Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Maskelyne, Mason and Dixon, 1761

2011 is the 250th Anniversary of Nevil Maskylene’s visit to St. Helena to observe the June 1761 Transit of Venus and is also the bicentenary of his death.  Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon visited St Helena in October the same year returning from observing the Transit in South Africa.

When I first started reading about Maskelyne the most widely available picture of him was the one below.
Nevil Maskelyne by John Downman, BHC 2854. National Maritime Museum

The Board of Longitude blog, recently posted that the National Maritime Museum now describe this picture as "Formerly called Nevil Maskelyne" as there is some doubt that it is of Maskelyne for the sensible reason that it does not look all that much like the other known portraits.  The late Derek Howse, formerly Head of Astronomy at NMM and biographer of Maskelyne firmly believed that this portrait is misidentified on the basis of its great dissimilarity to Louis van der Puyl's undoubted Maskelyne portrait of 1785 owned by the Royal Society and that this otherwise fine portrait is therefore probably another astronomer, so far unidentified.

Van der Puyl shows him in clerical dress appropriate to his formal status as a clerk in Holy Orders against the background of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In 1716 Edmond Halley, who had visited St Helena in 1677 and 1700, noted that an accurate timing of the transit of Venus would aid the calculation of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.  Although Halley knew he would not live to see the next anticipated Venus transit in 1761, his detailed plans and papers ensured that expeditions were sent out to the furthest reaches of the globe to make observations.  The 1761 transit  observations constituted the largest international scientific undertaking up to that time and despite the fact that it took place during the latter half of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), a worldwide conflict involving the major powers of the time and their colonies, it was to be observed by many astronomers at over one hundred locations involving 170 observers scattered from Peking to Newfoundland though, as we shall see, not always from the location planned.
Janisch records that The Directors of the East India Company in London wrote to The Governor of St Helena (Letters from England, Dec. 31, 1760)
His Majesty having been graciously pleased to encourage the making observations on the transit of the planet Venus over the Sun's disk on the 6th June next and proper persons being engaged by the Royal Society for the purpose two of them, Mr. Charles Mason and Mr. Jeremiah Dixon proceed to Fort Marlborough* on H. M. Ship Seahorse and the other two Revd. Mr. Nevil Maskelyne and Mr. Robert Waddington take passage on the Prince Henry to St. Helena.  As this is done to make some improvements in Astronomy which will be of general utility the two last named gentlemen are upon their arrival and during their stay to be accommodated by you in a suitable manner with diet and apartments at the Company's expense and you are to give them all the assistance as to materials, workmen, and whatsoever else the service they are employed upon may require.

*Fort Marlborough was the EIC base at Bencoolen, a pepper trading centre on the southern part of the west coast of Sumatra.  A garrison had been established there in 1685 and the Fort was built in 1714.  St Helena and Bencoolen were linked both through trade and personnel.

The Governor replied (Letter to England, May 26, 1761)

Rev. Nevil Maskelyne and Mr. Robt. Waddington shall be accommodated in a suitable manner with diet and apartments at the Company's expense. We have already erected an observatory for them in the country and shall furnish whatever else the service may require.

Transit Diagram

A graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, Maskelyne (1732 - 1811) became assistant to the then Astronomer Royal, Bradley, in 1757.  He left England for St. Helena in January 1761 to observe the June 6th transit, with the aim of using this information to calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun.  Having set up his observatory on the high ridge behind Alarm House low cloud prevented any useful observations being made, though several people reportedly saw it in Jamestown.  He returned to England in May 1762. 
He evidently had a taste for good living. Chambers Edinburgh Journal for 1848 records the following in regard to his trip. “In a curious estimate which he drew up of his expenses for the voyage and sojourn on the island for one year we find 13 guineas set down for washing, for board 109 guineas, for liquors 141 guineas. 5 shillings per day was reckoned as the charge for drink while on the island and £50 for the same item for the voyage out and home.  Maskelyne was a clergyman but his habits would have ill accorded with our present notions of temperance.”
Mason and Dixon are remembered today primarily for their work between 1763 and 1767 in the resolution of a border dispute between British colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania/Delaware in Colonial America. The disputants, the Calverts of Maryland and the Penns of Pennsylvania, engaged the astronomer Mason and surveyor Dixon, to survey what became known as the Mason–Dixon Line, and paid £3,512 to have the 327 miles surveyed.  In popular usage, especially since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Mason Dixon Line symbolises a cultural boundary between the Northeastern United States and the Southern United States (Dixie).
Having been chosen, in 1760, by the Royal Society to go to Bencoolen to observe the 1761 transit Mason suggested that Dixon should go as his assistant.  On January 10th 1761 their ship, the HMS Seahorse, was attacked by L’Grande a 34 gun French frigate and they had to return to Portsmouth with 11 killed and 37 wounded. Wanting to call the expedition off they were threatened with dire personal consequences “they may assure themselves of being treated by the Council with the most inflexible resentment, and prosecuted with the utmost Severity of Law” and were prodded back to sea by the Royal Society. Their second voyage wouldn't have got them to Sumatra in time (and Bencoolen had been captured by the French in August 1760), so they stopped at Cape Town, South Africa, as guests of the local governor and set up their equipment. They obtained several accurate measurements of Venus's position on the solar disc, providing some of the most useful data from the 1761 event, as it was the only successful observation made from the Southern Hemisphere.  On the passage home, they stopped at St Helena in October and, after discussion with Maskelyne, who had failed to observe the transit there, Dixon returned temporarily to the Cape with Maskelyne's clock to carry out gravity experiments.  Returning via St Helena he and Mason reached England in February 1762, each £230 richer. 

