As a small child I was always fascinated by a picture (actually a lithograph) of a large sailing ship in the home of my paternal grandfather, Fred Fox. Generously, he gave it to me and I kept it on my bedroom wall for years without knowing anything about it. It was entitled “The New School 1855. Sixty Days to Australia”. I foolishly never asked him how it had come into the family and I was not then aware of any family connection with the sea. Most of our ancestors that I knew about were farmers. This state of ignorance persisted until I reached my early 30s. One day I was in a library with my children and idly looking along the shelves, while they perused the Mister Men, when I picked up a book on clipper ships, leafed through it and was transfixed by the picture of “my” ship. That was the beginning of a journey of discovery which culminated, some 40 years later, with me posting this blog. The clipper was the Schomberg and a photograph of my copy of the lithograph appears above, a bit sun-browned and with the corpses of small insects, which sought refuge within its recesses, visible, but still the wonderful ship which excited my interest as a small boy and which has continued to give me pleasure as I teased out the details of its brief history.
That chance encounter in the library gave me the name of the vessel, the fact that it had been built in the shipyard of Alexander Hall in Aberdeen, that it had been skippered by a famous clipper captain, the Aberdonian, James Forbes and that it had been wrecked on its first voyage to Australia in 1855. Coincidentally, I too have strong links to the “Granite City”, having been an employee of Aberdeen University for 29 years. During my period in Aberdeen I made the acquaintance of a visiting Aussie academic who was fascinated by the story of my ship, because his hobby back home was to research shipwrecks around the Australian coast. On his return to the antipodes he sent me some photocopies of newspaper stories from 1855 – 1856 dealing with the wrecking of the Schomberg. I then realised that the loss of the Schomberg had been a sensation at the time and led to the downfall of James Forbes from his position as the most respected clipper captain of his age.
The story of the Schomberg and her larger than life commander has been told many times before, some by masters of the craft such as Basil Lubbock, Don Charlwood and Michael Stammers, others by more limited authors, either regurgitating from secondary sources or producing chaff. In retelling the tale here, I have used original sources, unless only secondary ones were available to me and I believe I have uncovered much material that has not been incorporated in past tellings of this tale. For the unfamiliar, it is a story with elements of ambition, risk-taking, ruthlessness, tragedy, extra-marital hanky-panky and a lack of attention at a critical time. It has provided me with endless fascination on a journey of discovery. I hope you, too, will be informed and entertained.
James Nicol Forbes - Origins
It is impossible to understand the story of the Schomberg’s wrecking without following the career of her captain. James Nicol Forbes was born in Aberdeen, or the County of Aberdeen, on 16th November, 1821 and it has been claimed that he was the son of a prominent Aberdeen advocate, though this study has not unearthed convincing evidence for that claim, or provided compelling evidence of alternative parentage. Both “Forbes” and “James” are names which are unhelpfully common in North East Scotland. By counting back from the periods of service detailed in James Nicol’s record (there are some inconsistencies) in the Mercantile Marine, he first went to sea as an apprentice between 1835 and 1837, when he would have been between 14 and 16, but most likely at the age of 14. He had previously attended Mr Milne’s School of Navigation in Marischal Street, Aberdeen. Certainly, Aberdeen was the most important sea port on the north east coast of Scotland. It had a large fishing fleet, traded with Europe, especially the Baltic, imported timber by sea from British North America and traded, on a more limited scale, all around the world. The city also had a thriving shipbuilding industry.
James Nicol Forbes begins his life at sea – the Craigievar and the Amity
As an apprentice seaman, James Forbes served in the Craigievar, Captain W Ray, operating out of Aberdeen, being indentured for 4 years, from 5 January 1836, when Forbes was just over 14 years of age. This brig of 263 tons was built in Aberdeen by Alexander Hall in 1825 and was thoroughly overhauled by the same shipyard in 1835. She served for many years on the route from various British ports to Sydney, Australia, including the period 1835 to 1838. After this phase she was offered for sale in Aberdeen. Subsequent to her disposal, she sailed, under Captain Barclay, mainly between Britain and Leghorn (Livorno) in Northern Italy. Did the sale of the Craigievar in 1838 cause James Forbes to transfer to the Amity? Identifying the Amity is complicated by the existence of more than one ship bearing that name but it is known that James Forbes’ service was in foreign trade and that he was involved in timber importation from British North America. In 1835 the Amity, under Captain Rae (is this the same master as with the Craigievar?), sailed from Liverpool to Aberdeen before going on to Quebec. On her return she was grounded on Rattray Head, between Peterhead and Fraserborough, on the morning of Friday 7th August 1835 but got off and proceeded. In Aberdeen her load of timber was advertised for sale in the Aberdeen Journal. “American timber, staves and deals. The subscribers are just now landing ex- the Amity from Quebec about 150 loads Yellow Pine, 500 Yellow Pine Deals, 500 Bright Spruce Deals and 2000 pieces pipe and HDD staves all of very superior quality. These will be exposed for sale by auction as soon as the vessel is discharged. Alex Forbes and Smith, 38 Castle Street.” This was probably the ship on which James Forbes served. Further journeys by the Amity across the Atlantic for timber followed. Thus, it seems possible that James Forbes sailed both to Australia and to British North America, perhaps more than once, to each destination, while an apprentice seaman, between the ages of 14 and 18. This would have been quite an initiation for a young lad.
