Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 9

Onward she goes, over ripple and spray,

Over the watersawayand away.

It was in the evening when, according to the custom of the hulk, the names of all those who were destined to depart were called aloud on each deck by the boatswain, and they were directed to prepare for the “Bay ship” on the morrow. Our hero was doubly rejoiced at hearing his own name among the rest, for since the torturing disgraceful punishment he had received, the Leviathan had become perfectly hateful to him, and he spent the whole of the night in rumination as to his probable fortune in Australia.

The next day the convicts were duly washed, shaved, cropped, and supplied with two suits each of new slop clothing. They were all ironed too afresh, having each a new pair of double irons put on, and were then paraded before the surgeon superintendent of the vessel in which they were to sail. This officer rejected a few of those who appeared sickly, and others were called in their room. Shortly afterwards the whole body was transferred to a large lighter, which conveyed them out to Spithead, where the good ship fraught with their destinies lay like a mighty sea-bird asleep on the bosom of the open roadstead. On being placed on board, the prisoners were mustered down below, between the decks, into their proper sleeping-places, where each found a numbered bed and blanket. They were then left to pass the night as they listed.

The ship Magnet, which was to convey our adventurer and his companions to the Antipodes, was of about 500 tons burden. The chief part of the maindeck was appropriated to the use of the convicts, of whom there were 150 originally embarked. The deck had been subdivided by a strong bulkhead into two apartments, the smaller by far of which was destined to the reception of the boy convicts, of whom there were about thirty. The hatchways were secured with upright elm stanchions in a stout framing, the whole rendered impervious to any attempt at cutting them by having innumerable broadheaded nails driven home as close together as possible into every portion of the stanchions and frame that was exposed to view. In one of these hatchways were the doors leading to the men’s and the boys’ prisons. These openings were purposely made so small that only one person at a time could pass through them, and a military sentry was posted day and night in the hatchway to prevent any mutiny or other irregularity.

The military guard consisted of two commissioned and six non-commissioned officers, with about forty private soldiers, some of whom wore married and accompanied by their wives and families. While at Spithead, the prisoners were only allowed to come on deck in divisions, three-fourths remaining below while the others enjoyed the fresh air, six soldiers being posted at different parts of the ship. When they sailed, however, the convicts were allowed the liberty of the deck, the whole body except the sick being obliged to leave the prison every fine day by sunrise, and taking their meals on the deck, returning to their berths only at sunset, when they were mustered down by an officer.

Order was maintained among them, and a due regard to cleanliness enforced, by a boatswain and six mates, selected by the surgeon superintendent from the convicts, of whom he had the exclusive care. Their food consisted of the ration which was commonly known in the transport service by the name of “six upon four”, it being four men-of-war sailors’ allowance among six of the prisoners. When the voyage advanced, a small portion of wine or lime-juice was issued on alternate days. There was, in fact, no lack of anything felt on board save water, which was necessarily carefully husbanded, and the want of which was chiefly endured by those who devoured their salt provisions too greedily.

The day after the arrival of the draft, a boatswain, two cooks and other petty officers were chosen from among them, and the men distributed into messes or parties of eight in each, who were to receive their stated allowance of food and water together. It being known that nearly a fortnight would elapse before they sailed for their destination, many of the convicts busied themselves by writing to their friends or relatives to bid them farewell or to request a parting visit. As for Rashleigh, he had resolved not to let any person know his fate, and as his name was an assumed one, he conceived none of his connexions were aware of his degradation.

Bumboats with all manner of supplies attended the Magnet at her moorings daily; and as the time for their departure drew nigh, the deck frequently presented an animating and lively appearance, sorrowfully diversified at times by groups of weeping females or children assembled round some parent or brother who was about to be severed from them, most probably for ever.

Ralph had little to do with either leave-taking or bargaining. His slender store of money was soon expended in purchasing a little tea and sugar, with a few other trifling comforts, for his long voyage; and it was with no very poignant feelings of regret that he saw the anchor weighed and the sails loosed which were to waft him away from the land of his birth.

