Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

ERIC and the dance

The whole world is suddenly singing this song this song ... because of Benedict Cumberbatch and a puppet.  ERIC.

What is it with Cumberbatch, anyway?  An absolutely brilliant actor who seems to specialize in portraying absolutely horrible men.

There was that evil genius behind the Brexit movement, "Brexit, the Uncivil War".  The cruel cowboy in The Power of the Dog.  And now a puppeteer with serious mental health issues who is out of his mind with vodka and whatever he has been popping or sniffing, and who has an endlessly vile tongue, lashing out at a world he considers unfair.

He also talks to a puppet.  The puppet is Eric, the star of the TV show everyone is talking about.  ERIC

He even dances with the puppet to the tune of Laura Branigan's "Gloria" in a mad and totally wonderful scene, the keynote of the six-part Netflix series.  This guy has lost his son in the dangerous underworld of vintage New York, yet he gets drunk, sniffs coke and dances with a puppet.  You have to watch to see how weird it is.  ERIC

So what did I think of the show?  Puzzling, absorbing, and all over the place.  It covers far too many issues.  Let's see if I can tick all the boxes.


Rapacity of property developers a la the Trump dynasty

Cop corruption (One black character says, "You know how you spell 'racism' in New York?  NYPD.")

Deviant sex

The problems of being black in NYC 

The problems of being gay in NYC

Corruption in the sanitation department (Why are baddies always Eastern European, these days?)

The problems of keeping kids safe in NYC ...

No, I can't tick them all.  Too many.  This abundance of serious social issues makes the series confusing, with just too many all at once. The final episode does tie up a lot, but questions remain. The Dad, played by Cumberbatch, cleans himself up, but still the major query is when he is going to fall off the wagon.

He's doomed.

But watch it. It's compelling, even when at its most awful.  ERIC


Sunday, May 12, 2024

Thought-provoking short from Linda Collison


Friday, March 29, 2024



On December 4, 1812, the merchant brig Isabella weighed anchor from the convict colony of New South Wales, Australia, with a most peculiar complement of passengers on board.  Joanna Ann Durie, the wife of Captain Robert Durie, a Scottish soldier who was taking his family back to Edinburgh on furlough, must have looked about the cabin table with a sense of foreboding and wonder.

One garrulous fellow was Joseph Holt, the so-called “General” who had surrendered during the 1798 Irish Rebellion, and had taken voluntary exile to New South Wales to avoid trial and sentencing. He was now going home to Ireland after a varied set of adventures in the settlement, some pleasant, others not so -- and a lot that had taken place in his lively imagination. Another Irishman was Sir Henry Hayes, a ne’er-do-well who had been transported after a notorious abduction of a Quaker heiress, with the idea of tricking her into a fake marriage.  It was obvious within moments that Sir Henry and “General” Holt were deadly enemies, Hayes having been behind Holt’s less pleasant experiences, including at least two more arrests, one of which led to banishment to the notorious prison on Norfolk Island.

Holt in military uniform

Also at the table was a sea captain, Richard Brookes, who seemed civilized enough, but had an unpleasant reputation that he had found impossible to shake.  He was notorious for having commanded a convict transport on a voyage that was one of the worst in the history of transportation—the Atlas, which, coincidentally, was the same ship that had carried Sir Henry Hayes to Sydney.  Hayes had enjoyed a comfortable passage, as he had bribed Brookes handsomely.  Not so the convicts, who died like the proverbial flies, as Brookes had taken so much speculative cargo on board that there was very little room for his official freight of felons.  Not only were their crammed quarters filthy, as no one could get in there to clean them, but the captain had saved money on the rations he was supposed to supply, so the hapless prisoners were being starved, as well.  When the ship finally arrived at Port Jackson, there were corpses lying dead and rotting in their shackles, and other convicts, hoisted out, died on the way to the hospital. Brookes had not been put on trial, and had evidently learned better ways, as the transports he had commanded since had delivered their convicts in reasonable health, but still people looked at him askance.

Another Scottish army officer was at the table. This was twenty-two year old Lieutenant Richard Lundin, who seemed formal and correct in manners. His behavior was suspect, however, because without any kind of polite delay he took one of the four female convicts on board as his mistress.  These convicts were returning to England after working out their sentences—obviously, they had earned the money for their passage in the currency-poor settlement, but the question was, how?  It looked very much as if they were ladies of the night, as people termed it then.

And, there was the captain of the Isabella, a man by the name of George Higton. He not only had a brooding way of muttering to himself, but was evidently overfond of the bottle. And he, like Lundin, immediately took one of the female ex-convicts, Mrs. Bindell by name, into his berth. A very suspect lot, indeed. Lurking in the background was a malignant stowaway, ex-navy man William Mattinson, who was running away to avoid huge debts, though no one, including Joanna, knew about his presence, yet.  There is the added fact, too, that Joanna Durie was seven months pregnant.  As future events proved, however, she was a lady who was fully capable of looking after herself.

Joanna had met her current husband, Captain Robert Durie, back in March, 1809, when his battalion paused at the Isle of Wight, on the way from Scotland to New South Wales. Joanna, whose maiden name had been Taylor, was the widow of a Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm Nugent Ross, of the 71st Regiment of Foot, who had reportedly died in 1806.  What attracted her to Durie is very hard to tell. The army, like the navy of the time, was a very snobbish service, and her dead husband had been a lieutenant-colonel, which was a much higher rank than that of lieutenant, which was all Robert Durie could boast at the time—and a purchased rank, at that.  And New South Wales was a long way away, and had a very bad reputation, it being widely known that men were paid in ardent spirits there, rather than in money, so that drunken sprees were very common. And, while a decent lady like Joanna might have expected that soldiers were sent there to quell all this, it was commonly known that not only did the New South Wales corps countenance the trade in liquor, but they had cornered the market and were making fortunes out of it, which was why they were known as the Rum Corps.

But, despite all these drawbacks, Joanna Ann Taylor Ross agreed to wed Robert Durie, and a hurried ceremony was held on April 22, after what must have been a very swift courtship, unless they were old acquaintances. That Durie was considered a very weak and ineffectual man, while Joanna was considered to be as impressive as a tigress, is probably significant. While it is impossible to tell why she was so keen to sail away from England, there must have been some compelling reason, for that is exactly what she did, leaving behind the two children she had had with Lieutenant-Colonel Ross, presumably with relatives. But now, almost exactly two years after arriving in Sydney, she was due to return to Britain.

Captain Higton steered for Cape Horn, steering south of Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land, as it was known then), and almost as far south as the Antarctic convergence,  flying east on the breast of the gales of latitude fifty south.  A cluster of tiny sub-Antarctic islands lay in his path, notorious as the graveyard of ships, but he pressed on regardless.  It was Campbell Island that almost spelled the demise of the Isabella—to everyone’s surprise when they rushed onto deck at one in the morning in response to the panicked shouts of the seamen, it was to find that Richard Brookes had taken over command, because Higton did not seem capable.

With such a grim augury of the future, no one should really have been surprised when the ship ran ashore at Eagle Island in the Falklands, on February 14, 1813.  Captain Higton had only just arrived on deck when the lookout shouted Rocks to port! —he having been snoring drunk in the arms of Mrs. Bindell.  Another shout, this time of Breakers to starboard! —and then a tremendous crash and such a hard bump that everyone on board fell over.

“General” Joseph Holt’s published memoir describes him sinking to his knees and imploring Providence for a kindly intercession, while his wife Hester exclaimed, “Let us all, linked in each others’ arms, go to our watery graves together!”  This, however, has to be taken with a huge spoon of salt.  Not only was Holt’s memoir self-serving, with a lot of self-aggrandizing fabrications, but the man who edited it for publication in 1838,Thomas Crofton Croker, was a fairytale reteller who was fond of adapting stories for the edification of the pious and genteel.  And he openly admitted that he adapted this one a lot, the writer being "barely literate. The reviewer in the Dublin University Magazine summed it up as a farrago of lies. During his checkered career in the penal settlement of New South Wales, he wrote, "if Holt is to be credited, he had the luck to fall in with more unmerited persecution than any individual since the days of the martyrs."  But the reviewer had no intention of noticing it any further. End of story.

So, back in 1813, when these events were actually happening, it is much more likely that Holt was on deck helping sort out the chaos up there, instead of humbly down on his knees. If there (and not cowering on his cabin floor), he would have found that Captain  Brookes had taken over the command again, and had ordered the yards to be squared so that the ship could be run up on a beach. The ship’s carpenter was stationed by the main mast backstay with an ax, and the instant the Isabella ground up onto the sand, he hacked it through with three mighty blows. The main mast fell with a groan, the far end settling on a rock, and making a bridge from the ship to the shore.  