James Nicol Forbes moves to Liverpool
With the completion of his apprenticeship in about 1839, James Nicol Forbes moved from Glasgow, where he had likely been paid off from the Amity, to Liverpool, in his own words “without a shilling in his pocket”, probably to seek new opportunities to advance his sailing career. Liverpool was a boom town during the whole of the 19th century. It had been involved in the slave trade (abolished in British colonies in 1833) and was to be central to the emigration of Irish refugees from the Potato Famine (1845 – 1850), mainly to North America, emigration to Australia and New Zealand, especially after the discovery of Gold in Australia in 1851. Liverpool also had extensive trade with India and the Far East and the import of cotton and the export of manufactured goods from the industrial North West and the North Midlands. Between 1824 and 1858, Liverpool’s marine estate expanded substantially, with the opening of more than 140 acres of new docks, enclosing about 10 miles of quays. In this booming city James Forbes soon obtained a position as a seaman on the Ranger, where he served for a period of 3 years to 1843.
James Nicol Forbes on the Ranger
Identifying the vessel on which James Forbes served at this time is again complicated by there having been at least 4 ships bearing the name “Ranger” operating out of Britain. One was a Peterhead whaler, one a mail packet operating between Falmouth and the West Indies, one a 130 ton clipper schooner built at Ipswich in 1842, Ipswich-based and plying between Continental locations such as Stettin, Swinnemunde, Leghorn, Venice and a variety of British ports and finally a 304 ton Liverpool-built and Liverpool-based barque trading mainly to China and Batavia (present day Jakarta), but also on one occasion to Lima (Peru) and Iquique (then Peru but now Northern Chile). The fact that, at this time, Forbes was known to be serving on a Liverpool ship leads to the likely identity of this last “Ranger” as being his vessel.
James Nicol Forbes - Mate on the Monarch
In the period 1844 – 1845 James Nicol Forbes served on the Aberdeen-registered Monarch, initially as Second Mate but subsequently as First Mate. At the age of 23 he had taken his first step onto the ladder of ships’ officers’ ranks and his ability and ambition must have been obvious both to his employer and to his superiors. However, identifying the vessel that he served in has again proved to be difficult due to there being at least 14 different vessels with the name “Monarch” operating in the period 1843 to 1845 when James Forbes was serving as an officer. These variously served the timber and cotton trades from North America; India and the Far East; the West Indies; the Mediterranean; and near-European ports. However, only one appears to have been registered at Aberdeen, though it mainly operated out of Liverpool, that skippered by Captain Stephen, who may well have been an Aberdonian, since that surname is strongly localised in the North East of Scotland. In the period when it is likely that James Forbes was Second, and then First, Mate, the Monarch is known to have sailed from Liverpool to Ichaboe, a very small island off what is now Namibia. When it was discovered, Ichaboe was covered in a layer of Penguin guano 25ft thick! The guano was mined from 1843. Presumably the Monarch took on a load of guano at Ichaboe. She then travelled on to New Orleans via the Cape of Good Hope, returning in July 1845 to Liverpool with a cargo of cotton. In same month the Monarch sailed for Quebec via Savannah and returned to Liverpool via Dublin, reaching her home port in August of that year. At this time it is likely that Forbes left the Monarch to join his next ship, the Prince of Waterloo, its name being derived from the title in the Dutch and Belgian nobility which was granted to the Duke of Wellington following his defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
James Nicol Forbes on the Prince of Waterloo – his first command
James Nicol Forbes served on the Prince of Waterloo for one year, according to his record of service, as a master and mate. In spite of claims to the contrary in a number of books on Captain Forbes, the Prince of Waterloo was his first command. He appears to have first skippered the vessel in November 1846 when she sailed for New Orleans, reaching that city in early January 1847 and arriving back in Liverpool on 13th April. James Nicol Forbes was then aged 25, a young age, but not unknown for the masters of sailing ships. In that profession, if you were good enough, you were old enough. He did not hold a Master’s Certificate at the time, though these were not made compulsory for captains until 1851. After his blooding as a master, Forbes then commanded the Prince of Waterloo on a journey from Liverpool to Quebec, leaving on 10th May 1847. Somewhere off the south coast of Ireland Forbes' vessel came into contact with the Kathleen from Philadelphia, which resulted in the Kathleen losing her topgallant masts. It is not known what damage, if any, was sustained by the Prince of Waterloo. Forbes' vessel arrived in Quebec about the middle of June. The Prince of Waterloo then loaded with timber and prepared to leave for Aberdeen (she was registered in that city) and left at the end of August 1847 to travel down the St Lawrence. On this initial part of her journey the ship met with a disaster, running ashore on Anticosti Island, which is located where the St Lawrence River meets the Gulf of St Lawrence. This large island has been called the “Graveyard of the St Lawrence”, since it is the site of more than 400 wreckings. The Prince of Waterloo filled with water and was abandoned by her crew, all of whom were saved. Nothing is known of the circumstances of this loss but it was not a good start to James Forbes’ career as a skipper.
Delivery of the Wilson Kennedy
James Nicol Forbes was thus stranded and in need of a way to return to Liverpool. Luck appears to have been on his side. The ship Wilson Kennedy was constructed in 1847 in Quebec and lacked a master to deliver her to Liverpool. James Forbes was recruited for this task and the vessel cleared for Liverpool on 30th October. Forbes arrived home on 5th December and it was reported in the newspapers that the ship was waterlogged, having been ashore on Green Island, though this was denied by Forbes. Most newspapers published retractions.
Master of the Wakefield
On his arrival back in Liverpool, James Forbes was appointed master of White Star Line ship, Wakefield, 607 tons register. The White Star Line had been formed in 1844 to provide a packet service to Australia. Wakefield had recently returned to Hull after an eventful trip from Quebec. Subsequent to her arrival, a passenger from the ship by the name of Johnson, was admitted to Hull Infirmary where he died. At the inquest allegations of ill-treatment were levelled against Captain Bloomfield of the Wakefield but they were rejected by the jury, which returned a verdict of death by natural causes. It is not known if this event was implicated in the removal of Bloomfield from command of the Wakefield, but James Nicol Forbes took the vessel from Hull to Cove (Queenstown), the port serving Cork, where she arrived on March 24th. The Potato Famine was at its height and mass emigration from Ireland, especially to North America, was underway. The Wakefield sailed for New York on Saturday, April 8th, 1848 and arrived safely at her destination on 21st May, where she unloaded her emigrant passengers. From New York, the Wakefield travelled on to Quebec to pick up a cargo of timber and then returned to Liverpool, reaching that city on 26th August.
