Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (Wilson)/Chapter 1




&c. &c.


Arrival at Sydney—Hobart Town—Departure for Batavia—Attempted Passage round Cape Leuwin unsuccessful—Bass's Straits—Wreck Reef—Eastern Fields—Murray's Island— The "Governor Ready" wrecked on a Coral Reef in Torres' Straits—The Crew take to the Boats, intending to proceed to Melville Island—The ship abandoned.

The ship "Governor Ready," 512 tons, was, shortly after her arrival from Van Dieman's Land in 1828, chartered by the Commissioners of the Navy, to convey 200 male prisoners from Ireland to New South Wales; and being again appointed surgeon-superintendent, I joined her on the 22d of July in that year.

On the 17th of August the guards consisting of 50 men of the 63d regiment having embarked, and all being ready for sea, we sailed from Deptford, and on the 27th arrived at the Cove of Cork.

On the 18th of September 200 prisoners were received on board, on the 21st we took our departure, and on the 17th of January, 1829, we arrived at Sydney, after a very pleasant passage, during which the utmost harmony and quietness uninterruptedly prevailed.

On the 26th all the prisoners were landed in good health.

After having spent a few weeks in New South Wales, the greater part of which time I parsed in excursions over the southern and western settled districts of the Colony, I prepared to return to England. There were several vessels in the harbour about to depart for London direct, laden with colonial produce; but, preferring the "Governor Ready," a ship in which I had spent many happy days, I obtained permission from the Colonial Government to return home in her, although she was to pursue rather a circuitous route.

Previous to leaving England, it had been arranged that this ship, after the debarkation of the prisoners at Sydney, should proceed to the Isle of France, to receive a cargo of sugar; but just as we were on the eve of leaving Sydney Cove, Captain Young (who commanded the vessel) received intelligence of the failure of the sugar crops there, which rendered it doubtful whether a cargo would be in readiness; but, as the owners of the ship (anxious to establish a direct commercial intercourse between the two ports,) had sent another vessel in ballast from Bristol to the Isle of France, with an intelligent supercargo, who had instructions to purchase cargoes for both vessels, the hope that he had succeeded, although diminished, was not entirely destroyed.

To obtain more certain information relative to this matter, and also to land several passengers; and, as little inconvenience, expense, or delay, would be occasioned thereby, it was deemed advisable to touch at the Derwent.

In the afternoon of the 18th March, Capt. Young and myself bade adieu to our friends at Sydney, and after a protracted pull down the harbour, joined the ship, which, having been under weigh since daylight, was lying-to for us inside the heads of Port Jackson.

We had a favourable and pleasant passage to Hobart Town, where we arrived on the evening of the 25th. From information received there, the idea of proceeding to the Isle of France was abandoned; the sugar had not been purchased, and the wholesale London dealers in that commodity had written to prohibit their agents in that Island from shipping any freight by the "Governor Ready," in consequence, I believe, of the following circumstance:—During her passage home last year, from the Isle of France, deeply (perhaps too deeply) laden with sugar, the ship encountered a tremendous gale of wind off the Island of Madagascar, and from the immense quantity of water shipped, much of the cargo was damaged; and as great prejudice exists in London against vessels built at Prince Edward's Island, the "Governor Ready" (built there) having spoiled her cargo was a circumstance not to be overlooked, and therefore she was unjustly singled out as an unsafe and unseaworthy vessel[1].

Thus circumstanced, Captain Young made up his mind to proceed to Batavia. This change was not altogether agreeable to me, having on a former occasion suffered much both from shipwreck and disease, near and at the Island of Java; but I made up my mind not to leave the ship, and it required some effort on my part to persevere in this resolution, as I was solicited to embark in the "Mermaid," (commanded by an old friend and mess-mate of mine, Captain Henniker,) which was on the point of sailing for England direct, via Cape Horn.

