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 beast that inspired Moby Dick, a mariner named Daniel Collins set off on an extraordinary voyage that would become another survival adventure for the ages.
Collins was 23 years old, and this was his first commission as a merchant seaman. But he was an experienced mariner, having served in the U.S. Navy since he was a young boy. He 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 merchant ship Betsey was laden with 200 tons of timber. The small brig had a 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.
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 Keys, a series of shallow reefs between Florida and Cuba.
Collins, the ship’s second mate, was at watch at the helm as the wind drove the brig through increasingly rough waters. As the sun went down, 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.
After dark, Collins could not see beyond the length of the ship. But calculations showed the Betsey was more than 18 miles windward of the keys. At 2:30 a.m. Collins finished his watch shift, reassured a shipmate there was nothing to fear, and climbed down to his cabin.
Thirty minutes later he felt a huge jolt, which threw boxes and barrels into the air and down on top of him. Water began to pour through the stern and into the cabin. Clearing a path through the fallen debris, Collins hoisted himself up through a skylight onto the deck, where he found a desperate scene.
The Betsey was in a deep hollow of sea, surrounded by mountainous waves. Looming out of the darkness was a huge black rock, which the ship had struck head-on. 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 was by the ship’s longboat, attempting to cut its leashes. 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 ship crashed back 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 the crew were left floating in the longboat. All seven crewmen were alive, but they were bruised and exhausted, and had no fresh water or provisions. The longboat had been damaged in the wreck and was taking in water. Constant bailing with hats and the bucket could only barely keep it afloat among the seething waves.
“Anxiety was depicted in every visage,” wrote Collins in his written account of the voyage, “and our spirits were clouding like the heavens over them.” In particular, Captain Hilton seemed to lose all hope. It was Collins who stepped up to assume responsibility for his companions.
Collins enlisted in the Navy at around 12 years of age, and fought against the British in the War of 1812, during which he received a battle wound that fractured his right leg. After the war, he served in the East Indies as part of a Navy squadron deployed to protect merchant ships from Sumatran pirates.
“I had seen much more of rough service and weather than anyone on board,” he 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 intervention. 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. But they continued to 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” several miles ahead of them. Land. The small island, covered with a swamp of tall mangroves that reached ten or fifteen feet into the air, would later be identified as Cruz del Padre, one of a series of keys several miles north of Cuba.
On the edge of the island was a white clay beach. And on the beach, the crew were amazed to see two fishing huts, and five fishermen busily moving around them. The crew went ashore, and were given a meal of fish, turtle and hot coffee. It was their first sustenance in three days.
Later that evening, Captain Hilton negotiated with the fishermen for passage to Matanzas. He offered them the longboat, plus 40 dollars on arrival, for their assistance. The fishermen agreed. They would sail in their schooner for Matanzas as soon as the weather allowed.
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 the crew that the skeletons belonged to seamen who had died in a wreck, but Collins imagined a terrible alternative.
“We might all be murdered,” he 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 the fishermen were friends, refused.
On the following morning, December 24, the fishermen announced they would leave for Matanzas. As the crew helped load the fishermen’s schooner, another vessel approached from across the bay. Collins noticed a man on deck pointing a musket. 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 35 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. 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 fishermen like old acquaintances, and handed them two doubloons, regarded by Collins as “the price of our blood.” 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 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. The seven crewmembers were thrown into canoes and dragged into shallow water, screaming for mercy and praying to the heavens. What followed was a brutal massacre.
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.”
First mate, Joshua Merry, described as “youthful and innocent”, 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.
Seaman Benjamin Bridge and ship’s cook 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, an “old man”, was hit with such force that his head was severed completely in two, “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 other remaining crewmember, Portuguese seaman Charles Manuel, leapt 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 leapt forward through the shallow water, which was now blood-red 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. Collins was barefoot, and the oyster shells sliced at his feet and legs. 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 recalled. By sunset, he could no longer hear the pirates, 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 wagers over distance swims in the past. After reaching the second island, he swam to a third.
And on he continued, 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 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 slave, 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, a Spanish cigar maker known as Sir Thomas, and nursed back to some sort of health over three or four days. Collins was overwhelmed by the “Samaritan kindness” shown to him. But, spooked by a visit from a group of men he took to be pirates, he soon decided to leave for Matanzas — a journey of around a hundred miles.
He 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.
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. Again, 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.
Collins had not been alone for long when two men came out of a 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 meagre 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 US shipping agents who had been awaiting the arrival of the Betsey, and was directed to another Wiscasset brig, 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 wrote a letter detailing the fate of the Betsey to 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.
Nevertheless, Collins was called with some urgency to provide a statement to the U.S. Navy. Two days later, he set sail aboard the Navy schooner Ferret in search of the pirates. He was 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 cruised the keys, receiving reports of robbery, rape and destruction, but failing to find any pirates. 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 21 days of fruitless search, the Ferret returned to Matanzas. It docked alongside the Sea Gull, another Navy pirate hunter. 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 a Spanish brig, which brought him to Cuba.
Manuel was on board the Sea Gull as it resumed the pirate hunt. 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, leapt overboard, raced into the mangrove swamps, and escaped.
Daniel Collins returned to Wiscasset on board the Shamrock, arriving home on April 2, 1825, 126 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. “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.”
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 ordeal, but didn’t return to the sea. Instead, he became a farmer in the town of Industry, near to Wiscasset. He married, and raised seven children. Despite his terrible injuries, Collins lived a long life. He died on November 15, 1885, aged 84. 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, available on Amazon.
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