Range of sailors' ages on a typical Pacific trading ship in 1810

Range of sailors' ages on a typical Pacific trading ship in 1810

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This question is about crew ages on trading voyages in the North Pacific around 1810. The number of crew members on these voyages was often in the low dozens. Funding could come at least in part from captains like Barkley, Dobell, or Gyzelaar, but often the backer was a corporation like the East India Company, the Russian-American Company, Bryant & Sturgis, or the North West Company. Let's disregard the unique case of the Manila Galleon system, which wound down around this time.

It goes without saying that the captains preferred to hire skilled, reliable, affordable candidates for their crew. The skill and reliance criteria could rule out very old and very young applicants (but note the role of cabin boy).

Local conditions affected crew age distribution. A sponsored mission of exploration could hire a whole cohort of sailors in the prime of life, while a frontier transport beset by scurvy might be forced to hire whatever manpower was available in some remote port. All else equal, a vessel with a larger crew would tend to have a slightly larger spread of ages. Every crew had one youngest and one oldest sailor.

Typically, how old were the youngest and oldest sailors aboard?

Probably this question can only be answered obliquely, so I'm open to extrapolations based on other places and times.

I would use the assumption that the age ranges were approximately normally distributed, and then work on determining:

  1. The mean of the distribution; and

  2. The standard deviation of the distribution.

and how both might vary by maritime speciality - fishing and particularly whaling, for instance, perhaps attracting a younger demographic due both to the need for greater strength and being more dangerous

Why a normal distribution you ask?

  1. Because the Central Limit Theorem states that if we can make the assumption that the arithmetic mean of the ages on individual ships are statistically independent, then the distribution of those means across the industry (and its specialities) is normally distributed even if the age distributions on each ship are not.

  2. The Central Limit Theorem further states that, if the distribution is actually Binomial, then due to large N the Normal Distribution is a suitable and accurate substitution.

  3. There is no reason to believe or expect that a specialized distribution, such as the Poisson or Pareto to take two common possibilities, would be applicable.

A reasonable sized sampling of crew lists from ships of the period would then allow one to estimate the mean and standard deviation of the whole population from that of the sample.

Oregon Trail

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Oregon Trail, also called Oregon-California Trail, in U.S. history, an overland trail between Independence, Missouri, and Oregon City, near present-day Portland, Oregon, in the Willamette River valley. It was one of the two main emigrant routes to the American West in the 19th century, the other being the southerly Santa Fe Trail from Independence to Santa Fe (now in New Mexico). In addition, branches from each main trail provided connections to destinations in California, and a spur of the northerly Oregon route, part of the Oregon Trail, led to the Great Salt Lake region of what is now northern Utah.

The Oregon Trail, which stretched for about 2,000 miles (3,200 km), flourished as the main means for hundreds of thousands of emigrants to reach the Northwest from the early 1840s through the 1860s. It crossed varied and often difficult terrain that included large territories occupied by Native Americans. From Independence it first traversed the vast prairie grasslands of present-day northeastern Kansas and southern Nebraska, there following the Platte River. Skirting the southern end of the Sand Hills, it continued along the North Platte River (a major tributary of the Platte) into much drier and increasingly rugged lands in what is now southern Wyoming. There, leaving the river, it crossed its first mountain ranges before heading across the arid and desolate Great Divide Basin.

In southwestern Wyoming, after having run largely westward for hundreds of miles, the route trended generally to the northwest as it traversed more mountains and then followed the relatively level plain of the Snake River in what is now southern Idaho. Entering the northeastern corner of present-day Oregon, the trail crossed the Blue Mountains before reaching the lower Columbia River. From there travelers could float downstream or, after 1846, go overland through the Cascade Range to the trail’s western terminus in the fertile Willamette valley situated between the Cascades and the Coast Ranges to the west.

Range of sailors' ages on a typical Pacific trading ship in 1810 - History

Between 1785 and 1794 about thirty-five British vessels traded on the Northwest Coast in the next decade there were nine, and between 1805 and 1814, three. This decline can be explained in part by the East India Company's iron grip on British trade in the Orient, but chiefly by the prolonged European wars which grew out of the French Revolution and affected British manpower and investment capital.

As British trade declined, Americans entered the field. Two vessels pioneered the New England-Northwest-Orient trade in 1788. At least fifteen ships followed in the next seven years, and there were seventy between 1794 and 1805.

Americans were free traders their economy had no privileged corporations. A proposal to create one comparable to the East India Company for trading with the Indians was rejected in 1786 when the Continental Congress expressed the popular opinion that "commercial intercourse between the United States and the Indians would be more prosperous if left unfettered in the hands of private adventurers, than if regulated by any system of national complexion."

At that very time, the newly independent Americans found their postwar prosperity blighted. Business houses were failing, trade stagnated, and merchants complained of the "languor" of direct trade with Europe. But, the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars gave the United States an opportunity to enter a worldwide market, despite efforts of the warring powers to curtail neutral enterprise. In 1790 President Washington wrote to Lafayette of a developing trade with India and of ships profitably trading at Canton. It was furs from the Pacific Northwest that gave American merchants a commodity to trade in the Orient and helped to set the new nation's economy on its feet.

John Ledyard's "Great Adventure"

The initial project to bring American ships into western waters never got out of the planning stage, yet it gave direction to the search for markets. Its originator was John Ledyard, a precocious New Englander born in 1751. His restless search for adventure--and for wealthy family connections to support him--had taken him to London, "hungering for fame." He had sailed in 1776 as a corporal of marines on Cook's momentous third voyage. Six years later, deserting the British navy, he returned to Connecticut and the following year published what purported to be his own journal of that voyage. He wrote enthusiastically of the richness and variety of sea otter pelts Cook's men had bought which "did not cost the purchaser six pence sterling," but sold in China for $100 or more.

Failing to interest American merchants in a trading voyage to exploit these resources, Ledyard went to Europe and in the capitals of Spain, France, and England, unsuccessfully sought financial backing for his scheme. In Paris he told his story to Thomas Jefferson, United States minister to France, who was immediately interested, having already considered exploring the West for reasons of state. With John Paul Jones, naval hero of the American Revolution, Ledyard worked out a plan in which they hoped French merchants would invest. It was practical, foreshadowing the pattern later used for large-scale trading enterprises. It call for

. . . two vessels . . . to proceed in company to the Northwest Coast, and commence a factory there under the American flag. The first six months were to be spent in collecting furs, and looking out for a suitable spot to establish a post, either on the main land, or on an island. A small stockade was then to be built, in which Ledyard was to be left with a surgeon, an assistant, and twenty soldiers one of the vessels was to be despatched, with its cargo of furs, under the command of Paul Jones, to China, while the other was to remain in order to facilitate the collecting of another cargo during his absence. Jones was to return with both the vessels to China, sell their cargoes of furs, load them with silks and teas, and continue his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Europe, or the United States. He was then to replenish his vessels with suitable articles for traffic with the Indians, and proceed as expeditiously as possible . . . to the point of his departure in the Northern Pacific. 1

They were soon discourage. They learned that Portlock and Dixon had sailed from England for the Northwest. They "have actually sailed on an expedition which was thought of by Mr. Ledyard," complained Jones, "which I should suppose must interfere with, and very much lessen the profits of any similar undertaking by others." Also, the French government frowned upon the enterprise. Jones was informed that Spain would resent any enterprise encroaching upon its interests in the Pacific. Since France had already aroused Spanish suspicions by sending out Laperouse, the French government apparently wished to avoid further complications by appearing to encourage Ledyard and Jones. Jones thereupon withdrew from the scheme.

Ledyard also gave up the idea of a trading voyage. He would win fame as an explorer of heroic dimension he would go to the Northwest Coast and make his way alone to the sources of the Missouri and thence to "the shores of Kentucke." He found a patron in Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London and, by virtue of office as well as his own wide interests, a patron of world travelers and explorers. Through the assistance of R. Cadman Etches, Banks got Ledyard passage on a ship preparing to leave England for Nootka in the spring of 1786. But after Ledyard had outfitted himself at Banks' expense with a pistol, knife, hatchet, and some new clothes, he was vastly disappointed to learn that the ship was not permitted to sail. As an alternative, Ledyard decided to go via Russia and Siberia.

Ledyard's subsequent story is only remotely related to the history of the Pacific Northwest, but it serves to illustrate the complex interactions which make history. With Sir Joseph's letters of introduction to the right people, Ledyard went to Hamburg, Germany, then to Sweden, with the idea of crossing to Russia on the frozen waters of the Gulf of Bothnia. In the middle of the Gulf, he found open water, so returned to Stockholm. In a second start he traveled into frigid lands in the Arctic Circle, rounded the head of the Gulf, and descended its eastern shore to St. Petersburg. There at the end of March (1787), with the help of Banks' friends, Ledyard was able to join a party carrying supplies to the Billings expedition in Siberia.

It will be recalled that in 1778-1779 Ledyard and Billings had been shipmates on Cook's flagship, the Resolution Ledyard, a corporal of marines Billings, a seaman. On November 13, 1787, Captain Billings was astonished to meet "Colonel" Ledyard 6000 miles east of St. Petersburg, at Yakutsk in Siberia, and was informed that Ledyard wished to cross with the expedition to the American continent "for the purpose of exploring it on foot."

It is interesting that as Ledyard was making his way to Yakutsk, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the sole survivor of Laperouse's expedition, was en route from Kamchatka toward Yakutsk, with the dispatches, journals, and maps of the Frenchmen's Northwest explorations. Their paths did not cross.

With Billings, Ledyard traveled to Irkutsk where the expedition waited for the ice to break up. But on a February evening in 1788 two hussars appeared at Ledyard's dwelling with order to take him into custody and return him to Moscow for an inquiry. Ledyard evaded the inquiry and in the early summer was back in London at the door of his benefactor, Sir Joseph. Next he applied to the Society for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa for a commission to explore that dark continent. Asked when he could start, Ledyard replied, "Tomorrow morning." In August Ledyard wrote Jefferson from Cairo that if he survived Africa, he would yet go "to America and penetrate from Kentuske [sic] to the Western side of the continent." The following January (1789) "mad, dreaming, romantic" John Ledyard was dead.

Others were to make the continental crossing of North America others were to reap fortunes from Northwest Coast sea otter. In the year Ledyard died, Dixon and Portlock published accounts of their two-year voyage to that coast Charles Barkley discovered the Strait of Juan de Fuca Billings reached the Asian coast of the Pacific and the Canadian Alexander Mackenzie was at Lake Athabaska planning the first of two expeditions which would earn him fame as the first to cross the North American continent. And as Ledyard lay dying of fever in Cairo, the first American vessels to the Northwest Coast of America were wintering near Nootka.

Opening The China Market

Ledyard had pointed out the possibilities of the fur trade but his plans were premature. His countrymen had not yet explored the other angle of the trade--China. Robert Morris, who had rejected Ledyard's project in favor of a China voyage to see if Americans could compete with British dealers in Chinese goods, was one of several merchants who outfitted the Empress of China which sailed from New York in February, 1784. She carried a cargo of ginseng, wine and brandy, tar and turpentine, and $20,000 in specie, representing a total investment of $120,000. The liquors, tar, turpentine, and specie were traded in India for items in demand in China, such as lead, raw cotton, cotton cloth, and pepper. 2

At Canton the Americans and their goods were well received, and the proceeds were invested in Chinese goods for the American market: tea, nankeens, chinaware, woven silk, and cassia, an inferior grade of cinnamon. The voyage returned a profit of 30 percent on the investment, only about one-tenth of what was reported on some later ventures, but sufficient to start a rage for East India voyages and peculations in East India goods.

The Americans made their profits by buying Chinese goods, especially nankeens, and selling them in the ports of Europe, in the West Indies, and in the markets of luxury-hungry Americans. The problem, however, was to find commodities with which to purchase Chinese goods. The only American product in demand at Canton was ginseng, which, badly prepared for shipment, brought a low price. Hence the larger part of a China investment had to be bought with scarce specie. In 1788, for example, four Canton-bound ships carried ginseng, India cotton, and "62 chests of treasure" probably amounting to $248,000. The Americans did not have enough specie to keep this up.

Captains Kendrick And Gray

Lack of specie and other high-value merchantable stock prompted six merchants to try Ledyard's idea of buying Chinese goods with furs from the Northwest Coast. They subscribed $50,000 to outfit two vessels. 3

Command of the 212-ton Columbia Rediviva was given to Captain John Kendrick, who had spent most of his forty-seven years at sea. Kendrick was impressive in size and courage. His ideas were bold and unconventional he looked upon the Northwest as a theater for great deeds. "Empires and fortunes broke on his sight," wrote his clerk, John Howell. "The paltry two-penny objects of his expedition were swallowed up in the magnitude of his Gulliverian Views. North East America was on the Lilliputian, but he designed N. W. America to be on the Brobdignagian scale." Unfortunately Kendrick lacked the persistence and stability to execute his plans. It would appear that he was intemperate in habit and disposition, a poor trader, and not to be trusted with other people's property.