At daylight on the 2d of April we got under weigh, and gliding down the river, under the influence of a stiff breeze, Hobart Town and its singularly romantic environs soon receded from our view. As the wind was blowing strongly from the westward, we proposed going through D'Entrecasteaux's channel, so that, should the wind continue to blow with undiminished force from the same quarter, we might anchor near the southern entrance, and there be in readiness for the first favourable slant to carry us round the south-west Cape of Van Dieman's Land. The wind, however, having shifted a little to the northward, and the barometer indicating moderate weather, we entered Storm Bay, and were soon once more on the mighty Southern Ocean.

The season was rather too far advanced for us to expect a favourable passage round Cape Leuwin; but as, according to Horsburgh's Directory, good passages had occasionally been effected as late, and even later, it was considered prudent to make the attempt, more especially as it was too early in the season for passing through Torres' Straits, a route, under the most favourable circumstances, beset with intricacy and danger.

Influenced by these considerations, we purposed to beat to windward; but the ship being very light—hardly in ballast trim—it was not expected that much progress could be made to the westward until the wind became more favourable. In anxious expectation of this wished-for event, we kept contending with adverse gales and tempestuous seas, being encouraged to persevere by an occasional northerly breeze, until the 23d of April, when, having only reached the 131st degree of east longitude, after having sustained much loss of canvas and other damage, our patience deserted us, more especially as the hope of obtaining a fair wind diminished daily: inasmuch as winter was advancing—the season when westerly winds prevail.

All circumstances being maturely considered, it was decided, that to persevere longer in endeavouring to get round Cape Leuwin would be worse than useless; the attempt, therefore, was abandoned. Accordingly at 5 P.M. of the 23d the helm was put up, and all hands called to square yards, an order obeyed with much alacrity, the sailors having been greatly harassed and fatigued ever since our departure from Van Dieman's Land by constant work in making or shortening sail, according to the state of the weather, the vicissitudes of which were sudden and severe.

To be scudding under easy sail, after such continued uproar, was felt to be an agreeable change, although we could not help feeling that we were running from a boisterous, into a smoother, but much more dangerous, sea. The ship was not provided with charts of the north coast of New Holland, (the first sheet of Minder's north coast excepted,) nor of the Indian Archipelago, as it was not contemplated, on leaving England, that they would be required. This circumstance was untoward; but knowing that we should have opportunities of ascertaining our true position from lunar observations, and determining to keep a good look out, we hoped to get safely through the dangers which abounded in the route we were now compelled to pursue.

On the 27th we made Cape Otway; and while passing through Bass's Straits we found, from the cross bearings of several islets, that the chronometer deviated widely from the truth: it was, therefore, evident that no reliance could prudently be placed on the longitude thus ascertained; this circumstance, however, caused us no uneasiness, being fortunately favoured with other and unerring celestial time-keepers.

We had scarcely got round Cape Howe when the wind shifted to the northward, and, after two days fruitlessly spent in standing off and on, we stretched out to the eastward until we obtained a favourable breeze. On the 6th of May we passed the parallel of Port Jackson, in longitude 157° 30', when, the wind being still fair, we shaped a course, so as to pass close to the eastward of Cato's bank. At noon, on the 9th, we were one mile north, and ten miles east of it, according to chronometer corrected from Kent's group; but satisfactory lunar observations placed us twenty miles farther to the eastward. The course was, therefore, altered a little more to the westward, that we might obtain a sight of "Bird Islet" on Wreck Reef, in compliance with the generally received opinion, that every vessel bound through Torres' Straits by the outer passage ought to do so; as, from the position of Wreck Reef being well known, a good opportunity is thereby afforded of comparing the chronometer.

At midnight we had passed Bird Islet, as the latitude was ascertained to be 22°.9' south, by the meridian altitudes of several stars taken, in the order of their culmination between a little before ten and midnight, and reduced to the latter hour.[2] As we possessed, or at least believed that we did possess, the only information to be gained by a sight of Bird Islet, i.e., the exact position of the ship, we concluded that it would be wasting time to lie-to till daylight, more especially as the night was clear and the breeze favourable. We therefore proceeded on our course, which was now directed for Diana's Bank.

