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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XV. — The Voyage

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Chapter XV.
The Voyage.

And let our barques across the pathless flood
Hold different courses.

(Kenilworth, Chapter XXIX, Introductory verses.)

The ship John Wickliffe sailed from Gravesend on September 24, 1847. She was under the command of Captain Bartholomew Daly. The agent of the Company, Captain William Cargill, was in charge of the expedition, and with him were Dr Henry Manning, surgeon, and the Rev. T. D. Nicholson, who resigned his charge at Lowick, England, on November 7 in order to undertake duty as the Free Church minister at Nelson. Mr Nicholson travelled merely as a passenger on the John Wickliffe, but he undertook religious duties on board.1Although he had no official association with the Otago Settlement, Mr Nicholson was privileged to be the first minister to hold a religious service in the present city of Dunedin. In addition to the Cargill family the passengers included the Garricks, Mosleys, Brebners, Finches, Watsons, Blatches, Westlands, and Wilsons, Messrs W. H. Cutten, Julius Jeffreys, Thomas Ferens, J. E. Smith (Factor to the Church Trustees), and others2, 97 emigrants in all.

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Violent storms raged round the coast of Great Britain a few days after the departure of the John Wickliffe and the Philip Laing. The heavily-laden John Wickliffe, which was the storeship of the expedition, felt the full force of the gale in the Channel, and sprang a leak, which compelled her to shelter and refit in Portsmouth. Setting out from that harbour on December 16, the John Wickliffe made a fast voyage, and anchored off Port Chalmers on March 23, 1848—an anniversary ever memorable in the history of the province.

The Philip Laing, with the great majority of the settlers on board under the Rev. Thomas Burns, had shared in the perils of the storm which delayed her sister ship. Fortunately, the diary in which Burns recorded the daily events of the voyage and the happenings which occurred for some years after arrival in Otago has escaped the destruction which overtook the bulk of his papers after his death, and is now preserved as one of the priceless relics in the Otago Early Settlers' Library. To Mr William Paterson, the worthy secretary, the present writer is indebted for access to this diary and other documents in possession of the fine organisation of the early settlers and their descendants, which renders unique service to the historical interests of the community.

Burns commences his record thus:—

The ship Philip Laing, 547 tons burden, weighed anchor from Greenock about 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 27, 1847, with 186 adults, of whom 87 were children under 14 years of age, every two of whom are reckoned as one adult, and 11 infants. The cabin passengers, consisting of myself, my wife and six children, the eldest of whom is 17, the youngest eight months, Mr James Blackie, schoolmaster, Mr R. Donaldson, Mr Condamine Carnegie and his wife, Dr Ramsay, surgeon of the ship, A.J. Elles, captain of the ship, Kenyon, first mate, Gilbert M'Gill, second mate, James Barron, steward, James Andrew, cabin boy, with a crew of 26 (men and boys).

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The number of souls carried as future inhabitants of Otago is given elsewhere as 248. The members of the family of Mr and Mrs Burns were Arthur John (17), Clementina (15), Jane (13), Annie (8), Frances (6), and Agnes, the present Miss Burns, who was born at Portobello on April 7, 1847, and was about eight months old when the voyage began. With Mrs Burns there was a servant, Mary Ann Carrodus, and a nursemaid, Jane Patullo. In addition to the names given above the following heads of families travelled on the ship:—

Alex. Chalmers. James Williamson, James Adam, John Barr, David Bowers, James Brown, John Buchanan, Thomas Buchanan, Thomas Cuddie, James Cunningham, James Callander, George Crawford, James Christie, Charles Crawford, Andrew Dalziell, William Duff, John Ferguson, Robert Gillies, James Hare, Robert Hastie, James Kelloch, Hugh M'Dermid, Thomas Mackay, Alex. Mahone, Francis Marshall, John M'Lean, Alex. Macdonald. David Millar, Dugald Niven, James Patrick, Gavin Park, Thomas Robertson, James Robertson, Duncan Sinclair, William Stevenson, James Seaton, Robert Stewart, James Thorburn, James Ure, Alex. Watson, John Wallace, William Winton; and among others were George Aitken, John Bell, Alex. H. Bruce, R. Carrick, Alex. Dickson, John Dowell, John Humphrey, William Jaffray, James Kennedy, Alex. Livingston, Andrew Mercer, William Martin, John Mills, Francis and William M'Diarmid, William and James Pollock, George Ross, John Robertson, the Stevensons, John B. Todd, George Turnbull, James Tweedale, William Welsh. William Weatherburn, Andrew G. Watson, Mrs Isabella B. Stevenson (matron of the Philip Laing), Janet Milne, Jemima Robb, Ann Lorimer.

