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The capture of 'La Tribune' by HMS 'Unicorn', 8 June 1796 (Pocock, 1797)
The wreck of HMS Tribune and the legend of the heroic fisher boy Joe Cracker are part of one of Nova Scotia’s most compelling but tragic sea stories. This tale comes from the golden age of fighting sail, which has long drawn audiences to the Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower genre of nautical fiction.
France’s La Tribune frigate fell to Britain’s HMS Unicorn after a moonlit sea battle fought off Waterford, Ireland in 1796. The defeated warship was brought to Portsmouth as a prize and added to the British Royal Navy during the turmoil of the French Revolutionary War, her crew a collection of young English, Scots and Irish eager to fight for King and Country. In September 1797, HMS Tribune left Torbay England escorting a merchant convoy to Quebec and Newfoundland.
On the morning of November 23, 1797, Tribune’s sailing master mistakenly ran the frigate aground on Thrumcap Shoal while entering Halifax Harbour. Lieutenant Brenton Halliburton, commanding officer of York Redoubt (later Chief Justice of Nova Scotia) coordinated assistance from Halifax. During the long attempt to free the ship from its rocky prison, Tribune was caught in a horrendous storm and driven across the harbour where it sank at night near Herring Cove. Only a handful of survivors clung to life in the rigging above the raging seas, gradually succumbing to the driving rain and gale force winds.
By morning, most had perished. Only the empathy of a 13-year-old fisher boy from Herring Cove prevented a complete tragedy. He rowed his tiny skiff into the jaws of the tempest, bravely taking his tiny boat through dangerous seas and rescuing two of the crew. He was not able to return to the wreck a second time, but his attempt shamed the adults of the village into rescuing the remaining survivors. The loss of Tribune took the lives of more than 240 men, women and children. Of 12 who survived the night, five later died in the Naval Hospital in Halifax, making Tribune one of the Nova Scotia’s most tragic shipwrecks.
Impressed by the boy’s selfless act, Prince Edward, son of Britain’s King George III and commander of British forces in Nova Scotia at the time, rewarded the boy for his bravery. Legend suggests that the young hero was offered a Midshipman’s post on the Admiral’s flagship.
In this true sea tale from the Age of Sail, the identity of a boy remembered only as Joe Cracker for over 220 years has remained a mystery. Today, period naval records provide a possible answer.
Tribune’s captain was thought to have refused assistance, yet this is untrue. Furthermore, Tribune’s guns jettisoned at Thumcap did not sink the ship. Captain Barker’s decisions were prudent and consistent with modern offshore survival training.
John Dickie is a marine geoscientist, diver and author of the book Age of Heroes (2009) documenting Tribune’s story. Artifacts at risk of loss were recovered from the Tribune site under Nautical Archaeology Society (UK) guidelines, conserved and donated to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic where they provide important details of the Tribune story.
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