The consort of the Columbia was a 90-ton sloop, the Lady Washington . Like Kendrick, her 32-year-old captain, Robert Gray, had served as a privateer during the American Revolution. Gray had neither the colorful personality nor the special weaknesses of his superior. He was a hard man, strictly attentive to the "two-penny objects" of his business--to get sea otters skins and invest them in China goods.

The two vessels left Boston on September 30, 1787, heavily armed, carrying special papers issued by the Continental Congress, and a cargo of goods ill fitted for the Northwest trade.

In the first week of August, 1788, Gray approached Oregon's southern coast. On the fourteenth he dropped anchor in a bay, probably Tillamook. The Indians brought presents of berries and boiled crabs, and traded some otter skins while the crew took on wood and water. Two days later the apparently friendly situation was reversed in an instant. An Indian killed Marcus, Gray's Negro servant the crew escaped to the ship and, with the changing tide, the Lady Washington sailed out of Murderer's Harbor. Since it was too late in the season for extended trade, the two ships wintered in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island.

The next summer Gray and Kendrick were at Nootka when Martinez seized Meares's ships. Kendrick assured Martinez that he and Gray were at Nootka only to make repairs to their vessels, a standard excuse of mariners attempting to enter Spain's colonial ports. Martinez was not taken in by this subterfuge he knew that the visitors' principal object was furs. He reported that he might have taken the Americans prisoners if his orders and his situation had permitted. Since they did not, he treated them as friends and, provisioning them form Colnett's stock, permitted them to trade on the coast on condition that they make no settlement.

Apparently Kendrick tried to keep up the appearance of being a neutral bystander. On the Fourth of July, the Columbia fired several salvos of thirteen guns to celebrate thirteen years of American independence, and at noon Kendrick entertained the Spanish priests, Martinez and his officers, and the English prisoners at a splendid banquet. "For his pretended intercession for my Vessel's release," Colnett reported that he gave Kendrick a gold watch, a gesture he regretted when he found that Kendrick had received favors from Martinez.

While the Americans were still at Nootka, troubles arose between them, probably because Kendrick had an idea of developing an independent trade between the Northwest Coast, the Hawaiian Islands, and China. Gray assumed command of the Columbia and Kendrick took the Lady Washington as his own ship. He sailed to China in the fall of 1789, used the proceeds from his cargo to rerig his ship, and subsequently made voyages only in Pacific waters. Two years later Kendrick and Gray met once more, but as rival traders.

At Macao, Gray sold his furs for something more than $21,000 at Canton, he took on a cargo of tea. In February, he sailed for Boston where he arrived in August, 1790, having made a complete encirclement of the globe in the course of his three-year voyage. Boston received the Columbia with a salute of thirteen guns. A crowd of people swarmed to the wharf to welcome her and to gawk at Gray's Hawaiian boy who had replaced the Negro, Marcus. But while patriots and the curious were pleased, the Columbia's owners were disappointed to find their investment barely refunded. According to the report that was circulated, the losses were charged to Kendrick whose reputation was "suspended between the qualifications of egregious knavery and incredible stupidity."

Gray, on the other hand, was taken into the partnership. Outfitted with a suitable cargo of blue cloth, copper, iron, and a knockdown keel and frame for a small sloop, he left Boston on September 28, 1790. A quick voyage brought him to the Pacific coast in June of the following year.

Gray wintered at Adventure Cove in Clayoquote Sound, an ideal spot both for protecting the ship and for assembling the sloop. A clearing was made on the shore and within a fortified log shelter were erected a blacksmith shop and a boat builder's shed. Two saw-pits were constantly in use to cut plank sheathing from logs towed to the spot. Adventure Cove had the appearance of a "young" shipyard, reported John Boit.

In March, 1792, the sloop christened the Aventure , was hauled down the ways and supplied for a four months' cruise among the Queen Charlotte Islands under Robert Haswell, Gray's first mate. The Columbia was rigged, stowed, and made ready for sea again. But before it sailed on April 2, Captain Gray made his contribution to steadily deteriorating relations with the natives.

While the Indians in the Queen charlotte Islands had already begun to take their toll of white men--Gray lost three in a fight with them--those about Nootka and Clayoquot had remained friendly until Gray's long stay wore out their hospitality. During the winter there were signs of increasing hostility at the end of February, a critical threat of attack.

Gray chastised the Indians severely for their unfriendliness, much to the regret of young John Boit, who was order to carry out the punishment.

. . . it was a Command I was no ways tenacious of, and am greived to think Capt. Gray shou'd let his passions go so far. This village was about half a mile in Diameter, and Contained upwards of 200 Houses, generally well built for Indians, ev'ry door that you enter'd was in resemblance to an human and Beasts head, the passage being through the mouth, besides which there was much more rude carved work about the dwelling some of which was by no means innelegant. This fine Village, the Work of Ages, was in a short time totally destroy'd.

In April, Gray sailed almost to the California line, then hauled to the north to examine the shoreline for river mouths and bays which he might enter for trade. But squally weather and strong southerly currents kept the ship beating about for safe anchorages that were few and far between. In the vicinity of 46 degrees, 10 minutes north latitude Gray noticed evidence of a large river. The outflowing current was too strong to enter.

On April 27, a calm day, he anchored on the Washington coast in a shallow bay, abreast a village Boit called Kenekomitt, probably Neah Bay, where he traded a fine lot of skins. With a storm blowing up, the Columbia weighed offshore for the night. From this position next morning, Captain Vancouver's ships, the Discovery and Chatham were sighted.

It was then that Vancouver sent Lieutenant Peter Puget and Dr. Archibald Menzies to confer with Gray, particularly about the Strait of Juan de Fuca which, it will be recalled, was one of the prime objects of his exploration. As mentioned, Vancouver was not impressed with Gray's report of a large river to the south. After amenities were exchanged, he sailed on to his exploration of Puget Sound, and negotiations with Bodega at Nootka. Gray turned south once more on the chance that good weather would permit him to examine the coast more carefully.

On May 7, he saw an inlet "which had a very good appearance of a harbor." With the small boat signaling depths, the Columbia stood for the bar. A quick run between the breakers took her into a comfortable harbor with Gray called Bulfinch, but which the Columbia's officers named Gray's Harbor.

A large number of Indians put out in their canoes. Boit noted that their language was different from that of others they had met, and that "Without doubt we are the first Civilized people that ever visited this port. . . ." A brisk trade followed, but in the late evening the natives began to act hostile. In the moonlight, Gray saw their war canoes approaching. After several warning shots, he ordered a broadside on the nearest canoe, containing about twenty men, and "dash'd her all to pieced and no doubt kill'd every soul in her." But artillery fire seemed to have no damaging effect upon trade. The next day a number of Chehalis came to trade salmon, beaver skins, and otter for cloth, iron, and copper.

Toward sunset, May 10, 1792, the Columbia cleared Grays Harbor, her course set for the bay where Gray had seen signs of a river several weeks before. The next morning according to his official log:

At four, A.M., saw the entrance of our desired port bearing east-south-east, distance six leagues in steering sails, and hauled our wind in shore. At eight A.M., being a little to windward of the entrance of the Harbor, bore away, and run in east-north-east between the breakers, having from five to seven fathoms of water.

It was a fresh clear morning, the wend from the north. If Gray had not been so intent upon the progress of the pinnace that guided his ship over the bar, he might have noted that the river lay before him like a widening stream of silver in the morning sun that the hills were flushed with the sunrise that wisps of fog were caught in the trees that crowed close to the water's edge. If Gray had had the compulsions of a discoverer, he would have felt the thrill of his life as he ran into the broad estuary of the river about whose existence men had speculated so long. But he was a trader and whatever exploration he made was to find unspoiled Indians eager to exchange furs for beads and bright bits of cloth and metal.

The natives "appear'd to view the Ship with the greatest astonishment," reported John Boit, yet Gray's hope of a brisk trade in this previously unvisited spot was only partly fulfilled. The Indians traded cheaply enough: two salmon for a nail, four otter skins for a sheet of copper, a beaver skin for two spikes, and less valuable furs for one. But during his stay in the river, Gray traded only 150 sea otter, 300 beaver skins, and numerous other of less value. There was no reason to believe that this was a profitable stop for otter.

A short run upriver, jeopardized by sand bars, satisfied whatever curiosity Gray had about the river's course. There is no evidence that he thought it important. John Boit recorded that he ". . . landed abrest the Ship with Capt. Gray to view the Country." Modern scholarship has shown that three words "and take possession" were inserted at a later date and by a different hand. The fragment remaining of the official log of the Columbia says nothing about taking possession.

On May 20 Gray put out to sea. He returned to Nootka where he gave a sketch of the river's entrance to Bodega who later passed it along to Vancouver. From Nootka, Gray went to Canton where he sold his furs and bought a modestly profitable cargo of China goods. He dropped anchor in Boston July 29, 1793.

Gray's discovery later gave the United States a tenuous claim to these parts of the Northwest. But his chief contribution to history was his pioneering of the New England-Northwest-Canton trade which the sea otter made possible.

The Sea Otter

The fur of the sea otter was especially beautiful and highly prized by those who could afford it. A thick, fine underfur tipped to brown-black and sprinkled with a few long silver guard hairs gave a shimmering effect when moved by so little as a breath of air. The adult make pelt was about five feet long and twenty-five to thirty inches wide, that of the female somewhat smaller. A number of these carefully pieced together made royal robes for wealthy mandarins tails and oddments were used for caps and for borders on elaborate gowns. Indians too valued the sea otter skin above all others only chiefs could afford to wear robes made of them and two skins would purchase a slave.

These gregarious aquatic mammals (Lutra enhydris marina) were found only on Pacific shores where reefs or rocks gave them protection from storms and heavy surf, and where in floating beds of kelp they bore and raised their pups. 4 Some traders of uncommon sensibilities spoke of the animals as if they had personalities. They were friendly and fearless until they discovered that men were their enemies. Both male and female guarded their pups from danger, and when they felt secure, gamboled and played with them in almost human fashion.

California, British Columbia, northern Washington, and Alaskan shores provided favorable habitats. The Oregon coast was, on the whole, unfavorable. Gray traded a few skins at Cape Orford and Tillamook Bay and only 150 in the Columbia River. Foster Dulles, in The Old China Trade (1930), estimated that between 1790 and 1812 Canton's imports from the "Northwest Coast of America" averaged about 12,000 skins a year. William Sturgis, who participated in the trade, says that in 1802 15,000 skins were carried to Canton, and he implies that this was a peak year both in number of ships and of furs. Probably less than half of these cargoes were marketed at Macao. The total number of skins taken from the Pacific Coast may have been as high as 200,000.

The sea otter pelt brought higher prices than any other fur in the China market. The top price of $100 for a complete skin paid to Cook's men in 1779, was bettered by Captain Hanna six years later, when he was said to have received $140 a pelt. In 1790 the price ranged from $25 to $45. Sometimes the market was glutted and the Hong merchants prohibited imports in 1800 and 1804 there was a shortage and the price rose to $50. Using a rough estimate of 200,000 pelts and an average price of $30, the total value may have been about $6,000,000. Invested in Chinese goods that were sold in Europe, the West Indies, and the United States, the proceeds from the maritime fur trade were a stimulus to the American economy, and the foundation of several New England family fortunes.

The Schedule Of Voyages

The great period of the Pacific Northwest maritime trade was from 1787 to the outbreak of the war between Great Britain and the United States in 1812, when it practically ceased. During these years the trade had so largely fallen into the hands of Boston traders that the Indians called all Americans "Boston men" to distinguish them from the British, "King George's men."

The small vessels engaged in the trade usually set out in the early fall, stopped at the Falkland Islands and at San Juan Fernandez, or some South American Pacific port, and with good luck reached the Hawaiian Islands the following spring. Refitted and replenished, they caught the prevailing winds to the Oregon coast.

After 1795 traders seldom visited Nootka. Their first stop was at Newettee on the northwestern promontory of Vancouver Island, or Kygarney (Kargahnee) on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands. According to John D'Wolf, in 1804-1805 this was "the best place of resort for ships on their first arrival, to obtain information for establishing a rate of trade." 5

Most traders returned to the more congenial climate of the Hawaiian Islands for the winter. A few, particularly in the early days of the trade, wintered wherever they found a protected port and friendly Indians. Nootka had once been so favored and we have seen how Gray and Kendrick wintered in Clayoquot Sound. Apparently Puget Sound was seldom visited because the Indians had the reputation of being "bandity."

A second summer was spent cruising the northern islands or the California shores. In the autumn, the captain headed once more for the Hawaiian Islands en route to China where the furs were sold and the returns invested in Chinese goods. The voyage home was by way of the Cape of Good Hope, sometimes with leisurely port-to-port detours through the Mediterranean before continuing to the West Indies, then home to Boston or Salem.

The Columbia As A Port Of Call

Although there were relatively few otter in the Columbia River it became a port of call and a few traders wintered in the river. Captain James Baker of the little 78-ton Jenny hove his ship into Baker's (Ilwaco) Bay shortly after Gray left the river in May, 1792. He was there again when Lieutenant Broughton arrived in October. The Jenny's sister ship, the Ruby , arrived in the spring of 1795 and Captain Charles Bishop, preparing to winter, planted a small sandy island with peas, beans, potatoes, radishes, mustard, cress, and celery seeds. When he returned in October, he found the potatoes plentiful and good but the "reddishes" had gone to seed, and with the exception of several bean plants, the rest of the garden stuff had disappeared.