On leaving the harbour of Greenock the fair wind soon died away, and at midnight the ship was only three miles below the Clock Lighthouse. At 4 a.m. a fresh southwesterly wind sprang up, and Burns refers to the motion of the ship, the noise on the decks, and the beating up against the wind, all of which, with sea-sickness, "produced on board no slight foretaste of the discomforts of life in a ship."

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Sabbath, 28th.—Cast anchor in Lamlash Bay by daybreak. In the course of the day saw vessels that had gone down the Firth before us, passing by us on their way up again—not being able to run into Lamlash Bay, the wind having died away— and were drifting with the tide away back to the Cumbraes. Worship in the steerage last night and this morning, in which the passengers seemed to join with great cordiality. The weather being very disagreeable, and the passengers very much discomposed with sea-sickness, I did not propose to have sermon through the day. In the evening worship I addressed them on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Monday, 29th.—On getting up this morning found Goat-fell white with snow, with a wind quite fair for us at north-east—very cold. We could not take advantage of it immediately, however, as the ship required to be trimmed, some of the stores overhauled, and our empty water casks supplied from shore, to which last operation all the young men cabin passengers and seven or eight steerage volunteered their services. I gave Mr Donaldson money to buy as much timber on shore as will enclose the place (galley) where the coppers for dressing the food of: the steerage passengers are situated, it being at present so open that the fires kindle only with great difficulty, and the cooks are exposed to the weather. On their return Mr D. told me he had paid 18s for the wood. Worship at night.

For 10 days the ship lay in safety while terrific storms raged all round. Burns exercised the functions of his office in regard to discipline and receiving deputations on the subjects which invariably arise on board ship. He was confined to his cabin with a feverish chill and sore throat, and Mr Blackie conducted the devotions while the illness lasted. More bad weather was encountered after the Philip Laing left Lamlash Bay, and the people on board had their first experience of being battened down, with "everything loose driving crash, crash, in a way to awaken the liveliest apprehension amongst the steerage passengers."

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Sunday, December 12.—Waked at 5 a.m., and from window saw the early dawn of a beautiful day. Two lights apparently about a ship's length from each other. This turned out to be the two (St. Anne's) lighthouses at the entrance to Milford Haven, where we cast anchor about 7 a.m. All on board enjoyed the quiet and shelter of this magnificent basin. We had prayers after breakfast, and at 12.30 public worship— preached from Matthew xi: 28, "Come unto Me all that labour," etc., to a very full attendance, including the ship's officers and part of the crew. Preached again in the evening from Luke xix: 1 (Zaccheus)—also a very full and attentive audience.

For eight days the ship lay in Milford Haven, the wind continuing adverse. Even in those days labour troubles at sea were not unknown, for we read in the diary that the captain went to the magistrate ashore for "a warrant to arrest four of his men who refused to work—obviously for the purpose of effecting their escape from the ship. Of their treatment they have no cause of complaint. Finding the magistrate at Milford very old and unwilling to act, he is under the necessity of proceeding to Haverford West, 21 miles off." The passengers were glad of the opportunity of a respite, and they divided their time between visits ashore, airing their bedding and attending to the washing of their clothes. Burns secured a plumber to make repairs on the ship, in the interests of the emigrants, whose welfare always received his most earnest and practical attention.

Burns had brought on board a cow and a bull. The cow gave milk nearly all the time. At Milford two bushels of barley were obtained for feed, as both cattle had been affected by the rough weather. The water casks were filled and fresh meat was purchased for the steerage passengers. The refractory seamen received sentence of 21 days' imprisonment, and their places were filled at Milford. page 161Before leaving the Haven, Burns had the joy of receiving letters from his brothers William and Gilbert.

