Editor’s note: Years ago Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter Gilbert came across an old book in the stacks of Dartmouth’s library. The story it tells isn’t historically important, but it’s moving and memorable.
In April 1813, 200 years ago this month, an American ship, the Nanina, was sailing off one of the smaller Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic hunting seals. While ashore, the captain, Charles Barnard, and members of the crew saw signs of human life, presumably survivors of some shipwreck.
That evening, the Americans saw maybe 10 men nervously approach the ship. They were survivors of a British ship, the Isabella, which had been wrecked two months earlier. Both groups were relieved to learn that the other group wasn’t Spanish.
Capt. Barnard invited the British sailors to join them for dinner. When it was clear they didn’t know that the War of 1812 was underway, he told them that technically his American crew and they were at war. Nonetheless, he promised to take them back to their naval base, Buenos Aires, as soon as they took on the necessary supplies.
Several days later, he, another American and three of the British sailors went ashore to hunt wild pigs. When they returned to the beach they discovered, to their inexpressible horror, that their ship was gone. They searched anxiously for a message of explanation but finally had to conclude that they’d been “barbarously deserted.” Barnard found it almost inconceivable that the sailors “could have so entirely divested themselves of every spark of humanity, as to leave us exposed to all the horrors and sufferings we must necessarily endure in (that) inhospitable climate.”
But that’s what had happened. The men he had rescued had seized his ship, and despite the protestations of the Americans still on board, sailed away, leaving Barnard and the others marooned with little but the clothes on their backs. They even looted the captain’s cabin and divided his possessions among themselves.
Capt. Barnard and his companions survived 18 months until they were rescued by two British ships. By then the emaciated, bearded men were dressed almost entirely in skins; they were Robinson Crusoe lookalikes. Great Britain and the U.S. were still at war, but a British admiral had asked the ships to alter their course to look for Capt. Barnard.
In 1829 Barnard published an account of his “Sufferings and Adventures.” That was the book I’d found in Dartmouth’s library.
I wonder what lesson we should take away from the story. Is it that no good deed goes unpunished? That all’s fair in love and war? That you shouldn’t be too candid, especially with potential adversaries? That you shouldn’t underestimate humans’ capacity to treat others inhumanely? Or that you shouldn’t underestimate the power of faith or providence?
Perhaps there’s some cause for optimism in the fact that we’re deeply troubled by the irony and injustice of the story, that those whom the Americans had saved would turn on them and sail away, leaving them to die. If the story didn’t trouble us, perhaps we’d have even more cause for concern.
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. This commentary originally aired on Vermont Public Radio.
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