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

They meet with variable weather, sometimes foul and sometimes fair—Further details of life on the ship—Slow progress—They pass the Cape six weeks after crossing the line and three months at sea.

Monday, April 8th, 1850.—Our meeting was better attended last night than usual, and we had two services instead of one, and three times psalm singing. I looked forward also to an improvement in our meetings, and we get quietness now in a great measure. We are sailing to-day in a most beautiful style, almost right before the wind, in the proper course for the Cape direct (south by east) with stiff breeze running about eight knots an hour in latitude about 25 degrees south. Should the breeze continue, we expect to be near the Cape by this day week. There is another ship near at hand, supposed to be the Lady Bruce again.

Wednesday, April 10th.—Since writing the above on Monday I have now to record an account of a heavy gale of wind which we have encountered. On Monday night the wind veered round stern on, which always makes a vessel roll heavily, which she did all that night and was very uncomfortable. Yesterday forenoon the wind got round to the south-west and by midday it blew rather fresh, so that one sail after another had to be reefed. By 4 o’clock it was quite a gale with showers of rain. About this time the mainsail split right up the middle—one half was blown to the wind in shreds. I never saw such a wreck of old rags flying in the wind. The other half was taken in, and the poor fellows who were stretched along the bare yard reefing had no joke of it, and so we had no mainsail that night to steady the ship. So we had another disagreeable night of rolling and pitching over the mighty waves. Everything loose, either on deck or ‘tween, was rolled from side to side with great violence. Amongst other things the oil bottle was upset, so but for a small drop I had for a small collier lamp, which I lighted, we would have been in darkness ‘tween decks that night. We put the children early to bed, and sleep soon prevented them knowing more of it. Frequently the waves broke on her broad side with such violence that to us on the weather side it sounded rather harshly. However, morning came and we are in safety. The wind to-day a little more moderate, but still a heavy sea running. However, we have got up another mainsail and driving away over mountainous waves. Our ship sails well in a heavy breeze. The Lady Bruce still kept company with us all yesterday, but is not in sight to-day. The above account of the gale is my own. On speaking to the captain next day of it, he said it was only a bit of diversion, and the first mate said it was not half a storm, that he had seen one five times as much, so custom is everything. Even with ourselves, already what we counted dangers at the Bay of Biscay, we can now look on with composure. Indeed it is no use being dispirited, for the captain says we have not seen the sea yet.

Saturday, April 13th.—Since writing last we have again enjoyed three days of fine weather but contrary winds. It is still blowing fresh from the south-east, just the way we want to go, and hence we have been tacking backward and forward, sometimes southwest and sometimes due east, and the captain says we might have done as much in three hours in a fair wind as we have these three days, but this was the thirteenth time he had come down this way, and he never was so detained before. Our position is about 27 degrees south latitude and 18 longitude west from the Cape. Were we round this great headland we expect to get on rapidly, but all are in good health and spirits.

Yesterday, Sabbath, 14th.—Still a calm sea and making little way. The usual morning service, and during the whole day rather more than the usual quietness, and in the evening our usual meeting with much quietness through the ship.

To-day, Monday, 15th.—Quiet and calm morning. The captain gave orders that the hatches would be opened for getting up the passengers’ boxes. Commenced at 8 o’clock, and the hurry and confusion was considerable up to 12 o’clock, there being so many things to remove before getting at everyone’s box wanted. Unfortunately the two we wanted were put so far forward and down when at London that we got no clothes up at all, although I wrought very hard in the hold all forenoon. Was promised them after dinner, but by 1 o’clock a fresh breeze sprang up, and orders were given to replace all the boxes, etc., with all possible speed and make all fast for the stiff breeze. It is wonderful how sudden it comes on in these latitudes, and how well the seamen know it. Before everything was replaced the ship was scudding away at the rate of eight knots an hour, at which we were all right glad for it was in the right direction for the Cape. I must not omit to mention that I got up the old box contain ing the seed wheat I got from Mr. Ireland, which I was glad to find in good condition, as fresh and sound as when shipped. I just replaced it and put it back in the hold. I also got up four kits of Mr. Ireland’s red herring. They were also perfectly sound. I have sold one kit at 1s. per doz., being rather small sized. Sold also my fine cheese at 1s. per pound. We could well have used it all, but the price was tempting and the sovereign will be as useful when landing. The steward gets 9d. per pound for round E . , both salt and dry. He also gets 1s. per pound for bacon and ham, but we have bought none of these, neither spent a penny for anything since coming on board at the Isle of Wight; but we see our neighbours frequently buying something, especially London porter at 10d. per bottle, of which a very great quantity is used. We do miss not having a good Irish or Scotch ham, for on salt beef days we have little dinner. The beef being in general so very salt, lean, and dry that it is scarcely eatable, but the pork is very good and the fatter the better.