As was typical of ships employed in the importation of timber from British North America, towards the end of the calendar year they diverted to the ports of the Southern United States to take on a cargo of cotton. In October 1848, the Wakefield was lying in Waterloo Dock Liverpool, loading for a journey to Mobile. As she was being hauled out of the dock her bowsprit snagged the rigging of another vessel which was torn away. The mate of the damaged vessel accused the crew of the Wakefield of letting the ship go in a careless manner. Captain Forbes was summoned to answer this charge and the dockgate man was called as a witness. He accused the mates of both vessels of being at fault but Mr Hodgson, the Harbour-master came to the conclusion that it was actually the fault of the dockgate man! A demand that he should pay for the damage infuriated the unfortunate dock worker and he refused to cough up. The final outcome of this spat is not known! The Wakefield sailed on 26th October and reached Mobile on 21st January 1849, returning to Liverpool, to sell her cargo of cotton into the Lancashire cotton industry, on April 25th of that year.
Wakefield’s next voyage was of the usual summer pattern – emigrants out, timber back. The planned journey was from Cork to Boston, then on to Quebec, leaving about 5th June 1849. The advertisements in the Irish newspapers local to Cork puffed up the status and facilities of the vessel as follows. “This ship made the quickest passage last year from the Port of Cork, and a letter of thanks to the captain was published in the New York papers by the passengers for his kind and gentlemanly conduct during the voyage. She will be fitted up with every regard to comfort, supplied in best provisions, including biscuit, rice, flour, oatmeal, pork, found in abundance of fuel, water, etc and sail punctually on her appointed day, under a penalty of £10 per day if delayed.” The cost of a passage was Adults £4 10 0, Children under 14 £4 0 0, Infants under 1 year £1 10 0. James Forbes was billed as the captain for the voyage but he left the employ of the White Star Line before he could do so to take the shilling of their rivals, the fleet being assembled by emerging Liverpool shipowner, James Baines.
The partnership with James Baines
Baines was born in Liverpool in 1823 and thus was almost the same age as James Forbes. James Baines was the offspring of a schoolteacher father and an entrepreneurial, confectioner mother. He was introduced to the shipping industry early in his working life when he joined the office of his shipbroking uncle, Richard Baines. The young James aspired to be a ship owner and, in spite of a lack of capital, made a number of ingenious but financially risky attempts to acquire vessels before finally achieving his aim in 1849, when he bought shares in a number of ships. As he acquired sailing vessels in that year, James Baines was on the lookout for ships’ masters with skills in seamanship, navigation and the ability to control hard-bitten crews. The 26-year-old shipowner had a need and James Forbes, also young and ambitious, was looking for a job. From the Register of Seamen we know that James Forbes was of medium height for the times (5ft, 6 3/4in) he had a ruddy complexion, brown hair and blue eyes and he sported a scar over his right eye, not an unusual acquisition for a young mariner who, at 27, had already spent a dozen years at sea. Unfortunately, no photograph of him is known to have survived.
Command of the Cleopatra
James Forbes’ first command for Baines was the wooden barque, Cleopatra of 508 tons register. Her dimensions were - length 116ft breadth 25ft depth 18ft. She was coppered and copper-fastened and was “constituted on the principle to carry a large cargo on a light draft of water” The ship was built speculatively at Parsboro, Nova Scotia, in late 1848 and sailed across to Liverpool with a load of timber which she discharged in the Brunswick Dock at the end of January 1849. Cleopatra was then advertised for sale with Tuesday 6th February at 1pm at the Brokers’ Saleroom fixed for the receipt of offers. No acceptable offer was forthcoming and the ship continued to be advertised in “Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser” until well into April 1849, when she was sold to James Baines. One wonders if the anxiety induced in Cleopatra’s owners by this protracted process led to Baines driving down the price of the vessel.
In late May 1849, Cleopatra was slated, under James Forbes’ command, to sail for Valparaiso, Coquimbo and Callao “in ten days”. Passages were offered on the journey out in the “splendid poop accommodations”. Terms of passage could be obtained from James Baines at 3 India-buildings, or from Captain Forbes on board the vessel in Salthouse Dock. It may be that this was a speculative voyage to check out the trading opportunities in Chile and Peru. Valparaiso was a major port and had become a focus for European immigrants, acquiring the sobriquet “Little San Francisco”. Gold and copper mining were getting underway adjacent to Coquimbo and Callao was the nearest major port to the Chinca Islands and their enormous deposits of guano, which were opened up from 1840 onwards. The Cleopatra commanded by Forbes was reported to have reached Callao on 18th October in Lloyds List "from Sydney New South Wales". No supporting evidence for this statement has been found and it seems likely that it was incorrect and that the journey had been accomplished via Cape Horn. Cleopatra was reported to be at North Chincha Island prior to 10th November and by 2nd December she had returned to Callao. Cleopatra then sailed for home, calling in at Coquimbo and reaching Queenstown, probably to discharge guano, on 4th April 1850. Subsequently she travelled back to London reaching Gravesend on 15th April and entering inwards at London Docks two days later. Later that year and into the following year, 1851, the journey to South America was repeated by the Cleopatra. She loaded with coal in Cardiff and sailed for Valparaiso on 26th July. On the journey out Cleopatra had a lengthy delay at Carrickfergus near Belfast, for an unknown reason before proceeding. After Valparaiso, Cleopatra called at Coquimbo and then Callao reaching the latter port on 20th November. She sailed for Chinca on 6th December, collected a cargo of guano from the Chinca Islands before calling in at Callao on 20th March 1851 and then proceeding for Britain on 29th of the same month. She arrived at Queenstown on 27th May 1851. However, on 12th March on the journey back up the Atlantic she suffered serious damage when she was struck by a heavy sea while lying-to in a bad gale. Her bulwarks, long boat and cook-house were washed away and the covering board was split, filling the cabin with water. She reached Liverpool on 31st May having first called at Queenstown. James Forbes then left command of the Cleopatra and took on the same position in another James Baines vessel, the Maria. The Cleopatra remained in the ownership of James Baines & Co but was sold on to J Getty of Liverpool in 1853.