Despite being watched by so many observers the results were disappointing.  Bad weather, navigational errors, and difficulty timing Venus's image against the sun, all contributed to the failure and with no method for accurately calculating the longitude of most observation sites, no useful results were obtained.  Venus was expected to transit the Sun again on 3 June 1769, but if this opportunity was also lost, it would be another 105 years before the transit next occurred and another attempt at recording it could be made.
With this in mind, in 1768 the Royal Society sent a petition to King George III requesting assistance to send a scientific expedition to the South Seas to observe the forethcoming transit.  The petition, supported by the Greenwich Observatory, sought the sum of £4,000 to defray the costs of a Pacific expedition which would, it was stressed, enhance Britain’s imperial ambitions and scientific reputation, and improve navigation and trade.  The petition was soon approved.  Maskelyne, by this time Astronomer Royal and fellow of the Royal Society, had calculated that the best possible vantage point south of the equator was between the Marquesas Islands and Tonga.  The Royal Society informed the Admiralty that Tahiti, located almost at the centre of the area calculated by Maskelyne was its desired site for the observation of the Transit and also requested that naturalist Joseph Banks and his party be permitted to join the expedition.  In August 1768 HMS Endeavour left Plymouth on Cook’s first voyage of discovery. Cook had much better weather than Maskelyne had on St. Helena, writing: The Measurements gathered by Cook and others in 1769 were pretty rough but could be used to estimate the distance of the Earth from the Sun and, by extension, the size of the solar system and the universe.
June 3rd 1769. "not a clowd seen the whole day, and air perfectly clear, so we had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole passage of the planet Venus over the suns disk".
Returning to England, Cook and Banks spent from 1st to 4th May 1771 on St Helena.

Maskelyne, later known as "The Seaman's Astronomer" used his journey to St Helena to develop a method of calculating longitude called the lunar distance method and he used this method to establish for the first time the precise longitude of St Helena.  A vested interest in an astronomical solution to the longitude problem could have been seen as a conflict of interest, but this did not stop the Board of Longitude sending Maskelyne to Barbados in 1763 to test Harrison's No. 4 timekeeper.  His advocacy of this method meant that he has gone down in history as the villain of the longitude saga, the man who despised and cheated the self-educated genius John Harrison out of the prize he earned for his brilliant timepieces, which helped fix the exact time at sea and so determine longitude and the position of sailing ships on the ocean.
He was appointed the fifth Astronomer Royal in 1765 and died at the Greenwich observatory, still in office after 46 years, in February 1811.  He is buried in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, the parish church of the village of Purton Wiltshire where the Maskelynes had lived from the 16th century.

After completing the boundary survey in America, Mason worked under Maskelyne at Greenwich where he contributed to the Nautical Almanac.  In September 1786 he wrote to Benjamin Franklin that he had returned to America with his wife, seven sons, and one daughter.  He provided no explanation for his return and he died on October 26, 1786, in Philadelphia.

On returning to England from America Dixon sailed to Norway in 1769 to observe another transit of Venus after which Dixon resumed his work as a surveyor in Durham.  He died unmarried in January 1779.

Edmund Halley Blog post

The National Maritime Museum and the Department of history and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, are currently working on a five-year research project on the British Board of Longitude, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Bencoolen Link.

