Bass Strait Traders #1: The sealing schooner ELIZABETH

Vessels in Colonial Waters 1830-1850

The sealing schooner ELIZABETH

The establishment of the Colony of Van Diemen's Land, and its principal settlements of Hobart in the south and Launceston in the north, occurred in the first decade of the 1800s. These events predated settlements on the northern side of Bass Strait, along the southern coast of the mainland (or Colony of New South Wales), by at least 30 years. The later settlements at Portland Bay (Portland1834), in Port Phillip Bay (Melbourne and Geelong 1835), and St Vincent's Gulf (Adelaide 1836), were in effect supplied by the earlier settlements of Launceston and Hobart during their formative years from 1830 to 1850. The flow of population and capital (including livestock, farming implements and basic provisions) was from the ports of the older colony, over Bass Strait, and into the natural harbours of the new colonial incursions.

This process began with relatively small vessels, one masted cutters and two masted schooners, fore and aft rigged, that sought to supply sealers and whalers, the first Europeans to exploit the new coastline north of VDL. Larger vessels then gradually became more common, square rigged two masted brigs and three masted barques, as the main economic impetus of the Bass Strait trade developed from oil and skins to sheep and wool, and the demands of these more substantial cargoes were taken into account by Tasmania's entrepreneurs.

The sealing schooner ELIZABETH is an example of the earlier, lighter type of vessel. Built in 1831 for owner John Griffiths of Launceston, she was a tiny sailing 'ship' -- 50 feet long from bow to stern, 16 feet 1 inch wide at the mid-section of her deck, and 7 feet 8 inches deep from deck to keel, with a laden capacity of 51 tons. (Note that this Launceston registered vessel is not to be confused with the Hobart registered schooner, also called Elizabeth and of 51 tons, but built in 1837 for Thomas Tindale).

The principal resources for this account (unless otherwise notated) are:
MA Syme, 1984, Shipping Arrivals and Departures: Victorian Ports 1798-1895, Roebuck No 32, Melbourne
RT Sexton, 1990, Shipping Arrivals and Departures: South Australia 1627-1850, Roebuck No 42, Adelaide
IH Nicholson, 1985, Shipping Arrivals and Departures: Tasmania 1834-1842, Roebuck No 33, Canberra

1831 - 1834 under Captain John Hart

Departed Launceston 6 December 1831, bound for North West Islands, Portland Bay, and Kangaroo Island, 'to ascertain the success of sealing parties'.
Arrived Launceston 17 March 1832, landing cargo of 730 fur seal and 600 hair seal skins, 10,000 wallaby skins, 7 tons seal oil, and 25 tons of salt. [collected Dutton from Portland Bay]

Departed Launceston 18 October 1832, in ballast, bound for Kangaroo Island and Portland Bay.
Arrived Launceston 19 November 1832, 23 tuns oil, 52 bundles of bone, and passenger Mr Trimlett. [landed Dutton at Portland Bay]

Departed Launceston 29 November 1832, in ballast, bound for Kangaroo Island and Portland Bay 'on a sealing trip'.
Arrived Launceston 6 April 1833, landing cargo of fur seal and hair seal skins, kangaroo skins, 28 tons salt, and 6 tons seal oil, valued at 1,700 pounds and 'obtained in scarcely four months'. [lifted Dutton from Portland Bay]

Departed Launceston May 1833, bound for Port Fairy.
Arrived Launceston May 1833, landing cargo 17 tons oil, and passenger Mr J Griffiths.

Departed Launceston June 1833, bound for fishery at Portland Bay with passenger Jn Sinclair.
Arrived Launceston 6 July 1833, landing cargo of 70 tuns oil 'after only 3 weeks exertion'.

Departed Launceston August 1833, bound for Kangaroo Island and Portland Bay.
Arrived Launceston 24 August 1833, landing cargo of 50 tons salt and 1 ton whale oil.

Departed Launceston November 1833, bound for 'the north west islands' on 'a sealing voyage'.
Arrived Launceston 7 April 1834, landing cargo of 500 fur seal and 400 hair seal skins, 1,800 wallaby skins, 9 rugs, 15 tons salt, and 2 tons of oil

Departed Launceston 10 July 1834, bound for Portland Bay, with empty casks, beef, geneva, rum, and passenger Mr G Scott.
Arrived Launceston 29 July 1834, landing cargo of 56 casks oil.

Departed Launceston 2 August 1834, bound for Portland Bay with whaling stores.
Arrived Launceston 3 September 1834, landing cargo of oil.

Departed Launceston 18 October 1834, bound for Bass Strait Islands, Westernport Bay [anchored Phillip Island], and Portland Bay.
Arrived Launceston 9 November 1834, in ballast 'from the Islands' but 'collected Portland Bay party'.

