Thursday, 27 November 2014

Sharkbait - snatched from the Jaws of Death, Sir Brook Watson (1735-1807), St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake

Worryingly the parish clerk at Mortlake was not sure if he was christening or burying the parishoners.
Brook Watson, was a wealthy and influential merchant who was an Alderman of London, an MP for the City for 9 years, Lord Mayor of London in 1786 and a director of the Bank of England. He was born in Plymouth in 1735, his father was a Hamburg merchant from Hull who according to some sources was unfortunate in business. He certainly left his son penniless and orphaned by the time he was nine and with no relatives in either Plymouth or Hull willing to take him in he was packed off to a distant relative called Levens who was living in Boston Massachusetts. By the age of 14 Brook has been sent to sea in a merchant vessel in which Levens owned an interest. It was whilst on this ship when visiting Cuba that the reckless young man decided to take a swim in Havana bay and was attacked by a shark. In later life Brook commissioned the American artist John Singleton Copley to commemorate the event in the celebrated painting ‘Watson and the Shark’ (now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington).

John Singleton Copley's celebrated recreation of the moment of Watson's rescue from the shark 

When Copley’s painting was shown at the Royal academy in 1778 it caused a sensation as can be seen in the following account from a contemporary newspaper:   

The following is the Narrative on which the very extraordinary Picture now exhibiting at the Royal Academy, painted by Mr. Copley and numbered 65, is founded:
BROOK WATSON, Esq; an eminent Merchant, now resident in the City of London, being at the Havana, when a Youth, in a Merchant-Ship, amusing himself one Day by swimming about it, whilst it lay at anchor, and being at the Distance of about two hundred Yards from it, the Men in the Boat, who were waiting for the Captain to go on shore, were struck with Horror on perceiving a Shark making towards him as his devoted Prey. The Monster was already too near him for the Youth to be timely apprized of his Danger; and the Sailors had the afflicting Sight of feeing him seized and precipitated down the Flood with his voracious Assailant, before they could put off to his Deliverance* They however hastened towards the Place, where they had disappeared, in anxious Expectation of seeing the Body rise. In about two Minutes they difference- covered the Body rife at about a hundred Yards Distance, but ere they could reach him, he was a second Time seized by the Shark and again sunk from their Sight. The Sailors now took the Precaution to place a man in the bow of the Boat, provided with a Hook to strike the Fish, should it appear within reach, and repeat its Attempt at seizing the Body. In less than two Minutes they discovered the Youth on the Surface of the Water, and the Monster still in eager Pursuit of him ; and at the very Instant he was about to be seized the third Time, the Shark was struck with the Boat- Hook, and driven from his Prey. This is the Moment the ingenious Artist has selected from the distressing Scene, and has given the affecting Incident the most animated Representation the Powers of the Pencil can bestow. Suffice it to say, in regard to the singular Fate of Mr. Watson, the Shark seized him both times by the right Leg ; in the first Attack, all the Flesh was stripped off the Bone from the Calf downwards; in the second, the Foot was divided from the Leg by the Ankle. By the Skill of the Surgeon, and the Aid of a good Habit of Body, after suffering an Amputation of the Limb a little below the Knee, the Youth, who was thus wonderfully and literally saved from the Jaws of Death, received a perfect cure in about three Months.


Sir Brook Watson in 1803
by Robert Deighton
Whilst the Cubans treated Brook and his damaged leg in hospital the merchant man on which he worked, sailed and left him stranded in Havana. Once he was well enough he managed to beg a passage back to Boston only to find that Levens had quit the place leaving him ‘friendless, penniless and a cripple’ as one account puts it. The landlady of the boarding house where he had lodged with Levens reluctantly put him up but immediately made arrangements get him off her hands by apprenticing him to a tailor. Luckily for Brook Captain John Huston of Nova Scotia was lodging at the house, took a liking to the spirited young man and offered him a place in his store in Chignecto. Canada at the time was divided between the English and French and there was constant tension between the settlers and the troops of the two nations that eventually erupted into open warfare. Brook soon showed himself able and intelligent and apparently barely handicapped by his missing leg. Working for Huston he became involved in victualing the British military and became a favourite of General Monckton the British commander. He soon demonstrated his bravery when a herd of British cattle crossed the river Missiquash at low tide and found themselves marooned at high tide on French held territory where they were likely to be impounded and lost forever. No one amongst the citizenry or soldiery was willing to risk crossing the river to try and get them back except one legged Brook. He stripped and swam across the river and, dressed just in his wet drawers, was rounding up the straying cattle to drive them back across the river when a party of French fusiliers appeared and demanding to know what he was doing on land belonging to the King of France. Hopping on his one good leg, dripping Brook told them that he had no business with the King of France or his land and his only concern was to take care of the English cattle. The admiring soldiers let Brook and the cattle return across the river unmolested.

Brook Watson in 1788 by
James Bretherton

In 1759, at the age of 24, Brook moved to London and set himself up as a Quebec merchant. He made himself hugely successful over the coming years and travelled frequently between Canada, America and London. He became one of the original committee of the Corporation of Lloyds of London in 1772 and served as chairman for 10 years. When unrest broke out in the colonies Brook remained firmly loyal to the British crown. It wasn’t always clear to those on the other side where his sympathies lay and the rebel William Dunlap called him a traitor and accused him of "ingratiated himself with many leading Americans, obtained as much information on their designs as he could, and transmitted it to his chosen masters." Returning from a trip to Canada in 1775 he was entrusted with the care of the rebel Ethan Allen who had been taken prisoner leading an American attempt to seize Montreal. Allen later wrote bitterly that he was “was put under the power of an English Merchant from London, whose name was Brook Watson: a man of malicious and cruel disposition, and who was probably excited, in the exercise of his malevolence, by a junto of Tories, who sailed with him to England ..."

Brook served as Commissary General to the army based in North America and commanded by Sir Guy Carleton in the 1780’s. When he returned to London he embarked on a political career that was to occupy him until his death, first as an Alderman, then as an MP and senior Government functionary. He had married Helen Campbell in 1760 but the couple had no children and when he died in 1807 there was no one to inherit the baronetcy he had been granted in 1803 for services rendered to his country. The title passed to his grand nephew by special remainder and his wife was granted a £500 annual pension by a grateful government. Debrett’s describes the crest of Brook’s coat of arms “Issuant from waves, a demi Neptune proper, crowned Or, mantled Vert, the dexter arm elevated, the hand grasping a trident Or in the attitude of striking, the sinister arm supporting a shield Argent, repelling a shark in the act of seizing its prey proper.” And on the shield itself the lower leg that Brook lost in Havana harbour over 50 years previously is represented by “a canton Azure charged with a human leg erect and erased below the knee proper.”

Brook Watson's coat of arms with his severed leg and Neptune defending him against a shark