Cook on St. Helena

Monday, 27 June 2011


St. Helena, Peakdale, Footpaths through the Flax, May 2010

Among the many hundreds of plants first seen by Europeans on James Cook’s 1768 to 1771 Endeavour Voyage was one described, but not named, by Joseph Banks in his March 1770 “Account of New Zealand”:
“But of all the plants we have seen among these people that which is the most excellent in its kind, and which really excels most if not all that are put to the same uses in other Countries, is the plant which serves them instead of Hemp and flax.  Of this there are two sorts: the leaves of both much resemble those of flags: the flowers are smaller and grow many more together, in one sort they are Yellowish in the other of a deep red.  Of the leaves of these plants with very little preparation all their common wearing apparel are made and all strings, lines, and cordage for every purpose, and that of a strength so much superior to hemp as scarce to bear a comparison with it.”
Not long after returning to England Banks had his portrait painted by Benjamin West which shows him standing by a pillar wearing a Maori flax cloak.  At his feet are an adze and a book containing plant specimens.

1773 mezzotint by JR Smith from the original 1771 Portrait by Benjamin West
British Museum.  Registration Number 1841.0809.1507

In October 1774 during Cook’s 1772 to 1775 Resolution voyage a landing was made on Norfolk Island.  William Wales, the ship’s astronomer, noted that: “Near the shore the ground is covered so thick with the New Zealand Flax Plant that it is scarce possible to get through it.
The expedition’s botanists, father and son team Johann and Georg Forster collected specimens of the flax plant on Norfolk Island and in 1775 formally named it Phormium tenax, in allusion to baskets which the Maoris made from the leaves–phormium from the Greek phormos, a basket, and the Latin tenax, strong.  It should be noted that botanically New Zealand Flax is separated by an enormous distance from European Flax, Linum usatissimum, the only similarity being in supplying a fibre suitable for textile manufacture.  Its presence was, however, directly responsible for the island’s inclusion as an auxiliary settlement in the British Government’s plan for the colonisation of New South Wales.

Cook had been impressed by the potential of Norfolk Island to provide timber and fibre for the Royal Navy.  The timber of the “pines” was “exactly of the same nature as the Quebeck pines” and the trees were huge and straight.  They seemed ideal for masts and spars.  Cook already knew how highly the Maoris in New Zealand valued the flax as a fibre plant and thought it would be invaluable for making ropes and sails.  Accordingly, of all the islands discovered on the voyage, tiny Norfolk stood out for its potential value to Britain, largely because of its flax.  Because of Cook’s enthusiasm for the potential value of the flax, the British Government’s 1787 instructions to Arthur Phillip, commodore of the "First Fleet" and first Governor of New South Wales, described the flax “not only as a means of acquiring Clothing for the Convicts and other persons who may become settlers, but from its superior excellence for a variety of maritime purposes and as it may ultimately may become an Article of Export.”  Phillip was instructed: “you are, as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small Establishment [to Norfolk Island] to secure the same to us, and prevent its being occupied by the subjects of any other European Power.”  On March 6th 1788 a party of 15 convicts and seven free men arrived to take control of Norfolk Island and prepare for its commercial development, though in the event it became more of a penal settlement than a source of fibre.
Flax, Tree Ferns and a solitary Norflolk Island Pine.
Diana's Peak National Park, May 2010

In June 1776, immediately prior to his third, and final, voyage, Cook wrote to his friend Commodore Wilson at Great Ayton.  “I am sorry I cannot furnish you with some New Zealand flax seed, having not one grain of it left.  Indeed, I brought hardly one grain of it home with me, but left the most of what I had at the Cape, to try to cultivate it there; for of all that was brought home in my former voyage, I have not heard of a single grain vegetating.  It is much to be feared, that this fine plant will never be raised in England.”
 In New Zealand Europeans were quick to appreciate the commercial possibilities of phormium fibre and between the 1820’s and the 1860’s a considerable trade in hand-dressed fibre was carried on between Maori and European.  In the 1860’s the invention of the flax stripper led to the development of the flax milling industry and by 1870 there were 161 flax mills nationwide, with 1,766 workers.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries British imperial administrators saw flax as a possible cash crop for various outposts of the empire and they tried to establish flax industries on islands such as Tristan da Cunha and the Isle of Man.  On Tristan da Cunha, where other materials were in short supply, the flax was used for roofing – it bleached in the weather to give the stone cottages a fine blonde thatch.

