Found and lost in the Bermuda Triangle
“The Bermuda Triangle underlines the fact that despite swift wings and the voice of radio, we still have a world large enough so that men and their machines and ships can disappear without a trace”.—Vincent H. Gaddis 1964.
If you need to escape from the sometime prison that is the paradise island of Bermuda, you now can take to the air, but you may also use the traditional method of travel by sea. Until 1612, when the island was permanently settled, it was a prison to those unfortunates who happened upon the place and its jagged reefs during a storm or in the middle of a moonless night. There are several extant tales of such happenstances where the crew managed to make it to land to be rescued by passing ships, or to leave its cedar-filled valleys and hills by making a small boat to continue their interrupted journey. Others simply disappeared in the oceanic wastes of the western North Atlantic, or if they perished on Bermuda itself, the herds of Spanish swine perhaps adding their carcases to their abbreviated island menu. Such was life in Bermuda between 1505, when the first humans spotted it, until 1612, when it was permanently connected with the outer world.
Needless to say, as many a boatman knows, ships have a tendency to sink and such a watery grave was the end of many vessels worldwide into the modern era. Vessels at sea often disappeared without trace and according to writers such as Vincent Gaddis and Charles Berlitz, the inventor and populariser of the concept of the “Bermuda Triangle” respectively, an inordinate amount took their leave in an area to the south of the island. The seas and skies of the Triangle are unlikely to be more dangerous than many other areas of the oceans seas, but if Bermuda still has a reputation worldwide after decades of tourism decline, it is for the Triangle, be one in the Mongolian Desert or the upper reaches of the Amazon. Perhaps it is the Triangle that is responsible for the near extinction of “Tourism Bermudiensis”, rather than our own insular misjudgments.
However, no such concept of a triangle of potential doom was known about when one Thomas King, USN, decided to brave the seas about Bermuda in his spectacular escape from the island during the War of 1812.
The conflict had been on for some months, when Thomas, along with his shipmates on the USS Vixen, was captured by His Majesty's Ship, Southampton, possibly within the Triangle, on 22 November 1812. Five days later, towards the bottom of the Triangle, both ships were wrecked near Exuma in the Bahamas archipelago. HMS Rhodian (a brig-sloop of the Cherokee Class, as were sister ships HMS Bermuda and HMS Beagle of Darwin fame) rescued the survivors two weeks later and the Americans were taken to Jamaica and housed in the inappropriately named prison ship Loyalist. The following spring, King was paroled and sent home in the cartel USS Rebecca Sims, possible that built for Joseph Sims at Philadelphia in 1801. Having thus passed through the Triangle again, misfortune lay its unjust hand on King, as the cartel was taken by HMS Poitiers, 74, as she “entered the bay of Delaware on second of May”, 1813. Again in chains, as it were, gunner yeoman King and one other (both thought to be English) were conveyed to Bermuda, at the apex of the Triangle, to be housed as prisoners of war in the dockyard receiving ship, HMS Ruby, 64, arriving on 25 May 1813.
There attempts were made to have the Americans declare themselves Englishmen and thus enter the Royal Navy as, in effect, impressed seaman, but King relates that “we would sooner die” than switch allegiances. King soon resolved to make good his escape and in the early hours of 25 July 1813 he stole a small yawl that was moored alongside the Ruby, with sails and rudder yet in place. In that small vessel, often awash in water, he made Cape Henry, Virginia, on 2 August 1813, in what many would consider an epic journey, and perhaps if one was a modern American, “to Freedom”, in present jargon. King sold the boat, which was “about 22 feet long, 7 feet wide, and 3 deep, with a foresail, mainsail and jib” (having used the last for a sleeping bag on his first evening of freedom on land), for thirty dollars and headed to Washington to check in with authorities with his tale of woe and bravery in Bermuda and adjacent seas.
Of the voyage, he related that “I suffered a great deal for want of sleep … my lips were parched with the sun; I used to irritate them with my fingers to try if the pain would keep me awake; but all proved ineffectual”. When King did sleep, he often found the boat had turned around and was heading back to Bermuda, so after four days, “I tried to steer by tying my hand to the tiller, which proved to be very useful to me the rest of the passage”. For those, like Mark Twain, for whom a sea voyage to Bermuda was a trip to heaven, but “you have to go through Hell to get there”, Thomas appears to have been seasick and “suffered a great deal in the gulf [Stream], owing to the continual motion of the boat”.
After his escape from the Bermuda Dockyard, Thomas King remained in the US Navy, with his final service aboard the USS Lynx. On 11 January 1820, the schooner, Thomas King “Acting Master”, departed St. Mary's, Georgia, for Kingston, Jamaica, via the Triangle: “She was never seen nor heard from again, and despite the searching of the schooner Nonsuch, no trace of her or her 50-man crew was ever found”.
Thus having found his way out, Thomas King was lost forever in the Bermuda Triangle, except that his name and memory survive in the maritime annals of the island and of our great neighbour and friend to the west. Fortunately for the modern traveller, the western flank of the Triangle lies below the rhumb line from Bermuda to the shopping malls of Charlotte, North Carolina and emporia at points north of Cape Henry.
The writer thanks Dr Kevin Crisman of Texas A&M University for references on Thomas King and Tim Hodgson for material on the Bermuda Triangle.
Dr Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-5480.