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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind – Part Seven (A) – The Voyage Continues

Barbara Durlacher continues the fascinating story of how her forbears came to settle in South Africa.

To read earlier episodes along with other articles and stories by Barbara please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

William James’ memories of that momentous voyage remained clear to the rest of his life as readers will see from the freshness and interest of his journal.

...“The children had some fun bobbing at bread or pudding suspended by a string, which they had to take with their mouths only, their hands being tied behind their backs.

When Crossing the Line, the old custom of Father Neptune’s visit was observed, the males being lathered with a vile decoction, which was not of a most pleasant savour; your scribe obtained a cork, burnt it, and decorated the lower part of his face à la Christy Minstrel, and thus escaped the shaving with a piece of hoop iron, but not the toss into the sail filled with sea water.

The women onlookers also got their share by means of the hose.

We had of course our share of rough weather. On one occasion one of the married women was climbing the stairs to the deck when the vessel shipped a heavy sea, and the water poured down on the unfortunate woman, taking her breath away for some time. She called for her husband: “Where are you, William?” and he replied: “Hullo, are you wet?” Rather unnecessary question, considering the quantity of water that had poured over her.

I volunteered to assist the steward to help pass the time away and used to help him serve out the rations. The emigrants were divided into messes and it was the duty of the one who was appointed captain of the mess to draw their supplies. I would call the captains of the messes for their rice, or whatever the article of food might be and they would crowd round the hatchway passing down their tins for the quantities they were entitled to.

Of course we had some very disagreeable discontented ones amongst them, and one day on serving out from the newly opened cask of Irish butter, after scraping the salt off the top, one of the crowd said: “D’ye call that butther?” “I do,” I said. “Bad luck to yez, d’ye think I’d ate the likes o’ that?” I replied, “Oh, get out, you’re better fed than taught.”

Nothing more was said, but on the completion of the issuing of rations, I was just climbing over the combings of the hatchway when I was suddenly seized by a number of men who first poured molasses on my head and then covered it with flour. I could not see and as I groped and staggered about trying to find the ladder to reach the main deck they increased my torture by inserting pins or needles into any fleshy parts of my body they found available.

On one occasion I volunteered to help reef topsails and climbed up alongside the boatswain, luckily for me, as if he had not caught hold of me I should certainly have fallen. So I kept on deck in rough weather from that time forward, as being up aloft when the yardarm apparently approached within a few feet of the sea on either side of the vessel as she rolled, cured me of reefing topsails on the “Lady Rollaway,” as we christened her.

We had salt water soap to wash our clothing, but as I could not satisfy myself with the state of my clothes, I struck an idea of making a laundry of the sea itself. So, I fastened a shirt to a line and hung it over the side. Imagine my disgust on going to take it up to find it so well washed that it all washed away except the collar to which the line was attached.

I had often read of the superstition that a shark following a vessel was s sign of death on board the vessel. A shark followed us for several days until the body of a stillborn babe was cast overboard in a wooden box as a coffin. After this we lost sight of the shark, which the sailors had repeatedly tried to catch with baited hooks. We had one change of diet which was quite a treat. One of a shoal of porpoises was caught, and handed over to our American Negro cook, who prepared it for us and it was not at all bad, reminding me very much of calf’s liver.

In a stiff breeze when the pots and pans were rolling from one side to the other, there would be prayers and groans from the women’s part of the ship, they being terrified, but some insisted on gathering all their belongings, saying they would die with them around them; ridicule had no effect on them.

From the time we left Plymouth until we narrowly escaped wreck at l’Agulhas we sighted only what was apparently a cloud lying just on the edge of the sea, but which the Master told me was South America.

On a beautiful starlit night with a calm sea we next sighted the surf and breakers of the South African coast. The late W G Cooper and I were on deck discussing our prospects and what would be the outcome of the long voyage, when we saw a light on what we found afterwards was the landward side of the vessel. We called the Second Mate’s attention to it, the Captain being below although it was his watch on deck. The Mate, Mr Hunkin, being in his bunk asleep, Miller, the Second Mate told me to hold a lantern over the bows, which I did, and waved it several times; but the light remained stationary. Miller then went and examined the chart and came out saying it was Cape l’Agulhas light.

By this time we could see on our left a long fringe of white foam at a little distance and could hear the boom of the breakers. Miller said: “the Skipper is in no state to look after the ship. Rouse out Mr Hunkin,” which was done. He came on deck in his night apparel and on looking round said: “Oh, my god.” Then clapped on the hatches, “Bill, go below and call up every man that can pull a rope. Quiet, now, don’t disturb the women.”

I did as he said, and coming on deck we were placed on to various ropes and the order was given, “All hands, ‘bout ship!” we laid on with a will and the old craft (she was 200 years old) answered splendidly and we were soon able to look at the surf from over the stern of the ship.

At the time she turned it really looked as though one could have thrown a stone or a biscuit into the breakers.