Ashmole and Ashmole offer the following in regard to flax on St. Helena:
It was introduced in the first half of the 19th century, probably by an American whaler or by a ship returning from delivering convict to Australia.  It was already growing wild in December 1852 when Fred Moss wrote to the St. Helena Advocate suggesting that it could be developed into an industry.  They also give 1860 as the date for the introduction of the Norfolk Island Pine

Peakdale, Phormium Tenax, May 2010

On St. Helena Benjamin Grant wrote in 1883:
New Zealand Flax grows luxuriantly in almost all parts of the Island.  Ten years ago a Company called the Foreign Fibre Company, was formed for the purpose of preparing the fibre of this useful plant.  Machines were sent from England, a Factory established on the Jamestown Lines for that purpose and the Company purchased in the Island a fine large estate of 156 acres called “Woody Ridge,” under 60 acres of Flax and 15 acres of Aloe, for £1,200 sterling.  But after five years incessant work the Company ceased its operations, thus many men and boys were thrown out of employment. Mr. W. Erridge (of the Firm of W. Erridge, & Co. of this Island) then hired the Factory and commenced operations again, but after twelve months he too closed the Works, alleging as a reason for so doing that preparing the fibre did not pay.  So at the present day the Foreign Fibre Company’s Works are closed, which is a great pity, as there are thousands of tons of Flax encumbering several plantations.

Grant’s book “A few notes on St. Helena” is “Respectfully inscribed” to Governor Janisch who Trevor Hearl described as someone “who worked hard to counter the colony's economic decline, and encouraged the development of the first flax industry in 1874.”

Jackson gives some more detail:
Early in1874 The Colonial & Foreign Fibre Company was formed to cultivate flax on the island and a flax works with a steam flax machine was erected in Jamestown close to the sea.  In July 1876 the first shipment of flax from The Company left the island.  The consignment was 100 bales, each weighing 4 cwt.  In February 1881 the company closed being unprofitable.  “The flax was brought in its raw state by donkeys to the flax works and had the works been built near where the flax grew, the experiment might have succeeded, for the flax is undoubtedly of good strength, but the difficulty was the water power required.”

In December 1907 a flax processing mill was set up by the Government at Longwood under the supervision of a New Zealand expert, Mr. Fulton, and in a few years the product became the only staple industry on the island.

The Marlborough Express published the following article on his visit in early 1908.
New Zealand Flax in St. Helena.  Interview with Mr. Fulton.130 Fleet Street, London, Feb. 14.
"As a matter of fact." said Mr C. J. Fulton, chief fibre expert of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture, Wellington, when he called upon me the day before yesterday, (writes a London correspondent), "I have been lent by the Government of New Zealand to the Imperial Government in order that I may do what can be done to establish on a practical and profitable footing in the island of St. Helena, a flax industry.  That is to say, I had first to satisfy myself that the soil and other conditions were suitable to the growth of phormium tenax, and if so to show the islanders how to work the fibre."
"But it was stated lately that the experiment had been made, and had failed?"
"Ah, but that failure was inevitable," answered Mr Fulton, "because the promoters used quite the wrong sort of machinery.  Certainly they did fail, and lost some £30,000 over the attempt.  But nowadays anyone would know that an attempt on that basis was bound and doomed to fail. What I am now doing is on very different lines."
"You have been visiting St. Helena, have you not?"
"Oh, yes," replied Mr Fulton.  “I left New Zealand in March last, and, of course, had to travel by a very roundabout route, as St. Helena is quite off the beaten track, or at any rate away from any regular steamship route.  But I got there at last, and spent five months in the island.  I had brought with me the flax-dressing machinery which is peculiar to New Zealand, and having made a full inspection of the place and its capabilities I came on to England to obtain the rest of the requisite appliances, and then returned to St. Helena, where I erected a mill and superintended its working for some time."
"But was the raw material available?  Does the phormium grow already in St. Helena?"
“Certainly," replied Mr Fulton. The so-called New Zealand flax has grown there for more than half a century—perhaps 54 or 55 years.  It was introduced and cultivated for hedges and for shelter in the more exposed portions of the island.  At the present time there is- only a comparatively small lot there, but the soil is very suitable for its propagation, and it will now be cultivated in large fields.  Even now, however, the big flax hedges greatly need thinning, and so a considerable quantity will be available-quite enough to go a small way while the method of working is being practiced.  Then the hedges will be thinned out not only by cutting but also by transplantation of the roots.  There will be fields of the flax instead of merely hedges.  At present the new industry gives employment to thirty men, viz, sixteen at the mill, and the others at conveying the material to the mill with bullocks and donkeys.  The formal opening of the new mill took place on the 5th December.  It was regarded as quite an historic event, and the whole population turned out to witness and celebrate it.  They might well deem the occasion an important one, for the flax industry is really the only chance for them—that is, to grow the flax and mill it.”
“So what did you think of the island itself?”
"It is exceedingly picturesque in the interior, at any rate.  There are plenty of trees and the soil is fertile.  Thus in the best parts two crops of potatoes can be grown in each year.  But they are quite unsaleable owing to the absence of a market and only those needed for domestic consumption can be used.  It is the same with the cattle; there are some fair herds, but there, is no market, and so it does not pay to breed them as their produce is unsaleable."
"How did you find the people themselves?"
"Most hospitable and kind and well conducted.  They gave me an awfully good time.  There is only one actually rich man in the whole island, a merchant named Thorpe.  Everyone else is in a small way.  By the bye, there is a cable staff of 35 in St. Helena.  The means of communication are very defective.  Only two steamers call there now and then.  There is no good harbour, only a roadstead."
"When do you return to New Zealand?"
"I was due there next month," said Mr Fulton. "But my Government I cabled to me to stay longer and visit the United States of America.  I am also going to all the principal centres of the textile industry in the United Kingdom, including Belfast, Dundee, Edinburgh, Liverpool, etc."

