State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 12 October 1973



The name of Howitt looms large in Victorian history. Three brothers — William (1792–1879), Richard (1799–1870), and Godfrey (1800–1873) —all played their parts, briefly or at length (see Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 4). William's son, Alfred William (1830–1908), explorer, natural scientist and pioneer anthropologist, is among the greatest Australians and is the subject of Mary Howitt Walker's Come Wind, Come Weather (Melbourne University Press, 1971).
William Howitt was an extraordinary literary entrepreneur and social reformer who, with his wife Mary, published some 180 works. In 1852–4 he was in Victoria, seeking gold. His Land, Labour and Gold is one of the classics of the goldrush period and he wrote several other books relating to Australia.
In 1972 Mary Howitt Walker, together with members of her family, presented the Howitt Papers to the La Trobe Library. In so far as they relate to A. W. Howitt, they now make up one of the Library's major manuscript collections; but included in them also is a manuscript autobiography by William — over 1,300 pages in length and running to something like 350,000 words.
It is a major document in mid-nineteenth century English history. It relates to Australia only in small part and duplicates much of the content of Land, Labour, and Gold. Moreover, it was written in old age, some twenty years after the events, is unreliable in detail, and no doubt puffed up by vanity. Yet we print it as a graphic, extremely entertaining report of a voyage on an emigrant ship (the editor knows no better). Come Wind, Come Weather (pp. 24–33) and Ann Blainey, The Farthing Poet (London, 1968) pp. 190–95, provide corrective accounts of the voyage.
Through the fine weather of the tropics, whilst still on board many people found much pleasure in quietly sitting and reading whilst the ladies sat and sewed on deck. In the evenings after tea all came up to see the splendid sunset, to breathe the cool fresh air from the seas and sometimes a dance was got up, but more frequently on the lower deck than on the upper. The intermediates assembled there, however, commonly in such number that there [was] no dancing room and they amused themselves with singing, often in chorus. How many scores of times had we to listen to the Red Cross Knight, Annie Laurie, The Land to which we are going, or the like.
But if eating was a great occupation on board drinking was a still greater. I have said that Captain Terry had been encouraged by the shipowners or the charterers of the ship, to make a good thing of his three months possession of more than 300 customers, and had laid in ample stores of beer and Indian arrack, which he had christened brandy, besides a tolerable stock of wines. This liquor, chiefly beer and his brandy, soon came into full play amongst the intermediates. It is curious, or was so then, I don't know whether any more recent law has been passed on the subject, that the cabin passengers might purchase on the voyage wine or spirits, but the intermediates not. There were severe penalties on sale of these to them. Notwithstanding, the Captain without any fear that those whom he thus obliged might at the end of the voyage turn informers and make him heavily rue his illicit trade, opened a regular tap, and kept his
second mate constantly employed in serving out liquors. The consequences were not long invisible; especially as we entered the hotter latitudes did his spirit trade increase and flourish. Some of the sailors were observed to be occasionally unsteady in their walk and clumsy in the performance of their duties in regulating the sails. Often I saw the colour come into the Captain's face when the ship missed stays, or some other failure occurred. As we proceeded he became more and more out of temper in giving his commands, and grimly watchful of the manner in which these commands were carried out. It became no secret that the intermediates treated the sailors, that in a word, they were tipsy often when on duty. The peril of this state of things while far out at sea and in danger any hour of tempests upsetting us were too obvious not to cause alarm in those of any reflection. None, however, had the courage to speak to the Captain about what he ought to see himself and no doubt did see, but was led to tolerate from self-interest. I never however hesitated on the whole voyage to say to the Captain what appeared important to me that should be said although we all knew how touchy he was on all points which concerned his management of his vessel. I therefore repeatedly [hinted?] to him the danger arising from the sale of liquor: but he generally received my remarks without making any reply.
He was evidently not the least bit pleased by them, and that all the more that he knew that they were just.
