A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 2

Life on Board — Calm — Boat Lowered — Snares and Traps — Land — Driven off coast — Enter Port Lyttelton — Requisites for a Sea Voyage — Spirit of Adventure aroused.

Before continuing the narrative of my voyage, I must turn to other topics and give you some account of my life on board. My time has passed very pleasantly: I have read a good deal; I have nearly finished Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, am studying Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry, and learning the concertina on the instrument of one of my fellow-passengers. Besides this, I have had the getting up and management of our choir. We practise three or four times a week; we chant the Venite, Glorias, and Te Deums, and sing one hymn. I have two basses, two tenors, one alto, and lots of girls, and the singing certainly is better than you would hear in nine country places out of ten. I have been glad by this means to form the acquaintance of many of the poorer passengers. My health has been very good all the voyage: I have not had a day’s sea-sickness. The provisions are not very first-rate, and the day after tomorrow, being Christmas Day, we shall sigh for the roast beef of Old England, as our dinner will be somewhat of the meagrest. Never mind! On the whole I cannot see reason to find any great fault. We have a good ship, a good captain, and victuals sufficient in quantity. Everyone but myself abuses the owners like pick pockets, but I rather fancy that some of them will find themselves worse off in New Zealand. When I come back, if I live to do so (and I sometimes amass a wonderful fortune in a very short time, and come back fabulously rich, and do all sorts of things), I think I shall try the overland route. Almost every evening four of us have a very pleasant rubber, which never gets stale. So you will have gathered that, though very anxious to get to our journey’s end, which, with luck, we hope to do in about three weeks’ time, still the voyage has not proved at all the unbearable thing that some of us imagined it would have been. One great amusement I have forgotten to mention — that is, shuffle-board, a game which consists in sending some round wooden platters along the deck into squares chalked and numbered from one to ten. This game will really keep one quite hot in the coldest weather if played with spirit.

During the month that has elapsed since writing the last sentence, we have had strong gales and long, tedious calms. On one of these occasions the captain lowered a boat, and a lot of us scrambled over the ship’s side and got in, taking it in turns to row. The first thing that surprised us was the very much warmer temperature of the sea-level than that on deck. The change was astonishing. I have suffered from a severe cold ever since my return to the ship. On deck it was cold, thermometer 46 degrees; on the sea-level it was deliciously warm. The next thing that surprised us was the way in which the ship was pitching, though it appeared a dead calm. Up she rose and down she fell upon a great hummocky swell which came lazily up from the S.W., making our horizon from the boat all uneven. On deck we had thought it a very slight swell; in the boat we perceived what a heavy, humpy, ungainly heap of waters kept rising and sinking all round us, sometimes blocking out the whole ship, save the top of the main royal, in the strangest way in the world. We pulled round the ship, thinking we had never in our lives seen anything so beautiful as she then looked in the sunny morning, when suddenly we saw a large ripple in the waters not far off. At first the captain imagined it to have been caused by a whale, and was rather alarmed, but by and by it turned out to be nothing but a shoal of fish. Then we made for a large piece of seaweed which we had seen some way astern. It extended some ten feet deep, and was a huge, tangled, loose, floating mass; among it nestled little fishes innumerable, and as we looked down amid its intricate branches through the sun-lit azure of the water, the effect was beautiful. This mass we attached to the boat, and with great labour and long time succeeded in getting it up to the ship, the little fishes following behind the seaweed. It was impossible to lift it on board, so we fastened it to the ship’s side and came in to luncheon. After lunch some ropes were arranged to hoist the ladies in a chair over the ship’s side and lower them into the boat — a process which created much merriment. Into the boat we put half a dozen of champagne — a sight which gave courage to one or two to brave the descent who had not previously ventured on such a feat. Then the ladies were pulled round the ship, and, when about a mile ahead of her, we drank the champagne and had a regular jollification. Returning to show them the seaweed, the little fishes looked so good that someone thought of a certain net wherewith the doctor catches ocean insects, porpytas, clios, spinulas, etc. With this we caught in half an hour amid much screaming, laughter, and unspeakable excitement, no less than 250 of them. They were about five inches long — funny little blue fishes with wholesome-looking scales. We ate them next day, and they were excellent. Some expected that we should have swollen or suffered some bad effects, but no evil happened to us: not but what these deep-sea fishes are frequently poisonous, but I believe that scaly fishes are always harmless. We returned by half-past three, after a most enjoyable day; but, as proof of the heat being much greater in the boat, I may mention that one of the party lost the skin from his face and arms, and that we were all much sunburnt even in so short a time; yet one man who bathed that day said he had never felt such cold water in his life.

