Island Treasure by Roland Morris

Another Source of Negative Publicity against Sir Clowdisley?

Morris, Roland. Island Treasure: The Search for Sir Cloudseley Shovell's Flagship 'Association'. London: Hutchinson, 1969

The text of this essay is copyright 2000 by Leigh Kimmel. Brief quotations from Island Treasure, copyright 1969 by Roland Morris, are used only for the purpose of review, and their use is not intended, nor should not be interpreted, as a challenge to those copyrights.

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Portrait of Sir Clowdisley Shovell in armor When I first began researching the life of Sir Clowdisley Shovell, I thought that most of the responsibility for his current bad reputation belonged to Dava Sobel, whose book Longitude treated as established fact the story that the admiral had hanged a sailor whose only crime was trying to warn his betters that their navigation was awry. Earlier writings about him seemed almost universily to portray Sir Clowdisley as an intelligent, capable admiral who was loved by many and widely mourned after his death.

Then I came across Island Treasure, Roland Morris' account of his recovery of treasure from the Association, Sir Clowdisley's last flagship. The early part, in which Morris wrote about his own experiences as a salvage diver and his preparations for salvaging the Association treasure, were objective enough. But when he began reconstructing the events of the shipwreck, an ugly undertone of prejudice against Sir Clowdisley began to appear.

Morris began his narrative of the events by telling some of the background of the siege of Toulon, from which the fleet was returning. He mentioned how the Admiral was surrounded by carefully-chosen subordinates, many of them friends or relatives by marriage. In Morris' comment that none of them were likely to embarass the admiral by disagreeing with his account of the siege, the accusation by implication is clear to read: that Sir Clowdisley intended to inflate the success of his campaign, and thus garner for himself honors that he had not earned.

Morris then recounted the navigation conference, how the sailing masters of the various ships of the fleet came aboard Association to meet with the admiral. Finally we get to meet the Admiral, and Morris' descriptions of Sir Clowdisley fairly drip with contempt: "His face is voluptuously corpulent; it is not his flaccid mouth or his triple chins that draw one's attention, but his eyes..." (p. 55) "...he holds out a large podgy hand, the forearm of which is enveloped in, and protrudes from, a monstrous silken cuff. When the Admiral speaks, his flabby chins and jowls quiver to such a degree that the whole of the lower part of his face shakes like a warm jelly." (p. 56).

In this portrayal Sir Clowdisley is not just heavy, but swinishly obese. Morris seems determined to play upon all our prejudices about weight -- that fat people are lazy, slovenly, careless and interested primarily in their own selfish pleasures. This impression is only reinforced by Morris' reconstruction of Sir Clowdisley's activities that evening, after the conclusion of the conference. Morris places the admiral comfortably at table, having finished an excellent meal and now enjoying his wine. While the fleet sails into peril, the admiral lounges in his cabin and prides himself on the result of the unanimous verdict of the conference -- with the implication that he has surrounded himself with syncophants and thus set himself up for disaster. (Might this be the beginning of the pattern of perceiving Sir Clowdisley as the prototype of the pointy-haired boss?)

Things get worse, for Morris portrays Sir Clowdisley admiring the wine in his goblet and idly reminiscing about his summer campaigns in the Mediterranean, and particularly about the dinner he had given the Duke of Savoy. This may not be quite to the extreme of Kelly Turner lying passed-out drunk in his cabin while swarms of kamikazes stoop on his flagship at the Battle of Okinawa, but the message is clear that Sir Clowdisley is indulging in sensual pleasure instead of concerning himself with the state of his fleet. We all know that a great commander like Nelson or Halsey would be pacing the quarterdeck, his finger on the pulse of the situation as it changes from moment to moment. The unstated conclusion hangs in the air -- that Sir Clowdisley, through negligence and self-indulgence, was directly responsible for the destruction of his ships and the death of his men.

