The last voyage of Daniel Collins
The true story of how a U.S. mariner survived a shipwreck, a pirate attack and an epic journey home.
In November 1824, 15 months after trapper Hugh Glass endured the grizzly bear attack portrayed in The Revenant, and four years after whaler Owen Chase saw his ship smashed to pieces by the giant whale that inspired Moby Dick, a mariner named Daniel Collins set off on an extraordinary voyage that would become another survival adventure for the ages.
The merchant ship Betsey sailed out of Wiscasset, Maine, on November 28, 1824. It was a Sunday, considered by superstitious sailors to be the luckiest day to begin a voyage. “Sunday sail, never fail,” was their popular, if misguided, adage.
Wiscasset was primarily a lumber port, and the Betsey was laden with two hundred tons of timber. The ship had a small crew of seven, led by Captain Ellis Hilton. Its destination was Matanzas, Cuba, around 1,800 miles to the south. The Betsey was expected in Matanzas before Christmas. It would never arrive.
Wiscasset was a busy deep-harbor trading port on the tidal Sheepscot River, which flows into the Atlantic. The Betsey was owned by Wiscasset merchant and councilor Abiel Wood. Built on the Sheepscot in 1803, it was a hermaphrodite brig, or brigantine, no more than eighty feet long, with a low deck, two square-rigged masts, and a main topsail. Its purpose was to sail to the West Indies with oak and pine for colonial construction and return with molasses, sugar, and coffee. Ships that sailed this route were known as West Indiamen.
The voyage to Matanzas was Ellis Hilton’s third as the Betsey’s captain, after long-standing service as a mate. Hilton was a Wiscasset man, married with a daughter, and his family was well-known in the town. First mate Joshua Merry was from Edgecomb, just across the Sheepscot. Second mate Daniel Collins lived in the nearby town of Industry with his father and six siblings. Also aboard the Betsey were seamen Seth Russell, Benjamin Bridge, and the Portuguese Charles Manuel, plus the ship’s cook, named as Detrey Jeome.
In early February 1825, Abiel Wood received a letter from another of his merchant captains in Matanzas. The letter advised Wood that the Betsey had been lost in a shipwreck. Wood called a town meeting and delivered to shocked citizens the news that the crew had survived the wreck but had been murdered by pirates, with the exception of a single survivor — second mate Daniel Collins. What emerged, through letters, naval reports, and then Collins’ own account, was one of the most remarkable tales of survival ever recorded.
I. The Shipwreck
The Betsey was sunk on the night of December 19, twenty-two days into its journey, and just a day or so from its destination. After an uneventful voyage in tranquil conditions, the ship was caught in a rising storm off the Double-Headed Shot Cays or Keys, a series of shallow reefs between Florida and Cuba. Captain Hilton had been sick for much of the journey and was confined to his cabin, but he sent orders to his crew, prescribing a course to keep the ship away from the dangerous cays.
Daniel Collins was at watch at the helm as the wind drove the heavy-laden brig through increasingly rough waters. He was twenty-three years old, and this was his first trip on board the Betsey, but he had seawater in his blood. He was fresh out of the U.S. Navy, having served since he was a boy. His father was a block-maker who provided the Wiscasset fleet with pulleys for their lines and riggings. His grandfather had been a mariner of English descent who had sailed on West Indiamen during the mid-18th century.
As the sun went down, with the storm building around them, Collins went to Captain Hilton and suggested they shorten sail and reduce the Betsey’s speed. The captain, hoping to reach Matanzas on the following day, refused. That night, with the moon obscured by storm clouds, Collins could not see beyond the length of the ship. But calculations showed the Betsey was more than eighteen miles windward of the cays. At 2:30 a.m. Collins finished his watch shift, reassured a shipmate “there is no fear of you”, and climbed down the companionway ladder to his cabin.
Thirty minutes later he felt a huge jolt, which threw boxes, barrels, and equipment into the air and down on top of him. Water began to pour through the stern and into the cabin. The ship had been involved in a catastrophic collision. Clearing a path through the fallen debris, Collins ran for the companionway. It was gone, torn away in the smash. Instead, he hoisted himself up through a skylight onto the deck, where he found a desperate scene.