Command of the Maria
The Maria was a substantial ship of 1014 tons register built by T. Oliver at Quebec in 1849. She appears to have been built speculatively and offered for sale in Liverpool, since Oliver wrote to his brother in Liverpool describing the ship in the following terms “The Maria is the handsomest the best built and the finest ship that has left here for some time and being built in summer adds so much more to her value. You may sell her to your best friends and they will not be disappointed in her.” The first trip by the ship under her new owner was to Australia. Maria was chartered by the Government to take a large group of orphaned children from Plymouth to Sydney. Under Captain Stubbs she sailed from Liverpool to Plymouth on 15th February, 1850, arriving in the southern port on 2nd March. There she embarked 279 female orphans and a few married couples. An advertisement in the local newspaper also offered a few first class passages at a “reduced rate” of £42. The Maria sailed for Sydney on 7th March arriving on June 29th 1850. From there she travelled on to Callao in Peru, to pick up a cargo of guano, before returning to the British Isles. She reached Queenstown on 21st May 1851. From Ireland, the Maria sailed for London, where she was put up for sale at the end of July of that year. Those interested in purchase were invited to enquire either of Captain William Stubbs on the vessel lying in George Frederick Young’s Dock, or Sir John Pirie Bt and Co (the owners?), or in Liverpool to William and James Tyrer (agents?).
Serendipitously, Baines was the right man in the right place at the right time when the discovery of gold at Ballarat in 1851 led to a rush of thousands of emigrants to the new Australian colony of Victoria. They were anxious to reach the diggings before the reserves of gold ran out. Liverpool was the port from which most of these economic migrants left. James Baines saw his opportunity to become a major player in the supply of passages to Australia in general and to Melbourne and Port Phillip in particular. He seized it with both hands and set out to purchase or lease suitable vessels for this new trade. One such vessel was the Maria, then on offer for sale in London. By this time James Baines and James Forbes must have at least developed a relationship of trust, if not outright friendship, because Forbes acted as go-between in the purchaser of the ship Maria, first buying her and then immediately selling her on to James Baines. This may have been a device to obscure the identity of the ultimate purchaser and perhaps to reduce the price.
James Nicol Forbes was appointed master of the Maria. He seems to have made only one trip in the vessel, travelling out to New Orleans, where the Maria arrived at the end of February 1852 and then returned to Liverpool on 5th May 1852 with a cargo, principally of cotton, the details of which are known. “Maria 1014 (J Baines and Co) JN Forbes, from New Orleans, with 34 bls of cotton for Baring bros, 5bls cotton for RJ Rickarby, 107 bls of cotton for J and D Malcomson, 35bls of cotton 1bx pecan nuts for TM Caye, 1 chair 6 brooms, 1brl flour JN Forbes, 1csk bees’ wax 2617 bls cotton order – Brunswick Dock.” James Forbes seems to have imported some domestic items on his own account!
As part of the drive to get together a coordinated programme of shipping to take emigrants to Australia, James Baines joined with his Liverpool competitors, Pilkington and Wilson, owners of the White Star Line, to form the “New Liverpool Line of Australian Packets.” The programme was advertised, for example, in the Liverpool Mail on 15th of May, including the Maria, captained by JN Forbes, bound for Port Philip and Sydney, though without a sailing date. Maria was described as being “frigate-built” to lay claim to her being a fast sailer and Forbes was credited with “much experience in the trade”. Some advertisements mentioned vacancies for a few naval cadets. Perhaps James Baines was looking for cheap labour? These were times of rapid change and only 3 days after the advertisement of Forbes’ captaincy of the Maria to Australia, it was superseded by a further advertisement in the same paper for a vessel new to James Baines and Co, the Marco Polo, to leave for Port Philip under the captaincy of James Forbes. At the same time the Maria, also for Australia, had acquired a new master, Captain W Jackson. This latest batch of advertisements was still riding under the banner of the “New Liverpool Line of Australian Packets”.
Captain of the Marco Polo
The Marco Polo was a wooden ship built speculatively by James Smith in St John, New Brunswick. Her keel was laid down in the autumn of 1850 and she was finished in April 1851. On launching on 15th April, she touched the bank of the creek on which she was built and keeled over, ending up lying on her beam ends in the mud. It took about 2 weeks to refloat her, a bit strained but otherwise undamaged. Initial ownership of the vessel was by James Smith and his son James Thomas Smith. She departed for Liverpool on 31st May with a cargo of timber, under the command of 27 year old William Thomas of St John. She reached Liverpool in the remarkably short time of 15 days, arriving on 15th June.
