Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Story of John Best - Part 2


As the convict ship Minerva sailed south from Cork, one can imagine the fear engulfing the convicts.  These convicts had surely never been to sea before. Many had been incarcerated in cramped, dark and damp cells for months, if not years.  John Best had been in prison for 5 or 6 months.  The short sea voyage from Dublin to Cork had been hellish.  Many men on board Minerva were suffering from ulcers immediately prior to departure.  Ship’s surgeon, James Hunter wrote in his journal that many convicts were “constipated in the bowels, many of them had not had an alvine evacuation for more than a week.” This may have been caused by their detention aboard the brig that brought them from Dublin to Cork.  It was not unusual that convicts transported from Dublin to Cork received neither clothing nor bedding, as these were considered unnecessary expenses due to the shortness of the journey to Cork. Because only a few were allowed on deck at once, they spent most of the time in irons in the hold in very unhealthy conditions.  In other words - no toilet breaks when required.  In theory, the trip was a 2 day journey.  But in reality, delays often prevailed and it was more like a week to two week journey.  Hence the tendency for convicts to arrive at Cork in a constipated state.  Another sign of the terrible conditions in the Irish jails and aboard the Dublin-Cork brig is found in James Hunter’s Minerva journal: “They were upward of eighty cases of the disease [itch] while in jail and just before they were sent on board [the Minerva].” Itch (or scabies), was a contagious skin-disease caused by a parasite (Sarcoptes scabiei). The disease could have been easily avoided by regular bathing and the wearing of clean clothes. Clearly, both these hygiene basics were not properly provided by the overstretched and corrupt prison system.

The Minerva convicts surely then developed a fear of terrible trials ahead during their much longer sea journey to New South Wales.  Once out on the open ocean, the rocking motion of the Minerva had an immediate effect, with many men suffering sea-sickness in the first week.  Hunter wrote in his journal that Minerva “... on leaving port experienced a heavy gale of wind which last some day, every convicts and many of sailors were sea sick”.  But the fresh sea air must have also had a healing quality, as Hunter went on to write that it: “... probrably had a good effect upon the ulcers as many healed rapidly afterward, there were many minor cases which were all well within one month.” 
 


The convicts no doubt also feared the dark, wild ocean itself – none would have been swimmers and most would have been familiar with tall tales of sea monsters taking ships, sirens luring ships to their doom on rocks and pirates attacking. But perhaps the hardest thing the convicts had to deal with was the loss of their families and the only way of life they had ever known.  The depression is evident in Hunter’s description of poor old John Cartwright – he suffered badly from the pain of being taken away (see mention in The Story of John Best – Part 1).  Alas, poor Cartwright, he was so desperate to return to his family that he took part in a daring, but ultimately unsuccessful, escape attempt in 1819 (he successfully escaped Van Diemen's Land but appears to have died several months later in gaol in Java).

Surprisingly, for the remainder of the trip to Port Jackson, ailments were relatively few and were either physical injuries related to life aboard the Minerva (e.g. ‘contused and lacerated fingers’, ‘fracture ulna by falling on the wet deck’) or individual medical problems such as occasional cases of fever, diarrhoea, furunculus (boils), dysentery or symptoms associated with the common cold. One case of cholera morbus (gastroenteritis) and a case of venereal disease in a boy convict were recorded in Hunter’s journal.

One can imagine the ship endured buffeting in the strong westerly gales (the Roaring Forties) that sweep the Southern Ocean. The voyage across the Great Australian Bight would have been rough too.  Despite those travails, the Minerva arrived safely in Sydney on 30 April 1818 without loss of life.  The Minerva’s arrival at Port Jackson was recorded in Governor Lachlan Macquarie's personal diary:

"Thursday 30. April 1818 At 8,O'Clock this Evening, the two Male Convict Ships Lady Castlereagh Commanded by Capt. George Weltden with 300 Male Convicts from England, and the Minerva Commanded by Capt. John Bell with 160 Male Convicts from Ireland, anchored in Port Jackson; the former Ship having sailed from England on the 22d. of Decr. and the latter from Cork on the 1st. of Jany. last; neither of the Ships having touched any where during the Voyage nor lost a Single Man. — Mr. Jas. Cragie is Surgeon Supdt. of the Lady Castlereagh, and Lieut. Brotheridge of the 48th. Regt. commands the Guard; Mr. — [name omitted] Hunter is Surgeon Supdt. of the Minerva, and Capt. Allman of the 48th. Regt. commands the Guard on board that Ship." 

About half the convicts were disembarked at Sydney and subsequently transported to Newcastle per the 'Elizabeth Henrietta'.  Governor Macquarie directed that the Minerva and the remaining 160 convicts proceed to Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land.  John Best was one of those stuck aboard the Minerva for a little while longer! John spent about a month aboard Minerva while she was anchored in Port Jackson, just off shore from the current site of the Sydney Opera House.  During this time, the convicts would have been allowed to move about the deck (shackled by leg irons) and to view the infant settlement of Sydney town.

From Lachlan Macquarie’s diary (1818):

Thursday 28. May !
The Ship Minerva Capt. Bell, with 160 Male Convicts and a Guard of the 48th. Regt. Commanded by Lieut. Van Meulen sailed from this Port for the Derwent. — 

The Minerva arrived in Hobart on 7 June 1818, after a total journey of 157 days. Hobart at the time was still only a small township. The white population of Van Diemen’s Land (later to be known as Tasmania) was only some 3,000 people at the time.
 

The convict ship Minerva Arrives in Hobart on an overcast winter's day - 7 June 1818
 

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