The Betsey was in a deep hollow of the sea, surrounded by mountainous waves. Looming out of the darkness was a huge black rock, which the ship had struck head-on. Two of the crew were at the pumps, attempting to abate the incoming flood of water. But Collins saw this was pointless. Most of the bow and part of the stern were gone, and the deck was groaning under intense pressure. The cargo had broken loose and lumber was sliding and crashing in all directions.
Captain Hilton, freed from his cabin, was by the ship’s longboat, attempting to cut its ropes. No words could be heard over the thunderous sounds of crashing waves and smashing timber, but the message was clear: abandon ship. Collins grabbed a compass, a bucket, and oars, as the rest of the crew made for the longboat. Then the masts and rigging came crashing down. The Betsey was finished.
“She arose for the last time on the crest of another sea nearly to the top of the rock, quivering like a bird under its death-wound,” recalled Collins in his written account of the voyage. Then the ship crashed down onto the rock, splitting open like a walnut shell, and spilling its cargo — and its crew — into the ocean.
By daylight, the Betsey was gone, and its crew was left floating in the longboat. All seven men were alive, but they were bruised and exhausted, and had no fresh water or provisions. The longboat was damaged and taking in water, and constant bailing with hats and the bucket could only barely keep it afloat among the still-seething waves. Recovering a large blanket from the water, the men rigged up a sail and set an approximate course south toward Cuba, a hundred miles away.
As darkness approached, the situation became increasingly desperate. “Anxiety was depicted in every visage,” wrote Collins, “and our spirits were clouding like the heavens over them.” In particular, Captain Hilton seemed to lose all hope. He was a seasoned sailor who had survived previous jeopardies at sea but, in this bleak situation, he seemed resigned to a watery death. Already weak with sickness, he became unable to muster the energy or disposition to lead his men. It was Collins who stepped up to assume responsibility for his companions.
Despite his relatively young age, Collins was an experienced seaman. He had enlisted in the navy as a boy and fought against the British in the War of 1812, during which he received a battle wound that fractured his right leg. The War of 1812 lasted from June 1812 through February 1815. Collins was born on March 31, 1801. Records for enlisted men and boys are incomplete, but if Collins joined the navy at the beginning of the war, he would have been just eleven years old. After the war, he served in the East Indies as part of a Navy squadron deployed to protect merchant ships from Sumatran pirates.
He reflected on his decade or so of fighting service as he floated in the longboat, lost in the ocean. “I had seen much more of rough service and weather than anyone on board,” he later wrote, “and having been blessed with an excellent constitution, made it my duty to encourage the rest.” He assured his crewmates that, if they continued to bail and row, supported by a favorable breeze, they would soon reach Cuba.
By midnight, with no sign of land or sail, that prospect seemed increasingly unlikely. Then Captain Hilton’s oar struck something solid. It was the sea bottom, said the captain, and they must surely be in shallow water. A peer into the inky water revealed the horrible truth. The captain’s oar had struck a shark.
Sharks followed the longboat through the night and into the morning. The captain, overcome by the misery of their situation, burst into tears, fell to his knees, and called for divine protection. Even if they escaped the sharks, he wailed, they were too far from Cuba, and too exhausted and starving to make it.
“It is true our hold on life was a frail one,” wrote Collins, “in an open boat, that from leaking and the violence of the sea we could scarcely keep above water, without food, drink, or clothing sufficient to defend us from the cold and rain of a December norther, in an irregular and rapid current that prevented any correct calculation of our course, on an unknown and dangerous coast, without a chart to guide us.”
The captain’s despair was infectious, and his crew began to surrender to hopelessness. But Collins implored them to continue to bail and row. If they stuck at it for one more night, they would surely reach Cuba by the following day. So they did bail and row, throughout the day and into the evening, losing sight of the sharks, but finding no sight of land. As Collins recalled: “In a state of mind bordering on that insanity which is sometimes caused by hunger, thirst, and despair united, we passed a most perilous night.”
II. The Pirate Attack
On the morning of their third day in the longboat, the men sighted “a small dark speck” around fifteen miles ahead of them. Land. In an instant, they were overcome with joy and found new energy with which to bail and row. A favorable wind helped drive them forward over the churning sea toward a small island, covered with a swamp of tall mangroves that reached ten or fifteen feet into the air. The island would later be identified as Cruz del Padre, one of a series of deserted cays several miles north of Cuba.
