THE INTRIGUING VOYAGE OF THE STORES SHIP DROMEDARY IN 1821

While in England some time ago  I was shown an ancient  piece of scrimshaw in a private collection. My interest was  aroused  because  the  whale’s tooth  was  carved with an image (artist unknown) of a  three-masted sailing ship. On one side was  the tantalizing   inscription; STORES SHIP DROMEDARY 1821.

Image of The Dromedary

Scrimshaw Carving of The Dromedary

The  Dromedary  is of great historical interest to Australia. It was aboard this ship that Governor   Lachlan  Macquarie  travelled  to  New South Wales  in 1809 to replace the deposed William Bligh in the wake of the infamous Rum Rebellion.  However, the year 1821 commemorates another significant journey.  In February  of that year the ship sailed for London carrying  Governor Macquarie’s nemesis Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.  Among Commissioner  Bigge’s luggage (no doubt stowed  safely in his cabin)  was  a document box containing  his extensive and  highly critical report into Macquarie’s governorship.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie

Governor Lachlan Macquarie

Commissioner John Bigge

Commissioner John Bigge

 

Under the command of Captain Richard Skinner The Dromedary  had spent the previous ten months in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, collecting kauri spars to be used as ships’ masts for the  Royal Navy.  There were many opportunities for her crew to obtain whale bone and teeth,  as reported by  one of she ship’s officers,  Richard A Cruise;

Sept. 6th, Wednesday   Fine, wind W. and light. At six weighed, and at eleven anchored in Parro Bay. Found there the Catherine, Anne, and Indian (British), and the Independence (American), whalers. A few days before, to the  inexpressible astonishment of the islanders, two whales that came into the bay were attacked by the boats of the whale ships, and killed…’  Could a tooth from one of those whales have been carved the following year by a sailor from the Dromedary?

In 1823 Cruise published a colourful and complete   account of the expedition, writing in conclusion; ‘After a long and boisterous passage the Dromedary  anchored in Sydney Cove, on the evening of the 21st of December. Here she remained to refit and refresh her crew…’

The ensuing weeks were  a period of frenetic activity. Provisions were loaded to sustain her crew, passengers and a small complement of soldiers during the voyage back to England.  Native plants and seeds were dispatched as a gift for the King under the care of a government appointed gardener, and specimens of Australian timbers such as blue gum and stringy bark joined the New Zealand  kauri spars. The  Dromedary’s hull was re-corked with pitch and general repairs carried out to ensure she was seaworthy. There was also a special upgrade of  the accommodation set aside for Commissioner Bigge and his Secretary.

Anxious to  rebuff  Bigge’s findings and defend his administration,  Lachlan Macquarie was also busy at Government House, completing a mountain of paperwork before the ship set sail  As a proclamation in the Sydney Gazette revealed, he was forced to curtail his usual activities;

As the Governor’s Time will be fully occupied during the short period now to elapse previous to the Sailing of His Majesty’s Store-ship Dromedary for England, in preparing his Official Dispatches for his Majesty’s Government by that Opportunity, it is His Excellency’s Desire, that no Applications, whether written or personal (except in Cases of Emergency), be made to him until after the Sailing of that Vessel.

By His Excellency’s Command

John Thomas Campbell

 In the days  prior to the Dromedary’s  departure the ship was searched from top to bottom for stowaways; sailors who had jumped ship from other vessels but more particularly absconding convicts.  These searches were carried out as a matter of course, but efforts were redoubled if there were rumours that  runaways may have secreted themselves  on board.

Meanwhile, despite the ill-feeling that had arisen  between the Governor and the Commissioner over  the infamous report, John Bigge was  being farewelled  with all the ceremony befitting a senior government official.  On February 9 Macquarie recorded  proceedings  in his diary;

At 11 oclock the Commissioner left the Govt. House, and Embarked at the Government Stairs (otherwise called Mrs Macquarie’s) under a salute of 13 guns from the battery; the Two Flank Companies forming a Line within the Domain from the Government House to the North Gate, and the Male Orphan boys extending the Line from thence through Lachlan’s Garden for the Commissioner to walk through to the Govt. Barge – which conveyed him on board the Dromedary..’ 

