Daily Archives: December 22, 2008

Ships and Whales

Every edition of the Port Phillip Herald has a “Shipping Intelligence” column on Page 2.   We have to remember that Port Phillip was literally a “port” city, and the comings and goings of shipping was the communication thread to the rest of the world.


As it happens, I was in the Flagstaff Gardens on the weekend on an absolutely beautiful Melbourne afternoon.  I walked up to the top of the hill and even today you can see right across to the water, in between in the high-rise buildings.  I tried to imagine all the other people who must have walked up this same hill, straining their eyes to see the boats making their way up to Port Melbourne.  A flagstaff on the top of the hill, visible from the village down by the river below, notified of the progress of ships making their way up the bay.

The Shipping Intelligence for 15 July 1842 had no arrivals (which is a bit unusual), but three boats were listed for clearing out.


July 12. Sally Ann, schooner, for Portland Bay and Port Fairy.  Passengers, Messrs Cameron, Phillips and Barnet; ten in the steerage.

14 Ellen and Elizabeth, schooner, for Launceston

14 Corsair, steamer, for Launceston. Passengers, Mrs Doddery, Mr and Mrs Lamb, Miss Gavon, Major Fraser, Messrs. Thompson, and Hill.

The steamers in particular are frequent visitors, plying back and forth across the Victorian coast (Portland and Port Fairy) and across to Launceston or Hobart in Tasmania (then known as Van Diemens Land), as well as up and down from Sydney.  Not a lot of privacy here- everyone knew where you were off to- unless, of course you were steerage. I wonder who these passengers were, going to Launceston. Did they already live there, I wonder?


On Tuesday (12th) Adelaide for Hobart Town

On Wednesday (13th) for Portland.

To be honest, I’m not really sure at what point it was considered that a ship had finally ‘sailed’.  Perhaps when it had cleared the Heads at Port Phillip (a fairly treacherous stretch of water that separates the bay from Bass Strait)? There’s always a gap of at least a day- sometimes several- between ‘clearing out’ and ‘sailing’. Often ships had to wait some time to broach the Heads:  the  second shipload from the David Collins expedition down at Sorrento in 1803 had to wait weeks until the conditions were right to get through the Heads and sail on to Van Diemens Land.


July 12- Sally Ann for Portland Bay and Port Fairy- 9 chests tea, 5 half chests ditto, 4 quarter casks wine, 1 bale slops, 12 cases gin, 16 bags flour, 7 bags bran, 2 cheeses, 1 box, 1 paper parcel, 12 casks porter, 17 bags oats, 16 bags potatoes, 2 tins turps., 1 barrel oatmeal, 1 ditto cheese, 7 cases slops, 10 bags sugar, 1 case split peas, 1 ditto pearl barley, 1 ditto rice, 1 ditto turpentine, 1 ditto oateal, 1 trunk apparel, 7 cases, a press and types, 1 case drugs, 9 cases geneva, 1 chest apparel, 2 trunks ditto, 1 can oil, 2 cans, 3 kegs, 1 case, 1 scraper, 1 keg tobacco, 1 case soap, 1 bag salt, 1 cask whisky, 2 cases glass, 1 keg, 1 case, 1 cask.  For Port Fairy: 4 bags flour, 1 bag sugar, 1 bag potatoes, 3 cans turps.

14- Ellen & Elizabeth, for Launceston- 7 bales wool

16 – Corsair- for Launceston- 310 sheep, 1 bale slops.

We’re seeing the internal economy at work here.  Many of these goods would have arrived earlier either direct to Port Phillip, or by steamer down from Sydney, or across from Van Diemen’s Land- especially things like sugar, tobacco and alcohol (of which there seems to be a great abundance).  The Port Phillip merchants would then forward them on to the smaller ports.  I’m a bit surprised by the sheep going to Launceston, given that during the early Port Phillip years, the sheep were coming from Van Diemens Land.  Perhaps someone bought up big at one of the auction sales.

Actually, this Shipping Intelligence is pretty boring because there’s no international shipping. When a ship comes bearing imports from overseas, the person who ordered the goods it is named, then the goods are listed.  Again- not a lot of privacy.

