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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 5 page 08


Let’s back up a few years. Oliver might never have written anything at all except for an ocean adventure he had at age 24. What we know of it comes from his so-called autobiography — a brief record left among family papers.

It’s 1816. Britain has wrapped up some major wars and in consequence Oliver gets laid off from the Commissariat in Halifax. Bitter because a colleague with less seniority is kept on, Oliver travels to England to find work and when he is summoned back to Halifax, he vociferously does not wish to return. But return he must, so in early October, 1817, young Oliver takes a coach to Liverpool, the main embarkation for North America. He arrives late: all vessels for Nova Scotia for the sailing season have already parted. An ill omen, Oliver figures. And he’s right!

Ship sailing in rough weather
Gales and heavy seas
(Vilhelm Melbye, 1864)

He hangs around for a few days then on October 9 he catches the Protection, bound for New York City. Encouragingly, the ship reaches the Grand Banks in just 18 days. Then, suddenly, heavy weather. “We encountered a succession of gales and heavy seas,” Oliver recounts. “One man was lost overboard, the decks were swept, and the boats carried away.” The Protection veers off course, the crew is mutinous, food and water run short. Oliver doesn’t say if the ship manages to lay over somewhere but the end result is that the Protection is ten weeks out of Liverpool by the time she drops anchor in New York — and, of all the rotten luck, Oliver has missed the last New York-to-Halifax vessel by one day!

Oliver grabs a stagecoach to Boston — the 300-mile trip takes a week — hoping to board a Halifax-bound vessel there. You can guess: he misses by a hair. “I walked down to the end of the long wharf and through a mist of tears, I saw in the distance the flowing sail that would have borne me to my destination.”

Why feel hurt if you don’t want to return in the first place? Well, throughout his ‘autobiography’ Oliver tries to demonstrate that he was the kind of guy who really knocked himself out for the Empire. He also reflects that Nature herself seemed to make a special effort to block him, and if you feel targeted like that, maybe that’ll make you cry.

Oliver now boards a schooner bound for Eastport, a stone’s throw from New Brunswick. After six days, with Grand Manan Island in view, only a few miles from Eastport, a storm comes up (again!) and blows the vessel back so hard that it smashes onto snow-covered Hat Island at the mouth of Jericho Bay in Maine. A wave washes Oliver from the deck but he manages to grab onto a rock and cling to it and he scrambles up onto land. Passengers and crew huddle round a fire till at last a salvage ship saves them. Oliver, who normally demonstrates a professional diligence in recording ship names, fails to mention the name of the ship that rescued him or, for that matter, the name of the schooner that got wrecked.

Oliver reaches Halifax on March 18, 1818, reporting for duty four months late.