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Saturday, September 16, 2023


 Why do people act violently? What makes them do it?  And what happens after the violent act?

I watched two thought-provoking films on Netflix, one a fictional drama, the other a documentary. Both were astounding, and the message was remarkably similar. What causes violence?  How is it justified? And what happens after the violence has stopped?

The drama was "A History of Violence."

I watched it despite the title, which sounded like the name of a documentary that would replicate rather too many historical episodes of violence ... Roman circuses, trench warfare, and so forth and so on. Nothing I wanted to see, promising nothing new. But I gave it a few minutes, and was immediately hooked into the most unusual and compelling theme. Violence.

It is the intriguing story of a man who reacts violently when his diner is being robbed, sending both thugs to a well deserved grave. So, was he a retired hero?  From SAS or the Seals or something like that?  That's what the media like to think, as they laud his actions in banner headlines and video clips. 

No, he was no hero.  Just a thug, another thug.  A retired thug who has changed his name and become an ordinary, decent man, but still with a past as a hitman.  And with the publicity his violent past catches up with him. There are nasty men out there who have been hankering after revenge for years, and now know where the lives.

The acting is amazing -- Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris and William Hurt all threw their souls into this work, directed brilliantly by David Cronenberg. There is certainly violence, as the retired thug deals with the thugs who used to employ him, but the outcome is what is important. The past has caught up with his family life, too -- that decent, ordinary family, none of whom had the slightest idea of the monster who was living in their midst.

There is an interesting substory, of Mortensen's teenaged son, who is being bullied by a coven of teenaged thugs. He's an intelligent lad, and manages to talk them out of it when they want to pick an uneven fight, until the moment he snaps, and deals with them as his father would have dealt.  Except that instead of sending them to the grave, he sends them to the emergency ward. He knew absolutely nothing of his father's past, so is a capacity for violence inherited?

Extremely well played by Ashton Holmes (a name to look out for), he is the first to deal with the emotional backlash that follows his own violence. When his father tries to tell him that what he did wasn't right, he storms off in a frenzy of emotion. The only way he can justify what he did to himself, perhaps, is that he did the right thing, and the bullies deserved what they got. But his father has told him that was wrong.

And it is his father's tragedy, too, that he is past the stage of self-justification for violence.

A superb film, one that I will watch again, just to mull over the messages.

The documentary has an equally unpromising title. It is called "Ordinary Men." But it turned out to be equally gripping and thought-provoking.  And again, the theme was violence, and its effect on the perpetrators.

Presented by Christopher Browning, he American professor emeritus of history who authored the book with the same title on which the documentary is based, it is a study of the men in the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101, who rounded up Jews in Poland in 1941, slaughtering thousands, and sending thousands more to death camps. 

And the title is right.  They were very ordinary men. They weren't thugs.  They weren't the victims of childhood violence. They didn't have a history of brutality. Some had university degrees. They were certainly not ardent Nazis. Yet they killed children.  They ordered mothers to hold their babies to their breasts to save ammunition, as one shot would end the lives of both. They shot lines of helpless people at the lip of the pit where the bodies would fall. They did all this face-to-face.  They talked to them as they led them into the forest to the pit. And yet they fired their guns and watched them collapse and die, over and over again.

So, what made them do it?  

Had they been brain-washed? Those who had been to university had had professors who preached the Nazi ethic. Constant propaganda had assured them that Jews were Bolshevics, that they were "other" and not like them. Jews were the object of the offensive graffiti that smeared the walls in their home city, Hamburg. 

And so, even though they were given the option of not taking part in the atrocities, very few of them stepped aside. One even took his bride along to watch as he "cleaned out" a ghetto, and she joined the team in the party afterwards.

A very interesting point that was made was that the killers were horribly affected after the first mass slaughtering.  They vomited, and had nightmares. And because of this, some began to think of themselves as the victims.  They felt sorry for themselves in this most grotesque way, and somehow, by twisted logic, it justified that they kept on with their killing. 

But, for me, the most potent point was that Jews had been made into "others". They were different, too different for any "true" German to feel empathy for; it was like killing aliens, the enemy from some other sphere. 

How general is this, historically?  Does it explain atrocities like Kosovo, the Armenian massacres in Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia? Is this why Australian aborigines were hunted down like bounty? Why English landlords could export grain for profit while Irish babies and children were starving to death? Because these people are "other"?

Watch both.  It will horrify, but also make you think. Deeply.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Winter Newsletter from the Butler Point Whaling Museum, New Zealand


Butler Point Whaling Museum, 1840s Historic House and Gardens
"Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.- Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it."
(Herman Melville, Moby Dick 1851)
Takurua KĊrero
Newsletter: Winter 2023
Kia ora koutou

Welcome to our Winter 2023 newsletter

The reappearance of the Matariki star cluster over the horizon last month is a welcome sign that light, warmth and growth will soon be returning.  In pre-colonial times kites, or manu tukutuku, would have fluttered in the skies at this time to mark Matariki.

