Iron So Precious It Nearly Caused a Ship to Sink
You’ll never read about it in the newspaper, not in the crime beat column, or hear about it on a podcast, but you might find mention of it in history books or on microfiche in the library. If you dig, you’ll find the story of the HMS Dolphin and how it came close to sinking. The story of an almost sinking ship is wrapped in truth, but resembles a fable passed on through oral tradition. The account of historical events from 1756 are what follows.
As quickly as she could be readied, the HMS Dolphin embarked on her first maiden voyage. She sailed service for the Seven Years War as it entered European countries. Later, under the command of John Byng, the Dolphin was also present at the Battle of Minorca. And as her leader failed to relieve a port along the Mediterranean, Byng was court marshaled and shot — something else you’ll never read about on the crime beat. The changing of the guard might have offered a clue that the Dolphin would travel a tumultuous journey.
Rough Waters Ahead
The first part of the journey resembles any cruise you can imagine taking. It begins with a relaxing and carefree nature viewing of beautiful lands. The beginning was full of hope and intrigue while being relatively uneventful and smooth sailing. You might imagine the crew having lazy days on deck, enjoying the August sunshine, and having minimal worries. And for the first three months or so, you’d be right. As December arrived, the journey turned arduous.
Fast-forward to 1766, and with another captain, Samuel Wallis, at the helm, the ship was ready for her second circumnavigation. Off to explore strange lands and whatever riches they may hold. Consider the mysterious pirate’s map looking for treasure under where “x” marks the spot; they were in pursuit of natural resources or whatever treasures could be uncovered. The Dolphin was set for an adventure, and she gained a strange story of her own to tell.
The crew struggled to navigate the Straits of Magellan. The struggle is no reflection on the crew, but rather on the danger in the area. Mentioned in the captain’s log is the physique of the kind of people the crew encountered.
Hundreds of men on horseback came rushing down the cape toward the ship. Captain Wallis selected a small group to go ashore and see if the myths of the giants of Patagonia were indeed true. If you’ve ever put kids up against the wall to mark their heights and dates as they grow, that’s similar to what the Captain did. Wallis took a measuring stick with him and recorded the height of robust physiques who dominated the island to be nearly 6 feet tall.
Navigating three months through the Straits, the crew was ready to see land and refresh its supplies. The Dolphin set anchor on the Island of Tahiti. A beautiful island, inhabited by gorgeous, friendly women and their counterparts.
Beautiful Lands and Attractions
Early interactions were friendly, but the ladies of the island were extra friendly and used their womanly wiles to attract and seduce the Dolphin’s crew. Shipmates, under their spell, traded iron for sexual pleasure.
We’re not pretending for a second that iron is a precious metal — at least not in the larger world. Iron is a brittle, hard substance, classified as a metal in Group 8 on the Periodic Table of the Elements. The most abundant of all metals, its pure form rapidly corrodes from exposure to moist air and high temperatures. Iron is also the fourth most common element in Earth’s crust by weight, according to LiveScience.
But on this tropical island, the metal was coveted as valuable. Now that you know more about iron probably than you ever wanted to know, you may be wondering what’s the harm in a little trade. Maybe men wanted to foster good relations with those who lived on the island. Shipmates were successful with women who were eager to please them. Any sailor at sea may have the desire for some extracurricular activity as he returns to land and these sailors were no different.
Men traded so much iron for sex with Tahitian women that they caused the supplies to run critically low. They exhausted the backup supply of nails necessary for any repairs that may be encountered on the return voyage home.
After men exhausted the backup supply of nails, they began removing nails from the main hull of the ship itself. A furious Captain Wallis threatened punishment by death of anyone who continued to trade iron and promised the ship would be ready to leave within one week for the return home. Too much fun led to unexpected and unnecessary trouble.
The takeaways for the sailors are similar for us. We’re all known to indulge on occasion. The crewmates on the Dolphin aren’t unlike you and me. Likely bored and anchored in one place, they looked to entertain themselves. You or perhaps your kids can relate to a little harmless entertainment as solutions to boredom.
Maybe you’ve binge-watched Netflix or lost yourself in an indulgence for pleasure. If you’ve ever doomscrolled social media and lost track of the time, you can relate to the desire for pleasure. The Dolphin crew may have nearly gotten stuck half-way around the world, but you and I can overindulge in various pleasures, no less harmful, without leaving home.
Maybe you haven’t nearly committed a crime, or indulged in behavior that might lead to your death, but if you had a chance to get a do-over with your time, perhaps you would make a different choice. If ever you’ve over-indulged, maybe you can relate.
The master on this voyage, George Robertson, subsequently wrote a book The Discovery of Tahiti, about the time on the island. We can hope for life to present an adventure worth writing a book about.