The following morning proved to be  something of an anticlimax, as the Dromedary’s departure was delayed  by the vagaries of the weather.  She had been expected to leave at day-break but  as  Macquarie noted,

After breakfast this morning Mrs Macquarie, Lachlan & myself….set out to the South-Head to see the Dromedary going out, but on our arrival at Macquarie Tower we found the Dromedary had not been able to get out  –  and saw her at anchor near the Sow and Pigs [a reef in Sydney Harbour].’

Port Jackson, Sydney, 1821

A HAZARDOUS  BID FOR FREEDOM

That night Commissioner Bigge dined aboard the Dromedary  but came ashore later to spend the evening at Government House.  Macquarie’s diary  records that it was raining heavily.  During the evening,  two convicts realized that the unforeseen delay in sailing and the  inclement weather  presented a unique opportunity for escape. Around midnight they procured a small boat and  quietly rowed out to the ship, hoping the downpour would offer additional cover.  They managed to scramble on board without being observed and made their way to the hold. It was their understanding that the Dromedary would call at Rio de Janeiro, where they  planned to make their way ashore in the bustle and  confusion of arrival, and to eventually  work their passage back to England aboard a merchant ship.

Unfortunately the Dromedary  remained at anchor all next day; an  inconvenient delay for Commissioner Bigge but a nerve wracking experience for the stowaways. Every hour the ship remained  in Sydney Harbour increased the risk that their absence would be reported and a fresh search  undertaken.  Although they had  managed to find a little water to drink,  they had no food whatsoever.   But worse was to come. Their situation (and that of all on board) suddenly  became  life-threatening early on Sunday morning, February 11.  The ship had finally began to work her way towards the Heads when she struck  a sand bank near the Sow and Pigs reef and  beat against it for an hour  amid fears she would break up.  By now the stowaways must have imagined themselves drowning like  the  rats that scuttled  around them.

Eventually the ship freed itself without serious damage, only to be delayed again by a strong Southerly. It was  Wednesday, February 14 before she  was finally able to leave Sydney.  By this time the stowaways were desperate for food.  On February 18, after being aboard  eight days, they managed to break into the bread room. Even then they dared  remove only tiny amounts,  for fear  the losses would be noticed.

As the weeks went  by the men realized to their horror that the ship was not intending to  call at Rio after all. Instead, she was sailing direct to England; a journey of almost five months. They endured the most terrible privations  before one of the pair was spotted by a soldier. Captain Skinner was informed and on June 7the log of the Dromedary  reads, ‘….searched the ship and found a man calling himself Wm. White. ‘   To the amazement of the crew, White confessed that he had been  living in the bowels of the ship since creeping aboard in Sydney.   On the following day his companion, Peter Penny was discovered.  No doubt the  stowaways  gave false names, and certainly they do not appear on  any convict records.  They were half-starved and almost blind after four months in the pitch black of the hold. They received medical attention and were issued with clothing, but their disappointment at being caught when so close to England and after enduring  such hardship  must have been unbearable.

On July 3 1821 the ship anchored in  the Plymouth Sound, where the unfortunate stowaways were escorted from the ship and placed under confinement.  They appeared  before the local  magistrates before being taken on to Exeter  for trial. Their ultimate fate is unknown. At worst they may have faced the hangman, at best they would have been  sent back to New South Wales to complete their original sentence.

The Dromedary  continued on to London, where she unloaded her cargo of spars. Commissioner Bigge disembarked with the report  of his inquiry, in which he had harsh words to say regarding  Governor Macquarie’s appointment of ex-convicts to positions of authority and his construction of ‘unnecessarily grand’ public  buildings.   Macquarie would defend himself against these charges  until his death in London on July 1 1824.