One fine evening, however, after tea I went on deck according to my usual habit, to see the beauty of the evening sunset and afterglow, and to enjoy the fresh breeze. To my intense astonishment I saw the sun running all round the sky at a rapid rate. For a moment I did not comprehend the phenomenon, the next I knew that it was the vessel which was whirling round, and casting a glance at the wheel I saw that it was loose, no hand was upon it, and it was spinning round in a distracted manner. The man-at-the-wheel was drunk and had let it go out of his hands, and was lying on his back at some distance on the deck. I ran to the cuddie-window which was open and called to the Captain that the man had let the helm go! He had already become aware of it by the spinning round of the ship, and rushed on deck. Already, too, several of the sailors were flying towards the wheel. First in advance was the ship's carpenter, to whom I cried out not to attempt to stop the wheel himself, it was too violently moved for a single man to arrest it. With an “Oh nonsense!” he rushed on. attempted to seize the furious wheel, and the next moment was whirled over it, and flung with frightful violence on the deck close beyond it, and his thigh jambed between its lower rim and the deck. This obstruction stopped the wheel. Two or three others then darted at it, and secured it. The ship stood still and so did the sun. It was with great difficulty that the carpenter was got from under the pressure of the wheel, and it was found that besides being violently shaken and bruised, his thigh was broken. His “Oh Nonsense!” nearly cost him his life, and laid him up for nearly two months with the endurance of severe agony.
This was a warning to the Captain which he ought to have profited by, and which he promised to do. I represented to him what he knew better than myself, that we were saved from going down only by this happening on a smooth sea, and in full daylight. Had we been followed by great rolling waves, as is often the case with what they call a fair wind, that is a wind directly abaft, it would certainly have gone over the ship and carried us all to the bottom.
Serious, however, as had been the danger, the sale of spirits did not slacken. There was merely more secrecy used in the conveyance of the liquor from the part where it was sold by the people who fetched it. Another evening some time after, a very different evening, one of what the sailors call dirty weather, a wet, drizzly, cloudy, miserable evening, I was still sitting at the tea table and heard suddenly a rushing and running overhead on the main deck, as though we had been boarded by some pirate band. The noise, shoutings, angry voices, and curses were altogether most horrible. I rushed on deck and saw a most extraordinary spectacle. The Captain with his coat and waistcoat stripped from his back standing in his shirt and trousers with a face red as a lobster, was uttering the most frantic commands that no one paid the least regard to. The fact was that the sailors were again drunk and the Captain was ordering one, a little fiery Irishman, into irons. The little man defied him and the rest of the sailors on duty declared that if he put one into irons he must put all. It clearly was a mutiny in the ship. All command was at an

The Kent on which Howitt made his voyage

end. Around stood about 70 intermediates declaring themselves ready to back up the sailors. There was nothing for it but for the Captain to give way. He at once, therefore, changed his tone, besought the drunken Irishman to obey orders and to go to his hammock. The little Irishman was obliging enough to accede to this proposal, and then the Captain turned in a pathetic mood to the intermediates saying “Gentlemen, now you see the consequences of your treating the sailors. This is all through you. The whole of my crew is drunk. I would have called out the other watch which is off duty, but I find them all drunk too in their hammocks. We are in an awful position. Still 5000 miles from land and the ship in the hands of the crew all drunk. I believe the man at the helm is not sober — and all defying the Captain and his orders.” “That is quite true, Captain,” I observed, “We are all at the mercy of a crew of drunken and mutinous sailors, and there is one man more responsible for this than all the rest.” “Where is he?” demanded the Captain, “point him out.” “Thou art the man!” I said, stretching my hand towards him. “If you did not sell the liquor, the passengers could not treat the sailors with it. You know that I have often warned you of this: but now it is come to a crisis. I have no wish to become informer, but I have still less wish to go to the bottom which must be the case with all of us unless the sale of liquors is stopped. You must cut off this traffic Captain, or I will, on landing at Melbourne, give notice of this state of things to the Colonial officer, and you will be fined to the extent of more than all you will have made by your illegal trade.”
