ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY DAYS AT SEA
by McLeod Orbell
(adapted by Jane Thomson)
McLeod Orbell was ten years old when his family emigrated
to New Zealand. The year was 1849. Many years later he
wrote down his memories of the voyage.
There were thirteen people in our family -- father,
mother, five sons and five daughters, and an old man-
servant who had been with the family for many years.
It was arranged that we leave on the Mariner, a small
ship of [some seven hundred tonnes].
We all went on board on the afternoon of February
6th. With two or three hundred emigrants on board, all
was confusion. There were not enough cabins for all the
first-class passengers. Three of my brothers and myself
were put into a partitioned-off section of the second-
class sleeping apartment.
I will always remember the first meal we had on board.
For some reason, we had bought some tumblers made
from bullock's horn to take with us. Everything was
so topsyturvy that we couldn't get any cups and saucers.
So we used these horn tumblers for drinking tea.
Ship's tea is never very good. But imagine hot tea
drunk out of a new horn! I have drunk all sorts of things
when I've been hard up - even dirty water out of a
hole in which wild pigs have wallowed. But I have never
tasted anything so disgusting as the tea I drank out of
The anchor was soon up, and we set out for a small
island on the other side of the world about which very
little was known. Over one hundred days at sea, without
touching any port, were before us.
We crossed the Bay of Biscay. Then we were becalmed
off Cape Portugal on the coast of Spain.
The current began carrying us unpleasantly near the
cape. We came so close to land that the Captain ordered
four boats to be lowered. Sailors began rowing as hard
as they could to try to tow the ship against the current.
There were four boats at work. Although they could not
move the ship, they managed to keep her from drifting
any closer to land. At last a breeze sprang up and carried
Most of the passengers had been seasick for the first few
days. But by this time they had found their sea legs, and
put the ship straight, and begun to get to know each
other. Only my brother Henry was still unable to leave
his cabin because of seasickness.
It is hard to imagine in these days, what it all meant.
Think of three hundred people cooped up in one small
sailing ship. Men, women, and children, all with different
backgrounds and with different tastes. Still there seemed
to be a touch of human kindness in everyone. No doubt
this came from the fact that everyone knew they were
going to face many difficulties.
The Captain was a strong, firm man, and managed
the passengers well. But like all captains in charge of
such a variety of characters, he made very few friends.
Our family and a young man called Hunter Brown were
the only people with whom he was friendly. I never
understood why he seemed to like us so much. Perhaps
he felt sorry for my parents in leaving home and all
with such a large family--it was an unusually large one
to emigrate at one time.
Somehow I became a favourite with the sailors, too.
They taught me to splice ropes and tie all sorts of
knots, which I found most useful in later life. They
always let me ring the ship's bell, when I was on deck,
to mark the time. Sometimes the man at the wheel
would show me how to steer and, if no officer was in
sight, would let me handle the wheel. I felt very im-
portant to be steering a full-rigged ship.
Up in the rigging
Our family also became friendly with a young man called
Hunter Brown. He and I often played chess in the
evenings. Brown was an enthusiastic player, and I had
been taught to play before I left home. He was a very
slow mover. Often one game would last three hours, and
I would fall asleep.
Hunter Brown's greatest pleasure was to climb the
rigging and visit every part of the ship. He trained me to
do the same, and we began to spend a part of most days
in this way.
One day, we were near the top of the foretop-gallant
mast, and decided to cross over to the main topmast.
There were two stay ropes from one mast to the other
and we thought we could crawl across these. But the
foretop-gallant mast was thinner than the main topmast.
At our starting points, the ropes were about [thirty
centimetres] apart, but at the main topmast they were
nearly [sixty centimetres] apart. I started to pass over
but, when half-way across, I found that my short legs
could not grasp both ropes. I was afraid to venture on
just one of the ropes. For a moment I was in a very
serious fix. I looked downwards, and noticed that one of
the ship's boats was below me with its sharp keel point-
ing up. I should have been smashed to atoms if I had
I held on for all I was worth and at last managed to
crawl back to the point I had started from. How I escaped
falling I will never know.