On Monday, December 20, with a north-east breeze the Philip Laing again put to sea, and the land had almost disappeared by 4 o'clock in the afternoon. A heavy roll was running, and further rough weather was experienced. The ship, being unable to carry sail, was drifting to leeward for some hours. Soon, however, more pleasant conditions prevailed in the latitude of the Scilly Isles, and the routine of the ship became established. Mr Blackie opened a Sunday School at 4.30 p.m. on December 26, and had assistance from Messrs Donaldson, Carnegie, and Bruce. The schoolmaster also held a day school throughout the voyage. Mr Donaldson put forth the first number of his newspaper, which was well received amongst the steerage passengers. A class for sacred music was opened, the different parts being taken up.

Burns gave the following review of the routine on board ship in a letter written after arrival at Port Chalmers, and dated May 2, 1848:—

We had divine service twice every week, and three times on Sabbath, and during the greater part of the voyage it was on deck. Not only did all, without exception, including the captain and his officers and men, attend, but I suppose we did not omit a diet of worship above half a dozen times during the four months and a-half from Greenock to Otago. Order was so well observed that a history of one day will be the history of the voyage. Here it is:—

At 6.30 a.m. the proper constable went along the steerage and warned the people to rise. At 7.30 he had every soul on deck, when the roll was called, the cleaning and scraping the floors and sprinkling with chloride of lime commenced, and, if not finished before breakfast, was finished after, and before worship. At 8.30 the cabin passengers went to breakfast. At 9 the steerage passengers began to have theirs served out to them.

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At 10.30 we had morning worship. At 11, or rather, immediately after worship, the school opened, six or eight passenger taking each a class, under the superintendence of the school-master, Mr Blackie. At 2 p.m. the steerage dinner was served out, the cabin dinner at 3. At 4 the afternoon school. At 5.30 the steerage tea; the cabin ditto at 6.30. At 7.30 evening worship. The congregational library was opened once a week, when books were returned and new ones issued. A newspaper in manuscript by a cabin passenger was published once a week, and another by a steerage passenger as often. The captain, the doctor, and the minister, a formidable triumvirate, conducted several criminal jury trials with great formality, and inflicted various punishments. Sometimes the proceedings were reported in presence of the congregation, at the close of divine service, and public rebuke administered. The state of discipline ultimately became very thorough. Out of school hours it was a very joyous scene to hear the obstreperous mirth of the children; and in the fine tropical evenings, the entire body of passengers being on deck, sometimes they practised church music, sometimes Scotch songs were sung.3

The narrative of the voyage is best given by extracts from the diary:—

Wednesday, 29th.—Wind almost fair at north-west, and blowing fresh, so that all night and up till now (11.30 a.m.) we have been going seven and eight knots, and sometimes more. Three vessels are ahead of us, a brig and a schooner, upon which we are gaining fast—the third, a small sloop, came within hail. She proved to be the Killarney, six days from the Downs, for Madeira. She bore away in a westerly direction as if for the Azores instead of Madeira. The bull and cow, in common with the passengers, have suffered from the terrible weather we have passed through. Within these two days the cow has again rallied, and now appears to be quite well.

Friday, 31st.—Beautiful morning, wind fair. Day school going on. Progress, eight knots all night—vessels almost out of sight. Clementina and Frances, who have been complaining a good deal, are rather better. In last 24 hours we have gone 192 miles—Deo gratias!

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The eventful year 1848 broke under auspicious skies, and it was probably the most orderly New Year's Day ever experienced by the passengers from Scotland! On Monday, January 3, Burns writes:—

A large ship astern of us. Were it a barque, might speculate as to her being the John Wickliffe. Temperature mild and warm—the sun rising gorgeously at 7—great change from Portobello at this moment. Efforts making to get the regulations more strictly observed by the steerage passengers. Mr Donaldson appointed an additional constable. Distressed to hear of profane language coming from certain of the emigrants. Spoke very seriously about it in the sermon last night.