“It shall be done!” said the Captain solemnly; and we dispersed, but not in the greatest confidence of our safety for the night. But though the Captain had had so startling a proof of the danger of his liquor sale, it went to his heart to have it stopped; it was far too great a source of profit. The next morning at breakfast he was unusually glum and silent; breakfast had nearly passed over, everyone feeling that there was something very [bitter?] in the Captain's mind and consequently causing a general taciturnity. At length the smouldering fire broke forth.
“There are some people” said he testily, “in this ship, who think they can manage it much better than me.”
“Indeed,” I said, sitting as I always did, at his elbow. “Who are they Captain? If it reguards the nautical management of the ship, they are unquestionably wrong for we all know that you are an experienced sailor and steer your vessel admirably; but if it reguards the moral management of the vessel, why, there is nothing to be said. We had some rather frightful proof last night that the economical conduct of affairs on board might be better.”
“Um!” grunted he. “I would not be in some people's shoes who are in this cabin. The intermediates are in an ominous humour at the cutting off of their tap; and everyone knows who has done it.”
“I am glad of it, Captain, the blame of that measure does not lie with you,” I said: “and so far as I am concerned I am quite satisfied that all should know that it starts with me.”
“But it is a terrible situation; nothing is easier of a dark night when some people like frequently to walk the deck and see the stars shining, or lean over the poop and watch the sea-fire in the ship's wake: nothing is easier than for a few strong fellows to come behind and hoist their enemy over the bulwark.”
“True, Captain,” said I. “That would be a catastrophe but then one knows that it cannot happen.”
“Cannot happen! Nothing I say is so easy. It could be done in a moment and no boat could be put out in time or if it could, in the darkness of what avail?”
“That is true, Captain, but then it could not be done, I say. We all here have put ourselves under your protection: you are responsible for our lives and safeties and I am sure if there be any such danger as you represent, you have taken or will take all necessary precautions. I shall for my part walk on deck at all my usual hours; watch the sea-fire from the stern, and enjoy myself at all times without a single fear, trusting that I am under the protection of the experienced Captain Terry and of [his?] responsibilities [?].
With that I rose and went on deck. Numbers of the intermediates had assembled about the cabin door; and greeted me with a grim silence, and scarcely allowed me room to pass to the deck ladder. I heard some of them mutter “There goes our friend: there goes Father Matthew the second.” At dinner the Captain had lost none of his gloom, and hinted that there was tremendous discontent below deck. I took no notice, nor did any one. After tea, as usual, I went on deck to witness the sunset, and found the whole of the male portion of the intermediates, or nearly so, collected on their deck, nearly 300 strong. As I ascended the ladder, they commenced a terrific groaning and hissing. No anxious candidate at an election had ever a more clamorous or goose-like hissing reception. Many of the cabin passengers, the Captain also, were on the main deck, and Mr. R. H. Horne ran to me exclaiming, “Howitt this is frightful, it is terrible! Make some little apology to them — say you are sorry for what has happened, or something.”
“Mr. Horne” I said aloud that all might hear me, “when I am mad enough to make an apology to the wild beasts in the Zoological Garden, then I will make one to these wild creatures.” And turning towards the riotous assembly, I raised my hand for silence. All was still at once. “My friends” I said, “if you like this sort of thing, so do I; do groan and hiss as long and as loudly as you like; it pleases me.” and I walked away towards the stern. The noise was soon at an end, as they saw that it had no effect. But the Captain still wore a dark cloud on his brow. His profits were at an end for a time, and I have little doubt that the disturbance below had been very much fermented and concerted by himself. From that time forward the sale of spirits was apparently at an end: but it was only apparently; it was carried on, but clandestinely, and necessarily on a much less scale. There were no more drunken riots or mutinies or cases of the helm going out of the hands of the steersman.
