Search This Blog

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.


No comments: