George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


Having missed the intended May sailing because the Princess Royal was not completed and stored in time, the Company was not about to brook any further delay, and ordered her departure as soon as her passengers were settled on board. At the crack of dawn on the day after their embarcation, the passengers were awakened by the sound of hoarse commands, the thump of both bare and booted feet overhead, the slither of ropes and the clatter of chains; at four o'clock in the morning the ship left her moorings at the East India Docks and was towed down the Thames to Gravesend, where the pilot left and the sails were shaken out. The long voyage had commenced. The date was 3rd June, 1854.

The ship's master was Captain David Wishart, and her first mate was Charles Gale. It is to Gale that we owe our only surviving account of the voyage, written in terse seaman's language and using a system of spelling that is uniquely his own. Although the voyage was probably no worse than that of other immigrant ships of the time, and even better than most, Gale's account is to us a litany of poor rations, shortages of water, miserable living conditions and frequent births and deaths.

On 1st July Mrs. Clark's baby died, and at 5:54 p.m. that day services were held and the tiny body was committed to the deep.

Fifteen days later, all who were able to attend were present at Divine Service. Mrs. Baker, heavily pregnant, was in difficulties. Gale recorded that "John Baker's wife, taken with a fit, was taken out . . ."

Later that same month, on 29th July, there was a mild mutiny on board; some of the miners objected to the condition of the rice ration and refused to work. "Names of those that refused", wrote Gale grimly, "are set out as under - George Baker, John Baker, Matthew Miller, John Meaking, William Incher, Joseph Webb, Richard Turner, Richard Richardson, John Richardson, Thomas Jones, Elijah Ganner, John Thompson, Thomas Lownds, Thomas Hawks, Joseph Bevilockway, John Biggs and Edwin Gough". Apparently all these had been assigned to general labouring duties, and there was no complaint from the others who had been given much easier jobs; Thomas York and John Malpass who served out stores with the third officer, William Harrison and Daniel Dunn who assisted the cook, George Bull who assisted the steward and Jesse Sage who attended the stock. the matter seems to have been cleared up one way or another, for the men returned to work next day.

Early in August, Mrs. Bull lost her child, and a third death on 20th September took one of the Malpass children. Both were buried at sea.

There were to be births as well as deaths. On 24th September a child was born to Mrs. John Baker. Gale recorded: ". . . we had a birth this afternoon in very great haste - at 10 a.m. the woman was on deck washing - at 3:30 p.m. she was confined". Six days later a child was born to Mrs. Jesse Sage.

The Baker baby lived only three weeks, dying 15th October. The previous day the Captain, at the parents's urgent request, had christened her "Anna Maria, with and by the forms of the Church of England", and like the other children she was buried at sea.

The daily ration of fresh water was barely sufficient for drinking and cooking, leaving none for washing of persons or clothes. The sailors, inured to this mode of living, advised the passengers to simply forget about washing with soap and water until they reached land. Washing with salt water, they said, would only cause skin rashes and sores. Sweaty bodies should be dried with a towel and left be with that. Extra fresh water could be obtained now and then by setting out rags and pieces of canvas to collect rain, but there was no other source.

The passage from Atlantic to Pacific Oceans was accomplished in the depths of winter in the southern hemisphere. The stormy Cape lived up to its evil reputation, with violent winds and mountainous waves that all too frequently laid the little ship on her beam-ends. Boxes and bundles periodically broke loose from the passengers' belongings and went sliding and bounding about the living quarters until seized and again roped into place. The cold was intense, and the passengers themselves huddled around the few small charcoal braziers, swathed in all the clothing they could muster and appearing on deck only briefly when driven from below to escape the worst effects of mal-de-mer. It was a time that none would forget.

As the ship sailed northward the weather moderated, but another problem took its place. By the time the tropics were reached, the fresh water had become so rancid in its casks that its smell, let alone its taste, was almost unbearable. Food rations now consisted of moldy hard-tack, insect-infested rice and rainbow-hued salt pork. It must have been with indescribable relief that the passengers finally saw the Sandwich Islands rising on the horizon, with their promise of fresh provisions and water. The Princess Royal anchored off Honolulu on the 20th of October.

Most of their journey was now behind them, but their troubles were far from over. Gale's log records that shortly after midnight, in the early hours of 21st October, "Thomas Lowands one of the Miners died . . . Lowands has been ill almost ever since we left London . . . 3 P M Lowands was taken on Shore & Buried with about 10 of his Mates to follow him to the Grave". His widow had no choice but to continue with the ship.

A week later there were two more deaths. The log for the 28th of October states ". . . Mrs Incher has been confined This Morning and is dangerious ill . . . at 5 PM Mrs Incher Died but the Baby still live also a child belonging to Elijah Ganner Died about the same time . . . the undertaker was Immediatly Sent for to measure & make coffings for Them both . . ."

The entry for 29th October show that ". . . at 8.30 Mr. Robinson with 5 more of the people Went on Shore to Burie the 2 corpss". Two days later the Princess Royal left Honolulu and set course for the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

Gale's log for 8th November bears more gloomy news. ". . . at 3h P M William Inchers Infant Died the Mother of Which was Buried at Honolulu." The entry continues, and over the intervening years we can sense Gale's utter disgust: ". . . At 8h 30m P M the Infant was Throwen over board, and no more Notice taken of it then as if it Had been a ded Cat". We are left to surmise that the baby had not been christened, and so was not considered worthy of a burial service.

A final death occurred five days later. The log for the 13th of November states " . . . 5.30 Buried the child belonging to Richard Richardson. It was found at 3.30 this morning By the side of its Mother. the usual Cerimoney performed by the Capt."

The Princess Royal was now near the entrance to the Straits, but here fog delayed them somewhat, and as they entered and made their way up the Straits they encountered an autumnal storm which cause them to tack back and forth for three days in howling winds and choppy waters. At last on the 23rd of November, they arrived at Esquimalt.

Chief Factor Douglas wrote to headquarters in London on the evening of the same day. "The `Prince Albert' was towed down the Straits on the 21st, the seamen having at the last moment refused to weigh the anchor I had to repair on board and bring them to reason. On my return this morning I fell in with the `Princess Royal', and ran with her into Port Esquimalt, where I saw her safely at anchor, the weather being dreadful and they being glad of a shelter in any secure place.

"I received the Packet from Captain Wishart and have found the documents correct as per packet list. The Princess Royal has made a remarkably expeditious voyage, having been little over 5-1/2 months from Gravesend.

"She was detained 12 days at the Sandwich Islands, and has for the last three days been driving about the Straits, in consequence of thick stormy weather. The passengers are in tolerable health, and have all arrived here except two, a miner and one female passenger, who both died at the Sandwich Islands, and were there decently buried.

"Captain Wishart reports that the Princess Royal is now tight, and that the cargo is in good order, which I hope may prove to be the case.

"I propose sending off the Miners immediately to Nanaimo, and gave Mr. Robinson directions to make his arrangements accordingly.

"The Otter not having returned from Fort Simpson, the Beaver will be employed in that service." Douglas makes no mention of the children who were born and died during the voyage. Possibly such occurrences were so common as to be not worth including in an official report.

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