Departed Launceston 22 November 1834, bound for Westernport, taking a team of bullocks and a dray.
Arrived Launceston 6 December 1834, landing cargo of 15 tons of Mimosa bark

[The details revealed by these voyages provide a useful economic history for the early 1830s along the southern coast of New Holland. From the Bass Strait Islands and Westernport in the east, to Kangaroo Island and Eyre Peninsula in the west, commercial activity was focused on pillaging the natural environment; on harvesting seal skins and seal oil, whale oil and whale bone, kangaroo skins and wallaby skins, lake salt and wattle bark.]

Captain Hart's personal recollections of the period 1831-35.
TF Bride & CE Sayers (eds), 1983, Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Currey O'Neil, South Yarra VIC
Letter from John Hart to Lieut. Gov. La Trobe, Melbourne, 24 April 1854 (pp. 51-57)

First Sealing Voyage 1831-1832: "In the month of November 1831, became master of the schooner Elizabeth, of Launceston, owned by Mr. John Griffiths, and bound on a sealing voyage to the N-W Islands.
Early in December we landed on the Lawrence rocks, Portland Bay, where we were joined by a boat's crew left there the year before, they having procured nearly 400 skins. Proceeding towards Kangaroo Island, anchored on the 16th in Guichen Bay [Robe SA]; landing on Baudin's rocks killed 30 seals, leaving one man with a supply of water and provisions until our return. Anchored in Nepean Bay [Kangaroo Island SA] on the 20th, and procured from the Salt Lagoon five tons of salt; bought 150 skins (seal) and 12,000 wallaby skins from the islanders.
These islanders were principally men who had left various sealing vessels when on their homeward voyage, the masters readily agreeing to an arrangement by which they secured for the next season all the skins obtained during their absence.
This island life had a peculiar charm for the sailors, being supplied from the ship with flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, and a few slops [light canvas clothing], and living generally in pairs on the shore of one of the little bays. They cultivated a small garden to supply them with potatoes, onions, and a small patch of barley for their poultry. They thus led an easy, independent life, as compared with that on board ship. They obtained wives from the mainland; these attended to the wallaby snares, caught fish, and made up the boat's crew when on a sealing excursion to the neighbouring rocks. At Kangaroo Island, there were about sixteen or eighteen of these men. On a certain day, once a year, they assembled from all parts of the island to meet the vessel in Nepean Bay, and dispose of their skins, getting a supply in return for the following year, the only money required being a sovereign or two for making earrings.
There was another class of men, also, who probably had escaped from Van Diemen's Land; these lived generally on islands apart from the others, some on Thistle Island, near Port Lincoln, and other islands in Spencer's Gulf, and there was one man who had been unvisited for three years when I saw him on this trip. This man lay under the suspicion of having murdered his original companions. He had two wives, whose woolly heads clearly showed their Van Diemen's Land origin.
Although so long without supplies, he had every comfort about him. A convenient stone house, good garde, small wheat and barley paddocks, with pigs, goats, and poultry, made him quite independent of the vessel, except for tea and tobacco. He had collected 7,000 wallaby skins of a kind peculiar to this island--very small, fine-furred, and beautifully mottled in colour. I sold those in Sydney for the China market. Returning to Launceston in February 1832...afterwards in the Sydney trade."

Second Sealing Voyage 1832-1833: "November 3rd, proceeded on a second sealing trip, landing on almost every rock between Bass's Straits and Doubtful Island Bay [Ceduna SA]; returned to Launceston after a very successful trip in March 1833. My mate, Mr. Dutton, appointed the chief headsman of the first fishing in Portland Bay; employed attending on these whalers. Whales so plentiful that, on my visiting the Bay in June, I found all the casks full, and the men putting oil into pits they had made of clay. Out of 100 tons thus dealt with a very small quantity was saved. I took the first cargo of oil from Portland on this occasion..."

Third Sealing Voyage 1833-1834: "November, --Fitted for my third sealing voyage, which was extended to Cape Leeuwin [an extraordinary claim for his little craft, as it means she would have to cross the Great Australian Bight and reach the far south western tip of the Swan River Colony, i.e. Western Australia]; on this voyage we anchored in the Harbour of Middle Island; discovered close to the beach a lagoon containing fine salt, in such quantities that we took on board 20 tons in three days. On this voyage also I was on the plain where Adelaide now stands; and also discovered the dangerous reef of Cape Jaffa. Returned to Launceston in March 1834. Two fisheries in Portland Bay this year...

