A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 1

Embarkation at Gravesend — Arrest of Passenger — Tilbury Fort — Deal — Bay of Biscay Gale — Becalmed off Teneriffe — Fire in the Galley — Trade Winds — Belt of Calms — Death on Board — Shark — Current — S. E. Trade Winds — Temperature — Birds — Southern Cross — Cyclone.

It is a windy, rainy day — cold withal; a little boat is putting off from the pier at Gravesend, and making for a ship that is lying moored in the middle of the river; therein are some half-dozen passengers and a lot of heterogeneous-looking luggage; among the passengers, and the owner of some of the most heterogeneous of the heterogeneous luggage, is myself. The ship is an emigrant ship, and I am one of the emigrants.

On having clambered over the ship’s side and found myself on deck, I was somewhat taken aback with the apparently inextricable confusion of everything on board; the slush upon the decks, the crying, the kissing, the mustering of the passengers, the stowing away of baggage still left upon the decks, the rain and the gloomy sky created a kind of half-amusing, half-distressing bewilderment, which I could plainly see to be participated in by most of the other landsmen on board. Honest country agriculturists and their wives were looking as though they wondered what it would end in; some were sitting on their boxes and making a show of reading tracts which were being presented to them by a serious-looking gentleman in a white tie; but all day long they had perused the first page only, at least I saw none turn over the second.

And so the afternoon wore on, wet, cold, and comfortless — no dinner served on account of the general confusion. The emigration commissioner was taking a final survey of the ship and shaking hands with this, that, and the other of the passengers. Fresh arrivals kept continually creating a little additional excitement — these were saloon passengers, who alone were permitted to join the ship at Gravesend. By and by a couple of policemen made their appearance and arrested one of the party, a London cabman, for debt. He had a large family, and a subscription was soon started to pay the sum he owed. Subsequently, a much larger subscription would have been made in order to have him taken away by anybody or anything.

Little by little the confusion subsided. The emigration commissioner left; at six we were at last allowed some victuals. Unpacking my books and arranging them in my cabin filled up the remainder of the evening, save the time devoted to a couple of meditative pipes. The emigrants went to bed, and when, at about ten o’clock, I went up for a little time upon the poop, I heard no sound save the clanging of the clocks from the various churches of Gravesend, the pattering of rain upon the decks, and the rushing of the river as it gurgled against the ship’s side.

Early next morning the cocks began to crow vociferously. We had about sixty couple of the oldest inhabitants of the hen-roost on board, which were intended for the consumption of the saloon passengers — a destiny which they have since fulfilled: young fowls die on shipboard, only old ones standing the weather about the line. Besides this, the pigs began grunting and the sheep gave vent to an occasional feeble bleat, the only expression of surprise or discontent which I heard them utter during the remainder of their existence, for now, alas! they are no more. I remember dreaming I was in a farmyard, and woke as soon as it was light. Rising immediately, I went on deck and found the morning calm and sulky — no rain, but everything very wet and very grey. There was Tilbury Fort, so different from Stanfield’s dashing picture. There was Gravesend, which but a year before I had passed on my way to Antwerp with so little notion that I should ever leave it thus. Musing in this way, and taking a last look at the green fields of old England, soaking with rain, and comfortless though they then looked, I soon became aware that we had weighed anchor, and that a small steam-tug which had been getting her steam up for some little time had already begun to subtract a mite of the distance between ourselves and New Zealand. And so, early in the morning of Saturday, October 1, 1859, we started on our voyage.

The river widened out hour by hour. Soon our little steam-tug left us. A fair wind sprung up, and at two o’clock, or thereabouts, we found ourselves off Ramsgate. Here we anchored and waited till the tide, early next morning. This took us to Deal, off which we again remained a whole day. On Monday morning we weighed anchor, and since then we have had it on the forecastle, and trust we may have no further occasion for it until we arrive at New Zealand.

