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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

The Voyage of the Betsy, 1815

page 218

The Voyage of the Betsy, 1815.

Beside the story of the Betsy, the accounts of all other tragedies connected with the sealing trade sink into insignificance. As a tragedy it is a tragedy of tragedies, as a story of a disastrous voyage it has no parallel in New Zealand history.

The Betsy was a vessel in the employ of Mr. Joseph Underwood, the chief Sydney trader with the southern sealing islands. Her captain was Phillip Goodenough and her crew consisted of 27 Europeans and 6 lascars. Leaving Sydney on 28th December, 1814, she arrived safely at Macquarie Island on 13th February, 1815, and landed her gang and stores. The gang consisted of 13 persons, all on shares; the prospects of the season were good, particularly for elephant oil, and all hands were in the best of spirits. The Elizabeth and Mary, another of Underwood's fleet, on her return to Sydney reported that the outlook for sealing was not so bright, and her cargo of 3,000 skins were all that had been obtained.

Having landed her Macquarie Island gang, the Betsy proceeded to Bristow's (Auckland) Island. There she lost one European (Thomas Wilman) and a lascar, from scurvy which had taken hold of the ship's company. In August, 1815, she sailed for Macquarie Island, which was reached in due course, but a few days afterwards she was blown out to sea and spent no less than three weeks in the vain attempt to again make the land. Baffled in his long struggle Goodenough made for Port Jackson, but encountering heavy N.W. gales, was compelled to shape his course for New Zealand. The resources of the vessel were taxed to the uttermost. The allowance of water was down to 1½ pints per man per diem and there being no bread, water and flour had to be mixed and eaten. In the absence of water the salt pork on board was useless. On 18th September a heavy sea carried away the rudder and an attempt was made to steer with a cable. This proved too laborious an operation and another rudder was constructed. This on page 219 the 26th met with the same fate as the first. From this time onward they were compelled to use the cable in steering. Serious as had been the condition of the vessel up to the present, day by day now added to the list of calamities until the state of the crew became appalling. Scurvy had obtained such a hold of the men that the master and eight Europeans were invalided with it. It manifested itself in swollen limbs, contracted sinews and excruciating pains. Water was down to one pint per day with 6 lbs. of flour per week. The sick men were only allowed 4 lbs. This miserable supply of food sadly reduced the strength of those who were not actually laid aside. The lascars were of no use for the trying labour devolving upon them. The few healthy men had gradually become too weak to labour except during the daytime. The result was that from sunset to sunrise the vessel was allowed to drift about with every change of wind and weather.

Death soon came to end the wretched existence of the exhausted men. On 28th September, Laurenza, a Portuguese, died and on the 30th John Wilson followed. On 5th October the body of John Moffatt, the first mate, was committed to the deep; and three days later while they lay becalmed within sight of Cook Strait, Cordoza, a Portuguese, expired. Water had now been reduced to half a pint per day. The sight of land served to revive hope in the breasts of the despondent men, but it gave way to the depth of despair when a breeze sprung up and they were carried out once more to sea.

On 23rd October the doomed vessel was off the Bay of Islands and made an attempt to run in, when a sudden squall came on, the main brace and top sail sheet gave way, the top sail was blown to shreds and the jib fore topsail went to pieces at the same time. A second time the Betsy drifted off the shore. This time however, no strength was left among the men to do anything but remain on the vessel while she drifted about, at one time threatened with destruction upon the rocks, at another with ingulfment by the sea. On the 28th the last water cask was dry. page 220 In despair their remaining strength was marshalled to make a whale boat and a jolly boat water tight, and after infinite labour these were launched 20 miles from land on the morning of the 29th. By this time the third officer, William Grub, had died and been buried at sea.