After some time the Captain [?] began one day a conversation on the subject of the suppressing of the sale of spirits. He said it was very hard on so many men whose time hung very heavily on their hands having nothing to do, and so very few sources of amusement, that they could not take a social glass together. “Here,” said he, “the cabin passengers have daily wine on their table, and can buy more if they like. Does it not seem very invidious whilst intermediates are not allowed a drop?”
“It does so,” I observed, “looking at the case abstractly, but then Captain, you know there are reasons for it. You have seen what the social glass of the intermediates has led to; the fuddling of the whole crew, the destruction of your own command, and the imminent danger of the loss of the vessel and of all in it. On the other hand I have not observed one of the cabin passengers who has shown an inordinate love of the bottle, not a single symptom of intoxication amongst them. And there is danger to yourself of information for illegal sale of spirits from some of these rude uneducated men when they get to shore and see an opportunity of making a quick sum at your expense.”
“Pho,” said the Captain, “I don't trouble myself about any fine for the sale of liquor on board. I have the act of Parliament and the fine is only £100 for the whole voyage.”
“Indeed! Would you allow me to see your act of Parliament?”
“Certainly,” said Captain Terry and went to his cabin to fetch it. I also went to my cabin for my act of Parliament. When I examined the Captain's act I saw the penalty was just what he had said. “But now Captain,” I said, “examine my act which is of more recent date, and you will see that you are liable to a fine of £20 for every glass of liquor sold by you to intermediates on the voyage.”
The Captain took the act, perused with a grave air, and then said “This is serious. I must be on my guard.” The lesson was not lost: a more strict hand was put on the contraband sale. The crew remained sober, and the ship and passengers all came safe to land. This is, however, a specimen of the way in which laws regarding the selling of spirituous liquors at sea were then obeyed, whatever may be the case now: and might help to explain the foundering of vessels on the high seas where there were no rocks or shoals to occasion it.
This our Captain was a curiosity in his way. He [was] according to his own ideas a very
religious man. Every Sunday morning he had the Church service for the day read aloud at the poop rail by the surgeon as there was no clergyman on board. As few of the intermediates attended, the Captain himself went down between decks in the afternoon, and read a sermon to them, and so much was he affected himself by the reading that tears came into his eyes and frequently he wept outright. This did not in the least, however, prevent his attention to his pecuniary interest. All the Sunday he lost his second mate, that is, before the period of the occurrence just related, serving out liquors: and on his return from his most tender exhibition of piety below deck, he would call for his second mate, retire with him into his cabin, and you would immediately hear the chinking of money. One day he came out rubbing his hands and observed how much the passengers drank on Sunday even adding that he had taken £10 that day! …
In the last part of the voyage we passed the Island of Ascension and port of Tristan D'Acuna, the latter a high rocky isle, under whose precipices we sailed closely. We were very anxious to have a run upon it but our entreaties were vain. We were told that only some goats inhabited the rocks and that the whalers of the southern seas came there occasionally for a rest and for sport amongst the wild goats, as well as for fresh water.
We gave a wide birth to the Cape of Good Hope, but had ample experience of what are called the Cape rollers, lofty waves of a remarkably regular character, that came on at regular intervals in regular lines of miles in length. High rolled on these regular water ridges, and appeared as though they would go over the ship, but only as they approached, heaved it up, carried it over and into the trough of sea, or as the sailors called it, into the intervening water vales. Thus we went on now aloft, now below, but always with an easy secure motion. Past the Cape we spun along the 40th degree of latitude past Tasmania, but too far off to see, and first beheld land near the opening into Port Phillip Bay in which Melbourne stands about 40 miles up. The wooded heights of Cape Otway showed themselves with their singular spectacle of trees that, range upon range appeared as if they had been blasted with lightning, but probably they had been reached by bush fires. Ninety miles before we reached Port Phillip we perceived a strong fragrance coming from the land which we found was from the profuse blossom of the most common species of Acacia, or Wattle of the Colony then in full flower. It reminded us of the line in Milton of the odours blown far to sea from “Araby the Blessed”.
