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1857 A.D. - A God Fearing Norwegian Sea Captain Is Struck By A Bird

In 1857 the 180 foot long side wheel type steamship the SS Central America sunk about 160 miles off the Carolinas, in a Sept 12th Hurricane, from a leak the ship developed on Sept 11. (This may help to confirm that 09/11 really isn't America's lucky day!).

So it sunk, about 150 years ago, with what turned out to be over $100 million dollars US in gold - in modern day salvage terms - which it was bringing to the east coast of the U.S. from the west coast California gold fields. A treasure of treasures, lost!  It's sinking sparked off a nation wide financial panic in it's day.  The nation wide financial panic led to a great amount of personal financial tragedy in the United States, and to wide spread unemployment and even hunger among American families.  And that misery led to prayer, the prayer led to revival, and that revival turned into one of the greatest movements of God in a very long time, proportionally the largest America has seen, with an estimated 2,000,000 people getting baptized in the next couple of years.

  This was an important shipwreck for the kingdom of heaven, it seems.   

From a human standpoint, many of the approx 570 passengers and crew were killed - drowned by the sea. (It's difficult to find accounts that agree, concerning how many passengers were aboard. Some accounts say nearly 800).  But the important part of this account involves the fact that a good percentage of those who by rights should have died did not die. They were saved by a remarkable deed of God.  God sent a bird.  

There had been a 30 hour bucket brigade by the passengers to try to bail out the water before it sunk. But the ship, heavy with this gold from California, also could not keep it's boiler supplied with enough coal to keep them running. The wheel barrows they used to cart the coal to the boilers kept tipping over because the storm was so very bad. Once the engines ran short of coal and died, the ship soon enough met it's end from the work of the monsterously high seas and terrible winds, and from taking on water faster than it could be removed.

While there was great loss of life, there were some notable strokes of luck, however, from a human stand point. The ship got lifeboats off, though they couldn't hold everyone. And there were plenty of life jackets. And, in the midst of this storm, another ship named the SS Marina (some reports say 'Marai', including the attached report) spotted them and their distress signals, came close and started lowering their lifeboats.  They began rowing some of the SS Central America's people back to safety on their ship.

But the seas were so rough that they had to just quit eventually. The ships were driven up to 6 miles apart during the rescue runs, and that was just too far to row in such seas. But, all of the remaining women and children from the Central America, and some of the men, found refuge aboard that providential vessal. How many did the S.S. Marina save? One source says 153 people.  The source offered below gives a different number.

Yet there were still hundreds of people aboard the Central America when the brave Captain Herndon went down with his ship. Men were seen tossing their now worthless gold coins into the ocean, then jumping in to save themselves.

Many of those men drowned immediately, but still, the seas were full everywhere of desperate people treading water, holding on to floatsom, and wishing they could be rescued.  They cried out to heaven for rescue, onlookers reported. 

But they were 160 miles out to sea, they were in a Class 2 Hurricane, this was 1857, so there were no rescue helicopters, and it became dark soon after they abandoned ship.

As their grief stricken wives were carried away on the SS Marine, they waved their last waves, and shared their last looks with their husbands and brothers and fathers. In other words, the situation was hopeless for the hundreds of swimmers in the storm tossed sea, as they treaded water in the darkness, crying out to God and Jesus for help.

But then this thing happened with a sea bird, and the 35 year old God fearing Norwegian Captain of a ship called the 'Ellen', which as chance had it, was only a few hours away. At least one pretty detailed description of this survives, and goes as follows (spelling errors left intact, as I do with my own writing)  :)

Can be found on the www.wilbrahamlibrary.org site

Nordisk Tidende – Thursday, Dec. l, 1949

The Bark "Ellen" of Arendal Warned by a Bird -49 Persons Saved.

An Odd Incident Caused Great Attention Around the World - Captain Anders Johnsen and Crew Honored by U.S. President

