Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911
London, December 20th, 1864
A second postscript. I am here, after perils by sea which I shall never forget. Leaving New Zealand by steamer, a rough passage of 1,200 miles, I stayed with friends in Melbourne, awaiting a passage Home in one of Money Wigram's monthly sailing ships. The time will soon come, I suppose, for regular steam communication between Australia and England. Hearing that an American vessel would sail a few days later than the regular liner, wherein I could obtain a good cabin at a cheaper rate, I went to make enquiry and to see the vessel. The Agents offered me a large cabin on good terms, the vessel only taking some first-class passengers, most of them well known in Australia, and a large amount of gold for London. Going down to the wharf where she lay, I noticed her rather curious name—J. E. H. Merely three initial letters. It was a Saturday half-holiday, and the wharf was deserted, save by an old salt walking up and down, chewing his quid. "Thinkin' of goin' in her, sir?" "Yes, "I said," I'm half inclined to, instead of the regular liner." "I wouldn't," said he, "she's too crank, and too heavily sparred to my notion; I don't trust them Yankees, and besides, she's loaded with raw hides, and shell stink somethin' awful in the tropics; no, I wouldn't sail in her." He went off, talking to himself, and I began to think; better perhaps to stick to the regular liner, maybe the old page 79fellow's words were a message, and meant for you especially. So I returned, and told my friends what I intended to do, which they thought was a mistake, as in the American ship I should have excellent company and a cheaper fare. As it turned out, I cannot be too thankful that the old sailor's words, which I shall always remember as sent to me in God's Providence, on purpose, led me to take my passage in the good ship Suffolk.
The Suffolk is a thousand ton vessel, one of the fastest between Australia and London; she was a full ship, with forty first-class passengers, the same number of second-class, and some hundred of third, nearly all prosperous people, with pockets full of money won on the gold fields. As the only clergyman on board, I arranged for services, the Captain and officers backing me up heartily; a short daily morning service in the saloon, Sunday mornings on the poop deck in fine weather, and in the evening in the waist of the ship, a service for all hands, sails being rigged up for shelter, lamps hung in the rigging, and a choir with harmonium to lead the singing. Going into the second-class to introduce myself and make acquaintance with the passengers, I met with a boisterous welcome: "Glad to see you, what will you have, beer? excellent tap, or hard stuff? Service on Sunday? Well, we are all worshippers of Bacchus here, but what do you say, mates, shall we give the parson a show?" This did not seem encouraging, but, ignoring the rough welcome and offers of drink, I went amongst them every day, and we talked of their digging experiences; a typical crowd of rowdy manhood in the prime of life, hard workers, and when the chance of a spree came round, ready for any devilry, but withal honest and page 80generous and, with a few exceptions, little of the real blackguard about them. Life on board brought out their worst side; nothing to do, a bar always at hand, plenty of spare cash, with three months' enforced holiday. Sunday came, the evening service drew nearly the whole ship's company, and after it, for some time, singing to the accompaniment of harmonium and cornet. Next morning an elderly saloon passenger, who had shown great interest in the services, a man of pronounced evangelical type, came to me and said, "I'm sure you won't mind an old man speaking to you about last night; you are young and earnest, but you make a great mistake; it grieved me to hear you speak to that crowd of men as if they were the children of God; you must know what they are; it saddened me to hear you. You mean well, but you are greatly mistaken." I had been speaking about the parable of the Prodigal Son, and I replied: "I think I understand your point of view, but surely the Prodigal Son, bad as he was, was his Father's son; I may be wrong, but I feel that if one is to win such men one must approach them as I tried to do; and did you notice how they listened, and how quiet they were?" "No, sir," he said, "it won't do"; and so we had to agree to differ.
The Suffolk bowled swiftly along, under close reefed topsails only, with a strong following wind, blowing incessantly in these latitudes; the ship literally climbing and descending huge waves, whilst others astern seemed ever pursuing and threatening to overwhelm her with towering crests, wind-swept, and feathered with foam; a magnificent waste of water never at rest; albatrosses, with a sweep of wings ten and twelve feet in width, circling easily round the page 81ship. It became intensely cold, the rigging was frozen, and fierce snow squalls at times made it almost impossible to remain on deck, whilst daylight disappeared in early afternoon. "The Skipper," said the first mate to me, "is trying the great circle sailing, that is, going far South, so as to take advantage of the flattening of the earth's surface, and thus shortening the distance from West to East. He has always hitherto been in the Eastern trade, and has never been round the Horn; we are much further South than usual, but the ice, now in mid-winter, should be fast, and we may not meet much of it loose, but I do not half like it."