We think spectacular starry nights are a gift in Doubtless Bay, and in the photo you can see that some of them fell into the water at Butler Point!
In the Garden the normally well-behaved black cows that graze our paddocks must have had a rush of Spring warmth to their heads last week. Under the cover of darkness they enthusiastically trampled a fence and frolicked their way through every inch of the gardens. We found them the next morning smugly surveying the carnage. After an heroic emergency rescue effort, hoof-marks were filled in and torn plants tidied up just in time for a visiting garden group.
Book of the Season
Our dedicated newsletter production team has just finished Tom Mustill’s book how to speak whale.  It is a thrilling investigation into whale science, and reading it has enabled us to update our information; for example how whales hear with their jaws, how spermaceti controls the production of sound, and how whales speak baby talk with their young. Here is a small selection of what we have learnt.
Whales are our distant cousins
Well, very distant cousins. We shared a common ancestor with whales, apes and elephants until 145 million years ago when there was a fork in the evolutionary road. Then around 50 million years ago some mammals, the ancestors of all cetaceans, moved back into the water. They lost most of their hair, insulated themselves with blubber, and their hands and feet turned into paddles.
An x-ray of a humpback whale pectoral fin, the largest and most powerful arm in the history of life on our planet, looks much like a giant version of our own arm. Inside every whale and dolphin flipper is a limb that first evolved to walk on land. The baby pilot whale skeleton in our museum has a bony hand inside its fin that looks uncannily human.
Cetacean senses have evolved differently to our land-based human ones. Sound is everything in their watery world where it travels four times faster than in air.
Whales listen through fatty structures in their jawbones as life underwater has smoothed off their external ears. Their brain translates the sound waves picked up by the jaw into a three dimensional picture of the object ahead.  
Sperm whales have a set of phonic lips under their blowhole which vibrate against each other to create the loudest sound in all creation: up to 230 decibels, louder than a jet engine and heard across entire oceans!  The sound waves created by these lips hit the lower part of the whale’s head, where spermaceti oil acting like a giant lens focuses the vibrations and channels the noise out into the water as an astonishingly powerful click used to scan their world.
An underwater cameraman tells the story of being scanned by a large female dolphin fascinated by the clicking sound his old camera made. She slowly approached him, put her snout against his scuba mask, and buzzed him with sonar for several minutes.  He remembers it as a very pleasant sensation, like a shaken can of soda fizzing in his head, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being interrogated by a seriously large intelligence.
As well as echolocation clicks, cetaceans also produce buzzes, trumpets, creaks and codas, which are an unchanging series of signature clicks like a name they use to identify themselves and each other.  Other patterns of clicks and gaps, like Morse code, seem to carry information vital for sustaining their cooperative lives together.
While Baleen whales are generally loners, toothed whales live in pods: close knit family groups of 15 to 20 made up of mostly females and their young. Mother and baby whales talk in baby babble and whisper to each other when predators are nearby. When mothers go hunting they leave their young in nurseries where other mothers nurse and protect them. There is evidence that sperm whales even provide food for adult whales that are less able to hunt.  Humpback whales have even been known to rescue other species of animals  from killer whales.
Cetaceans are not fish but mammals and cannot breathe underwater. However, whales can go without breathing because they are able to use their flesh as a giant scuba tank. Their muscles contain an enormous concentration of myoglobin proteins that trap oxygen, like haemoglobin in human blood cells. The whale slowly releases oxygen from its muscles over the course of a dive, sustaining it for over an hour. The myoglobin gives their flesh its dark red, almost black colour.
Do whales have conscious thought? Tom Mustill puts the question to scientists. It is very possible. Whales are extremely intelligent with impressive neural systems containing components previously thought to exist solely in humans.
After all the rain the garden is on steroids; bigger, bolder, greener, lusher than ever before, even the freesia buds are enormous.  The pond is full and the frogs are happy.

Artiste in Residence
Professor Vincent Chevillon, from Strasbourg, France, has been in New Zealand travelling our coastlines for seven months tracking whale stranding sites, meeting people, discovering treasures and hearing stories about the enduring legacies of whales.  We were privileged to have Vincent stay with us while he explored the Far North.

The day he departed, we had a visit from a pod of orcas cruising along in front of the Museum....perhaps they had come to say au revoir?

Noho ora mai

The Team

Butler Point
Acknowledgements / References

Mustill, Tom. (2022). how to speak whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication. William
      Collins London

Dixon, Dougal.  (2018). When the Whales Walked. Australian Geographic.

Hakaraia, Libby. (2008). Matariki: The Maori New Year.  Penguin

Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand/

Vincent Chevillon:

Note: the three books pictured above are all available for purchase in our Museum shop.

Copyright © 2023 Butler Point Whaling Museum

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Butler Point Whaling Museum
31 Marchant Road
Mangonui, Northland 0494
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Monday, August 21, 2023

The riotous seafaring life of Rebecca Gavitt


c Ron Druett 1988

Samuel Gavitt was born about 1812 in Rhode Island, the son of Arnold and Mercy Rodman Gavitt.  He married Rebecca Babcock on April 1, 1841 (RIVR)  In the 1850 census for Westerley, Rhode Island, Samuel Gavitt, mariner, was 32, and his wife, Rebecca, was thirty, meaning she was about 21 when she wed.  On 23 March 1851, the Daily Alta California reported him in command of the Ellen Morrison, a merchant bark at the time. How long he had been commanding merchant ships is unknown, but according to a local newspaper some time after his marriage he had headed for California and never returned. (Norwich Bulletin, October 18, 1921)  

Later in the same year he was reported on the Ellen Morrison —1851 — he went to Stonington, Connecticut, to take command of the whaleship Tiger. It was apparently not a happy move. The Tiger left Stonington Septermber 19, 1851, and shortly after that six of the crew mutinied and were sent home for trial. The ship was not reported again until February 18, 1852, when Gavitt made port at Valparaiso. Then he was at Lahaina April 26, to cruise, and Maui November 10. That December the ship was declared full and headed home; arrived May 21, 1853. A short and profitable voyage. Unsurprisingly, Gavitt was given another command, of the Rebecca Sims, and while it is not known if Rebecca sailed on the merchantmen or the whaleship Tiger, she was certainly with him this time.

