Notts Rebels: John Deane

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Wednesday 05 August 2020
reading time: min, words

Despite a long and illustrious naval career that saw him interact with the likes of Robert Walpole and Peter the Great, as well as being a key figure in the capture of Gibraltar, Wilford-born John Deane would always be associated with the events on Boon Island. For all the heroics and accolades he received afterward, it would be those 24 days of deception, shipwreck, murder and cannibalism that would haunt Captain Deane until the day he died…


It was sometime in the middle of January 1711 when a body washed up on the shore of a small New England fishing village. The man wasn’t recognised as being anyone local, and there was something peculiar about him. His clothes were tattered and torn, what fingers and toes he had left were missing nails, and his figure was almost skeletal. Tied to his wrist was a makeshift paddle. Assuming there must have been a shipwreck nearby, the village launched a rescue boat to search for survivors. 

Later that day, the boat arrived at Boon Island, a barren rocky atoll, only 300ft by 700ft in size, six miles off the coast of Maine. What they found there would remain emblazoned on their memories for the rest of their days: ten men who, for the last 24 days, had survived a living Hell on Earth. Battered by relentless wind and soaked by the ocean, with no natural shelter and virtually nothing to eat or drink, they were the survivors of Nottingham Galley, a British merchant ship that had wrecked on a rocky outcrop of the island. Out of the ten men, only one had the strength to stand and watch as the rescue boat came into view: their captain, John Deane. 

Deane was born in the village of Wilford, Nottingham in 1679. A childhood spent in relative poverty led first to an early career as a butcher’s apprentice, and then to the Royal Navy, where he was involved in the British capture of Gibraltar in 1704. Writing in the 19th century, W.H.G. Kingston even goes as far to say that Deane was the captain that led the expedition. 

1709 saw Deane turn his attention to merchant seafaring and, along with his brother Jasper, he purchased his first small vessel, the Nottingham Galley. Named after his home city, Deane, his brother and a crew of another dozen men were to sail the cargo-laden galley from London to Boston. 

The ill-fated journey hit problems long before they reached Boon Island. Sailing off Scotland’s west coast, the Nottingham Galley came to the attention of two ships that promptly set sail in their direction. They were French privateers, and they’d spotted an easy prize for the taking. Their cargo of rope, butter and cheese would have made it an extremely lucrative day’s work. 

A disorientated panic spread through the fourteen-man crew as waves poured overboard

But Deane and the Nottingham Galley successfully evaded their would-be captors, making their way across the perilous Atlantic. It was on the final stretch of that 3,500nm journey that they started to encounter severe weather conditions. The New England coast was snow-covered, and a north-easterly gale pebble-dashed the vessel with hail and snow, as a thick fog settled, obscuring all land from view. Things stayed that way for twelve long days, before the fog finally lifted for just fifteen minutes. Currents had dragged them off course, but Deane concluded that their safest bet was to sail south-west until the evening, then lay in wait for more visibility. But at around 9pm on 11 December, Deane himself spotted waves where they were not meant to be. To a sailor, that meant only one thing: land was close. 

The order of “put helm to starboard” was bellowed to the steersman who, caught off guard, didn’t react in time. It was too late anyway: the hull of the Nottingham Galley had struck the razor sharp rocks of Boon Island. A disorientated panic spread through the fourteen-man crew as waves poured overboard and the ship was violently lurched parallel with the island, which still could not be seen in the dark. Unable to stand on deck, Deane ordered his crew below, where all fourteen men huddled together and prayed for deliverance. 

But the sense of panic was not to last. Gathering his wits, Deane ordered his men back on deck, determined to at least make a fight for survival. Some were too petrified to move, but Deane led by example. He began hacking down the masts, assisted by the fierce winds that did most of the work for him. Falling between the ship and the rocks that had crippled her, the mast formed a makeshift bridge on which the crew was able to clamber to the relative safety of the island. As the rest of his men began to abandon ship, Deane headed back below deck for one final time, desperate for anything that might prove useful for the inevitable marooning they were about to suffer. 