Bird auguries are reported several times in maritime history, thus came in 1857 the bark "Ellen" of Arendal under command of the 35 year old Anders Johnsen to the aid of the American steamer the "Central America" because of a bird augury. The shipwreck and he rescue expedition attracted enormous attention and in several reports on the crisis in America it is said the wreck and the loss of the gold from California increased the pessimistic atmosphere. On September 3rd he "Central America" left Havana with 592 passengers on board, another report states 800 passengers, and a sum of 2,000,000 in gold. Immediately the ship had reached the high seas I was hit by severe wind storms and sprung a leak. The pumps were working night and day to keep the steamer afloat but ever rising waters finally reached he engine room and put out the fire under the boilers and everybody on board faced certain death. As a last resort the pumps were powered for a while yet by a donkey engine on deck and finally on September 12th at 2:00 P.M. the "Marai" the American brigg of Boston headed towards the steamer and the rescue action began. Several of the lifeboats had been bashed against the hull of the steamer when the waves were high and only a small part of the passengers and the crew of the steamer, 98, got safely on board the brigg. The brigg itself was severely damaged and forced to give up further attempt of rescue in the middle of he night and leave those remaining on board to their fate. Later that night the ship sank with the majority of is passengers. But part of the shipwrecks were still hanging on to the pieces of wreckage. 16 men were thus floating on a section of the saloon. Of these 16, 13 died. They seemed to be doomed. Who could see them in the roaring sea? The sharks would come at dawn. The hours passed - but the night was still pitch black. But look – there they cach sight of something luminous across the wave tops coming nearer and nearer.

The "Ellen" left Arendal on December 15th, 1856 destined for Cadiz and whence to Honduras.

"In the middle of August 1857"m relates captain Anders Johnsen of Kolbjernsvik near Arendal, "I left Belize in Honduras. My ship the bark "Ellen" laden with mahogany together with dye-wood and cocoa nuts was destined for Falmouth for further orders. I kept her crossing with and against the wind, a north easterly fresh breeze, until I reached the west end of Cuba, Cape Antonia. Then I caught a northerly wind, but a light one sometimes calm with a hazy air so we could not see too far ahead. When our reckoning showed us to be a beam Havana off the island of Cuba three steamers came out from there. The name of one was the "Central America" that of the second was the "Emperor of City" and the third one was a general cargo trader from Boston. A few days after we had met the three steamers we ran into a stiff hurricane from n.n.e. I was then about 90 nautical miles off the Bahamas bank and according to our reckoning our ship should be at the eastern perimeter of the Gulf Stream. We were not certain of this, however , not having had a fix for several days. When the hurricane began we battened everything down and everything movable was stowed under deck and we committed our ship in the hands of the Almighty who guides and protects us, his children who trust in him. On September 10th the hurricane was at the peak of its fury; on he 11th I shifted towards n.n.w. but howled unabatedly; in the afternoon of the 12th the hurricane began to drop off and we got up two reefed topsails and a reefed forsail; in the afternoon we had lowered our spanker and double reefed it in case he hurricane might pick up again so that we could keep the ship windward. The ship made considerable speed over the waves. At 10 minutes before six I roused the watch who had turned in to have him help us hoist the lowered gaff. Our ship’s boy, a small English fellow, was aloft greasing the main mast and I am standing on the half deck straight in front of the top mast backstays giving him his orders.

As I was looking aloft I was tapped on my right shoulder. I turned and what do I see but a large bird moving away from the ship, this was on the port side- flew around starboard in front of the jib boom to return to the same place, where it was the firs time. I remained standing in the same place, turned, and kept watching it with great amazement. When it came straight in front of the backstays where it had been the first time, it turned sharply , its wings up and down, and flew between the backstays straight against my chest. Then it tumbled down from my chest onto the halfdeck and I was astounded that a bird would attack a human being. I took courage and gripped it with my left hand but it bit my left thumb so that I had to let go then I grasped it with my right hand. It then raised its head and bit my beard right under the chin so that I was stuck and could not get loose. An old boatswain whom I had with me came right away to help me and gripped the bird which then let go of my beard and caught the boatswain’s wrist right above his hand with its beak cutting him so that he was bleeding quite a bit. The small English boy who was aloft greasing the mizzon mast came to our assistance. He grasped the bird by its neck so it could not bite us. We got a piece of string and tied I to one leg of the bird so it could not fly away from me. I ordered it fed with water, bread and pork as I believed it was thirsty and hungry but it would not have any part of it. Its eyes were fixed at me alone and it wanted to fly a me again. We were much amazed at its sad looking eyes which were fixed at me all the time never shifting to another person as well as its anxiety to get at me. The bird's length from neck to tail-feathers was about 18", its wing span about 3'8", its beak 6 " long with sharp teeth like a hack saw. Its legs were not unusual considering the bird's size, with web between the outermost joints, and in all respects a beautiful looking bird with its ice-gray color and a long neck with it extended it. We had never seen a bird like it. We remained standing around it for a while and it occurred to me that when it struck against my right shoulder it might be a sign from the Almighty, but what was in store for me I had no idea about and neither did I tell the crew about my thoughts until someone said, "It is a sign from God. Note the way it is watching the captain and how anzious it is to get to him". I then say to my first mate, "Maybe our ship is on a more westward course than our dead-reckoning and we are nearer to land than we think, (we were heading N.E. to N.) we must steer N. than we can be sure that our ship does not steer towards land". The first mate persevered that we might as well sail into disaster as away from it by changing the course so I tired of listening to ham and changed the course back to N.E. to N. which it was before the bird came to the ship. I continued walking up and down the deck and thought intensely about the situation but found no relief until I had changed the course back to NO as I first had ordered it.

