In 1809 Lachlan Macquarie sailed for New South Wales aboard the stores ship Dromedary, to begin his term as Governor of the colony.  In 1821 the Dromedary sailed from  Sydney back  to England, carrying Commissioner John Bigge.  Ironically, Bigge was carrying his famously  adverse report on  Macquarie’s administration.

It is unfortunate that there are scarcely any known  images of this historically important ship.  At the end of her working life she became a convict hulk, tied up in  Burmuda. She is pictured below, furthest right of the three hulks.

HMSS Dromedary among hulks at Bermuda.
HMSS Dromedary among hulks at Bermuda.

Oddly enough the only other known  representation of the Dromedary is on an ancient piece of scrimshaw. And therein lies a very strange story.

The sketch of HMS Dromedary on the scrimshaw.
The sketch of HMS Dromedary on the scrimshaw.

The reverse of the whale tooth shows a  man called John Rutherford.  He is tattooed in the style of a New Zealand Maori.

Image of John Rutherford
Image of John Rutherford

On the narrow side of the whale tooth is the inscription HM STORESHIP DROMEDARY


The opposite side shows the date 1821 and the name John Rutherford.


John Rutherford was born in Manchester, around 1796.  He  had spent his early years working as a piecer in a cotton mill.  Those employed as piecers were very young, often  just six or seven. They were required to walk along the spinning machines joining broken threads.  The friction of the yarn bloodied their fingers and it was estimated that the children would trudge  over twenty miles per day.  Small wonder that John ran away to sea around the age of ten.  After  serving as a sailor on whaling ships for many years, he eventually returned to England.  He became a hawker, and a ‘curiosity’ in a travelling fair.

John Rutherford
John Rutherford as a hawker and fairground curiosity by John Dempsey circa 1829 (National Library of New Zealand)

While he was in Liverpool (circa 1828)  he  sent a letter to Mr William Roscoe (1753 – 1831) , a well known historian and writer.  Rutherford  had  written an astonishing tale about a period  he had spent in New Zealand.  He hoped Mr Roscoe might buy the manuscript;

Kind Sir

I take this oportunity of wrighting to you being advised by a Ladey of Liverpool to do so in order to tell you i am a British sailor that as lateley arived in England after aving maid moy escaape from the Cost of New Zealand ware I was ten years a prisner and is most beautifull tatued over the face and bodey, and as wrote a manuscript of everythink Consirning the interior of New Zeland, the wars, Mariges, Berings, and the Discriptions of every Animals of Birds Beasts and Reptiles and menney others of the South Sceas, the Manuscript is valuable and wold make a Book of 200 pages if wrote by a good Editor being such information as Never yet being in print not aving the menes of printing it moy self i wish to Dispose of it and being advised to wright to you concerning it i shold wish for you to sent me a note wether i must attend at your house or wether you will whait on me at Mr Calvert’s Exhibition in the Market Liverpool where they are exibiting me as a curiosity your obedient Sirvent

“John Rotherfoot “ [sic]

Mr Roscoe did not take up the offer, but Rutherford’s story of his life among the Maori people  eventually found its way  into the hands of author Gorge Craik.  It was published by Charles Knight in 1830 as The New Zealanders.

The astonishing story of John Rutherford.

On October 6 1890, New Zealand born missionary and historian Archdeacon (later Bishop) William Leonard Williams (1829-1916) presented a paper to the Auckland Institute debunking John Rutherford’s story. Williams had conducted an exhaustive inquiry among the Maori population, but could find no oral history of any of the events mentioned by Rutherford, adding, ‘…he purports to give the names of several chiefs, but none of these can be identified with any of the names of chiefs now living, or of those of the generation which has recently passed away.’  Nevertheless, the book contained detailed descriptions of the Maori culture and the country’s  flora and fauna.

Was John Rutherford a complete fake?  And what (if any)  was his connection with the Dromedary?  I suspect he bought the scrimshaw from a fellow sailor, who had carved it while aboard the Dromedary during the  ship’s 1821 voyage to England.   Note that the portrait on the scrimshaw is almost identical with that of  John Dempsey’s  depiction of Rutherford as a hawker, right down to the detail of clay pipe and hat.  This suggests it is a later addition, carved  in the late 1820s. It was probably one of Rutherford’s props when he was being exhibited at Mr Calvert’s travelling fair .

NB – As far as I am aware, the scrimshaw is currently  in a private collection.  My  hope is that  one day it will  be on public display, preferably in Australia.

The 1821 voyage of the Dromedary from Sydney to London was itself full of drama. Click HERE if you  would like to know what happened.

You can read John Rutherford’s story of his experiences in New Zealand HERE


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