One of the boatsteerers, Alonzo D. Sampson, who published his whaling memoir, Three Times Around the World in 1867, had a great deal to say about her. Sampson thought Gavitt (he spelled it Gavett) ‘was the best man I ever sailed with. He was too good. He spoiled such of his men as good treatment could spoil.’  By contrast his wife, ‘who sailed with him, was not so popular. In the first place,’ he elaborated, ‘sailors have a prejudice, pretty generally justified, against women on board a ship. They think a woman there is always in the way of somebody, and the Captain’s wife is generally in the way of everybody. For the want of something else to do, she is constantly meddling with matters that she does not understand, and influencing her husband to neglect his duty for her, to shirk the danger and exposure inseparable from a faithful discharge of his office, and instigating him to acts that annoy and irritate the crew.

‘Mrs. Gavett was a fine lady, and a fine-looking lady — all the worse, we thought, for a woman in her position of a sailor. She was unnecessarily haughty, or rather supercilious, towards the men, going out of her way sometimes to intimate her contempt for them. On the other hand we did not lack for ways in which to make her understand we considered her more of a nuisance than otherwise.  We had a story among us, with a great deal of truth I believe, that she was fast, and that the Captain brought her along to save her character and his purse.

‘During the beautiful weather that favored our run to the Cape Verdes, she passed most of the daytime on deck, where a chair was set for her, she not having, in sailors’ phrase, “got on her sea-legs,” if it is not irreverent to suppose that the Captain’s wife possesses these members.’ (pages 78-79)  And, when they arrived at St Vincent in the Cape Verdes, she had the pleasure of being entertained on board the American sloop of war Dale, which was a good augury for the voyage.

However, the ship was storm beset when doubling Cape Horn, and at one stage ‘the whole ship’s company, the Captain’s wife not excepted, were gathered on deck expecting the worst.’ She watched as energetic seamanship saved the ship, and apparently approved when Captain Gavitt treated the crew to as much grog as they could drink. It was not the last emergency, by any means.  The officer on watch mistaking a landmark on entering the harbor of Lahaina in the dark, the ship was ‘brought up all standing’ when it crashed on a sandbar. The shock was tremendous, all the lanterns went out, dunnage clattered everywhere, and everyone rushed up to deck — ‘Among the crowd that stood dumbfounded around the captain was his handsome wife. She seemed to be even worse affected than she had been under far more fearful circumstances in the Strait of Le Maire ... “Oh! Samuel,” she cried in tones of despair. “Oh! Samuel, what shall we do?” To be ready for the worst,’ in case the bottom of the ship was broken, the boats were cleared away.  More energetic seamanship got the ship off the sandbank with no harm done, however, and by daybreak they were anchored off Lahaina.  

Then there was more excitement, as Captain Gavitt raced his ship against the Vesper, having laid a bet with Captain Edward Howes that he would beat him to the ‘fishing’ ground, a race that he won by one day. There, in the Ochotsk Sea, she endured snow storms where the ship pitched madly, and an anxious night when the ship was driven by the ice, with the loss of all her anchors. There were bears to watch, too — bears that came to eat the carcasses of the whales after the blubber had been removed. There was much to watch that was grisly.

In November 1854 they dropped anchor at Hilo, where they stayed two months, and Rebecca could marvel at the current eruption. ‘A stream of lava from one of the many craters started in the direction of the town, but Mr. Coan, the missionary there, went up to the mountain and prayed, and soon after the lava stopped flowing that way.’ From there they sailed to Honolulu, laying off and on outside the port instead of dropping anchor, to deter attempts to desert that ship. As Sampson casually mentioned, there were attempts to swim ashore, but it was often a doomed venture, because of the sharks that swarmed.

At this stage Samuel Gavitt was rather keen to leave Rebecca at the islands, according to this raconteur, but she flatly refused to leave This meant that she was on the deck when they called at the island of Ascension (Pohnpei), where the natives who came on board to trade ‘were dressed in suits of cocoa nut oil, only without a rag of anything else about them, [and] the captain’s wife voted them a great curiosity, and gave them considerable of her attention.’  From there, after a racy encounter with an immense sea serpent (that should be taken with a grain of salt, Sampson perhaps being responsible for the famous fable), the Rebecca Sims called at Guam, where Captain Gavitt found himself in a quandary.

‘Of course it was absolutely necessary that his lady should visit town, and at the same time it was equally impossible to get any other mode of conveyance except on ox-back … Mrs. Gavett, with a bravery that distinguishes her sex when the result sought is a visit, declared her ability to ride an ox, and her willingness to “try it on.” So she went on shore where quite a number of these horned steeds were quietly waiting … An animal was selected rather with reference to steady going than to speed, and a small mountain of folded blankets, which gave him quite a poetic resemblance to a camel, at least in the hump, was strapped onto his back.

‘To this eminence the lady was elevated, not exactly “by a turn of the wrist,” but by pure muscle, and bos was solicited to propel in the direction of town. On the contrary he began a rapid “advance backwards,” until the rider was brought into contact with certain cocoa nut trees … [and] she was wiped off at imminent risk of limbs and neck. The stupid brute, unaware and probably unworthy of the honor intended him, then trotted off for the bush.’ Rebecca Gavitt, though bruised and humiliated, was still determined to go to town, so a couple of poles were fetched, and a chair slung from them, and four natives took up the burden and ‘Mrs. Gavett was borne in state, if not in triumph, to town.’

Captain Gavitt needed a new first mate at this stage, but the one he hired in Guam took a strong dislike to Mrs. Gavitt, and left.  In Manila (where they had carried a theatrical troupe) he hired a Frenchman, Lavalette by name, on the recommendation of Mrs. Gavitt. ‘He may have had any possible number of qualities fitting him for the place, but none of us ever discovered them. Lavalette’s heels [had] turned Mrs. Gavett’s head, and she exclaimed in an ecstasy of admiration, “Oh! Captain, do ship Mr. Lavalette, he is such a splendid dancer!” and that decided the matter.  The dancing master, as we called him, was shipped.’  He turned out to be totally incapable of harpooning a whale, which disappointed Mrs. Gavitt greatly — ‘She was probably at a loss to imagine how a man who danced so well could fail to be a good whaleman.’