We are now (January 21) in great hopes of sighting land in three or four days, and are really beginning to feel near the end of our voyage: not that I can realise this to myself; it seems as though I had always been on board the ship, and was always going to be, and as if all my past life had not been mine, but had belonged to somebody else, or as though someone had taken mine and left me his by mistake. I expect, however, that when the land actually comes in sight we shall have little difficulty in realising the fact that the voyage has come to a close. The weather has been much warmer since we have been off the coast of Australia, even though Australia is some 100 north of our present position. I have not, however, yet seen the thermometer higher than since we passed the Cape. Now we are due south of the south point of Van Diemen’s Land, and consequently nearer land than we have been for some time. We are making for the Snares, two high islets about sixty miles south of Stewart’s Island, the southernmost of the New Zealand group. We sail immediately to the north of them, and then turn up suddenly. The route we have to take passes between the Snares and the Traps — two rather ominous-sounding names, but I believe more terrible in name than in any other particular.

January 22. — Yesterday at midday I was sitting writing in my cabin, when I heard the joyful cry of “Land!” and, rushing on deck, saw the swelling and beautiful outline of the high land in Stewart’s Island. We had passed close by the Snares in the morning, but the weather was too thick for us to see them, though the birds flocked therefrom in myriads. We then passed between the Traps, which the captain saw distinctly, one on each side of him, from the main topgallant yard. Land continued in sight till sunset, but since then it has disappeared. To-day (Sunday) we are speeding up the coast; the anchors are ready, and tomorrow by early daylight we trust to drop them in the harbour of Lyttelton. We have reason, from certain newspapers, to believe that the mails leave on the 23rd of the month, in which case I shall have no time or means to add a single syllable.

January 26. — Alas for the vanity of human speculation! After writing the last paragraph the wind fell light, then sprung up foul, and so we were slowly driven to the E.N.E. On Monday night it blew hard, and we had close-reefed topsails. Tuesday morning at five it was lovely, and the reefs were all shaken out; a light air sprang up, and the ship, at 10 o’clock, had come up to her course, when suddenly, without the smallest warning, a gale came down upon us from the S.W. like a wall. The men were luckily very smart in taking in canvas, but at one time the captain thought he should have had to cut away the mizzenmast. We were reduced literally to bare poles, and lay-to under a piece of tarpaulin, six times doubled, and about two yards square, fastened up in the mizzen rigging. All day and night we lay thus, drifting to leeward at three knots an hour. In the twenty-four hours we had drifted sixty miles. Next day the wind moderated; but at 12 we found that we were eighty miles north of the peninsula and some 3 degrees east of it. So we set a little sail, and commenced forereaching slowly on our course. Little and little the wind died, and it soon fell dead calm. That evening (Wednesday), some twenty albatrosses being congregated like a flock of geese round the ship’s stern, we succeeded in catching some of them, the first we had caught on the voyage. We would have let them go again, but the sailors think them good eating, and begged them of us, at the same time prophesying two days’ foul wind for every albatross taken. It was then dead calm, but a light wind sprang up in the night, and on Thursday we sighted Banks Peninsula. Again the wind fell tantalisingly light, but we kept drawing slowly toward land. In the beautiful sunset sky, crimson and gold, blue, silver, and purple, exquisite and tranquillising, lay ridge behind ridge, outline behind outline, sunlight behind shadow, shadow behind sunlight, gully and serrated ravine. Hot puffs of wind kept coming from the land, and there were several fires burning. I got my arm-chair on deck, and smoked a quiet pipe with the intensest satisfaction. Little by little the night drew down, and then we rounded the headlands. Strangely did the waves sound breaking against the rocks of the harbour; strangely, too, looked the outlines of the mountains through the night. Presently we saw a light ahead from a ship: we drew slowly near, and as we passed you might have heard a pin drop. “What ship’s that?” said a strange voice. — The Roman Emperor, said the captain. “Are you all well?” — “All well.” Then the captain asked, “Has the Robert Small arrived?” — “No,” was the answer, “nor yet the Burmah.” 2 You may imagine what I felt. Then a rocket was sent up, and the pilot came on board. He gave us a roaring republican speech on the subject of India, China, etc. I rather admired him, especially as he faithfully promised to send us some fresh beefsteaks and potatoes for breakfast. A north-wester sprung up as soon as we had dropped anchor: had it commenced a little sooner we should have had to put out again to sea. That night I packed a knapsack to go on shore, but the wind blew so hard that no boat could put off till one o’clock in the day, at which hour I and one or two others landed, and, proceeding to the post office, were told there were no letters for us. I afterwards found mine had gone hundreds of miles away to a namesake — a cruel disappointment.