In 1805, Lewis and Clark obtained from the Indians a list of thirteen traders who visited the Columbia but the explorers' interpretation of the native rendering of these names make most of them difficult, of not impossible, to identify. In 1813 Alexander Henry saw the names of traders carved on the trees at Cape Disappointment, giving him reason to suppose this harbor had been "much frequented" by Americans. The Indians' vocabularies reflected considerable contact with white men. Lewis and Clark reported that they used "many blackguard phrases" and common profanities with ease and had a vocabulary of such words as musket, powder, shot, knife, and file.

A commercial people themselves, the Chinooks of the lower river quickly adapted themselves to the white man's commerce. So long as he wanted what they had in abundance and did not value, and so long as there was no rival to bid up prices, trading was a simple matter. In the early days, a nail, a piece of iron or copper, castoff jackets, mirrors, or strings of thimbles bought prime otter skins. But those times passed quickly. Captain Bishop found the Indians of the Columbia considerably wiser than they had been three years before when Gray and Baker first opened trade. His journal tells that:

. . . we expected of course from the Information we hitherto had of these People that with the choice goods that compose our cargo, we should have been able to procure them [furs] in ways of Barter readily and with ease, but our disappointment might be better conceived than expressed when after bartering and shewing them a great variety of articles for the whole day we did not purchase a single Fur. Tea Kettles, sheet Copper, a variety of fine cloths and in short the most valuable articles of our Cargo were shewn without producing the desired Effect, and in the Evening the whole of them took to their cannoes, and paddled to the shore, leaving us not more disappointed then surprized. . . .6

The next day the natives "began to set their own Price on the Skins which as may be seen from their behaviour yesterday was not moderate." On the third day, Bishop "broke trade," but not at prices he wanted.

In one interesting respect the Columbia River trade apparently differed from that of other coastal localities. Bishop found a local product of Chinookan handicraft, the clamon , valuable in trading for furs with other natives of the northern coast:

. . . the best trade is the Leather War Dresses, articles to be disposed of, on other parts of the Coast, to great advantage, we procured such a Quantity, that at the least estimation is expected will procure us near 700 Prime Sea otter Skins. These dresses are made from the Hide of the Moose Deer which are very large and thick, this is dressed into a kind of White leather, and doubled, & is when properly made up, a complete defence against a Spear or an Arrow, and sufficient almost to resist a Pistol Ball.

When guns were put into the hands of the Indians, leather war dresses were useless and no longer manufactured.

By 1805, demands of both whites and natives had expanded. The traders brought guns, outmoded British and American muskets, powder, balls, and shot, brass kettles and pots, blankets, scarlet and blue cloth, sheets of copper, wire knives, buttons, beads, tobacco, sailor clothing, and rum. They took in exchange skins of all animals, dressed or undressed elk hides, packed dried salmon, and a baked breadstuff made from pounded wapato root.

At Kargahnee, ermine skins were highly prized by the natives. In 1804 shrewd William Sturgis imported 5000 ermine from Leipzig, worth less than 30 cents in the Boston market, and traded them to the Indians at the rate of five ermine skins for one sea otter. In one afternoon he bartered 560 prime otter, worth $50 a skin in the China trade.

Wherever competition was strong, as it usually was on the British Columbia coast, firearms were bartered, and as a result, the Indians became more hostile. Furthermore, they were encouraged to overkill furbearing animals so that the sea otter was practically extinct in the north by 1800.

California's shores had a rich supply but the Spanish prohibited foreigners from trading with their Indians. In 1805 Captain John D'Wolf, master of the Juno , while a guest of Governor Baranov at the Russian settlement on Norfolk Sound, invited his host to share in an expedition to California, using Kodiak Indians to hunt otter offshore in order to avoid Spanish restrictions. Baranov's superior, Baron Resanov, fearing to offend the Spanish because the Russians were dependent upon them for supplies, refused. In 1810 the Winship family of Boston, with enterprising leadership and large capital resources, enlarged on D'Wolf's plan. They contracted with the Russians to use Aleut hunters on the California coast, to supply the Russians with goods, and to market their furs in China.

To carry on such an enterprise, the Winships needed a depot in neutral waters, located midway between the Russian posts and the California hunting grounds. The Columbia River was such a site. It could be claimed as an American river since Lewis and Clark had wintered at its mouth in 1805-1806 it was navigable and its shores could provide enough foodstuff to support the settlement and the Russians as well.

In late May, 1810, the Albatross , with supplies and livestock, arrived in the river, and Captain Nathan Winship chose a site some forty miles upriver on the south shore opposite present Oak Point, Washington. Some of the crew had started to hew logs for a fort, while others cleared a garden spot, when flood waters forced them to move their location a quarter-mile downstream. Work had hardly resumed when a massing of Indians signified trouble the natives' repeated warning that the white men should leave were finally heeded and the project was abandoned.

The Winships' attempt at settlement was significant not simply because it was the first effort to build an American post in the Pacific Northwest, but because enterprising merchants saw the Columbia River as a vital link in an enlarged commerce involving American seaports, Russian Alaska, Spanish California, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Orient. The Winships were pioneers by only a matter of months. Their idea, born of the maritime trade, was to become effective with the development of the land fur trade. When that happened, the Columbia River became the western depot of a trade that spanned the continent.

1 Jared Sparks, Life of John Ledyard (1828), 155.

2 Samuel E. Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 (1921) H.B. Morse, Chronicles of the East Indian Company Trading to China, 1635-1834 , 5 vols. (1926-1929).

3 They were Joseph Barrell, Samuel Brown, and Charles Bulfinch, Boston, Crowell Hatch, Cambridge, John Derby, Salem, and John Pintard, New York.

How Nantucket Came to Be the Whaling Capital of the World

Today Nantucket Island is a fashionable summer resort: a place of T-shirt shops and trendy boutiques. It’s also a place of picture-perfect beaches where even at the height of summer you can stake out a wide swath of sand to call your own. Part of what makes the island unique is its place on the map. More than 25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts and only 14 miles long, Nantucket is, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “away off shore.” But what makes Nantucket truly different is its past. For a relatively brief period during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this lonely crescent of sand at the edge of the Atlantic was the whaling capital of the world and one of the wealthiest communities in America.

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The evidence of this bygone glory can still be seen along the upper reaches of the town’s Main Street, where the cobbles seem to dip and rise like an undulant sea and where the houses—no matter how grand and magisterial—still evoke the humble spirituality of the island’s Quaker past. And yet lurking beneath this almost ethereal surface is the story of a community that sustained one of the bloodiest businesses the world has ever known. It’s a story that I hadn’t begun to fully appreciate until after more than a decade of living on the island when I started researching In the Heart of the Sea, a nonfictional account of the loss of the whaleship Essex, which I revisit here. While what happened to the crew of that ill-fated ship is an epic unto itself—and the inspiration behind the climax of Moby-Dick—just as compelling in its own quintessentially American way is the island microcosm that the Nantucket whalemen called home.

When the Essex departed from Nantucket for the last time in the summer of 1819, Nantucket had a population of about 7,000, most of whom lived on a gradually rising hill crowded with houses and punctuated by windmills and church towers. Along the waterfront, four solid-fill wharves extended more than 100 yards into the harbor. Tied up to the wharves or anchored in the harbor were, typically, 15 to 20 whale ships, along with dozens of smaller vessels, mainly sloops and schooners that carried trade goods to and from the island. Stacks of oil casks lined each wharf as two-wheeled, horse-drawn carts continually shuttled back and forth.

Nantucket was surrounded by a constantly shifting maze of shoals that made the simple act of approaching or departing the island an often harrowing and sometimes disastrous lesson in seamanship. Especially in winter, when storms were the most deadly, wrecks occurred almost weekly. Interred across the island were the corpses of anonymous seamen who had washed onto its wave-pummeled shores. Nantucket—“faraway land” in the language of the island’s native inhabitants, the Wampanoag—was a deposit of sand eroding into an inexorable ocean, and all its residents, even if they had never sailed away from the island, were keenly aware of the inhumanity of the sea.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In 1820, an angry sperm whale sank the whaleship Essex, leaving its desperate crew to drift for more than ninety days in three tiny boats. Nathaniel Philbrick reveal the chilling facts of this infamous maritime disaster. "In the Heart of the Sea"—and now, its epic adaptation for the screen—will forever place the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.

Nantucket’s English settlers, who first disembarked on the island in 1659, had been mindful of the sea’s dangers. They had hoped to earn their livelihoods not as fishermen but as farmers and shepherds on this grassy isle dotted with ponds, where no wolves preyed. But as the burgeoning livestock herds, combined with the increasing number of farms, threatened to transform the island into a windblown wasteland, Nantucketers inevitably turned seaward.

Every autumn, hundreds of right whales converged to the south of the island and remained until the early spring. Right whales—so named because they were “the right whale to kill”—grazed the waters off Nantucket as if they were seagoing cattle, straining the nutrient-rich surface of the ocean through the bushy plates of baleen in their perpetually grinning mouths. While English settlers at Cape Cod and eastern Long Island had already been pursuing right whales for decades, no one on Nantucket had summoned the courage to set out in boats and hunt the whales. Instead they left the harvesting of whales that washed ashore (known as drift whales) to the Wampanoag.

Around 1690, a group of Nantucketers was gathered on a hill overlooking the ocean where some whales were spouting and frolicking. One of the islanders nodded toward the whales and ocean beyond. “There,” he said, “is a green pasture where our children’s

grandchildren will go for bread.” In fulfillment of the prophecy, a Cape Codder, one Ichabod Paddock, was subsequently lured across Nantucket Sound to instruct the islanders in the art of killing whales.

Their first boats were only 20 feet long, launched from beaches along the island’s south shore. Typically a whaleboat’s crew comprised five Wampanoag oarsmen, with a single white Nantucketer at the steering oar. Once they’d dispatched the whale, they towed it back to the beach, where they sliced out the blubber and boiled it into oil. By the beginning of the 18th century, English Nantucketers had introduced a system of debt servitude that provided a steady supply of Wampanoag labor. Without the native inhabitants, who outnumbered Nantucket’s white population well into the 1720s, the island would never have become a prosperous whaling port.

In 1712, a Captain Hussey, cruising in his little boat for right whales along Nantucket’s south shore, was pushed out to sea in a fierce northerly gale. Many miles out, he glimpsed several whales of an unfamiliar type. This whale’s spout arched forward, unlike a right whale’s vertical spout. In spite of the high winds and rough seas, Hussey managed to harpoon and kill one of the whales, its blood and oil calming the waves in nearly biblical fashion. This creature, Hussey quickly perceived, was a sperm whale, one of which had washed up on the island’s southwest shore a few years earlier. Not only was the oil derived from the sperm whale’s blubber far superior to that of the right whale, providing a brighter and cleaner-burning light, but its block-shaped head contained a vast reservoir of even better oil, called spermaceti, that could simply be ladled into an awaiting cask. (It was spermaceti’s resemblance to seminal fluid that gave rise to the sperm whale’s name.) The sperm whale might have been faster and more aggressive than the right whale, but it was a far more lucrative target. With no other source of livelihood, Nantucketers dedicated themselves to the single-minded pursuit of the sperm whale, and they soon surpassed their whaling rivals on the mainland and Long Island.

By 1760, the Nantucketers had virtually exterminated the local whale population. By that time, however, they had enlarged their whaling sloops and outfitted them with brick tryworks capable of processing the oil on the open ocean. Now, since it was no longer necessary to return to port as often to deliver bulky blubber, their fleet had a far greater range. By the advent of the American Revolution, Nantucketers had reached the verge of the Arctic Circle, the west coast of Africa, the east coast of South America and the Falkland Islands to the south.

In a speech before Parliament in 1775, the British statesman Edmund Burke cited the island’s inhabitants as the leaders of a new American breed—a “recent people” whose success in whaling had exceeded the collective might of all of Europe. Living on an island nearly the same distance from the mainland as England was from France, Nantucketers developed a British sense of themselves as a distinct and exceptional people, privileged citizens of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “Nation of Nantucket.”

A drawing from the journal kept by Captain Reuben Russell of the Nantucket whaling ship Susan depicts him atop the flukes of a right whale. (Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association)

The Revolution and the War of 1812, when the British Navy preyed upon offshore shipping, proved catastrophic to the whale fishery. Fortunately, Nantucketers possessed sufficient capital and whaling expertise to survive these setbacks. By 1819, Nantucket was well positioned to reclaim and, as the whalers ventured into the Pacific, even overtake its former glory. But the rise of the Pacific sperm whale fishery had a regrettable consequence. Instead of voyages that had once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyages had become typical. Never before had the division between Nantucket’s whalemen and their people been so great. Long vanished was the era when Nantucketers could observe from shore as the men and boys of the island pursued the whale. Nantucket was now the whaling capital of the world, but there were more than a few islanders who had never glimpsed a whale.

