Halifax’s first marine disaster

Halifax’s first major marine disaster came just a few decades after the city’s founding.

HMS Tribune was a fifth-rate frigate mounting 34 guns and eight 32-pounder carronades that was originally christened La Charente Inférieure of the French navy in 1793. A year later the revolutionary government renamed it, La Tribune. Captured off the south coast of Ireland three years later it was taken into Royal Navy service.

The Halifax Gazette described it as “one of the finest frigates in her majesty’s service.” On September 22, 1797, HMS Tribune set sail from Torbay under Captain Scory Barker as escort to a convoy to the Quebec and Newfoundland fleets. En route, Tribune lost track of its convoy and continued on to Halifax alone, arriving on the afternoon of November 23.

Hours from port, the captain and the master argued. Captain Barker favoured waiting for a local pilot. Master John Clegg objected, 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 Tribune proceeded immediately under the master and the captain returned to his cabin.tribune6073-gallery

Entering the harbour with a southeast wind following, the vessel slipped north towards McNabs Island. Shortly after the men on the chains rang out, “by the mark five,” the master realized they were dangerously close to Thrumcap shoal. Efforts to manoeuvre away failed and the thud of the ship hitting the shoal brought Captain Barker back on deck.

The crew raised distress signals, acknowledged by the nearby shore installations. But winds prevented the rescue boats, save one, from reaching the stricken ship. The crew worked to lighten the ship by dumping cannons and other heavy objects overboard.

As the tide rose, HMS Tribune floated free. Then crew discovered the frigate had two meters of water in its hold and that the chain pumps could not keep up with the inflow. The ship was sinking.
Battering on the shoal had ripped the rudder from the hull. Adrift and rudderless with a gale rising, the ship floated across the harbour entrance and finally ran aground off Herring Cove on the west side of the channel. It was close enough to shore that survivors in the rigging could hail their frustrated comrades ashore.

A handful of officers reached land in the jolly boat but Captain Scory, apparently fearing the impact on his career, wouldn’t give the order to abandon ship. HMS Tribune foundered and some 240 souls found themselves in the water with a gale rising. Throughout the night in the wind, water and chilled survivors slowly expired.

Late in the morning, a young Herring Cove lad rowed a dory out to the wreck and was able to rescue 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.

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 return for his heroism he was offered, and accepted, 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. Today, even his real name remains unknown. The small plaque on Tribune Head honours “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.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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