The Personal Diary of Stephen Matheson: Captain of the Merchant Vessel Artemis

PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Lambert

16th September 1861
It is not regarded as common practice for officers to keep a detailed log of each journey. All that is generally required by the company - and all that they truly care about - are hard facts: cargo and the quantity of it, a headcount and register of the crew members, and a tally of any illnesses or deaths amongst them. Some Captains like to keep a personal diary as a memento of their nautical exploits; something to look back on when they are old and infirm. I do not. I have my memories to comfort me, and if my mind should ever falter, my career will be nothing but a mere irrelevance anyway. I have always remained true to that philosophy, however, on this occasion I have decided to make an exception. So far, the events of this voyage have been so…strange I feel that it is my duty to record them, just in case, God forbid, anything should happen to us all.

We set sail from India on the 26th of August. Our time in dock was enjoyable and relatively uneventful; none of the crew had been either injured or imprisoned - the latter was a genuine rarity! Of course, they indulged in all of the hedonistic pleasures that men crave after five hard months at sea, but thankfully I still had a full and healthy crew when it was time to depart. Our cargo (as usual) consists mainly of tea and various exotic spices. Although I have completed this run numerous times, I always find it to be a joy. The fragrant smell that spices produce is a welcome alternative to the stale, damp musk that has permeated the timber of the ship.

The first few days of our journey were as close to perfection as it gets. The weather was fine, the wind filled our sails, and the calm open sea glistened all around like a deep blue jewel (I have always thought it strange how being ‘imprisoned’ on a small vessel can induce a feeling of such utter freedom). We were making good time, and our progress was ahead of schedule. However, in spite of our high spirits and exceptional luck, I do not harbour complacency. I know that circumstances can change rapidly at sea. Unfortunately, (as happens so often) this proved to be the case. About two weeks after we set sail problems started to arise.

A large number of the crew started to become sick. Of the ninety eight men on board, about forty had fallen ill. Shepherd (a stout Scotsman and also the ship’s doctor) was mystified by the apparent outbreak and was unable to diagnose the cause. He checked the inflicted men and noted that all of them were suffering from identical symptoms; a swelling around the neck and shoulders, accompanied by a dangerously high temperature - which in turn had caused many of them to experience frequent convulsions.

Today – just one week later - the men that had first exhibited symptoms of the illness are in a mortally dire state. They scream constantly, complaining that their bodies burn with agony.

The worst of them have also been rendered immobile. Shepherd is fearful that they may have contracted a rare disease whilst we were in port. He suggested that we should quarantine the wretched souls in the hold to minimise the possible spread of contagion. His proposition filled me with trepidation. I contemplated the morality of imprisoning the unfortunates- would it not be more humane for the sick to endure their final hours in the freedom above deck, not imprisoned in the dark belly of the vessel like dangerous animals?  The decision placed a heavy burden on my conscience, but with the well-being of the remaining crew in mind (and ashamedly my own) I sanctioned the action. Shepherd stated that he would honour his duty and stay with the infected men in order to attend to them. Three other crew members; Lock, Skrivens, and Murphy also volunteered to assist him.

Just ten minutes ago, as the copper light sank in the horizon, the four men ventured below. I have to admit that I respect their bravery and integrity. It shames me, but I cannot say if I would have put myself forward should our roles have been reversed.

18th September

The infection that the crew are suffering from has not spread so far; perhaps the quarantine measures that I authorised have been effective? I converse with Shepherd on an hourly basis to ascertain how the situation is developing. He informs me that both he and his assistants exhibit none of the symptoms of the illness, though the infected sailors are in a dreadful way. He concluded that the majority of them may have only hours to live. I pray that they do perish soon, as their agonising screams relentlessly echo throughout the ship. Unsurprisingly, the morale of the crew is extremely low. First mate Barker and I are trying to remain positive in order to motivate the men, but we too are suffering from the impact of this tragic situation. I fear that we will have to dock at the first opportunity as we cannot risk being stranded should more of the crew fall ill. We have reached a point in our passage where it is illogical to turn back, our only option is to head for the Cape and pray that good fortune favours us.

19th September

The crew and I were woken in the dead of night by a blood-curdling scream. The cry was made even more striking by its urgency. It shared no similarity with the groaning of the sick (which itself had become almost perversely mundane), it was more…visceral; the sound of utter terror. I knew that it came from the hold. Barker and I gathered the remaining crew members out on deck. There was a cruel chill in the air that seemingly cut to the bone. The darkness was alleviated only by the cool blue light of the stars. Barker and I handed out a few lanterns. We selected ten sailors to act as a search party; their primary task was to investigate the source of the howl. They congregated around the entrance which led down to the cargo hold. One of the men slowly opened the weather-worn oak door and I shouted into the darkness, calling for Shepherd and his companions. There was no reply. I tried to rally the men but we all feared the worst. They cautiously descended the creaky staircase. I joined them at the rear of the party and Stanson (a brash young cockney hand) led the way. His lantern cut through the eerie gloom as we ventured further down into the depths of the ship. The hull groaned under the relentless pressure of the sea.

