Old Royal Navy Burial at Carter Bay BC

Carter Bay

Shipwright CPO Howard Southin RCN tightens bolts on the permanent brass plaque which will preserve the facts surrounding the death of Able–Seaman John Carter RN
(Photo from The Crowsnest E-42098.)

In 1957 I had the privilege of traveling in HMCS Stettler up the coast of British Columbia for some weeks. One of the tasks the ship undertook was to inspect a plaque installed by members of the ship’s company of HMCS Jonquiere (LCDR C.D. Gibson RCN), A working party comprised of Lt. Don Carmichael RCN, Lt. F.C. Allwood RCN, Lt. R.W. Carlyle RCN, Sub–Lt. J. Stamhuis RCN, Shipwright CPO Howard Southin RCN and Leading Seaman Kenneth Buck RCN located the grave site and installed the plaque. One hundred and sixty four years previously a tragedy had occurred which resulted in the death of one of Captain George Vancouver’s crew men and Admiral Pullen was keen to commemorate the event and to mark the site of the grave.

We visited this lonely spot and went ashore faced with dense coastal vegetation. The site of the grave was barely visible even after such a short interval from the original clearing of the site. The plaque had already been stolen which was cause for huge disappointment in the landing party. The story has stayed with me ever since and red tide has been a concern when I consume sea food.

An article in the 1957 Volume of Crowsnest magazine neatly sums up the events that preceded our visit:

"Carter Bay in Finlayson Channel was named in 1793 by Captain Vancouver for Able–Seaman John Carter of Mitcham Surrey UK. Aged 24, he was an experienced seaman serving in HMS Discovery who was part of a small boat party exploring the coast. He died from eating mussels contaminated by red tide. He was buried in Carter Bay 16/06/1793. The mussels were gathered at a place later named Poison Cove about 15 miles northeast of Carter Bay which is located in Mussel Inlet. The mussels were roasted for breakfast at 0800 and by 0900 several of the men were unwell. The men drank salt water as an emetic and purged the poison from their stomachs. Carter refused to drink the salt water and died at 1330 while pulling his oar. After his death his was buried in Carter Bay which presented the first suitable burial site."

"The circumstances of Carter’s death are recounted in "Vancouver’s Voyage", Volume II, Book the Fourth, Chapter 1, page 284, under the date June 1793. The incident occurred on the 15th of the month when the Chatham’s cutter and the Discovery’s small cutter were away in company from the ships on a survey trip under the command of Mr. Johnstone, Master of HMS Chatham. Captain Vancouver’s account follows:"

"In the morning of the 15th, the examination of the continental shore was continued, and from the above north point of this arm the channel was found to extend in a direction N24W about five miles, where the larboard or western shore formed a sharp point, from whence another branch took a direction S55W, and united with that which they had navigated for about 4 1/2 miles north; then took a direction N70E, 4 miles further, where it terminated in latitude 52° 561’, longitude 231° 54’ forming some little bays on the southern side. In one of these they stopped to breakfast, where finding some muscles (Vancouver’s spelling), a few of the people ate of them roasted; as had been their usual practice when any of these fish were met with; about nine o‘clock they proceeded in very rainy unpleasant weather down the south-westerly channel, and about one landed for the purpose of dining."

"Mr. Johnstone was now informed by Mr. Barrie, that soon after they had quitted the cove, where they had breakfasted, several of his crew who had eaten of the muscles were seized with a numbness about their faces and extremities; their whole bodies were very shortly affected in the same manner, attended with sickness and giddiness. Mr. Barrie had, when in England, experienced a similar disaster, from the same cause, and was himself indisposed on the present occasion. Recollecting that he had received great relief by violent perspiration, he took an oar, and earnestly advised those who were unwell, viz. John Carter, John M’Alpin, and John Thomas, to use their utmost exertions in pulling, in order to throw themselves into a profuse perspiration; this Mr. Barrie effected in himself, and found considerable relief; but the instant the boat landed, and their exertions at the oar ceased, the three seamen were obliged to be carried on shore. One man only in the Chatham’s boat was indisposed in a similar way."

"Mr. Johnstone entertained no doubt of the cause from which this evil had arisen, and having no medical assistance within his reach, ordered warm water to be immediately got ready, in the hope, that by copiously drinking, the offending matter might have been removed. Carter attracted nearly the whole of their attention, in devising every means to afford him relief, by rubbing his temples and body, and applying warm cloths to his stomach; but all their efforts at length proved ineffectual, and being unable to swallow the warm water, the poor fellow expired about half an hour after he was landed."

"His death was so tranquil, that it was some little time before they could be perfectly certain of his dissolution. There was no doubt that this was occasioned by a poison contained in the muscles (sic) he had eaten about eight o’clock in the morning; at nine he first found himself unwell, and died at half past one; he pulled his oar until the boat landed but when he arose to go on shore he fell down, and never more got up, but by the assistance of his companions. From his first being taken his pulse were (sic) regular, though it gradually grew fainter and weaker until he expired, when his lips turned black, and his hands, face, and neck were much swelled."

"Such was the foolish obstinacy of the others who were affected, that it was not until this poor unfortunate fellow resigned his fate that they could be prevailed upon to drink the hot water; his fate however induced them to follow the advice of their officers, and the desired effect being produced, they all obtained great relief; and though they were not immediately restored to their former state of health, yet, in all probability, it preserved their lives. From Mr. Barrie’s account it appeared, that the evil had arisen not from the number of muscles (sic) eaten, but from the deleterious quality of some particular ones; and these he conceived were those gathered on the land, and not those taken from the rocks. Mr. Barrie had eaten as many as any of the party and was the least affected by them."

"This very unexpected and unfortunate circumstance detained the boats detained the boats about three hours; when, having taken the corpse on board, and refreshed the three men, who still remained incapable of assisting themselves, with some warm tea, and having covered them up warm in the boat, they continued their route, in very rainy, unpleasant weather, down the south–east channel, until they stopped in a bay for the night, where they buried the dead body. To this bay I gave the name of Carter’s Bay, after this poor unfortunate fellow; it is situated in latitude 52° 48’, longitude 231° 42’; and to distinguish the fatal spot where the muscles (sic) were eaten, I have called it Poison Cove, and the branch leading to it Muscle Canal."

"Captain Vancouver calculated longitude eastward from Greenwich as he had come by way of the Cape of Good Hope. The International Date Line was not then in existence, hence longitude was, in this case, shown greater than 1800. Today this position would be given as 52° 20.5’ N and 128° 01’ W. Similarly, it is possible that Captain Vancouver should have entered the date as June 14, rather than June 15."

Carter Grave

The Grave of Able–Seaman John Carter RN as seen in 1957.
(Photo from the Crowsnest (E–42094).)

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