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 Dobbin The Diver

49 - Dobbin The Diver

 

 

from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

Dobbin the diver, or Davey, as he was familiarly known to all his friends, was born at St. Marys on the 25th day of October 1817, and for many years he fished out of his native village. He was a man of powerful physique and, even in his early days, he was noted for his courage and daring.

Every land can boast of brave men. Some who are not merely brave and courageous but some who are utterly fearless. I am sure Dobbin can be listed among those. There is no boasting in some simple words spoken by him when he was asked about his diving: he replied, "When I first put on a diving suit I felt a bit strange. I wasn't frightened. I was never frightened of anything in my life," and his experience amongst the wrecks and drowned gave him every opportunity of proving his words. Few scenes of death or horror could equal those which he saw, for there are few men who have the experience of recovering over two thousand dead bodies in various stages of corruption.

In considering the career of this man one must also consider the time in which he lived and the primitive nature of the equipment on which he depended for his very life. A century ago, in Dobbin's day, the diving equipment was so elementary and the knowledge of underwater conditions were so scanty that every dive was a gamble with death, and very often death won. People regarded the idea of a human walking and breathing under the sea as bordering on the miraculous. Even brave men quailed at the thought of plunging into the dark unknown world of the deep, where they felt strange, horrible monsters roamed, and where according to legends, the phantoms of the drowned lay in wait for their victims. Many people regarded deep-sea diving as a reckless intrusion into places where man was never meant to go, prying into secrets that the human eye was never meant to see.

When Dobbin got his first chance to try his luck at diving he just took it as an everyday chore, or, as the older folks said, he just took it in his stride. A small schooner had run aground near St. Marys. It was owned by a man named Smith McKay who later became famous in connection with the development of the Tilt Cove Copper Mines. McKay hired Dobbin to help in getting his schooner refloated and was so impressed with Dobbin's strength and daring that he asked him if he would use a diving suit if it was provided. Dobbin, without knowing anything about diving or ever having seen a suit, promptly agreed. Up to that time a sunken ship was simply written off as a dead loss, but with the introduction of the diving suit a while new field was opened to the adventurer and seeker of sunken treasure. This was especially so on the southern shore, well names "the graveyard of the Atlantic", where nearly every shoal and headland was littered with the bones of lost ships - most of them containing valuables.

Dobbin's first salvage job was on a steamer called the "Kestrel". She was a packet on a run between Halifax and St. John's and had been lost at St. Shotts. In those days even the best diving suits were sorry affairs, and the one Dobbin had was second-hand. He had not been long down when he felt ice cold water entering the suit. Despite this he stayed down for several hours. When he came up a man named Tremblett volunteered to take a turn. He was hardly down when frantic tugging at the rope showed he was in trouble. Quickly hey hauled him to the surface, but he was dead. This so shocked McKay that he wanted to abandon the job, but Dobbin said no, he'd finish it, and putting on the dead man's suit he went down and discovered a considerable treasure.

The discovery convinced Mr. McKay that there were promising possibilities in the salvage business. So he bought a schooner called "The Responsible", and thus began for Dobbin a life of danger and adventure which lasted fourteen years. During that time he worked on wrecks, not only on the Newfoundland coast, but also on the mainland, for his reputation had travelled far afield. Unfortunately, there is no definite record of how many ships he worked or the amount of wealth re recovered from the sea.

However, there is on record one interesting story in the life of Dobbin and I think you will find it an adventure in itself. It began on a spring morning when the people of Bigley's Harbour saw a ship's rowboat approaching the shore. From it stepped eight men and one woman. They said they were the captain, his wife and the crew of the "S.S. Commereskie" which the captain said had run aground and sunk during the night. All seventy-two passengers had been drowned. The people of Bigley's Bay took care of the shipwrecked people until they got a passage back to England. But then curiosity was aroused and rumours began to get around. Why was it that more of the passengers were not rescued? Why did their bodies not drift ashore as they did from other wrecks? Why did the crew have so much money in their pockets? Was the woman really the Captain's wife? Such was the talk when Dobbin was asked to again don his diving suit and try and solve the mystery. So down he went once more, only to discover a beautiful woman tied to the mast of the sunken ship. then, undaunted, he made his way to the passengers' quarters to find the door nailed fast from the outside. He felt he knew the awful truth, but, even so warned, his steel nerves were shaken when he forced the door. The place was filled with death - the bodies of seventy-two men and women huddled in every conceivable attitude. He tied a rope around the bodies and sent them up one by one. They were buried in a place called "Plantation" and their graves can be seen there today.

When authorities sent the report of Dobbin's discovery to England, the captain and crew were arrested, tried and hanged. the woman got a long prison sentence. Afterwards the full story was revealed. The ship had been chartered by a wealthy company of Dutch people who intended to settle in the American west. They had placed their money and valuables in the captain's care for safe keeping. This was a big mistake, for undoubtedly it was for possession of so much wealth which led the Captain's thinking in such diabolic directions. Also amongst the passengers was a very beautiful girl who captured the Captain's fancy, and although his wife was with him he did not let this interfere with his plans. So the Captain and some of the passengers made their plan. The ship would go down in the night off a deserted part of the Newfoundland coast where the water was deep. The Captain's wife would perish with the others. No betraying bodies would float up and the bribed crew would keep silent to save their own necks. After it was all over, the Captain with his ill-gotten woman and their blood-stained wealth would take off for the Carribean.

Now, what those wicked people did not realize was that there would be such a thing as a diving suit in this forlorn country, or that any Newfoundlander would be brave enough to go down in the deep water where the wreck lay, or that one day a man named Dobbin, whom on one recognized as famous, would one day stand on the deck of the "S.S Commereskie" and discover the gruesome burden she carried.

 

 

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This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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