It was several years before the Dromedary left England’s shores again, for what would be  her final voyage. In 1826 she  arrived in Bermuda, once again under the command of Captain Skinner. She was  carrying 200 convicts, who were to be employed in the construction of  a new dockyard.  Subsequently she was  stripped and converted to a prison  hulk.  For many years she remained moored  beside the dockyard in Bermuda,  accommodating working convicts and their guards and later serving as a prison kitchen.  In the sketch below she is  furthest right of the three hulks.

HMSS Dromedary among hulks at Bermuda.

HMSS Dromedary among hulks at Bermuda.

She was finally broken up in 1864; an inglorious end for the ship that had played such an important role in the history of New South Wales. How fitting that she is now  contributing to our understanding of the past in an entirely different way.  In 1982 her wreck became a dive site, from which an incredible array of convict artifacts  have been recovered.

The piece of scrimshaw with its carving of the Dromedary  is a magical ‘touchstone’  particularly as it  is  the only  known representation of the ship in full sailing rig. Unfortunately, just who completed the carving remains a  mystery.

 

MAJOR SOURCES

Journals of Lachlan Macquarie 1787-1824

Sydney Gazette January 27 1821

Log of HMSS Dromedary June 15 – July 6 1821  NAS ADM/55/38

Jackson’s Oxford Journal July 14 1821

Journal of a Ten Month  Residence in New Zealand, by R.A. Cruise, London, 1823

Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825

NB – The portraits of Commissioner  John Bigge and Governor  Lachlan Macquarie are from Wikipedia.

THERE IS ANOTHER STORY RELATING TO THE MACQUARIE FAMILY HERE.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO LEAVE A COMMENT,  JUST SCROLL DOWN TO THE COMMENT BOX.  BUT… MAKE SURE YOU SCROLL A LITTLE FURTHER DOWN TO COMPLETE THE ANIT-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’!

9 Comments
  1. I enjoyed this article. I am an Australian living in America. I write historical fiction, and I have dabbled in light adult humor. My preference is in historical fiction but with a touch of authenticity as far as dates and events are concerned. I have always enjoyed our history and found the information contained in your article quite interesting. I wonder what really happened to the stowaways once they were arrested in England. The new series I’m writing touches on the gold rush in Gympie in the 1800s. I haven’t checked your website out yet as I was too interested in reading your article, first. All the best with your work.

    • Pauline

      Hello Heather, thanks for your message..lovely to hear from you. My generation didn’t really learn much Australian history at school but a few years ago I became very interested in the Macquarie era. Indirectly this led to my book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters. The very best of luck with your own work, which I will check out! Hope you find the rest of the website of interest. I suspect the stowaways from the Dromedary came to a sad, bad end!

  2. Captain Richard Skinner, sometime Master of the Dromedary, was my third great grandfather. I’m very keen to find out any further information about his birth, marriage, children and death, which I believe may have been in Antwerp in 1846 – but that may have been another Richard Skinner. Thanks for any info you can send me.

  3. Hazardous Bid for Freedom:

    Both escaped convicts were returned to New South Wales on board the Asia to complete their sentences, arriving in July 1822.

    William White alias Long had been convicted of sheep stealing in 1818,transported on the Lord Stewart/Stuart. In 1839 he was in Moreton Bay.

    Peter Penneys or Pennys had been convicted of stealing money from a dwelling in 1817, and transported on the Tottenham.

    • Pauline

      Hi Peter
      Thank you so much for taking the trouble to contribute this information. I always wondered what happened to the stowaways! Am about to post a new story on the eccentric ‘gentleman’ convict John Frederick Mortlock.

  4. Hello, I was interested in the Dromedary and was wondering where I could find Jackson’s Oxford Journal. If you could help it would be much appreciated!

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