The Isabella stilled. There was a fraught pause—and the marines and seamen lurched completely out of control, intent on raiding the liquor stores and getting sodden drunk.  The only sane note was struck by young Lieutenant Lundin, who set to launching the ship’s boat, with the unexpected assistance of the drunken stowaway, Mattinson. But no sooner was it being held ready for the women and children, than Mattinson and Sir Henry Hayes shoved to the front of the crowd, and with two of the other drunkards they commandeered the boat.  Then, when they got to the beach, they abandoned it and headed off into the darkness, leaving all their fellow castaways stranded.

So it was a case of waiting for daylight, and for the tide to go down. It was now that Joanna Durie must have heartily rued the fact that she was heavily pregnant, a burden to herself as well as the others. However, with the aid of a bo’sun’s chair, she was manoeuvered on shore, to be joined by her little girl, Agnes, and the other women. Being resourceful, she had carried a bottle of rum with her, so that when her husband and Joseph Holt found her presiding on a hillock where the other females were huddled, she was able to offer them a bracing tot of liquor. Being also very conscious of social niceties, Joanna politely apologized for the lack of fresh water to mix with the rum, a running stream having not been located as yet. But no one complained, certainly not the men.

After some polite small talk where Mrs. Durie remarked that the rising sun was revealing country that reminded her much of Scotland, the men finished their rum and set to making a shelter. This was hastily contrived by propping some spars from the wreck between two hillocks, encompassing a hollow, and then draping canvas over them.  Something better was needed soon, Joanna being so near her time, but right now it was a case of rousing the soldiers and sailors from their drunken spree, and getting the castaway party organized. Captain Higton was obviously incapable of taking sole charge, so a council was appointed, composed of Durie, Brookes, Lundin and Holt.  To save the face of their erstwhile shipmaster, Higton was also coopted, though reluctantly, along with his mate, George Davis. 

And so, with the concocting of a set of rules, the camp fell under military-style rule.  The castaways were divided into messes, each of which did their own cooking. Gangs were assembled to empty the wreck of everything edible, drinkable and useful, and the carpenter was set to building up the sides of the ship’s boat, to make it seaworthy.  The soldier who was the best shot was appointed “sportsman” and put in charge of killing off birds for the pot, and then the council turned to the thornier problem of storing the spirits and wine out of the way of the thirsty common men. It was no use putting it in a tent with a sentry on guard, because the sentry simply helped himself, and in the end it was buried, so that the casks could only be tapped with a hand-pump.

Joanna Durie must have watched all this masculine striding about and organizing each other with a growing sense of impatience. Time was passing, the baby was imminent, and she was still living under a sheet of canvas in a hollow between two dunes.  When the sheet of canvas abruptly collapsed during dinner time, weighted down with water from the pouring rain, she gave vent to furious bout of weeping.  The prospect of giving birth on a pitching ship in the South Atlantic had been bad enough, but now, because of that incompetent drunken sot, Higton, she was condemned to give birth on a plank in a muddy tent!

As Holt (through his editor) phrased it in his published memoir, “The poor lady was now near her time of lying-in, and had nothing but the cold and wet turf for the floor of her apartment. I endeavoured to comfort her, and told her that God had already been gracious, and saved all our lives, and was able, and would provide for her in her necessity.”  How Joanna received this pious platitude can only be guessed, but Holt, much more practically, then promised to build her a decent hut. “With His help, madam,” he said, “I will have a house raised for you by this time on Tuesday next.”

As this was Sunday, February 14, 1813, and Tuesday was only two days away, it’s little wonder that Joanna simply stared, “as did her husband and Captain Brookes.”  However, Holt was as good as his word. Going out right away, he found a site with plenty of solid turf, which he (with probably a lot more help than he claimed he had) cut into sods—four-inch thick blocks of thickly rooted turf, each one measuring about one foot by two. The cleared area was raked and levelled, and then walled in with the sod bricks, which were stacked in staggered rows, each one with the grass side down. “At night I had the walls up of a cabin twenty feet long, ten wide, and seven high,” he remembered. The sergeant of marines was requisitioned to go out to the wreck and fetch some spars and deck boards, and with these Holt framed the walls, and put up a ridge-pole, to which he nailed rafters.  The timber was waterproofed with pitch, and then three good sails, also purloined from the wreck, were spread over the rafters to make a roof, “which, pegged strongly down, was secured from being blown off by the wind.”

The cabin, now closed in except for a doorway, was floored with more deck planks, “and, having removed the stove from the ship, and cut a hole for the funnel, I brought coals out of the wreck, and one of the cabin tables, with a few chairs. By three o’clock,” he went on lyrically, “the table-cloth was spread in the new habitation, and we sat down happily to dinner, and many a grateful bumper was drank, with thanks to me for what I had done.”

Holt’s timing was perfect—it was Tuesday. “Mrs. Durie, I am sure, would speak of me to this hour with gratitude,” he smugly concluded.  

Providence castaway camp

 That Joseph Holt was exaggerating is evidenced by the fact that other huts were going up at the same time, each mess having their own shelter, resulting in a small village called Providence, complete with a provision store that was built over the liquor dump.  While Holt could well have been the project manager, it is likely that he was just one of a large building party.  And, naturally, his own house was a particularly fine one, with two bedrooms as well as an outdoor kitchen, which last he shared with the Duries.

Whatever the circumstances, Joanna’s cabin was finished in good time, as she had five days to settle in before the first contractions started. Naturally, Holt had a great deal to say about the lying in, meditating that “my wife and myself felt very deeply for a lady in Mrs. Durie’s uncomfortable state, and our feelings of pity and regret were much increased by the recollection, that a lady who had been reared with every tender care, and who had been accustomed to every attention, should be confined under a bank in a turf bog, without the comforts of house and home, and with no assistance but from God and Mrs. Holt.”

Then, having braced himself with a glass of wine, Holt invited Captain Brookes out for a walk. Joanna Durie, being a lady with three confinements behind her, just got along with the job, with the result that Holt and Brookes were able to return just ninety minutes later to find her safely delivered of a girl. This was yet another occasion for a hearty bumper, as the two men “enjoyed ourselves proclaiming the young lady queen of the island, as the first-born there, and declaring her name to be Ann Providence Durie.” The baby certainly was the first to be born on the uninhabited island, and her second name was indeed Providence, but her name was in fact Eliza.

Meantime, the carpenter and his mates had finished building up the sides of the longboat, and giving her a deck, so Holt and Brookes walked out that very same day to enjoy another round of hearty toasts. “All hands went down to where the boat lay, and we launched her off the stocks; after all her stores were on board I brought down a bottle of rum to christen her, and you may be assured I filled my glass, and drank prosperity to FAITH AND HOPE.”  The stores consisted of three months’ worth of provisions, and she was commanded by Captain Brookes, who had a crew of five—George Davis, who had been the mate of the Isabella, Lieutenant Lundin, a marine by the name of Joseph Woolley, “Anthony the Irishman, as he could speak different languages,” and an unnamed American.

“She hoisted her sails, and went to sea. We prayed for her success, as she was all the hope we had to get our lives safe off from these islands,” wrote Holt. That success was perceived as being crucial.  So dependent were they all on the outcome of the Faith and Hope venture that the mood about the village became more and more glum as the weeks went by and the longboat never returned.  But then, on April 4, a vessel hove into sight.  She was not the Faith and Hope, however, for she was bigger, sturdier, and was flying the American flag.

The visitor was a shallop, a small, sturdy vessel with a shallow draft and a single mast that was fore-and-aft rigged. As Holt soon learned, she was the tender of  the sealing brig Nanina, which had sailed from New York in April 1812, with no less than five captains on the quarterdeck.  These were Captain Valentine Barnard (the official commander of the Nanina) and his son, Captain Charles Barnard, both originally from Nantucket; Captain Edmund Fanning of Massachusetts (nephew of the famous Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut), Captain Andrew Hunter of Rhode Island, and Captain Barzillai Pease. originally from Martha’s Vineyard.  

They were embarked on a commercial venture, to assess the potential of the seal rookeries of the south Atlantic. There had been quarrels on board, which was only to be expected with five captains all trying to exert their individual wills, but since arriving in the Falklands in September 1812, and building the shallop from pre-cut pieces in the hold, they had been doing pretty well. The prospects were so good, in fact, that the news of the outbreak of war between the United States and Britian had failed to deter them from carrying on.  

While three captains were on board of the shallop, the one currently in command of the tender was Charles Barnard. As he recorded in his narrative later, the shallop was exploring the coast of Eagle Island, when the lookout drew attention to what looked like a flagstaff on a hillock in the middle. “We immediately repaired on deck,” he wrote; “and in a few moments eight or ten persons were observed on the beach, and as many more were rapidly coming from the direction of the flag-staff towards the same place: among the latter party, to our great surprise, we noticed a female.”

