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* Shipwreck of the “Margaret Oakley”

September 21, 2016

The year was 1836. A US ship, the Margaret Oakley, was sailing towards Madagascar on its way back to the US, margaret-oakleyreturning from a trip to the far east, when it was forced to anchor in the Fort Dauphin bay as rats had eaten through six of its water casks. And then things went downhill from there, as while building new water casks, the ship, having lost an anchor chain in a sudden gale which came up, was driven ashore.

Having seen this happen before, many of the Malagasy living in that area went to the beach near where the shipwreckMargaret Oakley had run aground. As described by someone who witnessed what happened next:

“Two hundred Malagasy villagers had collected on the beach, all willing to lend a hand, and the captain got them to form a chain reaching from the vessel to the shore, some in boats and canoes, others standing in the water. The Malagasy soon landed the cargo, but ‘amid a scene of great confusion,’ with ‘many a box of costly silks, satins, crapes, and handkerchiefs ornamenting different parts of their persons, while under their arms were boxes of tea, bundles of sewing silk, and other valuables the like of which the natives had never before seen.'” Morrell [the ship’s captain] “paced the beach to and fro like a maniac, with a brace of pistols in his hands, threatening to blow out the brains of the first man who broke open a box. But he was not ubiquitous, and the moment he turned his back, open went a box, and away ran the … contents.”

Captain Morrell could only despair, his vision of the wealth he was going to earn from this voyage shattered and his ship sunk. A hundred bottles of medicinal cajuput essential oil that he had purchased in Singapore? Lost. The sago he had acquired? Ruined by seawater.  In addition Captain Morrell, “though frowning with a cold ftu-harborcommand directed at those who, antlike, emptied his colossal wreck,” which was now destined for the sandy depths that has swallowed beached ships in the Fort Dauphin harbor for hundreds of years,  could not police the chaos involved in saving what was possible, and so he lost a fair amount of the cargo he was able to save to those who had come to “help.” As described above, before long costly silks, satins, crapes, and handkerchiefs were being worn by his “helpers,” even as some hauled entire boxes of tea and bundles of silk up the beach and away from the growing pile of rescued goods.

Once the cargo that could be saved was unloaded, and the crew ashore, Morrell put the remaining chests and crates he’d managed to retain control of under armed guard, securing them initially under tents made from his ship’s sails.

In all, Morrell officially claimed to have saved only 115 of vintage-tea-chest400 full tea chests, 230 of 450 half tea chests, and 380 of 630 tea boxes–only about 40% of the tea cargo he had brought into the harbor. He also recuperated 360 cases or boxes of silks, which was by his estimation about half the total he’d had before the gale that blew his ship ashore. Three cases of chinaware, a case of ink, and eight cases of pearl shirt buttons were also among the items recovered.

And then, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, some of the boxes of “curiosities” Captain Morrell had gathered from around the Bismarck Sea (north of Papua New Guinea), drifted ashore at the foot of the bay. When an inquisitive Malagasy opened one of these, he was more than a little shocked to find it stuffed with dried skullsskulls [which Captain Morell had stolen from villages on the islands of Arawe (New Britain) earlier in his voyage, as he felt they would sell well in New York and Philadelphia when he got them back home to the US]. As Jacob writes, the Malagasy were horrified and

“held a convention over them, and concluded that the crew of the Margaret Oakley were a set of piratical cannibals, who had been cruising along the shores of Madagascar, eating the people and preserving their skulls. This came near to causing a bloody outbreak of savage fury upon our party, and it was only by consummate tact on the part of the captain that the enmity of the natives was allayed.”

Before long Morrell had secured a warehouse for his precious, remaining cargo while he waited for a ship to leave on. In the meantime, it took so long for word to get back to the US that the crew was still alive that everyone assumed they’d been lost at sea.

Perhaps in part because of growing questions about just how much of his cargo had been lost, Morrell eventually managed to get what he had left of his cargo on a British ship bound for England (not the US as he should have done), not wanting to face growing suspicions of the owners and insurers of his voyage who ended up facing massive losses from his ill-fated voyage.

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