As we approached the Heads or opening into Port Phillip Bay, it was drawing towards night, and the careful Captain Terry, though a pilate had come off to him would not pass through the Heads till morning. Quietly he cast anchor outside, notwithstanding the intense impatience of the passengers to get to land. “I have brought you safe so far” he said, “and I mean to take you safe into the Bay, but as I never was here before, I prefer lying outside till morning.”
Certainly Captain Terry was careful of his ship and passengers. How different the rashness of many! A few years, I think, afterwards, the Captain of the Dundas bound for Sydney, after a most remarkably prosperous voyage, arrived at the Heads of Sydney Harbour, at night, would go in, stuck on one of the lofty perpendicular rocks, betwixt which you enter Bay, and went with all his crew and passengers to the bottom! Between those high, perpendicular precipices there would be no saving of lives. Captain Terry if he could not cast anchor outside would have put about a few times till morning, and entered it safely.
A curious thing, however happened to our Captain that night. The pilate who had come on board had a bed for him made up under the dining table in the cuddy, there being not a single birth vacant. Early in the morning I heard the the Captain speaking to him, and my door being open, I heard all that passed.
“Pilate, do you know what has happened?”
“No, what is it?”
“Half of my sailors have clandestinely seized my gig, and are gone off to the Diggings.”
“Oh! Very likely, and tonight the other half will probably follow them.”
This was not very consolitary for the Captain. “They did it very cleverly,” he added.
“The boat was fastened by an iron chain which was locked but they sprung a link with [space in ms.]. Tonight if they try the same game they will find me prepared for them. I will have the boat chain brought through the port-hole of the Chief Mate's birth and the least moving of it will wake him up.” That day we anchored in Hobson's Bay and waited for the visit of the officers of the Customs before any of us were allowed to land. In the morning, the Captain found another batch of his crew gone notwithstanding his precautions. This time, he said the boat they had taken was old and rotten, a comfortable observance for the passengers had they had in case of wreck to have attempted to escape in it, at some good distance from land, and most likely in stormy weather. “It was old and rotten,” said the Captain, “but then we are close in upon the land.” Both his boats he found left somewhere on the shore secured, and were readily recovered.
This day there were a number of newspaper dealers on board, and a fine market they had. For three months the passengers had been without the sight of a newspaper and all were eager to learn whether the prospects at the Diggings were as golden as ever. They were very well satisfied. A vessel going out of harbour for Sydney, the Wild Irish Girl, was hailed vociferously by the passengers with inquiries after Digging statistics. “All right! All right!” replied the people on board of the Wild Irish Girl, and our intermediates saluted them with an Hurra!
An important, official-looking personage appeared on deck with a book and papers under his arm, and desired to see the Captain's log-book which was at once produced to him with the name of the vessel, the number of passengers, and when she left London. All these particulars were duly noted down in the gentleman's book, the Captain taking him for an officer of the port. In putting the question to him however as to what was his official character, the Captain found to his great indignation that he was only the reporter of the Melbourne Argus. The Captain looked upon him as an imposter and told him he ought to know better than to come in that authoritative style and [?] his log and papers, in that unceremonious manner.”
“Ought! ought!” said the reporter with a laugh tucking his book and papers under his arm and preparing to depart. “There is neither ought nor must here. Good morning, Captain.”
“Neither ought nor must here!” repeated Captain Terry in a tone of mingled consternation and disgust, as he looked after the brisk, nonchalant man descending the ladder into his boat. “Neither ought nor must! What sort of a place are we got to?” The incident seemed to make a very serious impression on his mind, for he continued to repeat the phrase again and again, and I have no doubt that it made him feel that it was necessary to have all his sense about him in so lawless a country.
That day we made a general exodus from the vessel into the town of Melbourne, all eager to see what sort of a place it was, and to visit our friends, such of us as had any, the rest to make the quickest preparations for landing theireffects and getting up the country to the regions paved with gold.