In the jolly boat were placed four helpless men, John Tire, John Gabb, John Davies, and Fred Holstein. In the whale boat to tow them were the master, in the last stage of illness, Thomas Rogers, Thomas Hunt and five lascars. A sixth lascar had shortly before been drowned. Exhausted with the ravages of disease, and freighted with the unfortunate cargo in the jolly boat, the whaleboat battled away for an hour and a half without making any headway. When it became apparent that further struggling meant the loss of all hands, as there was not sufficient strength in the whale boat to make progress with so great an encumbrance, they discussed the position among themselves, and finally decided that nothing else could be done but abandon the sick men to their fate. The jolly boat was accordingly hauled alongside and a bag of flour taken out. A lascar, who was baling out the water, was also transhipped. None of the sick men commented upon their awful fate, the only words which passed being a request by one of them to have his coat as the air was cold. The opinion of those in the whale boat was that in two hours at most all would be over. In their defence of this awful action, the men stated that it was impossible to receive the four sick men into the whale boat.

After 12 hours of incessant toil the whale boat reached the coast of New Zealand. Out of 19 persons who were on board the vessel, 8 got on shore alive, viz., the master (Goodenough), Thomas Rodgers, Thomas Hunt and 5 lascars. One of the lascars died after landing, as also did Mr. Goodenough on 1st November, 1815. No sooner were they upon land when they fell into the hands of the natives, who robbed them of their small supply of flour, giving them in exchange a few potatoes. During the time of their captivity the wretched men lived in constant apprehension of personal violence. Regardless of their physical suffering, page 221 they were driven from place to place, and frequently threatened with spears. The two Europeans were separated from the lascars and at dusk were taken away in a canoe, for the purpose, they feared, of being devoured. After proceeding about a mile and a half they perceived a large fire on shore, which confirmed them in the belief that they were destined for a cannibal feast. Here they were landed and received by a concourse of natives, who obliged them to carry a basket of potatoes, towards another group of men and women among whom were the four lascars. Upon being questioned by Rodgers and Hunt, as to the treatment they were likely to receive, the lascars told them it had been decided to devour them both, which from all the surrounding circumstances appeared very probable.

The same night (2nd November), they were placed in a hut, and next morning advanced further along the coast, sinking with fatigue and long fasting. Harrassed in this manner for several days, they at length received the good news that their lives would be spared, but that they would become the property of their first captors. Fern root and dried fish were the only sustenance the place afforded, and even this was not plentiful. On the 9th a ship hove in sight but did not approach the land. On the 11th a brig coasted in near the shore, and the chiefs agreed to let them get on board if they could manage it. A canoe was obtained and every effort made, but when they had made the little craft ready for the water the brig was past. On 29th January, 1816, they left the place, called by the natives Mooramoota, situate on the N.E. part of the North Cape, and went to Rimgatan, 35 miles N.W. of the former, but being worse off here than before, they returned to Mooramoota and on 23rd February were taken off by the brig Active, the master of which had learnt their condition at Rimgatan. The four lascars were left under the charge of the missionaries at the Bay of Islands and the two Europeans proceeded in the Active to Tahiti.

Meanwhile the owners had become alarmed at the non-arrival of the Betsy in Sydney, and on 26th March, page 222 1816, the Elizabeth and Mary, James Miller, master, sailed for Macquarie Island, intending to go from there to Campbell Island and then on to Bristow Island, sealing and oiling, but especially to find the Betsy and relieve her gangs, their provisions being expected to be by that time exhausted. The Elizabeth and Mary returned on 28th May, 1816, with a cargo of oil and the whole gang left by the Betsy in February, 1815. She also brought up a gang left by a former vessel, the name of which is not recorded. She however did not belong to the same employ, and the situation of the men is described as being deplorable from want of provisions. Their entire stock of food had been exhausted by the October preceding, and since that time until their release they had subsisted upon such trifling aid as could be afforded them by the Betsy's gang.

The same day that the Elizabeth and Mary reached Sydney, arrived also the news of the loss of the Betsy. The word was brought from Tahiti by Captain Campbell of the brig Governor Macquarie. Campbell had obtained the news from the master of the Queen Charlotte, who reported that the survivors had got over to the Three Kings and that the Queen Charlotte, going to their relief, had been blown off.

On 1st October, 1816, the European survivors of the Betsy, Thomas Rodgers and Thomas Hunt, arrived at Sydney, in the Endeavour from Tahiti.7