The vessel passed near the Isle of Wight, and standing out into mid channel, they continued their course until evening, when all were ordered below. The sleeping-berths between decks were framed of deal boards, supported by stanchions and quartering of the same kind of timber, and subdivided into compartments in which six men slept in a space of about as many feet. These bed-places were framed in rows along each side of the ship, and a double row was also formed in the centre, between which and the sides and hatchways, narrow passages were left.

This being their first night at sea, the broken waves of the channel tossed them about considerably, and the wind being aft, the vessel rolled much more than was agreeable to such raw sailors. A scene of great confusion was therefore the result, some swearing, some casting up their accounts, a very, very few indeed praying, and many lying without daring to stir. Rashleigh was not much affected by the motion, and when the tumult had a little subsided, he went to sleep; though, as he lay athwart the vessel, his rest was much disturbed by the rolling. Towards midnight he awoke and made the discovery that his feet were elevated about a yard higher than his head, an order of things which, as he had not been accustomed to it, he forthwith proceeded to alter. But scarce had he done so when he found himself subject to the same inconvenience in his fresh position, so that he was fain to replace his head against the ship’s side, as he had at first lain down, being fearful, while he lay the other way, that some roll more violent than the rest might suddenly dislodge him and cast him headlong into the opposite sleeping-berths: a mode of visiting his shipmates which he could very well dispense with.

He could not sleep more, however, in any position, so he sat up at last, leaning against the ship’s side and ever and anon wondering what it was that continually struck the bows of the vessel — as it seemed to him — with such tremendous fury, little thinking it was the waves, every time her head went down to meet them.

At length he heard a dreadful crash above, followed by the hurtling fall of timbers on the deck. At the same moment a tremendous sea broke over the bulwarks of the vessel and swept with fury down into the main hatchway, in which the sentry was posted. The violence of the rushing water drove the poor soldier with great force against the barricade, and a perfect deluge poured into the prison.

Dire was now the clamour. A hundred sleepers were aroused at once, to find themselves and their bedding immersed in water which every fresh roll of the vessel dashed from side to side, as it had no outlet. Most of them, in a state of mortal terror, deemed the ship was sinking, and a wild outcry of lamentation pealed from many tongues.

Very soon a few of the boldest rushed at the little gateway, hoping to force it and gain the deck, that they might not, as one of their number expressed it, “be drowned like rats, shut up in a cage”; but the wicket bade defiance to all their ill-directed strength. Meanwhile the tones of the sentry might sometimes be heard above the din of voices or the rush of the mighty waters, pouring forth a jeremiad in terms like the following: “Wirrah, it’s murdered, and kilt, losht, destroyed and drownded I am! Swate mother o’ Jasus! And my firelock gone. Shure, if I escape this turn, I’ll be hanged tomorrow for losing my arrums. Och, Wirrah! Wirrah!” And in the darkness the poor fellow would grope for his lost musket, when suddenly a roll of the ship would throw him forcibly against one of the sides, until, a lighted lantern being brought, his dilemma was observed and another sentry placed on his post.

The prisoners, however, were compelled to pass the night in the best manner they could, only being assured that there was no danger, the noise and confusion on deck having arisen from one of the yards giving way. They set to work and bailed the water into the privies as well as they could, and by morning everything was once more quiet below.

Nothing of moment now passed for some time. The good ship still gallantly breasted the billows on her watery way, and at last they neared the Equinoctial, where the ceremony of shaving, on crossing the line, was productive of much fun, about fifty of the prisoners undergoing that operation for the merriment of the others, who, with the captain, officers and passengers, were all equally amused thereby.

Some time prior to this event Ralph Rashleigh had been selected by the surgeon to act as his clerk, a circumstance which, while it procured him many comforts, also probably prevented his having any hand in a scheme that was now set on foot among the prisoners for seizing the vessel, which was shortly after their crossing the line brought to maturity, and but very narrowly defeated.

