When Louisbourg was captured by the British July 26, 1758, Ile St-Jean (Prince Edward Island) now had no choice but to capitulate. Thousands of Acadians had gone there seeking refuge since it was still a possession of France.
On September 8, 1758, those Acadians who were captured were deported to France or to England in 9 ships. One ship was battered by storms at sea and arrived at Boulogne-en-Mer, France with only 179 survivors on December 26, 1758.
The ill-fated Violet and the Duke William sank on December 10, 1758 carrying at least 700 to their watery graves. Though it seems that there were serious attempts to save the Acadians being deported before both vessels sank, nontheless both went down to the bottom of the sea with more than 700 Acadians. A third ship, the Ruby, was also lost at sea leaving another 200 Acadians to the sea. The ship was headed for St-Malo, France and there were 310 Acadians onboard. Two hundred perished.
Some have claimed that those ships were unseaworthy. Stephen White disagrees with that and says "... that the two ships that sank were unseaworthy is highly questionable, because I believe that there is no evidence to that effect. Indeed, the Duke William had just crossed that Atlantic in the opposite direction, carrying troops, and it is highly unlikely that the British would have transported troops in vessels that were known to have been unseaworthy. Rather, the sinking of the Duke William and the Violet may more readily be attributed to bad timing. The North Atlantic is difficult to cross at certain times of the year, because of storms. According to an article by Earl Lockerby in the Cahiers de la Société historique acadienne (vol. XXXII , pp. 4-39), the British had forborne from deporting the inhabitants of Île St-Jean in 1745 because doing so after the end of September was deemed to be too late in the year for the successful execution of such a project (p. 13). In 1758, however, they went ahead with the expulsion, even though it meant sending out transports much later than that. The Duke William and the Violet only left the coast of Cape Breton Island at the end of November. It did not really matter how "seaworthy" those ships were; they were being sent out into a sea that few ships at the time could be guaranteed to cross safely. Another thing I should point out is the fact that there were actually three ships lost in the expulsion of 1758. The third was the Ruby, which went aground in the Azores, with the loss of about two thirds of her passengers."
Captain Nichols, was in command of the Duke William, and he objected to the authorities that it was impossible for his vessel, on account of its condition, of his arriving safe in Old France at that season of the year. Nevertheless, he was
forced to receive the Acadians onboard and to proceed on his way to France.*
They left the island in November. On account of the uncooperative wind, the fleet had to lay in the Gut of Canso till November 25, when, thanks to a strong gale from the Northwest, they were finally able to sail. After three days at sea, a storm came up during the night, with sleet and rain, the sea running "mountains high". After a couple of days of high seas and storms, the fleet was dispersed.
After a couple of weeks separation, the Duke William and the Violet regrouped on December 10th. Captain Sugget, of the Violet, told Captain Nichols that his vessel was in a faltering condition, that it had taken on much water, that the pumps were blocked and that he was afraid of sinking before the break of day. There was a storm that would just not end! The Duke William got its three pumps to the ready.
Early next morning at about 4a.m., the Duke William received a frightful pounding from the rough sea and began to take on water. When the captain saw how fast the ship was filling with water, he awoke the Acadians telling them the danger they were in and had them work the pumps. At day's first light, they saw that the Violet was in danger of going down. "It came on a most violent squall for ten minutes, and when it cleared up, they found, to their great and deep concern, that the poor unfortunate Violet, with near four hundred souls, was gone to the bottom".
Meanwhile, everybody worked to save the Duke William. Hatches were opened but water continued to fill the ship as quickly as it was bailed or pumped out. Everything was done to save the ship.
On the fourth day at approximately 6:00 a.m., the realization struck that the ship would sink and they would all perish. Father Girard, pastor, was with the Acadians. He was asked to tell and prepare his flock to meet their fate. After about a half an hour, he told them to prepare to meet their Eternal Judge and he gave them general absolution.
Then came the awesome pronouncement of the captain, which "in his own judgement was right", according to his own words, by which he was "sending four hundred persons to eternity".
Two lifeboats were lowered to the water and the captain and his crew embarked. The Acadians were left on the ship to die. "Seeing the priest lay his arms over the rails in great emotion, with all the apprehensions of death pointed in his countenance, the captain asked him if he were willing to take his chance with him. He replied, "yes". After giving a last benediction to his parishioners who were about to die, "he tucked up his canonical robes, and went into the boat". It seems that Father Girard has been criticized for not remaining with his parishioners on that ship.
Captain Nichols does not tell us of those last moments but we can imagine the worse as the large transport broke up and the Acadians were thrown and sucked into the cold waters of the Atlantic. One Frenchman only went into the boat, on which his wife said: 'Will you thus leave your wife and children to perish without you!' Remorse touched him and he returned to share their
fate". In the meantime four Acadians, two being married, threw overboard a small jolly-boat [A boat of medium size belonging to a ship.] along with two oars, and swam to it.
Those four Acadians just had time to climb aboard their makeshift lifeboat.
The two lifeboats, with twenty-seven in one and nine in the other including Captain Nichols and Father Girard reached land close to Falmouth, England. Miraculously, the jolly-boat also reached England safely.
The fate of these Acadians was sad indeed! Be it by the sea, disease or epidemics, Acadians died in great numbers! More than half of the Acadians made prisoners on Prince Edward Island between 1758-1759 died on the way to British ports. Fortunately, before the British arrived at Ile St-Jean, French governor, Raymond de Villejoint had already sent between 700 to 800 Acadians to La Rochelle, France, and yet another group was sent off to Québec numbering about 1,000.
Excerpts, sources and references: Stephen A. White, Genealogist, University of Moncton
Father Clarence d'Entremont
Pennsylvania Gazette, March 29, 1759