Samuel Downing: Man Overboard!

Samuel Downing, 1786-1801

Sailor of Southminster and my 6th great uncle

For a long time I believed that Samuel Downing, the first son of Southminster patriach Joseph Downing, had died in infancy.  It seemed the logical conclusion – there was no sign of him in any of the Southminster records or anywhere else in England for that matter and the parish register from the relevant years that would show his burial had been destroyed.  His mother and sister had also disappeared in this period, and his mother was clearly dead, as Joseph had remarried and described himself as a widower.

However, a chance Google one day brought up this document on the 1812 Privateers website.  The file was a transcription of a list of remittances sent home to the relatives of Royal Navy sailors killed at sea.   The line that caught my eye was as follows:

Name: Downing, Samuel.  Ship:  La Gaitie   When received:  18 Dec 1802.  Relation: Father Josh. Downing of Southminster, Essex

Even though Joseph’s name was misspelt, thanks to mention of Southminster, there was no mistaking the fact that this was my man.  Samuel had not died, he had become a sailor of the Napoleonic Wars!  It was quite common for children of a first marriage to find themselves a bit unwelcome when their surviving parent remarried, so perhaps this is why Samuel decided to leave Southminster.

A French covette ship, like the Gaiete

I googled onwards (never underestimate the potential for Google for solving your family mysteries) and found out something about Samuel’s ship, the HMS Gaiete.  She was originally a French ship, captured by the English ship HMS Arethusa in 1797.  She was then commissioned into the Royal Navy and on 4th March 1799 set sail for Jamaica.  On her way, she captured several large ships, and then went on to Dominica, where, along with several other ships, she assisted with suppressing a mutiny that had broken out amongst the West India Regiment.  The black soldiers had been mistreated horribly by the officers and had heard a rumour that they were to be sold as slaves – in response, they killed three officers and took over the fort.  All hell had broken loose.  Now the Navy needed to come in to restore order.  Was Samuel one of the sailors killed in the fighting?  What an exciting, heroic death!  I needed to find out more.

I had reached the limits of what I could find out from home, so I took myself off to the National Archives at Kew, where I could read the ship’s muster books for the Gaiete.  Samuel was there on the musters, having joined the ship on 17th August 1798 at the age of 22.  But there was also a note that his death date was 3rd October 1801, six months before the mutiny at Dominica.

Samuel on the muster. Southminster has been spelt “South Minns”, obviously no one had heard of it!

I turned my attention to the ship’s diary and found the relevant entry.  The ship was north west of Barbados at the time.

4th October 1801

Light breezes and clear.  Repairing sails.  Samuel Downing fell overboard and was drowned before the ship could reach him.

Not quite such a heroic death then, but entirely inkeeping with the inherited Downing predisposition towards clumsiness that persists to this day.

The sea off Barbados. Not a bad place to die, I suppose.

The lesson learned here is never to give up missing ancestors for dead without proof.  On that note, Samuel had a sister, Mary, and a brother, William, who similarly disappear without trace after their birth.  William is of particular interest, since he was born after the Southminster burial register went missing and thus if he had died, I should be able to find a burial record.  One day, I hope, I will find out what happened to them too.

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