Saturday, 22 October 2016

72 The Wreck of the 'Caesar', 1760

72 Pwll Du shipwreck - 22 October 2016 (photos: Pwll Du Bay, Daniel Day Lewis)

The James Fenimore Cooper novel “The Last of the Mohicans” might seem to have no relevance to Swansea and Gower.  Published in 1826, with subsequently a number of film and television adaptations, it concerns the British surrender in North America of Fort William Henry to the French under Montcalm.  That took place during the Seven Years War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763, and was conducted not only in the vicinity of those two countries, but also in North America and in India, where each nation sought to establish colonies.  After Fort William Henry’s garrison surrendered, many disarmed British soldiers and colonists were massacred by Huron Indians, allies of the French - just one of certain horrific events that took place in that same conflict in North America, in Gower, and in India.

From Pennard’s National Trust car park many pedestrians tend to turn right to walk along Westcliff, taking the cliff-top path leading to the superb view over Three Cliff Bay, where the beach below stretches across to Oxwich.  If however one continues from the car park on the road ahead called Eastcliff, passing on the right Hunt’s Bay, at the end the road becomes a rough path descending steeply to the hamlet of Pwll Du.  Its pebble-covered bay was the favourite of Pennard poet Vernon Watkins, and can also be approached from Bishopston or through the Bishopston Valley, where conditions are often muddy.

As Ordnance Survey maps indicate, the western part of the bay has a rocky area called “Caesar’s Hole”, named following a shipwreck in 1760.  On 28th November that year a merchantman called the “Caesar”, hired in Bristol as an Admiralty tender, sailed on a spring tide from Swansea to convey men to Plymouth to serve in the Navy.  At that time it was not uncommon for the Navy to scour rural communities around the coast to force labourers, farm workers and quarry men into the Navy.  Impressment by press gangs was a legal method for the government to force men into naval forces during times of war.  Until the Napoleonic wars ended, “eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 45 years” in seaside locations ran this risk, with hymn writer John Newton among victims of the pressgang.

C.D. Morgan’s 1862 “Wanderings in Gower” relates how a pressgang of twelve sailors under an officer had been thwarted in an attempt to impress John Voss of Nicholaston Hall and his neighbour John Smith before the “Caesar” sailed.  Stormy conditions in the Bristol Channel caused the vessel to turn back, though in poor visibility the pilot mistook Pwll Du Head for Mumbles Head - this was thirty years before Mumbles lighthouse was built.  The ship was holed on the rocks, now named Caesar’s Hole, and although the ship’s master, mate and some seamen escaped over the bowsprit and clambered up to High Pennard, they apparently neglected to raise the alarm.  

The next morning local people from Pennard, Bishopston and Pwll Du were aghast to find the wreck of the “Caesar”, and removed over sixty bodies.  Most of these were the impressed men, who had been kept below deck (and possibly manacled), and so had stood no chance of survival once the ship was holed.  Since many of these men had been impressed at Swansea, some may have been known to the local people.  

Sixty-eight bodies were buried below Pwll Du Head in the area marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Graves End, where a circle of limestone rocks, visible when the undergrowth dies back, marks the burial site.  
So in different parts of the world the Seven Years War included in South Wales pressed men being abandoned to their fate by seamen concerned only for themselves, in North America the massacre of disarmed members of a garrison who had departed from Fort William Henry, and in India … there was the Black Hole of Calcutta

1 comment:

  1. The circle of rocks does not mark the burial site. It is time this myth, passed on by writer to writer without any actual evidence, was put to rest. The true burial site is beyond the gulley to the west, much nearer to Caesar’s Hole. It is marked on the 1877 ordnance survey map. The stone circle was made by a couple of locals in the 1960s, as attested by current locals who knew them and knew of their activity.