I may here mention that as soon as we passed the tropic, and entered into a sea bestrewed with coral reefs and sand-banks, every measure, which prudence could dictate or caution suggest, was adopted to insure a constant and careful look-out. Every one acquainted with inter-tropical navigation must be aware from experience that it is very difficult for a person keeping "watch-and-watch" to be sufficiently alert, especially in sultry weather. Three watches were, therefore, formed, each under the charge of two officers, one of whom was stationed on the poop, and the other on the forecastle: a trust-worthy sailor was also to keep a look-out from the forecastle, and another from the foreyard—the latter to be relieved every half hour: due care being thus taken to guard against dangers known and unknown, we cautiously but confidently, kept under sail even during the night.

On Saturday, the 10th., the breeze blew strongly from the S. E., attended with frequent showers, and a completely obscured sky. Towards the evening, the clouds dispersed, the wind became lighter, and throughout the night the sky continued clear. At eight o'clock, P.M. of the 11th, we were in the parallel of Diana's Bank. A few minutes afterwards, the watch on the forecastle called out, "breakers on the leebow," and "right a-head!" This intelligence caused considerable alarm. The ship was instantly hove in the wind: some declared they not only saw broken water, but the land very distinctly, and pretended to point it out to others, who were rather sceptical, yet, after the most careful inspection, neither the one nor the other could be perceived. The panic having subsided, we resumed our course direct for the Eastern Fields, and at one o'clock in the morning of the 15th, being in latitude 10° 12' and in longitude 146° 20' east, we shortened sail, expecting to be up with these reefs by day-break.

Shortly afterwards, however, it fell calm, and continued so till next morning, when the breeze sprung up; and at seven, A.M., we descried the "Eastern Fields" right a-head: at noon we were in latitude 10° 2', and, by lunar observations, brought forward by chronometer, in longitude 145° 49'; the north-east extremity of the reef (which, according to Flinders, is in latitude 10° 2' and longitude 145° 45') bearing west; distant from two to three miles. The chronometer placed us forty-two miles too fax west[3]. It afforded us much gratification to find the observations, which we had taken so frequently, and with great care, prove so correct; as we could now with confidence lay down on the chart our true track, (where we neither met nor saw either reefs or shoals, or sand-banks,) which might prove of considerable utility to others who might hereafter pursue the same route.

Shortly after noon the wind became light and variable; during the night it blew from the westward, consequently we got to the ripplings to the northward of the reef, and experienced an easterly current, which retarded our progress considerably. On the 17th, towards evening, a steady breeze again blew from the south-east, and we made all sail with the intention of being up to the Barrier Reef betimes in the morning; and as we should most probably pass between Boot Beef and Portlock Reef some time in the middle watch, a knowledge of our latitude was an object of the utmost importance.

Fortunately, having fine weather and a cloudless sky, our latitude could be, and was, ascertained almost every half hour, by the meridian altitude of a star, either north or south of the zenith, and by the distance of the Moon from Jupiter and Atair to the east; and from Saturn and Regulus to the west, we inferred our longitude. During the early part of the middle watch, the sound of breakers was distinctly heard on both sides of the ship. About three, A.M., our latitude by Rastaban and Vega, agreeing with that deduced previously from the meridian altitude of Jupiter, the Moon, and sixteen Stars, was 9° 51' south, and our longitude by lunars, brought forward by chronometer, was 134° 38'.

Having thus parsed safely between these reefs, we were rather elated by being the first (as far as our knowledge extended) who had made the attempt during the night. We kept on our course under easy sail till day-light, when, as expected, we saw Murray's Island, and shortly afterwards, the great Barrier Reef, through which we entered by an opening about 100 fathoms wide, Murray's Island bearing W.S.W.

