Wednesday, January 8, 2020

MacDonald's Choice

By Dr John Little

For many years Britain regarded herself as a seafaring nation and much of her folklore tapped into that. The size of her trading empire, the might of her navy and the ubiquity of her merchant ships upon the world’s oceans made it inevitable that seamanship and competence in navigation were things almost universally admired. History is littered with tales of bravery at sea, feats of endurance and hardihood in the face of great odds. Particular instances which stand out are those of William Bligh, of the Bounty, and Ernest Shackleton. Bligh’s astonishing voyage of 4,164 miles after being cast adrift was a cause of great admiration when he wrote about it on his arrival back in England. Similarly Shackleton’s traversing of 800 miles of ocean in an open boat to fetch help for his stranded expedition was instrumental in making him a national hero.

19th-Century Three Mast Barque similar to the Henry James
(Public Domain Image)

The actual deed of heroism need not involve great distances; Victorian Britain held up Grace Darling as an extraordinary heroine for rescuing people from a wreck using a small rowing boat. This admiration of people who took on the sea in open boats against all odds, has extended to those of other nations. Names such as Willem Bontekoe, Willem Barents, and more modern voyagers like Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Alec Rose and Dame Ellen MacArthur still have power to cause admiration and even awe at what they accomplished. Chay Blyth and Robin Knox-Johnson also come to mind; doubtless there are many others. There is however one man missing from this canon and his name has been almost forgotten, along with his voyage.

Scotland is a nation whose men have used the sea for centuries and this is especially true of those who come from the western isles. In 1888 the first mate of the iron barque Henry James was a Lewisman called Donald MacDonald. On 10 April his ship hit an uncharted rock in the Pacific Ocean and, burdened with several thousand tons of coal, she sank quickly until mostly submerged. There was no chance to take much as the passengers and crew abandoned ship; supplies were loaded into a boat but it was wrecked by the swell. It happened so quickly that some of the crew were stark naked. Thirty people in two boats had to make for the nearest land, which was Palmyra Atoll, almost 50 nautical miles away.

Four small girls, two women, one of them heavily pregnant, and twenty-four men struggled to reach terra firma. When they got there, tired, baked by the sun and almost without resources, they found the island to be deserted. There were no fruits or berries, no vegetables of any kind save coconuts, no animals and, at first, no water supply. There were some abandoned huts which gave shelter but for the next two weeks they foraged and scraped for shellfish, land crabs, sharks, pepper grass and anything else which could sustain life. They were way off a shipping lane and rescue looked as if it might be years away.

Passenger List (Image Credit)

Captain Lattimore asked Donald MacDonald if he would undertake to go and get help. Presumably as a western isles man he was well used to open boat travel; MacDonald refused. The journey proposed was 1300 miles to the nearest possible rescue and he was very unlikely to make it, let alone the men who would go with him. After two weeks on the island MacDonald was looking at one of the four small girls among the castaways and she was struggling to eat and swallow part of a seagull which was raw. One of the crew made a doleful remark to him that the poor child was not long for this world; her name was Laura Mary Hastings. It was at that moment that MacDonald made his choice and undertook to go and find help.

In a twenty-seven foot ship’s boat loaded with what provisions could be spared and many coconuts, he and four other men set off, hoping to reach Samoa. Before he left MacDonald gave a ring to one of the small girls, convinced that he had spent his last day on solid earth and would not make it to Samoa. They went well at first but hit a frightful thunderstorm a few days into their voyage. The coconuts turned sour in the heat and had to be thrown overboard. The rest of the food soon ran out and they resorted to eating their shoes. After eating the leather binding of their telescope they found that their tongues swelled up and their lips cracked; a couple of the men sucked their own blood to gain relief from the hunger. They suffered from dysentery and pain in the guts; the sun dried them out until their skins were burned black and covered in sores from burn and salt.

After eighteen days at sea they were dried out husks, two of the men were incapable of further effort and they had all but given up. As the sun came up on the eighteenth day at sea they sighted Samoa in the far distance and headed for it. Soon they met an island schooner which took them into the harbour at Apia and they could tell their tale and beg for rescue. MacDonald had navigated 1300 miles in an open boat across the ocean and hit his target bang on; a truly amazing piece of seamanship and navigation.

Sketch by helmsman Chambliss of Capt.
Lattimore coming aboard the Mariposa
Image credit
There were steam warships that could have gone to rescue the people on Palmyra but they could not move because of the political situation on the islands which were in a state of civil war. The British consul organised a schooner to go to the rescue but she would have to beat against the wind and the journey would take at least a month. After the schooner’s departure on its mission of mercy a great American steamer, the Mariposa arrived in Apia and its legendary Californian Captain Hayward heard the story for himself. He decided to alter his course and rescue the people on Palmyra, which he did. The steamer arrived at the atoll ten days before the schooner and took on the twenty five people still cast on the shore, taking them to Hawaii from whence the British Consul was able to despatch them homewards. Throughout the whole perilous debacle, no one had died.