The real reason I’m writing up this one comes in the SYDNEY SHIPPING section!

ARRIVED- June 30 Rebecca Sims, from South Sea Fisheries

The Lord Saumarez was to have sailed from Sydney for Port Phillip on the 3rd inst.

The American whaler Rebecca Sims, of New Bedford, has been very fortunate, having in 24 months procured 1600  barrels sperm and 300 barrels black oil; but hs been obliged to put into this port in consequence of having lost her rudder and false keel in a severe squall, and for the purpose of having which replaced, she will have to hove down.  She reports of having spoken the following vessels:- October 1, 1841, the Ofley, of London, off Ocean Island, with 900 barrels sperm, out 25 months.  Oct 4, the Onyx of London, six weeks from Sydney, with 100 barrels of sperm oil.  November 22, the Caernarvon of Sydney, with 500 barrells, and a whale alongside, out 36 months (since which she has put into Hobart Town, discharged her cargo, and refreshed).  January 22, 1842, the American ship Francis Hussey, with 750 barrels sperm, out 17 months.  The Rebecca Sims touched at Rotumah, on the 8th February, where she found the American barque, Fortune, with 350 barrels sperm oil, out 17 months; the barque Louisa, Wright of London, with 40 barrels; and the Mary, of London, with 200 barrels, out 9 months.  She afterwards touched at Chatham Island, where she found the Gem, of Sydney, a total wreck, having ran ashone.  Heard of the American ship Franklin being at Chatham Island 22nd May, with 2300 barrels black oil, 10 months out; and of the American ship Chariot also being there,  April 20th, with 1400 barrels sperm; also of the American ship Omega, Captain Gardner, cruising off Chatham Island, 1st June with 1600 barrels sperm oil. Spoke the schooner Kitty, from Chatham Island, bound to Port Nicholson on the 25th May, having lost her anchor and part of the chain inthe same squall that she sustained the damage which caused her to put into this port.

The Victoria is at present refitting off the Commercial Wharf, and is about to proceed to Manilla to be sold; if not purchased there, she will proceed to China.  Her owners are fitting her out in a superior style, and we understand she will carry eight or ten brass guns.- Australasian Chronicle, July 2.

One of the problems of a catch phrase like Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘Tyranny of Distance’ is that it can obscure just how connected Australian ports and ships were into the seafaring, whaling and maritime culture.  The Shipping Intelligence often carries reports of which ships “spoke” to other ships, conveying news of yet other ships that they had each spoken to, wrecks, rough journeys etc.

Here, too, we’re seeing the internationalized  whaling oceans around Australia and New Zealand, with English and American ships, as well as Australian ones.  I can’t really find any hard and fast figures of how many barrels of oil the ‘average’ whale provides (after all, what’s an ‘average’ whale?).  I have figures from the 1900s that had 18, 660 barrels from 559 whales (about 33 barrels per whale); a figure of 60 barrels from the ‘right’ whale ( I’ve seen that they produced the ‘black’ oil, but then another website said that black oil came from the Arctic White Whale); and Save the Whales gave a figure of 47.6 barrels from a sperm whale.

No matter how much oil the whale produced, a load of 1600 barrels is pretty impressive, as is the amount of time that these ships stayed out at sea- up to three years!  But seeing the way that these ships communicated with each other, within the whaling fraternity it wasn’t a matter of sailing off into the wild blue yonder, even though it must have felt that way for the families left at home (shades of Ahab’s wife here).  The seas had their own communications channels.

Whalers had been plying the Victorian coastline since the very early 1800s, and the first temporary settlements were seasonal whaling stations.  It was generally believed that whalers often took Aboriginal women (especially those from Van Diemen’s land) as virtual slaves, but recent work by historians like Lynette Russell suggests that the women brought important survival skills to the whalers, and acted with more agency than previously thought.  (I suspect that this link takes you to a paid site, so I don’t know if you want to follow it).

Then that last little section reminds us that there was an important Asian trade going on between the colonial ports there as well.  There was a Chinese war going on at the time, hence the brass guns, I guess.