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A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile Voyage of its Survivors

Book Excerpt:

On May 3, 1866, the American clipper ship Hornet caught fire and burned approximately 1,000 miles due west of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, literally out in the middle of nowhere. She was a smartly manned ship, an "extreme" clipper which, in the few years left before the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, was still viewed as the greatest symbol of American commercial might and drive. The Hornet's complement consisted of 29 officers and crew, commanded by veteran shipmaster Josiah Angier Mitchell, and two extra passengers, the brothers Samuel and Henry Ferguson, scions of a family soon to become among the most influential private bankers in the nation. Samuel was dying of tuberculosis at age 28; his 18-year-old brother, a college student, was impatient for his life to begin. The three formed the ship's upper crust, and with them sailed a crew that mirrored all the prejudices and nuances of America's Industrial Age. There was Henry Chisling, the ship's black steward, who'd survived more sea disasters than anyone else aboard. Antonio Possene, an immigrant "Portygee," despised by the others for his foreign ways. The three mates--the ship's rising middle class--jealously guarding their rights from the common sailors who berthed "before the mast" in the forecastle. And Frederick Clough, a 20-year-old sailor who planned to seek his fortune in the goldfields once the Hornet reached San Francisco.

Together, they headed west. Those who survived the trip ended much farther west than they'd ever imagined, sailing straight into the cross-hairs of a young and unknown journalist, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. His nationally-published account of their ordeal made them famous, and served as a springboard for his transformation into Mark Twain.

As in other famous disaster epics, the story of the Hornet became in its time the symbol of something greater, a floating opera of sudden disaster, wasted life, and endured privations. It is fashionable today for scholars to call ships a "total environment," a human ecology so isolated that it forms a world of its own. This is an elegant concept, one that casts God as both the grand inquisitor and chief experimenter, but perhaps a more practical way to view ships and shipwrecks is what historian Greg Dening styled in his study of the Bounty as a kind of tragic theater, for it is in theater that we see the hopes, fears, and working myths of an age.

In the latter decades of the Age of Sail, three castaway tales were recounted again and again. In 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 loyal crewmen were set adrift on a 3,600-mile voyage by the mutineers aboard the Bounty, achieving in their successful navigation a triumph of discipline over nature. In 1820, the whaleship Essex, the source for Herman Melville's Moby Dick, was rammed by a whale: the tale of its less fortunate survivors, forced to eat one another, became a 19th century metaphor for the breakdown of civilization. And there was the Hornet, whose castaways struggled to live for 43 days on ten days' rations while sailing on a meandering, 4,300-mile course to Hawaii. What Melville called "the full awfulness of the sea" seemed focused on these men: they were stalked by sharks, swordfish and waterspouts, desiccated by heat and thirst, and maddened and weakened by starvation. In the end, they prepared for that lottery preceding cannibalism, the ritual mariners called the "custom of the sea."

One facet of the Hornet saga that seemed evident in the old accounts but which was rarely explored were the social gaps and tensions separating the castaways. As the ordeal continued, these divisions erupted into class war. This, in addition to the sheer power of the journey, was what drew me to their tale. I had written two books on American justice and mercy, and in both cases, class was the hidden theme. The war between haves and have-nots raged so murderously in America and Europe during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that one historian called it the "era of dynamite," and Americans have conveniently forgotten that the United States had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Affluence wipes away many bad memories. But no longer. Today, the war between the haves and have-nots is intensely global, played as a kind of doomsday theater on TV.

The hatreds on the Hornet reached such a point, transforming beneath the sun's tropical furnace into a pure kind of rage that sees no future and dreams only of ruin. Yet perched on the edge of self-immolation, something in the castaways made them turn aside. This was what ultimately drew me to the forgotten story of some lonely men in a lifeboat more than a century past. "The long habit of living indispoteth us to dying," said Sir Thomas Brown in his posthumous Letter to a Friend. Life was ultimately what mattered, even in the face of doom.

So this is a meditation on the forces conspiring to keep men alive. Although a reconstruction of the past, every event is true. The main sources were the journals of the haves--Henry and Samuel Ferguson, Capt. Josiah Mitchell and his family--but the have-nots spoke, too. Fred Clough, especially, left a narrative in a 1900 article, while Mark Twain left unpublished notes on the accounts of several sailors. In addition, countless others have been castaways, and I've dipped into the literature of disaster to help understand what occurred. The men of the Hornet are long gone and cannot be interviewed, but they left behind a theater that is still relevant. Trapped together in an unforgiving environment, they chose to live.

Finally, a strange mysticism is common in the accounts of sailors and shipwreck survivors, one hard to comprehend for landlubbers like me. Yet there is no denying that deep-water sailors have always shared a bond with the world's oceans that they themselves call spiritual. They insist they see God on the face of the deep, but He is often neither gentle nor benign. Those sailors who feel closest to such truth are those who come closest to death, and castaways are ranking members of that fraternity.

One of the best expressions of this was written by Stephen Crane, a castaway himself, in the last line of his classic story "The Open Boat": "When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters."

All castaways interpret that voice. They learn that life, too short, is a gift. They learn, as has every generation, that when it comes to survival, we are all at sea.