Reassuringly, in view of the fact that the Americans were worried about blundering into enemy Spaniards, Charles also saw some British uniforms— “I began to devise the most effectual means of aiding these unfortunates,” he wrote, “whom I now onjectured to have belonged to some British man-of-war, which had been cast away on this desolate island.”  Their country and his might be at war, but as far as Charles Barnard was concerned, that made no difference—”as I felt assured that by rendering them this assistance I would bind them to me, by the strongest ties of gratitude.”

This, at first, was accepted in the spirit in which it was intended. As Charles Barnard recorded, “Gen. Holt, (formerly of the Irish patriots) and Capt. Durie of the 73d regiment” came on board and spun a long tale “of their deplorable situation: that as winter was approaching, in that inhospitable climate, their only shelter was temporary huts, formed of pieces of wreck and sails; that they found no other means of subsistence, but what few provisions they had saved from the ship”—which, in view of the fact that the village sportsman had been steadily wiping out the island’s bird life, and that sea elephants had been killed in great numbers for their edible tongues, was varnishing the truth with a vengeance.

Joseph Holt invited the three captains who were on board the shallop— Fanning, Hunter and Charles Barnard—to his house “at Newtown Providence, as I had called the little settlement.” Then he ran to Joanna Durie to warn her to get ready for visitors. As usual, Joanna was up to the challenge, producing a well cooked meal, which she served out daintily, with decanters of wine and spirits to wash the feast down, all of which must have surprised the Americans, after the tale of privation that they had heard. She also chatted most entertainingly, regaling the captains with uncharitable anecdotes about her fellow castaways—”These outlines were generally given by Mrs. Durie with great spirit and humour,” wrote Charles Barnard, who declined to quote her exact words, her comments being “too deeply shaded to rely on the honour of those described.”

After spending the night in one of Holt’s bedrooms, Charles explored the village. “The huts were erected on a high bluff, about a cable’s length from the wreck; there were twelve or fourteen of these miserable shelters placed in the form of a square; the building, or larger hut, called by them the store-house, containing what provisions, wine, etc. they had saved from the ship, was placed in the centre. The sides of these tenements were constructed of dry tussock or bogs; the rafters of small spars or pieces of the wreck, and covered with sails or the skins of seals.”  Out of politeness, Barnard visited Captain Higton in his hut, where he found he approved of his “chere amie,” Mrs. Bindell. But then, after a short conversation in which Higton contributed only the words yes and no, the captain of the Isabella wreck pointedly reminded the American that breakfast should be awaiting him at Mrs. Durie’s house. So, Charles, feeling undeservedly snubbed, took his leave.

Having eaten, Charles Barnard and the other Americans declared their intention to board the shallop, earnestly promising that the instant they got back to the Nanina they would let their shipmates know about the castaways and the wreck—at which point their hostess burst into tears.  Joanna wanted to go too—”as she would prefer all the dangers and hardships she might encounter in our small vessel, to remaining on the island.”  With old Nantucket gallantry, Charles Barnard “offered to take her, with her family and all her efects, immediately on board the shallop, and though it was not my calculation to return so soon, yet we would bend our course of sealing towards the brig, in which she could remain until our departure, when we would convey them to the United States.”

Holt wanted the same arrangement, but there simply was not enough room for his family and his servants. To soothe the Irishman’s outrage, Charles Barnard said he would do his best to make up for it. Indeed, in view of the castaways’ perilous situation, with winter coming on, perhaps the sealing voyage could be abandoned, and the Nanina come from the distant island where she was anchored to collect them all—despite the fact that their countries were at war. All he asked in recompense was salvage rights to the wreck of the Isabella—barring any private goods, of course.

  That, the castaways all agreed, was very fair indeed—but were the United States and Britian really at war?  Surely not!  Charles assured them that it was indeed the case, and even made a formal announcement of the fact after the disbelieving population of the village had been lined up in ranks to listen. “The disclosure did not appear to make any alteration in the minds of the crew and passengers”—with the distinct exception of Sir Henry Hayes, who immediately proposed the seizure of the shallop as a prize, and then forcing the Americans to carry them to England.  This was received by all the rest with utter contempt, as Charles Barnard noticed, and so he dismissed it from his mind.

Joanna Durie still insisted on sailing with the shallop, so Charles, as gallant as ever, instructed his crew to stockpile their seal skins on shore, to make room for the Durie luggage. Then he gave his cabin a quick tidy up, and handed it over to the Durie family.  He even took on board one of the convict women, Lundin’s mistress Mary Ann Spencer,  to act as Joanna’s servant, plus Mrs. Hughes, the marine drummer’s wife, to help with the children. Then, after recruiting a few of the Isabella’s sailors to help with the Nanina, which needed re-rigging, he sailed, leaving Captains Fanning and Hunter on the island with a gang, to get on with salvaging what they could from the wreck.

Disastrously, on the way to the Nanina they picked up a small boat.  It was the Isabella’s jolly boat, which had been recklessly taken to sea just days earlier, by the stowaway, Thomas Mattinson, with two boys and a marine. What would have happened to them if the shallop had not come by?  When Mattinson was asked, he merely looked stupied, saying, “God only knows, but who are you, and what am I aboard of?” before going below and getting beastly drunk on the wine Charles Barnard had stowed for the Durie family. As Joanna Durie promptly told the American, when she came onto deck and found him, he had made a terrible mistake.

Mattinson’s behavior confirmed the “debased and brutal mind” that Joanna had described.  Somehow, he contrived to be constantly intoxicated, to such an extent that Durie suggested putting him and his companions down in the jolly boat again. Barnard, who had overheard Mattinson wondering aloud how American prize money would drink, was inclined the same way, but Mattinson’s three companions begged so hard not to be forced to sail with him again that Charles Barnard relented.

Barnard had more pressing things on his mind, as well.  The wind and vicious weather were constantly against him, so that it was impossible to beat to the inlet where the Nanina was anchored. Finally, in desperation, he dropped anchor at Arch Island Harbor, on the opposite side of the island to where the brig Nanina lay at her anchors, and proposed that most of the complement should walk across the intervening land, leaving the shallop in the care of the Durie complement and one foremast hand. 

After spending the night on the brig Nanina to explain the complicated situation to his father, Valentine Barnard, Charles trekked back to the shallop, with just one seaman as his companion.  Then, with just two seamen—the one he had left behind with the Duries, and the man he had brought with him—and Durie and the drummer to help, Charles Barnard sailed the shallop about the island to the inlet where the Nanina was being hastily re-rigged.  By all accounts it was a very pleasant excursion, with a walk on the beach and a demonstration in seal killing (though the ladies were squeamish about watching the skinning), and a couple of days shooting geese and wild pigs on Swan Island, enjoyed by all, Charles Barnard in particular, but it set a very unfortunate precedent for the future.

By mid-May, the brig was nearly ready, so the Barnards and Barzillai Pease had a meeting and decided to send the shallop to Eagle Island, with men to help with the salvage of the Isabella wreck. Because the American seamen knew the terrain, which the Englishmen did not, all the sealers save one went on the tender, leaving the Nanina with just five Americans on board, three of them captains, and one very old. To finish the work, twelve Isabella men remained behind, meaning that the Americans were badly outnumbered. And, disastrously, one of the Englishmen who remained behind was the brutish stowaway.

Not unexpectedly, it was Mattinson who first made trouble.  Marching up to Barnard on the quarterdeck after Charles had spent three days trying to work the Nanina out of the inlet, he boasted that he could sail the brig himself, an act of mutiny that warranted summoning Captain Durie and having Mattinson put under arrest.  Once the mutinous Englishman was confined in irons below, Charles finally managed to beat out to open sea—to meet even worse weather. The brig was blown back and forth, from one nerve-wracking bay or island to the next.  Joanna Durie was violently seasick, and Barnard felt so sorry for her that he dropped anchor at New Island, and went ashore to dig potatoes from an old sealer’s garden that he had seen there, for which she was properly grateful.

Once there, though, they were trapped. The weather remained awful, and so they had to remain at anchor, a long way from their objective. The three American captains and Captain Durie held a meeting, in which they “deemed it proper to remain on the island a few weeks, rather than encounter the risk of proceeding to sea in this tempestuous season.”  Accordingly, three anchors were dropped, the brig was snugged down, and everyone set their minds to the long wait for good weather. Then Charles Barnard decided to put the time to good use by taking a hunting party to Beaver Island, a few miles south, to collect provisions for the long voyage after all the castaways had been taken on board.