The boys’ prison was separated only by a bulkhead on either side from the portion occupied by the military and the older prisoners, with relation to which it occupied the centre. Some of these adroit young thieves had contrived to loosen a board in the bulkhead between their own and the soldiers’ apartment. Through this aperture one of the smallest among them used to get into the berth of the military when the latter were asleep, and steal tea, sugar, tobacco, biscuits, or in short, anything he could lay his hands on. This became known to some of the men, who concocted a plot, in which they were joined by others, that this boy should on a certain night steal three muskets which stood in an open arm rack in the soldiers’ berth, and which were visible from the deck and were supposed to be kept continually loaded. These muskets were to be passed from the boys’ into the men’s prison, and in the morning, when the convicts were let up to wash the deck, some of those who were first up were to go to the fore hatchway, and the stolen fire-arms were then to be handed to them from the prison. The rest of the convicts on deck were to be very active in throwing water about and bustling to and fro, so as to attract the notice of the sentries there, of whom there would be three, one at the forecastle, one at the waist, and the third on the poop, of whom only the last would have fire-arms with him. The two sentries forward, being surprised by men from behind them, were to be seized and thrown overboard, while the one on the poop was to be shot dead at the same signal. One party was then to cast loose the breeching of a cannon on the deck, which was known to be loaded, and run it to the companion ladder leading down to the soldiers’ berth, while in the mean time another party was to rush aft and secure the officers.

All this, to a certain extent, fell out exactly as the mutineers had anticipated. The sentries forward were seized, and one of the prisoners snapped his piece at the soldier on the poop; but it did not go off. The other two muskets were then tried with as little success-in fact, there was no priming in either. In the mean time the sentry on the poop roared out “To arms!” But a rush being made upon him, he fired his piece at random and the instant afterwards was thrown overboard. The party who should have cast loose the cannon found that the stubbornness of the fastenings bade defiance to all their efforts of loosening them by hand, and not one of them possessed a knife.

The soldiers now came pouring up the ladder. The first two or three were tumbled back on their companions by blows from the stocks of the mutineers’ muskets, until two of the military officers, who had leaped through the cabin skylight on finding themselves attacked, and who had now gained the poop with their fowling-pieces, levelled them and shot two of the boldest among the convicts dead alongside the ladder. Their companions recoiled. The soldiers now rushed upon deck. A volley of musketry was poured in among the prisoners, of whom five fell, three jumped overboard and all the rest were driven below, many being wounded severely by the bayonets of the exasperated guard. All that day they were kept below without food, and the next morning, the prison doors being thrown open, they were ordered to come on deck.

When Rashleigh did so, he found the whole of the military under arms, one line being drawn across the poop, and another line across the forecastle. Two guns had also been lashed in front of both parties, beside which stood a seaman with a lighted match, the muzzle of each cannon being pointed inwards towards the main hatchway, around which the convicts were huddled in a group. When all the latter had come up the ladder, the ship’s boatswain ordered them to answer their names and go on the quarter-deck as they were called. They did so; and when our adventurer’s turn came, he followed his predecessor into the presence of the surgeon, ship’s captain and military officers, who, dressed in full uniform, occupied the front of the poop stairs. The only sentry who remained alive out of the three that had been on guard the previous morning, and who had fortunately escaped by clinging to a rope that was towing overboard, stood near his officers, his business apparently being to identify the men who had been on deck during the attempt. Each prisoner was also stripped to ascertain if he had been wounded. If no wound appeared, and the sentry could not say that he had been concerned in the mutiny, he was then asked whether he knew anything of the attempted seizure, and informed that if he would give accurate intelligence respecting the authors of the plot he should be highly rewarded instanter, and strongly recommended for his liberty at the expiration of the voyage.

Rashleigh had always loved his bed too well to be an early riser. He had never been on deck any day since they left the land until he was compelled, and his being employed by the surgeon probably precluded any confidence being placed in him by his fellows; so after he had declared his ignorance he was dismissed. The affair ended by about twenty of the prisoners either being identified by the soldier, or being shown to have been wounded. These were now severely flogged and placed in heavy irons until the vessel should reach Port Jackson, being confined all the time besides in a sort of den under the forecastle. Although many of the convicts afterwards professed to give details of the plot and the names of the chief actors in it, nearly all the tales were found to be mere fabrications, and it was generally believed that the leaders in this abortive mutiny were among the number who had been shot dead, or who had leaped overboard on their discomfiture.

