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Week 12 - Crossing the line

[ 8th of May 1836 to 14th of May 1836 ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 12 - Pirates and Piracy ]

As the Duke of York nears the Equator the crew hopes to have a bit of fun. Crossing the Line ceremonies were common on sailing vessels and often involved ‘King Neptune’ coming on board to ‘baptise’ first timers.  Crew members and passengers might be ‘shaved’ with big mock razors and all by-standers were often doused with water. But Captain Morgan has other ideas. He is offended by these ‘heathen practices’  and heroically (according to his diary) protects his passengers from such indignities. In recording these events he cannot resist a little moralizing about his own superiority!

But this skylarking pales into insignificance beside the drunkenness and cruelty on board the Lady Mary Pelham. This finally ends in tragedy with the death of the first mate James Doine Thompson of a ‘brain fever’, brought on, it is said, by ‘excessive drinking.’ In an extraordinary letter to George Fife Angas, the second mate, Alexander Dawsey, claims that Thompson and the third mate  Walter Edmunds had been in a  permanent ‘State of Intoxication’ from the moment they left England. He provides a particularly graphic account of Thompson’s death, in the full grip of a terrifying delirium in which he believes himself to be surrounded by malignant phantoms. Thompson leaves a widow: ‘a stranger among a strange people going to a strange land’, as Robert Morgan writes. Women took particular risks in deciding to emigrate at this time, as the fate of a widow without family support was dire. We will try to discover what happens to Mrs Thompson after the voyage.

The John Pirie meanwhile is lolling about in the tropics, the passengers vainly seeking some air on deck.  Accommodation below decks is said to be ‘like a hot oven’. The crew finally manages to catch a A porpoise is a small marine mammal related to whales and dolphins. The word ‘porpoise’ has sometimes been used by sailors and fishermen to refer to any small dolphin. porpoise , providing all on board with a change from salt meat, which makes everyone feel better.

1849 sketch of a sailor trying to catch a porpoise while standing on the bowsprit of the ship

Trying for a porpoise. Edward Snell, 1849.


Journals from passengers at sea:

Monday 9 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

This 24 hours gentle breeses from the S E
all sail set people employd variously 2 sail
in sight AM Observed. Obsd  a distance between the À
and Å which gives our longd 20.9 West
Lattd 1.19 North
Commended my all to God in Christ in the
morning and went through the day stayd
on the promices of God in the evening the people
came aft to inquire if I whould let them go through
the Crossing the equator ceremony. usall costom of shaveing I told them I whould
not give my consent and stated the reason the first
was in a ship I was in when a boy we had one of the ablest
of the seaman drownded in drawing water to heave
over others the next was it was a beastly practice and
was attended in general with envy malice and other
ill consequences which I had known to create and
remain dureing a whole voyage  I whould not santion it
in the evening Mrs Richards, Glansford and myself had
prayers on the Technically a stern deck, the poop is an exposed partial deck on the stern (rear) of a ship. It forms the roof of the stern or ‘poop’ cabin. poop

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Tuesday 10 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

This 24 hours gentle breeses from the SSE plesent
weather all sail set steering SWd Observed. Obsd a distance bet
ween the À and Å gives our longitude 21.55 West
Lattd Obsd 30 miles South

in the afternoon the people came on deck and
commenced the Crossing the equator ceremony. old heathen practice of shaveing
which I disapproved off before them last night
they sluced ceveral with water and was going down
in the cabin to bring up the The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate. steerage passengers
which I prevented by steping foreward and stoping
they went away and broke up thier game my sperit
was greaved but I felt it my duty to stand before
the leaders of this affair and if a thousand had
bing before me I felt confident thet Lord was on
my side and I whould not fear what man could
do unto me …
in the afternoon the people stood in the midle of
the deck and gave three cheers for the Captn three
for the colonial manager and three for the passengers
afterward they where going through many mernuvers
on decks my mind at this time was better felt than
I could express it I felt and see what I once was like
could take delight in sutch what I now see to be foolish
ness I was once like them but now brought right to
God …

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Wednesday 11 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

A military exercise in rifle handling. Drilled the The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate. steerage passengers with arms lent by Captain Rolls.
Lat. 4.21. Long. about 23. for the last three days, we had lost the N.E. Regular winds which move towards the equator within or near the tropics. The earth’s rotation drags them so that in the northen hemisphere they blow from the north-eastward and in the southern from the south-eastward. trade , and now experienced Without wind. calms and light winds from East with rain.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Thursday 12 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

12th. Rainy, and light breeze from E. and by South, apparent the beginning of Regular winds which move towards the equator within or near the tropics, the earth’s rotation dragging them such that in the northen hemisphere they blow from the north-eastward and in the southern from the south-eastward. trades . Within the last two or three days the decks have been cleared and the passengers below, made comparatively comfortable. A great deal of A ship pitches when its head plunges up and down under the action of waves. pitching , wife and myself sick. Up to this period of the voyage saw very few A family of marine fish (Exocoetidae family) consisting on some 64 species. The species’ defining feature is their wing-like pectoral fins used for gliding above the water’s surface for up to 50 metres. Flying fish live in all oceans, but are particularly prevalent in warm tropical and sub-tropical waters. flying fish , and those not till we passed St. Antonio. Scarcely any birds, one tropical bird was seen 2 days S. of St. Antonio. A medium sized fish in the Mackerel family. Bonito and A type of tuna fish found in all tropical and temperate oceans. Albacore were seen in great numbers. Some of these fish were seen to leap upwards of 20 feet out of the water, and to spring horizontally upwards of 30 feet, apparently in pursuit of the flying fish. The A jelly like marine animal (more commonly known as a bluebottle jellyfish). Portuguese man-of-war was met with, of a large size, before reaching the Cape Verdes and afterwards very frequently but smaller. The top of the sail they put up is tinged with rose colour and the lower part reflects [?] the blue of the tendrils.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Thursday 12 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

