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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.