Marco Polo was advertised for sale in July 1851, accompanied by a summary of her specification. By September 1851 the vessel had not found a buyer, so she was despatched to Mobile under Captain Thomas to pick up a cargo of cotton. On the return journey to Liverpool she was commanded by Captain Amos Crosby, the journey taking 35 days. She arrived back at Liverpool in early May 1852 with “1828bls cotton for Stitt, Coubrugh and Co, 500bls cotton for D Cannon Sons and Co, 100bls cotton for R Wilson, Hallett and Co 1900bls cotton order.” In February 1852, James Smith transferred his shareholding in the vessel to his son, James Thomas Smith. James Smith also travelled to Liverpool to assist in the sale of the Marco Polo on her return from Mobile. The vessel arrived in Liverpool on 5th May and before 18th May she had passed into the ownership of James Baines and his associates, the shares being distributed as follows - James Baines (24), Thomas Harrison (24) and Thomas Miller Mackay (16). James Forbes was later to acquire 8 shares in the Marco Polo. It is related by Basil Lubbock that the ship first passed into the ownership of Paddy McGee a Liverpool marine store dealer, who rapidly resold the vessel to James Baines. Direct evidence for this double transaction has not presently been uncovered, but the situation is reminiscent of the purchase of the Maria by James Baines in 1851. On that occasion James Forbes acted as immediate purchaser of the vessel, perhaps to obscure the identity of James Baines as the ultimate buyer. Did Paddy McGee act in a similar capacity on behalf of James Baines? He could not have used James Forbes for a second time, because of his role in the purchase of the Maria and the fact that Forbes was now a known employee of J Baines and Co. There could only have been a very short interval of time, a maximum of 10 days, between the first and second transactions, which suggests that the second transaction may well have been agreed in advance.
At 1622 tons register and with 3 decks, Marco Polo was far bigger than any previous vessel owned or leased by James Baines. It was at this time that the marketing arrangement with Pilkington and Wilson ended. They went their own way with the White Star line, while James Baines joined with shipbuilder, Thomas Mackay, to form the Black Ball Line of clipper ships to make fast passage to Australia and back. The first advertisement using the “Black Ball” brand appears to have been on 11th June 1852 in the Liverpool Mercury, following the purchase of the Marco Polo. James Nicol Forbes was appointed master of the Marco Polo and the vessel was scheduled to depart on 21st June. Ships’ masters were required to hold a master’s ticket from 1851 and it appears that James Forbes had to move rapidly to obtain this qualification before he departed in the Marco Polo. He applied to be examined on 9th June 1852 and passed the Ordinary Examination on 11th June. The number of his certificate, dated 26th June 1852, was 6449. At this time it was stated that he had served for 17 years at sea, but this figure appears to have been an approximation.
Marco Polo’s first journey to Australia
Marco Polo did not finally depart for Australia until 4th July 1852. Before she could sail there were substantial preparations to be completed. She had not previously sailed as a passenger vessel and bunks, tables, etc. needed to be installed at Birkenhead Dock and a contract for the transport of emigrants, then reaching record levels, had to be obtained from the Emigration Commissioners. Before departure a “dejeuner” was held on board the vessel for 80 guests of status in the Liverpool civic and business communities, provided by Mr Lynn of the Waterloo Hotel. There was much speech-making, toast-proposing and general self-congratulation. James Baines, Thomas Mackay and James Forbes all spoke. Interestingly, James Baines referred to the Marco Polo’s master as “my friend”, supporting the view that the relationship between the two had progressed beyond that of employer and employee. This friendship must have lasted at least until 1855, because in August of that year James Forbes became Godfather to one of James Baines’ daughters. Forbes spoke down the order of precedence, so he was probably fuelled by alcohol when he got to his feet. He told the knowledgeable assembly of guests that judging from her sticks and timbers she would be obliged to go and that they should not be surprised if they saw the vessel back in the Mersey 6 months hence. James Nicol Forbes clearly did not lack confidence in his own abilities.
In all 960, mostly young, passengers, including 661 Scots and 327 children, were taken on board, a very large number, even for a 1650 ton ship. On the 2nd July, while still at anchor in the Mersey, a passenger on the Marco Polo “was safely delivered of a fine child”. After 3 days at sea she had already travelled 750 miles, good going for the passage out of the channel. The ship arrived off Port Philip heads at 11am on the 18th September after 68 days at sea. This was a record and easily beat the auxiliary steamer, Australia, reckoned to be the fastest ship on the route. On 11th October, 1852 the Marco Polo began her return journey to Liverpool, continuing in an easterly direction and in a high latitudes and sighting Cape Horn on 5th November. During the return voyage she made a grand total of 939 miles in 3 days. On board Marco Polo were 50 passengers, including some who had struck lucky at the diggings. They were reputed to be carrying large sums of money, including one individual with £45,000. James Nicol Forbes also had in his keeping a 340-oz gold nugget, a gift for Queen Victoria from the Government of the new state of Victoria. Marco Polo arrived back in the Mersey on the 26th December, 1852 after 76 days at sea. The round trip, circumnavigating the globe, had taken 168 days, including the stop-over time in Australia, well inside the 6 months predicted by Forbes at the dejeuner prior to departure. Marco Polo repeated her success over the Australia, arriving before the steamer, even though she had departed 11 days earlier. It is reported that on Marco Polo’s entry to the Salthouse Dock, Forbes displayed a canvas banner proclaiming his vessel “The Fastest Ship in the World”.
James Forbes and the Marco Polo – Public recognition
By 1852 it was well known in the maritime community of Liverpool that James Forbes was an able master, with the seamanship, navigational ability and drive to get the best out of a ship and its crew. He first served as master of the Prince of Waterloo in 1846 or 1847 at the tender age of 25 or 26 and he was credited with fast passages in the Wilson Kennedy on her delivery voyage in late 1847, as well as in the Cleopatra for James Baines. He was also recognised as having made the fastest passage of the season from Cork to the USA in 1848, while captaining the Wakefield. Forbes’ experience was acknowledged in 1852 in the advertisements for passages in the Maria and the Marco Polo to Australia, “has much experience in the trade.” However, it was his record first passage to and from Australia in the Marco Polo which transformed him into a figure of national pride and public adulation. On arrival in Australia Forbes was described in the local press as follows. “…he is spoken of in high terms, both as a gentleman and a commander, by those who have had the opportunity of making his acquaintance, since he has been among us.” According to the Australia and New Zealand Gazette of Jan 1st 1853, when the Marco Polo arrived the record passage caused such a sensation that some celebrated gold-diggers brought gold nuggets on board and unhelpfully showed them to the crew. This caused a riot. Forbes’ ship was surrounded by others stranded by the desertion of their crews, intent on making their fortunes at the diggings. James Forbes then turned the commotion to his advantage. The men having disobeyed orders, he retaliated by having the whole crew arrested and imprisoned until Marco Polo was ready to sail. This prevented desertion and saved the owners a considerable amount of money and time in finding replacements for any men who might have succeeded in jumping ship.
Back in England, people travelled from miles around to see this record-breaking clipper and the press were fulsome in their praise of both ship and master, describing the passage as “unprecedented”. When it was announced that the Marco Polo would next leave for Australia in early February the press commented as follows. “As a passenger ship she stands unrivalled and her commander’s ability and kindness to his passengers are very well known” and “Though comparatively a young man, Captain Forbes’ abilities as a navigator are of the first order.”
Shortly before the departure of the Marco Polo on her second voyage to Australia in March 1853, a dejeuner was held on board the Marco Polo in Salthouse Dock to honour James Nicol Forbes for his performance in the ship on its first Australian voyage. The partners in the Black Ball Line and many leading figures from the city were present. Forbes was presented with a silver candelabra with a centrepiece in the form of a vine with bunches of grapes rising from a tripod of Acanthus. On top of the grapes were three figures of a British sailor, an officer with a sextant and a gold-digger. It bore the inscription “Presented to Captain James Nicol Forbes by the merchants of Liverpool to record their admiration of his skill as a navigator and his devoted kindness and attention to 930 passengers and the courage, energy and decision displayed by him in the management of his crew when he made the unparalleled voyage from Liverpool to Port Philip and back in 5 months, 21 days, including detention in the British ship Marco Polo.” Baines and Mackay also made a presentation to James Forbes of a large silver tray with coffee- and tea-pots, a sugar basin and a cream jug, all chased with Landseer figures of animals, designed and executed by Joseph Mayer, the leading silversmith in Liverpool. This gift and the candelabra were treasured by Forbes and, for example, were proudly displayed on his table at his birthday celebrations on the Schomberg two years later. The contribution of Marco Polo’s First Officer, Charles McDonnell, was also acknowledged by the presentation of a gold chronometer and the promise of the command of Marco Polo when James Forbes stood down as skipper.
This publicity for Forbes and the Marco Polo was used extensively to promote the Black Ball Line as the line of choice for making a fast and safe passage to Australia and its goldfields. Baines and Mackay had gambled on the Marco Polo for speed and capacity and the gamble had paid off. The Black Ball Line became the most active and famous line of clippers to the antipodes. James Forbes played his part by promoting the employment opportunities for working people risking all to travel to Australia “Captain Forbes states that his emigrants were immediately engaged at very high wages. Highland shepherds with their wives and children were readily engaged at £250 per year and upwards and single men at £60 to £70 per year. The young women were mostly fixed for life on landing and the diggers charmed with spinsters even on the shady side of 40.”
The dark side of Marco Polo’s first journey to Australia
However, all the publicity and adulation tended to mask some grim stories concerning the Marco Polo’s record voyage and its aftermath. On the journey to Australia the Marco Polo was very crowded and conditions were ideal for the spread of any infection introduced to the ship. Measles broke out and took the lives of 52 of the 327 children on board, mostly infants. Only two adults died and they were said by JM Wheeler, a 1st class passenger, to have been two women who were already ill when the journey started. This state of affairs was not confined to the Marco Polo, other Liverpool vessels also suffering high death rates. This appalling loss of life drew adverse comment from the Liverpool Daily News, which blamed the crowded conditions for the high mortality rates. However, Robert Rankin (of Rankin and Gilmour), the Chairman of the Liverpool Shipowners Association pointed out that all the vessels with high mortalities had been contracted by the Emigration Commissioners and subject to their inspections. None had carried more passengers than was allowed by statute.
A gold digger, Daniel McCarthy, who had been in Australia for 16 years, returned to England in the Marco Polo, arriving in Liverpool on Christmas Eve. He brought with him a substantial amount of gold worth about £500, which had been in the care of Captain Forbes during the journey. Forbes advised McCarthy to place his property in safekeeping on his arrival but McCarthy ignored this advice. He sold his gold for £500 and went drinking. He was befriended by John McCarthy (no relation), who proceeded to fleece him of his money. Daniel McCarthy lost every bean, but was unable to recover anything from his namesake, since he could not prove that an offence had taken place.
James Baines was concerned about the situation in Melbourne where ships were stranded for want of crews, due to defections. Between the first two antipodean voyages of the Marco Polo, he headed a delegation to meet with the Rt Hon Edward Cardell at the Board of Trade, consisting of himself, Captain Forbes and Captain Newlands, to propose a solution to the problem of stranded ships in Melbourne (there were ships valued at £4M immobilised at that port). The plan was to recruit temporary crew from amongst the Kroomen people who lived on the coast of West Africa, in what is now Ivory Coast and Liberia. These native people were used to crewing on English vessels, including Royal Navy ships and they would be returned to their homes, once the stranded vessels had been liberated. All that was required was for the Admiralty to instruct the cruisers off the west coast of Africa not to interfere. Cardell could not have been less helpful. If Baines tried to recruit crews in this way his ships would be apprehended as slave dealers. Baines was affronted by this obstructive diktat and asked to see the First Lord but that request too was brushed aside. Cardell appeared to prefer a problem to a solution!