Tuesday, April 10th.—Sailing very rapid at nine knots through a heavy sea, and now heavy rain with the hatches down over us, and the vessel laid so much over that it is difficult keeping our feet between deck, and something constantly upsetting. Still I write this through a borrowed light from the fore-cabin.

Thursday, April 18th.—North latitude 33 degrees south and 10 west longitude. Both yesterday and to-day fine weather and sailing pleasantly, direct east by south. Saw a large albatross bird to-day. They have very long wings. As we approached the Cape we expect to see these and other birds in great numbers. I have been particularly struck with the absence of flying fowls of every sort, with the exception of now and then a stormy petrel or two, a small black bird like the water crow or blackbird, flies very close to the water. The flying fish so often talked of are not worth naming, being so very small and so like the water that they are difficult to be seen, though at times they are in great flocks.

The very sight of a good flying bird, even a number of crows, would be an object of interest in this dreary waste of waters, the view of which is every day sameness itself. You fancy the ship sailing in the centre of a great circle of water, bounded all around by the blue horizon, but ever imagining that when you have advanced onward to a supposed point before you, you will see over the hill so to speak, and enable you to rest the eye on some distant land soon to be obtained; but no, to-day is as yesterday, and so on it will continue for other two months yet to come. Nevertheless day after day passes on wonderfully.

I have here to record another death—a child of eleven months died yesterday morning, and its body was committed to the deep in the usual rude form at 5 o’clock last night, when the usual service was read by the captain. The mother seemed much affected when she saw it passed into the sea. It was the youngest of that only other family on board who had eight children—Hoskins by name, a shoemaker by trade. But the life of the child was as great a wonder as its death, and we would say a great blessing to it. It was somewhat painful to look at, such a miserably small living image, and its face more like the puggy than any other creature. Still its own mother thought it a sweet babe, and asked me to look at its face after death for some hours to see how pleasant it looked, which I did. So this death was no wonder to any. There are still one or two other children very delicate with teething, etc. The weather is now much colder, bathing in the morning is all over, and underclothing resorted to by several. White coats and hats are all laid aside.

Saturday, April 20th.—Still fine weather, better could not be desired in any part of Her Majesty’s dominion—neither too hot nor too cold, and a bright sun, calm sea, and gentle breeze, and in the evening the moon shines so very clear that it seems a treat to be on deck, for from 6 to 9 o’clock it is crowded, and it is with difficulty that the children will give up their play for bed. Most of yesterday the cuddy gents made it a sporting day by firing from the poop, first at two or three large birds flying about the ship’s stern, but I heard of no deaths, and for want of more of the feathered tribe they threw empty bottles into the sea and fired at them. I don’t intend spending my powder and shot on such uncertain game. I understand that the gentlemen have a large stock of fowling pieces with them. We regret not having more general supply of everything, both eatable and wearable. Being known now as the merchant on board, we are almost daily enquired at for something, and we are resolved to sell every shilling’s worth we can spare as the price is always good. Had we had a better stock of Scotch whisky it would have turned to good account at 2s. 6d. to 3s. per bottle, but we had so very little a quantity that we have none to dispose of. The prohibition for bringing it on board is all fudge; no one ever asked whether you had one bottle or 100, and really a glass now and then would be a great treat with so long bad provisions and bad water—very bad smelling like rotten eggs, and some days as if it had come out of a clay hole.

Monday, April 22nd.—Yesterday (Sabbath) passed over in the routine service and evening meeting, still better attended and quietness. To-day has been a busy day on deck for all hands, viz., the taking down the fore topsail yard and putting up a new one in its place; the old one had got sprung in one or two places with the ship’s rolling in the Bay of Biscay. It is a very large heavy yard. After being clad with all the iron rings and bolts, etc., it would make a good mainmast for some small craft. All hands, passengers and all, were required at the pulling of it up to its proper place, and now the sail and all the ropes are still to replace. Of course this work could only have been done on a fine day, and assuredly a finer day than this and yesterday could not be desired. All the sailors declare that they never saw such fine weather at this place. It is more common to have heavy weather in rounding the Cape. The fineness of it, however, prevents our progress. The sea is perfectly calm and light breeze, if any, more like line weather.

Wednesday, April 24th.—The ink could scarcely be dry in the pen with which I wrote the last few lines giving such a fine account of the weather when the clouds began to assume a different appearance. Throughout the evening the moon was only seen dimly through the clouds, and surrounded by a "baoogh" indicating a near shower, and so the morning light was ushered in by foul wet weather. The hatches and tarpaulin over it had to be kept closed all forenoon over us. Still a great deal of wet came down and made it uncomfortable, and as the day advanced the breeze heightened, disturbing the calm bosom of the mighty deep, at which it soon showed its white angry teeth all round. Our gallant ship was also proud enough to continue to show off her lofty main royal and top gallant sails and stud sails, but she also had to come down from her towering position by furling one sail after another, still holding as many good sails as drove us on almost before the wind at from nine to ten knots an hour. The rain ceasing by midday again the main royal and studs were set, being determined to make all possible sail with a fair wind. The sea rose heavy and the ship rolled before the wind all last night at a sad rate, at times little short of the Bay of Biscay; but we are now 200 miles further on, and to-day again is fine weather, favourable breeze at seven knots direct, so all the hurry of yesterday is already quite forgot, and we are reading a book on the forecastle as formerly.