The pleasant aromas of cumin and coriander still hung in the air, but the prevailing smell was now far more macabre. It was foul, the smell of disease, of rot, of decomposition; it was the stench of death. Muffled groans emanated from the hold below. Stanson looked back at me but I ushered him forward. He reached the foot of the stairs and dubiously entered the chamber. As he glanced across the breadth of the cargo bay his face suddenly contorted into an expression of revulsion and horror. He dropped the lantern and frantically scrambled toward us, shouting for us to retreat back to the deck. The men were consumed by panic and began barging and clawing their way toward the starlit portal. None of us were aware of what Stanson had witnessed but the frenzy in his demeanour was enough to convince us to comply with his demands. Members at the rear of our party screamed for help but terror had defeated us. Inhuman noises sounded from the stairs as the last men jumped out onto the deck. We slammed the door shut and secured it. Frantic bangs came from the other side. They were delivered with such force that the hardwood frame shook and creaked from the impact.

Some of the men braced the door with their shoulders in an attempt to lessen the damage. It took about five minutes of physical exertion to repel the onslaught but eventually the banging ceased. When the mania had died down, Barker conducted a headcount. Only six of us had escaped. None of the survivors, including myself, had caught eye of what lurked below. The only witnesses had no doubt succumbed to a horrific fate in the depths of the ship.

I know now that we have to get off this ship. A malignant evil is among us. Unfortunately, we are at least a week away from reaching the Cape. I am unsure if we will be able to survive until then but we have no alternative. I plan to keep the hold sealed until we dock. We only carry a small selection of arms; twenty cutlasses and my hand pistol. Despite this I fear that we have little chance of defending ourselves should anything escape. God help us all.

20th September

We have no food and very little water. The merciless sun is unbearable. I am now aware that amidst the panic yesterday I made an error of judgement; our supplies are kept below. They are now entombed with…what, I am not sure. Maybe it is possible for us to endure a lack of food until we dock, but without drinking water (and in this sweltering heat) we cannot survive. There appears to be no sign of rain. Ungodly noises frequently reverberate from the decks below, seeping through every gap in the timber, like a plague-ridden fog. The crew are sure that the Devil is amongst us. Barker - who is usually a man of shrewd intellect and cast iron resolve – has become manically irrational. Just this morning he needed to be restrained from throwing himself into the ocean. He was adamant that the foam in our wake would cleanse him of all sin. Whether he was suffering from delusion created by a lack of fluid, or mental infirmity is uncertain. If only Shepherd were here to assist my good friend. Our only option is to continue on our current course and pray for mercy.

21st September

We are all becoming weak from dehydration. I regret that we must venture below deck once more and attempt to retrieve some supplies. Thankfully, Barker has regained some composure after his temporary breakdown. He is now determined that we should face our fate like men. Everyone is fearful but the crew and I concur with his statement. The arms have been distributed. It is time for action.

21st September

We have been over run, only I remain. I have barricaded myself within my cabin. I am unsure how long I can endure this but there is no hope of escape. It all happened so fast.

Barker and I had once again organised a party of men (the twenty who had been issued cutlasses) to venture below deck. The atmosphere was thick with dread as the men were aware that something lurked down there. Barker joined the party. I looked away and handed him my pistol. I felt consumed by guilt and embarrassment but I could not go down there (I am a sailor but I am no soldier). Barker dutifully accepted the weapon but his eyes seemed to unearth the emotions that I desperately tried to conceal.  I embraced my friend and wished him good luck as he descended into the dark abyss. The remaining crew and I waited in silence as their footsteps echoed from the staircase. For a minute all was quiet, only the creaking timbers of the ship disrupted the morbid tranquillity. Then suddenly, a scream, and instantaneously chaos erupted below us. The sound was surreal; like a living nightmare –guttural inhuman cries, agony, terror, shattering bone, tearing, ripping... Then frantic footsteps, clambering up the staircase.

The men and I prepared ourselves as four of our companions burst forth from the gloom. They were blood-splattered and covered with gore. Some of their clothing had been torn and hung from their bodies like flayed skin. I shared a brief glance with one of them (it was Robson- a towering, robust Welshman) his face had been consumed by insanity. He ran past me like a man possessed and hurled himself into the ocean. Two more of them followed him into the water. I ordered the men to secure the door. As they reached the portal I heard my pistol fire, and then Barker appeared in the doorway. The flesh of his right arm had been badly torn and bone protruded from just below his elbow. He looked me in the eye and opened his mouth as if to speak, but he was instantly pulled back into the darkness with savage ferocity. Rational thought escaped me and I turned and ran. I dared not look back as I reached my cabin and lurched thorough the entrance. I sealed it with haste and retreated to my desk. I could hear the men shouting. They had failed to lock the door in time and…it (they?) had broken free. A sailor banged on my door, screaming for me to let him enter but I dared not move. He fell silent.

The noise is unbearable. I cannot describe it but I know that no one is alive out there. I have set a new course to take us away from land. I pray that our ship remains undiscovered.

22nd September

The night was horrific. I could not snatch any sleep. At first it was constant, but then intermittently something would bang, or scrape at my chamber door. I am exhausted, and dehydrated. Maybe it would be easier to just open the door and succumb to my fate? No, I will not. I will remain here until my body gives in. I pray to God every hour but my calls are unanswered. Perhaps this is the work of the Devil as the men insisted? The ship is still set toward the open sea. My will is weak.

23rd September

My door shook viciously at dawn. It remained secure. I did not attempt to brace it. No strength remains. My head pounds….the banging, I hear it even when it ceases. I cannot write any longer. Vision is blurry. I....must…rest.

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