Nantucket had forged an economic system that no longer depended on the island’s natural resources. The island’s soil had long since been depleted by overfarming. Nantucket’s large Wampanoag population had been reduced to a handful by epidemics, forcing shipowners to look to the mainland for crew. Whales had almost completely disappeared from local waters. And still the Nantucketers prospered. As one visitor observed, the island had become a “barren sandbank, fertilized with whale-oil only.”

Throughout the 17th century, English Nantucketers resisted all efforts to establish a church on the island, partly because a woman named Mary Coffin Starbuck forbade it. It was said that nothing of importance was undertaken on Nantucket without her consent. Mary Coffin and Nathaniel Starbuck had been the first English couple married on the island, in 1662, and had established a profitable outpost for trading with the Wampanoag. Whenever an itinerant minister arrived in Nantucket intending to establish a congregation, he was summarily rebuffed by Mary Starbuck. Then, in 1702, she succumbed to a charismatic Quaker minister, John Richardson. Speaking before a group assembled in the Starbucks’ living room, Richardson succeeded in moving her to tears. It was Mary Starbuck’s conversion to Quakerism that established the unique convergence of spirituality and covetousness that would underlie Nantucket’s rise as a whaling port.

Nantucketers perceived no contradiction between their source of income and their religion. God himself had granted them dominion over the fishes of the sea. Pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires, the whalemen of Nantucket (whom Herman Melville described as “Quakers with a vengeance”) were simply enacting the Lord’s will.

On the corner of Main and Pleasant streets stood the Quakers’ immense South Meetinghouse, constructed in 1792 from pieces of the even larger Great Meeting House that once loomed over the stoneless field of the Quaker Burial Ground at the end of Main Street. Instead of an exclusive place of worship, the meetinghouse was open to nearly anyone. One visitor claimed that almost half those who attended a typical meeting (which sometimes attracted as many as 2,000 people—more than a quarter of the island’s population) were not Quakers.

While many of the attendees were there for the benefit of their souls, those in their teens and early 20s tended to harbor other motives. No other place on Nantucket offered a better opportunity for young people to meet members of the opposite sex. Nantucketer Charles Murphey described in a poem how young men such as himself used the long intervals of silence typical of a Quaker meeting:

To sit with eager eyes directed

On all the beauty there collected

And gaze with wonder while

in sessions

On all the various forms

and fashions.

No matter how much this nominally Quaker community might attempt to conceal it, there was a savagery about the island, a blood lust and pride that bound every mother, father and child in a clannish commitment to the hunt. The imprinting of a young Nantucketer commenced at the earliest age. The first words a baby learned included the language of the chase—townor, for instance, a Wampanoag word signifying that the whale has been sighted for a second time. Bedtime stories told of killing whales and eluding cannibals in the Pacific. One mother approvingly recounted that her 9-year-old son affixed a fork to a ball of darning cotton and then went on to harpoon the family cat. The mother entered the room just as the terrified pet attempted to escape, and unsure of what she had found herself in the middle of, she picked up the cotton ball. Like a veteran boatsteerer, the boy shouted, “Pay out, mother! Pay out! There she sounds through the window!”

There was rumored to exist a secret society of young women on the island whose members vowed to wed only men who had already killed a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters, boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to secure the harpoon line in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels. Boatsteerers, outstanding athletes with prospects of lucrative captaincies, were considered the most eligible Nantucket bachelors.

Instead of toasting a person’s health, a Nantucketer offered invocations of a darker sort:

Death to the living,

Long life to the killers,

Success to sailors’ wives

And greasy luck to whalers.

Despite the bravado of this little ditty, death was a fact of life all too familiar among Nantucketers. In 1810 there were 472 fatherless children on Nantucket, while nearly a quarter of the women over the age of 23 (the average age of marriage) had lost their husbands to the sea.

Perhaps no community before or since has been so divided by its commitment to work. For a whaleman and his family, it was a punishing regimen: two to three years away, three to four months at home. With their men absent for so long, Nantucket’s women were obliged not only to raise the children but also to oversee many of the island’s businesses. It was women for the most part who maintained the complex web of personal and commercial relationships that kept the community functioning. The 19th-century feminist Lucretia Coffin Mott, who was born and raised on Nantucket, remembered how a husband returned from a voyage commonly followed in the wake of his wife, accompanying her to get-togethers with other wives. Mott, who eventually moved to Philadelphia, commented on how odd such a practice would have seemed to anyone from the mainland, where the sexes operated in entirely distinct social spheres.

Some of the Nantucket wives adapted readily to the rhythm of the whale fishery. The islander Eliza Brock recorded in her journal what she called the “Nantucket Girl’s Song”:

Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor,

and send him off to sea,

For a life of independence,

is the pleasant life for me.

But every now and then I shall

like to see his face,

For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace.

But when he says “Goodbye my love, I’m off across the sea,”

First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I’m free.

As their wives and sisters conducted their lives back on Nantucket, the island’s men and boys pursued some of the largest mammals on earth. In the early 19th century a typical whaleship had a crew of 21 men, 18 of whom were divided into three whaleboat crews of six men each. The 25-foot whaleboat was lightly built of cedar planks and powered by five long oars, with an officer standing at the steering oar on the stern. The trick was to row as close as possible to their prey so that the man at the bow could hurl his harpoon into the whale’s glistening black flank. More often than not the panicked creature hurtled off in a desperate rush, and the men found themselves in the midst of a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” For the uninitiated, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to be pulled along at a speed that approached as much as 20 miles an hour, the small open boat slapping against the waves with such force that the nails sometimes started from the planks at the bow and stern.

In 1856, a Nantucket sailor sketched the killing of his crew’s �-barrel” prize. (Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association)

The harpoon did not kill the whale. It was the equivalent of a fishhook. After letting the whale exhaust itself, the men began to haul themselves, inch by inch, to within stabbing distance of the whale. Taking up the 12-foot-long killing lance, the man at the bow probed for a group of coiled arteries near the whale’s lungs with a violent churning motion. When the lance finally plunged into its target, the whale would begin to choke on its own blood, its spout transformed into a 15-foot geyser of gore that prompted the men to shout, “Chimney’s afire!” As the blood rained down on them, they took up the oars and backed furiously away, then paused to observe as the whale went into what was known as its “flurry.” Pounding the water with its tail, snapping at the air with its jaws, the creature began to swim in an ever-tightening circle. Then, just as abruptly as the attack had begun with the initial harpoon thrust, the hunt ended. The whale fell motionless and silent, a giant black corpse floating fin up in a slick of its own blood and vomit.

Now it was time to butcher the whale. After laboriously towing the corpse back to the vessel, the crew secured it to the ship’s side, the head toward the stern. Then began the slow and bloody process of peeling five-foot-wide strips of blubber from the whale the sections were then hacked into smaller pieces and fed into the two immense iron trypots mounted on the deck. Wood was used to start the fires beneath the pots, but once the boiling process had commenced, crisp pieces of blubber floating on the surface were skimmed off and tossed into the fire for fuel. The flames that melted down the whale’s blubber were thus fed by the whale itself and produced a thick pall of black smoke with an unforgettable stench—“as though,” one whaleman remembered, “all the odors in the world were gathered together and being shaken up.”

During a typical voyage, a Nantucket whaleship might kill and process 40 to 50 whales. The repetitious nature of the work—a whaler was, after all, a factory ship—desensitized the men to the awesome wonder of the whale. Instead of seeing their prey as a 50- to 60-ton creature whose brain was close to six times the size of their own (and, what perhaps should have been even more impressive in the all-male world of the fishery, whose penis was as long as they were tall), the whalemen preferred to think of it as what one observer described as “a self-propelled tub of high-income lard.” In truth, however, the whalemen had more in common with their prey than they would have ever cared to admit.

In 1985 the sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead used a cruising sailboat fitted with sophisticated monitoring equipment to track sperm whales in the same waters that the Essex plied in the summer and fall of 1820. Whitehead found that the typical pod of whales, which ranges between 3 and 20 or so individuals, comprised almost exclusively interrelated adult females and immature whales. Adult males made up only 2 percent of the whales he observed.

The females work cooperatively in taking care of their young. The calves are passed from whale to whale so that an adult is always standing guard when the mother is feeding on squid thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. As an older whale raises its flukes at the beginning of a long dive, the calf will swim to another nearby adult.

Young males depart the family unit at around 6 years of age and make their way to the cooler waters of the high latitudes. Here they live singly or with other males, not returning to the warm waters of their birth until their late 20s. Even then, a male’s return is fairly transient he spends only eight or so hours with any particular group, sometimes mating but never establishing strong attachments, before returning to the high latitudes.

The sperm whales’ network of female-based family units resembled, to a remarkable degree, the community the whalemen had left back home on Nantucket. In both societies the males were itinerants. In their pursuit of killing sperm whales the Nantucketers had developed a system of social relationships that mimicked those of their prey.

Herman Melville chose Nantucket to be the port of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, but it would not be until the summer of 1852—almost a year after publication of his whaling epic—that he visited the island for the first time. By then Nantucket’s whaling heyday was behind it. The mainland port of New Bedford had assumed the mantle as the nation’s whaling capital, and in 1846 a devastating fire destroyed the island’s oil-soaked waterfront. The Nantucketers quickly rebuilt, this time in brick, but the community had begun a decades-long descent into economic depression.

Melville, it turned out, was experiencing his own decline. Despite being regarded today as a literary masterpiece, Moby-Dick was poorly received by both critics and the reading public. In 1852, Melville was a struggling writer in desperate need of a holiday, and in July of that year he accompanied his father-in-law, Justice Lemuel Shaw, on a voyage to Nantucket. They likely stayed at what is now the Jared Coffin House at the corner of Center and Broad streets. Diagonally across from Melville’s lodgings was the home of none other than George Pollard Jr., the former captain of the Essex.

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This story is a selection from the December issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Pollard, as it turned out, had gone to sea again after the loss of the Essex, as captain of the whaleship Two Brothers. That ship went down in a storm in the Pacific in 1823. All the crew members survived, but, as Pollard confessed during the return voyage to Nantucket, “No owner will ever trust me with a whaleship again, for all will say I am an unlucky man.”

By the time Melville visited Nantucket, George Pollard had become the town’s night watchman, and at some point the two men met. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville later wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming even humble—that I ever encountered.” Despite having suffered the worst of all possible disappointments, Pollard, who retained the watchman position until the end of his life in 1870, had managed a way to continue on. Melville, who was doomed to die almost 40 years later in obscurity, had recognized a fellow survivor.

In February 2011—more than a decade after publication of my book In the Heart of the Sea—came astonishing news. Archaeologists had located the underwater wreck of a 19th-century whaling vessel and solved a Nantucket mystery. Kelly Gleason Keogh was wrapping up a monthlong expedition in the remote Hawaiian Islands when she and her team indulged in some last-minute exploring. They set out to snorkel the waters near Shark Island, an uninhabited speck 600 miles northwest of Honolulu. After 15 minutes or so, Keogh and a colleague spotted a giant anchor some 20 feet below the surface. Minutes later, they came upon three trypots—cast-iron cauldrons used by whalers to render oil from blubber.

“We knew we were definitely looking at an old whaling ship,” says Keogh, 40, a maritime archaeologist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument—at 140,000 square miles, the largest protected marine conservation area in the United States. Those artifacts, the divers knew, indicated that the ship likely came from Nantucket in the first half of the 19th century. Could it be, Keogh wondered, that they had stumbled across the long-lost Two Brothers, infamous in whaling history as the second vessel that Capt. George Pollard Jr. managed to lose at sea?

The Two Brothers—a 217-ton, 84-foot-long vessel built in Hallowell, Maine, in 1804—also carried two other Essex survivors, Thomas Nickerson and Charles Ramsdell. The ship departed Nantucket on November 26, 1821, and followed an established route, rounding Cape Horn. From the western coast of South America, Pollard sailed to Hawaii, making it as far as the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the island chain that includes Shark Island. The waters, a maze of low-lying islands and reefs, were treacherous to navigate. The entire area, Keogh says, “acted a bit like a ship trap.” Of the 60 vessels known to have gone down there, ten were whaleships, all of which sank during the peak of Pacific whaling, between 1822 and 1867.

Bad weather had thrown off Pollard’s lunar navigation. On the night of February 11, 1823, the sea around the ship suddenly churned white as the Two Brothers hurtled against a reef. “The ship struck with a fearful crash, which whirled me head foremost to the other side of the cabin,” Nickerson wrote in an eyewitness account he produced some years after the shipwreck. “Captain Pollard seemed to stand amazed at the scene before him.” First mate Eben Gardner recalled the final moments: “The sea made it over us and in a few moments the ship was full of water.”

Pollard and the crew of about 20 men escaped in two whaleboats. The next day, a vessel sailing nearby, the Martha, came to their aid. The men all eventually returned home, including Pollard, who knew that he was, in his words, “utterly ruined.”

Wrecks of old wooden sailing ships seldom resemble the intact hulks seen in movies. Organic materials such as wood and rope break down only durable objects, including those made from iron or glass, remain. The waters off the northwestern Hawaiian Islands are particularly turbulent Keogh compares diving there to being tumbled inside a washing machine. “The wave actions, the salt water, the creatures underwater have all taken their toll on the shipwreck,” she says. “A lot of things after 100 years on the seafloor don’t look like man-made objects anymore.”

