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Settlers and Pioneers

1 — The Emigrant Ship

page 1

The Emigrant Ship

The mountains of Spain, with their shadowed defiles and their bare, sunlit crags, were plain on the port beam. The passengers, or those of them who had recovered from the tossing about in the narrow seas, were gazing out over the bulwarks and poop rail and asking eager questions. "Was that the savage country where travellers were robbed of all their money and deprived of an ear or a nose or so before being tossed over the cliffs? Would New Zealand be anything like that? The highlands of perilous romance faded into a soft blue haze as the three pillars of canvas marched into the Atlantic before the gradually strengthening breeze. It had come steady from the north and the ship was able to lay her course with square yards.

The sea now was no more than a long easy swell, after the hullabaloo of weather which had rushed the ship out from the Mersey, a rude introduction to ocean life for the four hundred emigrants who crowded the White Star clipper. A near observer page 2before that lofty apparition of shining canvas, carried along on a black-painted hull with knife-sharp bow, would have given the name without reading it on the bows. The figurehead, carved by a craftsman of rare skill, was the most lovely mermaid ever chiselled. Her long blue-black hair, as sleek as a seal's coat, fell and flowed as to the life, and in keeping with tradition, she held a comb and a glass in her hand. The siren advanced, bowing with the rhythmic progress of the ship, ushering the sea-rover into the realms of blue water. The swell sometimes buried her generous bosom, as the bow fell into the hollow, and with the next heave upward lifted her on its crest and bared her to her graceful curling dolphin tail.

Every detail of the ship showed her American build, from the iron-bound wooden-stocked anchors to the yellow pine of her topmasts and the whiteness of her mostly-cotton sails, shining in tiers up to the skysail like a tiny oblong cloud a hundred and fifty feet above the deck. Looking outboard one would have seen that the vessel had a broad yellow band along her covering-board, defining her sea-kindly sheer and her high lift of bow. No make-believe lines of painted gun-ports chequered her sides. That fashion of thirteen dummy ports a-side was left to the British ships; at any rate the New England and Nova Scotian builders preferred plain honest economical black. Double-topsails had just page 3come in in the merchant service, but so far the Mermaid's owners preferred the old-style whole sails.

So much having been said to introduce this transitory home of four hundred potential settlers of New Zealand, we make our way aft, jostling and being jostled in the process, for the crowded deck is still a kind of skating-floor for the awkward squads who have not yet found their sea-legs. On the long poop there seems to be a kind of beauty show, for all the young women are there, basking in the sun, drying their hair, and singing and chattering. That is the domain of the two score cabin passengers and the fifty or more single-girl emigrants. The captain paces the sacred starboard side, his telescope under his arm, regular Navy fashion. The second mate, officer of the watch, keeps to his port side except when he crosses it at a question from his commander, and now and again glances at the course steered by the big-whiskered seaman at the six-foot wheel. A glance down the companionway or through the skylight shows a spacious cuddy interior, with much of carving and some pictures; and if you went below and made a closer inspection you would see something of warlike decoration also, for round the foot of the mizzen-mast is a rack for rifles and muskets, and half-a-dozen of those antique relics, the long boarding pikes that hold memories of Nelson and the North and 'Up the Rebels!' of Ireland. Up on deck, near the break of the poop, is a swivel gun, page 4a Long Tom. There was not occasion for its use on the Australia and New Zealand run, but the Mermaid had had a voyage or two in the East Indies and China trade, the pirate hunting-ground.

Looking round, one would have observed that most of those emigrants seemed men and women of the out-of-doors—no meagrely grown, undernourished folk from the factory towns and the Black counties. There were tall, straight-backed, stalwart countrymen and jolly, rich-bosomed women, and many a black-eyed Susan and a red-haired and blue-eyed Rosaleen—named for the love of old Ireland—and Bridget, named for the saint. There were Scottish girls from Ayr and Galloway; there were Flora MacDonald-like women from the Isles. Irish and Scottish by their pleasant tongues seemed to predominate. The clatter of tongues flowed around the grave-eyed captain like a torrent about a dark and silent rock. Probably more than half the emigrants were women and children. The tide of female-kind seemed overwhelming to some of the womenless crew. 'All them fine gurrls locked up at dark every night,' a sailor growled. 'And very good need for it too,' a mate reminded him. The doctor's and matron's rule was strict on these emigrant ships. But not always effective. Shipboard love finds a way to wriggle through in a hundred days' voyage.

