Francis Beaufort: The Sensations of a Drowning Man, 1847

Peter Moore
Oct 13, 2014 · 6 min read

In the 1790s Francis Beaufort, then a young British sailor, almost drowned in an accident at Portsmouth Harbour.

Beaufort originally wrote this description of his near-death experience in 1825 but it was not published until 1847. When it was finally published it caused a sensation in a Victorian society fascinated by the scientific reality of death and the terror of divine Judgment.

“Copy of a Letter to Dr. W. Hyde Wollaston” (Francis Beaufort)— published in An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, pp.398–402

Dear Dr Wollaston,

The following circumstances which attended my being drowned have been drawn up at your desire.

Many years ago, when I was a youngster on board one of his majesty’s ships in Portsmouth harbour, after sculling around in a very small boat, I was endeavouring to fasten her alongside the ship to one of the scuttle-rings; in foolish eagerness I stepped upon the gunwale, the boat of course upset, and I fell into the water, and not knowing how to swim, all my efforts to lay hold either of the boat or the floating sculls was fruitless.

The transaction had not been observed by the sentinel on the gangway, and therefore it was not till the tide had drifted me some distance astern of the ship that a man in the foretop saw me splashing in the water, and gave the alarm.

The first lieutenant instantly and gallantly jumped overboard, the carpenter followed his example, and the gunner hastened into a boat and pulled after them.

With all the violent and vain attempts to make myself heard I had swallowed much water; I was soon exhausted by my struggles, and before any relief reached me I had sunk below the surface – all hope had fled – all exertion ceased – and I felt that I was drowning.

So far, these facts were either partially remembered after my recovery, or supplied by those who had latterly witnessed the scene; for during an interval of such agitation a drowning person is too much occupied in catching at every passing straw, or too much absorbed by alternate hope and despair, to mark the succession of events very accurately.

Not so, however, with the facts that immediately ensued. My mind had undergone the sudden revolution which appeared to you so remarkable - and all the circumstances of which are as vividly fresh in my memory as if they had occurred but yesterday.

From the moment that every exertion had ceased – which I imagine was the immediate consequence of complete suffocation – a calm feeling of the most perfect tranquillity superseded the most tumultuous sensations – it might be called apathy, certainly not resignation, for drowning no longer appeared an evil – I no longer thought of being rescued, nor was I in any bodily pain.

On the contrary, my sensations were now of a rather pleasurable cast, partaking of that dull but contented sort of feeling which precedes the sleep produced by fatigue. Though the senses were thus deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description – for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of succession that is not only indescribable, but probably inconceivable, by any one who has not been in a similar situation.

The course of those thoughts I can even now in a great measure retrace – the event which had just taken place, the awkwardness that had produced it – the bustle that must have occasioned (for I had observed two persons jump from the chains) – the effect it would have on a most affectionate father – the manner in which he would disclose it to the rest of the family – and a thousand other circumstances minutely associated with home, were the first series of recollections that occurred.

They took then a wider range – our last cruise – a former voyage, and shipwreck – my school – the progress I had made there, and the time I misspent – and even all my boyish pursuits and adventures. Thus travelling backwards, every past incident of my life seemed to glance across my recollection in retrograde succession; not, however, in mere outline, as here stated, but the picture filled up with every minute and collateral feature

In short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review, and each act of it seemed to be accompanied by some reflection on its cause, or its consequences; indeed, many trifling events which had been long forgotten then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity.

May not all this be indication of the almost infinite powers of memory with which we may awaken in another world, and thus be compelled to contemplate our past lives? Or might it not in some degree warrant the inference that death is only a change or modification of our existence, in which there is no real pause or interruption?

But, however that may be, one circumstance was highly remarkable; that the innumerable ideas which flashed into my mind were all retrospective – yet I had been religiously brought up – my hopes and fears of the next world had lost nothing of their early strength, and at any other period intense interest and awful anxiety would have been excited by the mere probability that I was floating on the threshold of eternity: yet at that inexplicable moment when I had a full conviction that I had already crossed the threshold, not a single thought wandered into the future – I was wrapped entirely in the past.

The length of time that was occupied by this deluge of ideas, or rather the shortness of time into which they were condensed, I cannot now state with precision, yet certainly not two minutes could not have elapsed from the moment of suffocation to that of my being hauled up.

The strength of the flood tide made it expedient to pull the boat at once to another ship, where I underwent the usual vulgar process of emptying the water by letting my head hang downwards, then bleeding, chafing, and even administering gin; but my submission had really been so brief, that according to the account of the lookers on, I was very quickly restored to animation.

My feelings when life was returning were the reverse in every point of those which have been described above. One single but confused idea – a miserable belief that I was drowning – dwelt upon my mind, instead of the many clear and definite ideas which had recently rushed through it – a helpless anxiety – a kind of continuous nightmare – seemed to press heavily on every sense, and to prevent the formation of any one distinct thought – and it was with difficulty that I became convinced that I was really alive.

Again, instead of being absolutely free from all bodily pain, as in my drowning state, I was now tortured with pain all over me; and though I have since been wounded in several places, and have also submitted to severe surgical discipline, yet my sufferings were at that time far greater; at least in general distress.

On one occasion I was shot in the lungs, and after laying on the deck at night for some hours bleeding from other wounds, I at length fainted. Now, as I felt sure that the wound in the lungs was mortal, it will appear obvious that the overwhelming sensation which accompanies fainting must have produced a perfect conviction that I was then in the act of dying. Yet nothing in the least resembling the operations of my mind when drowning then took place: and when I began to recover, I returned to a clear conception of my real state.

POSTSCRIPT: Beaufort to Barrow, 1847

If these involuntary experiments on the operation of death afford any satisfaction or interest to you, they will not have been suffered quite in vain by

Yours Very Truly,

F Beaufort

    Peter Moore

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    Author, lecturer @citywriting, wizened Villa fan. First book Damn His Blood was about a murder (or two), Next - The Weather Experiment (Chatto/Faber) - out 2015