‘The Fame of Hull’

On the 23rd of August 1823 a sale of the wreckage and remains of the vessel the Fame of Hull took place on the beach in Deer Sound, Orkney.

For sale was the bottom part of the hull along with other items: the stores, 4 whale boats, 2 anchors, a chain cable, 12 tons of bolt and hoop iron, 3 iron tanks capable of holding 80 tons of oil, 20 casks etc.

The history of the vessel reflects the type of commercial activity that was taking place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the whole world had opened up to international shipping. A time of trans-Atlantic slavery, warfare, colonial expansion and whaling.

The Fame started her life in India.

She was launched in 1786 and was 103 ft 3inches long. The 3 decked sailing vessel built of teak was then sold to Portuguese owners. Around about 1793 The Fame was captured by the French privateer, The Marseilles, in the Caribbean.  This was during the time known as The French Revolutionary wars which saw France engage in military conflicts against several European countries and its support for the American War of Independence.

The Fame was quickly recaptured by The Royal Navy’s HMS Blanche.  She was now a ‘Prize’. As a captured enemy ship, The Fame and her cargo became a prize of war.  The worth of the vessel and its contents would be assessed and the crew of the victorious ship would be allotted money from an auction depending on their rank. It was not equal shares. Private individuals could also get involved in the process through letters of marque.

By 1795 The Fame was plying the Liverpool – Dominica: Liverpool – Africa route under the ownership Neilsen & Co. This was the extremely profitable trade in sugar and human beings –  which she did from 1796 to 1804.

1st slave voyage (1796–1797):

Captain Robert Bennett acquired a letter of marque on 20 October 1796. He sailed from Liverpool on 26 October, bound for Bonny Island in the Niger Delta. On 25 November, as she sailed to purchase her slaves, the crew of the Fame recaptured the Bernard.  The Bernard had been sailing from Demerara (which is now part of Guyana)  to Bremen, Germany, with a cargo of coffee and cotton for Messrs Neilsen and Heathcote when a French frigate and a brig had captured her.

The  Bernard sailed on to Swansea, Wales. The Fame stopped at Barbados, and arrived at Kingston, Jamaica, on 21 June 1797 with 480 slaves. From there she sailed on 26 July and arrived back at Liverpool on 18 October. She had left Liverpool with 42 crew members : 5 died on the voyage. It is not known how many slaves died.

Captain Thomas Atkinson acquired a letter of marque on 5 March 1798. He sailed the  Fame to the Caribbean island of Grenada via Madeira, Portugal. On 29 March 1799 the Fame sailed from Demerara to Liverpool putting in at St Vincent’s on the way.  

2nd slave voyage (1800–1802):

Captain Owen Prichard acquired a letter of marque on 21 July 1800. He sailed from Liverpool on 8th August.  Slaves were purchased at Calabar, Nigeria.  She arrived at Trinidad on 12 October 1801, where she landed  about 300 slaves. At some point Captain John Campbell replaced Prichard. She arrived back at Liverpool on 18 January 1802. She had left Liverpool with 42 crew members of whom 12 died on the voyage. It is not known how many slaves died.

3rd slave voyage (1803–1804):

Captain Richard Davidson acquired a letter of marque on 8 October 1803. He sailed from Liverpool on 16 November 1803 and purchased  slaves at Rio Pongas, a significant area in West Africa in the transatlantic slave trade. He also bought slaves at Cape Grand Mount, Liberia  and Gallinhas, Guinea.  The Fame then arrived at Demerara on 14 April 1804. She had embarked 338 slaves and  landed 315 in Demerara.  The Fame arrived back at Liverpool on 21 September 1804. She had left Liverpool with 49 crew members and 7 had died on the voyage.

Britain was a leading player in the slave trade with its strong tradition in seamanship, the superior strength of the Royal Navy and the expansion of its colonies. The routes taken of The Fame are those of the operation of the slave trade crossing the Atlantic with its human cargo, delivering the slaves to the plantations in the West Indies, with a return journey of sugar, cotton and coffee.