Stripping Wattle Bark 1834-1835: "October, --Brought Griffiths's party of whalers from Portland. Employment having to be found for these men during the summer, to prevent them being employed by the opposition fishing party, took a number of them on an expedition to strip bark.
Left Launceston the latter end of November, having on board a team of bullocks, a dray, and some twenty men besides the crew. Entered the Heads of Western Port the beginning of December; anchored under Phillip's Island; saw the place where a settlement had been...the land here was bad, and there were no wattle trees. Stood up the harbour...Anchored abreast of the ruins of another settlement; landed the men and team...grass very abundant, and the wattle trees the largest I have ever seen. Employed for a fortnight collecting bark; saw the traces of numerous cattle...
Finding the bark so abundant, I loaded the schooner and proceeded to Sydney, leaving the shore party behind; sold my cargo to a ship bound to London, and chartered the ship Andromeda to load bark in Western Port for London. Put on board Mr. Thom (my mate) as pilot and supercargo. She arrived there in April 1835. In the meantime I proceeded to Launceston and gave an account of my trip, first to my owner and Mr Conolly...
The cargo of the Adromeda was consigned to John Gore and Co., of London, and sold for about 13 pounds per ton.
I brought vast numbers of black swans, which we had pulled down while moulting; the waters of Western Port were covered with these birds.
In December 1835 I sailed as a passenger to London, and while there gave evidence to some of the South Australian Commissioners on the subject of the coast and lands of that province. I furnished sailing directions for Colonel Light..."

[Hart's letter is an invaluable addition to the social history of the sealing period. But it continues to reward the economic historian as well. This captain may have recognised the profitability of bark stripping on these coasts (tannin was extracted from the bark to cure leather), but the destiny of the ELIZABETH for the balance of the 1830s was to be determined by the nature of her owner's core business interests. Hart makes passing reference to this commercial imperative when he notes that in 1833 he was "employed in attending the whalers".
Griffiths maintained a large whaling enterprise, first at Portland Bay (up to 30 men in peak season) and later at nearby Port Fairy (on Griffiths Island at the mouth of the Moyne). VDL Whaling Reports for 1836 indicate that Messrs Griffiths and Company of Launceston employed 50 men who obtained 530 tuns of whale oil and 27 tuns of whale bone].

1835-1838  The Portland Bay and Port Fairy Run

The function of 'attending to the whalers' characterised the journeys made by the CHILDREN in the three or four years following her sealing voyages. Under Captains Akers, Browne, Campbell and Stiles, the schooner crossed the exposed seas between Launceston in Van Diemen's Land and Portland Bay / Port Fairy on the virtually unknown southern coast of the mainland.

Typical payloads for this period were:
1835 --  June, Launceston to Portland with 56 tuns oil casks [i.e. empty]; Portland to Launceston with 99 tuns. July & Aug, Launceston to Portland with 42 tuns casks, stores; Portland to Port Fairy with whalers; Port Fairy to Portland with 1 boats crew; Portland to Port Fairy with casks, 1 whaleboat and crew; Port Fairy to Launceston with 24 whaling gang men from Western Port.
1836 -- July, Launceston to Portland with J Griffiths and others 'to collect oil from SOCRATES'; Portland to Port Fairy 'sperm oil ex SOCRATES'. August, Port Fairy to Portland 'to relieve SOCRATES'; Portland to Launceston with whalebone.
1837 -- May, Launceston to Port Fairy with whaling stores and passengers. June & July, Launceston to Portland with whaling gear; Portland to Launceston with 92 casks oil.
1838 -- April, Launceston to Port Fairy with whaling stores and whalers. May, Port Fairy to Launceston with 17 tons oil. June, Port Fairy to Launceston with 15 tons oil. November, Port Fairy to Launceston with oil & 7 whalers.

1838 seems to have been the last year the ELIZABETH spent on the south west coast -- the last ports and harbours entries for these destinations are 22 September 1838 for Portland Bay and 23 November 1838 for Port Fairy. Colonisation of the Port Phillip District (later the Colony of Victoria) overtook Griffiths' interest in whaling, by creating a considerable one-way traffic of people, goods and money from Van Diemen's Land to the new settlements of Melbourne and Geelong.

1839-1840 The Port Phillip Bay Run

Examples of Bass Strait crossings under Captain Stiles (source abbreviations extended):
1839 -- May, Launceston to Melbourne with general cargo and 9 passengers; Melbourne to Launceston in ballast. June, Launceston to Melbourne with general cargo and 2 passengers; Melbourne to Launceston in ballast with 2 passengers. November, Launceston to Melbourne with timber and sundries and 15 passengers; Melbourne to Hobart in ballast and 4 passengers. December, Launceston to Melbourne with sundries and 3 passengers; Melbourne to Launceston in ballast and 2 passengers.
1840 -- February, Launceston to Melbourne with merchandise and 2 passengers; Melbourne to Launceston with sundries and 2 passengers. June-July, Launceston to Melbourne with sundries and 2 passengers; Melbourne to Launceston with sundries and 2 passengers. July-August Launceston to Melbourne with 1 passenger and agent G Lukin.

Two noteworthy events occurred to the ELIZABETH during this time. The first was around August 1839, when she was cut down from 51 tons to 34 tons registered weight. Whether this was to reduce port duties payable, or because the Tasmanian timbers used by Griffiths in his 1831 build were losing their seaworthiness, is unclear. The second event was in August 1840, when Griffiths sold the reduced vessel to John Lukin of New Zealand and her Launceston registration lapsed. Only 8 months later, on 17 April 1841, the ELIZABETH was totally wrecked near Poor Knights Island off New Zealand, (although a Sydney newspaper reported that her crew and passengers were saved).


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