The approach to land was dangerous, blocked by a semi-circular reef, onto which the sea angrily crashed and broke. But, Collins noted, “Hunger and thirst are powerful antidotes to fear.” So the men rowed unflinchingly toward the reef, where they were caught in a huge swell, then tossed into the air “like an aspen leaf.” The boat — now filled with water — was flipped over the lip of the reef, and was deposited, floating and upright, on to the smooth surface of a sheltered bay.
The large crescent-shaped bay was surrounded by mangroves, which parted in the center to reveal a white clay beach. On the beach, the crew saw two fishing huts, and five fishermen busily moving around them. One of the fishermen came out in a log canoe and hailed the crew in Spanish. The Betsey’s Portuguese seaman, Charles Manuel, was able to explain that they were the survivors of a shipwreck. Then Captain Hilton said he recognized this master fisherman, a very tall and well-built man, as a trader from whom he had purchased sugar on a previous trip to Matanzas.
The crew members were brought ashore, past the fishermen’s nets and traps, and their catch hanging from hooks to dry in the sea breeze. They were given a meal of fish, turtle and hot coffee. It was their first sustenance in three days. The men were exhausted, so sailcloths were laid on the floor of one of the huts, and they were invited to rest. All were soon fast asleep, apart from Collins, who was suspicious of the fishermen, despite their hospitality. His suspicion grew when the master fisherman hurried off into the mangrove swamp on an unspecified errand.
Later that evening, Captain Hilton negotiated with the fishermen for passage to Matanzas. He offered them the longboat, plus forty dollars on arrival, for their assistance. The fishermen agreed. They would sail in their schooner for Matanzas as soon as the weather allowed. The rest of the crew returned to their sailcloths and went back to sleep. But Collins stayed awake, listening to the fishermen excitedly discuss something he could not understand. After two or three hours, they extinguished their fish-oil lamp and plunged the hut into darkness.
In the morning, the Betsey crew bathed in a nearby cove and made a gruesome discovery. Partially buried at the high water mark were several human skeletons, bleached and decayed, and without their skulls. The fishermen assured them that the skeletons belonged to seamen who had died in a wreck on the reef, but Collins imagined a terrible alternative. Whatever brutality that might occur in this isolated place was entirely hidden from the eyes of the world.
“We might all be murdered,” Collins told his crewmates, “without the possibility of it being known.” He urged Captain Hilton to leave in the longboat, damaged as it was. The captain, convinced that the master fisherman was a friend, refused.
On the following morning, December 24, the master fisherman announced that they would leave for Matanzas. As the crew helped load the fishermen’s schooner, another vessel approached from across the bay. As it drew closer, Collins noticed a man on deck pointing what appeared to be a spyglass. An explosive musket blast revealed that the spyglass was actually a gun. More muskets and blunderbusses appeared, their round shots peppering the schooner, and whistling past Collins’ ears as he dived for cover on the deck. Then the fishermen began to wave their hats, and the shooting stopped.
The vessel came alongside. It was an open boat of about thirty-five feet, painted black, with a streak of white around the hull. It was manned by ten Spaniards, all heavily armed, and all with very long beards, apparently cultivated over many months at sea. One of the men had a particularly savage appearance. He was tall and broad, missing three fingers on his left hand, with a slash across his face that had knocked out his front teeth, removed his upper lip, and left a scar that extended the corners of his mouth into a terrifying grimace. Collins was in no doubt that the men were pirates.
The pirate captain was a very stout figure with a long mustache. He was armed with a machete, knives and a pair of pistols. He greeted the master fisherman like an old acquaintance, and handed him two doubloons, regarded by Collins as “the price of our blood.” Then he examined the Betsey crew’s papers, which Captain Hilton had retained during the shipwreck. When the tale of the wreck was related to him, the pirate captain reacted with only a shrug of his shoulders, and without the slightest indication of sympathy. Then he produced a ball of bark cord and ordered that the crew be restrained.
The pirates seized Captain Hilton and bound his arms behind his back so tightly that he cried out in excruciating pain. Collins leaped to his feet to assist his sick-weakened captain but was knocked to the ground by a blow from the muzzle of a cocked blunderbuss. The pirates proceeded to tie up Collins and the rest of the crew, laughing and singing as they did so, while drawing their fingers across their throats and telling them in broken English that Americans were “very good beef” for their knives.
