Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Resolven: A Historical Mystery at Sea

The story of the ship Resolven is a sad and eerie one. It sailed on the east coast of Canada in the summer of 1884. Captain John James of Cardiaganshire, Wales, had a crew of seven men besides himself. They had also taken on four passengers, men who lived along the coast of Newfoundland, in the Conception Bay area.

This ship is a brig, the same type vessel as the Resolven.
Brig Wolverine By Unknown - [1], Public Domain,
One Friday in August, the Resolven was found drifting off the coast near Baccalieu Head by the sailors on a British Royal Navy gunboat, HMS Mallard. The Resolven was a Welsh merchant brig, but the captain and his crew were not aboard when she was found. Neither were any of the passengers.

The ship had last been seen on Wednesday evening, when it left Harbour Grace about 6 p.m. and passed the Baccalieu lighthouse around midnight. What happened between then and Friday?

The men who found the abandoned vessel guessed that the crew had been on board less than six hours before they arrived. This was based on the facts that fires were still lit in the galley, and the cabin table held food ready to eat. All her sails were set to catch the wind. Despite a search of nearby shores, no trace was found.

Why had the people aboard left the ship? And why all of them at once? Many guesses have been made, but none has been proven.

The Resolven had had set sail from Aberystwyth, in Wales, months earlier. It took its name from a town in Wales, also called Resolven.

Photo of Resolven, Wales, community hall:
Jaggery [CC BY-SA 2.0 (
licenses/by-sa/2.0)],via Wikimedia Commons
The captain is said to have carried a personal fortune in gold coins on board, but the gold was not on the brig when it was found. It is also thought that none of the missing men were ever found, but there is some dispute to that. 

Here are some suggested theories as to why the men disappeared:

1. Iceberg alert. Many people believe the crew and passengers abandoned ship because they felt they were in danger of crashing into an iceberg and sinking, or else the ship was actually damaged by an iceberg. Either way, they may have feared for their lives if they stayed aboard.

I have not found records of the extent of the damage to the Resolven at the time when it was found abandoned. However, if the ship had sustained damage, it was not catastrophic. This brig was towed to shore, refitted, and put back into service, so it could not have been crippled or in immediate danger of going down, whether from iceberg, weather, or other natural causes.

2. Was there a mutiny? If so, why did they all abandon the ship? Most mutineers either leave the vessel in a ship’s boat or take over the ship and set the captain and loyal crew members adrift. But everyone left the Resolven.

3. Could the Resolven have been boarded by pirates? Possible, but no evidence substantiates this.

4. Could the passengers have arranged the incident so that they could steal and escape with the captain’s gold? This seems very possible, as the passengers would know the coast and could plan together a way to benefit themselves and not get caught.

Captain James’s great-grandson has done a lot of digging into this story. He’d heard about it from his great-uncle, but wasn’t sure whether or not it was true. As a result, in addition to receiving the captain’s New Testament, which was left aboard the Resolven, Will Wain has made some interesting contacts in Canada and learned some intriguing things that may or may not be facts.

Captain John James's signature, in the New Testament he left on board the ship, now returned to his family.
Photo by Will Wain, used by permission.

In England’s National Archives, he found a copy of the ship’s log of the HMS Mallard, the vessel that found the Resolven adrift in 1884. Here was proof that his great-grandfather’s ship had really been discovered in the manner he’d heard. Wain posted about this on his website and later started a Facebook page about the Resolven.

He was contacted by a woman living in Newfoundland who had seen his posts and had a story of her own to tell. She told Wain that her own grandfather and his brother had told years ago of finding a man’s body near the shore on the coast of Random Island. They said he was dressed in a captain’s uniform and had been sitting under a tree, facing the ocean.

The captain's Welsh New Testament, found aboard the Resolven
Photo by Will Wain, used by permission 

The body had no identification on it, though the dead man did have a distinctive pocket watch. The woman claimed her relatives found the body in the same month and year that the Resolven was abandoned. She also said the two brothers had buried the body in an unmarked grave in a small fishing village.

