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Week 12 - Crossing the line

[ 8th of May 1836 to 14th of May 1836 ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 12 - Pirates and Piracy ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 12 - Crossing the line ]

As the Duke of York nears the Equator the crew hopes to have a bit of fun. Crossing the Line ceremonies were common on sailing vessels and often involved ‘King Neptune’ coming on board to ‘baptise’ first timers.  Crew members and passengers might be ‘shaved’ with big mock razors and all by-standers were often doused with water. But Captain Morgan has other ideas. He is offended by these ‘heathen practices’  and heroically (according to his diary) protects his passengers from such indignities. In recording these events he cannot resist a little moralizing about his own superiority!

But this skylarking pales into insignificance beside the drunkenness and cruelty on board the Lady Mary Pelham. This finally ends in tragedy with the death of the first mate James Doine Thompson of a ‘brain fever’, brought on, it is said, by ‘excessive drinking.’ In an extraordinary letter to George Fife Angas, the second mate, Alexander Dawsey, claims that Thompson and the third mate  Walter Edmunds had been in a  permanent ‘State of Intoxication’ from the moment they left England. He provides a particularly graphic account of Thompson’s death, in the full grip of a terrifying delirium in which he believes himself to be surrounded by malignant phantoms. Thompson leaves a widow: ‘a stranger among a strange people going to a strange land’, as Robert Morgan writes. Women took particular risks in deciding to emigrate at this time, as the fate of a widow without family support was dire. We will try to discover what happens to Mrs Thompson after the voyage.

The John Pirie meanwhile is lolling about in the tropics, the passengers vainly seeking some air on deck.  Accommodation below decks is said to be ‘like a hot oven’. The crew finally manages to catch a A porpoise is a small marine mammal related to whales and dolphins. The word ‘porpoise’ has sometimes been used by sailors and fishermen to refer to any small dolphin. porpoise , providing all on board with a change from salt meat, which makes everyone feel better.

1849 sketch of a sailor trying to catch a porpoise while standing on the bowsprit of the ship

Trying for a porpoise. Edward Snell, 1849.


As the Cygnet approaches the tropics a general malaise seems to infect the ship.  The passengers are fractious and the crew mutinous.  Boyle Travers Finniss determines on a thorough clean up. But on the Lady Mary Pelham the crew is more sober.

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2 Responses to “Week 12 – Crossing the line”

  1. Fried Poul October 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Wow……. it’s great to learn about the sea journey of a lifetime….. I’ve enjoyed reading all the lines of your post. I think their activities through the sea are very risky. . Thanks for being true about this :)

  2. Ian Modjo May 9, 2011 at 8:47 am #

    As a retired South Aussie living in Kupang, Indonesia, I am thoroughly enjoying your posts and look forward to what’s to come. Especially being able to relate the names of the participants [ Angas, Finniss, Pirie, etc ] to places in South Australia which perpetuate their memory.

    Thanks heaps to the team.

    Ian Modjo

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