This shipload of questing souls, with all then-hopes and fears and ambitions, is now fairly launched page 5on the great adventure. To take us into intimate touch with the company of the speeding Mermaid, let us dip into the private diary kept by one of them. He came from the Isle of Man with his family of eight-—a tall, deep-chested farmer, seemingly the right stuff for a frontier life.

The diarist and his family were not pressed abroad by want of money, for they were prosperous farming people, as prosperity went in the Isle of Man in the fifties. 'There was no lack of anything,' said one of them. 'There were two farms in the family.' This was in the beautiful country of hill and glen in from Castletown. 'The people thought we were mad to break up life there and go to New Zealand.' But the Isle of Man was old and very small; there was not much room there for growing families; and the faraway land called for people to build homes. Each adult settler who paid his or her passage out received forty acres of land free and twenty acres for each child. So the family bade farewell, not without many a tear and many a sigh, to their beloved Isle of Mannin Beg, isle of fairies, in which everyone believed, place of lovely comfortable homes and immemorial fields. They bade farewell to the old farms of Ballasherlogue and Ballakilpatrick; farewell to their forefathers lying in the green churchyard of Arboury, in Colby Glen; and in the emigrant ship found a new and bewildering world.

'We have all day an hubbub,' this diarist wrote in page 6his journal on 15 July 1859, four days after leaving Liverpool for Auckland. 'It is something like a fair, with about four hundred on board.' He wrote of the numerous nationalities of the passengers—'plenty of noise, fore and aft, from Manx, English, Scottish, Irish, Germans.' As became a patriotic Manxman he put his own clan first in this cosmopolitan crowd. 'Two or three played cards on one side of me and a fiddler on the other.'

The customary routine of shipboard life in a leisurely sailing vessel was varied by a gale now and again, and now and then a quarrel or a trial by a selected jury of some dispute or some offender against the unwritten code of conduct. As the Equator was approached, the nights grew hot beyond bearing below in the crowded cabins and 'tween-decks.

Ten degrees north of the Line, in calm weather, the captain gave orders for a large staysail to be rigged out and lowered into the sea to make a bath for the men and boys. The sail was supported by a line from a yardarm and two ropes from the ship's side. It held ten or fourteen men at a time. Next day a large water cask was cut in two for baths for children. The halves were set on opposite sides of the deck, one for boys and one for girls.

The average rate of sailing until the ship was 23 degrees south of the Line worked out at 174 miles a day. The fair wind increased as the latitude of the page 7Cape of Good Hope was approached, and 10 and 11 knots were logged. 'Jobs of work in hard blows; as many as twenty-three men on the one yard reefing down.'

Shipboard was a grand place for the youngsters. 'The children are in very good spirits. Tommy imitates the loud coarse order of the boatswain with regard to sheets and braces, and then the sailors' notes. Richy says he doesn't care to go on land any more.' (Richard, as it happened, saw a good deal of wild work on land in his after life. He served in the Colonial forces in the Hauhau wars, and earned the New Zealand war medal.)

The little homeland left astern for ever was never out of the diarist's thoughts. On 5 September, in 41 south lat: 'This had been a fine March morning in the Isle of Man.'

'Friday, September 7: In the last 48 hours the ship sailed 510 miles.' She was running down the easting and edging south in her great circle sailing. Ten and eleven knots were often logged. 'It is winterly indeed. All hands called to take in sail. Twenty men together on the main-topsail-yard, reefing, and about 25 of the passengers doing all we can below. The sailors complain she has very heavy rigging. With too few men.' So any help the men and lads among the passengers could give the crew was welcomed. It was a regular thing for a score of hefty farmers to tally on to sheets and braces at the call of 'Bout page 8ship', or at the halliards when sail was set again after shortening down.

