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Let Freedom Ring

Among the most moving portions of the journal are the young lieutenant’s fears and premonitions. Beneath Elliot’s confident Anglicanism, one suspects, lay a sensitive soul, unsettled by the width of a cultural divide, tormented by the brutality of slavery, and vexed by the difficulty of ending it. In the months before he died, his journal entry contains references to ghosts, mirages and other apparitions:

“…I thought in the middle of the storm—last night—I heard a voice—a melancholy wail—such as some wandering spirit might have uttered as he was hurried past a ship and knew that there there dwelt things such as he had been before he was condemned to roam over the world. It is said that sometimes as ships pass over spots where some poor sailors have been drowned those in them hear strange cries…I think that I too can hear these voices—the plaintive wail of long enchained souls…”

Little is known about the circumstances in which Elliot and his crew lost their lives. The HMS “Sampson” had captured a felucca slave vessel named “Purissima,” on October 31, 1851, off the Island of St. Thomas. Elliot and a small crew went aboard the “prize” and were probably sailing it to Brazil, to sell off the ship and its contents in a prize court. (The “prize” system, long established in Britain and elsewhere, compensated sailors for victory in battle. A captured vessel would be manned with sailors from the victors’ ship, and sailed to a friendly country. There, a prize court would condemn the captured vessel along with its cargo as “spoils of war,” sell it, and distribute the proceeds to the officers and crew in varying amounts according to rank. This was a useful incentive to valiant action in those days when most crews served as conscripts.)

All we know of the fate of Elliot and his crew is contained in a letter, dated January, 7, 1852, from the British Admiralty to Elliot’s family, saying merely that…

“there is every reason to believe that some accident has happened to the Prize felucca “Purissima,” in charge of Lieutenant Gilbert Elliot, with Mr. Charles Wood, Midshipman, 5 seamen, 4 Gunners Royal Marine Artillery, 2 Boys and 2 crewmen.”

The letter is transmitted with another, dated February, 23, 1852, which

“…express[es] to you their Lordships’ great regret at communicating this intelligence.”

I now have the letters to Elliot’s parents in my hand. If not for these letters, Elliot’s journal might simply be an absorbing episode in the progress of mankind toward freedom and justice for all. But the condition of the letters—ripped in half, as if in horror or anger upon reading the dreadful news—provides moving evidence of a family’s grief, and recalls to us the price of every life, whether slave or free man.

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David Wingfield Pettus, former president of the National Maritime Park Association in San Francisco, has assembled a noted library of nautical fiction over many years of collecting, and often lectures on collecting at universities and libraries. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley (B.A., History), he served in the U.S. Army and worked at Life magazine before starting a real estate investment business. He retired to pursue a writing career and is currently at work on a book about Gilbert Elliot’s journal.

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