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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 

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