Flax machinery by Booth MacDonald, Christchurch, Fairyland Flax Mill, May 2010

In July 1913 Solomon’s opened a flax mill at Bamboo Hedge and by the end of 1917 one hundred and seventy five men and forty-two women were employed in the flax industry.  The flax industry had experienced a boom during the 1914 - 1918 Great War, everyone who was able began to plant and grow flax and grants of small plots of crown land were made for the further planting of this commodity, but after 1921 it had a setback from competition with low-priced sisal fibre from Africa and Java.  By 1923 there were six mills working, that of the Government, two Solomon’s mills at Sandy Bay and Broad Bottom Gut, two of Deason’s at Hutts Gate and Woody Ridge and a new one erected below Francis Plain by Thorpes.  In 1925 Solomon & Company had enough faith in the industry to set up a stripper mill on a site only about 200 yards along the Levelwood road from the old residence of Rock Rose which had become a ruin.  Unfortunately this new mill was often hampered by a shortage of water and did not operate in the early 1930's but was back in production by 1935.  In July 1932 all nine of the island’s flax mills were closed due to a fall in the price of hemp causing serious unemployment and privation, but following a Government subsidy of £3.15s a ton on manufactured fibre, re-opened in November of the same year.
Flax Mill, Bamboo Hedge, Date unknown

Gosse records that in 1938 3,253 acres of flax were under cultivation.  Three families owned the land and almost all the industry’s profits went to them.  The flax industry eventually employed 300 to 400 people who worked 50 hours per week for low wages.  Work in the fields and mill was hard, repetitive, noisy and dirty and workers were often injured in the machines used to process the fibre.   Gosse describes the Ridge, the highest part of the island as “still clothed by the primeval forest of the island, at least by what little of it has been spared by the greedy goats and more recently by the even greedier growers of New Zealand flax.  On both the steep sides of the Ridge the ruthless and rapacious flax growers have hacked down and grubbed up wild olive, tree ferns, cabbage trees, lobelia and everything else which God planted there, in order to grow their flax which would grow just as well in many other parts of the island.”

Flax Fibre drying at Fairyland, Gosse 1938

 Fairyland Flax Mill with Bamboo Hedge in the distance, May 2010

Twenty years later, concern was being expressed in the House of Commons.  Having returned from a visit to St. Helena in the summer of 1958 Cledwyn Hughes spoke in a debate held on the 8th December and described the Island’s economic position with particular reference to the flax industry.

St Helena, he stated, is not a self-supporting community, and so far as can be seen it will not be self-supporting in the foreseeable future.  Flax growing and agriculture are two main industries of the island and both are at present in a serious condition.  The hemp produced there is not of the best quality, and both its price and the demand for it have fallen progressively since 1951.  The price of hemp was at its peak in May, 1951, when it sold at £180 a ton.  In June of this year the price had fallen to as low as £55 a ton.  Four out of the five flax mills on the island are closed, which means that about 230 men and women have been thrown out of work.  There are no alternative sources of employment on the island, and these people cannot, therefore, be absorbed in any other sort of work.  In addition to that, the work is arduous and ill-paid. The basic wage is £1 13s. 0d. a week. I should like it borne in mind by the House that the cost of living on the island is relatively high.   This is what the Social Welfare Officer for St. Helena has to say in his report for 1957.  "I have found a strong feeling of resentment tempered only by the fear of unemployment among flax workers who regard their basic wage of £1 13s. 6d. a week as totally inadequate."  The Minister will probably know that the future of the flax industry in St. Helena is obscure.  One of the obvious tragedies of the island at present is that its staple industry should be in this condition.  I must mention that the Government of St. Helena have on their Statute Book a minimum wage ordinance.  They have had it on the Statute Book for many years, but I was amazed to find that it had never been implemented.  One must bear in mind that fortunes have been made out of the island's flax industry in the past, but wages have been kept as low as possible.

