Mullion Cove has to be one of the most picturesque places in Cornwall. On a calm day the little harbour, enclosed by the protective arms of its sturdy walls, seems sheltered not only by these man-made additions but also by the rocky island just off shore. But as we well know this coast has many faces and on a stormy night when the sea is running it can be a vicious and unforgiving place.
So when the Dutch sailing ship Jonkheer became embayed by gale force winds in Mount’s Bay on the 24th March 1867 perhaps her fate was inevitable or perhaps, just perhaps, there were other more sinister forces at work.
Ship to Shore
I have always imagined that watching a shipwreck must be like watching disaster unfolding in slow motion. You can see what is going to happen but are powerless to stop it.
That day in March more than 150 years ago the Jonkheer Messter van de Wall van Putterschoek, her full name though no one knew it at the time, had been spotted by the Prussia Cove coastguard and Mousehole pilots watching from the shore. She was seen tacking back and forth between Lizard Point and Gunwalloe for much of the day unable to escape Mount’s Bay because of a strong onshore wind.
The ship, a Dutch East Indiaman captained by Klass Lammerts, had been at sea for 140 days, more than 4 months, and was on its way to the Netherlands from Batavia, near present-day Jakarta, Indonesia. On board was a cargo of 850 tons of coffee, bags of arrowroot and ingots of tin worth £50,000 (that’s roughly £2.9 million today) as well as about twenty passengers and crew.
The fact that the vessel and its captain were foreign would never usually have been a factor in it being lent any necessary assistance but apparently a few days previously there had been some kind of incident in which the pilots in Mounts Bay had been “poorly treated” by a number of foreign captains. As a consequence the men were reluctant to go out to the ship in such bad weather and risk their lives only to receive another hostile reception, so they didn’t go.
Most reports emphasis that no distress signal had been given and the ship did not appear to be in any immediate danger but The Cornish Telegraph later wrote that the pilots observing her from the shore already knew what the outcome would be.
“Their experience taught them that, unless ably handed and very much favoured, she must ashore!”The Cornish Telegraph, 27 March 1867
As the sun set that evening the embayed ship slowly faded from view and no doubt from the minds of the men who had been watching her that day.
The Sole Survivor
At about 11pm Reverend Harvey of Mullion, who was up late reading, thought he heard a strange sound coming from the coast above the noise of the storm outside. He later wrote that he had opened a window and listened but heard nothing more so made his way to bed.
Then at about 2am on the 25th March the flare of a distress rocket was spotted above Mullion cliffs and soon after a coastguard found some wreckage on the beach at Poldhu and walked to Mullion village to report that there must be a ship in trouble. However, although newspaper reports claim that the lifeboat was sent for it seems that nothing more could be found that night, no sign of a ship . . .
It wasn’t until dawn that the awful scene was revealed.
The unfortunate vessel had been almost completely smashed to pieces and debris was scattered all along the coast between Mullion Cove and Poldhu Cove. That morning the bodies of three women, a tiny baby and a sailor were recovered from the water and then, to everyone’s surprise, a survivor was spotted, stumbling around on the rocks at the base of the cliff known as Men-y-grib.
“At about midnight a large ship was driven ashore at Mullion and became a total wreck. The captain, his wife, some members of his family and the entire crew except one met with a watery grave. It is stated that 21 persons have lost their lives in the wreck of the ill-fated ship.”Western Morning News, 28 March 1867
The man, Georgio Buffani (or Befanio), was clearly dishevelled and disorientated but miraculously completely unharmed. He was taken to the local vicarage and left in the care of Rev. Harvey who tried to get from him some indication of what had happened. And this is when the strangeness of this story begins.
Georgio spoke very little English but the vicar was able to establish that he was Greek and had joined the ship in Batavia, 4 months previously, yet despite this he claimed not to know the name of the ship, or the name of the captain or any of the crew. He was also unable or unwilling to explain why he had a lady’s gold watch and chain in his possession.
His behaviour could of course be easily put down to shock, confusion caused by the terrible events he had just survived, or perhaps the language barrier but when the inquest was held a few days later on 27th March things just got more peculiar.
