Master storyteller and prolific author Gary Collins hails from Newfoundland and his previous book, Left to Die concerned the tragic death of 78 seal hunters on an ice floe in 1914. For his eleventh book Desperation: The Queen of Swansea (2016, Flanker Press), Mr Collins has gone back to the year 1867 to interpret another tragic maritime event, the shipwreck of the brig Queen of Swansea on Gull Island and the eventual death of all crew and passengers, either aboard ship or on the barrenness of lonely Gull Island bereft of anything slightly edible or drinkable. Months later, the frozen bodies were discovered, some showing evidence of cannibalism.
Research for Desperation
I asked Mr Collins about the type and extent of research he put into Desperation since the action sequences during the storms at sea were of the “you are there” vividness. I found myself figuratively holding my breath as I read the storm sequences; only letting out my breath when the chapter ended. His response was enlightening.
“The research for this one was a bit trying given the age of the event. Despite all the articles written about it – some of them written just days after the disaster was discovered, and still available to the searcher – I found accurate info was difficult to obtain. Also, the stories conflicted each other. I read everything available to me. I went to museums and read old newspaper accounts. I researched, again and again, weather accounts of that time frame – it was amazing what I found. The storms I tried to describe actually happened!”
Desperation starts off with the author enlisting the help of a relative to take a trip out to Gull Island so he could see for himself just where the wreck of the Queen occurred. He comments:
“The best aid for me was the trip out to the Gull Island. I could not write about it without going out there. I always try to get a ‘feel’ for my work. Tossed about on the sea below that ‘Dragon Rock’ did wonders for my imaginative journey back to that night of terror. I have a book of Nautical Terms which is well used. Trying to put myself aboard a Brigantine upon a sea in full spate took some effort. While I was writing the manuscript I went to sea in an open boat several times. When I write about the ocean I feel the endless, timeless, magnetism and the sweet mystery of it.”
One can readily sense Mr Collin’s passion and dedication to writing so that the graphic realism of a storm at sea, as well as the desperate sufferings of the survivors atop the barren ground of Gull Island, is so distinct that it translates into some fascinating reading. There is a particularly interesting side trip into Newfoundland history in chapter 8. It succinctly relates the story of one William Epps (“Bill”) Cormack, who in 1822 became the first European to traverse the island. Along the way, he recorded everything: flora and fauna, minerals, timber resources. From Wikipedia:
“From his exploration, Cormack prepared an account of his travels, which was first published in England in 1824. Other versions of his travels were published in 1828 and 1856. He describes the interior with an accuracy no subsequent traveller has matched; his Narrative is the undisputed classic of Newfoundland travel. His botanical observations were the most important since those of Sir Joseph Banks in 1766. His account of the mineralogy and geology of the interior were important for the exploration by Joseph Beete Jukes in 1840.”
This side trip is relevant to the story since the Queen was on her way from St. John’s to load copper ore extracted from a fledgeling mine located in Tilt Cove. Newfoundland was no longer a coastal stopover for the cod fishermen, the British colony was moving on to utilising its abundant natural resources, thanks in large part to the explorations of Bill Cormack.
I loved this book; I could find no fault with it, no low points, no extraneous material and certainly, no boring passages or ramblings. Mr Collins is clearly at the top of his storytelling game. Also, I was pleased to see the term “Inspired by True Events” on the cover. As Mr Collins mentioned, there was little accurate information to be found about this account, and of course, there were no survivors. Much if not all of the dialogue had to be invented as well as the backstories of the crew and passengers, making this what I call “fictionalised history” (as opposed to historical fiction in which a story occurs at a particular time in history). If you like your history straight up, recounting only the available recorded facts, then Mr Collins’ books may not be for you, and in this case, there is not much to relate since the historical evidence is scanty. (It is not even known where all the bodies were buried.) However, I am comfortable with it as long as I know up front that this is the approach the author is going to take. Desperation: the Queen of Swansea is a true-life tragic story, exceptionally told by “the story man” of Newfoundland. Highly recommended for those that enjoy reading about maritime and nautical history.