It was 6 0'clock when the bird arrived. When it was 8 p.m. the mate cried out "Heave the log" to find out what speed we were making but nobody could get abaft on account of the bird. It was so dark you could hardly see yo8ur own hands. I then told our second officer that we should try to get the bird down into the cabin and tie it up in a side door (way) on the port side. It was quite a while before we succeded getting it below deck; we finally did it when the second officer got two sticks and kept its wings close to its body and I went ahead with the string attached to its foot. I had a lot of trouble keeping it away from me until I got it secured and its eyes were ficed at mw as before. It was not 9 o'clock and my turn to turn in but I was afraid of sleeping as I thought: if it bites the string through then it might kill you in bed or at least harm you. At 10 o'clock it hid its head under its wing and slept and I did likewise until midnight when the mate called me and I remained lying until a quarter past 12.

Everything was quiet and silent on board the "Ellen". The wind from astern. The captain was lying watching the bird - still sleeping, its head under its wing - and thought about the odd event and the change it caused in the ship's course. A change of one pint in a ship's course makes quite a difference in brisk sailing weather.

Then the captain hears a man walking quickly on the deck, He gets up only halfway dredded and in the doorway he meets the second officer who says: "Captain, come on deck quickly. I hear human shouting, whether from land or the water I do not know". The captain rushes forward. Hears a shoouting of several hundred voices, Help, Help. For God’s sake Help!!!. In no time the watch below is roused and on deck.

The two double-reefed topsails were lowered onto the companion. The foresail hauled in, the helm was put to port and the ship’s head turned windward. It is pitch dark, impossible to see anything, but while the ship is maneuvering, cries of agony are heard from every direction so as to nearly drown out the words of command on board. At that time ships were carrying lanterns under their bowspirits which were visible over the tops of the waves as a warning to sailing ships.

On board preparations were made to lower the launch. The lashing were cut abaft; but through negligence the derricks holding the fresh water barrels would become free. It was a very rough sea and the ship was working very hard. These efforts were in vain. Astern was a smaller boat hanging in davits which was put out successfully. An oar was handed down and the ships sailmaker was already standing in the boat. The carpenter was hanging in a line on the ship’s side waiting for the boat to heave in the rough sea.

The captain standing astern sees a floating plank on which something alive is moving – a strong phosphorescence makes the water sparkle. The plank approaches the boat. "Wait" cries the captain in English. "Don’t touch the boat until the crew is in it". No sooner these words had been said when 8 men grasp the gunwale with their hands. In a split second the boat is keel up. A rope is thrown out and the sailmaker is hauled in again. But the boat continues turning turtle, six men hanging on to it. The captain gets the boat so close to the ship’s side that he gets ropes around the strangers and gets them hauled in. The two remaining men had climbed up on the ships rudder, but in the very moment a rope is thrown to them the ship heaves mightily and the waves and they are washed away, presumably crushed under the taffrail.

A big barge is attempted launched, but the same thing happened, the effort with the boats were of no avail.

The captain, then, ordered the sails backed and filled in the direction from where the cries were heard to have the poor creatures so close leeward that ropes could be thrown at them and they could be hauled in. Anything astern or windward was beyond help. The ship was drifting faster than the shipwrecks.

The 16 men on the saloon roof padded closely astern the ship in the dark. Their persistent shouts were heard and the captain spoke to them but it was impossible to save them, but man after man was picked up at the leeward side.

44 persons were saved in the darkness of the night. Dawn was now beginning to break. "Ellen’s" captain went aloft to the main top with his binoculars to scan the surface for more persons. Look, three persons are floating on a hatch. The captain bears down upon them right away. As soon as the ship has gotten near them they get up on their feet waving their hands while cheering and so they are hoisted on board. After an hour or so two men are discovered leeward lying on two doors bound together with a handkerchief. These were the same two persons who had been under the bowspirit at 3 A.M.. They were now so exhausted that they were totally unable to help themselves. It was now 10 A.M. when the ship came for them a second time. A life buoy was thrown out but they were unable to catch it, they only raised their heads and begged the captain to save them; then they lay down on their faces on the doors the seas washing over them. "Even if I have to swim out to you with a rope, you will be saved", said the captain comfortingly. Bit it was a difficult task. Jib and spanker were set in order to go about but in vain. The jib blew away. The ship had to turn down the wind and got far away from them. But the captain kept them in sight all the while and the ship steered toward them again then braced all sails aback; they were now lying close to the starboard anchor stock. The carpenter was sent down to put ropes around them and they were safely picked up together with both of the doors. The ship was making no speed at all.