Over the next few days coffee beans began washing up on every beach around Mount’s Bay, locals gathered the cargo up in buckets from the surf and loaded on to carts in the hopes of drying it and making some use of the precious commodity. The valuable tin was also recovered.
“Tons of coffee were collected and carted away to Penzance, only to prove a ruinous speculation to the purchasers, the salt water had rendered it quite useless. Messrs Jackson and Jones, of Penberth Cove, were engaged to recover the sunken tin, which they did by means of water glasses and long tongs, at a remuneration of £15 per ton. It was found lying with the anchors, chain cables, &c., of the ship, in 6-fathom water.”MULLYON: ITS HISTORY, SCENERY AND ANTIQUITIES; NARRATIVES OF SHIPWRECKS ON ITS COAST etc, E. G. HARVEY, B.A., VICAR, 1875
And of course the sea gradually gave up her dead.
The parish records for Mullion show that bodies from the wreck continued to be found until the 13th April but in the early days those recovered from the water first were laid out on the floor of the tower of Mullion Church, awaiting the inquest, identification and burial.
And while the newspapers began to carry more details of the wreck and descriptions of the passengers the ship’s name was still conspicuous by its absence.
The inquest was held in the Old Inn in Mullion on 27th March, presided over by County Coroner Mr Roscorla. An interpreter, Giacomo Carlo Balestreri of Penzance, was brought in to help examine Georgio who still claimed to not know the name of the ship he had been sailing on for four months.
After being shown a list of the names of the possible ships expected to be in Cornish waters at that time he eventually picked the ‘Kosmopoliet’ of Dordrect under Captain Konig as the one he had been a crew member on. Georgio claimed that they had sailed from Batavia on 25th November 1866, that two sailors had died of disease onboard and that they had stopped at St Helena where another sick sailor had been left behind. He then gave evidence on the events surrounding the wreck.
Georgio said that despite tacking all day they had been unable to get out of Mount’s Bay but that the captain had hoisted no signal. He claimed:
“About four o’clock on Tuesday morning the ship struck on the rocks near Poljew Cove. Everyone on board was on deck at the time, and the captain cried bitterly. In 20 minutes the vessel broke up. I was on the jibboom with two other sailors who were soon washed off. After some time I was also washed off but thrown onto a rock to which I clung.”Falmouth Packet, 30 March 1867
Georgio claimed that this was the third shipwreck that he had survived, and not only that, it was the third time that he had been the only survivor!
It was conjectured during the inquest that the huge weight of the tin ingots had broken the back of the ship, causing it to break in two when it struck the rocks, the stricken vessel then went to pieces very quickly in the waves. The coroner ruled that the deaths onboard the ship identified as the ‘Kosmopoliet’ had been caused by “Accidental Drowning” and the case was closed.
Discrepancies & Suspicions
Within hours of the verdict problems with Georgio’s evidence began to emerge.
The Dutch Consul at Falmouth, Mr Board, arrived in Mullion bringing with him two Dutch captains who were also from the Dutch East Indian company. They disputed that the wrecked ship could be the ‘Kosmopoliet’ as she wasn’t due in England for two more weeks. The men insisted that the ship must have been the Jonkheer Meester van de Wall van Putterschoek under Captain Klass Lammerts.
This was seemingly confirmed when a piece of linen with the initials K.L. embroidered on was found and all doubt firmly banished when a few days later a certificate actually bearing Lammerts’ name was discovered washed up on one of the beaches.
The timings that Georgio had given for what had happened onboard during the coroner’s court also didn’t match the witnesses on the shore that had reported seeing wreckage and hearing distress rockets much earlier in the night. And it seems that people were struggling to understand why the captain had not asked for assistance earlier.
Rev. Harvey, who had heard the strange sound at 11pm, who had described Georgio as being unwilling to talk and who didn’t like how he was unable to explain the ladies gold watch which he had been found with, later wrote:
“The almost unaccountable behaviour of this vessel, on the afternoon previous to the wreck, caused grave suspicions in the minds of those on shore that there was mutiny or extreme disorder of some kind on board, but of this nothing certain could be ascertained.