The remains of Pollard’s ship went undisturbed for 185 years. “No one had gone searching for these things,” Keogh says. Following the discovery, Keogh traveled to Nantucket, where she conducted extensive archival research on the Two Brothers and its unfortunate captain. The following year she returned to the site and followed a trail of sunken bricks (originally used as ballast) to discover a definitive clue to the ship’s identity—harpoon tips that matched those produced in Nantucket during the 1820s. (The Two Brothers was the only Nantucket whaler shipwrecked in these waters in that decade.) That finding, Keogh says, was the smoking gun. After a visit to the site turned up shards of cooking pots that matched advertisements in Nantucket newspapers from that era, the team announced its discovery to the world.

Nearly two centuries after the Two Brothers departed Nantucket, the objects aboard the ship have returned to the island. They are featured in an interactive exhibition chronicling the saga of the Essex and her crew, “Stove by a Whale,” at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The underwater finds, says Michael Harrison of the Nantucket Historical Association, are helping historians to “put some real bones to the story” of the Two Brothers.

The underwater investigation will continue. Archaeologists have found hundreds of other artifacts, including blubber hooks, additional anchors, the bases of gin and wine bottles. According to Keogh, she and her team were lucky to have spotted the site when they did. Recently, a fast-growing coral has encased some items on the seafloor. Even so, Keogh says, discoveries may yet await. “Sand is always shifting at the site,” she says. “New artifacts may be revealed.”

In 2012 I received word of the possibility that my book might be made into a movie starring Chris Hemsworth and directed by Ron Howard. A year after that, in November 2013, my wife, Melissa, and I visited the set at the Warner Brothers lot in Leavesden, England, about an hour outside London. There was a wharf extending out into a water tank about the size of two football fields, with an 85-foot whaleship tied up to the pilings. Amazingly authentic buildings lined the waterfront, including a structure that looked almost exactly like the Pacific National Bank at the head of Main Street back on Nantucket. Three hundred extras walked up and down the muddy streets. After having once tried to create this very scene through words, it all seemed strangely familiar. I don’t know about Melissa, but at that moment I had the surreal sense of being—even though I was more than 3,000 miles away—home.

Ancient Copper Mines and Carthaginian Coins

In 1787, workman employed in the construction of a road from Cambridge to Malden in Massachusetts unearthed a large number of Carthaginian coins. They were brought to the attention of president John Quincy Adams. Surviving specimens of the copper and silver pieces were identified as coins minted in the third century BC.

They bore short inscriptions in Kufic, a script used by the Carthaginians. Other Carthaginian coins were found in Waterbury, Connecticut in more recent times. They belonged to an earlier issue of Carthage and were minted for military use in Punic, the Carthaginian language, and bore the image of a horse’s head.

Punic-type jars, used to carry olives, liquids, and other items in ancient times, were dragged up by a Newburyport, Massachusetts fisherman in 1991, and two or more were dug up in Boston proper. Others were found at Castine and Jonesboro, Maine.

Approximately 5000 ancient copper mines have been found around the northern shore of Lake Superior and adjacent Isle Royale. Radiocarbon dating indicates the mines were in operation 6,000 to 1,000 BC, corresponding to the Bronze Age in Europe. Likewise, tin was needed since bronze requires both copper and tin - and it was mined high up in the Andes mountains in Bolivia .

6. Crew lists and agreements 1845-1856

6.1 Types of crew list for this period

From 1845 onwards the following lists were being used:

Schedules C and D
See section 5.

In addition, the following types of list were introduced:

Agreements for &lsquoForeign Going&rsquo or &lsquoForeign Trade&rsquo ships (Schedule A)
Commonly called &lsquoArticles&rsquo, these agreements were between master and crew, and had to be filed within 24 hours of the ship&rsquos return to a UK port.

Agreements for &lsquoHome Trade Ships&rsquo (Schedule B)
Again, these agreements were between master and crew and covered coastal and fishing ships. The forms had to be filed within 30 days of the end of June or December.

Names and Register Tickets of Crew (Foreign Trade) (Schedule G)
A list of the crew, with their Register Ticket numbers, to be filed for a foreign-going ship on sailing.

6.2 How to find crew lists 1845-1856

To locate crew lists for these years you will need to know the name of the ship on which an individual seaman sailed. This is not given in the registers of seamen&rsquos service until 1854. A search on our catalogue of all the available crew lists is only practical for small ports.

Crew lists for this period are in BT 98.

Use the search box contained within BT 98 to search by year and name of ship&rsquos port of registry. Any search results will be divided into alphabetical ranges according to the initial letter of the ship&rsquos name.

Alternatively, browse BT 98/564-4758 to view all the ports covered for this period and the alphabetical ranges of ships for each port.


The most remarkable aspect of Fijian pre-history is its antiquity. It is now known that people had reached the Fijian archipelago as early as 2000 years before the birth of Christ. Considering the fact that the Vikings, acknowledged as Europe’s greatest sailors, didn’t reach America until three thousand years later, or the fact that Columbus made his famous voyage only some five hundred years ago, the Fijian achievement must be seen as extraordinary.

The question is, who were the first settlers? And the answer is that we don’t know. There are some who are prepared to speculate and Dr Roger Green, Professor of Anthropology at Auckland University in New Zealand, is one of them. He calls this vast archipelago “Island of South East Asia”. These migrants were relatively new, even though they were different from those of the people already living in the islands of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and New Caledonia. The first settlers were of Negrito stock with dark skin, woolly hair and other typical features. The newcomers were fairer, had straight or wavy black hair and we can assume were of many type stock. They would seem to have been good sailors and craftsmen and excellent potters who made a distinct type of ware we know as Lapita pottery after its initial discovery in New Caledonia.

A picture emerges of these “Lapita” people. Sailors, adventurers, good navigators and consummate craftsmen. The trail of their pots, hooks, obsidian cutting tools and ornaments leads down from New Britain through some of the outer islands fringing the Solomons and Vanuatu, suggesting that perhaps they were not powerful enough to force settlements on the bigger islands which were already supporting large populations of people.

In this classic difference between the two groups we see the racial characteristics of what was later to be defined as Melanesian and Polynesian stock. The Melanesians were to retain their grip on the western island of the South Pacific but it can be fairly assumed that a great deal of the “Lapita” blood found its way into its main stream.

At some stage, about 2000 years before the birth of Christ, a canoe load of adventurous “Lapita” sailors either deliberately set out to the east or were driven off course by a westerly wind and made landfall in the Fijian archipelago. Dr. Green’s theory is that these were the first settlers, not only because at that time they would have had the necessary maritime technology, but also because their pottery is found throughout the whole of Fiji. There is no way of knowing how long they enjoyed Fiji to themselves. But at some stage the Melanesians followed. It is reasonable to suppose that groups of Melanesians who were in contact with the “Lapita” people in the west would have been quick to take advantage of the better craft used by the “Lapita” seafarers and to incorporate them into their own technology.

It is also reasonable to assume that there may have been only a single successful voyage in each instance. Certainly Fijian legends speak of one canoe and one voyage. The canoe was the Kaunitoni and its people were the settlers. The legend says that the first canoe to touch land on the main island of Viti Levu found an indigenous people. The legend also says that the people of the canoe made their way inland from where they eventually spilled to other parts of Fiji.

This would suggest that the most favourable coastal areas were already settled and that there was no room for the new arrivals, leaving them no choice but to move into the less hospitable interior, where over the ensuing generations their population built up and eventually spilled over.

We know who the Fijians are today, but we also know that they are not truly Melanesian when compared with what must have been the parent stock back in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands or New Caledonia. The people of Fiji are larger – much larger in some cases, as in the province of Nadroga where even the women are nearly 180 centimeters (6 ft) tall. They speak a different language and enjoy their own material culture. At the time of European contact Fiji was a feudal society with a chiefly system of the most oppressive kind – unlike the Melanesian system where stature was earned by an individual who produced the most and shared it. In Fiji the chiefs had absolute power of life and death over commoners in contrast to the Melanesian system which opposed such tyranny.

We can try to imagine those first years. The canoe arriving, the hostile reception from the established population, the skirmishing and then the long trek into the interior the build up of population and then the subsequent probing towards the coast for both peaceful and hostile interaction with the indigenous peoples.

“Women and land are the reasons men die”, says an old Maori proverb and there is no reason to suppose it would have been different in pre-historic Fiji. Villages raided, men killed or enslaved and women taken as the prize of victory. Slowly the blood of the distinct ethnic groups would have diffused over both populations, but not to such an extent as to form a homogeneous whole. We can imagine two distinct groups, each modified by the blood of the other but each still retaining its distinct racial characteristics, building up to a series of greater confrontations until finally the descendants of the “Lapita” people are forced out, first into the eastern area of Fiji and then to Tonga and beyond, leaving the dominant Melanesian people in control until many centuries later when once again the descendants of the “Lapita” people, now known as Polynesians, would attempt to return and win back what they had lost.

The kai Viti – the people of Fiji – as they call themselves to this day, were left in possession of the large island archipelago which they began to organize on the Polynesian hierarchical system. Heads of powerful families could create political states by conquest and tyranny and by Machiavellian policies of alliance and treason. Friends and allies could become bitter enemies overnight. Political states, whose heads were often first cousins and sometimes step-brothers, were often locked in suicidal conflict. During greater wars minor civil wars would sometimes take place within political confederations and loyalty was something no Fijian chief could count on.

Fijians practiced polygamy for both political and personal reasons. Alliances were consolidated by marriage, but women were also given as tribute or taken as a prize of war. The political advantage gained by marriage was often eroded by political instability at home caused by rivalry amongst the male issue. Thus families rose and fell and states rose and fell.

During this long pre-contact period Fiji was visited by Tongans who came on regular trading expeditions Samoans, Wallis Islanders, people of Futuna and Rotuma. At some later stage, not long before European contact, there must also have been contract with Micronesia, most probably Kiribati 1100 miles to the north. The probability of such contact is beyond dispute because the development of the Fijian sailing canoe is so obviously based on the Micronesian model.

In 1976 I made such a voyage myself in a sailing canoe built at Tarawa, Kiribati. To my mind it is more likely that a Micronesian canoe arrived in Fiji rather than a Fijian canoe arriving at Kiribati.

The famous English navigator/explorer James Cook notes the difference between the large voyaging canoes he saw in Tonga during his first visit in 1769. During his two subsequent calls he was able to note that the Fijian model had almost completely displaced the indigenous Tongan craft.

It was at Tonga that Cook first learned of Fiji and saw Fijian visitors who were conspicuous amongst the locals because of their darker skin. The Tongans maintained an intricate social relationship with Fiji through trade, through the supply of mercenary warriors to warring chiefdoms and through ancient rituals such as, for example the daughter of the Tui Tonga being reserved in marriage to the Tui Lakeba as she was considered too sacred for marriage to a Tongan. It would seem that Tongans were by far sources of Fiji. The Tongans came for sandalwood which was used for its scent and for the great double canoes which were so difficult to acquire in Tonga because of the lack of suitable timber. In turn the Tongans brought their own trade goods and their arms which they sold to the highest bidder and on whose behalf they would fight. The Tongans could fish profitably in such waters, particularly in the period immediately after the first European contact when they came close to controlling most of Fiji and probably would have done so if it had not been for European intervention.

As the Fijians had no written language and relied on memory for their history, (the wise men memorizing intricate genealogical tables), we have no record of what happened. Potsherds, hooks and artifacts unearthed in archaeological excavations are our only clue to the dim and distant past.

These show settlement of Fiji to have been achieved some four thousand years ago whereas today most Fijian people trace their descent through some ten generations to the landing of the canoe, the Kaunitoni, and the chiefs Lutunasobasoba and Degei. The canoe is said to have landed at Vuda between Lautoka and Nadi where Lutunasobasoba chose to remain. Others moved towards the Ra coast and settled on the seaward slopes of the Kauvadra range. Degei, who was subsequently deified, had numerous sons. They quarrelled and with their followers moved over much of Fiji until they finally settled, took wives from among the local people and founded the families that grew into the present chiefly yavusa recognized to this day. The yavusa is the largest social unit of the Fijians. According to R.A. Derrick in his History of Fiji (Government Press, Suva, 1946), a yavusa is strictly neither a tribe nor a clan its members are direct agnate descendants of a single kalou-vu or deified ancestor the unit originating from the Lutunasobasoba migration.

If the founder of the family had only one son the yavusa retained its patriarchal structure, even after his death, when in accordance with Polynesian custom his son succeeded him. If his family included two or more sons, the chiefly succession was from brother to brother and on the death of the last brother it reverted to the eldest son of the senior brother who had left male issue. Each member of the first such family of brothers found a branch of the yavusa called the mataqali which thereafter retained its identity, acquired a distinctive name and in the course of time became the traditional custodian of a designated function. In a fully developed yavusa there was mataqali: 1, the turaga or chiefly mataqali, who were in the most direct line of descent, by male links, from the common ancestor, and from whom the ruling chiefs of succeeding generations were chosen 2, the sauturaga or executive mataqali, whose rank was next to that of the chiefs of the blood and whose function it was to carry out their commands and to support their authority 3, the mata-ni-vanua or diplomatic mataqali from whom the official heralds and masters of ceremony were chosen 4, bete or priestly mataqali, into certain of whom the spirit of the common ancestor was supposed to enter and 5, the bati or warrior mataqali whose function was war. The third and smallest unit was the i tokatoka which was a subdivision of the mataqali and comprised closely relating families acknowledging the same blood relative as their head and living in a defined village area.