One night it was so cold in my cabin, where I was in my bunk, dressed, and wrapped in blankets, reading, as it was too soon to try to sleep, that by way of a change I got into a suit of sailor's overalls, and went up on the poop deck. A brilliant moon lit up the waves; ropes and spars coated with ice sparkled with points of light; the wake of the vessel astern shone like a path of silver; the vessel rolling heavily, and going at a great pace; only the Captain and first mate were on the poop, with two men at the wheel, and a couple on the look-out at the break of the poop on either side. I stood holding on to a meat safe, drinking hot cocoa in a tin pannikin, out of a bucket, provided by the Captain for the men on watch, and I could see under the reefed topsails right along the ship to the bows.
Suddenly I saw on the horizon what, to my landsman's yes, looked like a long line of white foam, which, of course, was not probable in mid ocean. That moment came a loud cry from the men on the foreyard, "Ice right ahead!" Captain and mate page 82rushed to help the men at the wheel, shouting, "Hard aport," and the next minute, sheering off, the vessel heeled over so that the main yard nearly touched the water, and we swept past a great flat floe, hundreds of yards in length, about twelve feet out of the water, and very broad, so close that I could have thrown a stone on it. Had we run upon it, stern on, we must have gone to the bottom. Then came fierce, blinding snow squalls, and, fearing the chance of other ice, the Captain, without shortening sail, threw the vessel up into the wind, in order to lie to. Crack went the main and fore topsails, split in pieces, with loud reports, the remnants of the canvas flung hither and thither, breaking loose from the lower yards with a noise like volleys of musketry. With great difficulty and splendid daring, sailors climbed the ice-bound rigging, and. somehow, at last managed to cut the wreckage clear of the yards; every moment I expected to see them hurled into the sea from their perilous perch on the frozen spars; the hatches were battened down, and the vessel lay helpless, tossed like a mere walnut shell, as the huge waves lifted her on high and then let her sink into the valleys beneath, drenching everything and everyone with tons of spray, against which it was impossible to stand without a firm grip of rail or rope.
I went down into the first saloon. Panic reigned; all the women kind had left their cabins, and were huddled together in the two spacious stern staterooms, on the floor, with mattresses and blankets, kindly brought there by the stewards. It calmed them a little to hear that there was no immediate danger, and I promised to be up and down on the deck, and to bring them word from time to time how page 83things were going. The Captain came to me and said, "Would I go down to the second and third-class passengers, and do what I could to quiet them, as they were all in a great state of terror."
I went down the narrow ladder to the third-class deck, and caught sight of a scene I shall never forget. In the dim light cast by swinging lanterns, some hundreds of men and women, in every attitude of fear and despair, and in all sorts of clothes, just as they left their bunks. Clinging to the side rails of the ladder, half way down, stood a big fellow, whom I recognized as one of the worst men in the ship, a drunken braggadocio, gibbering like a lunatic: "Save me! Save me! we're going to the bottom!" 'Let me pass," I said, and again and again I asked him; he made no answer, blocked up the way, and would not move. I lost my temper. "You coward, let me pass! "He wouldn't budge, distraught with fear; so I let out, and knocked him off the steps and went amongst the crowd below.
I do not know how to describe the scene: men and women kneeling, standing, leaning against the cabin doors, uttering words of prayer and cries of fear. "Oh, what shall we do? Is there any hope?" Some quite quiet, holding their children in their arms, crouching on the ground; some staring with vacant eyes, other pacing backwards and forwards, some in a dead faint. Many clustered round me, kneeling, openly confessing their sins, quite regardless of any listeners. By degrees the panic began to lessen as I was able to assure them that, for the present, the worst was over, and then by common consent all knelt, whilst I read and prayed.
Then I promised to go on deck, and come from page 84time to time to report, urging the mothers to get their children to bed again, out of the intense cold. All that long night, for there was no sort of daylight till nearly nine o'clock, I went backwards and forwards to the saloon and lower decks, doing what I could, whilst the captain and officers did their part in providing hot tea and coffee for all hands, and though I was only too glad to be obliged to encourage others, I confess I was in no slight need of encouragement myself, for about four in the morning the Captain took me to his cabin for coffee, spread out a chart, and showed me our position. "I don't mind telling you, for I know you will keep it to yourself; I don't expect we shall see the morning, the wind is terrible, we are simply drifting; there is ice all about, we can hardly escape it."
As I look back, I wonder how I could sit quietly in that cabin, drink coffee, and keep still. I had found the Captain a man of sincere Christian life, and his very quietness was a tower of strength to me. We knelt and prayed, shook hands, and he said, "I must go on deck,—you will do what you can for them."
Morning came at last, and with it sunshine, cold and clear, but sunshine indeed to the whole ship; all round us a marvellous sight, icebergs in every direction, beyond count, but fortunately no floe ice, so that, with plenty of clear water, the vessel was able to thread her way in and out of these floating islands in safety. Some of them were exactly like islands topped with mountainous ranges; one, which was estimated as six miles in length, and a long shelving shore and a central ridge, from which, at one end, rose a gigantic tower, pinnacled and buttressed, like that of a great cathedral; some indented with deep page 85bays and harbours, some like vast wedding cakes; and in all, in every crevice, hollow, or recess, shadows, if the phrase may be used, of deep heavenly blue. Beautiful exceedingly, but terribly cruel, as everyone must have thought who watched their long procession on either side of the vessel that day.