Tuesday, April 30th.—Since writing last we have experienced very foul weather. Friday and Saturday wind right ahead, driving us again south by west, and very cold. Sabbath morning was ushered in wet and sleety, preventing all service or even walking on deck. (This is only the second Sabbath we have wanted service since leaving the Channel.) Most people were necessarily below. I had occasion to find fault with a forecabin young gentleman during the day for whistling, a practice too common with them every Sabbath. I told him that whatever he might think of the Sabbath he ought to have some regard for the feeling of his neighbours. To us, I said, it was very painful and annoying; that if he had been even taught to repeat the Fourth Commandment in his early days he would not surely have done such a thing. He said very little and whistled no more that night. Our meeting in the evening I am persuaded commands silence at both ends for the evening; it lasts only one hour.

Yesterday (Monday, 29th) was ushered in by a continuance of foul weather, heavy rain and high wind from the south-east. By midday it increased almost to a strong gale and tremendous sea, the heaviest by far we have yet met with. All sail was mostly taken in, except four, and these close reefed. The sea broke violently over the ship’s bows and frequently across the main deck, pouring at times down upon us through the main and fore hatches in torrents, flooding us all over, making our cabins very wet and uncomfortable. The vessel rolled and pitched heavily, upsetting almost everything movable. The hatches were closed and covered with a tarpaulin, leaving us very little light. In the evening the wind and sea both moderated considerably, and more sail was set. We went early to bed and enjoyed a good sound sleep until this morning at 7 a.m., when the weather showed a very different aspect, clear and dry, calm sea but a heavy swell, fair wind, and our course almost due east. It may now well be said "the storm is changed into a calm at His command and will," and again, "Oh, that men to the Lord would give praise for His goodness." But I daresay someone reading this will say, What becomes of the children during storms? Why they just play about as usual in the highest glee, often tumbling over at they know not what. They neither know nor feel any danger. The older children glory in a storm as fraught with fine sport, seeing their older neighbours drenched at times with a heavy sea, and at times tumble right over on deck when the ship gives an unexpected lurch, of which there were not a few yesterday. Amongst others, poor Black Caesar, while carrying a basket of dishes from the cuddy dinner, fell right down, breaking some, which produced a loud laugh at his expense. They declared it made him become white as a cloth, although he is by nature as black as a "slae." [Sloe.] He seems, however, a quiet inoffensive good servant, acting now in the capacity of chief cook.

Yesterday morning the third mate caught a live albatross with a line and hook. It is a large bird about the size and very like a swan, but short in the neck, long beak like a duck, pointed like a hawk, wings measuring about nine feet from tips, yet it cannot fly from off the deck. It walked about for some time until all who liked saw it. It is almost pure white except the wings which are mostly black, and is really a beautiful bird. However, they killed him and plucked him to-day for the feathers, giving the carcass to the dogs, being of too strong a nature to eat. Several others were shot a day or two before which fell into the sea. We had expected ere this time to have been fairly round the Cape, but we are still west of it by longitude, although we have now been 12 weeks on board yesterday, still, however, all in good health.

Friday, May 3rd.—Since writing last the weather has been still very variable, sometimes foul, and sometimes fair, which is what they call Cape weather, and we have had our share of it these last three weeks, being six weeks yesterday since crossing the line, and three months at sea, during which time we have made the one half of our journey, at least we have still from seven to eight thousand miles before us. Nevertheless we are living in hopes of seeing New Zealand in six or seven weeks, as we are now fairly clear of the Cape, there being no more lines to cross, neither capes to clear, nothing but plain sailing in a straight course in a fair wind, which I am happy in adding we have got since yesterday, the ship being now running right before a stiff breeze, with main royal and four stud sails set, at nine to ten knots an hour in latitude 43 south and 20 east longitude, hoping a six weeks’ continuance.

The captain is now bespeaking a vessel right ahead by signals. She is the Lord Byron for East Indies. Yesterday being our oldest son’s birthday—now 16 years—he treated us to a bottle of porter, the first we have had since coming on board. It was very good, but little of it when eight of us had a tasting of it. It was also the birthday of another young gentleman in the forecabin who, it seems, was not so easy pleased treating his friends. They kept it up until 2 a.m., when all was blue. A vast amount of drunkenness has been practised by some young gents in the forecabin. It has often appeared more like a riotous public house than otherwise, and I have seen more than once one lying on the floor so drunk and vomiting that he could not go to bed (gentlemen, eh ?).

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