Also between his first two voyages in the Marco Polo, James Forbes married Jane Duncan, who had been born in Glasgow. She travelled with him on his second journey to Australia in the Marco Polo. However, she did not enjoy robust health and appears not to have sailed with her husband again. This may have been “the beat of the butterfly’s wing” which contributed to the conditions leading to the loss of the Schomberg two years later.
Marco Polo’s second journey to Australia
Marco Polo began her second journey to Australia on Tuesday, 9th March 1853, when she was hauled out of Salthouse Dock at 10.30am. The Liverpool Mail reported the event in the following terms, now the norm for the famous ship and her illustrious master. “The now world famous emigrant vessel Marco Polo, Captain Forbes left the Salthouse Dock on Tuesday amidst the enthusiastic cheers of a great body of spectators, the brass band of the vessel playing. The Marco Polo will sail for Melbourne on Saturday with 700 emigrants and a large amount of specie. The Times on Tuesday says that £70,000 has been sent from London.” Before departure, the vessel had been visited by the police who arrested a passenger, Ephraim Jacobs on suspicion of burglary. They searched his box and found many types of watch there. However, the police could not prove that the watches had been stolen and had to depart from the vessel without either Jacobs or the watches. Baines and Mackay intended to ensure that the passage was both swift and trouble-free. The ship did not take on any general cargo, travelling out in ballast. Her human cargo consisted of 648 passengers and her victualling consisted of 40 tons fresh beef, 60 live pigs, 40 sheep, 100 dozen fowls, 5 dozen geese, 5 dozen turkeys, 400 barrels of flour, 600 barrels of bread, 350 tons of water. The ship’s surgeon was paid by the shipowner for the first time and the crew were paid wages of £5/month, well over the average of about £3 10s/month.
The ship got underweigh on Sunday March 13th 1853 and was towed out into the Irish Sea by the steam tug “Independence”. Baines and Miller both travelled out to sea on the Marco Polo, returning to port on the tug, along with the pilot and an Irish stowaway. James Forbes was also carrying a portrait of Marco Polo by Mr Walters, a Liverpool artist, to be presented to Melbourne Town Hall It was claimed by Basil Lubbock that Captain Forbes called the passengers together early in the voyage and addressed them with the immortal words. “Ladies and gentlemen, last trip I astonished the world with the sailing of the ship. This trip I intend to astonish God Almighty.” There appears to be no proof that Forbes actually spoke these words and it may be that this story, like so many stories about the larger-than-life James Nicol Forbes, is apocryphal. True or not, it illustrates the mystique which had come to surround this emergent maritime demi-god.
The momentum created by the Marco Polo’s record first voyage to Australia and the skilful exploitation of the performance by James Baines possibly led to a number of incidents that we would now call disinformation or “briefing against”. Their origins are unknown but disgruntled rivals may well have been the source. About the time of Marco Polo’s departure on her second Australian voyage a rumour circulated in Liverpool that the crew of the ship had deserted. This was followed by another rumour that the ship had put into Lisbon dismasted. The publication of this story in the Liverpool Courier infuriated James Baines, who placed a letter in the Liverpool Mercury castigating the editor of the Courier for not cross checking this story with an authoritative source.
The Marco Polo arrived at Hobson’s Bay, Melbourne on 29th May 1853 after a relatively fast passage of 75 days. Local newspaper, the Argus, reported that there had been no illness or injury on the journey, which was not the case, there being at least 3 deaths, a small child, a mad woman and a Jewish passenger who died while out swimming. There were also injuries, not least those inflicted by Captain Forbes under his often brutal discipline regime applied to the crew and sometimes also to the passengers. This subject will be examined in more detail in an exploration of Forbes’ personality and style of management.
On 10th June 1853, Marco Polo departed for her return to Liverpool, her master intent on making another fast passage. Things did not go according to plan. She was held up in ice in the Southern Ocean for 5 days and then becalmed on the equator for 15 days, the vessel arriving back in the Mersey on Tuesday after a voyage of 95 days. However, this was still comfortably inside 6 months for the return journey, the second time Forbes and Marco Polo had achieved this feat. There was a repeat of the shows of public adulation and crowing in the press. Captain Forbes came ashore at 1pm to a hearty welcome from assembled merchants. The Liverpool Mail described the cheering as “long and loud”. James Baines, anxious as ever to garner publicity, wrote to the Liverpool Mercury pointing out that the Marco Polo was the only ship, sail or steam, ever to complete the round trip in less than 6 months and now she had achieved that feat twice in succession. The newspapers also carried tales of people from the lower orders who had made good. Joseph Whitehead, son of a Liverpool cart owner, had returned on the Marco Polo with gold valued at £9000 that he had personally mined. A stewardess on the Marco Polo’s second voyage to Melbourne, by the name of Smith, had chosen to remain in the colony, leaving behind a husband in Liverpool. The ship’s owners, in an act of generosity (was there a publicity motive?) granted the man a free passage to join his wife but tragically he dropped dead before he could take up the offer, it was claimed in the press due to the effect of the news on his nervous system!
All these stories added to the demand for yet more passages to Australia and Baines and Mackay responded by ordering 4 large new clippers from Donald Mackay of Boston, the most celebrated builder of clippers in North America. James Nicol Forbes was now charged with superintending the finishing of the first of the Donald Mackay clippers, to be called Lightning and was appointed master. The Lightning was to be 2,200 tons register, significantly bigger than the Marco Polo. Forbes departed for Boston at the end of October 1853 on the Cunard steamer, Niagara. It was clear that both owner and master were intent on making even more ambitious passages to Australia. Command of the Marco Polo now passed to Forbes’ first mate, Charles McDonnell.