They headed for the Hawaiian Islands after another season in the ice, and then sailed from Honolulu on Christmas Day, 1856, to cruise on the way home, arriving at New Bedford May 23, 1857.  The voyage was over, and ‘Alonzo’ Sampson was headed for another ship.  As for Captain Gavitt, as Sampson meditated, ‘I hope he was able to live in some other occupation [as] I certainly think he deserved it.’ And that is what must have happened, as there is no record of Gavitt whaling again. Or of what happened to Rebecca.

So, how true is all this?  There is no Alonzo Sampson on the Rebecca Sims crewlist, but there is a William Sampson, shipped as an ordinary seaman, and authors, like sailors, often sail under false names. The crew of the ship changed constantly, so Sampson could easily have become a boatsteerer (harpooner) as the voyage went on. The dates mentioned in the book are mostly confirmed, too: April 28, 1854, at Lahaina; October 18, at Honolulu from Ochotsk Sea; March 17, 1855, at Lahaina after a cruise; at Shantar Bay October 1855; at Hilo November 9, from the Ochotsk; cleared December 14, to cruise; at Guam in March 1856, then the Ochotsk; took oil from the wreck of the Alexander; Honolulu November 17, also December 12, then home, arriving May 31, 1857. (Dennis Wood abstract) So, while William Sampson was a born raconteur, tempted to embroider his yarn, the substance of his humorous stories of Mrs. Captain Samuel Gavitt is probably based on reality.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Captain of many things


Whaling bark Greyhound.
New Bedford Free Public Library

Timothy C. Allen, born 1821, was ‘killed by a whale’ on August 2, 1852, while second mate of the Sacramento. (Westport Vital Records) Just over a month later, his young wife, Abbie W. Chace Allen, gave birth to a son, named Timothy Chace Allen, after his father. Just two weeks later Abbie, aged just 19, died of ‘bilious fever’ (probably puerperal). The baby was raised in the household of his uncle, Deacon John Allen, and despite his father’s abrupt death while whaling, chose whaling as an occupation.

Timothy Chace Allen first sailed at the age of 15 on the Greyhound, leaving port May 23, 1868. According to the crew list he was five foot seven inches, and had given his residence as Westport. The captain was John Milk Allen, also of Westport.  Just 30 years old (born April 1838), John Milk was the son of Humphrey and Mary Milk Allen, and his wife (who did not sail) was Martha Gifford Allen. It seems apparent that he was a relative, which would have helped Timothy chose that career.

Timothy grew over the voyage — when he shipped again on the Greyhound in 1872 he was 20 years old and  5 foot 11 inches (tall for his time), light-skinned and brown-haired. Again he gave his residence as Westport, and again John Milk Allen commanded — until January 1873, when he left the ship, sick, at St. Helena, and the first mate took over. According to the records, Timothy brought the ship home, a remarkable feat for such a young man, and from then on he commanded the Greyhound over three voyages, 1875 to 1878; 1879 to 1883; and 1883 to 1884.

Rosa Seale, whom he married in 1875, was born on the island of St. Helena on April 10, 1858, the daughter of Henry and Mary Seale. (MSVR, death certificate; the 1900 New Bedford census, which names her Isabella)  Seale was a prominent and respected name on the island, dating back to the first Seales who served with the St. Helena Infantry of the East India Company; while recruited from the regular military, the officers had to be of good reputation and well educated in England.  Major Robert Francis Seale, who had the important post of assistant storekeeper, was also a talented geologist who produced a book of intriguing sketches called The Geognosy of St Helena (1834). Rosa evidently married Timothy on the island, during one of the ship’s frequent visits, there being no marriage record in Massachusetts. She certainly sailed with him: Annie Ricketson on the Pedro Varela, March 12, 1882, noted that her husband Captain Daniel Ricketson gammed with the ship; ‘It was the bark Greyhound, Capt Allen he had his wife.’ (NBWM, PMB 287, 816, 887.)

The bark Greyhound was sold into the merchant trade in 1884, and Captain Allen took the vessel out to Australia with a general cargo, returning to New Bedford with oil in autumn 1885. He then bought a share in the packet schooner Hastings, and took command until 1886, when he decided his seafaring career was over, and applied to the New Bedford Police Department. Starting off as a patrolman, he soon became a lieutenant, and in 1893 he was promoted to captain. It was a post he tried to leave as he accumulated interests in more ships, including the whaler Leonora. His letter of resignation was shelved as he was considered too valuable to be let go, and it was not until 1908 that he finally retired, having insisted that Mayor Edward Hathaway accept his resignation. (NB Evening Standard, January 8, 1908)

Rosa Seale Allen died on February 9, 1917, and is buried in the Abner Wilcox Cemetery, Westport, Massachusetts. On Christmas Day 1918 Timothy wed Florence May Gammans Tripp, of Acushnet.  She was a widow 43 years old, and this was her second marriage. (MSVR) Captain Timothy Chase Allen died April 7, 1923, and is buried with Rosa in Westport. (Obit. Sunday Herald, Boston, April 8, 1923) Florence recovered fast, marrying a widowed bookkeeper, Otis Tuttle, in October the following year. (Many details about the two Timothy Allens can be found on websites administered from Westport, including the facebook page for the Westport Gravestone Cleaning and Restoration group.)

Many thanks to their researchers and also Kiwi researcher Kay Vincent for invaluable help. 