Our perils were not over; early in the afternoon, as evening drew on, we had to lie to again for the night, a choice of evils, not knowing where we might drift, and yet not daring to risk collision with the ice by going on. This went on for four nights in succession; after fairly fine days, dark danger by night; much anxiety, and little restful sleep. One night another panic arose; lying to, we were caught by a huge cross wave, which leapt upon the decks, carrying away all loose gear, and smashing many fixtures. I was asleep in my bunk, and was flung out on to the floor of the cabin, but not hurt, for I must own to sleeping during these nights, dressed, and with boots on, to be ready for any emergency. The water rushed in torrents down every available opening to the decks below, flooding my cabin several inches in depth, and for the moment I thought all was over and we were sinking,—then came the welcome cry of the first mate, overhead, "She's right again!" and crawling carefully up the companion ladder to the poop deck, I met him; "I was washed right off my feet, and only saved by being jammed up against the mizzenboom."
After this our course gradually became clear of ice; a strong westerly wind soon took us out of danger, and all went well. Naturally talk turned on the chances of that American ship, which was due to follow us in ten days. "I shouldn't care to be on. her," said one of the officers, "those Yankees are too fond of page 86cracking on at all hazards." You shall know the sequel presently, but meanwhile you may ask, what effect had all this experience of peril on the people on board? I can only say that it seemed to sober everyone. Rowdiness and drunkenness disappeared, but the impression made by those awful nights had yet to be deepened.
We rounded the Horn, and were off the West Indies. There, in the tropics, making a fair pace in quiet water, one afternoon the wind fell suddenly; a dead calm, quite uncanny in its stillness; the water oily and slate coloured; the horizon aglow with a yellow red light; and a something brooding in the air that meant mischief. But here, in these Latitudes, the Captain was in his element. He had weathered many a cyclone, and knew exactly what to do. It was just three o'clock, our dinner hour, when he startled us all by a sudden order for all hands on deck, to take in every rag of canvas at once; even stewards and handy passengers were impressed to tail on to ropes and haul. The crew, as active as cats aloft, had just gathered in all sail, and were on the bare spars, when the wind literally leapt down upon the vessel, and drove us furiously through the water, which seemed flattened out by its force. It was so fierce a gale that no one dared stand up against it, except under shelter. Crouching behind a meat safe, I asked the first mate if he had ever known it blow as hard before, "I don't know that I have. 'I'm inclined to agree with the American Skipper: I guess if this goes on much longer she'll take to the air and fly.'" Presently we passed a large barque, which had been caught by the cyclone, all standing; all her masts broken short off at the lower tops; sails and rigging hanging in ribbons over page 87her sides; men with axes trying to clear the wreckage. We could render no help, as we swept along, or even hail her to ask what damage she had sustained. "She was caught," said the mate, before she could ship her canvas, but our Skipper knows his work; he has laid her head so that we shall drift towards and out of the outer circle of the cyclone, or else we might have drifted into its centre, and been carried away with it anywhere."
The wind continued in full force till midnight; lightning vivid and incessant, playing all round us, and often falling like fireballs right on the vessel. Not much sleep that night, until about five in the morning, in one instant, it seemed, the wind fell. Coming on deck at daylight, somehow, the ship looked like a forest after a tornado, masts and spars like trees stripped of foliage, the decks like land just recovering from drenching floods.
"He maketh the storm to cease; so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they are at rest, and so He bringeth them unto the haven where they would be." At last the shores of the Old Country again: Plymouth, and the coast in all its Autumn beauty; a lovely, peaceful morning and a golden day, as we sailed slowly up the Channel to land at Gravesend. Word was passed round for a meeting of all the passengers. They presented me with an address written by a third-class passenger, and signed by everyone in the ship, full of kindly and grateful remembrance of the escape we all had had from the perils of wind and ice and wave. Good-byes after a voyage of eighty-five days together are unique: the time and conditions of acquaintance are almost enough for intimate friendship, yet in page 88almost all cases the Good-bye is final. One of the second-class passengers came to me and said: "I want to tell you what fetched us fellows; it was the way you came amongst us, and treated us as if we were as good as yourself; it was that that got us. Well, we mayn't meet again; so long!"
My work here will take some time; the men I want to secure are not easily found. I am glad to say that the S. P. G. have agreed to grant passage money for four clergy, and in return I shall do some work for the Society.
This morning, in the Times, I read the following: "The J. E. H. has been posted at Lloyd's as 'Lost." In all probability she ran upon one of those icebergs from which we escaped,—a list of her passengers has been published; my own name might have been one of them.
I hope to come and see you soon,
H. W. H.