Brawls, Duels and Marsupials. A Voyage to Tasmania

14 July 2015

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

On 12 March 1838, a young surgeon by the name of Dr John Hanchett joined the ship Henry at St Katherine Dock, bound for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). His journal survives in the archives of the Maritime Museum of Tasmania and paints a vivid account of the trials and tribulations encountered during four months at sea, the relations between crew and passengers and the leisure activities on board an early Victorian emigrant ship. What follows is a potted account of his trip.

At 2pm the ship left London under the command of a local pilot, picked up her Captain at Gravesend and then continued to Deal, where she spent six days in the Downs waiting for clear weather. The monotony must have been difficult and Hanchett records little more than the weather and the ship's routine – “We breakfast at 9, lunch at 12, dine at 3, drink tea at 7, sup at 9, and go to bed at eleven.” Clear weather duly arrived and 30 March saw the ship already off the Portuguese coast and Hanchett attending to a little girl who had swallowed a brass needle – an ailment treated by two full wine glasses of Caster Oil. Lubricant, or not, this can't have been pleasant.

Several days later and Hanchett’s voyage was nearly cut brutally short when on 4 April, a sailor in the rigging threw a marlinspike into the bowsprit on which he was standing. The projectile entered the wood less than a hand’s breadth from his head. Hanchett recalled “If it had struck me it must have killed me on the spot.” A chilling wake up call to the dangers of ocean travel.

The heat intensified as the ship sailed through the trades and closer to the tropics. Men suffered from bad cases of sunburn and the pitch boiled up from between the boards on deck, making them impossible to walk over without thick-soled shoes. Dr Hanchett attempted to keep cool, first through removing his flannel waistcoat on 7 April (he neglects to record whether anything else was removed) and then by having six buckets of water thrown over him on 11 April. He does not relate how other members of the crew and contingent dealt with the heat, however, he does inform us that they were unable to swim on account of the sharks.

Among Hanchett’s day-to-day musings are several incidents which highlight the fragility of relations between the men on board. On 4 May, one of the passengers insulted the carpenter when he remarked on how long the man was taking to mend a boat. On complaining to the Captain, it appears an argument ensued in which the carpenter insulted the Captain, who promptly ordered him to his cabin. When the man refused to go, it took several individuals, including Hanchett, to force him below deck. The trouble didn't end there. The carpenter made a grab for a nearby axe and swung a blow at the second mate’s head. Luckily it was wrenched from his hands before he could do any damage and he was bound hand and foot and left in his cabin. The Captain’s response was to arm the men, although Hanchett doesn’t state whether they remained so for the rest of the voyage.
Dr J. Hanchett Journal, Ship Henry, March 12th 1838Image © Maritime Museum of Tasmania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The second incident began on 11 May, two months into the voyage, when an argument broke out between the second mate and the surgeon over the provision of oatmeal for a poultice. The second mate accused Hanchett of lying, an insult the 20-year old could not ignore. Although he slept on his course of action, 12 May saw the young surgeon issue a formal challenge via a passenger which read “Sir. Unless you immediately retract the insult you offered me last night, I demand satisfaction of you immediately on our landing.” Rumour has it, he had only just fled Paris in disgrace after a duel over a girl and this seems to lend weight to the legend. Hanchett never acquaints us with whether this duel took place at Launceston, but it wasn’t the only incident of such a nature on board ship. Barely a day later, Mr Bowers, a passenger, was accused of kissing the wife of Mr Webster – in Hanchett’s opinion, this was an act bound to end up in a duel.

Throughout May and June, Hanchett indulged his passion for anatomy and shooting. Cape Pigeons and Albatross appeared to be favourite targets (and bottles when they were really desperate), but dolphins were also caught, eaten and studied by the surgeon. One slightly more unsettling entry comes on 4 June, when Hanchett asserted he wished to “… kill a pigeon by poison and therefore gave it 3 fs of the Liq. Opii. Acetat.” He goes on to relate that “... I returned to my cabin two hours afterwards and found it perfectly well; the only way I can account for the poison not taking effect, is that the bird having a great quantity of oil in its stomach counteracted the effects of the poison. The Capt killed it by putting a pin through its head.” We’ll never know whether any scientific progress was gained from this rather crude experiment, but I hope for the sake of the pigeon that it taught him something.
Dr J. Hanchett Journal, Ship Henry, March 12th 1838Image © Maritime Museum of Tasmania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

On 6 July, the Henry reached George Town, Tasmania, but due to the lack of pilots, the vessel was unable to navigate upriver to her final destination at Launceston. Stuck now for a number of days, Hanchett joined other crew members in taking the boats to land and shooting opossums. This was performed at night in order to get close enough and resulted in many late and lost evenings crashing around in the Tasmanian forests. Fitting revenge perhaps for the many marsupials killed in action during their visit.

Hanchett’s diary is a fascinating read and although he sailed back to England with the Henry, he returned soon afterwards and settled permanently in Tasmania.

The first part of Migration to New Worlds will be available in November 2015. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.