The simple branching of yavusa into mataqali and of the mataqali into the i tokatoka was subject to disruptive influences of war, internal strife, migration and conquest. This was a dynamic process subject to internal and external stress which saw many of the original yavusa broken or merged wholly or in part with others strong enough to seize and hold the position which thereafter became hereditary. Some of the vanua were united by conquest or accretion into kingdoms known as matanitu. But this is regarded as a recent development during the wars of historic times. Among the people of the interior and western Viti Levu large confederations were unknown. In 1835 the people of Fiji said there were thirty-two places in the group entitled to rank as matanitu, but during the British Colonial period the Native Lands Commission found the political status and order of precedence of the chiefdoms to be as follows: Bau, Rewa, Naitasiri, Namosi, Nadroga, Bau, Macuata, Cakaudrove, Lau, Kadavu, Ba, Serua, and Tavua. The life of Fijians was governed by ritual accompanied by elaborate ceremonies and strict observance of ancient custom. A serious breach of etiquette or error in precedence could lead to bloodshed or even war. There is a recorded instance of the chief of Rewa inviting his bati (warriors) from different parts of his state to a feast in their honor. On this occasion the chief decided to bring them together but a dispute quickly arose over precedence between two parties and neither would yield and determined to settle the issue with the club. The chiefs of Rewa, fearing that once started such a disturbance could lead to a greater conflict, promptly fired muskets on the disturbing parties.

There were appropriate ceremonies for every event of importance and also for many minor ones. Life was governed by superstitious beliefs. Good and evil fortune was ascribed to the will of gods and spirits which needed to be constantly propitiated with gifts but especially the presentation of the bodies of slain victims which would then be redistributed for cooking and eating. Major events such as the installation of great chiefs were sometimes conducted over a pile of bodies and the birth, coming of age, marriage and death of great chiefs were likely to be marked with human sacrifice as were the stages in the buildings of war canoes – and especially their launching which was over the bodies of live victims tied down over the skids – and the setting up of the principal posts for temples or chiefs’ houses when live men would be buried to “hold them up”. On such occasions the ceremonial preparation and serving of yaqona was an important part of the ritual as was the presentation of the tabua. In recent times the name tabua has come to signify the tooth of the sperm whale. In former times it was a special stone cut and polished in the shape of a sperm whale tooth, but larger in size, which was used. The incidence of whaling ships in the Pacific during the nineteenth century caused a large supply of whale teeth to become available. At first these were introduced into Fiji by Tongans who had a better access to them, but later European trading ships brought these directly. Tabua were the price of life and death and indispensable adjuncts to every proposal, whether for marriage, alliance, intrigue, request, apology, appeal to the gods or sympathy with the bereaved. Priests were an important link between the gods and the people but the gods were capricious and, even if there was proper observance of all customary rites and the presentation of suitable gifts, the god or gods could still withhold their favor. At such times an explanation might be demanded of the priests and on some occasions the gods have been challenged to fight.

Degei, the deified ancestor of the Lutunasobasoba migration, was recognized as the most important. He is said to have lived (in pre-Christian times) near the place of his original settlement following the landing of the canoe at Vuda and his march to the Kauvadra Range. Degei became a huge snake living in a cave on the mountain Uluda. No cave has been found on the summit of Uluda, but there is a cleft hardly wide enough for a man to fit into. There were gods of agriculture, fishing, craftsmen and war.

The god of war often received the greatest attention because so much depended on him. No campaign was begun without his temple being either completely rebuilt or refurbished and the presentation of lavish gifts. The bure kalou (the temple), of which two fine examples may be seen in Fiji today at Pacific Harbor and at Orchid Island near Suva, was the home of the god and was marked by lofty roofs which dominated all others and fully decorated with sennit and cowerie shells. A strip of masi was draped before a corner post and it was down this curtain that the god would descend when invoked.

Because Fijians believed in the power of gods and spirits and in sorcery, the office of the priest was important. Priests were the link between gods and men and for this important function they received gifts for the use of the gods, but in reality appropriated by the priests. The ritual in seeking the god’s favor centered on the preparation of a feast which would be presented in the temple along with an offering of the tabua. All would then sit silently in the cool, gloomy interior of the bure kalou and gaze with expectation on the priest who would sit before the strip of masi along which the god would be expected to descend. The priest would begin to twitch until finally he would be in a fit with violent convulsions, sweat running out of every pore and frothing at the mouth. In this state the priest was in the possession of the god and he would speak to the assembly in a strange voice, often ambiguously, until he would cease to shake when it was recognized that the god had departed. Much depended on what the god promised. If success, all was jubilation but if it was failure, not even the boldest chiefs would dare move. The feast and gifts offered to the god would then be shared by the priests and petitioners. Only the spirit substance of the gifts would be used by the god.

The Fijians believed in an afterlife. This was an island somewhere to the west from where the original migration (migrations) had come. The path taken by the soul was always difficult and fraught with dangers. Evil spirits awaited the traveler some needed gifts while others had to be fought and prevailed against so that the soul might continue on its path. Those who were unsuccessful were eaten. It could be said that the world of the Fijian was completely bound by superstition and ritual and sorcery. Every action could bring gain or harm. Nothing could be done without some consequence. Illness or death was attributed to the action of sorcery to the breaking of the tabu or to the displeasure of the gods. The Fijian also believed in the importance of dreams and omens and in the power of spells to such an extent that if informed of a death spell he would be likely to die unless relief could be obtained by a more potent spell. Some omens were extremely powerful – the sight of a kingfisher was sufficient to send a warparty into a retreat.

Chiefs held absolute power over their subjects and could have them killed at will. The strictest laws of tabu applied to the protection of the privilege enjoyed by chiefs. Commoners and women had to move out of the path of chiefs, kneel, clap their hands and greet him with a cry of respect. In passing his presence they had to stoop or even sometimes crawl if carrying objects these had to be lowered when entering the house in his presence the commoner had to use a door reserved for him. The power of chiefs was demonstrated in the 1840s by a chief of Rewa. An American trader who had purchased the Island of Laucala near the mouth of the Rewa River had requested the chief to stop people from going to it. A canoe load of the chief’s subjects, unaware of the prohibition, was seen on its way to the island. The chief immediately sent warriors who clubbed the unfortunates to death. The largest chiefdoms were the most oppressive tyrannies.

The artistic feeling of the Fijians was expressed in the construction of the great war canoes in the building and decoration of temples and chief’s houses in the decoration of weapons, cloth, pottery and in the intricate and colorful decoration of the person. The meke, a combination of song and dance, are popular to this day whilst the proper execution of ceremonies and rituals, such as the serving of the chief’s yaqona and the presentation of the tabua, were dramatic events.

Until the coming of Europeans, the Fijian craftsman worked with stone tools and his achievements, when seen in this light must be regarded with credit. With these tools he built great canoes and houses for the chiefs and gods. The house of Tanoa at Bau was 40 meters long and 13 meters wide and that of his son, Cakobau was 24 meters long, 11 meters wide and 12 meters high. The huge posts, some of which were nearly two meters in circumference, were felled in the bush and then hauled by man-power to the sea, brought to Bau and then manhandled again to the site of construction. It was in the construction of the great war canoes that the art of the Fijian craftsman was revealed. Two examples (on a small scale) may be seen in Fiji today. One is in the Fiji Museum at Suva and the other at Orchid Island near Suva. The canoe at the museum was built in the early 1900s and is a fine example of exquisite craftsmanship. It is truly a work of art. The difference in the work of the time when the canoe was built and now can be seen readily in the restoration work which seems crude in comparison with the original. But both canoes are small in comparison with the great craft which ruled the seas during much of the 19th century. The greatest fleet was assembled at Bau where some of these craft were of unbelievable size. The famous Ra Marama, which was built at Taveuni, was nearly 32 meters long and more than 5.6 meters wide. It took seven years to build it. Such canoes not only required the expertise of craftsmen but the resources of great states. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how many kilometers of sennit (coconut husk cord) would have to be made for the lashings which would hold the various parts of the canoe together. My own estimate, based on the outrigger canoe built at Tarawa, Kiribati, in 1975-76 which we sailed down to Fiji, would suggest that upwards of ten thousand meters of sennit would be required if rigging was included in the total.

The art of pottery brought into the South Pacific by the gifted and versatile “Lapita” people survived in Fiji but failed in Tonga, Samoa and east Polynesia on account of the lack of suitable clay. The Fijians still make pottery and it is possible to join a tour to a village in Sigatoka where the art is demonstrated. But the pottery of recent historic times has degenerated considerably from the ware made by the first settlers. It was an important trade item carried to Tonga and Samoa and on at least one occasion, possibly by the only canoe to make such a voyage, as far as the Marquesas Islands more than two thousand nautical miles to the east. As throughout the rest of the South Pacific, cloth was made from the paper-mulberry tree. The craft is practiced to this day and may be seen in the Lau Islands and especially at Taveuni. The trees are specially cultivated in groves. When about four meters high and some three centimeters in diameter the trees are harvested and the skin removed for processing. This is done by first steeping it in water and then by scraping and beating until the desired texture is achieved. This cloth is known as masi in Fiji but is also called tapa. Much of it is directed at the tourist trade as a curiosity, but it is also used by Fijians as a dress for ceremonial occasions. In former times there are many regional styles of decoration. It is hard to imagine the people of those times being afflicted by “unemployment” and it is sometimes difficult to imagine that this can be so today. Houses need constant attention and repair there were ropes and nets and mats to be made weapons, utensils of every kind, fish hooks from bone and shell and wood, needles, slit gongs large and small, canoes of all kinds, combs and ornaments and huge plantations to maintain and harvest, the surplus being laid down in special pits to ferment and congeal into a paste which would last for years.

The best of all the labor of craftsmen, gardeners and fishermen was enjoyed by the chiefs.

A question for sailors and/or those with seafaring experience

It is from the 1942 British film In Which We Serve with Noel Coward.

Seems as if they are making rather good forward progress.

In Which We Serve is a docudrama about the exploits of HMS Kelly (styled HMS Torrin in the film).

HMS Kelly was a K-class destroyer, with a top speed of 36 kts. The ship standing in for HMS Kelly/HMS Torrin in the film was the N-Class destroyer HMAS Nepal (G25), which also had a top speed of 36 kts.

And yes, destroyers are fast little puppies, intended to literally "run rings around" a squadron or convoy at cruise speed, as a defensive screen.

Also, destroyers (a.k.a. "Tin Cans," and originally "torpedo boat destroyers") are relatively small ships - enlarged from torpedo boats themselves, not scaled-down battleships. The camera-man was quite close to the water (3-4m?) shooting over the rails for those clips. Which enhances the apparent speed. Rather like watching a 747 take off from the edge of the runway.

"Bless 'em all, bless 'em all the long and the short and the tall."

Blue Riband. United States westbound

United States eastbound

Blue Riband. United States westbound

United States eastbound

The Blue Riband competitors were Liners, which were then still a means of transport, trading on the prestige of being faster and/or more stylish than their competitors.

By contrast, Cruise Ships are floating holiday resorts to a greater or lesser extent the ship itself is the destination, and need only go fast enough to keep the scenery changing.

Went to HK in a troopship (HMT Nevasa) in 1957. It took 28 days and did 17kts with 3 stops - Aden, Colombo and Singapore.
Went to NY in the QM2 in 2017. It took 7 days and did 17kts with one stop in Halifax.

This thread set me off on an interesting search of the term "Flank Speed" which we sometimes hear in Hollywood movies about the US Navy. It seems to refer to the speed required of the "torpedo boat destroyers" as mentioned in Pattern's post above. It seems to be a strictly US term.

As the destroyers were to protect the flanks of the battleships who would often sail in line astern, if you in your destroyer ended up on the outside of a turn of the fleet you need to sail faster than the battleships, which may have been making 30 kts. You burned fuel at an unsustainable rate, but it gave you a top speed above the standard "full ahead" for this manoeuvre.

In the film above it looks as though they were playing to the cameras for those shots, so I suspect they were at what the US would have called flank speed, pedal to metal, balls to the wall or whatever term would have been used in the British Navy. So max attainable speed, 34-35 knots seems like a good figure.

. Went to NY in the QM2 in 2017. It took 7 days and did 17kts with one stop in Halifax.

Correct. QM2 made 32 knots in her sea trials, but can, of course "cruise" at whatever lower speeds suit her schedule.

Her regular NY-Southampton (or vice-versa) transatlantic runs are scheduled weekly for consistency (with most of one Sat. or Sun. a layover to disembark one load of pax and embark the next), for an average speed of around 18-20 kts. Occasionally lengthened for legs to/from Hamburg. (QM2 is very popular in Germany, unlike her predecessors of 80 years ago, which were hunted by U-boats. )

On our 2013 crossing eastbound, she was doing about 13 kts the first couple of days off the Canadian Maritimes due to heavy June fog. Then accelerated (maybe 23-25 kts) to make up time once the visibility improved and the sun came out . Then slowed again to negotiate the heavy Channel traffic. Took a day and a night between abeam the Scillies, and docking in Southampton.

