Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Fletcher Christian, 1785

Previous blog posts have described Captain William Bligh’s two visits to St Helena in 1792 and 1799. It was only on preparing for our recent trip to Pitcairn that I read of the visit to the island, in the spring of 1785, of Fletcher Christian, inextricably linked to Bligh by the events at sunrise on April 28th 1789; The Mutiny on The Bounty.
There is no portrait or drawing extant of Christian that was drawn from life.  This picture is from Richard Hough “Captain Bligh and Mr Christian: The Men and The Mutiny, 1988” and is described as an artist’s impression based on contemporary descriptions.  This description is the one Bligh wrote down for various port authorities after the mutiny:
Fletcher Christian, Master’s mate, age 24 years, 5 feet 9 inches high, blackish or very dark complexion, dark brown hair, strong made; a star tatowed on his left breast, tatowed on his backside; his knees stand a little out, and he may be called rather bow legged.  He is subject to violent perspirations, and particularly in his hands, so that he soils anything he handles.

Born on September 25, 1764 near Cockermouth in Cumberland, in April1783, Fletcher signed on as midshipman on board HMS Eurydice, a 6th rater with 24 9-pound guns commanded by Captain George Courtney.  For almost six months the ship lay at anchor in Spithead but finally, on October 11, Eurydice sailed for India via Madeira and Table Bay.  In Madras, on May 24, 1784, Christian was made acting lieutenant after only one year’s service.  Joining Sir Edward Hughes’ Squadron they sailed to Bombay in November 1784 and then back to England spending three weeks at St. Helena and a night at Ascension.  By June 1785, the Eurydice was back home and Christian was paid off and looking for employment.  His family was on friendly terms with the Bethams, the family of Elizabeth Bligh, and Christian applied for a berth on the merchant ship Britannia, owned by Elizabeth’s uncle Duncan Campbell and commanded by William Bligh.  Bligh took him on board and they sailed together on two voyages to the West Indies.  In August 1787, Bligh’s command of HMAV Bounty was confirmed, Christian was again signed on to sail with him and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Waterwitch, 1839

Waterwitch Column, Castle Gardens, Jamestown, May 2010

Following Britain’s decision to abolish its slave trade in 1807, in 1808 the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to patrol the South Atlantic in search of illegal slaving operations.  In 1819 a naval station was created in West Africa at a captured slaving port that the British renamed Freetown, later to become the capital of the first British colony in West Africa, Sierra Leone.  Slave ships found to be acting unlawfully were commandeered and, following its establishment in 1840, many were brought to judgment before a Vice Admiralty Court on St Helena.

The Court operated from 1840 to 1865, and during this period a very large number of slaves were taken to the island aboard captured vessels.  The ships were sold or broken up while the human cargoes were fed, clothed and kept, first at Lemon Valley, then at the Liberated African Depot in Rupert’s Valley which operated until 1874.  Most of the slaves who recovered were given passage to the West Indies or British Guiana as labourers; some chose to remain as servants or were used on various public works.

 Rupert's Bay, Hospital of the Liberated Slaves Depot, March 2010

The absolute number is unclear, but it is estimated that over 26,000 “liberated” Africans were received during this period.  About one-third of those landed did not survive, and were buried in large institutional graveyards and approximately 5,000 are thought to lie in Rupert’s Valley.

Simmonds Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany recorded the first arrivals:
“The first slaves, captured on the western coast of Africa, and conveyed to the Island of St. Helena were taken there by the brig Waterwitch on 9th June 1840 and amounted to only four.  On 6th July the slave vessel Andorinha captured by the brig Brisk arrived with one slave on board and on the 25th two more were added, further increased by fifteen on the 24th October.  All these Africans, amounting to only 22, having been liberated by the judgement of the Vice-Admiralty Court were easily disposed of as servants to the people of the island, and were consequently of little expense to the Government”.

The Waterwitch Column in the Castle gardens in Jamestown is one of the reminders of this period of St Helena’s history.

