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. As far as I am aware, this is the only known image of the ship with its masts intact.
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 was a locked document box containing his extensive and highly critical report into Macquarie’s governorship.
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. 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.]
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.
LAST DAYS OF THE DROMEDARY
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.
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 unique image of the Dromedary is a magical ‘touchstone’. Unfortunately, just who completed the carving remains a mystery. However, on the reverse side of the whale tooth is the image of tattoed man called John Rutherford. His strange story can be read HERE.
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.
UPDATE – my friend Christopher Addams has written a book about The Dromedary, particularly during its time in Bermuda. The manuscript is currently with his publishers in the UK. For information on the fascinating research included, click HERE.
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