I found that the workers in the industry—I spoke to many of them when I was there—have been afraid to complain about their conditions of work and wages because of the fear of victimisation and unemployment.  The basic wage paid by the Government of St. Helena to their own workers is only £2 5s. a week.  Such a wage does not enable people to attain anything approaching a decent standard of living in this British Colony.  As I have said, the cost of living in the island is high and prices are comparable with United Kingdom prices.  I would ask the House to mark that the requirements of the people of St. Helena are similar to our requirements.  Here we have a British people—their only language is English—who have an attitude to life similar in general to ours and their demands are similar to our demands.  How can Her Majesty's Government or the St. Helena Government justify this gross neglect of their own employees?  In simple terms it means that the ordinary people of St. Helena—by that I mean about 95 per cent of the population—do not know what it is from one year's end to another to eat meat, butter, eggs and cheese or to have milk.  None of the basic requirements of life is available to them, and that is a shame and disgrace.  Why are these facts not given in the official Report published by the Colonial Office about this island so that the House and the people of this country may know the true position there?

Rock Rose Flax Mill, May 2010

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Julian Amery replied:

Since the turn of the last century our problem has been how to put the economy of the island and of its nearly 5,000 people on to a new foundation.  As the hon. Member said, St. Helena has few resources for which there is any world demand.  One crop alone, phormium tenax, a flax indigenous to New Zealand, has proved itself as a serious export.  But the world market for this and similar fibres is, and has for some time been, seriously depressed. The industry which until recently employed 200 people is at present employing only 120.  The Hon. Member spoke of the fear of unemployment and of the grievance felt by some working in the flax industry at the level of their wages.  I understand that; but there is always a danger that any further depression in prices or any rise in production costs would lead to the flax mills closing down completely.  This would cause very serious hardship to the island, and more especially to the employees and their families in the industry.

This in fact is precisely what happened.  Flax mills continued to operate intermittently until the entire industry ended in 1966 when the last Mill on the island closed.

Woody Ridge Flax Mill, May 2010

Broadbottom Flax Mill, May 2010

The commonly held belief is that the demise of the industry was precipitated when an official in the British Post Office, which was a major buyer, decided to use synthetic string thus killing off St. Helena’s flax industry and even with government subsidies, St Helena flax could not compete in the world market.

A more plausible explanation is that this outcome was exactly as was foreseen.  In the mid-1960s some of the flax mills were government-owned and others were private and in 1965, after a government review of wages, a decision was made to nearly double the wages in the government mills.  Wages were felt to be too low for workers to live on adequately.  The private mills were not able to match these wage increases and closed.  Meanwhile, world prices for hemp continued to fall, so the higher production costs of the government-owned mills meant that they were operating at a large loss and within a few months they too closed.

The Endeavour Voyage of Sir Joseph Banks:
The discovery of Flax on Norfolk Island:
Benjamin Grant:
Parliamentary Debate on St. Helena:
Interview with Mr. Fulton:

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Bligh's Second Visit, 1799

1814 Portrait of Rear-Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey. Bligh is depicted wearing the uniform of a Flag Officer and the Captain's Naval Gold Medal for the Battle of Camperdown. National Library of Australia.
A March blog post “Bligh, Banks and Breadfruit” described William Bligh’s December 1792 visit to St. Helena in HMS Providence en route from Tahiti to the West Indies carrying breadfruit plants which it was hoped would provide food for the slaves on the Caribbean sugar estates.  It was only on reading Ian Baker’s “St. Helena One Man’s Island”, a book written with a real passion for St. Helena, that I found that Bligh had paid a second visit in 1799.
Following his return to England and after a short period as Commander of HMS Calcutta, in January 1796 Bligh was given command of a 64-gun third rate ship of the line HMS Director.  In the spring of 1797 he was one of the captains whose crews mutinied over "issues of pay and involuntary service for common seamen" during the Spithead Mutiny and was again one of the captains affected during the mutiny at the Royal Navy anchorage of Nore.  These events were not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh as they "were widespread, and involved a fair number of English ships" but it was at this time that he learned that his common nickname among men in the fleet was 'that Bounty bastard'.  In October 1797 Director, under Bligh, was part of the British Fleet which defeated the Dutch Navy at the Battle of Camperdown.