Imagining we could reach Half-way Island long before sun-set, we did not stop at Murray's Island; greatly to the disappointment of the natives, many of whom were seen running along the beach, and inviting us, by every means in their power to stay. I regret, individually, that I had not an opportunity of renewing an acquaintance formed with several of these interesting islanders some years ago[4].

We proceeded on, following nearly the " Cumberland's" track; the captain and chief mate keeping a good look-out from the fore-yard; the other officers attending to the manoeuvring of the ship, while a person, who had some previous knowledge of the passage, attended to the wheel.

About one, P.M., being in the fair channel, under the influence of a strong breeze, and the tide in our favour, we pursued our serpentine and perilous course with much rapidity; and, guided only by the colour of the water, passed many sand-banks and reefs in safety, until 2.45 P.M., when the ship struck with such force on a small detached coral reef, that the rock penetrated instantly through her bottom! There was no occasion for sounding the well, the encroaching water, in a few minutes up to the lower deck, affording us a melancholy proof of the extensive and irremediable damage that the ship had sustained.

Thus, suddenly and unexpectedly, in broad day-light, after having, by unremitted attention and care, passed the most dangerous parts of this intricate passage, were all our hopes utterly annihilated.

It now only remained for us to consider by what means we might have a chance of saving our lives. After as much deliberation as such disastrous circumstances would admit of, the only mode that appeared to us to hold out any prospect of success, was—to endeavour to reach some European settlement in the boats: the nearest to us, of whose situation we had any certain knowledge, was Melville Island, which, we had heard, previously to leaving Sydney, was about to be abandoned. We determined, however, to touch there in the first instance, and should we find it deserted, we made up our minds to endeavour to get to Coupang, the principal establishment of the Dutch on the island of Timor, where Captain Bligh was so hospitably received, after his miraculous escape in the "Bounty's" launch.

The ship's company being assembled on the quarter-deck, a short address was made to them, explanatory of what was intended to be attempted for the general good. When it was understood that we must proceed at least 900 miles in the boats, through, to us, an unknown sea, before we could reach the nearest probable place of obtaining succour, many of them,—those particularly who had wives and children,—began to despair; they were rallied out of their despondency, and as there were several intelligent men among the crew, they were invited to give their opinion relating to our ulterior proceedings. But they unanimously declined doing so, and assured us of their readiness, not only to abide implicitly by our decision, but also to obey all orders which might be given, with as much promptitude as they had done prior to the shipwreck, being, as they said, well aware, that by such conduct only, could they have any reasonable hope of being delivered from their present perilous situation.

Our boats, three in number, were now hoisted out; two of them, the skiff and jolly boat, were fitted with sails, and in every other respect in good order: the long boat, not having been out of the ship since she left Sydney in October 1827, and not having, during the interval, received any repairs, (particularly caulking, of which she stood much in need,) was far from being in a fit state for the present unexpected service. As regarded our distribution in the different boats, it was at first proposed to draw lots, but it was finally arranged that the Captain and myself should go in the long boat, the first mate and the sailmaker in the skiff, and the second mate and the boatswain in the jolly boat. The Captain and mates choosing the remainder of the crew alternately, in the same manner as is customary in forming a watch.

In this manner, then, were we divided; nineteen in the long boat, twelve in the skiff, and eight in the jolly boat; and it was agreed that we should keep close company, that we might afford assistance to each other in case of necessity; being determined to be saved, or to perish together.