Wain traveled to Newfoundland and met the woman and her brother. They showed him the area where the body was allegedly found, but didn’t know the actual location of the grave. They also told him that one of the men who found the body appeared to come into some money about that time, and when he died his wife began spending much more than it seemed logical for her to do. Was she spending the captain’s gold?

Another rumor uncovered in Newfoundland is a tale that a man lived for a long time in an isolated coastal community and might possibly be a survivor of the Resolven incident. That has not been confirmed.

The Resolven is sometimes referred to as “the Welsh Mary Celeste,” because of its similarities to the famous American ship Mary Celeste, which was discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Islands in 1872. Another ship’s crew found her deserted but seaworthy and well provisioned. The last log entry had been made ten days earlier. The ship’s boat was missing, but the captain's and crew's personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board were ever seen or heard from again. The Resolven’s story seems like an echo to the Mary Celeste’s.

So, what do you think happened to the men of the Resolven? Maybe you favor one of the theories above, or maybe you have another suggestion. Do you believe the story of the dead man under the tree, and that he was in fact Captain James? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Will Wain, the captain's great-grandson, has his website, which is now under construction, at: and his Facebook page about the Resolven is at:
Because the web page is still under construction, I found the Facebook page more helpful at this time. Will also graciously allowed me to share some of the pictures here. 

Giveaway: The Seafaring Women of the Vera B. is an adventurous novel I wrote with my son Jim. If you like sea stories, we hope you’ll enjoy this. To enter a drawing to win a copy of this book, comment below and be sure to leave your contact information.

Susan Page Davis is the author of more than seventy novels and novellas. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and two Will Rogers Medallions, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. A Maine native, she lived for a while in Oregon and now lives in Kentucky. Visit her website at:, where you can sign up for her occasional newsletter and read a short story on her romance page.


  1. Fascinating tale! I enjoyed this post very much.

  2. What a great post. I love these kind of historical mysteries!

  3. What a fascinating story! I’m looking forward to learning more about the Resolven and the Mary Celeste. Thank you for this post.

  4. Thank you for this interesting post I would love to win a copy of your book. How great that you wrote it with your son!

    Cindy W.
    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    1. We're finally working on the sequel, The Scottish Lass, Cindy! The Vera B. will resume sailing soon

  5. oh wow this is truly a fascinating post. this sounds like it would be an interesting book. so cool that you and your son wrote it together.
    quilting dash lady at Comcast dot net

  6. Thanks for telling me a new one of history’s mysteries. I don’t think I’ve ever heard about the Resolven. Inspiration for a new book? Go for it!

  7. Strange! I'm going with the passengers taking over the ship, murdering the crew and stealing the gold. That seems to be the most logical reason for the ship to be abandoned.

    1. Leaning that way myself, Pam, since there don't seem to have been any bad storms at that place and time, and the damage to the ship was minimal.

  8. This was really interesting. I wonder what happened. It would be a good story to make into a fiction novel. :D

    1. I'm sure we could all write a story based on this idea and have it come out differently! (Ghost Ship Brides, anyone?)

  9. I suppose it's possible the passengers murdered the captain and crew for the gold and then abandoned the ship, but I don't see how four men can take over a ship's crew and murder them without some sign, like blood or a scuffle. The world may never know. I would love to read The Seafaring Women of the Vera B. Thanks for the giveaway and good luck everyone.

  10. Now there's a plot for a good mystery. Thanks for the fascinating story.

    1. Hi, Martha! I agree. At my son's house with intermittent email, but it's great to see you all interacting on this. You're giving me ideas...

  11. Wow! So many great facts! I loved your post.

  12. Will Wain contacted me after he read this blog and said he hopes it will bring a lot more exposure to his great-grandfather's story. He's still looking for answers to the riddle!

  13. Wow! What an interesting and mystery post, each one could write what they thought happened.
    The Seafaring Women of the Vera B sounds intriguing. Thank you for the giveaway. marilynridgway78 [at]gmail [dot}com

  14. It will be interesting to see if he finds out more.
    Linda -

  15. And the winner of The Seafaring Women of the Vera B. is Linda Orr. I tried hard to make sure everyone who left their contact info was entered. Thanks to everyone who took part!