Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Launched in August 1778, she was “one of the finest ships in the service, and supposed to be in the most perfect condition for her [first] voyage.” (19) She had three masts, three decks, and twenty-six guns. She was 776 tons, 139 feet 7 inches long, and in the employ of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). Eight years later, she was “shattered all to Pieces” at the base of “cliffs of jagged rocks, sheer as a bastion wall . . . beaches of shingle, of pebbles, of colossal bounders.” (73, 59) Her name was the Halsewell and she was bound for the East Indies, but unlike her previous two voyages to China and India, she met her demise on her own shores. Of the 286 souls aboard, only seventy-four survived the tragedy that would inspire the likes of Charles Dickens and J. M. W. Turner. This is her story.
Richard Peirce, a well-respected employee of the HEIC for seventeen years, commanded the Halsewell and was no stranger to the East Indies, having been born in Calcutta in 1736. He came aboard before her first voyage, a journey fraught with mutiny, accidental death, and a dispirited encounter with Captain Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy. Peirce was married with nine children, two of whom accompanied him on the fateful third journey. Nor were his two daughters the only females or family aboard. His wife’s brother (serving as the first mate), two nieces, and an acting midshipman wed to another niece also accompanied Peirce. Aside from her cargo and stores, the ship also carried members of the 42nd Regiment of Foot (more commonly known as the Black Watch).
The story of the Halsewell is told through a combination of narrative and primary documentation, including Second Mate Henry Meriton’s account of what happened once the ship set sail, how she came to wreck on the Dorset coast, and of the daring rescue of the survivors by quarrymen. Norman also includes a brief recap of the HEIC’s history, why trade with India and China was so enticing, accounts of the ships previous two voyages, what happened after news spread of the tragedy, the captain’s competency and whether the accident was avoidable, and salvage of the wreckage. Maps and pictures are scattered throughout the book and there is a center section of color plates, including photographs of artifacts that have been recovered. In addition to endnotes, a bibliography, and an index, Norman also includes sixteen appendices.
Bound for the East Indies is a fast-paced, arresting, and unbiased account of an episode in maritime history that still evokes empathy more than two centuries after it touched the hearts of a king and queen. Norman grounds the reader with necessary background and history in order to better understand the enormity of what transpired and why it evoked the responses that it did. It is a tale that is as haunting now as it was then – one that will be long remembered after the last page is read.
Book Review Copyright ©2021 Cindy Vallar
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