A truly remarkable man. Here as a police captain, metamorphosed from a whaling skipper.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Whaling stories from early Mangonui, New Zealand


FISHER, Eliza Ann Anthony (Mrs. Matthew):

Matthew Fisher and Eliza Ann Anthony, he of New York, and she of New Bedford, married in New Bedford on November 2, 1842 (New Bedford Vital Records). They were both very young, she being 20 and he just two years older. The following June he sailed off on the Cherokee as third mate, getting back in 1846.  He then sailed as first mate of the Hunter in 1851, getting back in 1854.  Finally, he given a command, of the Stephania, but according to the log Eliza Ann was not with him, probably because she had given birth to a little girl (Eliza jr) within a year of his return.  However, she did sail on the Stephania in 1857: the WSL for July 21, 1857, includes her on the outgoing passenger list; and she also sent reports of the ship’s progress back to New Bedford (eg. WSL for April 3, 1860). On the Gazelle, November 12, 1857, Eleanor Baker recorded that ‘the Stephania of New Bedford came down and spoke us ... Capt Fisher has his wife on board.’ (NBWM loan log; there is no record of the little girl Eliza sailing too.)

Eliza Ann also sailed on the dramatic voyage of the John Wells in 1861: the WSL for June 30, 1863 noted, ‘A letter from Mrs. Capt. Fisher of bark John Wells (NB), dated Mangonui [NZ] March 9, 1863, states that Capt. F. had been stabbed by one of the crew, who was drunk at the time. The act was committed in the Consul’s store at Mangonui … Capt. F. was stabbed three times and it was thought at first that he could not live, but at the date of the letter he was getting better. No cause was assigned for the act, as there had been no trouble on board the ship.’

This was widely reported in New Zealand: ‘The schooner Kiwi, Captain McGregor, arrived from Mangonui Saturday afternoon …’ posted the New Zealander, 9 March 1863; ‘Captain McGregor reports that the Captain of the New Bedford whaler John Wells, 366 tons, had been stabbed by one of the crew, a native of Hobart Town. The sufferer, we are glad to state, was improving, and likely to recover.’

Eliza Ann Fisher was being less than candid when she claimed there was ‘no trouble on board the ship’ — as the Mangonui correspondent for the New Zealander, March 17, went on to say, ‘Several men are in gaol for deserting the John Wells, but it is useless for them to desert here, as they cannot get away … There is every probability of much trouble from the crew of the whale ship John Wells, as a general spirit of discontent appears to pervade the whole crew, and threats of mischief are held out by many of them….

‘On the afternoon of the 2nd instant, the captain (Fisher) was standing in conversation with several other persons at Messrs Drury & Co’s store, when one of the crew, named John Davis, rushed into the store, in a very excited state, and, with his arms extended, as though he was going to embrace the captain, exclaimed ‘Life! Life!” He then made several thrusts at the captain’s left side with a knife which he had in his right hand, two of which took effect — one through the lower part of the neck, or rather the shoulder, and the other through the fleshy part of the arm. Davis was immediately disarmed and secured…

‘There are at present eight prisoners confined here. Three European and one Native constables keep watch day and night. Several of these prisoners belong to the John Wells, and are to be put on board again when she sails. They, however, express a strong determination never again to go in her, and state they will sooner burn her first. There is great reason to fear that the troubles in this vessel are not yet at an end.’

John Davis was charged with intent to murder, and sent to Auckland to be tried in the Supreme Court, which meant that Captain Fisher, his wife, and others who were with him during the attack had to go there to give evidence. The long report of the trial (New Zealander, 31 March 1863) includes evidence given by Eliza Ann Fisher, who testified, ‘I am wife of the prosecutor. I was in Mr Drury’s store when the prisoner attacked my husband. He said “Life, Captain Fisher,” and repeated it afterwards. I saw prisoner stab my husband, and afterwards the wounds inflicted.’ Cross-examined by the jury, she testified, ‘The wound was on the left shoulder, between the side of the neck and the upper part of the shoulder.’

Davis was found guilty despite long rambling stories of ill usage on board and a head wound received while on a warship in the Black Sea, and was sentenced to four years hard labour.

The John Wells finally got away from Mangonui on 16 April, but in August Fisher was forced to fly a flag of distress, having sprung a bad leak during a storm in the Tasman Sea. Another ship escorted his vessel as it limped into Sydney. Repairs were made, but the next report of the ship was in Tahiti, March 1864, in distress, leaking badly.  The John Wells then staggered into San Francisco, reported there in July. There Fisher sold the battered old ship and her whaling gear for $10,000 cash and he and Eliza Ann took the train home. (WSL October 4, 1864)  

Unsurprisingly, Matthew Fisher then retired from the sea. Not only had he made enough money from his whaling ventures (he was listed with a total worth of $12000), but Eliza Ann would not have wanted to repeat the John Wells experience. She died in 1887, and he followed her to the grave in October 1900. (findagrave)

Saturday, July 29, 2023

A mysterious seafaring family of early Australia


Port Jackson 1823

CURRIE, Mrs. John:

The first record of Captain Currie is as master of the London whaleship Elizabeth, 437 tons. He was reported at Cable Bay, South Africa, on 12 April 1833, bound home to London after having left Sydney on 19 August 1832.  Evidently he made a quick turnaround, as on November 30, 1833, the ship Indiana arrived at Hobart from Sydney with Captain Currie, Mrs. Currie, and three children among the passengers, while the Elizabeth was in port, fitting out for whaling. (Tasmanian Colonist 3 December 1833). Within days, the family was settled on board. The Sydney Gazette for 2 January 1834, in a column headed ‘Van Dieman’s Land news’, noted the departure of the Elizabeth on the tenth ‘for the sperm fishery, passengers Mrs. Currie and three children.’

