‘unofficial’ passengers (notably, wives and children of officers). Some sources say 14, others say only 12, aboard made it to safety. Accounts of how many were aboard range from 250 to 289. Therefore, somewhere between 235 and 275 persons died of exposure or drowned.
Late in the morning of November 24, a young Herring Cove lad rowed a dory out to the wreck and was able to draw off eight more survivors. Known to history as Joe Cracker, his real name is unknown. Cracker was Royal Navy slang for a keener or a go-getter. Nonetheless, the very existence of a lad known to history as Joe Cracker is rendered probable by the inclusion of the tale in the 1813 source, Remarkable Shipwrecks: “The first exertion that was made for their relief was by a boy thirteen years old, from Herring Cove, who ventured off in a small skiff by himself about eleven o’clock the next day. This youth, with great labor and extreme risk to himself, boldly approached the wreck, and backed in his little boat so near to the fore-top as to take off two of the men, for the boat could not with safety hold any more.”
At the time, Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and the fourth son of George III, was resident in Halifax, serving as a major-general and commander-in-chief of the Royal Nova Scotia Regiment. The young hero was presented to the prince and Sir John Wentworth, lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. In consequence of his heroism, the 13-year-old was offered a position as a volunteer on HMS Resolution. However, the adventure was short-lived as he proved unsuitable for naval service and was soon discharged to resume his life in Herring Cove.
Nova Scotia publisher and politician Joseph Howe fancied himself a poet and once set to preserve the memory of HMS Tribune:
Acadia’s child — thy humble name
The Muse will long revere.
The wreath you nobly won from Fame
Shall bloom for many a year.
Long as the thoughts which swell’d thy breast.
The flame that lit thy eye,
Shall in our Country’s bosom rest,
Thy name shall never die!
Howe’s fervent wish that honest and innocent heroism amidst tragedy be remembered through the ages was forlorn. Today, even the young Cracker’s real name remains unknown. The small plaque on Tribune Head that recognizes his heroism states simply: “Joe Cracker, the fisher lad of 13 years who was the first to rescue survivors from the wreck of HMS Tribune in a heavy sea off the headland.” Beyond this silent invocation, the loss of some 250 souls stranded aboard HMS Tribune passes silently, forgotten.