I remember one very dark night when there was a
heavy gale blowing. It was raining hard, and the sea was
very rough. The order was given to reef the main topsail.
Anyone who has ever travelled on a sailing ship knows
how the sailors rush to their posts when this order is
given. Each man has his place out on the yard. This
night I went aloft with them and I climbed out along the
yard behind some other sailors. Before I had got far out
along the yard, I found that, because I was so short, I
could hardly touch the foot-rope. My chin was level
with the yard. I could not go back as the other men were
following me. However, I managed to hang on and tie a
couple of reefs. An old sailor next to me called, "Well
done, youngster!" It was a very rough night indeed, and
I should not have been allowed to go aloft.
When we came into the tropics, Hunter Brown and I
used to like to watch the sun set. As soon as we lost sight
of it on deck, we rushed aloft to see it again. This we
never managed to do.
Off the coast of Brazil one morning, we saw a small
speck on the horizon. It moved over the sea towards
us, and then we saw it was a ship in full sail. She bore
down on us fast. At midday the ship was following
behind us about [two kilometres] away. She did not
leave us, and she did not come any closer. Our captain
thought that the ship was a pirate and meant trouble.
He ordered a lot of old cutlasses and muskets to be
brought up from below. They were given out to the
passengers. The afternoon went by, and the ship stayed
behind us. But nothing happened.
Then the sun began to go down. Without any signal,
the ship came up beside us. She was only about two or
three hundred [metres] away. Not a man nor any sign of
life could be seen on her.
The Captain went to his cabin and came back wearing
what would pass for a naval uniform and carrying a
speaking trumpet. We thought he must have changed
into the uniform so that the people on the other ship
could see he was not a passenger. He put the speaking
trumpet to his lips as if he was going to call out to the
ship, then he seemed to change his mind.
He ordered the women and children to go below. The
portholes on the side nearest the mystery ship were
opened. The Captain told a man to go behind each of
them with a light. He was hoping to make the crew of the
other ship believe that we were well armed and ready to
fire on them.
The ship at once began to move away from us. Soon
we could no longer see her in the gathering darkness.
When light came the next morning, there was nothing
to be seen of her.
Everyone thought that it must have been a pirate ship
or a slaver. Perhaps we frightened her away. Perhaps the
crew could see that we were an emigrant ship and not
carrying a rich cargo. Our Captain said that nothing like
it had ever happened in all his years at sea.
From the time we left England, my brother Henry was
very ill. My parents were most anxious about him. He
was hardly ever out of his bunk. When he did get up he
had to be helped out on to the deck. He never stayed up
for more than a few hours. This was entirely because
By the time we were through the tropics, he looked
like a skeleton.
When we got into colder weather, he began to get a
little stronger. By the time we came to New Zealand he
was able to walk fairly well again.
On Sunday the first of June we saw the Otago Heads.
The pilot came on board to show us the way into the
port. Then a strong sou'wester gale sprang up and
carried us away north as far as Banks Peninsula.
On the evening of June the third, we got back to the
heads. But as the wind was not right for entering the
harbour, we anchored outside, and had to stay there for
three days. All the time, the passengers were asking the
pilot a thousand questions: What were the roads like?
What was the climate like? Were there good hotels and
houses? The pilot gave the most cheering answers to all
questions. When one young lady asked how we would
get into town, he said, "Lor, Miss, you have only to hold
up your hand when we get into port and half a dozen
cabbies will be at your service to drive you into town
through the most lovely scenery." Of course, being new
chums we believed every word he uttered.
I had become very fond of the sea and I begged my
parents to let me go back to England with the ship. The
Captain had made a sort of pet of me by this time - I
suppose because there was no part of the ship in which
I had not been. My parents refused.
Source: School Journal, Part 3, Number Two, 1980
Converted to electronic form by Corey Woodw@rd
Did you find this diary using a search engine?
Click here --> New Zealand Yesteryears