DANIEL DEFOE’S INFAMOUS LIBEL
By David Chamberlain
On the night and early hours of 26th/27th of November, 1703 a storm raced up-Channel - which increased to hurricane force winds. In the Downs the many ships that were anchored suffered from its after effects. Some were sunk, some were cast away from their moorings and many were badly damaged. The loss of life was estimated at over a thousand men.
Daniel Defoe had published, the following year, a book about the storm, however, he did not admit to being the author. His account of the loss of the ships and men-of-war on the Goodwins Sands was pure fiction. The year after publication, the mayor and jurats (councillors) of Deal took umbrage when they read the story. It was highly defamatory to the conduct of the Deal boatmen and the inhabitants of the town. Defoe had implied that they would not launch their boats to save lives on the morning after the storm; and were only interested in the plunder that could be gained from it. He also stated that the Mayor, Thomas Powell, commandeered customs boats to save two-hundred men who could be seen stranded on the Goodwin Sands.
Although this story is well known and has been retold for over 300 years, research has proved that it was all lies and libel.
The height of the storm occurred around 5 a.m. with the wind over 100 miles an hour. With low tide an hour later and daylight not occurring till after 7 a.m. it would have been impossible to see any people on the Goodwins. Also the surf hitting the sandbank would have obscured the Sands themselves. In actual fact, those sailors who needed saving could be seen clinging to the remains of their ships. The storm was still raging when Thomas Warren, who was in charge of the Admiralty Yard and future mayor of Deal, stated that it was impossible to launch any boats from the beach owing to the surf along shore. Even the captain of the largest ship that had ridden out the hurricane force winds, a three decked, second rate Prince George, wrote in his log that he could only send some of his longboats out in the afternoon – and it was still too rough to get near the stricken vessels before darkness. However, the following day, when the weather had abated some, Warren sent some Deal boats out to rescue 70 survivors from the half submerged wreck of the warship Stirling Castle. Therefore, it can be discounted that Deal boats were afloat the day before, plundering the wrecks.
The ex-mayor, Thomas Powell, must have been embarrassed by the story of him taking the custom boats by force and paying boatmen to take them afloat. So much so, that the mayor and councillors, which included Warren and Powell, wanted to sue the unknown author (Defoe) for this infamous libel. They instructed the town clerk to draw up a summons to be served on the author of the book for libel.
Daniel Defoe was a bankrupt and it could be surmised that when the Deal Council realised this, they knew it would be a waste of time pursuing the matter further. Therefore, the story/myth survived to be told and written about for hundreds of years as the truth; although as a story it makes exiting reading … as did most of Defoe’s books.