The ship was next reported at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, 7 January 1834, returning there on March 17, 1834.  Did John Currie leave his family there? It seems likely. The Aaron Price diary (kept on Norfolk Island) notes the brief call of the Elizabeth  at Norfolk Island 30 September 1834 — ‘… the whaler “Elizabeth” touched here’.  According to the Sydney Herald, 16 October 1834, ‘Captain Currie called there for the purpose of ascertaining whether the report of the depredations committed by the New Zealanders, was true, Captain Currie having left his wife there. Having ascertained that such was the case, the Elizabeth started for New Zealand; she had 800 barrels of oil on board.’  

The ’depredations’ were the seizure of the Harriett, Captain Guard, and according to a later report, Currie rescued the stranded crew.  Evidently he picked up his wife and children at the same time — 21 March 1835, the Sydney Monitor noted ‘Ship Elizabeth, Captain Currie, arrived from the South Seas, passengers Mrs. Currie & 3 children and Miss Currie.’  Then on 14 April 1835 the Sydney Gazette reported ‘DEPARTURES, for London on Saturday last, the ship Elizabeth, Captain Currie, with oil &c., passengers, Mrs. Pinkerton, Mrs. Currie and family, and Mrs. Ford.’

The ship arrived at Gravesend 29 September 1835 ‘after a quick passage of three months and twelve days’ (Sydney Herald 8 February 1836). The Elizabeth with Currie in command departed again on February 4, 1836, arriving in Sydney in May 1836, after another speedy passage. This time, Mrs Currie was not reported on board, the only passenger being William Mattinson (who, incidentally, was a past master of the Elizabeth). The ship was reported back in London on June 10, 1839. (Sydney Herald 6 May 1840)

On November 10, 1843, John Currie sailed from London in command of the Luisa (308 tons register), and dropped anchor in Sydney March 4, 1845 to report a bad-luck voyage, having taken only 460 barrels of oil since leaving London, though ‘Captain Curry speaks in the highest terms of his officers and crew’ (SMH 5 March 1845). The ship was then reported cruising about the Kingsmills on 25 July 1845, and at Samoa in October 1846. Again, it is not apparent that his wife and family were with him.

And that, as far as newspaper records go, seems to be the end of the story…

Who was she?  And what happened to the family after that? It's an intriguing mystery.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Romance of the Sea.


Sarah Cossill was born in Mangonui, a tiny outpost in the far north of New Zealand, in February 1836. She was the daughter of Charles Cossill, an English seaman who had turned into a settler, and his wife, a Maori woman named Pourewa, but called Margaret after their marriage. The other main character in this very unusual story is Charles Albert Evans, who was born in Northfield, Merrimack, New Hampshire, in February 1827. He was a dedicated whaleman, being a boatsteerer (harpooner) on the Benjamin Tucker in 1849, second mate of the William C. Nye in 1851, and first mate of the Arctic in 1854, which is when the story begins.

It is revealed in an intriguing entry in the New Bedford Evening Standard for 8 February 1893, which is headed, ‘A Unique Matrimonial Contract Found in the Fairhaven Town Clerk’s Office’ and goes on to describe the marriage of Charles Evans and Sarah ‘Gorsell’ on board the whaleship Arctic. The captain was Ira Lakey, who was really a watchmaker, but had offered his services to the owners of the Arctic, and Charles Evans was the first mate. During a call on Mangonui, in the north of New Zealand, Charles had fallen in love with a beautiful half-Maori girl, and being reluctant to leave her, he had smuggled her on board. Conditions on whalers being what they were, he must have had some connivance from his fellow officers, as Sarah’s presence was not reported to the captain until the ship was too far from land to sail back.

So, that left Captain Lakey with a problem, which he discussed with a ‘council’ of officers, and it was decided that he should marry the couple, someone having pointed out that a captain could do this at sea. Accordingly, a contract was drawn up, and in due course was entered at the Fairhaven Town Clerk’s office, where the journalist found it many years later.

March 12, 1856, it was dated, in lat. 42.30, long 153 West. ‘To all whom it may concern,’ it reads, ‘I, Charles A. Evans, and I, Sarah Corsell, do this day in the presence of all these witnesses, bind ourselves in every point and particular, in the solemn bounds of matrimony, the same as though it were performed in the presence of an ordained minister or a lawful appointed justice of the peace. Our excuse for being married now is that we are so situated that we cannot live here in a manner proper for civilised beings, only as man and wife…’  So a ceremony was staged where the captain, Sarah, and Charles recited the vows as remembered from attending more conventional weddings, and Sarah was given a ring made by the crew by boring a hole in a silver coin. The document was signed by nine witnesses, headed by the captain, and tailed by the harpooners and boatheaders.

Charles took Sarah to New Hampshire to meet his family, and then, when he was offered the command of the Arctic, she sailed with him. They departed July 23, 1856, and proceeded to the Pacific via the Cape of Good Hope. Sadly, while the ship was in the southern Indian Ocean on the way to New Zealand, Captain Evans was killed. The WSL for May 12, 1857 reported the tragedy: ‘We regret to learn the death of Capt. Chas. A. Evans, of Ship Arctic of Fairhaven, who fell overboard from his ship in the night time off NZ in Jan. last, while beating up for a whale; he was drawn under the ship where he was crushed by the counter setting upon him. A boat was immediately lowered and his body taken on board, but life was extinct. The widow of Capt. E., who accompanied him on the voyage, returned home in the ship Jireh Swift, which arrived at this port 6th inst..’

The issue for June 2, 1857 carried more details: ‘It was proposed to bury him at St. Pauls Island but the weather was so bad that it was found impossible. His body was therefore placed in a coffin which was enclosed in a much larger one, and the space between the two coffins filled with lime and sand and he was brought to this port [Mangonui, New Zealand] and buried on an island at the eastern end of the harbor.