H.M.S. Director raking the Dutch flagship Vrijheid, during the Battle of Camperdown, 11th October 1797

On Sunday 15th September 1799 Director sailed from Plymouth under sealed orders.  His log gives no details of the number of crew but does record "Beer on Board 27 tons, Water on Board 195 tons”.  On the 17th Bligh writes: “Conceiving myself fully within the situation intended by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to open my sealed orders I have done so and will put them in execution without the least delay”.  The orders were to sail to St. Helena to escort an East India Merchant Fleet back to Britain.
High Resolution images of the complete Journal of this voyage in Bligh’s own hand, photographed in 1972, can now be accessed at:

What follows are some extracts from the Journal but seeing the images of the original log gives a real sense of what a trip to St. Helena, under sail, 210 years ago entailed.

The following Journal is an account of my proceedings in a voyage to St Helena and from thence back to England in his Majesty’s Ship Director.

16th September: Saw two Men of war in the SW.  In the course of getting ready for action I found Lieut. Tatham not capable or disposed to carry my orders into execution and therefore directed Lieut. Johnston to take his place in future and Mr. Tatham to take Mr. Johnston’s quarters.

19th September.  The weather was so bad and the sea increased upon us so much that by 6 o’clock we had the fore and mizzen top gallant masts on deck.
20th September. Punished Daniel Diggins with 12 lashes for permitting water to be taken away from the scuttle cask contrary to any orders.  At noon fresh gales and cloudy.
23rd September. Punished Jasper Birches with 12 lashes for neglect in letting the reef out of the main Sail whereby it was split.
25th September. Began to serve lemon juice and sugar to the ship’s company.
26th September. The lemon juice will be continued every morning although I may not mention it.
28th September. I was under the necessity to put Lieut. Oxborough of the watch under an arrest for disobeying my orders.
6th October. Read the Articles of War and mustered the ship’s company in their hot-climate apparel.
8th October. Having prepared several butts for the purpose of holding the Great Coats and Thick Jackets of the seamen, they were now collected and tallied and stowed away until the return of the cold weather.
9th October. Fine weather but I could not today bear to be in the sun from headache and which prevented me from observing.
12th October. At ½ past 10 when I came out to leave my orders for the night to Lieut. Tathham I found a great part of the watch lying at full length asleep on the damp decks thereby endangering the health of the strongest men as well as not being prepared to execute any duty that might be suddenly required of them.  This is in direct disobedience of my public orders.
15th October. Saw several large brown boobies and Gannets a little before sunset. Porpoises and other fish seen.
18th October. Punished David Hood, XX Hopkins William Rowley and XX Davies with 2 dozen lashes each for gambling and one of them for throwing a stool at the Master at Arms.  Edward Lemon turned King’s Evidence after receiving 3 lashes.  Punished James Todd with 36 lashes and Clement Johnson with 18 lashes for theft.  Also Stephen Dempsey with 6 lashes for Insolence and John Heugh with 24 lashes for drunkenness and mutinous expressions.
21st October. Every attention to our sails but the swell from the Southward renders them almost useless by flapping with great violence.  Punished Thomas Romie with 12 lashes for selling his allowance of liquor.
25th October. Shoals of fish in sight and many birds flying about them.  Saw two Grampuses.
26th October. William White, seaman, fell out of the foretop and fractured his thigh and otherwise bruised himself in a very bad manner.
29th October. I now ordered the lemon juice to be mixed with the grog which made excellent punch.
1st November. Punished XX Williams with 12 lashes for drunkenness and William Creed with 9 lashes for quarrelling.
4th November. The Ship’s Steward Robert Pearson being detected in embezzling the Ship’s Rum I ordered him to be punished with 36 lashes and XX Scott (Cooper) with 24 lashes for being an accomplice and insolence. Also XX Kendrick with 12 lashes for uttering blasphemous words and getting drunk
16th November. Punished Thomas Davies with 12 lashes for disobedience of orders and Christopher Jay, George Millar with 12 lashes each and Joseph Ironmonger with 18 lashes for drunkenness.
28th November. At 10h anchored in James, Road, St. Helena with the Best Bower in 161/2 fathoms the Small Bower in 24 fathoms.  Returned the salute of 13 guns from Ladder Hill with the same Number.  No Ships in the Road and by an Officer who came off to wait on me, I found the convoy sailed on the 15th.  (As Bligh notes in his Journal he may have made the rendezvous had he not been obliged to sail to nearly 30 degrees south, about 1,000 nautical miles from the Island at his furthest point)