On May 11, he set out with four volunteers—one American seaman, and three sailors from the Isabella.  And, as soon as their boat was out of sight, Thomas Mattinson led a party of armed marines to the quarterdeck, where he marched up to Valentine Barnard and demanded that the Nanina should be taken to sea, leaving Charles and his four men marooned.  Valentine appealed to Captain Durie for law and order, but the British officer—who was supposed to be in charge of the marines—declined to put down this blatant mutiny, and so Mattinson and Durie’s marines set to work with a will, briskly setting up the topmasts and the sails. On June 13 the weather moderated, and the anchors were weighed, much to the agitation of Captains Pease and Barnard—Valentine Barnard in particular, because his son and the four men with him had not made a reappearance.  Finally, however, he agreed to pilot the brig to Eagle Island, but only on the condition that they called at Beaver Island for his son and his men.

Robert Durie’s word was worthless. When they got abreast of the island, Mattinson simply ordered the crew to sail on, and when Valentine Barnard violently and desperately protested, Captain Durie and Joanna looked at each other, shrugged, and spread their hands. The Nanina kept on for Eagle Island, while Captains Barnard and Pease, with the one American seaman, tried to plot ways to retake the brig once they arrived there.  Their relief when they saw their shallop beating out toward them must have been great—but no sooner had the brig’s tender arrived alongside than it proved to be full of British navy sailors, who stormed the decks of the Nanina, bringing a British navy officer who formally claimed the brig as a prize of war. 

And so Charles Barnard’s fate was sealed. He and his four men were marooned on Beaver Island with few provisions, no wreck to ransack for building materials, and the icy southern winter coming on—the first of two grim winters, for he was not rescued from the ordeal until the day two English whaleships arrived, in November 1814.

For the background for this second act of treachery, the story has to go back to February 21, 1813, the day that Joanna Durie’s baby was born, and also the day that the built-up longboat, Faith and Hope, tacked away from the island.

According to the narrative of the open boat voyage that was written by Lieutenant Lundin, they first of all tacked about both West and East Falkland, hoping in vain to find a settlement. Finally giving that up as a bad job, they made up their minds to steer for the River Plate, which they successfully fetched on 26 March. At first the locals on the beach treated them badly, shoving them around and pilfering their few possessions, but then Lundin had the brainwave of donning his bright red uniform jacket, and the men who had been hassling them cringed away.

One of them ran off to fetch some soldiers, who arrived with an English-speaking officer. He explained that the castaways had blundered into the middle of a local war, and that he and his men were fighting the Royalist forces in Montevideo. Taken to the revolutionary camp, Lundin was introduced to the man in charge, General Rondiou, who not only offered to send the castaways into Montevideo under a flag of truce, but also imparted the interesting tidbit that there was a British frigate stationed in Buenos Aires.

This was a lot better prospect than being bandied about warring forces in a conflict the Englishmen knew nothing about, so it was back to the boat, and the passage to Buenos Aires. There, they met the lively assistance of Lieutenant William D’Aranda, who, despite his Spanish-sounding name, was the commander of His Majesty’s gun-brig Nancy, which arrived the day after they got there. The brig had limped into port in a dismasted condition, having weathered a very nasty storm, but the British Navy lived up to its reputation for efficiency, and she was speedily repaired, manned and provisioned, and then sent out with Lieutenant Lundin as the pilot.

After a very stormy passage they arrived at Eagle Island on May 16, to find, as Lundin described, “most of the people absent, a shallop belonging to an American brig having approached the island in search of seal skins, and having given up every hope with respect to the safety of the boat, they entered into an agreement with them to carry them off the island; and all the able hands were now absent fitting the brig, which lay among some of the islands at some distance, to bring her round to carry them off.”

Joseph Holt, who had been living “very merrily” with Captains Fanning and Hunter, was out walking with Andrew Hunter on the afternoon that the Nancy materialized in the bay. At first they both thought it was the Nanina, “but Captain Hunter, when he looked at her through his spy-glass, saw that she was an armed vessel.” Matters deteriorated even further after Lieutenant D’Aranda stepped on shore, marched up to Hunter, and told him to consider himself a prisoner of war.

This took Holt considerably aback. As he said, “Here was an upside-down turn in the ministry, which put us all in a quandary, for much as I wished for a deliverance from Eagle Island, I regretted that any thing unfortunate should happen to those who had so well treated us, and who had acted in every respect like men and Christians.” He was inclined to think badly of Lieutenant Lundin, who had not just piloted the gun-brig to the island, but had given him the details of these Americans who had done their best to save the castaways. “I could not help thinking this a hard case, considering their conduct to distressed British subjects.”

Captain Hunter responded to his arrest with remarkable aplomb. “Very well,” he said with a shrug. “Many a good man has been a prisoner.”  Joseph Holt recovered well too, inviting Laudin and D’Aranda to his house, where Hester Holt had a tea ready, and a decanter of wine was produced. Next day, Holt went on board the Nancy, to be puffed up with pride when he saw the crew all aloft, overhauling the rigging after the rough passage,  a sight he mistook to be the manning of the yards that was the usual compliment to an admiral or a general. After that, feeling much more at home with the strange social situation, he was unmoved when the shallop returned, and the Americans who had been sent here to help with the salvage were arrested.

The Nanina was spied coming into the harbor in the early morning of June 15, to be met by the shallop and overrun by a British party. The British marines were greatly surprised to find that the brig was already in British hands, but Lieutenant D’Aranda did not seem to think that Mattinson’s act of piracy was reprehensible in the slightest—though there was some argument when Mattinson reckoned that he, not D’Aranda, was entitled to the prize money. Valentine Barnard and Barzillai Pease were duly arrested as prisoners of war, and then brought on shore to be housed with their fellow captains in Holt’s house.

Despite the overcrowding, “I felt for them, with all my heart,” said Holt; “and tried to make them as comfortable as I could, in their misfortune.”  He felt particularly sorry for Valentine Barnard, who  lost his son as well as his ship—”I think that leaving these men on the island, was a disgrace to the British flag, and much worse in every respect than the seizure of the Nanina, considering the humane service on which she was employed,” he wrote, but at the time he kept his mouth shut, it not being politic to express an opinion.

 Joseph Holt and his family were assigned to the Nancy for the voyage to England, but he made sure of an opportunity to visit Joanna Durie on the Nanina. Their benefactors had been treated dismally, he found—”plundered of their feather-beds, which were ripped open, and the feathers let fly away with the wind, and boat sails made of the ticken.” While it might have been a revelation to Holt that American sealers slept in such luxury, it was evident that they had put the feathers of the birds they had shot and eaten to good use—and, to an Irishman, who came from a country where a featherbed was considered an acceptable marriage dowry, this was a scandal.  Worse still, the Americans had had their grog stopped, and their other rations halved, even though they were forced to work—”which I always thought was contrary to the treatment of prisoners of war, but the longer a man lives the more he learns.”

What Joanna Durie did not tell him is that, as opportunistic and resourceful as ever, she had joined in the looting as soon as she had realized where the power in the camp now stood.  As the American captains reported later, she rifled Charles Barnard’s chest in the confusion, after D’Aranda declared a prize of war, and then graciously presented the instruments to the British commander, in an endeavor to curry favor.  Not knowing this, Holt then applied to D’Aranda to sail on the Nanina instead of the Nancy, and the English captain agreed, though very reluctantly. If Holt had done this because he thought the entertaining Mrs. Durie would be good company at the cabin table, he was gravely mistaken, and the Duries sailed on the Nancy, and Holt’s companions were Lieutenant Lundin and Lundin’s mistress, Mary Ann Spencer, who had already been on the brig a rather long time, as Joanna’s servant. The American captains were on board as well, but they were forced to live in the hold.

The Nanina sailed on July 27, straight into a gale of wind—and it was then that Holt found that the brig was without nautical instruments, not even being equipped with a compass, because of Joanna’s thievery.  If it had not been for the pilotage of “that fine old fellow,” Valentine Barnard, and the exertions of the American seamen, the brig would have been lost.  As it was, it was a close-run thing. When the prize-master, Midshipman John Marsh, tried to enter the River Plate, as instructed by D’Aranda, the sealing brig was blown far out to sea, instead.  When the storm subsided the brig was nearer Rio de Janeiro, so he steered for that port instead.

Rio was finally fetched on August 23, and once at anchor, the American captains came on deck. “I shook hands with them, and thanked them for all the service they had done me,” said Holt, and then offered to carry letters on shore.  This was gratefully accepted by the three captains, a development that proved to be very bad luck for D’Aranda, who was meantime steering the Nancy, with the Duries on board, to Montevideo.  Letters were written to General Thomas Sumpter, the United States Minister of Plenipotentiary, and after Holt had given them to him, he consulted with the British Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Dixon. They both agreed that it was a very bad show, and Dixon vowed to do something about it. Accordingly, Admiral Dixon marched on board and released the sealing captains, who went on shore and sought out the American commercial agent, who witnessed their swearing of a formal protest that went all the way to the Department of State.