Our attention was now naturally drawn to reflect on what ought to be taken in the boats; and lest any individual, from misguided self-interest, should take with him private property, to the exclusion of that which was necessary for the public good, it was suggested, that nothing of the kind should be permitted, and no opposition was offered to this prudent arrangement. It was, therefore, directed that only such articles necessary either for the sustenance of life, or for self-defence, or for our guidance, were to be taken. In the long boat were placed three casks of water, also some biscuit, salt beef, pork, hams, and cheese, tea and sugar, a small keg of brandy, a few cooking utensils, a lantern, a few candles, a tinder-box and matches, a keg of gunpowder, some muskets and cutlasses; the chronometer, sextants, quadrants, a compass, and necessary books of navigation; a top-gallant studding sail boom, and a fore royal, were also thrown into her, for a mast and sail: a little canvas, tarpaulin, and some deal boards, were not forgotten: and the carpenter was enjoined to take such of his tools as might prove useful. The skiff and jolly boat had their barrels filled with water, and each was provided with a compass: there was a sextant in one and a quadrant in the other; and with the exception of their not being lumbered with provisions, which we were to issue to them from time to time, they were similarly supplied with other necessary and useful articles.

Matters being thus arranged, a few effects belonging to individuals, (i. e., blankets and wearing apparel, in a limited quantity,) were permitted to be put on board their respective boats. At this time some of the sailors who had managed, notwithstanding all our precautions, to get access to the spirits, of which they had freely partaken, requested they might have a little grog to support their strength, sagely remarking that, although too much would prove injurious, a little could not possibly do them any harm. This request, however, although backed with such a powerful argument, was decidedly refused; and on their showing a disposition to argue the point, rather insubordinately, they were reminded of their promise, made only a very short time before, of implicit obedience; which would, if necessary, be strictly and fearlessly enforced. This rebuke had the desired effect of making them desist from further importunity, and measures were taken to remove all chance of their obtaining any more spirits clandestinely.

The ship was now gradually going down a-stern, and fears were entertained that she might suddenly slip off the rock and sink in deep water.

From having been formerly placed in a similar situation, I had no apprehension of such a result; on the contrary, I thought that if no particularly bad weather occurred, she would perhaps remain nearly in the same state, till the change of the monsoon; the Captain coincided in this opinion, and it was thought advisable to remain on board until the morning.

After having assisted in the arrangement of all matters connected with our safety, I retired to my cabin, and while employed there, in selecting some papers and other small articles, which I wished, if possible, to preserve, one of the sailors, on whose judgment I placed some reliance, came hurriedly in, and begged me to come instantly into the boat, as the ship was rapidly going down; this intelligence, although contrary to my own opinion, was not to be neglected, especially as the water was now up to the cabin windows. On coming out, I found every one, excepting the Captain, in the greatest alarm; all dreading that the ship would suddenly slip off the rock, and drag the boats down with her, thereby rendering our escape impossible, and our destruction inevitable.

Although the Captain and myself were still persuaded that there was no immediate danger of such an accident, yet, in acquiescence with the general wish, the order was given, which there was no occasion to repeat, for all hands to go into the boats; and we left, with sorrowful hearts, the ship that had conveyed us in safety through stormy seas, so many thousand miles, just as the sun,—emblematic of her fate,—had sunk in the western wave.

  1. We were obliged to put in at the Cape of Good Hope to get the damage of the ship repaired. The day previous to our leaving Table Bay, two ships, (British built I believe,) the "Mellish" and "Ferguson," reached there in a sad plight, having been dismasted on the same day, by the same gale, within a few miles of us. The ship "Woodlark" foundered this year in nearly the same place, lat. 28°. 8'. S. long. 52°. 40'. E. and within two days of the same time, February 11th, having encountered the same kind of weather that we did. Had the "Woodlark" been as staunch as the "Governor Ready," she might, in like manner, have weathered out the gale.
  2. I am thus minute, for the purpose of showing that Captain Young paid uncommon attention to the navigation of his ship, far more so indeed than is usual with the generality of masters of merchant vessels.
  3. I believe that many islands, islets, and reefs, said to be new discoveries, are not so—that they have been already described—and supposed new through too much reliance being placed on the chronometer; several instances of this are within my own knowledge. In the present instance, had we trusted to the chronometer, this reef (the Eastern Fields) would doubtlessly have been considered as hitherto unknown.
  4. Vide Appendix.