I will not waste time and space by describing the horrible sea-sickness of most of the passengers, a misery which I did not myself experience, nor yet will I prolong the narrative of our voyage down the Channel — it was short and eventless. The captain says there is more danger between Gravesend and the Start Point (where we lost sight of land) than all the way between there and New Zealand. Fogs are so frequent and collisions occur so often. Our own passage was free from adventure. In the Bay of Biscay the water assumed a blue hue of almost incredible depth; there, moreover, we had our first touch of a gale — not that it deserved to be called a gale in comparison with what we have since experienced, still we learnt what double-reefs meant. After this the wind fell very light, and continued so for a few days. On referring to my diary, I perceive that on the 10th of October we had only got as far south as the forty-first parallel of latitude, and late on that night a heavy squall coming up from the S.W. brought a foul wind with it. It soon freshened, and by two o’clock in the morning the noise of the flapping sails, as the men were reefing them, and of the wind roaring through the rigging, was deafening. All next day we lay hove to under a close-reefed main-topsail, which, being interpreted, means that the only sail set was the main-topsail, and that that was close reefed; moreover, that the ship was laid at right angles to the wind and the yards braced sharp up. Thus a ship drifts very slowly, and remains steadier than she would otherwise; she ships few or no seas, and, though she rolls a good deal, is much more easy and safe than when running at all near the wind. Next day we drifted due north, and on the third day, the fury of the gale having somewhat moderated, we resumed — not our course, but a course only four points off it. The next several days we were baffled by foul winds, jammed down on the coast of Portugal; and then we had another gale from the south, not such a one as the last, but still enough to drive us many miles out of our course; and then it fell calm, which was almost worse, for when the wind fell the sea rose, and we were tossed about in such a manner as would have forbidden even Morpheus himself to sleep. And so we crawled on till, on the morning of the 24th of October, by which time, if we had had anything like luck, we should have been close on the line, we found ourselves about thirty miles from the Peak of Teneriffe, becalmed. This was a long way out of our course, which lay three or four degrees to the westward at the very least; but the sight of the Peak was a great treat, almost compensating for past misfortunes. The Island of Teneriffe lies in latitude 28 degrees, longitude 16 degrees. It is about sixty miles long; towards the southern extremity the Peak towers upwards to a height of 12,300 feet, far above the other land of the island, though that too is very elevated and rugged. Our telescopes revealed serrated gullies upon the mountain sides, and showed us the fastnesses of the island in a manner that made us long to explore them. We deceived ourselves with the hope that some speculative fisherman might come out to us with oranges and grapes for sale. He would have realised a handsome sum if he had, but unfortunately none was aware of the advantages offered, and so we looked and longed in vain. The other islands were Palma, Gomera, and Ferro, all of them lofty, especially Palma — all of them beautiful. On the seaboard of Palma we could detect houses innumerable; it seemed to be very thickly inhabited and carefully cultivated. The calm continuing three days, we took stock of the islands pretty minutely, clear as they were, and rarely obscured even by a passing cloud; the weather was blazing hot, but beneath the awning it was very delicious; a calm, however, is a monotonous thing even when an island like Teneriffe is in view, and we soon tired both of it and of the gambols of the blackfish (a species of whale), and the operations on board an American vessel hard by.

On the evening of the third day a light air sprung up, and we watched the islands gradually retire into the distance. Next morning they were faint and shrunken, and by midday they were gone. The wind was the commencement of the north-east trades. On the next day (Thursday, October 27, lat. 27 degrees 40 minutes) the cook was boiling some fat in a large saucepan, when the bottom burnt through and the fat fell out over the fire, got lighted, and then ran about the whole galley, blazing and flaming as though it would set the place on fire, whereat an alarm of fire was raised, the effect of which was electrical: there was no real danger about the affair, for a fire is easily extinguishable on a ship when only above board; it is when it breaks out in the hold, is unperceived, gains strength, and finally bursts its prison, that it becomes a serious matter to extinguish it. This was quenched in five minutes, but the faces of the female steerage passengers were awful. I noticed about many a peculiar contraction and elevation of one eyebrow, which I had never seen before on the living human face, though often in pictures. I don’t mean to say that all the faces of all the saloon passengers were void of any emotion whatever.

The trades carried us down to latitude 9 degrees. They were but light while they lasted, and left us soon. There is no wind more agreeable than the N.E. trades. The sun keeps the air deliciously warm, the breeze deliciously fresh. The vessel sits bolt upright, steering a S.S.W. course, with the wind nearly aft: she glides along with scarcely any perceptible motion; sometimes, in the cabin, one would fancy one must be on dry land. The sky is of a greyish blue, and the sea silver grey, with a very slight haze round the horizon. The water is very smooth, even with a wind which would elsewhere raise a considerable sea. In latitude 19 degrees, longitude 25 degrees, we first fell in with flying fish. These are usually in flocks, and are seen in greatest abundance in the morning; they fly a great way and very well, not with the kind of jump which a fish takes when springing out of the water, but with a bona fide flight, sometimes close to the water, sometimes some feet above it. One flew on board, and measured roughly eighteen inches between the tips of its wings. On Saturday, November 5, the trades left us suddenly after a thunder-storm, which gave us an opportunity of seeing chain lightning, which I only remember to have seen once in England. As soon as the storm was over, we perceived that the wind was gone, and knew that we had entered that unhappy region of calms which extends over a belt of some five degrees rather to the north of the line.

