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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Captain Reid goes fishing

The continuation of the journal of Mrs. Reid, captain's wife on the convict transport Friendship

[October 1799] We had experienced for several days much thunder and lightning, with heavy rains and calms; but the variable light breeze about the line we now exchanged for the periodical south-east trade winds, and contrary to the usual practice, we stood to the east towards the Guinea Coast, instead of the Brazil side. The captain gave the mates his reasons for so doing, well knowing from former practice that it would shorten the passage; at the same time, as the track was unfrequented, we should be more likely to avoid the enemy’s cruizers.

For several nights past the sea had a very luminous appearance. I sat for hours together in the quarter-gallery, to observe with wonder the strange sight; at times it was like a liquid fire, and cast such a light into the ship passing through it, that we could see to help ourselves to anything wanted in the cabin without a candle.

I have often seen sudden darts as it were of a luminous stream, passing obliquely under the bottom of the ship, leaving a train behind like the shoot of a meteor in the air. This I understood was fish in chace of the smaller species, and had at one time an opportunity of knowing that it was so. A great number of bonnito and albicore had been caught by the hook in the course of the day, and towards night the fish still accompanied the ship; they could be traced in all directions by the luminous appearance they made in the water. 

One night, when my husband and myself were looking from the gallery, he said if he had the fish-rig he was certain he could strike some of them, at the same time calling upon deck for one to be handed to him over the quarter, when to my great surprise, in the space of half an hour, he speared five bonnetta, each weighing about ten or twelve pounds. These sights were nothing to old sailors, but they excited my surprise. Several buckets of water were drawn up, in which were seen specimens of this luminous substance; it appeared of a soft glutinous form without motion, and when put into a tumbler with water, retained the same appearance in the dark; it had the power to hide the light for the space of a minute or two, and again let it be shewn. These vicissitudes might be caused by its giving up life on being taken from its element.

However, one of these specimens which had been taken out of the glass and put upon paper, had been forgotten in the day, but at night it shone the same as haddocks are seen sometimes to do when hung up after salting. Many small particles also had this luminous appearance for the space of fourteen days. So many fish were caught, that the poor prisoners sometimes partook of them. 

The small albicore and the large bonnetto are so nearly alike, that without particularly noticing the fins behind the gills, the difference cannot be distinguished: these fins, on the albicore, are about three times the length of the other, and rather project from the fish; the bonnetto, on the contrary, has these fins short, not exceeding three or four inches, and laying flat to the shoulders of the fish. They resemble large overgrown mackerel, but thicker in proportion to their length; they are coarse fare, and notwithstanding we had them cooked in various ways, found them still unpalatable. The dolphin we found better (when stewed with a proportion of wine and spices) than any of the other fish. As the dolphins we had were caught in the night, I shall not attempt to describe them; when dying they take such a variety of shade and colour, that a description is impossible. The largest we caught measured about four feet in length, and weighed about eleven pounds.

On the morning of the 10th of October, at daylight, we were rather alarmed, by seeing a ship at no great distance. After tacking she again stood towards us. The prisoners were now ordered below; and preparations made for our defence, every man being ordered to quarters. I went as usual to the cockpit. Our ship being a heavy sailer, could not attempt to escape, therefore stood boldly on. As we neared this strange ship, we observed she had Danish colours hoisted, and proved to be of that nation, from Copenhagen, bound to Tranquehar. 

The Friendship having a letter of marque, sent a boat to overhaul her papers; the boat immediately returned with the Danish captain who spoke good English, and informed us, that about ten days ago he had been boarded by a French frigate, who had in company an English Guinea ship which they had captured. That the Frenchman had taken many things from him, and had given bills upon his government, which the Dane said, he reckoned little better than waste paper. After exchanging civilities, he left us and proceeded on his course.

We were now advancing into the gulph of Guinea, and steering as much to the south as the winds would permit. Many tropical birds appeared about the ship, some of which, called Boobies and Noddies, took up their quarters on the yards at night; the former were about the size of a small duck, they are web-footed and could not rise to fly from the deck; they appeared most stupid birds, were not at all alarmed by any thing near them; they seemed full of vermin, by their constantly picking themselves. The feathers of the Booby are grey, mixed with black; the Noddy is of a sooty colour. They were generally made messengers of the next day, by being sent off with a card (having the ship’s name upon it) tied around their necks.

We passed to the night near an island called Annobona, discovered by the Portuguese on a new year’s day, from which it takes its name; it was notorious, of old, for being a den for pirates. 

[In the next episode, Mrs. Reid meets Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington]

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