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The curse that became a blessing - about the disaster of the Isles of Scilly

Between 1500 and 2000 sailors were killed that night. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history. Ten years after the disaster, the British government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds - equivalent to several million dollars today - to anyone who could invent a method to determine the longitude where the ship was. Forty years later, a watchmaker named John Harrison managed to design a precise nautical clock that allowed sailors to calculate their position.

The admiral Claudisali is following
The admiral Claudisali is following

In 1707 the British were at war against France and Spain. A large force of the British Navy, under the command of Admiral Claudius Shovel, was sent to attack the French city of Toulon. This was planned to be the last attack for that year as winter was approaching.

The battles ended with mixed results: the British fleet managed to set fire to some French ships, but was defeated in a naval battle against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. At the end of September, 1707, the British command ordered Admiral Shovel to return the fleet back home. Twenty-one gunships left the port of Gibraltar at the edge of the Mediterranean on their way to the British Isles. Almost immediately the fleet ran into stormy weather. As the ships progressed into the Atlantic Ocean, the wind, rain and waves grew stronger.

On the twenty-first of October Admiral Shuval summoned all the navigators of the other ships to his flagship, the HMS Association. In his mouth was one simple question: Where are we?
All the navigators agreed that the fleet was more or less on the latitude of the southern British Isles, in the area of ​​the mouth of the channel between England and France. How far west or east inside the opening - in other words, on what longitude - was another question.

Finding the latitude is a relatively simple matter. All that needs to be done, in principle, is to locate the North Star - something any child can do once they know where to look. The North Star is above the North Pole, so the angle of the North Star above the horizon is the latitude the ship is on. For example, when standing at the North Pole itself, the North Star is overhead at an angle of ninety degrees - hence, we are at ninety north latitude. When the North Star is 45 degrees above the horizon, the ship is at 45 North latitude. When the ship is close to the equator the North Star literally touches the horizon: an angle of zero degrees, hence zero latitude.

Finding the longitude where the ship is located was a much more complicated problem, and in those days there was still no solution for it.

Twenty of the twenty-one navigators determined that the fleet was close to the east bank of the Channel, not far from the coast of France. One navigator disagreed with them: he thought they were very close to the Isles of Scilly, a small group of islands in southern Britain - that is, close to the west bank of the Channel.
Admiral Shovel accepted the majority opinion. It was a fairly logical decision, one that any commander would make in his place. Shovel was a respected officer in the kingdom. A few weeks later, when his body was brought to London, he was even buried in Westminster Abbey, where the greats of the British nation lie. Sometimes, even very logical decisions can be very wrong.

Shovel ordered four light ships to leave the group and move forward to escort a convoy of merchant ships that were supposed to be in the area. The four ships set off on a northeasterly course, believing they were not far from France. Almost immediately the mistake was discovered: the ships sailed straight into the treacherous shoals and terrible waves of the Isles of Scilly. Only by luck were their boatmen able to bring them onto the shore and avoid being crushed on the rocks. Unfortunately, they had no way of informing Admiral Shuvel of his mistake. The rest of the fleet began to sail north, completely blind to the danger it faced.

And the results were not long in coming. Usually a few light ships sail ahead of the main fleet to warn of dangers - but in this case Shuvel had already sent the light ships ahead. Therefore, it was left to the Association, the flagship of the fleet with the admiral himself on board, to lead the way.

There is a legend that one of the sailors aboard the flagship tried to alert the admiral that they were close to the Isles of Scilly. The sailor was a native of the islands and recognized the smell of the islands which was well known to him. According to legend, the admiral was furious with the sailor for spreading inflammatory information among the crew members and hanged him instead for inciting mutiny. Whether this story is true or not, we will never know.

On October 22, at eight o'clock in the evening, the watchers on board the Association noticed the waves crashing on the reefs of the Isles of Scilly - right near the ship. They activated the warning signals, but it was too late. The big ship crashed on the rocks with great force, and in less than four minutes there was no trace of it. All eight hundred crew members on board were killed.

Two other ships that were immediately behind the Associashine noticed what was happening, but did not have time to change their course. One after the other they crashed on the shertons. Each of them had several hundred crew members.

A fourth ship, the HMS Firebrand, crashed into the same wreck that had sunk the Association just minutes earlier. Her fate was already almost decided, but a big wave that emerged at the very last second freed the ship from the rocks and allowed her captain to move her a little away from the islands before she sank. Twenty-eight of the forty sailors on board were saved. The other ships of the fleet managed to escape the fate of the leading ships.

Between 1500 and 2000 sailors were killed that night. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history. But a heavy fall on the kingdom. The bodies of those who perished washed ashore for days, a chilling testimony to a terrible error in navigation.

Admiral Shovel's body was also washed ashore, a few kilometers from where his ship sank. There is uncertainty about Shuval's fate. One version claims that the admiral was still alive, albeit barely, when he reached the shore. Two women who saw him noticed a large emerald ring on his finger, stabbed the officer in the chest and stole the ring. Only thirty years later, on her deathbed, one of the murderers confessed to a local priest and gave him the ring. This story may be biased, as the Isles of Scilly then had a reputation as a wild and lawless place. It is likely that the admiral was no longer alive when he washed ashore.

The tragic incident in the Isles of Scilly pushed the British to try and find a solution to the 'longitude problem': to find a method that would allow sailors to determine precisely which longitude their ship is on.

In 1717, ten years after the disaster, the British government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds - equivalent to several million dollars today - to anyone who could invent a method to determine the longitude where the ship was located. The 'Longitude Committee' was established, whose purpose was to examine the various proposals. It was headed by none other than the great Isaac Newton.

The monetary reward brought the desired result: forty years later, at the end of a fascinating saga (which deserves a separate article in its own right), a watchmaker named John Harrison managed to design a precise marine clock that allowed sailors to calculate their position.

John Harrison is considered one of the most important inventors in British history, and in Westminster Abbey - the same church where Admiral Shovel was born - a special stone was placed in his memory with a marking of the meridian crossing the church. Now, at least, the admiral can know for sure where he is.

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