On the gun brig Nancy the Duries were having a very rough passage, but at least the brig made it to Montevideo, though with half the crew down with scurvy. There, Joanna and Robert and their two daughters took passage to Scotland, where they took up residence in Edinburgh.  The little girl who had been born on Eagle Island was christened Eliza Providence Durie the following year, in February 1814, when she was just one year old. Months later, so tardily that there must be some unknown reason for it, Joanna and Robert Durie wrote a letter to the Admiralty, commending Lieutenant D’Aranda, “this meritorious officer to whose determined perseverance in surmounting every obstacle towards effecting our relief we are so much indebted.”

By great coincidence, the Secretary of the Admiralty at the time was the same Mr. Croker who edited Joseph Holt’s semi-literate memoir some years later.  He already knew a great deal about the Isabella affair when the Duries’ letter arrived, probably not just because he had read so many affidavits, but also because he had heard the story verbally from Holt himself, the “General” being one of his neighbors in Ireland.  Curtly noting on the letter  that “their Lordships have already been informed of Lieutenant D’Aranda’s conduct,” he set it aside.

People were to be informed of Robert Durie’s conduct, too.  It was November 1814, and Charles Barnard, one of the most famous castaways in history, was about to be rescued from the sub-Antarctic—free to publish his opinion of “the baseness, the treachery and barbarity of a Higton, a Durie, and his sentimental lady, who, to obtain her desires, was equally willing to call to her aid a tear, or a bayonet.”  Barnard was convinced that Robert Durie—whom he called “Sir Jerry”—was behind Mattinson’s seizure of the brig, and the abandonment of the four men who were hunting on Beaver Island.  He, Barnard claimed, was the ringleader—”Fourteen armed Royal marines had been placed under his command,” but did he lift a finger to prevent the treachery? No, he did not.

Behind Durie was the malign influence of his wife—”This contemptible Sir Jerry had surrendered all his manliness to his lady wife, for safekeeping, for the sake of being occasionally warm at a dinner party or review,” Charles wrote. “He had emasculated himself in feeling, and was a mere puppet that moved as she pulled the strings, so it was she that actually held the balance ... Madam Durie governed the automaton Durie, he the marines, and they the sailors and passengers.”  Perhaps, he went on bitterly, the British Government would applaud their action in countenancing both the seizure of the Nanina and the abandoning of the five men, and maybe even put up a monument in Westminster Abbey—”But I am perfectly willing that the infamy of their conduct shall be divided between the chicken-hearted Durie and his lion-hearted wife.”

 The future was to prove that Joanna Durie remained as opportunistic as ever.  When, she was widowed for the second time, in 1825, she had no hesitation in calling on the aid Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the Commander in Chief of the Army, by reminding him of her great ordeal on Eagle Island. 

“On 10 February, 1813, our ship was wrecked on one of the uninhabited Falkland Islands in the Pacific and on 20th I was delivered of my eldest daughter which circumstances connected with our forlorn situation rendered my case the more extraordinary to compassion,” she fluently wrote.  And now, as she frankly admitted, she needed money—”Your Memorialist concludes in the hope that your Royal Highness will take her memorial into consideration and grant her with her four children such pension as your Royal Highness may think proper.”

Whether she got her pension or not is lost to history, but that she was still willing “to call to her aid a tear” is yet another demonstration that Joanna Durie was as dogged a survivor as Charles Barnard himself.

SourcesWreck of the Isabella by David Miller (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995) is a well-researched and thoroughly entertaining account of the wreck and its aftermath, and provides excellent background to the setting, the ships, and the major characters.  I also used Joseph Holt’s Memoirs of Joseph Holt, edited by Thomas Crofton Croker, and published in London in 1838, which is readily available on the internet.  Caution had to be taken, as the memoir was not just semi-literate, but also very self-serving, Holt being a very vain, touchy character who insisted on portraying himself as the great hero. Additionally, the editor took great liberties with the manuscript, to make Holt seemed better educated and more genteel (and perhaps a lot more pious) than he actually was. There is a more accurate version of Holt’s memoir, A Rum Story, edited by Peter O’Shaughnessy (Australia: Kangaroo Press, 1988), but unfortunately it covers only his thirteen years in New South Wales. Also see the entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Charles H. Barnard published an account of the wreck and his ordeal after marooning in 1836, as A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures….  This has been edited and published with a commentary by Bertha S. Dodge, as Marooned, being a Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures …(New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986). I used the original version.

Wreck of the Isabella by David Miller (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995) is a well-researched and thoroughly entertaining account of the wreck and its aftermath, and provides excellent background to the setting, the ships, and the major characters.  I also used Joseph Holt’s Memoirs of Joseph Holt, edited by Thomas Crofton Croker, and published in London in 1838, which is readily available on the internet.  Caution had to be taken, as the memoir was not just semi-literate, but also very self-serving, Holt being a very vain, touchy character who insisted on portraying himself as the great hero. Additionally, the editor took great liberties with the manuscript, to make Holt seemed better educated and more genteel (and perhaps a lot more pious) than he actually was. There is a more accurate version of Holt’s memoir, A Rum Story, edited by Peter O’Shaughnessy (Australia: Kangaroo Press, 1988), but unfortunately it covers only his thirteen years in New South Wales. Also see the entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Charles H. Barnard published an account of the wreck and his ordeal after marooning in 1836, as A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures….  This has been edited and published with a commentary by Bertha S. Dodge, as Marooned, being a Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures …(New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986). I used the original version.

Sunday, March 3, 2024



This charming looking fellow has quite a history. Not only did he not keep a workmanlike logbook, but he went in from the slavery trade, plus bilking the owners of the vessel.

Thomas James M’Grath was born 23 October 1815 in Concord, New South Wales, and married Elizabeth Folley on an unknown date.  He died in Papeete, Tahiti, on 13 June, 1882, after a particularly notorious whaling career.

Capt. M’Grath sailed from Hobart on the brig 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 M’Grath 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. (from Will Lawson, Blue Gum Clippers and Whale Ships of Tasmania (1949) p. 73-75.)

A rather different version of the story was published by the Mercury of Hobart on 22 February 1864.


THE long absence of the whaling brig Grecian, belonging to the estate of Mrs Seal, of this port, has been the subject of much comment of late among seafaring men. Strange to say, however, she and her captain have now just turned up in a most extrordinary manner at Invercargill, in the province of Southland, New Zealand.

On the 23rd of January Captain M'Grath appeared in one of the courts in Southland, to claim the sum of £37 17s 10d. from Messrs Maning and Whitton, the agents for the vessel at Invercargill, which issued in a verdict for the defendants with costs, and the following are the comments of the local press on the case : —

The case of M'Grath against Maning and Whitton, which occupied during the whole of Thursday the Magistrates' Court at the Bluff, was in many respects an important one; and it will doubtless attract, as it deserves, a large amount of attention in the southern ports having an interest in whaling enterprise. We have scrupulously abstained from commenting upon the dispute between the owners and the late commander of the brig Grecian, whilst litigation was pending. The conduct imputed to Captain M'Grath was of so extraordinary a character, and his denial of the charges against him was so open and bold, that we deemed it the better course to allow the real facts to be disclosed through the medium of a judicial investigation.

The story that has now been told is not one open to suspicion or discredit. It comes from the lips of Captain M'Grath himself. During an examination extending over several hours, and conducted, we are bound to say, with moderation and with no desire to press home the case too harshly, he favored the Court with a narrative of seafaring adventure during a period of two years, such as has few parallels in maritime annals. The Grecian left Hobart Town in December, 1861, on a whaling voyage, but during the long period she was out, seems to have pursued only during rare and infinitesimally brief intervals the legitimate traffic of a whaler. The captain, at a very early period of the voyage, solaced himself with female society on board and "Mrs Mac," alias Mrs Procter, figures in the log book, from which the apparently less important matters of ship's latitude and longitude are systematically omitted. 

The Chatham Islands, Norfolk Island, the Fijees, and other picturesque localities were visited, and Captain M'Grath, according to his own account, had a prosperous as well as a pleasant time of it — not troubling himself much with the business of whaling, but obtaining large supplies from the islands of vegetables, live stock, &c., &c., for "a consideration," the nature of which does not very distinctly appear. He seems, however, to have been blessed with a multitude of kind friends, singularly ubiquitious, in some of these remote habitations of humanity, by whose liberal presents his stores were timely replenished. It was unfortunate for Captain M'Grath's owners that he failed to fall in with whales, which were probably not in the habit of frequenting the pleasant anchorages he resorted to. More fortunately for himself, however, he fell in with no end of pigs, potatoes, cocoanuts, and other acceptable things. Upon one little episode Captain M'Grath has failed to be as explicit as was necessary to complete the romance of his story. We hope yet to learn something more of the cargo of native islanders favored with a passage on board the Grecian. An awkward suspicion attaches to all deportations of islanders of the South Seas, requiring passages in bodies of forty or fifty.