After the excitement and most of the men had gone below, the Captain came on deck and altered the course of the vessel to the same direction that the Master had taken her out of. This was a bit too much, so the emigrants, the men in a body, put the Captain in his cabin and asked Mr Hunkin to take charge of the ship, which he did.

Immediately after our escape he thanked God on his knees, and told us standing around him that when on our death beds only five minutes from death we should not be nearer than we had been that night. He was my ideal of a British sailor and officer of the Mercantile Marine. After our vessel was lost, he spent some years as Captain of a vessel trading form these coasts to Mauritius.

An old pensioner came out on the ship as a sort of watchman over the female portion of the emigrants, having to patrol that part every night when all was supposed to be asleep. I don’t know what he did, but he offended his charges so much that he was deposed and I had to undertake his job. Luckily we were near the end of the journey.

Amongst the crew was one called French Charley and I felt sorry for him for he had a dog’s life, a word and a blow, sometimes the blow without the word. After we had landed I left in the last boat from the ship, I saw a signal from the ship and asked what it meant.

“Deserters,” was the reply.

The Captain was on the wharf waiting for the surf boat’s arrival, and on reaching the wharf or jetty, from under some bedding they pulled French Charley. As he stepped on shore the Captain raised his first as about to strike him. I stepped up and told him that if he did, I should strike him as we were on shore now and one man was as good as another.

He seemed quite taken aback that a youngster who had been doing a voyage of well on for three months, the amusement and friend of all, should show such a change of mien. However, Charley was locked up, got a month for desertion, settled down in the country, married and left a family and a good business when he died a few years ago.

There were so many desertions by the crew that when it came on to blow, they were too shorthanded to put out to sea and the Lady Kennaway met her fate on the bar at East London.

Amongst the songs that were the most popular was the “Boy in Blue.”

‘Cheer up, cheer up, my mother dear,
Why do you sit and weep?
Do you think that He who guards me here
Forsakes me on the deep?
Let Hope and Faith illume the glance
That sees our barque set sail;
Look at her now and see her dance:
Why do you turn so pale?
‘Tis an English ship and an English crew,
So mother be proud of your Boy in Blue
And if the breakers kill our ship
And our barque goes down in the foam,
Be sure the last word on our lips
Is a prayer for those at Home.
Cheer up, cheer up, methinks I heard
A voice in the anchor chain
That whispered like a fairy bird,
The barque will come again.
God bless thee mother, adieu, adieu,
But never weep for your Boy in Blue.’

I have read of late that sailor’s shanties are becoming things of the past. The favourite with the sailors of the Kennaway was with the emphasis and the strain of pulling, on the second and fourth lines.

‘An English ship and an English crew,
Melia, where you bound to?
Oh, an English ship and an English crew,
Across the Western Ocean.’

There were poetism amongst the women as they often sang a song, the chorus of which was:

‘Whilst the stormy winds do blow
And the raging seas do roll,
And we poor sailors are here on the deck,
And the emigrants are sleeping down below.’

On looking back at the voyage I am forced to the conclusion that we had not much to complain of except that we began to wonder if we were to be like the Flying Dutchman, sail on forever and never sight land again.

Just compare the voyage of well on for 90 days and it can now be done from East London in 21!

On landing from the last boatload that left the ship I was met on the wharf or landing place by a number of the female passengers, who escorted me to the building allotted to them, but on arrival the watchman or constable on duty refused me admission. On this the women said unless I could go in, neither would they.

At this juncture two swells in sun helmets and light clothing appeared and wanted to know what the trouble was. The women said I had kept them alive during the voyage and now was not allowed to come and give them a song. One of the newcomers was Mr Jennings, the Magistrate; the other was Hamilton Parker from King Williamstown, who appeared to be the agent on behalf of the Kaffrarian Government to receive the new arrivals. The permission to go inside was granted and I sang one of Henry Russell’s songs: “Long parted have we been,” and one of the gentlemen, I think it was Hamilton Parker, put a sovereign into my hand.

The next day there being no harbour works in progress, we all started for King by bullock wagon, and at the military outposts, viz., Fort Grey, Fort Plato and Fort Murray, the soldiers had prepared meals for us and you may imagine how we enjoyed plenty of vegetables after the long spell of salt pork, preserved mutton, and desiccated potatoes.

The wonderful thing to me was, on arrival in King after a few days residence to hear how many “townies” that is, men from the same place as the newcomers, there were.

A considerable number of the women married into the army and eventually returned to the old country. Our boatswain was lighthouse keeper for some years. The great number of the emigrants dispersed over the country and now I only know of two families or their descendants besides myself who have made East London their home.
This is not put forth as a specimen of authorship, but a single account of things as I recollect them after fifty-six years, and I hope with all its faults it may be of passing interest to the many who have no knowledge that the Lady Kennaway brought us out...”

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