I have been in thrall to this book since the beginning of the year, having borrowed it from Weymouth library (several times). I can’t remember what led me to it as, to the best of my knowledge, the local libraries don’t have a local authors’ section (I have asked, as I would like to be in it, if it existed).
As the Dorset coast is spattered with wrecks one comes across references to books about them quite often. The title of this one immediately piques interest. Why should Captain Peirce be any more unfortunate than any other captain who has experienced shipwreck? The cover gives a clue – in the facsimile of a contemporary painting he is clutching a brace of young girls to his bosom. For this reason the shipwreck became a cause célèbre for several years after it happened. The cover is a reproduction of one of the paintings about the disaster which appeared soon after the event. The young ladies in various states of distress in the painting are mainly daughters and nieces of Captain Peirce. Everyone in the painting died.
However, this is much more than a book about a disaster. Philip Browne has been forensic in mining contemporary records for information about the life of Captain Peirce, his connections, the East India Company and the faraway places it sent its ships to. When Browne says ‘it is likely that …’ one feels confident that he is right. This is a man steeped in the time and places of his book, who probably knows Captain Peirce, and his wife, better than their own family did.
The book begins with Captain Peirce’s first command of a ship. It follows him around the globe, eastwards, then westwards, on each voyage, showing his growing skill as a sailor and navigator, the profits he made, his rise in the world, and not forgetting the baby he gave his wife each time he returned home!
But the disaster looms. As with the movie ‘Titanic’ one knows the ending from the outset. But when it comes one immediately understands why Captain Peirce was designated ‘the Unfortunate’ from the day the Halsewell struck.
I went to hear him talk about how he did his research at Weymouth library on Saturday. Actually, the talk wasn’t about that. Nor did it cover the projected title showing on the day. He spoke, with great enthusiasm, on yet a third variant of his theme – how the ship got into difficulties in the English Channel, which compounded until …
I discovered then that the research took him five years, took him into the bowels of the British Library and other archives (including those of the East India Company), to the Netherlands, and all the way to India. The wreck is his passion.
Browne wears his learning lightly and has written a pacy saga, almost as if it were a novel of the eighteenth century on the high seas and in fashionable society. It is a rare achievement and I commend him highly for it. He has a real talent for turning research into a proper, rollicking, story. Enjoy.
NB If you are local to Weymouth – I have now returned their copy. So you can read it next. 😊