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Local man and his son risk all to save lives off the Island of Mauritius

Year 1848

Read by Mark Allen – Governor, Royal Humane Society

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June 30, 1848

The following is a narrative of an escape from peril, and the rescue of five lives by individual gallantry, rarely equalled, and never exceeded, in the records of high and noble daring. It is from the pen of Capt. Bryan Milman, of the 5th Fusiliers, in a letter addressed to his father, Major General Milman, late of the Coldstream Guards:-

“MABEBOURG, ISLAND OF MAURITIUS,” June 30, 1848.

“The following account of an almost miraculous escape that I and five other officers have had from drowning will interest you all, I have no doubt. The names of the others are Colquitt, Bellew, Fitzgerald, Home (all of the 5th Fusiliers), and Palmer, a commissariat officer, in whose boat we were at the time of the accident. Colquitt and Fitzgerald are in the first battalion and had come down here to stay with me and Bellew. On the 25th we made a boating party, for them to visit one of our detachments about fifteen miles from hence, at Grand River, southeast. We left this about eleven a.m., and after reaching our destination all safe, left it about three o’clock p.m. for home, the weather then looking anything but promising.

When about four miles from home and from the shore, we were overset by a squall. It came upon us so suddenly that we had no time to do anything; torrents of rain fell at the same time, and there we were, drifting along on the side of the boat (which luckily did not sink) without a chance of assistance, and the might setting in. This happened about half-past five o’clock, and at this season it is dark at six. We drifted in this way for about two hours, and at last grounded in about seven feet water. It was very nearly dark; and all that we could see were the tops of the mountains in the horizon. We supposed we were about two miles from shore. All of us but myself had stripped on being upset, as I knew, if we came to a swim, that I could take my clothes off in a moment. As it turned out, I think I was lucky in this, for they perhaps, though wet, kept me a little warmer than my companions.

Nothing seemed to give us a chance of being saved, except holding on till daylight, and as it was terribly cold, this seemed next to impossible. At last it struck me I might be able to swim ashore to procure assistance, and I got permission from the others to do so. Our boatman, a Creole, who also said he would go, started with me to make the attempt. I left them with a hearty ‘God bless you !’ from all.

After swimming some time, I lost sight of the boatman, and was left to myself. I swam back a little, shouting as loud as I could ; but getting no answer, and feeling for my own sake that I must push on, I turned my head towards the mountain tops (my only guides, and struck out my best. I must have been swimming for more than an hour when I landed. I found myself a little tired, and very much benumbed, barefooted, en chemise, and not able to see ten yards before me, it was so dark. My first impulse was to fall on my knees and thank Providence; after which, curious to say, my military schooling came to my aid in the ‘extension motions,’ which brought some little feeling into my limbs, and enabled me to continue my work.

After feeling my way for about half-an-hour along the shore, shouting all the time, I came to a cottage, where I was hospitably received. They told me that they had heard my cries some time, but fancied I was some drunken man returning home, or else they would have come out to my assistance. The poor black gave me some dry clothes, and made me a cup of tea, and then conducted me to the proprietor of the estate, who lived close by, and had the neatest pirogue (a small boat like a canoe, dug out of a solid trunk of a large tree) in the neighbourhood.

M. Chiron, the name of the proprietor, a man of colour, as soon as I explained my situation and my want of a boat to go and assist the others, immediately offered to go himself, and his son also insisted on going with him. I jumped at the offer, of course, and we immediately walked down to where his pirogue was moored, and started, myself at the bottom to serve as guide. By the blessing of Providence, after about an hour’s search, we heard the cries from the wreck. I think I never felt so happy or so light-hearted in my life as I did at this moment; for there were so many chances against our finding it. We could not see many yards from our own boat. It was then about eleven o’clock, so that my companions had been exposed on the boat for upwards of five hours. Luckily, with great care, we got them safely into the pirogue, without capsizing her ; and by twelve o’clock we were safely housed under M. Chiron’s hospitable roof, who fed, clothed, and lodged us for the night. In the morning, the unfortunate Creole boatman was found dead, from cold and cramp, about half a mile from the place he was supposed to have landed at.

The kindness, hospitality, and truly courageous assistance afforded us by M. Chiron, at the risk of his own life and that of his son, are deserving of all praise. It was a service of danger to go out even at all in a pirogue on such a rough night; much more to go and seek for five drowning men three miles at sea. He wished his son not to go; but the latter would not allow his father to go without him. Constantly during our long search, when the son was getting tired of pulling the boat, the father would cry out and encourage him, saying ‘ Courage, mon fils!’

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