There is, also, a discrepancy in the accounts as to the time of the occurrence of the wreck, which has never been solved satisfactorily. The coastguard’s man arrived at Mullyon Churchtown about 3 o’clock, a.m., saying he had seen a large vessel in danger. That was when the tide had ebbed for four hours. When the villagers went down to the coast they found coffee, and walked over portions of the wreck, which was lying right up at high water mark. The vessel, then, must have struck before or, at least about, the time of high water, and that was at eleven o’clock the previous evening.”
And on top of all of this it seems that the locals had become very suspicious of a man who had been the sole survivor of three shipwrecks. Was it just bad luck or something more sinister that saw disaster follow him around? If nothing else they saw him as something of an omen of bad luck.
Soon after the inquest Georgio Buffani disappeared and was never seen in Mullion again.
The Wealthy Widow’s Husband
As the days passed, and with the ship now identified, the names of some of the passengers started to be confirmed. Alongside the crew there had been six passengers, three women, two men and a baby girl.
Willemina Sophia Brugurt was 25 years old and had given birth during the voyage, there was some implication that she made have been the captain’s mistress. Her newborn daughter was found wearing a necklace of tiny coral beads, a night cap and nightgown. Mrs Mayer of Utrecht, was described as “a very finely made woman” while Mrs Sophia Woollett, a 49 year old wealthy widow, was said to be “remarkable handsome” and wearing two gold rings and a heart-shaped locket on a long gold chain with the likeness of a young man inside.
Mrs Woollett, who had been born in Holland to English parents, had been living in Indonesia for the pass twenty years. It was said that her husband had died nine years before and that she had been returning to England with “a small fortune” to go and live with her sister, Mrs Schroeder, in Manchester.
She had written to her sister when the Jonkheer had docked in St Helena to say that she was on her way but of course, so close to home, disaster had struck. And she and the tin box containing all her worldly possessions had been lost with the ship.
In May 1867 the Cornish Echo reported that Messrs. Jackson of Penberth, the same men salvaging the tin, had succeeded in finding the box on the seabed. Rev. Harvey was asked to witness its opening, he recorded what was inside.
THE CONTENTS OF BOX : Bag with 119 two and half guldens [gilders?], 86 guldens, 10 gulden notes, 3 twenty-five gulden notes, 3 Victoria sovereigns, 5 small pieces silver coin, 2 gold bracelets, 2 brooches, 3 pairs gold earrings, string of beads. 200 gulden note, Java bank. 40 gulden note, Amsterdam bank. 7000 gulden bill of exchange, in the name Herr A. van D., Rotterdam bank. 7000 gulden bill of exchange, in the name S. W., Rotterdam bank. A Will in which Sophia Woollett leaves all her property to her sister. An English New Testament, and pocket book.
The contents was valued at about £1200 – £1300, about £80,000 in today’s money.
According to Mrs Woollett’s will it was to be inherited by her sister however newspaper reports of her death and the fortune’s recovery must have reached Indonesia because Mr Woollett, Sophia’s supposedly dead husband, suddenly appeared to claim it! He maintained that he had been ‘accidently separated’ from her when he had mysteriously disappeared nine year previously. According to Rev Harvey, Sophia’s sister and Woollett then entered into legal wranglings that went on for years and swallowed up much of the inheritance.
There is no way of knowing if anything untoward was happening on the Jonkheer on that final day. And just because a man has been the sole survivor of three shipwrecks doesn’t mean that he can be held responsible for his bad (or good) luck in any way. I suppose for me what really seems scarcely credible is that you could sail on a ship for four months and not know its name, or the name of the man in command, or the names of any of your shipmates. Was there a reason that he wanted to delay the identification of the Jonkheer and her passengers? Or was he just a sandwich short of a picnic?
And the gold watch gives me pause too. Did he grab it from one of the women in the panic, had he already stolen it during the voyage . . . or was it simply an heirloom, inherited from his mother perhaps, his only valuable possession, if that was the case why not just say so?
Something good did come from this terrible tragedy however.
Rev. Harvey was mortified by the deaths in his parish, there had been other wrecks earlier in the year before the Jonkheer, and wrote several scathing letters to the local papers. The community put together an appeal and raised enough money for their own lifeboat at Mullion Cove, which was delivered in September 1867.