Captain John Deane: Mercenary, Diplomat, and Spy
By Richard H. Warner
The Northern Mariner, Vol.18 Nos. 3-4, (2008)
Introduction: In 1710 the trading vessel Nottingham Galley set out from London bound for Boston on a perilous late season voyage. Before making port, it encountered severe storms and struck Boon Island, a desolate rock off the Maine coast. While all hands got ashore, the ship and cargo were lost. Devoid of food, shelter, and fire the crew suffered terribly and they were finally forced to cannibalize a dead man just before being rescued. In his account of the disaster, Captain John Deane later wrote, “We were now reduced to the most deplorable and melancholy circumstances imaginable … no fire, and the weather extreme cold, our small stock of cheese spent, and nothing to support our feeble bodies.” Faced with starvation, with no hope of relief, they reached what he described as “the last extremity . . . to eat the dead for support.” The Captain recalled, “After discussing the lawfulness and sinfulness of our situation, [we] were obliged to submit to our craving appetites.” Captain Deane dressed the body, disposing of those parts that distinguished it as human, and renamed it beef. The enterprise was all the more grisly because there was no fire.
After twenty-four days the crew of the ill-starred ship was rescued and taken to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the mate, Christopher Langman and two others made depositions critical of Captain Deane’s conduct. Later in England, Deane and Langman published contradictory accounts of the voyage and the shipwreck, which created a sensation. With his reputation in jeopardy, Deane welcomed an opportunity to enter Russian naval service, where he disappeared for eleven years. In a new career in a new country, Deane distinguished himself as a combat officer and, more important for posterity, he chronicled the rise of the Russian Baltic fleet in the era of Peter the Great. When he entered the Tsar’s service in 1712, Peter had just consolidated his conquest of Livonia after his great victory over Sweden at Poltava. To protect his new port at St. Petersburg and to carry the war to Sweden, in Finland, and on the Baltic, he recognized the need for a deep-water fleet and launched a frantic effort to build ships, to purchase others abroad, and to man them with qualified officers.