We knew that the weather about the line was often calm, but had pictured to ourselves a gorgeous sun, golden sunsets, cloudless sky, and sea of the deepest blue. On the contrary, such weather is never known there, or only by mistake. It is a gloomy region. Sombre sky and sombre sea. Large cauliflower-headed masses of dazzling cumulus tower in front of a background of lavender-coloured satin. There are clouds of every shape and size. The sails idly flap as the sea rises and falls with a heavy regular but windless swell. Creaking yards and groaning rudder seem to lament that they cannot get on. The horizon is hard and black, save when blent softly into the sky upon one quarter or another by a rapidly approaching squall. A puff of wind — “Square the yards!” — the ship steers again; another — she moves slowly onward; it blows — she slips through the water; it blows hard — she runs very hard — she flies; a drop of rain — the wind lulls; three or four more of the size of half a crown — it falls very light; it rains hard, and then the wind is dead — whereon the rain comes down in a torrent which those must see who would believe. The air is so highly charged with moisture that any damp thing remains damp and any dry thing dampens: the decks are always wet. Mould springs up anywhere, even on the very boots which one is wearing; the atmosphere is like that of a vapour bath, and the dense clouds seem to ward off the light, but not the heat, of the sun. The dreary monotony of such weather affects the spirits of all, and even the health of some. One poor girl who had long been consumptive, but who apparently had rallied much during the voyage, seemed to give way suddenly as soon as we had been a day in this belt of calms, and four days after, we lowered her over the ship’s side into the deep.

One day we had a little excitement in capturing a shark, whose triangular black fin had been veering about above water for some time at a little distance from the ship. I will not detail a process that has so often been described, but will content myself with saying that he did not die unavenged, inasmuch as he administered a series of cuffs and blows to anyone that was near him which would have done credit to a prize-fighter, and several of the men got severe handling or, I should rather say, “tailing” from him. He was accompanied by two beautifully striped pilot fish — the never-failing attendants of the shark.

One day during this calm we fell in with a current, when the aspect of the sea was completely changed. It resembled a furiously rushing river, and had the sound belonging to a strong stream, only much intensified; the waves, too, tossed up their heads perpendicularly into the air; whilst the empty flour-casks drifted ahead of us and to one side. It was impossible to look at the sea without noticing its very singular appearance. Soon a wind springing up raised the waves and obliterated the more manifest features of the current, but for two or three days afterwards we could perceive it more or less. There is always at this time of year a strong westerly set here. The wind was the commencement of the S.E. trades, and was welcomed by all with the greatest pleasure. In two days more we reached the line.

We crossed the line far too much to the west, in longitude 31 degrees 6 minutes, after a very long passage of nearly seven weeks, such as our captain says he never remembers to have made; fine winds, however, now began to favour us, and in another week we got out of the tropics, having had the sun vertically overhead, so as to have no shadow, on the preceding day. Strange to say, the weather was never at all oppressively hot after latitude 2 degrees north, or thereabouts. A fine wind, or indeed a light wind, at sea removes all unpleasant heat even of the hottest and most perpendicular sun. The only time that we suffered any inconvenience at all from heat was during the belt of calms; when the sun was vertically over our heads it felt no hotter than on an ordinary summer day. Immediately, however, upon leaving the tropics the cold increased sensibly, and in latitude 27 degrees 8 minutes I find that I was not warm once all day. Since then we have none of us ever been warm, save when taking exercise or in bed; when the thermometer was up at 50 degrees we thought it very high and called it warm. The reason of the much greater cold of the southern than of the northern hemisphere is that the former contains so much less land. I have not seen the thermometer below 42 degrees in my cabin, but am sure that outside it has often been very much lower. We almost all got chilblains, and wondered much what the winter of this hemisphere must be like if this was its summer: I believe, however, that as soon as we get off the coast of Australia, which I hope we may do in a couple of days, we shall feel a very sensible rise in the thermometer at once. Had we known what was coming, we should have prepared better against it, but we were most of us under the impression that it would be warm summer weather all the way. No doubt we felt it more than we should otherwise on account of our having so lately crossed the line.