The inscription on the East face of the column reads:
“This Column was erected by the Commander, Officers and Crew of her Majesty's Brig Waterwitch to the memory of their shipmates who died while serving on the coast of Africa A.D. 1839-1843.  The greater number died while absent in captured slave vessels.  Their remains were either left in different parts of Africa or given to the sea their graves alike undistinguished.
This Island is selected for the record because three lie buried here and because the deceased as well as their surviving comrades, ever met the warmest welcome from its inhabitants”.

St Helena, Released Slaves, from EL Jackson 1905

Many slaves were lost prior to their ships being boarded and slaves were often jettisoned to avoid the slave ship being captured.  On February 7, 1846, the St. Helena Gazette contained the following:  “We have here a Portuguese schooner, captured by the Waterwitch, for condemnation, with 230 slaves on board. They have the small-pox very bad.  Those that are free from it are landed at Lemon Valley, which place is kept under strict quarantine.  When the Waterwitch first gave chase, the captain endeavoured to get away by lightening the vessel; for which purpose he threw overboard about 130 slaves, having originally on board 350.  He then ran his vessel on shore and made his escape.  The boats of the Waterwitch saved about seventy from drowning, but the greater part of them died afterwards from exhaustion.”

The Gazette for September 13th 1745 reported:
“We learn from our vessels of war, stationed on the western coast of Africa, that from the 1st of April, 1844, to 6th July, 1845, no fewer than 75 slavers have been captured by them, the Americans having, during the same period, captured 1 slaver making a total of 76 captured vessels during a period of fifteen months and six days”.

Indicative of the scale of the operation is a report of the event known as the “Rollers of 1846” which occurred on February
16th and 17th: “Eighteen slave vessels were lying in the roads, some of which had been condemned and sold and were partially broken up.....in seven hours no fewer than thirteen vessels were dashed to atoms within a few yards of the shore, eleven of them were captured slavers.”

St Helena, Bruce, The Rollers of 1846

Although the work of liberating slaves brought money and employment to the Island, it also brought termites among the timbers of a Brazilian slave ship which was broken up and stored in Jamestown.  Eating their way through house timbers and documents they caused the collapse of a number of buildings and considerable economic damage over several decades and the reconstruction had to make use of cast iron, iron rails and termite-proof timbers.  The Market building is a prime example of this; made in cast iron and prefabricated in England in 1865.

St Helena, Jamestown, The Market, May 2010

Friday, 6 April 2012

Lady Penrhyn, 1789

The interlinking of people and places around the British Empire in the late eighteenth century is perfectly illustrated by the First Fleet transport Lady Penrhyn.
On his first voyage from July 1768 to July 1771 Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour was charged by the Royal Society and the British Admiralty to view the transit of Venus from Tahiti and then to look for the Southern Continent.  On board was Joseph Banks, then aged 25, who supplied an estimated £10,000 of his own money to equip the expedition.  Employed by Banks were the Swedish Naturalist Daniel Solander and his fellow scientist, the Finn, Dr. Herman Spöring.  Following the observation of the Transit in June 1769 the voyage then progressed to New Zealand and then became the first European expedition to reach and chart the eastern shores of Australia where, on 29 April 1770, Cook made his first landing.
Initially the name Stingrays Harbour was used by Cook and other journal keepers on his expedition, for the stingrays they caught there.  Cook's log for 6 May 1770 records "The great quantity of these sort of fish found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Stingrays Harbour".  However, in his journal prepared later from his log, he changed to "The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botany Bay".  The name Botanist Bay was also sometimes used.
It was Banks’ time in Australia that led to his interest in the British colonisation of that continent and he was to be the greatest proponent of settlement in New South Wales.  In 1779 Banks, by now President of The Royal Society, giving evidence before a committee of the House of Commons had stated that in his opinion the place most eligible for the establishment of a penal colony "was Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland"
Lady Penrhyn

