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Introduction to Left for Dead

Charles H. Barnard, captain of the American sealing brig Nanina, had only the best of intentions. His aim was to ensure the survival of the people under his care. On June 11, 1813, Barnard and four other volunteers disembarked the anchored Nanina, climbed into a small boat, and sailed about 10 miles from New Island to Beaver Island, both part of the Falkland Islands archipelago in the South Atlantic. Armed with knives, clubs, lances, and guns, and with the assistance of Barnard’s trusty dog, Cent, the five men planned to kill birds and hogs and take them back to the Americans and British who remained on the Nanina and were fast running out of fresh provisions. It was a mission of mercy.

 

The hunt went well, and within a few days the boat was filled to the gunwales with the bloody carcasses of slain animals. But when the men sailed back to New Island late on June 14, they were greeted with an alarming sight. The Nanina was gone. Stunned, confused, and angry, the men hauled the boat up onto the beach and, according to Barnard, “awaited the approach of daylight in the most impatient and tormenting anxiety.” Sleeping fitfully in the cold night air, they hoped that in the morning light they would find a letter telling them why the Nanina had left, and when it was coming back.

 

A frantic search at dawn turned up nothing: no note either in a bottle or hung conspicuously from a piece of wood or a boulder. They saw only sand, rocks, scrubby vegetation, and birds in the distance, walking on the beach or flying overhead.

 

Refusing to believe that he and the other four men had been “barbarously deserted,” Barnard seized on another explanation. The Nanina and her crew must have headed to Beaver Island to pick them up, but they had gone to the opposite side from where the men were hunting, thus missing their comrades. Convinced by Barnard’s reasoning, the men’s hopes were rekindled. They dragged the boat into the water and sailed off once again. This time they entered the main harbor on the eastern side of Beaver Island.

 

Upon entering the harbor, as Barnard later recalled, they experienced “the almost insupportable anguish of neither finding the brig, nor discovering any trace that she had been [there].” They had been cruelly abandoned at the beginning of a Falklands winter, with little to sustain them, and no explanation why they had been left in such a horrendous predicament.

 

The events leading up to this abandonment, and what happened afterward, produce a story with so many unlikely threads, and a cast including such exceptionally colorful characters, that one might think that it sprang from the pen of a fiction writer with an overactive imagination. And yet, the story is true. It is a tale involving a shipwreck, British and Americans meeting under the most stressful circumstances in a time of war, kindness and compassion, drunkenness, the birth of a child, treachery, greed, lying, a hostile takeover, stellar leadership, ingenuity, severe privation, the great value of a good dog, perseverance, endurance, threats, bullying, banishment, a perilous thousand-mile open-ocean journey in a 17.5-foot boat, an improbable rescue mission in a rickety ship, and legal battles over a dubious and disgraceful wartime prize. And it all started with two ships—one American, the other British—sailing to the Falklands from different directions.

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