Little Bits of History

August 22

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 22, 2017

1711: The British Quebec Expedition destroys itself. Also called the Walker Expedition to Quebec, it was part of Queen Anne’s War which was the colonial portion of the War of Spanish Succession. Part of the colonial assault was a plan to take Quebec, something which never came to fruition. Robert Harley, chief minister of the crown, planned this particular assault on the Canadian city. Francis Nicholson was sent to Boston with plans in June 1711. Walker was to co-lead an expedition with Samuel Vetch with British ships landing in Boston on June 24. They needed provisions for the expedition, but the imported troops outnumbered the citizens of Boston and made finding the necessary provisions problematic.

It took weeks for everything to be readied and the fleet of both British and colonial ships left on July 30. There were nine ships of war, two bomb vessels, and 60 transports and tenders. There were 7,500 troops and 6,000 sailors along with camp followers. They reached Nova Scotia on August 3 and Vetch piloted them around Cape Breton and Cape North and into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. By August 18, they were about to enter the Saint Lawrence River and a storm blew in. They were forced to shelter in Gaspe Bay. The storm continued for days, switching wind directions, and the fleet slowly moved forward.

On this day, the wind shifted again and the heavy fog lifted slightly. Land was sighted and the ships moved again. Walker’s assessment of their position was off by about 20 miles and so his navigational orders were in error. As darkness fell, he gave orders to steer towards the northwest before retiring below deck. Captain Paddon reported there was a problem around 10.30 but Walker thought it was more of the ships approaching. A few minutes later, Paddon demanded Walker come up to the deck to see breakers ahead. Walker ignored him. An army captain approached Walker and insisted he come see for himself.

The ship Walker was on escaped the near collision with the rocky, shallow, island-strewn portion of the river called Pointe-aux-Anglais today. It took three days to discover the full scope of the disaster. Throughout the night, shrieks had been heard as ships crashed into the rocks and men were thrown into swirling waters. In all, seven transports and one supply ship were lost. After rescuing as many as possible, it was still reported that 884 soldiers perished. That number was later lowered to 740 but that may not have counted the women who were accompanying them. In all, it was one of the worst naval disasters in British history. The mission was cancelled.

The late disaster cannot, in my humble opinion, be anyways imputed to the difficulty of navigation, but to the wrong course we steered, which most unavoidably carried us upon the north shore. – Samuel Vetch (blaming Admiral Hovenden Walker)

The man who has experienced shipwreck shudders even at a calm sea. – Ovid

We poison our lives with fear of burglary and shipwreck, and, ask anyone, the house is never burgled, and the ship never goes down. – Jean Anouilh

A sailing ship is no democracy; you don’t caucus a crew as to where you’ll go anymore than you inquire when they’d like to shorten sail. – Sterling Hayden