"They were hauled aboard and by Sunday noon a total of 49 persons had been rescued. The bird which by its marvelous appearance had guided the ship to the very spot in the sea where a group of 700 shipwrecked persons were awaiting certain death – the bird with its head under its wing had been sitting sleeping in the cabin. Nobody thought about it ore paid it any attention. The cabin was filled with naked persons all the way out to the corridor, most of them in a deep unconscious sleep. But at the beginning of daybreak the bird woke up. Just as three men on the hatch were being rescued, the last ones but two, the mate came on the deck and told the captain that a lot of blood was flowing in the cabin. The captain was fearful that some of those rescued in their delirium had committed a misdeed and he rushes below deck. It is the bird that had bitten the persons on their legs as far as it could reach for the string around its foot. With some difficulty it was brought on deck again and tied to the main mast. The captain busily engaged in rescuing the three persons. Then the bird again bites on of those rescued who had come to near it making a deep would in his calf. "Cut its head off and throw it over board" the captain yells in anger and haste to one of the crew. An axe finishes it off and it is thrown over board to great sorrow of the passengers when they learned its story and to some regret also to the captain himself".

On September 18 the "Ellen arrived in Norfolk. Captain Johnsen and his crew received much distinction particularly in New York. The ship was repaired free of charge and everybody received presents. From the President of the U.S.A the crew received bronze medals and the captain a gold chronometer with inscription. Johnsen was never let alone by photographers, her was mentioned in papers all the time and twice his portrait was painted in life-size. The religious tract societies printed and distributed thousands of pamphlets. On the front page was a sinking ship, straight up and down in the waves. Two golddiggers with full sacks were sitting on the utmost end of the bow sprit. On board the "Ellen" the captain was seen near the main backstays the bird tapping his shoulder in a friendly way with its wing.....................................

..................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

So, that's how the account goes.   Not mentioned is the fact that, of the women rescued by the first ship, there were many who left their husbands and fathers, perhaps brothers, floating in a hopeless situation far out in the dark stormy sea.  Their ship made for Norfolk - there was nothing else it could do.  And so, these women and children could only have been in the deep depths of grief  - their men were gone, swallowed by the sea, and they had lived.   Can you imagine how they must have cried out in joy to God when the ship that rescued almost 50 of their men came coasting into port?  That would have been a moment to see! 

We serve a God that had a great fish swallow and rescue Jonah. A God that had a donkey speak to the prophet Balaam. He had a lion kill the 'disobedient prophet', yet leave the prophet's horse untouched. He had locusts help to free his people from Egypt. Josephus even claims that a heifer gave birth to a lamb just prior to 70 A.D.'s destruction of Jerusalem. And He had Moses's 'snake' devour the 'snakes' of Mimbres and Jannus, the Egyptian sorcerers. And there are other cases.  Quail lining the beach in heaps, to fed the Israelites led by Moses, just as they were complaining of never having meat any longer.  And the mother oxen who brought the ark of the covenant back to Israel - with no driver but God - after it had been captured in war.  Many times God has used animals in unusual ways.  

But of the animals, I think He used the birds more often than any other type of animal in scripture. Ravens and doves helped Noah determine if the flood was ending. Quail landed and piled up three feet deep to feed His meat-starved Israelites as Moses led them in the wilderness - to their misfortune. Ravens fed Elijah. And there were other cases.

So, I am aware that many people don't know God's history of Fatherly care and rescue among mankind, His created beings.  Many people have never even heard most of the accounts in the Bible.  For them, the idea of a terrified sea bird physically leading a sea Captain to a lost and drowning group of shipwreck victims floundering at night in a great ocean storm ....well, it probably seems hard to believe.   But unworthy though we are - and we are nothing if not unworthy of so great a Father as He is -His amazing acts and rescues among mankind have been many, and widely known in their time.  So, though I can see why people might be skeptical, I urge them not to be.  Knowing even what little I do about the great deeds of God, I have to say "Don't judge too quickly. You don't know the Deeds of your God!"  This is an account with a great many witnesses.  There was the crew of the Ellen, it's Captain, the rescued people, the ones who received the bite wounds from the bird ....and it wasn't so long ago.   So how can we write these stories off over and over again?  He is God, He is sovereign, and His arm is powerful to save.   Hosanah! Halleluja!

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website