steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

Southwell goes South, Part III: "The Lad Means Well Enough Too."

"I am no great hand at description, but still I flatter myself these little particulars would from me be acceptable."
Daniel Southwell, 4th June 1787, Santa Cruz

Very acceptable, Daniel. I'm going to devote this entry and the next, which will be my last on the British Library findings for now, to some of the little particulars that stood out for me, from the voyage and (next time) Australia itself.


I wish I'd had time to copy out more of the Daniel's descriptions of Santa Cruz, Rio and South Africa. I have only snippets, alas.

Of Santa Cruz: "To my turn of mind the new scene before us is vastly pleasing and agreeable. The natives of the place are just coming off in boats, and bring on board a variety of fruits and other articles, to us before unknown: perhaps the more valuable as the land is so very mountainous or rather hugely rocky, and cloven on all sides in the most surprizing manner. [...] The people, who are Spanish, speak a language of which I must understand it, before I presume to judge. However, the novelty of the scene is entertaining; such, I mean, as the comical gestures, grimaces and vain attempts they make use of to be understood, contrasted with the Sea-Jokes the [?] that our vivacious Tars play off among them."

Loud British tourists have long been a problem on Spanish islands.

Daniel was very impressed with Rio de Janeiro, with the elegance and impressiveness of its churches and other buildings. Rio had all the unfamiliar fruit of Santa Cruz, but also oranges, limes, sugar, etc. He noted that there were vast numbers of black slaves in the streets, and that the Portugese viceroy maintained great state, and a strong military presence.

Of the Cape of Good Hope (writing in November), he says: "The people dress much like the English. Their houses are very neat, and adapted to the climate, which is warm. There seems to be a something of the Chinese taste in their building, which I suppose may in some measure be owing to their particular connection with India, and throughout all that quarter." (Chinese? Those schemata at work again?) Also: "The white people in general are opulent, live easy, and keep up a genteel appearance."



On the 14th July 1787, then crossed the equator. Daniel provided his mother with a description of the “outré rites” performed on the occasion:

Some of the tars dress themselves out in the most frightfully grotesque and extraordinary manner they can possibly devise. One of these with his face most charmingly besmirched with soot and tallow is supposed to be Neptune, and the rest of them his train of Tritons. They get over the ship’s side unobserved, and then come on board, as if fresh emerged from the sea, while others of the old-stagers, as they are termed, stand ready to receive and welcome him. His tremendous Majesty then makes some rubbishly kind of speech, quite suited to the occasion, and having previously a list of all those who have never crossed the line before, he pretends to take notice that there are several new faces, with which he had hitherto been unacquainted. To these strangers therefore he himself and gang address themselves, and in a vein of pleasantry congratulate them on their arrival, expressing great satisfaction at so happy a rencontre; but the tricks they are going to play off, joined to the prospect of receiving a good quantity of grog from their new friends, are the true cause and object of their comical display of politeness. Those novices who readily present a peace-offering, as I may call it, seem to act a wise part, for no sooner are those who do so selected from the non-conformants, than a variety of curious ceremonies is commenced, the most material of which consists in shaving the newcomer for the present. The razor employed is formed of a piece of rusty iron hoop, and the soap used for the purpose is composed of several miscellaneous ingredients, amongst which tar, soot and tallow are not the most odiferous. The operation is performed with a laughable show of dexterity, from which, however, the patients, as they may be termed, seem to derive no great advantage. Indeed, the bye-standers have so much the best of the fun, for the applications, to be sure, are rather of the coarsest, though the performers affect to be very proud both of the feats themselves, and of their skill displayed in the atchievement. And now, instead of being seated in a chair, I should have observed to you that a stick placed across a large tub, nearly full of water, supports the customer; and no sooner is he clean scraped, than a very dexterous removal of the unsteady seat fixed [?] him, quick as thought, in the water beneath, while those in waiting fail not to assist in rendering the immersion compleat. The newly-initiated worthy then emerges from his trial with every right to cross and recross the line, as often as he pleases, with impunity.


This description corresponds pretty closely to the crossing-the-line ceremonies described in Wikipedia and elsewhere online, but none of those accounts (that I've seen) is earlier than the nineteenth century, and some things (such as the possibility of bribery, and the detail of Neptune and Co. climbing the side of the ship as if from the sea) are absent, while conversely this one lacks any mention of shellbacks or polywogs. When did these ceremonies begin, I wonder? Are there earlier descriptions extant?


Daniel says relatively little about the First Fleet's human cargo, but writing to Uncle Weeden on 2nd August from Rio, notes: “The convicts are found more tractable, than might be expected. When they are not conformable, discipline neglects not to take its turn. The Commodore’s conduct has endear’d him to many of them, and few men indeed, I believe, could have been found better calculated to this peculiar occasion than our Commander." Make of that what you will. (Daniel himself was no stranger to ordering punishments. A log book entry for 1789 records: "Punished Jn. Conway (seaman) with 12 lashes for theft.")

In November, he writes to his mother that "The Fleet has been much more healthy than one could reasonably expect. There are but few Deaths, with several Births. Many more of these it is presumed are soon to take place, so you see we are all-together in a thriving way." This is intriguing, particularly the part about the births. At first I thought these might be women who had been convicted but escaped the noose by pleading their bellies, but the Fleet sailed in January, so the timings don't work for that. Either there were a good many pregnant women on board as wives of the crew, which seems fairly unlikely, or the convicts were passing the time by having sex, which seems slightly more likely - but wouldn't they have been segregated? This needs further investigation...

In the same letter he describes the preparations in South Africa for the final leg of the journey to Australia. They had to load up with everything needed to start a colony from scratch, which meant that the final few weeks of the voyage were likely to be very crowded: "Were you to indulge yourself now with a peep at our ship below, 'tis possible you would be apt to take it for some livery stable of note [?]. There is a number of partitions stuck out all along the between-decks, and racks suspended as usual for the provender. Neither do we want for pig sties, hog troughs, and all the necessary apparatus of such a family. Among the live stock are many of the feathered kind. We carry also with us plants of various sorts. These all together, will take up much room, and the ship is of course much cumbered [or lumbered?]. The people considering the number are greatly crowded, because the cattle are prudentially to occupy a deck, which before was theirs. This is indeed a disagreeable part of the arrangement, but we hope to get over it without much sickness. Some must naturally be expected." Naturally.


Finally, here is Daniel ending a letter with a lesson in diplomacy.

Pray give my kind love to dear Jane when you see her: the rest of the much loved lads and lasses will have it immediately you know; and I mean all to all.

I might particularize all those friends whom I hold in the kindest remembrance, but to do so would be both formal and tedious. You may safely assure them they are faithfully thought of; aye and mentioned too, if you think it will do them good. There is little fear of my being detected of neglect, and between us it will only be a white varnish. To those excusable, I am sure, who may be so very good as to feel disappointed without it. ‘Tis immensely considerate and kind of me, you’ll say, to furnish my own dear Mother with these wholesome provisions. “But the lad means well enough too.”


I'd not heard the idiom "white varnish" for "white lie" before. Had you?
Tags: family history
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