After this émeute there were always five sentries on deck in the daytime with loaded muskets, two of whom were stationed on the poop, two at the forecastle, and another at the waist with drawn bayonet only. All else on board resumed its wonted course, nor did anything of moment more occur until, a few days after passing the island of St Peter and St Paul, the captain descried a sail, and found it was standing on such a course that the Magnet must certainly pass very near her, which happened accordingly, and the vessels were quickly within hail. The stranger was a long low schooner, whose masts raked very much, and as the mariners said, “she loomed very suspicious altogether”; but as she had then apparently altered her course, no more was thought of it that day. In the grey haze of the next morning, however, she again bore down, and was close to them before she was perceived by anyone on board the convict ship. Suddenly a call was heard: “Port! Port your helm!”

The next instant the loud sullen boom of a heavy piece of artillery awoke the slumbers of that watery world. Directly after, a voice was heard to hail in some foreign tongue from the schooner, to which Captain Boltrope replied, “An English convict ship bound from Portsmouth to New South Wales.”

Ralph Rashleigh hurried on dock. This, being quite an event in the annals of their voyage, had roused his curiosity, and he now found the schooner lying to at a short distance, her sails flapping idly against her masts. Most of the passengers by the Magnet, and the military officers, were on her poop. From the observations made among these, it appeared that none on board the stranger seemed to understand English; but immediately afterwards the gaudy flag of Portugal was hoisted at the schooner’s gaff, and another gun fired towards the English vessel.

“That gun was shotted, by ——!” roared out the old mate, as he looked aloft, apparently pursuing the course of the ball.

“Nay, then,” rejoined one of the military officers; “it is time we began to look out, captain.”

Captain Boltrope replied, “Aye, aye, sit. We’ll soon see what sort of stuff she’s made of. Hoist away the Union jack there. Mr Travis, jump down below, and hand up a lot of cartridges and wads. Dr MacMorrogh, will you turn all your men up on deck? They can help to load and run the guns in and out. Ease her off, my lad at the helm! Bring her starboard side to bear on the stranger. By the Lord, we’ll astonish you, my joker, directly.”

“Do you mean to fight her then, sir?” enquired Dr Dullmere, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who was on board. in great fear.

“Fight?” replied the old tar. “Fight, aye? Why, that is a good ’un. To be sure, I do mean to fight. Do you think for a moment I’m going to have my ship plundered, and that glorious bit of buntin’” (pointing to the flag of England now flying at the peak) “insulted by a damned rogue like that? No, no! jemmy Boltrope will never stand that, while we’ve got forty sojers on board, besides all this mob, who are most of ’em wicked enough to fight the devil himself, were he to rise out of the ocean with seven heads and ten horns, like the beast in the Book of Revelations.”

While the captain was talking he was also busy, clearing away the poop for action; but the parson had vanished, and his place was far better supplied by ten or a dozen of the soldiers, who now appeared, as the skipper said, “in full fighting fig”. The military officer, at his request, now detached four more soldiers into each of the tops, and great was the laughter of Captain Boltrope at the lubberly way in which the “leather necks”, as he called them, got up to their new posts.

In the mean time a boat had been lowered from the stranger, apparently full of armed men, and was rowed towards the Leviathan; but on seeing the military guard displayed on the poop, forecastle and tops, the commander of the boat shouted out again to someone in his own vessel, and loud cries of “prisonniers! prisonniers!” or something of the kind, burst from many voices in both the schooner and the boat. The latter was now rowed back to the stranger, which soon after filled its sails and stood away.

From this incident until the end of their dreary voyage no other occurrence of any moment took place, and many were the hearts that bounded with mingled anticipations when one evening the cry of “Land ho!” was heard from the mast-head; which, upon the vessel’s approaching a little nearer, was declared to be the coast of New Holland, but some distance to the southward of their expected haven, which it was supposed, however, they would be nearly abreast of by the next morning; and eve sank down upon all on board the Magnet engaged in various contemplations of what fate might have in store for them in the land to which they were now exiled and which they were so rapidly approaching.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00