This 24 hours strong winds and clear weather at 7 AM
To speak a ship is to communicate with it by voice or signals. spoke the Thomas Bell of new castle bound to swan
sea from valporaiso they whare short of bread
we suplyd them with three hundread weight
PM To speak a ship is to communicate with it by voice or signals. spoke the lady Mary Pellham belonging to the
The South Australian Company. company as ourselves Mr Stevens and myself went
on board found all well on board but had
lost the chief mate by hard drinking brought
on a brain fever which took him off in a most
horrid state of mind has left a widow on board
a stranger among a strange people going to a
strange land …

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Friday 13 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]


At 8, A,M, a Vessel To ‘heave to’ is to reduce a ship’s sails and adjust them so they counteract each other and stop the ship making progress. It is a safety measure used to deal with strong winds. hove in sight astern (being the first
we have seen since the 28th Abbreviation for ultimo, of last month. Ult , She sailed remarkably
fast, and was soon near enough, for us to make her out,
to be a suspicious looking A small vessel of two or more masts whose principle sails are fore-and-aft. Schooner , so all our A muzzle-loaded, smooth bore long gun, fired from the shoulder. Muskets
&c, were got ready, in case of being attacked, we therefore
To hoist and display the ship’s flag. hoisted our Colours , when She was about 2, or 3, Miles, off us,
and which, in the course of ¼ of an Hour, was answer’d by
her, showing the Flag of Portugal, She then hauled close
to the Wind, and was soon out of sight, there is little doubt
but She was either a A ship used for piracy, the act of robbery or violence on the high seas. Pirate , or A ship transporting slaves for sale in a suitable market. Slave Vessel ,   ______

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Saturday 14 May 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

There has been a light Air of Wind, all Night, from E,N,E,
but at 8, A,M, it became quite Without wind. Calm , and the heat was
really intolerable untill 2, P,M, at which time, a gentle Breeze
sprang up again from E,N,E, which made it a little more
cool, but at 6, P,M, we had another Without wind. Calm    ______   Most of
the Passengers have slept upon Deck, every Night, for
the last Week, as the The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate. Steerage is like a hot Oven,  ______
We have seen a great number of A porpoise is a small marine mammal related to whales and dolphins. The word ‘porpoise’ has sometimes been used by sailors and fishermen to refer to any small dolphin. Porpoises , and other large
Fish, swiming about the Vessel, for several Days past, but
have never been able to catch One, untill this Morng, when
at 6, O’Clock, (having made a Shark-hook out of an Iron
Bolt,) we had the pleasure to haul in One of these voracious
Animals, which was afterwards Cook’d, and consider’d a great
treat by the People, who it served to every Meal, du-
-ring the Day   _____________

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Friday 3 June 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Another account of the death of the Chief Mate on the Lady Mary Pelham was included in a letter from Alexander Dawsey, second mate,   to GF Angas, written on 3 June 1836:

To G F Angas Esqr At Sea June 3th 1836

Sir

It is with Feelings of some re
-gret I write you stateing the death of Mr I. Doine
Thompson on the 3d of May after about Four days
illness perhapes and I may say unwillingly the
effects of his own Imprudent conduct in a very
excessive use of ardent Spirits which Finally
so undermin’d the nervious system as to cause
Mental derangement in which State he died
every means being used so far as Judgement
and the nature of the circumstances would
afford to recover him but without effect, his
excitement of Mind being Such as to admit
of no Argument that would induce him to
think otherwise, than that he was Surrounded
by the Most horrid Forms and Wretched phan
toms hurrying him into an eternal world, To
this extreme had his Vicious Propensities been
carried, In Fact from the time the Ship left
the River Mersey until death put a period
to His existence, he may truly be said to have
Spent in a State of Intoxication and drunk’ness
clandestinly using alike every Spirit in the
Ship even to a whole case of Wine excepting about
three bottles…
…  Your’s with
every Sentiment of Respect

Very devoted Servt
Alexander Dawsey

On board the Ship
Lady Mary Pelham of the
Cape of Good Hope

[ Read the full journal extract ]


As the Cygnet approaches the tropics a general malaise seems to infect the ship.  The passengers are fractious and the crew mutinous.  Boyle Travers Finniss determines on a thorough clean up. But on the Lady Mary Pelham the crew is more sober.

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Comments or Questions:

2 Responses to “Week 12 – Crossing the line”

  1. Fried Poul October 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Wow……. it’s great to learn about the sea journey of a lifetime….. I’ve enjoyed reading all the lines of your post. I think their activities through the sea are very risky. . Thanks for being true about this :)

  2. Ian Modjo May 9, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    As a retired South Aussie living in Kupang, Indonesia, I am thoroughly enjoying your posts and look forward to what’s to come. Especially being able to relate the names of the participants [ Angas, Finniss, Pirie, etc ] to places in South Australia which perpetuate their memory.

    Thanks heaps to the team.

    Ian Modjo

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