The wanderings, however, of the Grecian and Captain M'Grath had an end, and the two years' cruise in search of "eligibles" terminated for a season in the establishment of a little principality in Stewart's Island; "Mrs Mac" — the accumulated stock of pigs, cows, and potatoes; certain serviceable fittings, &c., being landed to assist in the work. As adverse fate would have it, Captain M'Grath's pleasant wanderings and romantic settlement have had a sequel not altogether of so agreeable a character. Certain rights of his "owners," standing in the way of his own too pleasant fancies, have been asserted. The law has affirmed an authority superior to the will of this Quixotic rover. In an unlucky hour he strayed from his principality on Stewart's island, left behind him Mrs Mac, his cows, his pigs, and other accessories of an Arcadian happiness, and stood face to face with the stern magisterial presence at Campbelltown. 

Captain M'Grath's adventures have culminated in an unlooked for catastrophe. He is at present in durance vile; the unwilling guest of Her Majesty, rather than the dispenser of hospitalities in his own little dominions. This whaling skipper's notions of log keeping, will probably be novel to most master mariners. His ideas of a captain's obligations to his owners, will, we believe appear equally unique. His fate may not improbably operate as a warning to other eccentrically disposed adventurers. And the case, or rather the series of cases we report to-day, will satisfy the owners of whalers that there is it least one Southern port where gentlemen of the M'Grath stamp stand a fair chance of being peremptorily brought to book.

The report of the proceedings are too long for insertion and hardly admit of abridgement. The case was heard before the Resident Magistrates Court Campbelltown, the presiding magistrates being J. N. Watt, Esq , and Capt. Ellis. Mr. Harvey appeared for the defendants. Captain McGrath's examination in chief merely went to prove the articles, and the period which the vessel had been out, also that during that time he had taken 1,687 gallons sperm oil and 140 gallons black. The captain was now subjected to a cross-examination by Mr. Harvey, which lasted for several hours. He said he was not part owner of the Grecian. He had been thirty years a master mariner, and nearly twenty years whaling. He had been twenty-two months out on the present voyage, exclusive of the period he had been at the Bluff. At the beginning of the voyage a person named Roberts was his chief mate. He did not keep a ship's log; it is optional who keeps the ship's log. I never saw two logs kept on board ship, one by the chief mate and the other by the master. 

Captain McGrath coutinued :—

This is my log-book; it is the sort of log generally kept on board whaling ships. You may call it what you like. According to my notion it is properly kept. I swear the entries are all true. I was sent out on a whaling voyage. I carried that out to the best of my ability. I began the voyage on or about the 16th or 17th December, 1861. I cannot recollect when we first lost sight of land, it is so long ago. We took our departure on the 21st December. I will not say when Mrs M'Grath came on board; she did not leave Hobart Town with me. She was in Sydney. I did not see any whales on 25th December, 1861. On that day we were in a heavy gale of wind off Jarvis' Bay. I know it by my reckoning, as it is not entered in the log book. On 28th I was in sight of New South Wales, at Jarvis' Bay. I did not land on that day. On 29th we sighted Botany Bay, and cast anchor. I went in there for repairs. On 25th, in a heavy gale of wind, we found the bowsprit sprung — gone in three places. I did not enter that fully in the log. Up to that time I had no person but the crew on board. We remained in Botany Bay from 29th December to the 10th January, 1862. The entry is "employed from 28th to 8th in making repairs." I took a female and child with me from Botany Bay. I had liberty to do so. I was my own master. They were passengers going with me for the voyage. I was not paid for it. The parties did not request me to take them. She was not my wife. Her name was Procter. Her name is not entered.

Counsel read the following entry :— Monday, 10th March— Mrs. Mac went on shore to try her hand at the wash tub. I am sure she will never hear the last of it. She has had no one to pity her, so she has one consolation, she can pity herself. I am truly very sorry for her.

Now, why did you not put in the woman's proper name — Mrs. Proctor.

Witness :— Because I did not think proper to do so. I can't think that is a false entry. I should call her Mrs Mac if I thought proper. There was not a child born on board that vessel.

This is Captain M'Grath's account of an official log, and of his free and easy way of keeping it :— 

An official log does not apply to vessels bound to the fisheries. I did not read the entry over to the men before I put them in irons. I always keep my log book in the same free and easy way. With very few exceptions, I kept the log, and not the chief mate. Very few of them are capable of keeping a log. Many whaling masters cannot take an observation. It is usual for the mastcr to get large supplies of fresh provisions on board during a whaling voyage. I cannot say how many of the crew were on board on 9th May. I do not think the number of men is entered in the log. Up to May, there is only the discharge of one man entered. I think I shipped twenty-nine, all told. On 9th May I took seven tons potatoes, four pigs and a goat. That was all necessary, on the average, for the crew. I paid for them in money and slops. I have not charged for the goat, because I don't know how I got it; I think we caught it running wild. I don't know what I paid for the four pigs. I can't show you under May 8th. I can not say what I paid for potatoes on May 9th. I cannot tell you by the book. I have bought many tons of potatoes for the ship's use, and never charged the owners for them. 

On 26th May I took another pig and two boat loads of potatoes. I cannot say what I paid for them. On 27th I had two more boat loads of potatoes. Eleven tons of potatoes were absolutely necessary for the crew, and were all for the consumption of the crew. After the 27th May, we cruised about for some time. I was novel master of the ship Empire. Parts of the wreck of the Empire I purchased on 7th June for tho uso of the Grecian. I paid £16 for them. I took more provisions and potatoes on 6th June, for which I paid £18 I took on board 13 tons of potatoes in ouo month We used a ton and a half a month. We also fed the pigs on them. They were not fed on cocoa nuts

On the 9th June certain seamen refused duty; they  said that I had " workcd thrm up by causing them to reef topsails when they had no occasion to do so." I did not think it necessary to enter that in tho log book. I put 15 men in irons on that day. On 19th July I found the second mate asleep on his watch without a proper look out being kept I landed him ou an island afterwards with his own consent. On 26th July I bought fruit and cocoa nuts for tho use of the crew. I could not count the cocoa nuts nor could I count the yams; you might as well count potatoes.

Almost every day you sent for fruit dunng July and August Almost every day you send a boat on shore — was that attending to your whaling?

Yes, it was, I could catch whales there too—canoes came off frequently, so frequently, as to become a nuisance.

Why, if the canoes came off did you send a boat ?

Because the canoes kept off when we sent a boat for the fruits. I have not kept a daily account.

What follows relates to a little kidnapping adventure, and not to whaling:—-

On 2nd June, 1863 I was at Keppel's Island, belonging to the Fijees. Made a bargain with the King to take fifty natives.

Pray, sir, what did you take fifty natives on board a whaling vessel for?

I was in want of fresh meat, in want of potatoes.

What did you want potatoes for?

I meant at Wellington to exclude vegetables .I was bound from this island to cruise among the Fijees. Those natives were in want of a canoe, and they agreed to the pigs, yams, and cocoa nuts for their passage. They were of advantage to the ship, but unfortunately we did not see any whales. I don't say I took the natives to assist me in whaling, but as passengers.

Then point out in the log book where you discharged those natives ?

There is no entry of where I landed them.

Did not you sell these natives as slaves?

I did not. I got pigs, yams, and cocoa nuts for their passags. It is ridiculous. There is no latitude nor longitude entered. The natives were landed on the island of Vanna Levu, one of the Fijees. I landed them the day after I took them on board. There were two small war schooners lying in the bay bolonging to the King of Tongatabu. The natives did not leave the ship in a schooner, but in a canoe or boat. The natives were not formally handed over by mr to one of thr chiefs. I was to have 2,000 cocoa nuts, 10 pigs, and 20 kits of yams for the passage money of these natives; that was a sufficient supply for the ship for a short time. I refused the pigs because they were not largo enough, and so they sent me six more pigs. They are such a curiout people to deal with that I did not enter it in my log. Only about 40 natives came on board. I expected 16 pigs to last for 16 days. I do not think I bought any preserved meats at Wellington.

After I had left the natives I went to the island of Gora, and after that I went cruising. On 26th October I arrived at Port William to procure provisions to proceed to Hobart Town. I did not go there, because the crew deserted. I never refused to take a free passage to Hobart Town. I built a residence for myself on Stewart's Island. That did not prevent the vessel from going home. I did not send my mate up to town from Stewart's Island stating that I would not go further with the vessel.

The following is the conclusion :

Henry Hagon an apprentice and William Bartlet formerly chief mate of the Grecian were then called and corroborated the extraordinary statements of Captain McGrath. They denied that the natives while on board were in any way treated as slaves, and said they left the vessel when they liked.