Even the carefully selected settlers for Otago were only human after all. The wheat and chaff always manifest their true nature on board ship. Burns soon discovered that perfection is not to be found even in a Scottish Utopia. He proved himself to be an admirable administrator and disciplinarian in his position of supreme command at sea—a stringent test which has revealed weaknesses in many transport commanders. Burns sought to preserve discipline by the creation of the right spirit, but when necessity arose he did not shrink from strong measures for the punishment of evil-doers and the happiness of the little community under his charge.

Land was sighted when the ship passed San Antonia, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands on January 9. On the following day Burns recorded that three or four vessels were in sight. A French barque passed close to the Philip Laing, but made no reply to the display of the ensign.

Saturday, January 15.—It rained in torrents, a great deal of rain water being collected by the passengers. For the cows William Winton filled two casks nearly full. Two sharks appeared at the stern of the ship; a hook and line baited with a piece of pork was put down to them, when after a while page 164the smaller of the two, about two feet in length, was caught and hauled on deck.

Sunday, January 16.—Morning, torrents of rain filled a number of empty casks, two for the cattle. Usual morning worship. A beautiful evening. The whole ship heard the preaching. Immediately after evening service, was called down to pray at the bedside of Mr Brown's child; it died the same morning.

Monday, 17th.—Heavy rain all morning and all day. No morning worship, from the state of the weather and of matters on board. Another child, M'Lean's, died … buried after prayer on deck over ship's side; strong apprehension on board. Steaming, hot, pestilential weather; went down and prayed at the two parts of the ship where the bereaved parents are instead of the usual worship, as the assembling them together increased the suffocating heat and aggravated the close, heavy smell below, and it was too wet to have the worship on deck. Worship in the cabin.

Tuesday, 18th.—Signalled a brig, the John Scott, White-haven, and from Cardiff, which she left the same day we left Milford Haven, with a cargo of coals for Ceylon. She bore down to us in the evening, and hailed us and offered to give us the requisite supply of coals, which was accepted of in the hope of saving the necessity of going into the Cape.

Wednesday, 19th.—Great bustle on lowering a boat to get a few tons of coal from the John Scott, which prevented worship on deck. Great numbers of bonitos, dolphins, ships' jacks, albacors, boobies. Caught some bonitos. Almost no progress since Friday. Captain Noseworthy, of the John Scott, came on board. Both vessels lying to. Captain Noseworthy had his wife, his wife's sister, and his two young children along with himself.

Thursday, 20th.—Beautiful morning, with a fine steady breeze from south—a foul wind for us, unluckily—small advance. Worship on deck, taking my station on the poop by the rail in front overlooking the waist, where and on both poop and forecastle the audience was placed. All heard distinctly.

The Line was crossed on Monday, January 24, about 10 a.m. Burns had Mr Donaldson appointed assistant superintendent, for securing the better observance of the page 165regulations by the emigrants, and "preparing them for falling into similar habits of propriety and order when they shall, D.V., arrive in Otago." The captain was of opinion that the ship was becoming "jammed" in towards the American coast by the lack of the trade winds and the trend of the currents, which set in the direction of the Caribbean Sea. The health and spirits of all on board, including the animals, showed a considerable revival with the improvement in the weather. Burns opened up the boxes of books which had been supplied by friends in Scotland for the use of the party. The tropical evenings were happily spent in singing "the auld Scotch sangs," and the well-known Psalms and paraphrases.

Sunday, 30th.—Still more delightful weather, the sun too powerful in such a pure and cloudless sky to sit under, but the heat out of the sun, and especially in the afternoon, when the deck is shaded by the sails, is tempered by the fresh, dry invigorating breeze. Service three times. Received from Mr Donaldson a list of 42 male adults who have spontaneously formed themselves into an association for improving themselves in the knowledge of the Shorter Catechism. Intimated that, as it appears from the certificates, a number of the emigrants have not been communicants in any Church, and as it would be desirable that the ordinance of the Lord's Supper should be dispensed as soon after our arrival at Otago as circumstances will permit, I would be happy to meet with such as may be desirous of joining for the first time in that ordinance, and that their names be handed in to me through Mr Donaldson.

