Maritime Art

The Wreck of the Centaur, 1782: Captain Inglefield and eleven other survivors getting away in a pinnace

By Coloured Aquatint by T. Gaugain after J. Northcote, 1796

In September 1782 one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Atlantic in the eighteenth century caught a British fleet making its way back to England from the Caribbean. The hurricane struck when the fleet was off the coast of Newfoundland. Twelve ships and an estimated 3,500 people died. One the ships to founder was the 74-gun HMS Centaur, originally a French ship captured more than a generation before, at the battle of Lagos in 1759. This print shows her captain, John Nicholson Inglefield and eleven survivors making their way to safety from the stricken Centaur, but this was just the start of their trials. The open pinnace stayed afloat in the hurricane and was then navigated by Inglefield and his men, without quadrant, sail and only two quart bottles of water for sixteen days, until it reached safety in the Azores. They drank rainwater wrung out into a bailing cup and survived on a few morsels of spoilt bread and ship’s biscuit. Inglefield’s description of the journey was published and widely circulated, and a dramatic painting by Northcote turned into this popular print. Inglefield continued to serve in the Navy and, with his first-hand knowledge of open-boat journeys and immense privation, he sat as one of the judges at the court-martial of the mutineers of HMS Bounty.

The Society has published a number of articles on this period that provide important context to this print.

The Foundering of H.M.S. Ramillies explores the events of the storm, the foundering of another ship, HMS Ramillies and the culpability of the fleet’s admiral, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. Graves had been criticised for his performance during the American war, and was anxious to return home to defend himself. But the ships in his squadron were in poor condition; some could not even leave Jamaica; others parted company en route. When the remaining ships encountered a fierce gale, many foundered, including the flagship. With remarkable organisation and seamanship, Graves and his officers were able to save most of the crew. Yet, once back in England, Graves was blamed for the loss of the ships under his command.

1782 was a particularly bad year for wrecks as it was also the year that the Royal George sank at its moorings at Spithead. Hilary Rubinstein’s in-depth research has successfully collated all the relevant information to explain why the 100-gun Royal George should have foundered on 29 August 1782 while at anchor between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Certainly, to the many witnesses it was beyond belief that she could just disappear with only her mast visible in near calm conditions. It will never be known how many lives were lost; some say as many as 1,200, including mothers and children besides Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. At the time families, traders, dockyard artisans and workmen were all onboard, some of whom were rescued. As she rapidly foundered, those below deck, including the aged admiral in his great cabin, were trapped and perished; a more conservative figure on the fatalities was still a staggering 800 lives. All the many information sources are highly referenced; Hilary can be commended for going to great lengths to cover all known possible sources. Her love of poetry is apparent as poems appear regularly throughout the book to enhance her prose.

Some Ballads And Songs Of The Sea Part II also explores this tragedy, presenting the song ‘The Late Unfortunate “Royal George”’, written in 1782, which reviews the drowning of Kempenfeldt and four hundred men.

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