On a cruise in 2009 that required long runs from NY down to the Caribbean and back, QM2 ran at close to top speed across the blue ocean for 3 nights/2 days, but then poked around the islands on overnights at whatever speed would get her into the next port in

Compare to our transatlantic crossings on the original QM/QE in 1967-68, where to compete as much as possible with airliners in those final years, those Queens could do NY-UK or UK-NY in 4 days/5 nights, even with calls at Cherbourg and/or Cork.

The Early Cape Slave Trade

The year 1658 marks the beginning of the slave trade at the Cape colony. During the first four years of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) settlement at the Cape only a small number of personal slaves had reached the Cape, mostly by accompanying their owners from Batavia until they were sold at the Cape. For four short years the Cape colony had not played any part in the global slave trade. This all changed when, on 28 March 1685, the Dutch merchantman, the Amersfoort, anchored at the Cape with a cargo of 174 slaves. The Amersfoort’s arrival in Table Bay, with slaves in its hold, firmly brought the Cape colony into the fold of one of the most terrible institutions of the last centuries, the Slave Trade.

Already within seven weeks of landing at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, the Commander of the settlement, had begun writing letters to the Heeren XVII, the VOC shareholders who essentially had control over the company, asking them to help him get slaves for his settlement. From the beginning of the settlement there was a chronic shortage of man-power, the hundred and twenty or so employees of the VOC, mainly sailors and soldiers, were insufficient to perform all the manual labour required to build and maintain the settlement. The local Khoi people were unwilling to perform the labour for the meagre reward the Dutch tried to offer them, and so sailors and soldiers from passing ships were often called upon to lend a helping hand while their ships anchored in the bay, but this was not a satisfactory solution for the labour problem.Van Riebeeck felt that slaves were integral for the colony to survive for the Freeburghers were unable to get enough labour from Europeans, either knechts or company servants, to farm to the degree and extent necessary for their labour to become profitable. For Van Riebeeck, the incredibly cheap slaves were seen as the best way to deal with this issue, but the Heeren XVII refused his initial request for slaves.

Two years later, in April 1654, after struggling to get the fledging settlement going Van Riebeeck once again wrote to the Heeren XVII asking for slave labour. He wrote in his letter,

‘if it could be agreed upon, however, it would be very much cheaper to have the agricultural work, seal-catching and all other necessary work done by slaves in return for a plain fare of rice and fish or seal and penguin meat alone and without pay. They could be obtained and brought very cheaply from Madagascar, together with rice, in one voyage.’

Once again, however, the Heeren XVII refused to support Van Riebeeck in his quest for slaves.

During a severe food shortage at the Cape at the end of 1654 Van Riebeeck, in exasperation, took matters into his own hands and sent two small ships, the Tulp and the Rode Vos, to Madagascar to purchase rice and slaves. The Rode Vos never made it to Madagascar, but rather sailed to Mauritius and brought back rice, but no slaves. The Tulp returned in December 1654 from Madagascar, bringing with her a cargo of rice, but only two slaves. Although the Tulp had only managed to bring back two slaves, far from the number Van Riebeeck desired, her arrival in Madagascar and the connections her crew established with the King of Antogil were the first steps in what was to become the Cape Colony’s extensive involvement in the Madagascar Slave Trade, which lasted until well into the 18th century.

In 1655, with the hope of getting more slaves, the Tulp was sent on a second slaving voyage to Madagascar. But this time round the vessel was beset by violent storms in the Madagascar channel and its whole crew, twenty five slaves and a cargo of rice perished on the coast of Madagascar. This tragedy made it clear that the small vessels belonging to the Cape settlement were insufficient for the long sea-voyage required for slaving and trading voyages.

The sinking of the Tulp made it resoundingly clear that the ships Van Riebeeck had were wholly unsuited for the task of fetching slaves. In 1657 the Heeren XVII finally consented to Van Riebeeck’s calls for assistance and commissioned two ships to be built in Amsterdam and then be sent as slavers to the Cape. In a letter to Van Riebeeck in March of 1657, the Heeren XVII told Van Riebeeck that they were sending him two slave ships. As part of the letter they also outlined how Van Riebeeck was to treat the slaves, and what provisions were being sent for them:

‘That you may not be at loss what to do when such a large number of slaves is suddenly brought to you from the West Coast, we have provided you with sufficient provisions shipped in the two yachts (. )As a large number of casks will be required to carry water for the slaves, we did not like to send you any empty, but filled them with flour and barley. (. )You are to order from India some clothing for the slaves from us you receive some coarse cloth to protect them against the cold.

Eighty or a hundred slaves may be kept by you at the Cape, the rest to be sent to Batavia with the various ships after having been thoroughly refreshed at the Fort. The best and strongest are to be sent, the weak ones, should there be any, you are to keep back for yourself.

You are to treat the slaves well and kindly, to make them the better accustomed to and well disposed towards us they are to be taught all kinds of trades, that in course of time the advantage of such instruction may be beneficial to yourselves, and a large number of Europeans excused. They are also to be taught agriculture as it would be too expensive to fee such a lot of people from Holland and India. ‘

Armed with barrels of flour and barley, the Hasselt and a second slaver set sail from Amsterdam for the Cape. But, as fate would have, these two vessels, sent by the Heeren XVII specifically to begin the slave trade at the Cape, would not in fact bring the first shipment of slaves to the Cape. It was instead the merchantship the Amersfoort, which was never intended to carry slaves, which brought to the Cape her first fateful shipment of slaves.

On 23 January 1658, the Amersfoort, which had left the Netherlands in October the previous year, came across a Portuguese slaving vessel of the coast of West Africa. The Portuguese ship was old and cumbersome and the Dutch managed to easily board and capture her. Stuck in the hold of this creaky old slaving vessel were 500 male and female Angolan slaves, being taken to be sold in the slave markets of Brazil. The Amersfoort was a smaller vessel than the Portuguese slaver, and so they only took 250 of the best slaves their booty. The Dutch chose not to bring the ship itself to the Cape as it was ‘old and unserviceable’. What this means for the fate of the 250 slaves that were left on this old ship, is unclear.

With its prize of 250 slaves the Amersfoort set sail for the Cape, arriving in Table Bay on 28 March 1658, the day on which the Cape colony became a slave trading colony. As Van Riebeeck tells us, of the 250 slaves captured the number had ‘been reduced by death to 170, of whom many were very ill. The majority of the slaves are young boys and girls, who will be of little use to the next 4 or 5 years. They were also brought ashore to be refreshed and restored to health.’

A Cape slave hoeing under supervision Source

Later in the year, on 6 May, the Hasselt, one of the slavers sent by the VOC, finally arrived in Table Bay with its own shipment of slaves. On board the Hasselt were 228 slaves, brought from the coast of Guinea, in particular the Kingdom of Dahomey. Within six months the arrival of these two ships, had brought the number of slaves at the Cape from a tiny group of around 20 slaves to a huge contingent of almost 400 hundred slaves. This huge increase in the number of slaves at the Cape meant that, in the year 1658, the Cape colony moved from being a settler colony to a slave colony.

By the end of 1658 there were 402 slaves at the Cape, however, a year later, by the end of 1659, this number had drastically decreased to a mere sixty slaves. A reasonably large number of the slaves from the Cape had been sent on to Batavia, as had been demanded by the Heeren XVII, but nonetheless, this drastic decrease in numbers indicates that the mortality rate of slaves at the Cape was very high. The reason for this is possibly due to the fact that the living conditions in the castle at the time were generally very poor, for settlers and slaves alike. But whereas some measures would have been put in place to protect the health and welfare of the settlers it is not clear whether the same was done for the slaves, and it is likely that many succumbed to illness and disease. Whatever the reason may be for the high mortality rate and drastic decline in numbers of slaves at the Cape, it is clear that the loss of slaves was a perpetual problem at the Cape, one which was addressed in primarily one way, bringing more slaves to the Cape. The constant need for slaves in the ever expanding settlement meant that, until the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807, the Cape colony continuously imported slaves from across the world.

Where did the slaves come from?

From 1658, with the arrival of the slave shipments aboard the Amersfoort and theHasselt, the Cape colony became a slave trading society. There were two types of slaves at the colony – those that belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), referred to as ‘Company Slaves’, and those that were bought by the Freeburghers, Dutch burghers who lived at the Cape, and owned and worked farms, but were not actually Company employees. Because the Company was an international business organisation, they kept incredibly good records on all their slaves, including how many were bought, how many sold, how long they lived, and often what they worked on. The Freeburhgers however, as a general citizenry, hardly kept any record of their slaves at all, which makes it incredibly difficult to track the lives of Freeburgher slaves, and so we do not know where many of them came from or what happened to them at the Cape.

Initially, especially in the early years, the Company slaves far outnumbered those of the Freeburhgers, but this was did not last long. In 1679, the Company, with 310 slaves, still had more slaves than the burghers, who only had 191. But after 1679, the number of burgher slaves continued to grow rapidly, whereas the Company never much increased its slave numbers. By 1692, the number of slaves held by Freeburghers began to exceed those held by the company. By 1795, the Burgher slaves exceeded the company slaves 30 to one the reported slave population at the Cape was 16,839, of which only 3% were company slaves.

The very first two shiploads of slaves to arrive at the Cape aboard the Hasselt and the Amersfoort, both came from the West Coast of Africa, namely Guinea and Angola. But these slave shipments were in fact, with the exception of a few individuals, the only West African slaves to be brought to the Cape during VOC rule. The vast majority of Cape slaves came from Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia.

The earliest slaves at the Cape, other than those brought on the Amersfoort andHasselt, were predominantly from Bengal, but after the area became incorporated into the Mughal Empire in 1666, the supply of slaves from the region was cut off. A fairly constant source of slaves also came from what was called the Coromandel, the east coast of India, where the VOC had, very early on in the sixteenth century, established trading stations to trade in cotton. When there was war or famine in the Coromandel region the slave trade would boom as prisoners of war or excess family members were sold off into slavery. During one famine period in 1659-61, 8000 to 10 000 slaves were exported from the region to Ceylon, Batavia and Malacca by the VOC. After the 1660s however, more and more slaves were being imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, where local slave traders would acquire slaves through warfare and raiding expeditions and sell them on to the Dutch. Macassar, in Sulawesi, became a very prominent place from which slaves were taken to the Cape, making it a region that was strongly represented in Cape slave society.

Many of the Freeburghers personal and household slaves came from these regions on the Indian subcontinent and in South-East Asia. The Company, however, began to look for more lucrative slave markets that would sell them physically strong slaves that could do hard labour, rather than the household slaves from the Indies. In their search for slaves for hard labour the Company turned primarily to Madagascar, whose King’s were willing and eager to trade with the Company. Of the Company sponsored slave voyages, slaving trips specifically organised by Company ships for the explicit purpose of bringing slaves to the Cape, almost 66% of the slaves bought were Malagasy.

The table below shows the exact make up of the all the Company sponsored slave voyages between 1652-1795.

Short History of Convict Australia is the first ever documentary about Australia’s convict past. It visits the locations where convicts lived and worked, talks to historians and descendants of convicts and experiences the legacy of the dramatic, brutal birth of a nation.

This site is the number one resource for those who want to know more about Convict Australia, and the locations where Australian history actually happened. Containing facts, figures, and relevant footage from the documentary, it’s an educational experience.

Who Were the Convicts?

The late 18th century was a period of immense social and political change. France was reeling from revolution and America had just gained her independence.

In Britain the industrial revolution had driven thousands of poverty-stricken country folk to the cities. As a new underclass dependent on crime emerged, the prisons were overflowing and the hangman had his work cut out dealing with the perpetrators of serious offences.

In 1787 the establishment urgently needed a new solution to the problem of the burgeoning prison population.

The botanist from Captain Cook’s discovery expedition 18 years earlier eventually hit upon the idea of Botany Bay, Australia. It wasn’t the ideal choice because the place had only been glimpsed once and the 15,000 mile voyage would take more than 8 months.

Nevertheless, between 1788 and 1868 165,000 British and Irish convicts made the arduous journey to an unknown land we now call Australia.

The majority of the 165,000 convicts transported to Australia were poor and illiterate, victims of the Poor Laws and social conditions in Georgian England. Eight out of ten prisoners were convicted for larceny of some description.

However, apart from unskilled and semi-skilled labourers from Britain and Ireland, transportees came from astonishingly varied ethnic backgrounds: American, Corsican, French, Hong Kong, Chinese, West Indian, Indian, and African.

There were political prisoners and prisoners of war, as well as a motley collection of professionals such as lawyers, surgeons and teachers.

The average age of a transportee was 26, and their number included children who were either convicted of crimes or were making the journey with their mothers. Just one in six transportees was a woman.

Depending on the offence, for the first 40 years of transportation convicts were sentenced to terms of seven years, 10 years, or life.