‘At the time of the accident his wife (whom he had married from this place 8 months before) was on board and she had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing him interred within a few yards of her father’s house.

‘The funeral took place on Friday the 23rd inst [January 1857] and was attended by all the masters and most of the officers of the whaleships in harbor and the principal inhabitants of the place. The procession of whaleboats extended over half a mile - and the funeral service was performed by W.B. White Esq. Resident Magistrate.

‘Capt. E. was a native of N.Hampshire USA - aged 29 years.’

The issue for 12 May 1857 has a passenger list: ‘In the Jireh Swift, at this port, Mrs. Evans, widow of the late Capt. Evans, of ship Arctic of Fairhaven; Mr. Nicholas Blaisdell, of Portland, late mate of bark John C. Fremont, of California, wrecked on Christmas Island, November 23, 1856.’  

Sarah had opted to return to her parents-in-law rather than stay in New Zealand, possibly because she was pregnant with their grandchild (a boy, Charles Herbert Evans, was born the following July), and as the Arctic was at the beginning of the whaling voyage, it was impossible for her to stay on board that ship. Accordingly, she had begged or bought passage on the homebound Jireh Swift. In 1861 she married a New Hampshire man, John Heath, who adopted her little boy. She died in 1907, still in Northfield, New Hampshire. (findagrave)

Cemetery at Mangonui.
Unfortunately, Captain Evans' precise burial spot is lost -- or maybe there was never a headstone, just a cross that rotted away
With thanks to the Butler Point Whaling Museum 

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Sentenced to the lucky land


Being sentenced to a life far beyond the seas could be a punishment -- and it could be a blessing.

Both are encapsulated in the story of Richard Cheers, and his son-in-law, Captain John Evans.

Elizabeth Cheers, the heroine of my story, was christened in Sydney on 23 June 1816, the first child of Richard and Jane Ann Smith Cheers. Her mother was a convict who had been convicted of theft and transported to New South Wales on the Wanstead in 1814.  She had married Richard Cheers 15 October 1815, a ceremony he must have been well accustomed to, as Jane Ann was his fourth wife.  She gave him four children before dying somewhat mysteriously (of ‘sudden indisposition’) in March 1823.  The second child was Mary Ann (‘Marian’). Two boys, James and William Smith, followed.

Richard Cheers was a remarkably enterprising man. Though sentenced to be hanged for the theft of a horse, he was recognised as being skilled in farm management, so was transported as an artisan. The ship was the Guardian and the year was 1789, when the settlement in New South Wales was desperately short of provisions. The transport, with its lifesaving load, was badly damaged on the way after striking an iceberg, and half the crew took to the boats, in a desperate effort to get to Table Bay. Cheers was one of the gang of twenty convicts who stayed on board to help the captain get the wreckage into port, so that the provisions in the hold could be largely saved. It took a dreadful month, but they managed it. Richard Cheers was transferred to the Surprise, and landed in Sydney in June 1790 as a free man, rewarded with both liberty and land for his courage.  

From there, he prospered, setting up a flourishing business as the first butcher in the colony, sited in what is now the heart of the city, extending from George and Hunter streets. He built and managed the Black Bull Inn, plus two extensive land grants, one at Manly. Jane Ann died, drunk and in disgrace, in March 1823 at the age of 31, and Richard himself had passed away in February 1827, meaning that his two daughters were considered a prime catch, being heiresses to a sizeable holding. Meantime they were looked after by an older stepsister, whose husband was the licensee of the Plume of Feathers Inn.

Elizabeth's sister, Marian Cheers Egan, with her two daughters.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra 

The first of the two girls to be snatched up was Elizabeth, who was 17 when she married John Evans, who had been born on a farm in Wales in 1802. He was quite a catch, too. The year was 1833, in an era when whalemen and sealers were lions of settler society, as they brought furs and oil that could be sold on overseas markets and bring money into the money-starved settlement. And, what’s more, John was a highly rated shipmaster, sailing in and out of Sydney in command of the Albion. Eventually he was shifted to the whaleship Bombay, getting back to Sydney in May 1837, just in time to take command of a rather notorious ship.

This was the Alexander Henry, George Fennings master, which had left London on July 9, 1835, bound to whale off Peru. The ship (actually a snow) was reported at Lima in April 1836, and a year later at Whangaroa, New Zealand. On 16 June 1837, the whaler arrived at Sydney to be refitted — and, incidentally, reregistered at that port. Fennings took the ship out again, but was murdered by natives at Gilbert Island in the Kingsmill Group (Sydney Gazette 14 February 1837). The first mate, Ralph Lawson, took over the command, intending to continue whaling, but the men mutinied and forced him to sail to Sydney. (Ships Employed in the South Seas Trade; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 February 1837).

There the command was given to Captain John Evans. It was a matter of convenience that allowed the harried Lawson to shift ships, as he took over the command of the Bombay. And it was now, too, that John Evans started wife-carrying. He, Elizabeth, and the ship were recorded at Norfolk Island in June 1839, having left Sydney in April. The ship returned to the island on 22 October 1839, in time for the birth of their first child — a daughter, Mary Frances, on November 12, 1839. Eleven months later, in October 1840, they returned to Sydney via the Bay of Islands, as the vessel was leaking badly and the crew, as before, was mutinous.

Captain Evans then left the ship to take care of pressing family business. Elizabeth’s sister, Marian, had been abruptly widowed after her husband (Henry St John Cahuac, a convict bookseller who had turned into into successful farmer) was killed by a fall from a horse, and she needed a manager for the tract of land she had inherited. John and Elizabeth moved onto the farm, and took over for the next few years. This was when their next children were born — George St John (named after Marian’s dead husband) in 1842, and another boy, Alfred Essex, on 2 May 1847. On 6 October 1848 Elizabeth bore yet another boy, Sydney William, then finally another daughter, Kate, born in 1851.

