This week’s exhibit of the week is about a book given to Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre by Suzanne Middleton who has rekindled the story of John Dean, her direct ancestor. The book, called John Dean, Only Survivor of the Ship Sussex, is about John’s voyage aboard the fateful ship and his fantastic fight for survival.
John Dean was born in Scarborough in 1716, son of a rope-maker. He was christened in St Mary’s Church, Scarborough, and lived in St Thomas Street, in the centre of town. At the age of 21 John set off for London with two friends: James Holland and William Spencer, where they joined the crew for the maiden voyage of the East India Company ship Sussex.
In 1737, the year-long journey to Canton, China, was uneventful and culminated in a rich cargo of porcelain, tea, silks and small goods being loaded aboard the Sussex.
The fully laden ship set off with her sister ship, the Winchester, for the return journey. Off the Cape of Good Hope the ship was pounded with high waves and violent gale force winds. The Sussex suffered damage to her sails and took on water so that she developed a pronounced list to starboard. Captain Francis Gostlin, the master of the Sussex ordered the men to leave the ship and board the longboats to join the Winchester. Sixteen of the ordinary seamen, including John Dean, decided to stay on board to save the ship.
The Winchester departed and the remaining men made temporary repairs to keep the ship afloat until they could reach Madagascar four days later. Trading with local Malagasy people they procured necessary supplies to repair and stock up the ship ready to sail for England. Within days of leaving a storm blew up and the ship struck the hazardous atoll called the Bassas da India. The ship began to break up and nine men including John Dean decided to take their chances in the pinnace which drifted at sea for two weeks before reaching landfall back in Madagascar. All except Dean succumbed to illness and he was taken in by a local Malagasy village. John Dean was treated kindly by some locals, but later held captive. It was not until 1739, over a year after he was shipwrecked, that John was able to escape and make his way to board an East India Company ship the Prince William where he told his story to an incredulous crew.
When John Dean arrived in England in 1741 his story had already reached home. He was called to the East India Company Offices to give his account of the demise of the Sussex. As prime witness in the court case against Captain Gostlin he saw his Captain stripped of his post and fined for abandoning the ship. Dean was rewarded for his integrity and service with a company pension and a job in the Company Warehouses. Three copies of his portrait were painted by the portrait painter William Verelst, and later a mezzotint was made depicting his adventures.
l Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre is run entirely by volunteers and is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 4pm.