Blowing hard, ship rolling along in the Roaring Forties with squared yards, sailing sometimes at 13 knots. '. . . . More sail set—she was sailed very hard ... rather hard to our liking.... The spray on some of the dangerous rocks could be seen.' These were the Crozets. 'Very cold. To clear Kerguelen Island we are sailing S. and by E.1/4.E. We are now near 52 degrees South latitude.'

The wind eased off a bit and more sail was set. 'I felt my mind rather uneasy (15 September) at seeing the ship so splendid at night with 19 sails set on her. I slept but very little for fear of a squall, till I heard the sailors taking in sail.' (The previous day's entry had been: '. . . . The captain seems to be in great anxiety about the appearance of the weather.') 'At four o'clock in the morning I went on deck where all hands were busily employed. The best of the sailors aloft reefing and taking in sails, the rest engaged on deck. I did what I could with them for about two hours, the gale increasing. Nineteen men were now on reefing the main-topsail.'

The narrator then ventured to make, in his cautious Manx way, some comment on the sail-carrying of the previous night. He put it with polite diplomacy, though he describes it as 'very free.' 'I stood up on the poop when the Captain came and spoke very free. "I mentioned to a friend last night, sir," I said, page 9"that the ship looked very gallant to continue so through a winter's night." '

Captain White evidently appreciated the concern for the ship that prompted that remark; he also, no doubt, appreciated his passengers' sailorly labours. Some skippers with more self-importance would have resented the hint of criticism, but the Mermaid's commander made as politely as he had been addressed the non-committal reply, 'A very true remark,' and talked of the ship's position.

Now it came on to snow heavily, the gale increasing, and it was bitterly cold. 'The sea began to rise like hills. Ship now only under three close-reefed topsails instead of 19 whole sails last night.' Next day the foresail was set again, and two staysails and the Mermaid went storming along before the howling westerly. A miserable time for the passengers, especially the women, for the ship rolled greatly. But the skipper 'is very much delighted with her, and some of the sailors say they were never in such a ship in their lives'—which may be read two ways.

Diary entry: 'September 21—We have been busy with the sailors spreading sails. Steering east at 10 knots . . . .' High seas sometimes lopped on board. 'A sea broke over the poop and down into the saloon.' And snow—'the pastime with many is pelting each other with snowballs.' A fair wind and plenty of it, so much so that on 28 September the ship was racing along at 14 knots.

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On 1 October, now close to Tasmania, 'all hands, not excepting passengers, were called to "Auckland sheets and New Zealand braces" to square the yards after a spell of head winds.' The land of promise was now only a thousand miles away—a matter of a few days—and all hands were longing to see it. No wonder the penned-up people pined for a sight of something beside the rolling waves and the wheeling albatrosses. They had not seen any land since passing Madeira, nor a vessel for six weeks. More sail was made until the Mermaid had her main-royal on again. Diary entry: '. . . . Half-past three a.m.—wind blew very hard from the north-west by west—I rose and Robert Cowley after me when the sailors were pleased to get the least help. The mizzen-topgallant-sail and outer jib were taken offher. Sea now smooth; she sailed about 13 knots.'

And, at last, land—the Three Kings. 'They are large, broken rocks, like the Barrow and the Stack at the Calf of Man, but much larger.' Now, dodging down the coast to Auckland, delayed by contrary winds. The captain was 'very much mortified' and afraid he would be beaten to Auckland by the London ship Maori. He had learned by telegraph, just before leaving Liverpool, that the Maori had sailed about four hours previously, and he was anxious to beat her. He would not have the Mermaid beaten by the Maori, he declared, for a hundred pounds.

As the ship sailed up Rangitoto Channel the captain page 11hailed a passing coaster: 'What ships are in Auckland?' He was delighted to hear that the Maori had not yet been reported.

So at last, after one hundred days at sea, the beautiful Mermaid lay at anchor in the Waitemata, her immigrants now to embark on another new and strange enterprise, new toils and joys and sorrows, making their homes in a new land under conditions utterly different from the ordered familiar life in the quiet English shires, on the hills of Ulster and in the sheltered glens of Man.