Once they were all securely bound, the seven members of the Betsey crew were thrown into the canoes and dragged into the secluded cove. Captain Hilton, Joshua Merry, Benjamin Bridge, and Detrey Jeome were in one canoe. Daniel Collins, Seth Russell and Charles Manuel were in the other. “The stillness of death was now around us,” recalled Collins. “We had scarcely passed the last parting look at each other when the work of death commenced.”
Captain Hilton was first to die, seized by the hair and viciously decapitated with multiple hacking blows. “I could distinctly hear them chopping the bone of the neck,” recalled Collins. “They then wrung his neck, separated the head from the body by a slight draw of the sword, and let it drop into the water. There was a dying shriek — a convulsive struggle — and all I could discern was the arms dangling over the side of the canoe, and the ragged stump pouring out the blood like a torrent.”
Joshua Merry was next, eviscerated with a cutlass, “his bowels gushing out of the wound”, then stabbed in the breast, and sliced across the throat from ear to ear. Benjamin Bridge and Detrey Jeome were stabbed several times in their chests, then had their heads split open with cutlass blows, their terrible screams piercing the air. Seth Russell was hit with such force that his head was severed completely in two, showering Collins in blood and brains, “and even without the decency of removing his cap.” Then the pirate who was to be Collins’ executioner raised his cutlass.
Suddenly there was a commotion, as the last crewmember, Charles Manuel, jumped overboard. The distracted pirate swung at Collins but struck him only a glancing blow that knocked him over the side of the canoe. Without a pause, Collins leaped forward through the shallow water, which was “colored with blood as far as the shore.” Two pirates splashed after him, swinging cutlasses and hurling knives. Collins raced into the mangrove swamp, the loosened cord ties falling from his arms, and looked back to see Manuel running in the opposite direction with the pirates almost upon him.
The swamp was saturated with waist-high water and mud, and thick with tall mangroves, which were covered with razor-sharp oyster shells. The pirates were only ten feet behind Collins, yelling savagely as they hacked at the mangroves with their cutlasses. He was barefoot, and the oyster shells sliced at his feet and legs. His head was badly injured from the cutlass blow, and he was covered in blood. But he continued to push through the swamp, gradually putting distance between himself and his pursuers. “I had determined not to yield to them until I fell under the blow of their cutlass,” he wrote.
The pursuit continued for hours, with the frenzied sounds of splashing and hacking following him through the swamp. But the thick mangroves slowed the boot-wearing pirates, and the barefoot Collins was able to make quicker progress. “Had it been on cleared land, I should soon have been overtaken by them,” he wrote. At one point he sunk to his knees and crawled with only his head above the brackish swamp water in an effort to avoid detection. By sunset, he could no longer hear the pirates “hallooing” to each other as they pursued him, so he clambered into a tall mangrove bush and took a fitful rest.
In the morning, which was Christmas Day, Collins discovered he had crossed the island, and saw in front of him, about three miles across open water, another island. He took off his trousers and his shirt, wrapped his jacket around his neck, and began to swim. Collins was a strong swimmer and had won a wager over a two-mile distance in the past. After reaching the second island, he swam to a third.
And he continued on for four days across a series of seven islands, trudging through crocodile-infested swamps, swimming over open water, and using the sun to navigate a southwesterly course. He was starving and dehydrated, and dangerously weak. Snatches of sleep were disturbed by terrifying visions of his murdered shipmates. His battered body was covered in sores, and in bites from mosquitos attracted by the blood from his injuries. On his last crossing, he was approached by a shark, which came within a few feet before apparently deciding he was not worth eating.
Finally, Collins arrived at what he considered to be the mainland. He found a freshwater spring and a lime grove, the combination of which, he reasoned, saved him from crippling dehydration and the raging infection that was attacking his open wounds. His legs were swollen and ulcerated, and his feet were shredded and rotting. Yet he continued to walk, naked but for his jacket and hat, followed by a wake of turkey buzzards that fought with each other for the chance to feast on their “feeble and exhausted” prey. “My life glass appeared to be nearly up,” wrote Collins, “and I now began to yield all hopes of being relieved.”
