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The Journal of George Hepburn
Part I - The Journal of George Hepburn, 1850 - Chapter IV


Hard tasks imposed on steerage passengers under a tropical sun—The death of a passenger—Complaints against the surgeon— His indignation at the sailors fencing on the Sabbath—The captain tells him that Scotch sailors "are the best servants, although the most drunken when they went ashore "—He remonstrates with the chief steward for killing a pig on Sunday as "an outrage on the Christian Sabbath."

Saturday, March 30th, 1850.—Since writing last we have continued to sail on at a fine rate and so steady that we never need to alter a sail, running at six to seven knots. We are already five degrees south of the line on a south south-west course, so that we are now much nearer the South American coast than any other land, and will likely continue in the same course for two or three weeks to come. There has been no vessel in sight save one these two or three days past, so all hope of sending home our line correspondence is lost, and will not likely occur now until we reach the end of our voyage. But for the sake of friends at home we would have much desired to have sent from about this place just to have assured them of our progress in safety, and our continuance in good health and spirits. . . . About three days ago the sailors caught a shark with a hook and line. It was about four feet long, but vicious and very tenacious of life. It was cut up on deck and several had it fried to breakfast that morning, which I also tasted, but it was too strong meat for me. William has the fins keeping. We also see plenty of flying fish daily but they are so small that no one thinks of catching them.

There is a circumstance regarding the passengers in the steerage which I think ought to be made known in Scotland at least, and what we all think a piece of gross imposition on the part of the N.Z. Company, at least they keep us in the dark until they get us out to sea. The steerage passengers only have not only to keep watch through the night in turn and clean the floor between decks, but also a few of them are fixed on to draw water from the hold . . . about 50 buckets each daily; but it is so disagreeable a job, wetting all your clothes and getting them iron rusted. Besides it is made compulsory, otherwise your provisions are partly stopped, which has been done twice already, and to-day is the third day of two men having been sent up on the poop from 6 morning till 8 evening with only twice biscuit and water a day, under a tropical sun at the line, and are not allowed even to walk about, neither durst anyone speak to them, neither send them anything else to eat, otherwise they will have their own provisions stopped. William Bethune, who comes to our meeting, a very sober decent fellow, and who has already drawn the water four weeks, and who was still willing to do his share but not for the whole passage, the captain put this punishment in force; but he said he had nothing to do with it, that it was the doctor’s orders on behalf of the N.Z. Company. The doctor says he will be responsible for the consequences, which I fear will make a noise . . and will do the Company no good. It is quite the same . . . whether we have paid the full passage money or not  . . and at £18 18s. all are alike in these jobs, and . . can get out at any of these prices if they say they cannot give any more. The ship is a sad place for clothes of all kinds, and, having these things to do, the oldest and worst you can get the better. At present we are almost naked night and day owing to the heat. Still it is not disagreeable on deck, but below and during night it is very oppressive. A shoemaker on board is getting constant employment in making and mending, and one woman is constantly employed in sewing for others on board.

Monday, April 1st.—To-day completes the eighth week since we came on board at London, but properly speaking only the fifth sailing week from the Channel. However, we are now ten degrees south of the line and about 27 west longitude. Hence we must now be nearer the South American coast than any other land. Ever since crossing the line we have averaged about seven knots, beautiful sailing, never needing to alter a rope night or day. Yesterday (Sabbath) had the usual service on deck. To-day some gouk’s errants (April 1st) were passed off in the morning, and to-day I believe another vessel, the Mariner I understand, should be leaving London for Otago direct. From a conversation I had with the captain to-day, he said that the Mariner would very likely be at Otago as soon as we, as it would take five or six weeks to call at all the other stations. In that case it will be the beginning of July ere we reach our destination.

Wednesday, April 3rd.—Still sailing in the same south south-west course; now 16 deg. south in a good breeze. Have seen no ships these few days past. The two men I spoke of as being confined on the poop for refusing to draw water have given in yesterday and resumed their labour at the water again, but not without a grudge. One of the Aberdonians (Donald) has been ill with a sore throat these three days past. This has been a very prevalent complaint on board, but Donald blamed sleeping on deck, which I disapprove of by a person unaccustomed to it. I had some difficulty in getting my boys persuaded against it, although it was certainly very inviting for a time, but already we feel a marked change for the better, it being much cooler.

Thursday, April 4th.—It is my painful duty to record the death of poor Donald, alias Alexander Donald, of whom I wrote yesterday. It seems that the doctor had ordered him on deck yesterday for the most part to get the fresh air, his berth being so very close and heated, but I fear this was too much for him, having been in a strong fever for two days previous and getting no support. Very soon after coming from on deck he became insensible and remained so all night. When I saw him this morning at 9 he moaned heavily, and by 10 o’clock saw him expire without a struggle. He was a stout, healthy young man aged only 26; was a very quiet, sober, and I think religious man; attended our prayer meeting. His neighbour from the same place feels his loss very much.

We can’t help on this occasion expressing our opinion of the surgeon on board. Whether he is a person of skill is not for us to judge but really his attention to the sick is not what it should be. Only once a day he made a hurried visit, and although he was sent for last night to see Donald he only sent some trifle of sago for him by another, and he came this morning at 10, just in time to see him at his last. As far as we can judge the same powder is given to all and sundry, male and female. May the Lord preserve us all in health while on board this ship. At 4 o’clock his body was committed to the deep, sewed in canvas. The captain read the funeral service over him; he and some others put on their black coats, and the service was very solemnly gone about. The captain seemed rather affected.