John did return to whaling, as his next recorded command is of the Lady Blackwood, May 1851, but it only lasted until 1852. (Mark Howard, Masters of the Sydney Whaling Fleet.) Meantime, he had made the headlines by rescuing the crew of the wreck of the Thomas King in May 1852. One of the seamen was killed by a fall from the mainmast of the Lady Blackwood, but the rest survived to register their gratitude for the ‘kindness and attention evinced towards them by Captain Evans while on board the Lady Blackwood, he having supplied them with clothes from his own stock, and contributed to their comfort in every possible way.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1852)

Elizabeth died 30 December 1883, and Captain John Evans died the following year. They are both buried in the Camperdown Cemetery, Sydney.  (Biographies of Elizabeth Cheers Evans and Marian Cheers Egan appear in the Dictionary of Sydney, both written by Annette Lemercier.)

Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Mysterious Mistress of John P. Davenport ,,, and another dubious woman


This definitely dubious-looking fellow was Captain Thomas McGrath, who started out whaling, and ended up as a blackbirder -- a nineteenth century slaver, who captured Pacific Islanders from their beaches and sold them as plantation laborers.

Capt. McGrath sailed from Hobart on the Grecian in December 1862, with a crew of 21. About a week out, he called into Botany Bay to pick up a lady friend, then set out on a whaling cruise that lasted 15 months and netted 6½ tons of oil. Tiring of this, he called into Wellington, New Zealand, paying off the crew, and signing on some Maori seamen plus a few beachcombers, and fitting the ship out as a slaver. His mistress was entered as ‘passenger, Mrs. Blank.’

Then he bought provisions, eight quarter casks of rum, two casks of ale, 10 cases of Geneva gin, one quarter cask of brandy, and two lady’s side saddles. He sold the rum to the crew. After picking up a ‘cargo’ of Tongan men he had duped at the small island of ‘Ata, he sailed for Peru, where he sold the poor fellows. Next, he was reported at Bluff, New Zealand, where McGrath had the remarkable arrogance to sue Mrs. Seal, the owner of the ship, for wages due. The court case was a fiasco, as he had not bothered to keep a log, and he was fined the huge sum of a thousand pounds. McGrath promptly disappeared (without paying the fine), and the ship was returned to Hobart, but never went whaling again. (Lawson, Blue Gum Clippers and Whale Ships of Tasmania (1949) p. 73-75.)

Another interesting character who carried a mistress was John Pope Davenport, who had quite a history.

John Pope Davenport was born on 13 February 1818, in Tiverton, Newport, Rhode Island. Though there is no record of a marriage he carried a ‘wife’ on the schooner Alfred in 1845, according to various entries in the log (NBWM, PMB 1001). She may have been an Australian girl, as in 1845 the little schooner was a long time in Sydney, from 21 October to Christmas Day, no reason given.

The identity of the keeper of the book is doubtful, too: it begins ‘Schooner Alfred outward bound’ on August 28, 1845, and then after September 3, there is a note ‘the remainder is in another book   Henry S. Potter’. The rest, beginning July 14, 1846, ‘Cruising at the Kingsmill Group’ and continuing intermittently, with many dates and pages missing, is in a different hand.

The Alfred was at Sydney October-December 1847, and in Mangonui, New Zealand, March 18, 1848, cruising as far as the Marquesas Islands in June. Back in Sydney, March 4, 1849, the first mate got into a scuffle with his boatsteerer and was badly knifed, losing some fingers. Quite an exciting voyage for Ms. Davenport, especially as on September 19, 1849, at sea, ‘3 AM the Capts Wife was delivered of a Daughter at 9 AM spoke the Pocklington [of Sydney]’. As was common in that whaling ground, the schooner called at Lord Howe Island for provisions, and on February 22, 1850 ‘the Capt & wife went on shore at 7.’ Next day the boats fetched a load of ‘potatoes & brought also the Capts wife & woman passenger named Hoscott bound to Sydney.’

In December 1851 Davenport was at Tahiti, with no mention of a wife, and with little oil to report, having sold most of it in Sydney. He filled the holds of the schooner with oranges for San Francisco, having heard in Papeete of the big prices paid there for fruit.  He did well out of that, but even more inspiring was that on the way to California he had spied large numbers of whales. So, after arriving back in New Bedford on April 28, 1852, he left the Alfred, selling whatever share he had in the schooner, and married a seventeen-year-old girl, Ellen Clark Smith, on 6 June 1852, in Fairhaven. On the certificate, he declared that this was his first marriage.

The couple took passage on a ship bound California via Cape Horn, but their transport sank off Nicaragua, meaning that they had to cross the Isthmus of Panama by boat, train, and mule. Then the ship that they boarded in Panama foundered off the coast of San Simeon, so they had to be rescued yet again. Davenport bought passage on the steamer Sea Bird, which ran so short of fuel that bulwarks, bunks and furnishings had to be burned.

After finally getting to San Francisco, on 24 August 1852, John bought an old whaleship that was mouldering in the mud, named Otranto, and fixed it up for whaling; on October 3, 1852, the Daily Alta California reported Davenport taking the old bark on a whaling voyage. He did not do well, so just two years later he sold the old ship to the notorious Captain William ‘Bully’ Hayes, and made a living by commanding various small vessels. In 1865 he gave up the sea, and moved to Santa Cruz to set up a real estate company.

There is no record of Ellen C. Davenport sailing with him on the Otranto, and the identity and fate of the woman who accompanied him on the schooner Alfred remain unknown.

As for the new owner of the Otranto, that is quite a story, and involves blackbirding, too.
The Pacific was wide and wild at the time, and more than a few wild women played their part.