However, his spirits were raised when he discovered a set of planting poles that had been sharpened at one end by human hand. It was an indication of civilization. After walking with renewed purpose, at around sunset, Collins sighted a man on a horse. Waving his hat, he drew the attention of the man, a plantation worker, who mounted Collins onto his horse and led him toward the plantation. Collins had made it to Cuba.
III. The Journey Home
Collins was taken in by the plantation owner, an elderly Spanish magistrate named Sir Thomas. The plantation, referred to by Collins in his written account as St Claire, was likely part of the small town or villa of Santa Clara. Sir Thomas and his family treated Collins’ wounds and nursed him back to some sort of health over the following three or four days. Collins was overwhelmed by their “samaritan kindness”, but soon left for Matanzas — a journey of around a hundred miles.
Collins was accompanied for the first few miles by the plantation’s British carpenter. Deciding to shelter overnight in a part-built house, Collins and the carpenter were confronted by three armed men. The carpenter — a former British soldier — was armed with a sword and a pistol, and a standoff ensued, with Collins able to supply only “feeble assistance.” After almost an hour, the men backed down and left the house. Collins and the carpenter ate supper, then shared war stories into the night.
In the morning, three more armed men arrived at the house, claiming to be soldiers with a commission to arrest Collins on some unspecified suspicion. Once more, the carpenter stood his ground and saw the men off. The carpenter accompanied Collins for a further six miles, as far as the main road to Matanzas. There, he presented him with provisions, offered directions, then “took an affectionate leave.” The carpenter headed back to the plantation, and Collins proceeded toward Matanzas, with around eighty-five miles still to go.
Collins had not walked far when two men came out of a roadside hut, dragged him off the road, and delivered a brutal beating, causing scars that Collins said, “I shall bear to my grave.” The attackers took Collins’ provisions and jacket, and left him battered and bleeding in a bush. Over the next couple of days, Collins was able to beg meager provisions from houses he passed, although some inhabitants refused, pointing to the road “with as scornful look as they would bestow a dog.”
As he neared his destination, Collins was able to admire the Cuban countryside and its “endless variety of rich romantic scenery.” At night, the trail and forests were illuminated by swarms of inch-long fireflies, which appeared “like stars of heaven, glowing among the silver clouds of an autumn evening.” Yet he was unable to remove from his thoughts the terrible image of the blood-ridden bay, and the savaged remains of his companions that he imagined were now “moldering on the shore.”
Eventually, on the evening of January 6, two and a half weeks after surviving the shipwreck, two weeks after escaping the pirate attack, and a week or so after leaving the plantation, Collins reached Matanzas. Wary of pirates, he remained hidden overnight. In the morning, Collins reported to the U.S. shipping agents who had been awaiting the arrival of the Betsey, and was directed to another of Abiel Wood’s Wiscasset brigs, the Shamrock, captained by John Holmes.
Although Collins’ story must have seemed incredible, Captain Holmes regarded him as a “sober, honest and upright man”, and was well aware of the dangers of the sea and the threats posed by the “murderous desperadoes of this island.” Holmes immediately sent a message to the U.S. Navy in Matanzas, and to the port’s Spanish governor. Holmes also wrote a letter to Abiel Wood, although it would take several weeks for the letter to reach Wiscasset.
Collins was in a terrible state. “No one who had seen me in health would now have recognized me,” he wrote, “for I was reduced to a living skeleton.” Several U.S. seamen told him they had never seen such an emaciated and disfigured soul. His head was still badly bruised from the beating he had received during the robbery, he could barely see from his damaged eyes, and the skin of his face had “peeled entirely off.” His legs and feet were covered with foul-smelling wounds, which were ripe with infection. “His feet are now so swollen and blistered that he is scarcely able to walk,” wrote Captain Holmes.
Nevertheless, Collins was called with some urgency aboard the U.S.S. Sea Gull, a navy steamship operating as a pirate hunter to protect merchant ships around Cuba, where he provided a statement to Lieutenant Isaac McKeever. Then, with poultices on his feet, Collins limped to the governor’s office, where he relayed his story via an interpreter. When asked how, if he could not speak their language, he could be sure the pirates were Spanish, Collins replied, “I can tell a Spaniard as far as I can see his evil eye.”