The great feature of the southern seas is the multitude of birds which inhabit it. Huge albatrosses, molimorks (a smaller albatross), Cape hens, Cape pigeons, parsons, boobies, whale birds, mutton birds, and many more, wheel continually about the ship’s stern, sometimes in dozens, sometimes in scores, always in considerable numbers. If a person takes two pieces of pork and ties them together, leaving perhaps a yard of string between the two pieces, and then throws them into the sea, one albatross will catch hold of one end, and another of the other, each bolts his own end and then tugs and fights with his rival till one or other has to disgorge his prize; we have not, however, succeeded in catching any, neither have we tried the above experiment ourselves. Albatrosses are not white; they are grey, or brown with a white streak down the back, and spreading a little into the wings. The under part of the bird is a bluish-white. They remain without moving the wing a longer time than any bird that I have ever seen, but some suppose that each individual feather is vibrated rapidly, though in very small space, without any motion being imparted to the main pinions of the wing. I am informed that there is a strong muscle attached to each of the large plumes in their wings. It certainly is strange how so large a bird should be able to travel so far and so fast without any motion of the wing. Albatrosses are often entirely brown, but farther south, and when old, I am told, they become sometimes quite white. The stars of the southern hemisphere are lauded by some: I cannot see that they surpass or equal those of the northern. Some, of course, are the same. The southern cross is a very great delusion. It isn’t a cross. It is a kite, a kite upside down, an irregular kite upside down, with only three respectable stars and one very poor and very much out of place. Near it, however, is a truly mysterious and interesting object called the coal sack: it is a black patch in the sky distinctly darker than all the rest of the heavens. No star shines through it. The proper name for it is the black Magellan cloud.

We reached the Cape, passing about six degrees south of it, in twenty-five days after crossing the line, a very fair passage; and since the Cape we have done well until a week ago, when, after a series of very fine runs, and during as fair a breeze as one would wish to see, we were some of us astonished to see the captain giving orders to reef topsails. The royals were stowed, so were the top-gallant-sails, topsails close reefed, mainsail reefed, and just at 10.45 p.m., as I was going to bed, I heard the captain give the order to take a reef in the foresail and furl the mainsail; but before I was in bed a quarter of an hour afterwards, a blast of wind came up like a wall, and all night it blew a regular hurricane. The glass, which had dropped very fast all day, and fallen lower than the captain had ever seen it in the southern hemisphere, had given him warning what was coming, and he had prepared for it. That night we ran away before the wind to the north, next day we lay hove-to till evening, and two days afterwards the gale was repeated, but with still greater violence. The captain was all ready for it, and a ship, if she is a good sea-boat, may laugh at any winds or any waves provided she be prepared. The danger is when a ship has got all sail set and one of these bursts of wind is shot out at her; then her masts go overboard in no time. Sailors generally estimate a gale of wind by the amount of damage it does, if they don’t lose a mast or get their bulwarks washed away, or at any rate carry away a few sails, they don’t call it a gale, but a stiff breeze; if, however, they are caught even by comparatively a very inferior squall, and lose something, they call it a gale.

The captain assured us that the sea never assumes a much grander or more imposing aspect than that which it wore on this occasion. He called me to look at it between two and three in the morning when it was at its worst; it was certainly very grand, and made a tremendous noise, and the wind would scarcely let one stand, and made such a roaring in the rigging as I never heard, but there was not that terrific appearance that I had expected. It didn’t suggest any ideas to one’s mind about the possibility of anything happening to one. It was excessively unpleasant to be rolled hither and thither, and I never felt the force of gravity such a nuisance before; one’s soup at dinner would face one at an angle of 45 degrees with the horizon, it would look as though immovable on a steep inclined plane, and it required the nicest handling to keep the plane truly horizontal. So with one’s tea, which would alternately rush forward to be drunk and fly as though one were a Tantalus; so with all one’s goods, which would be seized with the most erratic propensities. Still we were unable to imagine ourselves in any danger, save that one flaxen-headed youth of two-and-twenty kept waking up his companion for the purpose of saying to him at intervals during the night, “I say, isn’t it awful?” till finally silenced him with a boot. While on the subject of storms I may add, that a captain, if at all a scientific man, can tell whether he is in a cyclone (as we were) or not, and if he is in a cyclone he can tell in what part of it he is, and how he must steer so as to get out of it. A cyclone is a storm that moves in a circle round a calm of greater or less diameter; the calm moves forward in the centre of the rotatory storm at the rate of from one or two to thirty miles an hour. A large cyclone 500 miles in diameter, rushing furiously round its centre, will still advance in a right line, only very slowly indeed. A small one 50 or 60 miles across will progress more rapidly. One vessel sailed for five days at the rate of 12, 13, and 14 knots an hour round one of these cyclones before the wind all the time, yet in the five days she had made only 187 miles in a straight line. I tell this tale as it was told to me, but have not studied the subjects myself. Whatever saloon passengers may think about a gale of wind, I am sure that the poor sailors who have to go aloft in it and reef topsails cannot welcome it with any pleasure.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31