Saturday, April 6th.-In south latitude 21 degrees, course now south south-west by east, but making very little progress these two days, the trades having fallen off much, and it is said that our winds will now be varied until we fall in with the next south south-west winds. The weather, however, is most delightful, like the best midsummer days at home, and so balmy, just like what we had about Madeira. If you have a share of such weather in Scotland and England the farmer must be getting well on with the seed.

I believe last night about 6 o’clock we saw the sun go down again with as great brilliancy as man could behold, and the radiance left behind was altogether beyond my description, or even the painter’s pencil. Suffice to say that the sky above was as if on fire, or as if highly illuminated by the glare of an unseen volcano. Every cloud above seemed tinted with colours of every hue and colour from the deepest crimson to the most delicate azure, and all constantly changing into some different figure representing the splendid panoramic views. But it is of short duration, for in about twenty minutes or so all is over and dark gray clouds occupy the place, relieved at first only by a few twinkling stars; but ere another half-hour is passed the whole canopy is studded with thousands and tens of thousands of other worlds, all shining brighter, it may be, than our dark world unknown. Above all other hours of the twenty-four the evening of fine weather is the most delightful on deck; then you are as it were compelled to look upward to the moon and to the stars, ever delightful to contemplate, knowing that they were all framed by the fingers of our Heavenly Father, and that in wisdom He made them all. To look downwards and onwards from the ship’s sides you see nothing but an immeasurable waste of unfathomable waters, dark and gloomy, relieved only by the dashing waves at the bows or the ripple around the ship, often sparkling as if with limpid fire. At this hour, too, the sailors are generally at rest, grouped in some corner on deck singing some sea song, or sweet home, as happy as the day is long, and then you can get as many wonderful stories from them as you wish, or is even good for you. I have bathed every morning at six over the ship’s bows for the last two weeks; the water is pumped over on you, and is very pleasant indeed.

Sabbath, April 7th.—This is the first time I have taken out my desk on Sabbath, but being somewhat wearied with reading I feel desirous of recording a few passing occurrences of this holy Sabbath. At an early hour this morning I heard the butcher employed killing a pig for dinner. About 9 o’clock a large vessel sailed close past our stern, and came alongside so near that the two captains spoke often to each other audibly, and you must believe it a very interesting thing to see and hear conversations with a company of fellow creatures in the midst of the wide ocean and so far removed from human habitation. The vessel was the Santa Pore from London bound for Adelaide, Port Philip, and Sydney, with 180 passengers, all well.

At 10.30 o’clock had our usual church service, read by the captain, which occupies about 30 to 35 minutes; then it may be said that the Sabbath is over. About 2 o’clock I observed from ‘tween decks two seamen on the main deck fencing with long white sticks to the amusement of the company, chiefly the gentlemen standing on the poop. My indignation felt speedily aroused. I seized a few tracts entitled Prize the Bible, ran upstairs, and stood immediately betwixt them, and asked if they knew this was the Sabbath day. They were speechless. I presented a tract to each, but they felt so ashamed that they ran off saying that they could not read. I followed them into their berths, asking if they were not ashamed to make such an exhibition on the Sabbath. They tried to hide themselves, still refusing the tracts. I left them, and returned along the deck handing several tracts and sitting down at the cuddy door—my usual seat. What the gentlemen thought I know not, but silence was the effect. Shortly after the same two men came slyly out again, but found their way to the forecastle, and there continued their practising a little longer. However, having few if any onlookers, they soon gave it up. While reading my book, which was, by the way, the Life of the Rev. John McDonald, and that part of it, too, which gave an account of his voyage from London to India, which present circumstance made me feel both interesting and profitable, a message boy came to me for another and another tract, at which I was pleased. Our George, being a bit of a favourite with the sailors, being a good deal among them, ever ready to do them a little turn, he offered to go amongst them with a number, which he did, and succeeded in disposing of the most of them. Some were returned, and some asked if I was going out to New Zealand to be a missionary. What these silent messengers may do I know not, but I know they contain the indestructible seed of the Word which abideth for ever, and I have prayed for a blessing upon it. I find them all very civil to speak to, but they are a set of poor neglected men, having no fear of God before their eyes. One of them only have I found decent, who comes from Shetland, and have twice got McCheyne from me to read. I observed to the captain one day that several of his men were from Scotland. He said he wished he had more of them. He generally found them the best servants, although the most drunken when they went on shore.

My zeal being a little tired by the late occurrence, and partly by reading what McDonald had done amongst the crew when on board, I shortly made up to the chief steward as he came out of the cabin, touched him gently on the arm, asked him who gave orders for the killing of the pig this morning. He seemed amazed. I asked again whether the captain or he had the charge of the business. He said at once he had with the captain’s consent, but I said this was Sabbath— why not on Saturday night or morning?

Answer: It was hot weather, and they had no other fresh dinner for to-day, and one could not be so particular at sea. But he knew it was not altogether right, etc., etc. I said he was an intelligent man, and knew we were all accountable beings, and asked if he thought such answers would do to offer at the last day? I said I hoped he would excuse my liberty and freeness, but being the father of a family and having lately left Scotland where such a thing would be considered an outrage on the Christian Sabbath and an open breach of the Commandment, which said "six days," etc. He said he took it all in good part, but having been so long at sea he had become so careless, but thanked me and left. I understand he has been very wicked, but I fear were we to continue long at sea we too would become careless; and soon even forget the Sabbath altogether but from the name. What we may do in a strange land I know not, but we have need of much watchfulness both for ourselves and the young.


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