The Maripsosa (Public Domain Image)

MacDonald returned home to Glasgow and the shipping community there was full of admiration. His bosses recommended him to the Board of Trade to receive a medal for bravery at sea. This was refused and the only reason that seems plausible was because such a thing would have made national, even international news. The political situation between Britain, the USA and Germany in Samoa at this time was so delicate that the British government had good reason for not wishing to place Samoa centre stage in the attention of the world’s press. The indignation caused in Glasgow was considerable and The North British Shipping Company instead nominated MacDonald for a Lloyds Bronze medal for saving life at sea. This was awarded and the ceremony was reported in the Glasgow newspapers; it was ignored by the newspapers nationally which was rather anomalous. Normally one would have expected to see paragraphs about such things in regional newspapers across the nation. MacDonald would have been a national hero; but it did not happen.

At the ceremony MacDonald appears to have been very shy; he had to have someone speak for him after the medal had been awarded. His family and friends had been told nothing about it, and MacDonald never spoke of it until he described the voyage in a letter forty years later. Unlike Bligh or Shackleton, MacDonald was no patrician with a fine accent; he was an ordinary working sailor from Lewis and this may have had something to do with his treatment; but the non syndication of his story across the UK remains a puzzle.

There is a particular grace note to this story which played out eight years after the rescue. Donald MacDonald was by now the first mate of the Auldgirth, a Glasgow ship on the Australia trade run. Docked at Portland, Oregon, MacDonald saw two young women approach the gangplank of the ship and one of them called up to him and asked if he had been the first mate of the Henry James.

“‘Well ladies, I saw the last of that ship’ I replied.

She then took off her glove, took a ring from her finger and handed it to him. It was his own.

Putting my hands on her shoulders I said ‘Then you are Laura Mary Hastings’

‘Between sobs she answered ‘I am sir, and this is my sister Ada.’”

MacDonald's Medal (Image Credit)
MacDonald’s medal is in New Zealand, where he settled after retiring. His story may be found in a few contemporary newspapers and in more detail in The Gaelic Vikings by James Shaw Grant from which the above extract is taken. Apart from that his name is virtually forgotten in Lewis, in Glasgow, in Scotland and in history.

What MacDonald did ranks with the great open boat voyages in the history of the sea; if this article helps to raise his profile slightly then I can only be glad.


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster. He has done a considerable amount of long distance walking in the UK and particularly the Lake District. Until he was 52 he could not drive and cycled everywhere, including completing a Land's End to John o' Groats ride. He has cycled extensively in Britain and some parts of Europe. His PhD was grounded in WWI and he has guided numerous trips for children and adults to the Western Front.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also give talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes.


  1. What a fascinating account! Thank you for sharing this bit of history with us.

    1. You are welcome. He was a very modest man but his voyage deserves to be known about.

  2. I expect there are many more men (and women!) who deserve to have their stories told. Probably quite a few who, alas, never managed to get help and died trying. I think of all people of the past I most admire sailors - especially those of pre mid 1700s and earlier when destinations were often unknown.
    Thoughtful and interesting article, thank you for sharing

  3. You are right; I do not doubt that there are more. If he had been of higher social status I suspect he would have been a lot more famous. Ordinary people tend to drop out of 'history.'

  4. Thank you for a superb article, John. As an ex seafarer the story fills me with wonder.

    1. Me too Harry; he is a superb example of how hazardous a sailor's life could be; in a career of over 50 years he was wrecked nine times, twice being the sole survivor. He apparently considered himself to be unlucky so never went for his master's ticket, remaining a first mate all his life.

  5. What a story! Thank you for posting this.

    " Putting my hands on her shoulders I said ‘Then you are Laura Mary Hastings’

    ‘Between sobs she answered ‘I am sir, and this is my sister Ada.’”


    I do believe his social status had a hand in his treatment as well as the political situation. During the siege at Lucknow in 1857, an Irishman dressed as a native , somehow made it to HQ to alert British forces....he didn't get any real notice either.

  6. It is as much a part of Californian history as it is Scottish. The Captain and crew of the Mariposa received awards from the British government for rescuing the survivors. Monetary rewards were given and a fine piece of plate for Captain Hayward. A fine ceremony was held on the Mariposa at San Francisico.
    More about international diplomacy than much else I fear.

  7. Great story ... thanks for telling it.

  8. You are welcome. I am revising my book in the light of some new evidence about MacDonald after seeing part of his own account of the voyage.


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