Members Blog

HMS Penguin and the Orquixo disaster, 1805

Posted by Derek Hunter, on August 16th, 2022

The Members Blog Post Boatswain James Kennedy and HMS Orquixo of December 2021 ended with a letter  in the Navy Records Society’s archive dated October 12 1805 from midshipman William Hayes Hamilton serving on the Orquixo, an 18 gun sloop, in which he vividly described a recent fight with a Spanish ship off Havana that concluded with the enemy escaping and the Orquixo departing much damaged.  Three weeks later the Orquixo sank and the letter writer may well have gone down with the ship.

Subsequent to writing that post I have conducted more research into the history of the Orquixo.

The Orquixo had been captured from the Spanish in February 1805, and in early November was part of a convoy sailing from Jamaica.  She was commanded by Captain Balderson.  The convoy was led by HMS Penguin, a 16 gun brig under Commander George Morris.  The primary purpose of the Orquixo on this occasion, seems to have been the conveyance of a large number of passengers, including many soldiers.  Another warship, the sloop Wolf, was also escorting.

Unfortunately the log of the Orquixo went down with the ship, but the log of the Penguin survives at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth where it was made available to me.  

On 6 November the Penguin made sail in pursuit of a ship, cleared for action, gave chase and boarded the vessel which proved to be “an American from Baltimore bound to Trinidad”.  Later that day an American brig was also boarded.  On the 7th Morris recorded “Exchanged pendants with HM ships Franchise and Bacchante”.  William Hamilton recorded in his letter that he had served on Franchise before the Orquixo, and on that ship had been temporarily stripped of officer rank, moved to the Orquixo as a seaman before being restored as an officer.  Dramatic events were about to unfold which probably cost him his life.

Early on the morning of the 8th   November, not far off the coast of Jamaica, Commander Morris recorded “at 1.30 hailed the Wolf and made sail towards the Orquixo.  At 2.10 hailed the Orquixo and sent the Jolly Boat for Captain Balderson.  At 3 a very severe squall slewed up the Topsails, observed the Orquixo to upset and got the Boats out, sent the 1st and 2nd Lieutenants and the Gunner to assist in saving the People, at 4 they returned having picked up 5 Officers and 26 Seamen – 4 of the latter past recovery – made signal 351 to the Wolf, at 5 she past within hail and we informed them of the Particulars that she might take charge of the Convoy.  Got the Boats in and committed the Bodies of the 4 Seamen to the deep.  Latter part made and shortened sail occasionally.  At Noon – Fair Weather” A matter – of – fact record entirely appropriate for a ship’s log.  At this point Morris was probably unaware of the full nature of the losses to the many passengers on the ship.

It is possible only those on the upper deck survived.  The scenes below must have been appalling; as the ship went over the guns on one side would have crashed across the deck and smashed through the other side, increasing the ingress of water.  The boatswain may have survived, which he did, because his duty to see to sails and rigging kept him on the upper deck much of the time.

A month later an account of the disaster arrived in England in the Jamaica Royal Gazette of 16 November and was printed in several British newspapers.  The Bury and Norwich Post of 15 January recorded that the Orquixo had sunk off Port Antonio and “Of 136 persons on board, including a detachment of the 6th battalion of the 60th regiment  (3 officers and 30 men), 101 perished.”  The account lists eight officers who survived (including James Kennedy, boatswain and my ancestor), but only one midshipman, Benjamin Smart.  William Hamilton had said in his letter of 12 October that there had only been two midshipmen, he being one of them, which suggests he might have been among the dead if he was still onboard three weeks later.

The Westminster Journal and Old British Spy of 18 January 1806 gave the same information, but added “Capt Balderson was tried in the usual form, by a Court-Marshal, for the loss of his ship, and honourably acquitted”.  I have found no other record of the court martial but, if it did take place, he was probably found not guilty as he had been summoned from his ship and was not present when it sank.

The Orquixo was a relatively small ship with 136 people on board – if most of them went to one side of the ship to watch the transfer of Captain Balderson to the Penguin, could this have helped unbalance the vessel just as the squall blew?  This is only fanciful speculation.

The fate of the Orquixo vividly reminds us of the dangers of being at sea in those times, even when not in action and even in relatively mild sea conditions – Morris’s last weather report at midnight, three hours before the Orquixo went down, merely recorded, “Fresh breezes and Cloudy with Rain”.

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About Derek Hunter

Derek obtained a BA in history from Warwick University in 1971 and an MA from Lancaster in social history in 1974. He spent his working life as a secondary school teacher in Lincolnshire, teaching history and retiring in 2015. From time to time Derek delves into family history; a few months ago he discovered his ancestor James Kennedy, boatswain, and has become very keen on finding more about his service in the Royal Navy between 1790 and 1824.