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. Leaving 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 that horn. 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. Becalmed 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 her clear. Settling in 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 let go. 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. Pirate? 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. Henry's sickness 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 of seasickness. 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. Arriving 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