When prisoners were condemned to transportation, they knew there was little chance they’d see their homeland, or their loved ones again. Even if they survived the long, cruel journey they didn’t really know what fate awaited them in a land on the other side of the world.
Relatively few convicts returned home – partly because the system of reprieves extended to so few and partly because they tended to settle in Australia. Three quarters of the convicts were unmarried when they left home, so those who found a partner during the voyage or once they arrived in Australia weren’t likely to leave them behind.

Nevertheless, transportation was a terrifying prospect. As they awaited their fate, prisoners were detained in the rotting hulks of old warships, transformed into makeshift prisons and rammed up against the mud at Portsmouth Harbour and London’s Royal Docklands.

Hulks and love tokens

Holed up in the hulks awaiting the dreaded voyage to begin, it was common practice for transportees to spent their days engraving love-tokens which they would give as last mementoes to friends and relatives. Many used the 1797 copper cartwheel penny, and the inscriptions range from just the name and date of deportation to elaborate poems and etchings of convicts in chains and boats. Professional engravers were even allowed on board the hulks, and prisoners would commission them to craft a poignant keepsake on their behalf.

The Voyage

The journey was long and hard. For the first 20 years, prisoners were chained up for the entire 8 months at sea. The cells were divided into compartments by wooden or iron bars. On some ships as many as 50 convicts were crammed into one compartment.

Discipline was brutal, and the officers themselves were often illiterate, drunken and cruel. Their crews were recruited from waterside taverns. They were hardened thugs who wouldn’t shrink from imposing the toughest punishment on a convict who broke the rules.

Disease, scurvy and sea-sickness were rife. Although only 39 of the 759 convicts on the first fleet died, conditions deteriorated. By the year 1800 one in 10 prisoners died during the voyage. Many convicts related loosing up to 10 teeth due to scurvy, and outbreaks of dysentery made conditions foul in the confined space below deck.

Convict ships transporting women inevitably became floating brothels, and women were subjected to varying degrees of degradation. In fact, in 1817 a British judge acknowledged that it was accepted that the younger women be taken to the cabins of the officers each night, or thrown in with the crew.

Australia Day

The first fleet entered Botany Bay in January 1788. On arrival, however, the bay was deemed unsuitable and the transportation tarried 9 miles north, landing at Sydney Cove six days later.

The night the male convicts were landed, January 26th 1788, the Union Jack was hoisted, toasts were drunk and a succession of volleys were fired as Captain Arthur Philips and his officers gave three cheers.

Australia Day is an annual celebration commemorating the first landing of white settlers in Australia. These days there’s fireworks, parades, arts, crafts, food and family entertainment. It’s seen as a celebration of Australian culture and way of life.

For those convicts who disembarked in Sydney Cove in 1788, however, the first Australia Day was a bewildering experience. Unused to their land legs, they stumbled cursing through the uncultivated wood in which they had landed. It was two weeks before enough tents huts had been constructed for the female convicts to disembark, and in the midst of a gale they held the first bush party in Australia – dancing, singing and drinking while the storm raged and couples wedged themselves between the red, slimy rocks.

The Aborigines

The aboriginal people had lived in Australia undisturbed by white men for sixty thousand years before the arrival of the first fleet. For them, the arrival of the convicts was catastrophic.

Their first encounter with their new neighbours was the sight of one huge orgy on the beach. Nevertheless, at first the Aborigines pitied the prisoners and couldn’t understand the cruelty of the soldiers towards them. Gradually the convicts began to resent the rations and clothing the Aborigines received, and they took to stealing their tools and weapons to sell to the sailors as souvenirs.

In May 1788 a convict was found speared in the bush and a week later two more were murdered. Between 2000 and 2500 Europeans and more than 20,000 Aborigines were killed in conflicts between convicts and aborigines.

The convicts felt the need to establish a class below themselves. Australian racism towards the Aboriginal people originated from the convicts and gradually percolated up through society. This marked the beginning of a bitter, painful battle for the survival of Aboriginal culture which has raged for than 200 years.

Convict Life

A convict’s life was neither easy nor pleasant. The work was hard, accommodation rough and ready and the food none too palatable. Nevertheless the sense of community offered small comforts when convicts met up with their mates from the hulks back home, or others who had been transported on the same ship.

Convict Work

Male convicts were brought ashore a day or so after their convoy landed arrival. They were marched up to the Government Lumber Yard, where they were stripped, washed, inspected and had their vital statistics recorded.

If convicts were skilled, for example carpenters, blacksmiths or stonemasons, they may have been retained and employed on the government works programme. Otherwise they were assigned to labouring work or given over to property owners, merchant or farmers who may once have been convicts themselves

Convict Diet:

A convict’s daily rations were by no means substantial. Typically, they would consist of:

Breakfast: A roll and a bowl of skilly, a porridge-like dish made from oatmeal, water, and if they were lucky, scrapings meat.
Lunch: A large bread roll and a pound of dried, salted meat.
Dinner: One bread roll and, if they were lucky, a cup of tea.

As if this wasn’t enough to turn your stomach, the officials had an unpleasant cure for hangovers and drunkenness, which they imposed on convicts who were overly fond of rum. The ‘patient’ was forced to drink a quart of warm water containing a wine-glass full of spirits and five grains of tartar emetic. He was then carried to a darkened room, in the centre of which was a large drum onto which he was fastened. The drum was revolved rapidly, which made the patient violently sick. He was then put to bed, supposedly disgusted by the smell of spirits!

Convict Clothing

Until 1810 convicts were permitted to wear ordinary civilian clothes in Australia. The new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, wanted to set the convicts apart from the increasing numbers of free settlers who were flocking to Australia.

The distinctive new uniform marked out the convicts very clearly. The trousers were marked with the letters PB, for Prison Barracks. They were buttoned down the sides of the legs, which meant they could be removed over a pair of leg irons.

Convict Class System

A class system evolved amidst the convict community. The native born children of convict couples were known as ‘currency’, whereas the children of officials were known as ‘sterling’.

A wealthy class of ‘Emancipists’ (former convicts) sprung up when the Governor began to integrate reformed convicts to the fledgling society. These Emancipists, who often employed convicts in their turn, were very much despised by the soldiers and free-exclusives who had come to Australia of their own free will.

Convict Housing

For those convicts who remained in Sydney, lodgings were available in a neighbourhood calledThe Rocks. It was a fairly free community with few restrictions on daily life. Here, husbands and wives could be assigned to each other and some businesses were even opened by convicts still under sentence.

The Rocks became notorious for drunkenness, prostitution, filth and thieving, and in 1819 Governor MacQuarie built Hyde Park Barracks, which afforded greater security.

Those sent to work in other towns or in the bush were often given food and lodging by their employer. The road projects and penal colonies offered far less comfortable accommodation, often with 20 sweaty bodies crammed into a small hut.


When convicts arrived in Australia, detailed reports were compiled of their physical appearance, including distinguishing marks. At the beginning of the 19th century one in four convicts was tattooed, and although it’s hard for us to fully understand what these may have meant to the individual, some are interesting, even witty comments on convict life.

Some tattoos appear to be poignant love tokens and permanent reminders of the life and loved ones they left behind.

Some are cheeky remonstrations with the officials, such as the words ‘Strike me fair, stand firm and do your duty‘.

Similarly, a crucifix tattooed on a convict’s back would give that impression that Christ himself was being flogged, and angels were standing by with a cup to catch the blood. This implies that it is the authorities that are sinful.

Convict Women

Women made up 15% of the convict population. They are reported to have been low-class women, foul mouthed and with loose morals. Nevertheless they were told to dress in clothes from London and lined up for inspection so that the officers could take their pick of the prettiest.

Until they were assigned work, women were taken to the Female Factories, where they performed menial tasks like making clothes or toiling over wash-tubs. It was also the place where women were sent as a punishment for misbehaving, if they were pregnant or had illegitimate children.

Other punishments for women include an iron collar fastened round the neck, or having her head shaved as a mark of disgrace. Often these punishments were for moral misdemeanours, such as being ‘found in the yard of an inn in an indecent posture for an immoral purpose‘, or ‘misconduct in being in a brothel with her mistress’ child‘.

As women were a scarcity in the colony, if they married they could be assigned to free settlers. Often, desperate men would go looking for a wife at the Female Factories.

Pardon and Punishment

Tickets of leave were normally granted after four years for those with a seven-year sentence, six years for a fourteen-year sentence and eight-years for life. The principal superintendent looked at the applications and depending on how much extra punishment the prisoner had received he’d make a decision to recommend the ticket or not.

A ticket of leave would exempt convict from public labour and allow them to work for themselves.

After this a prisoner may receive conditional pardon, which meant he was free but had to stay in Australia, or absolute pardon, which meant he was free to return to England.

If a prisoner was uncooperative or committed further crimes there was an equally well defined scale of punishments he would receive: first working on a road gang, then being sent to a penal colony, and finally capital punishment.

There were also a number of incidental punishments a prisoner could receive: flogging, solitary confinement, treadmill, the stocks, food depravation and thumbscrews.


A prisoner had to be sentenced to flogging by a magistrate. There would be a scourger present, a surgeon and a drummer to count the beats. Often floggings were carried out in public, as a warning to other convicts not to commit the same offence.

There are Australians alive today who remember the horrific scars borne by their grandparents as a result of brutal floggings.

On Norfolk Island an instrument called a cat’o nine tails was used to flog the convicts. This was a whip made of leather strands, with a piece of lead attached to each thong. The lead would tear deep into the flesh with each stroke, and the only effective relief from the agony it inflicted was to urinate on the ground then lie the open wounds on it.

Australian Penal Colonies

The conditions in the penal colonies were exceptionally harsh. Prisoners who re-offended were sent to the colonies, and it was unlikely they’d ever be freed under the system of reprieves.

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station

The natural prison built in the middle of Macquarie Harbour, known as Sarah Island, was meant to be escape proof. It was surrounded by impenetrable rainforest and very few escape attempts were recorded.

The convicts who were sent to Sarah Island were often escapees from other penal colonies. Others were skilled men whose task it was to build ships.

The convicts were cut down the massive Huen Pines, lash the logs together and raft them down the river. They would work twelve hours a day in freezing cold water, in leg-irons, under the continual scrutiny of the guards. Not surprisingly their main objective was escape.

Norfolk Island

Fifteen hundred miles off the coast of New South Wales was the most brutal prison of the convict period. Its name was Norfolk Island. The British wanted an institution that would act as a deterrent in the colony, which would terrify even those in Britain who heard its name.

Sir Thomas Brisbane wrote ‘I wish it to be understood that the felon who is sent there is forever excluded from all hope of return‘.

Indeed a high number of prisoners preferred suicide to enduring the abominable conditions. Others poisoned, burned or blinded themselves in attempts to avoid work. Their physical and mental health suffered due to interminable hard labour, poor diet, overcrowding, coarse, uncomfortable clothing and harsh punishments such as flogging with a cat’o nine tails and being chained to the floor.

The men lived forever in the shadow of the ‘Murderers Mound’, where twelve of the convicts who participated in an uprising in July 1846 were executed. Tales from Norfolk Island filtered back to the England and the colony was eventually abandoned in 1855.

Port Arthur

After the closure of Norfolk Island, offenders were sent to the southern tip of Tasmania, to a colony called Port Arthur.

Prison reformers back in Britain wanted to experiment with new forms of punishment. The centrepiece of the new institution was the Model Prison.

The idea was to replace flogging and corporal punishment with complete sensory deprivation, which would break their spirit and turn them into good citizens. The guards wore slippers and carpets in the hallways deadened all sounds. When the convicts were allowed out of their cells, they were made to wear masks to they couldn’t recognise one another. There was very little verbal communication.

If you’re going to escape from prison, Australia’s hardly the easiest place to hitch a ride home from. Nonetheless, theres some incredible tales of the few who made a break for it.

John Donahue and the bushrangers

Bushrangers are seen as heroes in Australia, representing rebellion and and triumph over authority. The most celebrated bushranger of them all was John Donahue, a young Dubliner who was sentenced to transportation for life in 1823.

After his escape he roamed the bush, besieging the settlers and living off a life of plunger. He used to hang out in the caves near Picton.

John Donahue was eventually shot dead in 1830 by a policeman and his tale is immortalised in the Ballad of Bold Jack, banned at the time as a treason song.

Sarah Island

The penal colony at Sarah Island was meant to have been impossible to escape from. More than 180 escape attempts are known to have been made but few were successful: most escapees perished in the rainforest and many returned voluntarily after a few days.

Some did make it. Alexander Pearce escaped Sarah Island twice, and only survived by eating his companions. He later told his companions that he preferred human flesh to normal food.

Another great tale is of the convicts who stole the Cyprus, a supply vessel carrying a group of convicts to Macquarie Harbour. They seized the vessel on route, dumped the officers and crew on shore and sailed off to Japan where they pretended to be ship wrecked British mariners. They were sent all the way back to Britain as poor starving shipwrecked sailors. Unfortunately one of them was strolling through London town when who should he meet but the ex-police constable from Hobart town who recognised his tattoos.

William Buckley

William Buckley escaped from Sorrento in Victoria in 1803. He spent 30 years living with the aborigines and wore a long beard and kangaroo skins. When he returned to civilisation he had completely forgot the English language and had to learn to speak again. He was completely pardoned and became a respected civil servant.

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