On February 1 a baby boy was born to Mr and Mrs James Brown. On the following day the marriage of William Jaffray to Margaret Hunter was celebrated, proclamation of the banns having been made in the parish of Mid-Calder, County of Edinburgh, prior to their departure. Burns intimated his intention to visit the various quarters of the ship. On February 6 a brawl page 166which might have had fatal consequences took place between a lad and one of the men. In the heat of anger the boy seized a knife and struck at the man with it. Fortunately, the blade was turned by the belt. On the following day an inquiry was held by Mr Burns, attended by the captain, the surgeon, the schoolmaster, and a jury of 12 steerage passengers. After careful consideration, the boy and man were sentenced to be publicly rebuked before the congregation after evening worship, the man to assist the cooks by carrying water for one week, and the boy to assist in cleaning the ship for a fortnight and to have his head shaved. One of the eye-witnesses has described the scene of the rebuke by Mr Burns following upon an insolent remark by the man who had provoked the boy to the effect that the punishment of the lad was "not nearly severe enough."

I have known Dr Burns as a preacher for five and twenty years. I have heard from his lips splendid bursts of eloquence during that time, but never did I see rage in such a grand and dignified attitude—the grey locks, the eagle eye, the Roman profile, the right hand stretched forward, the clear voice, the impassioned eloquence, and the profound silence of the on-lookers made up a picture which it is impossible to reproduce.4

Each day Burns recorded the ship's position in his diary, and made observations upon the weather and the speed of the vessel. He visited and conducted classes in the young men's quarters, the single women's, and the married people's portion of the ship in turn, after due announcement from the pulpit. On February 13 he baptised two children, the first to James Brown and Hannah Renfrew, named after the ship and its captain, Philip Elles, who died, however, before the completion of the voyage; and the second to Robert Gillies and Margaret page 167Gardiner, the baby girl named Margaret having been born in Scotland on June 11. At times the ship did from eight to nine knots an hour, but baffling winds retarded her course considerably. Worship was held twice, and on Sundays thrice, a day in good weather, Burns taking his stand "at the cabin door, the audience sitting, the greater part beneath the bulwarks along the waist of the ship—the cabin passengers, some on the front of the poop, some in the cabin." On February 20 a large shark was caught and hauled on board. On the same afternoon the ship Zenobia—Owen, master—was signalled, and the captain agreed to take letters from the Philip Laing to the Cape. Burns hurriedly wrote to his brother Gilbert, and asked him to report to Mr M'Glashan.

On March 10 Burns records the birth of a son to Mr and Mrs Niven, the child afterwards being baptised as David Elles Ramsay Niven. The marriage service was read on behalf of Mr and Mrs Carnegie, who had been married by civil law before leaving Scotland. Towards the end of March the weather turned cold, and a violent storm raged for some days. Windows were smashed by huge waves, and water poured through the starboard cabin. The hatches were all fastened down, and the ship rolled alarmingly. But Burns kept worship going three times on the Sunday, despite the gale. The buffeting proved to be too much for the cow, which had been ailing for some time, and she died when the tempest was at its height. By this time (the first week in April) the ship was south of Tasmania. On April 8 Burns described the Aurora Australis:—

A very remarkable Aurora appeared last night between 8 and 9 p.m. It covered the entire heavens, with the exception of the north and north-east horizon. It had the usual pale yellow coloured appearance that we are familiar with in page 168the northern hemisphere. But in the west, in a space covering the constellation Orion and for a considerable space around it, it was of a strong, deep, blood-red colour. But by far the most remarkable and beautiful feature was due north. Here the rays were concentrated with great accuracy round a centre as I have often observed the clouds form themselves into a figure described as Noah's Ark in Scotland. The crown of the sky about 9 p.m. presented an uncommonly striking and lovely appearance, suggesting the idea of the Medusae, called jelly fish or blubber fish, when cast on shore with its rays of different hues.