Mr. Harvey then addressed the Court for the defence, charging Captain M'Grath with fraud and embezzlement under the Trustee Act.  He had neglected the interests of his owners, and embezzled their property. If he had been an honest man, why did he not at the end of twelve months take the vessel back to Hobart Town? Why ? Because he did not dare to face his owners, whom he had robbed.

The Court gave a verdict for defendant with costs.

On the application of counsel, the document« put in evidence were impounded, pending a charge to belaid against Captain M'Grath under the Fraudulent Trustee Act.

That case was afterwards heard, and Capt. M'Grath was fined £100, and ordered to bo detained until payment was made.


Thursday, January 11, 2024

Alfhild, the Viking pirate queen


They arrived at night, screaming and berserk, like a mad vision from the Book of Revelations.  Attacking with savage ferocity, they razed whole villages, slaughtered babies for sport, dissected captured leaders alive—from the back—and spread their entrails in an eagle pattern on the ground.  Arguably the finest seamen the world had produced, the Norsemen sallied out from Scandinavia, traveling vast distances over icy, storm-wracked seas, creating havoc and terror wherever they landed.

They rapidly became known as the dreaded “Vikings”—“sons of the fjords”—and their fine-lined oaken boats were called “longships.”  Between 70 and 100 feet long, the Viking longship was a double-ended, clinker-built craft of overlapped planks, iron-fastened and tightly caulked, yet flexible.  The sweeping bow was decorated with a snarling figurehead, often of a dragon or serpent.  There was only one bank of oars, for the sail was the important means of propulsion.  This was square, strongly sewn and beautifully decorated with bright silks and gold embroidery by Viking women.  The masts were often covered in gilt, and the rigging dyed red, and at the masthead there was a pedestal for a lantern. 

The oarsmen were also the warriors, and while rowing they hung their circular shields along the ship’s side for additional protection against wind and spray, enhancing the ferociously businesslike appearance of the craft.  Shields, when placed at the masthead, were used as signals too.  Such were the ships that breasted the rough Atlantic, and harassed the coasts of the British Isles and France, capable of penetrating hundreds of miles up rivers because of their shallow draft, and yet capable of freighting ten tons of loot back to Scandinavia, to be ceremoniously dumped at the feet of some king in his feasting-hall.   

These halls—often called “mead-halls,” though mead was in fact despised as a foreign luxury—and the celebratory feasts held within them were an important facet of Viking society.  The food was plain, being bread and un-garnished boiled meat accompanied by ale that was served in horns from a butt, but the etiquette was punctilious.  Despite the general drunkenness, shouting, fighting, and bone-throwing, men were seated with care, according to importance—and tales were told on an epic scale. 

While the diners listened raptly, their scops—or bards—told and retold the traditional sagas, adding and amending as they went, though keeping to a long-held form.  The narrative poem always began with a tribal history of the protagonist, often linking him to the great god Woden (Odin), and then this was followed by a stirring yarn which was amended according to whichever king or hero was being praised.  Kings were inevitably brave, generous, and just, and heroes could be recognized by their “fierce falcon eyes” and personal beauty.  Heroines, on the other hand, kept their eyes demurely lowered at all times, for it was well-known that a loose woman could seduce the strongest of heroes with one languishing glance.  Thus, according to the traditional formula, begins the epic tale of Alfhild, otherwise known as “Alwilda the Danish Female Pirate.”

The Alfhild saga was first recorded in the twelfth century by the Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus.  Very little is known about the author, save that he was a Dane, probably from Zealand, and that his family name—a common one—was Saxo.  The second one, Grammaticus, simply means “lettered,” and was endowed to him by a later biographer.  Written in Latin and finished shortly after the year 1200, Saxo’s Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) totals sixteen volumes.  Alfhild’s narrative is in book seven.  In 1836 a Boston stationer, Charles Ellms, included an inaccurate summary of this tale in the first chapter of his Pirates Own Book, which purported to be a collection of “Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers.”  It was illustrated with a remarkable picture of “Alwilda” most unconvincingly attired in a version of eighteenth century dress—and that is the whole documentation of the saga of this warrior-princess.

“Hwæt!”—“Listen!”—is the conventional warning that a saga is about to begin.  It has an imperative sound, so that one can easily imagine the drunken diners in the feasting-hall obediently focussing on the scop, who, as silence falls over the great room, commences with the obligatory description of the genealogy and appearance of the saga’s hero, Prince Alf, son of Sigar. 

Sigar was a king who reigned over Denmark about the middle of the ninth century, and Alf, as was customary with heroes, “excelled the rest in spirit and beauty.”  Perhaps somewhat unusually, he “devoted himself to the business of a rover”—which meant that he was one of the many longship captains who ravaged the coasts of western Europe.   In other words, he was just another raider. As was common in the saga form, though, his hair was luminous, having such “a wonderful dazzling glow, that his locks seemed to shine silvery.” 

Then, the hero described, the bard promptly shifted to the heroine of the tale, who also adhered to convention—at the start, at any rate.  “At the same time,” wrote Saxo, “Siward, King of the Goths, is said to have had …

 a daughter, Alfhild, who showed almost from her cradle such faithfulness to modesty, that she continually kept her face muffled in her robe, lest she should cause her beauty to provoke the passion of another.  Her father banished her into very close-keeping, and gave her a viper and a snake to rear, wishing to defend her chastity by the protection of these reptiles when they came to grow up.  For it would have been hard to pry into her chamber when it was barred by so dangerous a bolt.  He also decreed that if any man tried to enter it, and failed, he must straightaway yield his head to be taken off and impaled on a stake

 Apart from the fanciful addition of the “viper and snake,” this was usual enough, heads on stakes featuring a lot in Viking literature.  Because capture-marriage happened so often—being part of the blood-feud ritual—kings’ daughters were very closely guarded.  Fathers and brothers would fight hand-to-hand for them, for princesses were important property, carefully kept to one side to be given as a reward to a hero, or to cement a political alliance.  It did not matter if the hero or the other king was already married, for polygamy was commonplace.  It was common, too, for the virtue of the heroine to be featured so prominently, for chastity was held in high regard.  If there was any doubt, the test of virtue was the pressing of the breasts until the nipples bled.  If no milk was admixed with the blood, the woman was considered falsely accused.  If someone imagined they saw a trickle of milk, then her nose was chopped off.

It seems that quite a few young men were willing to dodge the snake and the viper to court Alfhild, for there were a number of heads on stakes by the time Prince Alf took an interest.  Or, as Saxo phrased it, “Then Alf, son of Sigar, thinking that the peril of the attempt only made it the nobler, declared himself a wooer, and was told to subdue the beasts that kept watch beside the room of the maiden; inasmuch as, according to the decree, the embraces of the maiden were the prize of the subduer.”

At this stage of the story, Alf takes on some personality, demonstrating the stuff of which resourceful rovers were made.  He prepared himself by covering “his body with a blood-stained hide,” to work the serpents up into a mindless frenzy.  In one hand he held a pair of tongs gripping “a piece of red-hot steel” which he plunged “into the yawning throat of the viper,” and in the other, more conventionally, he had a spear, which he thrust “full into the gaping mouth of the snake as it wound and writhed forward.”

And so, in theory, Alf had gained the maiden’s hand.  Though her father, Siward, approved of the match, however, he had made the proviso that Alfhild should be happy about it—“he would accept that man only for his daughter’s husband of whom she made a free and decided choice.”  This is perfectly plausible, for in Viking society free women did have the right of veto, and sometimes even the liberty to find a fiancé on their own.  In sagas, however, it was as traditional for a woman to be complaisant about marrying the hero who had fought a strange battle for her sake, as it was for unsuccessful suitors to perish in nasty ways. 

If affairs had moved the way they usually did, the princess would have smiled demurely and assented to the match.  Prince Alf’s personal hygiene might not have been the best, for it was usual for Vikings to be flea- and lice-ridden, probably because of their furs—one lover bidding his love, “Maiden, comb my hair and catch the skipping fleas, and remove what stings my skin”—but, as we know, Alf’s luminous hair would have made the search tolerable.  And so, it is reasonable for the bard’s audience to have expected that Alfhild would present Alf with the usual maiden’s betrothal gift of a sword, and then that a ceremonious wedding would be followed by the usual noisy, drunken feast, complete with lots of bone-throwing.

A shock was in store for them, however.  Alfhild did not conform to tradition.  In fact, she demonstrated a rather startling character change.  Rather than agree to marry Prince Alf, she “exchanged woman’s for man’s attire, and, no longer the most modest of maidens, began the life of a warlike rover.” 

