The Sinking Of The “Duke William”
And Of The “Violet” Taking The Acadians Into Exile
We know that there have been three transports, taking The Acadians into exile in France, which perished. One was the Duke William, which was conveying 300 Acadians, another the Violet, with 400 Acadians. We do not have the name of the third vessel, nor the number of Acadians who were on board; all that we know is that this third transport was lost on the coasts of Spain. A figure of 1,300 has been given of those who perished at sea at the time.
This took place after the fall of Louisburg in July, 1758. A certain number of transports were to take into exile the Acadians of "Ile Royale", now Cape Breton, while others were to take those of "Ile Saint-Jean", now Prince Edward Island, the Duke William and the Violet being two of these. Capt. Nichols, who commanded the Duke William, objected to the authorities that it was impossible for his vessel, on account of its condition, "of his arriving safe in Old France at that season of the year". Nevertheless, he was compelled to receive [t]he Acadians on board and to proceed upon the voyage, I may note here that it is chiefly to Capt. Nichols that we owe the account of these disasters.
They left the island in November; the exact date is not given. On account of the wind being contrary, the fleet had to lay in the Gut of Canso till November 25, when, thanks to a strong gale from the N. W., they were able to sail out. There had only been three days that they were at sea, when a storm blew at night, with sleet and rain, the sea running "mountains high". This lasted a couple of days. That is when the fleet was dispersed.
After having been separated for a couple of weeks, the Duke William and the Violet were rejoined on December 10th. Capt. Sugget, of the Violet, told Capt. Nichols that his vessel was in a terrible condition, that it had taken a great deal of water, that the pumps were clogged and that he was afraid that she would sink before morning. There was at the time a gale, which kept on increasing. The Duke William set its three pumps ready in case that they would be needed.
At 4 o'clock next morning, the Duke William received a terrible blow from the rough sea. And lo and behold, it began to take water, a sure sign that had spring a leak. When it was discovered that the water was filling in quite fast, the captain woke up all the Acadians, told them of the danger and put them to work with the pumps. At day-break, they noticed that the Violet, at a little distance, was in a miserable condition it was evident that she could not last. "It came on a most violent squall for ten minutes, and when it cleared up, they found, to their great and deep concern, that the poor unfortunate Violet, with near four hundred souls, was gone to the bottom".
As for the Duke William, everybody worked frantically to save her. All the hatches were opened, and as the water flowed fast into the hold, they filled tubs and hauled them up while the pumps were constantly at work. Every method was tried which was thought of service. Notwithstanding their endeavours, the ship kept filling with water, being expected to sink at any moment.
At about 6 o'clock on the morning of the fourth day, they at last realized that nothing could be done to save the ship. Aboard with the Acadians was Father Girard, their pastor. The captain asked him to tell his people of the miserable fate that was awaiting them. He harangued them for half an hour, telling them to be prepared to meet their Eternal Judge, and finally he gave them general absolution.
Twice they saw ships afar off, although close enough that they could have noticed the Duke William. Once, Cpt. Nichols hoisted the English ensign, the other time, the Dutch. Also the guns were fired at full blast. But both times those ships, which could have rescued them, slipped away; as it was at the time of the Seven Years' War, those ships probably did not dare approach the Duke William, which was quite a large vessel.
Then came the awesome pronouncement of the captain, which "in his own judgement was right", according to his own words, by which he was "sending four hundred (sic) persons to eternity".
At the same time, two lifeboats were lowered to the water, in which embarked the captain and his crew, leaving the poor Acadians to their unmerciful destiny. "Seeing the priest lay his arms over the rails in great emotion, with all the apprehensions of death pointed in [h]is countenance, the captain asked him if he were willing to take his chance with him. He replied, "yes". After giving a last benediction to his parishioners who were about to die, "he tucked up his canonical robes, and went into the boat". Nobody is asked to be a hero. Nevertheless, Father Girard has been blamed for willingly not sharing the fate of his people. Capt. Pile, commenting on this tragedy, says: "The argument made use of by the priest for leaving the Frenchmen was that he hoped to save the souls of other heretics, meaning the English, and bring them to God along with him".
Capt. Nichols does not tell us of the screaming, nor of the scenes of horror and of awesome despair that took place among the Acadians at the moment that they were to be swallowed by the sea. "One Frenchman only went into the boat, on which his wife said: 'Will you thus leave your wife and children to perish without you!' Remorse touched him and he returned to share their fate". In the meantime four Acadians, two being married, threw overboard a small jolly-boat along with two oars, and swam to it.
Those four Acadians just had time to climb aboard their makeshift lifeboat, while the two other lifeboats had already reached a short distance away, that the Duke William started to go down, when the decks blew up, making a noise like that of the explosion of a gun or of the loud clap of thunder, drowning for a moment the cries, the screans [sic], the screeches of three hundred agonizing wretches who were being cast all over the water like flies, clamoring and frantically agitating hands and feet in despair, in the midst of a wide spread churn, while they disappeared one by one, swallowed up, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, way down deep to the bottom of the sea.
The two lifeboats, with twenty-seven in one and nine in the other including Capt. Nichols and Father Girard, after a series of distresses reached after a while the south-western tip of England, close to Falmouth. Miraculously, the jolly-boat also reached England safely.
Capt. Nichols' account has been published in London and Glasgow by George Winslow Barrington, in his work "Remembering Voyages & Shipwrecks", now very rare. The Acadians Historical Society (Moncton, N.B.) has given a transcription of it in 1968 in its quarterly.