Captain John Finlay Duff

Person: Captain John Finlay Duff Captain John Finlay Duff, Master of the Africaine. ca. 1840. Image Courtesy of the SLSA: B47774

The master mariner John Finlay Duff commanded the Africaine on its 1836 voyage to South Australia. Duff was born on 1 April 1799 in Dundee, Scotland. His mother’s maiden name was Finlay (Duff’s second given name) and her father and grandfather were Dundee shipmasters. Robert Gouger, John Brown and Captain Duff signed a memorandum of agreement with a Thomas Finlay to charter the Africaine for the voyage to South Australia. Thomas Finlay was a part-owner of the ship and it is likely that he was Duff’s maternal grandfather.

The Africaine departed from London Docks on Tuesday 28 June, without Captain Duff as he had an important engagement the next day – marrying Anne Eliza Turner. On Thursday 30 June, the newlyweds joined the Africaine, which was anchored in The Downs, off the Kentish coastal town of Deal.

On the voyage Duff displayed good seamanship and leadership. Robert Gouger thought very highly of him, noting that ‘…he appears to be a thorough sailor, decisive and skilful; he pays equal attention to all his passengers, has no favourites apparently, & therefore is a general favorite.’ Four months into the voyage passenger Mary Thomas wrote a long and strong letter to Duff in which she accused the First Mate of treating her and other Intermediate passengers rudely. Captain Duff answered her letter ‘politely’, handled the situation with tact and Thomas noticed an immediate improvement in the First Mate’s behaviour. When Thomas alleged that somebody had thrown her cat overboard Captain Duff expressed his displeasure and assured her that he would have dispatched a boat to retrieve the animal if he had been aware of the situation. Indeed, sea captains had to deal with all manner of issues on long sea voyages.

Captain Duff was recognised by his peers as a highly competent sailor who handled the often trying conditions of the Africaine’s long voyage to South Australia with skill, good sense and generally sound judgement.

Captain Duff did not escape criticism. Passenger and 21-year-old printer, Robert Fisher, censured him for two indiscretions. He accused him firstly of not waiting longer in Nepean Bay for news of a party of five passengers who became lost whilst exploring Kangaroo Island. Two men perished never to be seen again. Secondly, Fisher was displeased when Duff allowed sailors to carry passengers to the beach on their shoulders when the Africaine arrived at Holdfast Bay in November. The second seems a trivial fault indeed!

In South Australia Duff purchased land (some with his business partner John Hallett – the partners also sold imported goods) which he used to farm livestock.  In 1838 Duff returned to England, but came back to South Australia in 1839. Duff owned ships and went on many voyages including some with his family. His wife Anne Eliza died in 1854, and by 1862 he had married Mary Schroeder. John Finlay Duff died in 1868 and was buried in the West Terrace Cemetery.

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