I landed and was saluted with 13 guns from the Hill
30th November. Departed this life Nicholas James from a fall down the main hatch.
1st December. Punished Geo Davies and XX Reid with 3 dozen lashes each for Drunkenness and disorderly behaviour and being old offenders.
2nd December. Buried Nicholas James on Shore.
The days spent moored in St. James’ Road were spent restocking the ship.  On the 5th 1,050 lbs of fresh beef, cabbage, watercress and 9 butts of water were received.  Fishing at Rupert’s was unsuccessful “caught a few small fish which did not repay the people for their trouble”.  The coopers were employed repairing casks “and they require much to be done to them.”
On Sunday the 8th Bligh records “Completed watering – received plants for Kew.”  This, in fact, may have been the principal reason for the voyage and the suggestion has been made that the whole trip was engineered by Bligh’s friend Joseph Banks who at this time was Kew’s unofficial Director.  In 1787 a garden had been established on St. Helena as a repository for specimens and managed by the Governor.  Banks had pioneered the movement of plants within the British Colonies and the island was used as a transfer station for plants being transported by ship from Australia, China and India.  Under Banks’ “benign superintendence” the Botanic Gardens at Kew became not simply a collecting house for botanical specimens, but the British centre for economic botany with a direct practical relevance to both Britain and her Colonies.
Sunday 8th. Read the articles of war and punished William Flinn with 10 lashes, XX Marr with 36 Lashes, XX Hexton with 24 lashes William Norris with 24 lashes for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour, XX Kenderick with 24 lashes for disobedience of orders and James Fancourt with 24 lashes for theft.
In his Journal Bligh writes “Remarks at St Helena”, a selection of which are transcribed below.
It has taken us 74 days to reach this place, which is longer than we at first expected, nevertheless it is, by the St. Helena people’s account a (indecipherable) passage as very few ships accomplish it under ten or eleven weeks.
Our run from the line has been 26 days the winds forced us into thirty degrees of latitude, nearly before we could get under the meridian of St. Helena.
I have formed a correct map to show the route of the ship and the direction of the wind
I should have attempted to have got to an anchor the night I lay to off the sand if I had not considered it hazardous on account of the shipping which I expected to have found lying in the Roads.  I was therefore extremely surprised at not finding any and more so, when by an officer who the Governor sent off to wait on me I was told that the ships had sailed without Convoy on the 15th inst (November)
As soon as the Ship anchored I went on shore and saw Governor Brooke. He told me he had permitted the ships to sail without convoys he was not at liberty to detain them longer than the 15th.  They were the Belvedere, Earl Wycombe’s Thetis, Worcester and Walpole’s regular ships, Seringapatam, Extra Indiaman with the Marquis Cornwallis’ packet and two Whalers – He had no intimation of any man of War coming out.
It was very uncertain when other ships might arrive – he knew not when to expect them.
We got fresh beef four days while we were here but we could not get any other species of provisions as the Garrison was in great want of these necessaries.
There is a plan under consideration with some of our merchants at home of making this island a depot for the Southern Skin Trade and Whale Fishery, the principal of which is to keep a class of ships here to be constantly employed while other Ships come from England to take home what may be lodged and prepared for the market.  The East India Company is amicable to the proposition.
The seasons at this place are become regular and a sufficiency of rain falls every year.  Our thermometer varied from 68 to 71 Degrees.
The anchoring place is as secure as any harbour, for the sea is free from tempestuous weather and ships may go in and out at all times of the year without any risk or trouble.
The watering is convenient, except sometimes when, from a great swell and little wind to landward of the island much surf runs on the piers.
The situation of Jamestown is Latitude 15.55 S Longitude 5. 49 West
On Monday 9th December at 1hr 15 Director weighed anchor and sailed towards England arriving in The Downs on the 28th January 1800.
Director was broken up at Chatham in January 1801.  In 1805 Bligh was offered the position as Governor of New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks, arriving in Sydney in August 1806.  Conflict between Bligh and the Colonists culminated in another mutiny and he eventually returned to England where he died in December 1817.

From 14th February to 5th September 1781 Bligh was Master of the Belle Poule, a captured French frigate put into the King's service. Same name but a different ship to that which in October 1840 would carry the exhumed body of Napoleon from St. Helena back to France.