2 See Preface.

A few words concerning the precautions advisable for anyone who is about to take a long sea-voyage may perhaps be useful. First and foremost, unless provided with a companion whom he well knows and can trust, he must have a cabin to himself. There are many men with whom one can be on excellent terms when not compelled to be perpetually with them, but whom the propinquity of the same cabin would render simply intolerable. It would not even be particularly agreeable to be awakened during a hardly captured wink of sleep by the question “Is it not awful?” that, however, would be a minor inconvenience. No one, I am sure, will repent paying a few pounds more for a single cabin who has seen the inconvenience that others have suffered from having a drunken or disagreeable companion in so confined a space. It is not even like a large room. He should have books in plenty, both light and solid. A folding arm-chair is a great comfort, and a very cheap one. In the hot weather I found mine invaluable, and, in the bush, it will still come in usefully. He should have a little table and common chair: these are real luxuries, as all who have tried to write, or seen others attempt it, from a low arm-chair at a washing-stand will readily acknowledge.

A small disinfecting charcoal filter is very desirable. Ship’s water is often bad, and the ship’s filter may be old and defective. Mine has secured me and others during the voyage pure and sweet-tasting water, when we could not drink that supplied us by the ship. A bottle or two of raspberry vinegar will be found a luxury when near the line. By the aid of these means and appliances I have succeeded in making myself exceedingly comfortable. A small chest of drawers would have been preferable to a couple of boxes for my clothes, and I should recommend another to get one. A ten-pound note will suffice for all these things. The bunk should not be too wide: one rolls so in rough weather; of course it should not be athwartships, if avoidable. No one in his right mind will go second class if he can, by any hook or crook, raise money enough to go first.

On the whole, there are many advantageous results from a sea-voyage. One’s geography improves apace, and numberless incidents occur pregnant with interest to a landsman; moreover, there are sure to be many on board who have travelled far and wide, and one gains a great deal of information about all sorts of races and places. One effect is, perhaps, pernicious, but this will probably soon wear off on land. It awakens an adventurous spirit, and kindles a strong desire to visit almost every spot upon the face of the globe. The captain yarns about California and the China seas — the doctor about Valparaiso and the Andes — another raves about Hawaii and the islands of the Pacific — while a fourth will compare nothing with Japan.

The world begins to feel very small when one finds one can get half round it in three months; and one mentally determines to visit all these places before coming back again, not to mention a good many more.

I search my diary in vain to find some pretermitted adventure wherewith to give you a thrill, or, as good Mrs. B. calls it, “a feel”; but I can find none. The mail is going; I will write again by the next.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/first/chapter2.html

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