“Between 1791 and 1800, around 1,340 slaving voyages were mounted from British ports, carrying nearly 400,000 Africans to the Americas. In 1798 alone, almost 150 ships left Liverpool for West Africa.” via How did the slave trade end in Britain?

There was also a growing abolitionist movement. A 13 year slave rebellion in Haiti led to it being declared an independent republic on 1st January 1804.

The Fame was damaged in ferocious storms on its way from Liverpool to Demerara in 1806 and had to turn back for repairs.

On  1st May 1807 it was made illegal for any British ship or British subject to trade in enslaved people.

The Fame continued to sale from Liverpool to Demerara, then further south into Brazil, until 1818.

Whaling and the North

Now in the ownership of William Scoresby (Snr)The Fame turned to another very lucrative trade – whaling, first sailing from Whitby, and then, until her demise in Orkney, from Hull. She was extensively remodelled for her new role as a whaler.

Whaling vessels called in to several bays and harbours in Orkney, including Deer Sound, to collect men to work on the voyage.  

On the 1821 whaling voyage the Fame carried Congreve rockets. Sir William Congreve equipped her with rockets at his own expense to test how good they would be in whale hunting. Congreve had taken the rocket used by Hyder Ali, Prince of Mysore, against the British in Indian in the 1790s and made improvements. The rocket cases were made from sheet iron and filled with gunpowder as propellant. The warheads were attached to wooden sticks of differing lengths according to the size of rockets. They could be fired from frames, from specially constructed vehicles or, as at the Battle of  Waterloo in 1815, propelled along the ground. The colour of exploding Congreve rockets is said to have inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The Master General of Ordnance and the First Lord of the Admiralty had Lieutenant Colquhoun and two Marine artillerymen observe the performance of the rockets on board The Fame as it hunted whales in 1821.

Captain Scoresby wrote a letter from the Greenland fishery in June reporting that the rockets had been a great success. Subsequent reports made clear that the rockets were fired from about 40 yards and were highly effective in killing whales that had already been conventionally harpooned.

‘After being struck by the rocket the largest whale became an easy prey to its pursuers. In one case instant death was produced by a single rocket, and in all cases the speed of the fish was diminished, and its power of sinking limited to three or four fathoms.

‘One of the largest finners, of 100 feet in length, a species of fish seldom attacked by the ordinary means, and of the capture of which there is scarcely an instance on record, in the northern seas, was immediately tamed by a discharge of rockets, so that the boats overtook it and surrounded it with ease.

‘Six of the nine fish died in less than 15 minutes; and five out of the number took no line at all. One only survived nearly two hours, and one only took out more than a single line, by getting into a pack of ice, where the boats could not follow….

‘It is also equally certain, that the large finners, never rarely or attacked in the north, will be rendered an easy prey, by the judicious application of the rocket.’ – Morning Post Saturday 6th October 1821

On 27 August 1822, another whaler, the Dundee lost its mast in the Greenland whale fishery and became trapped in ice. The Fame pulled the Dundee out and stayed with her until the crew of the Dundee had rigged jury masts and was sufficiently equipped and supplied to reach Liverpool.

The end of the Fame took place on 23 April 1823 in Deer Sound. A fire is said to have originated in the gun room forcing the crew to run her ashore. The crew escaped with barely the clothes on their backs as the vessel was consumed by fire. Some of the crew were able to make their way to Leith arriving there on the 27th and onwards to Hull.

William Scoresby snr (1760 – 1829)  “made many practical improvements in the whaling industry, including changes to the rigging and ballasting of his ships which made them safer and more manoeuvrable, but his major innovation was the widely adopted crow’s nest, which gave navigators some shelter and security. His record for sailing the furthest north of any ship stood for several decades.” – William Scoresby Senior, Arctic Whaler, by Fiona Barnard.

William Scoresby, jnr, (1789 – 1857) also led an adventurous life exploring the Arctic. He wrote an account of the Arctic which includes a very vivid description of the whaling fishery in 1820. (And yes there is a link with His Dark Materials)

“A Whale Brought alongside a Ship”, 1814 by John Heaviside Clark

Fiona Grahame

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