With the approach to New Zealand Burns began estimating the distance as the crow flies from Otago, the land of his dreams. The closing entries regarding the voyage are of interest:—

Thursday, 13th.—Lat. 47, 40, S. Long. 168, 19, E. Distance, 110 miles. Thermometer 55¼. At midnight again the ship was again put about on the seaward track, but made no progress. The day cleared up to be fine and sunny. Thomas Cuddie's wife was delivered of a boy about midnight; both doing well. All in hopes of seeing land.

Friday, 14th.—Saw land last night a little before sunset (a sunset of most remarkable beauty), being the north-east point of Stewart's Island. This morning the wind light and from N.N.W. We were off the mouth of the Clutha.

Saturday, 15th.—This morning made Taiaroa's Head. The pilot, Richard Driver, showing a recommendatory letter from Mr Kettle, came on board about 9 a.m., and took the ship in charge. Deo Laus.

Writing a few days later (April 25), with a full and thankful heart to the Rev. John Sym, of Free Greyfriars' Church, Edinburgh, Burns thus described the conclusion of the voyage:—

After the lapse of nearly four months, without seeing aught but the heavens above us and the wide waste of waters all round us, the ship, like a thing of life and of more than mortal sagacity, glided with perfect precision, and without hesitation or mistake, into its destined place at the farthest corner page 169of the earth. What a "triumphant display" I could not help saying to myself as we passed up this peaceful haven to Port Chalmers, and found that there could be no doubt that we were in the right place, although not a creature on board had ever been in these seas before. What a triumphant display of the art of navigation!

After reviewing the voyage, paying a tribute to the captain and surgeon, and quoting the statistics of four infants' deaths, three births, and three marriages, Burns continued:—

My first impressions of Otago surpass my anticipations, which certainly were high enough. The harbour throughout the entire 14 miles to which it extends is one uninterrupted scene of most romantic beauty. Nothing but hills on both sides—steep and bold headlands, and peninsulas of various forms—descending to the water's edge and forming little bays of hard sand; all of them without a single exception densely clothed from the water up to their very summits with evergreen woods presenting an unrivalled scene of the richest sylvan green and alpine beauty.

The John Wickliffe, after a fast voyage, had reached Otago Harbour on March 23, and was lying at anchor off Port Chalmers as the Philip Laing approached. Deafening cheers arose from both ships as the anchor plunged into the calm waters of the bay. Three incidents in connection with the arrival have been preserved to us. The pilot, Richard Driver, endeavoured to scare the passengers by dwelling on the cruel intentions of his Maori rowers, and he caused much amusement by his quaint stories. Asked as to the relative merits of Wellington and Otago, he replied that he "would rather be hanged in Otago than die a natural death in Wellington!" The steep and wooded heights surrounding the harbour on all sides caused some concern to the new settlers, who failed to see how such land could be cleared and ploughed. Burns, whose practical knowledge of agriculture always proved of value page 170to the farmers, took the men aside and explained to them that the rural lands were in the Taieri, Tokomairiro, and the Clntha plains, and not on the hills which confronted them. Immediately, their anxiety gave place to joy and confidence. The third incident had to do with the school-master. As the ships drew together on arrival one of the small boys lost his balance and fell overboard. Without a moment's hesitation Mr Blackie dived into the water and rescued the child, both being hauled on board the Philip Laing amid acclamations made all the heartier by a touch of heroism.

1 The diary of the Rev. T. D. Nicholson has recently been donated to the Early Settlers' Library by the descendants of the first minister of Nelson. The writer of these memoirs desires to thank the Rev. J. H. MacKenzie, Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, for his good offices in this and in other matters connected with the early history of the province. The diary is entitled "A Collection of Seaweed," and consists mainly of general reflections, illustrated here and there with pen and ink drawings. Strangely enough, Captain Cargill's name is not mentioned in the account of the voyage of the John Wickliffe. We shall have occasion to refer to this journal later in the present work.

2 Lists of the passengers of the early ships are to be found in Hocken's Early History (Appendix F), but there are several errors and omissions. Edward Lee should be included.

3 From a letter (clearly by Burns) published in the Scottish Guardian, and the Otago Journal, No. III, p. 41.

4 (4) James Adam, "Twenty-five Years of Emigrant Life in the South of New Zealand."