In 1786 Lady Penrhyn was chartered by the Navy Board as a First Fleet vessel and became one of the eleven ships which left England in 1787 carrying a total of 1,420 people including 775 convicts, sent to establish the first European Colony in Australia in the region which Cook had named New South Wales.
The 333 ton Thames-built transport left Portsmouth on 13 May with 101 female convicts, and arrived at Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788.  She also carried the first horses sent to Australia, which it is thought to have consisted of one stallion, one colt, three mares and two fillies from Cape Town.  As Surgeon responsible for the convicts on board was Arthur Bowes Smythe.  In addition to his official duties he also took a great interest in natural history, collecting specimens and making drawings including the earliest extant illustration by a European of the emu. 
Leaving Port Jackson under Captain Sever, on 5 May 1788 Lady Penrhyn sailed north into the South Pacific.  On board, en route to China, was Lieutenant John Watts who had sailed on Resolution with Cook.  The poor condition of the ship and sickness among her crew compelled her to turn back from the intended voyage to the North West coast of America when she had gone only as far as Tahiti, where the crew recovered and the ship was repaired. When Lady Penrhyn anchored in Matavai Bay in July 1788 they had only three men in one watch, and two in the other besides the mates, and two of these ailing; the rest of the crew were in a truly deplorable state.  The Lady Penrhyn also became the first British ship to visit Tahiti since Cook in August 1777, shortly before Bligh’s arrival in search of breadfruit in October of that year.
6 June 1788-10 July 1788
“The scurvy now began to spread very fast among the crew, and by the 6th, they had nine men unable to get out of their hammocks, and many others complained very much: swelled gums, the flesh exceeding black and hard, a contraction of the sinews, with a total debility; were the general appearances. Wine was daily served out to them, and there was sour-krout on board, but the people refused to eat it. From this to the 17th they had little variety; by that time the people were in a deplorable state, for with every person on board, the Captain included, they could only muster ten men able to do duty, and some of them were in a very weakly state: sour-krout, which before had been refused, now began to be sought after, and they had all the Captain's fresh stock, himself and officers living solely on salt provisions; and to add to their melancholy situation the wind hung almost constantly in the eastern board, so that they could scarcely make any progress. In the evening, the Chief of Matavai came on board, and in him Lieutenant Watts recollected an old friend: the Chief was greatly pleased to see Mr. Watts, as he was the only person in the ship who had been here before, except the steward, who had been before the mast in the Resolution; He informed them that no ship had been at the islands since Capt. Cook: therefore, they concealed his death, and Capt. Sever made Oediddee a present, as coming from Capt. Cook.”
Leaving Tahiti Lady Penrhyn arrived at Macao on October 19th 1788 then, proceeding upriver to Canton to take on a cargo of tea, returned to England via The Cape and St. Helena mid-August 1789. Smythe’s journal of the voyage can be read here: http://www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.ms-ms4568-s3-v

At daybreak on 18th May 1789 Smythe writes in his Logbook: “Saw St Helena- the Captain was the first who discover’d land”. 

At Jamestown he made the drawing below.
View of the Island of St. Helena
In his log he describes the following incident:
One day as I was walking in company with some Gentlemen up the Ladder Hill, just before we had reached the summit to guns were fired to answer the Salute of a Danish Indiaman and one of the artillery men had one of his hands blown off.  2 fingers of the other hand and the bones of the elbow very much shattered, we met him in the road leading down to the hospital by 3 or 4 of his Companions.
Also returning to England, Scarborough, another First Fleet ship had sailed from St. Helena on March 24th 1789.
Banks, knighted in 1781, had a continuing interest in Australia, for when the settlement started, and for 20 years afterwards, he was the general adviser to the British Government on all Australian matters.  He arranged that a large number of useful trees and plants should be sent out in the Second Fleet supply ship HMS Guardian which, however, was wrecked in 1790 off the Cape of Good Hope and every vessel that came from New South Wales brought plants or animals or geological and other specimens to Banks.  The three earliest governors of the colony, Arthur Phillip, John Hunter and Philip Gidley King, were continually in correspondence with him.  Bligh was also appointed Governor of New South Wales on Banks’ recommendation.