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Thomas Robinson Ewbank (1765-1823)

Captain of the Sarah and Elizabeth Whaling Ship

Bravery of Captain Ewbank of the Sarah and Elizabeth Whaling Ship during the Napoleonic Wars

Thomas Ewbank from Yorkshire, England, married and with three children was Captain of the Sarah and Elizabeth whaling ship in the early part of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars; turbulent times when Britain was at war with France. It was a time when merchant ships and their crew at sea faced constant dangerous from privateers and press gangs alike; a privateer being a private ship authorized by a government to attack foreign shipping during wartime. It was during these turbulent times when Thomas Ewbank, as Captain of the Sarah and Elizabeth, bravely fought off privateers in a skirmish without a shot being fired. His heroic action took place along Flamborough Head, on the Yorkshire Coast in the North Sea on Monday 5th August 1805 when he, his ship and his crew faced a ten gun French privateer ship that was making headway towards them just a few miles off Flamborough Head. Fortunately for them the privateer ship altered course and instead went in pursuit of a nearby Brig; a Brig being a sailing ship with two square rigged masks. Realizing that if the Brig was taken they could be next Captain Ewbank ran out the whalers guns and went in hot pursuit of the privateers who then, facing two ships, thought better of the situation and made a hasty retreat, leaving both ships unharmed.

This skirmish took place in a time of hostility between Britain and France, and other European nations, ignited by the French Revolution in 1789 and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 until 1815. It wasn't just the Privateers merchant ships had to contend with during these troubled times as the Royal Navy, constantly looking for new recruits to fill their ranks (especially experienced seamen) were renowned for their press gangs. Although whaling ships were officially exempt from these press gangs it didn't stop captains such as Captain William Essington of the HMS Aurora boarding the Sarah and Elizabeth on the 19th July 1794 with an armed boarding party with hostile intent to press gang its crew into the Royal Navy. This incident took place just off shore of St Abbs Head in Scotland; and at the time Captain Rose was in command of the Sarah and Elizabeth and his crew resisted the press gang by locking themselves in the hold. In the skirmish and confusion that followed one whaler was killed and others injured; then Captain Essington rounded up the men he needed and left.

Following this unfortunate skirmish with the Royal Navy the Sarah and Elizabeth limped back into Hull, England with one dead man on board. Understandably the people of Hull were angry and wanted justice; and an inquest was held with the jury bringing a verdict of murder against Captain William Essington. However, Captain Essington (c1753-1816), an Officer in the Royal Navy all his life, was given protection by the Navy and adding insult to injury was the following year promoted to Rear Admiral Sir William Essington on the 23rd April 1804 when he was knighted; he continued his career in the Royal Navy for the next 12 years as an Officer until his death on the 12 July 1816.

The Sarah and Elizabeth was built in 1775 at Swan Creek, Maryland, America; just prior to the American War of Independence (1775–1783).  Not much is known about her early life but she began her service from Hull as a whaling ship in 1784.  Over her long life she had many Captains and many owners ending her days the way she lived; whaling on the high seas following the whales along the ice flows to Greenland.  It was in 1857 when she was in the Davis Strait (on her 43rd Greenland voyage) that she ran into difficulties.  The Davis Strait being a stretch of sea off the western coast of Greenland named after John Davis (1550-1605) an English explorer who navigated it while looking for the Northwest Passage (a sea route through the Arctic Ocean); and which became popular with whalers from the 1650s.  On Easter Sunday 1857 the crew had been taking seals from the pack ice, that night gales forced ice against the ship pinning it down in the ice sheets where with the force of storm and ice sheets pushing against it the 82 year old ship soon started to flood.  About eight miles away was the Diana, having been imprisoned in ice over winter.  Two crew members from the 'Sarah and Elizabeth' took a two day treacherous trek across the ice to the Diana to raise the alarm and brought back with them (after another three days trek) a rescue party who led the crew back to the Diana; amazingly all survived.  After some difficulty (once weather conditions eased) the Diana was eventually able to break free of the ice and make its way towards the relative safety of the high seas.

Another twist in this fateful tail of sea rescue is that Captain of the Sarah and Elizabeth was the son of Captain John Gravill of the Diana; so in other words father rescued son.   Captain John Gravill of the Diana ended his days as he lived it; he died in his cabin aboard the Diana on the 26th December 1866 at the age of 64.

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