Absconders

One of the hazards for ship captains on the voyage to Australia was that seafarers might desert the ship.

When seafarers joined a ship they signed the articles, a legal contract that set out their pay and conditions and bound them to complete the voyage. Seafarers who left their ship or refused to work broke the law and captains could ask police to charge them.

However, there were many reasons that crew might want to leave. Conditions were tough, pay was poor, discipline could be harsh and in the small isolated community of the ship seafarers were vulnerable to bullying. Seafarers may have been drawn to leave their ships by news from home, or the attractions of new lands.

Captains could find it difficult to impose the law when their ships had to leave port or when they stopped in foreign lands. Captains avoided stopping in ports such as Cape Town in South Africa because they could expect that one or more crew would sneak off the ship and leave them short of hands.

James Smith joined the ship Sir Robert Seppings sailing from London to Hobart in 1852. He and a friend absconded because they were bullied by the officers. They rowed ashore in the middle of the night when their ship was anchored off the coast of Victoria. However, they were questioned by police and imprisoned. They were taken before a magistrate who said he would punish them unless they agreed to return to their ship. Smith refused to return. He explained that he had been bullied and won the sympathy of the magistrate who said he would impose the minimum punishment allowed by the law – one month in prison with hard labour.

Smith’s friend did agree to return to the ship so the court did not impose a penalty. However once onboard, he was locked up and fed only bread and water and in desperation he tried to escape again.

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