HMS Tribune (1796)

HMS Tribune (1796)

HMS "Tribune" was a 36-gun fifth rate frigate of the Royal Navy. Originally a French ship, she was captured and commissioned into service in the Navy, but only served for a year before being wrecked with substantial loss of life.



She was originally the French ship "Tribune", and in mid 1796, was sailing in company with another French ship, the "Tamise". At daybreak on 8 June the French ships were spotted by HMS "Unicorn" and HMS "Santa Margarita", who proceeded to chase the French, off the south coast of Ireland. The "Tamise" eventually turned to engage her pursuers, but was captured after a twenty minute battle with the "Santa Margarita". The "Tribune" continued to attempt to escape the "Unicorn" but was eventually engaged in a running fight which lasted ten hours. The "Unicorn" was eventually able to pull alongside and a concentrated period of fire ensued for 35 minutes. The French attempted to drop astern, to attack the "Unicorn"’s vulnerable stern, but were foiled by the good handling of the "Unicorn", which again came alongside her and continued to fire upon her. With all her masts except her mizzenmast shot away, the French surrendered. The "Tribune" had lost 37 killed and 15, including her commander, wounded, out of a total complement of 229. The "Unicorn", despite having only 240 of her normal complement of 151 aboard, with a lieutenant and her best seamen taking a prize to Britain, had suffered no casualties.


She was placed under the command of Captain Scory Barker, and sailed from Torbay on 22 September 1797 as part of the escort for a convoy to the Quebec and Newfoundland fleets. En route he met HMS "Experiment", then 12 days out of Halifax. On 10 October "Tribune" lost sight of the convoy, but continued towards Halifax. As they approached the harbour, Captain Barker suggested waiting for a pilot, but was convinced by the master, who claimed that "he had beat a 44-gun ship into the harbour, that he had frequently been there, nor was there any occasion for a pilot since the wind was favourable." Captain Barker was apparently convinced by these assurances, and went below to arrange some papers he wished to take onshore. The master assumed the pilotage of the ship, assisted by one John Cosey, who had lived in the area previously.

As the ship progressed into the harbour, she began to approach the Thrum Cap shoal. Alarmed, the master summoned Mr Galvin, the master's mate, who at this time was sick below. Coming up on deck, Galvin heard the man in the chains sing out "by the mark five" and Cosey sing out "steady". Climbing onto a carronade, he attempted to ascertain the situation, whilst the master ran up to the wheel with the intent to wear ship. Before anything could be done however, the "Tribune" struck the shoal. Alerted by the impact, Captain Barker rushed up on deck, exclaiming "You have lost the ship" to the master. Distress signals were quickly run up, which were acknowledged by the military posts nearby, as well as the ships in the harbour, and several craft set out to aid the stricken ship. A number of military boats, and a boat under the command of a Mr Rackum, boatswain of a ship in the harbour named "Ordinary", managed to reach the "Tribune". Strong adverse winds prevented many others from doing so though.

Attempts were now being made to lighten the "Tribune". The guns, save one for signalling, were thrown overboard, as were every other heavy article. These efforts succeeded in allowing the "Tribune" to get off the shoal by 9 o'clock in the evening. She had by now lost her rudder and had seven feet of water in the hold. The pumps were manned, but after a period of time in which they seemed to be gaining on the leaks, a violent gale from the south east blew up. The "Tribune" was steadily carried towards the western shore. Lieutenants Campbell and North managed to escape in a jolly boat, but by half past ten, the "Tribune" lurched over and sank off Herring Cove, Nova Scotia. The captain and officers were believed lost, but over 240 men, women and children remained, floating in the water or clinging to the rigging.

Eventually nearly a hundred of the survivors had managed to climb into the rigging, but as the night wore on and the storm took its toll, many dropped off and were swept away. Eventually there were only eight remaining, despite them being close enough to the shore to converse with the local inhabitants who had lit a large bonfire on the beach. At 8 o'clock in the morning, a 13 year old boy named Joe Cracker went out in a small skiff and brought off a man named David Monroe, another named Dunlap and two others, who were so exhausted they wished only to perish as they lay and had to be lifted into the skiff. As the weather improved, a number of boats were able to reach the wreck, bringing off another four. Overall, four had escaped in the jolly boat and another eight had been brought off from the rigging. These twelve were the only survivors of the wreck.


The location of the sinking was soon named Tribune Head. A cairn and bronze plaque in Herring Cove mark the site and the near-by mass grave of her victims. "Tribune's" bell was recovered by salvors in the 19th century and was presented to the Catholic church in Herring Cove. The bell was donated to the Nova Scotia Museum in the 1920s and now forms the centrepiece of an exhibit about the wreck at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


* [ HMS Tribune's career and sinking]
* [ Nova Scotia Museum On the Rocks Shipwreck Database]

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