The attacks on Sir Clowdisley's character don't stop when Association strikes the Gilstone and goes down. The smears get even nastier in the description of the aftermath, and particularly the escape of the admiral's barge. The comment that Sir Clowdisley took his greyhound with him could be interpreted as an act of kindness toward a faithful animal companion. However, the comment only a few pages later that the Association had boats enough to take only eighty of her vast crew to shore puts that act in a far uglier light: namely, that Sir Clowdisley cared more about an animal than his fellow humans, and that the escape of the barge was a cowardly act of abandoning the bulk of the Association's crew to their fates. A far cry this is from Nelson's courageous action at Teneriffe, insisting that his barge pause to pull the survivors of a destroyed vessel aboard, even if it meant that the delay in getting him to his flagship's surgeon and his shattered arm treated might well mean his own death.

Even Lady Shovell gets whacked with the ugly stick: she is described as having "raised a rumpus" about the admiral's rings being missing. (p 78). The words seem almost deliberately chosen to trivialize her pain and grief, and to portray her as a selfish woman concerned only that her material inheritance not be diminished. This woman has just lost her second husband, who by all accounts loved her dearly, as well as both her sons by her first husband, and on that injury is piled the insult of knowing that Sir Clowdisley's body was subjected to the ghoulish depredation of some grave-robber. I'm sorry, but my sympathies go out to her ladyship for having to live through such an awful situation.

All this viciousness mars an otherwise excellent account of a fascinating set of deep-sea salvage operations. That raises the question of why Roland Morris felt it necessary to subject Sir Clowdisley's memory to such an outpouring of vitrol. Is it simply a case of not realizing that he's using loaded language? After all, is it really appropriate to hold a man whose primary profession was deep-sea diver to the same standards of awareness of connotation as a writer whose business is to know the subtle ways in which words can not only pass information, but also shape the reader's attitudes and emotional experience of reading?

Or might there be a darker psychological motive at work here? This vicious language seems too blatant to be accidental. It brings to mind another attack on the admiral's reputation.

The persistent story that Sir Clowdisley had a sailor hanged for trying to warn him of the fleet's peril has been fairly reliably traced to the native Scillonians. Why would they have wanted to make up such an ugly story about a man who enjoyed such a good reputation on the main island? Was it merely the very real dislike of proud, independent seafarers for the Royal Navy and its iron discipline? Or did class conflict play a role?

The Scilly Isles in 1707 were the unwanted stepchild of the main island, cut off from England's economic lifeblood, and as a result the native Scillonians were brutally poor in a way that is almost unimaginable to moderns living in the bounty of the Industrial Revolution. Shipwrecks could often make the difference between survival and starvation for the Scillonians, particularly in winters when the fishing was poor. Sir Clowdisley's obvious wealth would have aroused their envy; even his fleshy body would have been an advertisement of his plenty, in stark contrast to their own gauntness. Might villifying him as a cruel tyrant have been a way of assauging any remaining guilt at having profited from his disaster?

Roland Morris is a Cornishman, having grown up not far from the Scilly Isles, so he may well have imbibed some of their attitudes without realizing it. It is true that he does not repeat the story of the hanging in his reconstructions -- the most damaging thing he does mention is the story that the navigation conference concluded with a riotous wine party in which these senior officers got roaring drunk, and he dismisses that as improbable. The closest he comes to even mentioning the hanging story is a quote of an article that claims that the admiral's first grave in Porthellick Bay grows no grass as a result of an imprecation uttered upon the admiral a few hours before his death. (In other sources I have seen it fairly well documented that this is a portion of the story of the hanging). Even then, he dismisses it as pure superstition (perhaps supplemented by a little judicious hoeing under cover of nightfall) and comments that his own observations have shown grass growing quite abundantly on the gravesite, no different from that in surrounding areas.

Yet could there also be an element of guilt, of a sense that he is indulging in grave-robbing? Might he be trying to assauge it by telling himself that Sir Clowdisley was an unworthy, dissipated admiral, and therefore forfeited the protections normally afforded the honorable dead?

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