But he’d drastically underestimated the damage his ship had suffered. No sooner was he back in his cabin, the walls of the ship gave way to the relentless swell of sea water, flooding the Nottingham Galley at an alarming rate. As his ship was being dragged below the waves, Deane finally made his escape. Miraculously, all fourteen men were on Boon Island as the Nottingham Galley sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic.

The rocks had ripped their hands to tatters, and all were spewing the salty seawater that had filled their lungs, but they were alive. They offered their thanks to God before the search for shelter began. However, beside some scant patches of weeds, the tiny island offered nothing but jagged rocks that made even walking a short distance incredibly painful. Huddling together proved to be their only means of shelter and, despite carrying 30 tons of butter and three hundred pieces of cheese in their cargo, a tiny amount of the latter was their only food source. 

An evening of peril and survival turned to a morning of optimism and salvage, as Deane’s thoughts turned to how to keep his men warm and alive. The hungry men were taunted by the sight of their cargo bobbing in the sea, too far out to retrieve safely. Gulls circled the island, and seals were spotted nearby, but those too proved impossible to capture. Even if they had, there was no means to cook them; between them, they had a flint, some gunpowder and a drill, all of which were too sodden with seawater to be useful for starting a fire. With no food, and little-to-no shelter, their only hope of salvation came with the fact that they were in fishing country, and they prayed that their chances of being spotted would be fair. 

He first removed the carpenter’s head, hands and feet, before skinning him and extracting his bowels... by the time the sun had started to go down, they had their first taste of human flesh

The discipline, order and command structure that had served them well onboard the galley started to disappear over the coming days. Deane’s word had been final on the ship, but on Boon Island, his crew stopped following his orders. After all, it had been his leadership that had led them to this misery. Three members of the crew had fallen gravely ill, worst of them the ship’s cook. On the fourth day, the cook died, with his desperate final words lamenting their lack of food. 

Knowing little to nothing of their surroundings, the threat of rising tides submerging the island in water posed a real threat to their survival. With this in mind, two of the crewmembers cobbled together a makeshift raft and embarked on a near-impossible journey to shore. Their plan was to light a fire at an agreed point on the coast once they’d arrived safely. Paddling furiously against the bitter wind, they disappeared from view. Later that night, smoke was seen near the agreed point on shore. Maybe they’d made it after all. 

Deane discovered that there was a scant supply of mussels in the shores around the island, enough for two or three each per day. As the only man well enough to retrieve them, plunging his hands into the icy water became his daily duty. He knew he risked gangrene which meant death or, at best, the makeshift amputation of one or both of his hands. Those mussels proved to be their only source of food, other than a small seagull, which was trapped, killed and eaten raw, until the death of the ship’s carpenter. 

The group were deeply religious, and the decision to eat the fallen man wasn’t one that came easily. With no way to know what day it was, they observed Sunday at least three times a week, and celebrated Christmas twice, just to make sure. When it came to consuming human flesh, debate raged over whether eternal damnation was worth the temporary reprieve of hunger. Especially considering that, had their comrades made it to shore, they were perhaps only days away from rescue. But Deane would later recall just how desperately hungry they all were. As the most physically strong of the group, even he had considered cutting off and consuming his own fingers, and even eating his own bodily waste. 

They debated for days, before Deane put it to a vote. The desperate pangs of hunger proved too powerful, as only three were against eating the man they’d previously called a crewmate. As the only man with experience in butchery, the grizzly task of preparing the meat fell to Deane. 

He first removed the carpenter’s head, hands and feet, before skinning him and extracting his bowels. Cutting strips from his now unrecognizable carcass, he washed them in seawater and, by the time the sun had started to go down, they had their first taste of human flesh. Deane referred to the raw meal as beef, in order to somehow distance himself and his men from the horrors of what they were doing. 