Somehow, miraculously, not only did she acquire the necessary seafaring skills, but she managed to recruit a crew of like-minded females, too.  A ship was gained by a stroke of luck, for Alfhild and her companions “happened to come to a spot where a band of rovers were lamenting the death of their captain who had been lost in war.”  According to the tale, the mariners “made her their rover-captain for her beauty,” but it is much more likely that she simply commandeered their ship—which, as it happens, was in accordance with Danish civil law at the time, one of the statutes declaring, “Seafarers may use what gear they find, including boat or tackle.” 

And thus Alfhild launched herself on the career of a raider, and “did deeds beyond the valor of women”—a most undomestic vocation.   Saxo Grammaticus, who had a remarkably Victorian approach to the different spheres of the sexes, certainly did not approve of it, breaking into his narrative to inveigh against women who, “just as if they had forgotten their natural estate,” preferred making war to making love, and “devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom.”  Obviously, in the 250 years that elapsed before Saxo recorded this saga, Danish men had not only been Christianized, but had become opinionated as well.  

Vikings were not nearly so narrow-minded.   Their mythology included the valkyria—the great god Woden’s hand-maidens, who rode to battle in marvelous armor to decide who should live and who should die, and to escort the souls of heroes to his feasting-hall, Valhalla.   Woden himself did not jib at dressing up as a woman to get into the boudoir of a lass who had taken his fancy, and heroes were perfectly happy to accept the help of female warriors.  About 870 AD, just one generation after Alfhild’s time, Frey, the king of Sweden, slew the king of the Norwegians (another Siward), and put all his womenfolk in a brothel.  When Ragnar, the current overlord of Denmark, heard of this insult to his relatives, he went to Norway on a mission of vengeance.  When they heard that he was coming, the women dressed up as men, broke out of the brothel, and came to his camp to join his army. 

 Among them was Ladgerda, a famous valkyrie, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders.  All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman

 Incidentally, this saga followed convention.  Ragnar, understandably impressed, took to courting Ladgerda.  She set two beasts about her door in the usual obstacle course.  He speared one with one hand, strangled the second with the other, and caught her up in his arms.

Viking men did not mind boasting about beating women warriors, either.  An early female raider was Sela, “a skilled warrior and experienced in roving.”  Sela entered the literature when a fleet commanded by her brother Koll, who was king of Norway, was confronted by the longships of a hero named Horwendil, who wanted to formalize his ownership of Jutland.  Instead of commencing a naval engagement, the two admirals decided to fight it out in single combat on the beach of a nearby island—a thoroughly laudable arrangement that saved a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.  After a lot of chat in which they set the rules, they went at it.   Horwendil won, by the unexpected ploy of dropping his shield and wielding his sword with both hands.  First he chopped up Koll’s shield, and then he chopped off his foot, rendering him helpless.  Finishing off Koll was not enough to satisfy his bloodlust, however, so he challenged Sela next, managing to defeat and kill her, too.  

Other longship captains who had “bodies of women and souls of men” were Hetha, Wisna, and Webiorg.  Like Sela, this trio was perfectly happy to fight on land as well as sea.  Being strong and brave enough to fight on one’s feet was, indeed, was a prerequisite, for the design of Viking longships meant that naval battles could not happen in the open water.  Though perfectly capable of breasting the stormy North Sea, the boats were rather too delicately built for rams or catapults to be fitted, and they stove in rather easily, too.  And so, all combat had to be hand-to-hand, apart from short-range throwing of spears and axes. 

This happened to a formula, too. When two enemy longships came in sight of each other, the warriors would hold the boats still with their oars while the two captains leapt onto the forecastles and screamed insults at each other.   This was part of the “bear-sark” story, where warriors worked themselves up for the fight by bellowing, barking, and biting the upper rims of their shields until they foamed at the mouth.  Then, slavering with blood-lust, they would paddle alongside the enemy craft, grapple, and leap up and rush at each other with swords, axes, and clubs.  One famous hero, Arrow-Odd, went on record as grabbing up the tiller for use as a bludgeon.  The trick was not to stove in one’s boat while doing this, something that was impossible to avoid out in an open seaway.  And so, naval engagements had to happen in sheltered waters, or else, as with Horwendil and Sela, the dueling was relocated to a beach.

Obviously, in opting to abandon a soft, snake-guarded life at the palace to take on this kind of existence, Alfhild and her companions had accepted quite a challenge.  The Norsemen were consummate seamen, navigating by the sun, the stars, the tides, the ocean currents, and the migratory patterns of birds and whales, so the women had a great deal to learn.   Viking rovers were hardy, too, sleeping in leather sleeping bags with their weapons close to their hands.  This was usually on some deserted beach, their ships being drawn up on the sand and lashed together for safety, because longships were not well-designed for stretching out to sleep.  It was very difficult to cook in longships, too, so “strand-hewing”—or victualing with raw meat, which was eaten uncooked—was the rule.  Watches had to be kept around the clock, “uht”—the watch immediately after midnight—being considered the most dangerous.  There were dangers other than enemies, too, dragons and sea-monsters being particularly feared, as in the Icelandic hero Beowulf’s eald ­uhtsceaða, sede byrnende—“the ancient twilight foe, that vomits fire.”

Somehow, Alfhild managed.  She must have had some feasting-hall somewhere, even if it was some humble and secluded hut, for she and her companion valkyria would have had to have somewhere to recruit their strength, bury their treasure, and brag about their deeds.  Perhaps she even retained her own scop.  Like Viking men, she would have made light of all but the most serious wounds, keeping a faithful dog to lick cuts and gashes clean, but otherwise pretending they did not bother her.  She and her followers would have gone through some kind of blood “brotherhood” ceremony, pricking their hands until the blood flowed, and then pressing  the bloody palms together.  This ensured loyalty, for blood revenge was a serious duty, and were-gild would be extracted from foes who killed any of their number.  She would have had her chief officers—her “thanes”—created by ceremoniously holding out a sword by the blade, so that the new thane could take it by the hilt.

Coincidentally, about the same time in England, another princess, Æðelflæd, “Lady of the Mercias,” was equally active.  Daughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Æðered, the Alderman of Mercia and Governor of London, Æðelflæd was famous as a brilliant commander.  After her father’s death, she joined forces with her brother, Edward the Elder, to carry on the campaign against the Danes, proving herself to be one of the most capable generals of her age.  And so the two feisty warriors were on opposite sides.  If they ever encountered each other, however, it has not been recorded.  In fact, Saxo neglected to tell us anything at all about Alfhild’s roving.   It seems that she did very well, for by the end of the tale she had a whole fleet at her command.  It is what she did with her ships that is a mystery.

Perhaps she contracted herself out as a mercenary to some tribe in opposition to the Danes, or perhaps she had ambitions for a territory of her own.  She could have been a true pirate, preying on merchant shipping.  Not all Norse ships were battleships.  Peaceful sea-trade, in fact, was the Scandinavians’ major activity, furs, timber, amber, and Slavic slaves being carried to market in cargo ships called “knorrs,” to be exchanged for corn and foreign luxuries.   Whatever Alfhild did, we do know it annoyed the Danes, for a number of expeditions were sent out to quell this female nuisance.  

One of the parties was commanded by none other than Prince Alf.  After “many toilsome voyages in pursuit of her,” he finally tracked down Alfhild’s fleet in a “rather narrow gulf” in Finland.  Alfhild, who held the philosophy that attack was better than defence, immediately “rowed in swift haste forward.”  Alf’s men, on the other hand, believed that caution was the wiser part of valor, and “were against his attacking so many ships with so few.”  He, mindful of his reputation as a hero, paid no attention, meeting the charge head-on instead, and seizing one ship after another. 

Coincidentally, he was the one who boarded Alfhild’s ship, “and advanced towards the stern, slaughtering all that withstood him.”  Instead of losing her life, however, the Viking princess merely lost her anonymity, for Alf’s lieutenant, Borgar, struck off her helmet.  And, forthwith, “seeing the smoothness of her chin, [Alf] saw that he must fight with kisses and not with arms; that the cruel spears must be put away, and the enemy handled with gentler dealings.”

And so she lost her virginity, too, for Alf claimed what had been due to him ever since he had slaughtered her serpents.  According to Saxo, “he took hold of her eagerly, and made her change her man’s apparel to a woman’s; and afterwards begot on her a daughter, Gurid.”   In the meantime, presumably, he carried her onto his ship, and they forthwith set sail for Denmark—her last voyage, and without doubt an emotional one, for her probable fate was to be shut up in a palace again, away from the sight of the sea. 

 Þa wæs be mæste   merehrægla sum / segl sale fæst;     sundwudu þunede; / no þær wegflotan   wind ofer yðum / siðes get wæfde;   sægenga for, / fleat famigheals   forð ofer yðe *

* Then to the mast a sail, a great sea garment, was hoisted with ropes; the longship groaned as she breasted the waves, was not brown off her course by contrary gales, but lustily, foaming at the bows, skimmed forth.   Beowulf, lines 1905-09.