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A famous Scilly myth debunked

There is a famous Scilly myth that has long been told as if it was truth about Sir Cloudesley Shovell.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell

There are many similar versions of this legend.  They all go a little like this.

On their way home from Toulon, the English Naval fleet was blown off course by strong winds. The Admiral, Sir Cloudesley was convinced they were in open water in the English Channel.  However on his flagship – The Association was a native of Scilly who knew better.

The Scillonian sailor approached one of the officers on the ship and told him that they were all in grave danger.  The fleet was heading onto the dangerous rocks to the west of Scilly and they needed to change course immediately or risk losing the entire fleet.

The officer in question sent the man away placing his faith instead in the superior navigational skills of his superiors.

Later the Sailor returned to his officer and begged and pleaded that they change course.

The officer went to Sir Cloudesley and expressed his annoyance at the damage to morale that the troublemaker was causing.  The weather was worsening again and they did not want to risk a mutiny. Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Naval prodigy, and darling of the court agreed.  He ordered the man’s immediate and summary execution for inciting mutiny.  Barbaric though this seem now to modern sensibilities Mutiny at Sea was still a capital offense as recently as 1998.

The Sailor’s Curse

The wreck of the Association

As the man was lead to his execution, his arms bound at his sides he cried out to the gathered crew:

“Kill me and ye shall all drown.”

But it had no effect.  He was hanged from the yardarm and his lifeless body cast into the sea in a canvas shroud.

Some versions of the myth have it that the hanged man’s body somehow escaped the shroud, despite the practice at the time was for the last stitch to be placed through the nose of the body inside. It bobbed to the surface and as it was seen a great wind sprung up, driving the fleet onto their doom even faster.

That night the Association and three other ships were destroyed on the western rocks, and somewhere in the region of 2000 men lost their lives.

Problems with this famous Scilly myth

There are a number of problems with this famous Scilly myth.

The first and most obvious is that if all the men on the Association did indeed lose their lives as we know they did, then who was it that passed the story on.

The second, and much more interesting problem is that something quite similar did indeed happen.

Shortly after midday Sir Cloudesley called a council of the masters of all the vessels in the fleet in order to attempt to ascertain where exactly they were.  He was fully aware that the fleet’s position was in doubt, and that if they got it wrong it likely would be disastrous.

The assembled senior officers all agreed that they were indeed in the open waters of the English Channel.  Somewhere in the vicinity of the latitude of Ushant. All that is with one exception.

The likely explanation

Captain Sir William Jumper, Master of the 70 gun, ship of the line HMS Lenox disagreed. He was of the opinion that they were close to Scilly. H even stated that in three hours they would see the “Scilly Light”on the island of St Agnes.

He was, despite his very impressive credentials as a Naval captain, overruled. The rest as they say is history.  We will look at the resulting naval disaster in another article very soon.

But for now, I think it is safe to say that despite the famous Scilly myth being a fantastic story, the chances are it is based on the actions of Captain Sir William Jumper. Master of the Lenox.



Martin is the creator of About Scilly. He visited the islands for the first time 15 years ago and fell in love. He's been back every year since and would dearly love to live there.

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