They knew they had committed the ultimate taboo, and had traded brief respite in life for an eternity burning in the fiery depths of Hell

The impact was immediate and savage. Deane noted his astonishment at the wild-eyed barbarity with which they consumed the flesh, and the change in their nature that followed. The ‘beef’ had lit an atavistic fire deep within them, and they immediately craved more. The ferocity of their yearning was so deep that Deane was forced to drag what remained of the carpenter’s flesh to another part of the island that only he was able to reach. 

It was on that flesh that they survived until the New Year, when they were a demoralized, sorry mess of broken spirits and decaying flesh. What footwear they did have had long been worn away by the sharp rock, leaving their exposed feet as bloody red rags of flesh and muscle. Unable to feel their fingers, the men were mostly lame, other than sporadic, violent outbursts of blasphemy and rage. They knew they had committed the ultimate taboo, and had traded brief respite in life for an eternity burning in the fiery depths of Hell. 

Only then, when they were at their lowest ebb, did salvation finally arrive in the form of the fishing boat. As the only man still able to stand, it was Deane that first conversed with them. The two that had attempted to reach the shore had both drowned in the process, but it had been one of them - paddle still tied to his wrist - that had washed up on shore and alerted the rescue party to the possibility that there were some men still alive. 

Deane kept the nature of their survival to himself for fear that admission of cannibalism would have led the rescue party to leave the dying men to their fate. One of their number spotted a lump of raw meat on the rocks, and expressed his pleasure that they’d managed to catch a seal. Deane maintained his silence on the true source of the flesh that had been living among them just weeks before. 

It was to be another five days before the men could be rescued from the island, so dangerous were the surrounding waters that the rescue boat was forced to return to shore to secure a more sturdy craft. It was during this time that the group began to splinter. When faced with impending death, the decision to eat the carpenter had seemed essential but, with their survival all-but guaranteed, they knew judgement awaited. 

No sooner had they reached the mainland, the camp split into two factions. The first was led by Christopher Langman, Deane’s first mate aboard the Nottingham Galley, who wrote his version of events, claiming that Deane and his brother had intentionally sunk the vessel in order to claim insurance money. He lay the decision to eat the carpenter at Deane’s feet too, even going as far to say that he’d intentionally sailed into the reach of the French privateers in order to be captured, a plot which Langman had learned off and led the rest of the crew in a mutiny, forcing Deane to abandon the scheme.

Until the day he died, the man from the small village of Wilford would never escape the events of Boon Island

Deane and his brother quickly published a counter-narrative disputing the claims. It was Deane, they said, that had kept the men alive during their time on Boon Island, putting himself at great risk in the process. 

What followed became a ferocious public relations battle, in which both factions made increasingly outlandish claims and counterclaims against the other. The events became a cause célèbre in Britain, and the battle of words raged on for almost a year. 

Whether John Deane was a cannibalistic, plotting charlatan or a noble captain that kept his men alive in the most desperate of circumstances is as lost to history as the wreck of the Nottingham Galley itself. 

His career post-Boon Island saw Deane take service under Peter the Great in the Russian Navy with great distinction, before accusations of accepting bribes saw him dismissed and imprisoned. He served as British consul to St Petersburg, and later intercepted a courier for the Jacobites, which brought Deane to the attention of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. A promotion to British Consul to the Port of Ostend followed, where he served successfully for eight years before retiring to Wilford with his wife Sarah. There, he was made a freeman of Nottingham, and built two large Georgian houses, which remain to this day. 

In 1762, Deane died, aged 83, following a violent assault and robbery while walking the grounds of his house. His assailant was later caught and hanged, and Sarah died the following day. They were buried together at St. Wilfrid’s Church, Wilford, where their grave can still be seen. 

But neither his adventures in the service of Peter the Great, his part in quashing the Jacobean rebellion nor his distinguished service as a consul would help change the shape of John Deane’s reputation. Until the day he died, the man from the small village of Wilford would never escape the events of Boon Island. He committed the ultimate taboo; he was the Nottingham captain who cannibalised his own crew. 

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday  

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

You might also like

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.