Two days later, Collins set sail aboard the U.S. Navy schooner Ferret in search of the pirates. He was suffering terribly from his injuries and infections, and confined to a bed that was laid out for him in one of the ship’s storage compartments. At one point it was feared the ship’s surgeon would have to amputate both of his feet. But the navy was determined to have Collins point out the fishermen’s camp and identify the pirates — and Collins was keen to oblige. “As sick as I was,” he wrote, “I had a strong desire to meet the inhuman murderers of my shipmates.”
The Ferret arrived at Cruz del Padre on the following day, and Collins directed the pirate hunters to the fishermen’s bay. Although they could see the huts on the beach, driving wind and rain prevented them from passing the dangerous reef. Instead, the ship cruised the cays, receiving reports of robbery, rape, and destruction, but failing to find any pirates. Stormy weather continued to prevent access to the fishermen’s bay, and, as days turned into weeks, the dangerously-ill Collins realized he must try to get home. “If I intended to die among my friends,” he wrote, “I had but little time to lose.”
At the end of January, after twenty-one days of fruitless search, the Ferret returned to Matanzas. It docked alongside the Sea Gull, which had also been pirate-hunting. The Sea Gull had not found the pirates, but it had found someone else. Looking across from the Ferret onto the deck of the Sea Gull, Collins was astonished to see a figure he initially assumed to be a ghost. It was the Betsey’s Portuguese seaman Charles Manuel.
The shocked men had only a few moments to speak, as the Sea Gull was preparing to resume its hunt. Manuel explained to Collins that he had escaped into the mangroves and hidden until nightfall, then stolen a canoe and paddled out to sea. He was eventually picked up by an armed Spanish brig, which took him to Havana. There, with little sympathy for his situation, he was thrown into prison. However, the U.S. Navy managed to secure his release.
Manuel was aboard the Sea Gull when it fell in with a British Navy frigate, the Dartmouth, and cruised the northern cays, where the combined naval forces killed and captured several pirates. They also found thirteen dead sailors tied to trees, having apparently been left there to starve. On March 26, they spotted a schooner, painted black, with a white stripe around its hull. Manuel identified it as belonging to the murderers of his crewmates. The navy gave chase, but the pirates fled for the nearest island, leaped overboard, raced into the mangrove swamps, and escaped.
Daniel Collins returned to Wiscasset on board the Shamrock, arriving home on April 2, 1825, one hundred and twenty-six days after he had left. On the advice of friends, within just a few weeks of his return, Collins produced a written account of his adventures, A Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Brig Betsey. “I have published to the world the simple story of my sufferings,” Collins wrote, “as an appeal to my country, from a humble sailor, who has been honored by fighting her battles, to avenge one of the most unnatural murders that ever darkened the pages of her history.”
The fifty-page pamphlet was published by John Dorr, the owner and editor of short-lived Wiscasset newspaper the Lincoln Intelligencer. An extract, concerning the pirate massacre, was published in another short-lived newspaper, the New York Telescope. The Telescope said Collins’ account contained “scenes of horror and suffering that are almost unimaginable.” Nevertheless, the paper added, “we are assured, by persons of respectability, that his relation is entitled to belief.” Naval letters sent by U.S. pirate hunters to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington corroborated Collins’ and Manuel’s stories, and supported the claim that Collins’ narrative was entirely true.
Collins did not become well-known as a result of his written account. His story did not receive as much attention as that of Owen Chase, published as a pamphlet in 1821, or that of Hugh Glass, first published in The Port Folio magazine in 1825. Chase’s story inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and was later told by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book In the Heart of the Sea. Glass’s story inspired Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant. Both In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant were released as movies in 2015.
Collins recovered from his injuries but did not return to the sea. Instead, he became a farmer in Industry. His land was later set off from Industry and annexed to the town of New Sharon. He married Fanny Greenleaf in 1831, and he and his wife raised seven children.
Despite his ordeals, Collins lived a long life. He died on November 15, 1885, aged eighty-four. He is buried in New Sharon cemetery, where his simple gravestone reads: “He died, as he lived, a Christian.” It reveals nothing of the remarkable events described in his own words as his “shipwreck, sufferings, and providential escape.”
Paul Brown is the author of From A Blood-Red Sea: The Last Voyage of Daniel Collins.