James Nicol Forbes took some letters of introduction with him to Boston but the local press in that city noted that these were hardly necessary as the “high reputation he had gained while in command of the Marco Polo had preceded him”. Apparently James Forbes made many friends in Boston, especially amongst the clergy “as he was an enthusiastic churchman”. He also became close friends with an American clipper captain, Lauchlan McKay and he agreed to accompany Forbes on the delivery voyage of the Lightning to Liverpool. The Boston Globe was enthusiastic in its praise of this charismatic Aberdonian, saying, “She (the Lightning) has a splendid set of spars, and is commanded by Captain James N Forbes, who, by his skill and perseverance, has given the full-modelled ship Marco Polo a clipper reputation, and we therefore feel assured that he will make the Lightning do her best. We have had the honour of this gentleman’s acquaintance during the time he has superintended the outfits of the ship; and at parting we can truly say that a more whole-souled, off-hand, salt-beef squire never trod a rattling. A thorough-bred sailor, a gentleman without the slightest shade of assumption and lively as the sea, he must be a great favourite with passengers. During his residence here he has made a great many friends, and no foes and now that he is about to leave we know that he will have the warmest wishes of a host of friends for his future welfare….If not overladen we confidently expect that she will prove the fastest clipper afloat.”
Lightning was launched on the 2nd January 1854 and weighed anchor on 18th February for her journey across the Atlantic. With two such experienced mariners on board, Lightning made the crossing from the Boston Light to Liverpool in the fast time of 13 days, 19 ½ hours, including one 24 hour run of 436 miles. The vessel must have been driven hard as she lost her jib and topforesail, even though these were new. The Liverpool Mercury called it an “extraordinary run”. James Nicol Forbes, probably puffed up with self-confidence as a result of the, often gushing, public recognition he was receiving took to the press on his return to refute the claim that the Red Jacket, which belonged to the Black Ball rival, the White Star Line, had made the fastest passage of the Atlantic. Captain Eldridge had claimed a crossing in 13 days, 1 hr but Forbes pointed out that the calculation was erroneous and that the true time was 14 days 8 hrs, slower not only than the Lightning but also the “Sovereign of the Seas” and the “Yorkshire”. He proudly signed his letter “James Nicol Forbes, Commander of the Lightning.”
The Lightning’s first journey to Australia
During the period of preparation for her first journey to Australia the Lightning, while at anchor in the river, suffered some damage to her main and mizzen rigging from a collision with the Bloomer. However, this was soon repaired and the Lightning departed for Australia at noon on 14th May 1854. It was the practice of the Black Ball Line to have their vessels towed out into the Irish Sea by steam tugs and the tugs would generally stay until adequate sailing conditions prevailed. On occasion this resulted in tugs not leaving until the coast of Ireland was reached. Three tugs attended the Lightning, the last one leaving her on May 16th. On this voyage James Forbes was accompanied by his 19 year old half-sister, Isabella Forbes. Landfall in Australia was made at Cape Bridgewater, 120 miles to the west of Cape Otway, which, along with King Island marked the channel that ships aimed for when approaching Melbourne from the south west and the vessel arrived in Melbourne on 31 July 1854. The arrival of Lightning at Melbourne created the now-regular storm of public excitement and interest in the ships of the Black Ball Line commanded by Captain Forbes, which were cutting the journey time with the home country and thus reducing their sense of isolation and finality often felt by emigrants. A dejeuner was held on board Lightning at anchor in Hobson’s Bay for more than 100 of the “principal ladies and gentlemen of Melbourne”. As was regularly seen with celebratory events in Liverpool, the upper echelons of the Black Ball Line knew how to influence the great and the good.
On the return journey of the Lightning to Liverpool, which began on Sunday 20th August 1854, Forbes again forced a sensational passage, arriving in Liverpool 63 days later, a record for a sailing ship which has never been bettered. The round trip had been accomplished in 161 days. When sailing, Lightning had averaged almost 300 miles per day. More than 80 passengers took the trip home on the vessel, many carrying gold with them. A further 40,000 oz of gold were on board being carried as freight. At this point James Nicol Forbes was at the pinnacle of his career, a household name, not only in Britain but in other countries too. Although the level of his remuneration is not known he had become reasonably wealthy by this time. Forbes was now paid off from the Lightning and spent much of the next year ashore, which must have been a great relief to Mrs Jane Forbes.
The Schomberg is ordered
The Black Ball Line and its most famous captain were already planning their next moves. Four giant clippers had been ordered from Donald Mackay’s shipyard in Boston. National prestige required that Britain should also be supplying such vessels. However, no British yard had yet attempted to build clippers of more than 2,000 tons. James Baines had already sought to rectify this omission by placing an order for a new clipper with the yard of Alexander Hall in Aberdeen, in late 1853 or early 1854. Halls was well-known for building China clippers such as the Stornoway, Chrysolite and Cairngorm but they were much smaller than the size required by James Baines (the Stornoway was 695 tons register), so the new ship took Halls into unfamiliar territory. The new vessel was to be called Schomberg, after Charles F Schomberg, RN, the Government Emigration Commissioner for Liverpool and a man whose good will was essential to the success of Black Ball in securing government contracts for the carriage of emigrants to Australia. But before dealing with the Schomberg it is important to examine the reasons why James Nicol Forbes had become so successful as a clipper captain.
Why was James Nicol Forbes so successful as a clipper captain?
In 1854 James Nicol Forbes was still a young man of 33, yet he was also a very experienced, deep sea sailor, having spent about 19 years in sailing ships on the world’s oceans. It is likely that from his earliest days as an apprentice seaman he had travelled to Australia before again returning to that route as skipper on the Marco Polo. Throughout his career he had experience of the timber trade with British North America, the cotton trade with the ports of the southern United States, the carriage of emigrants to the USA , trade, including the guano trade, with the ports of Chile and Peru and trade with China and the East Indies. Forbes seems to have been lithe, active and physically courageous. Even after he became a skipper he was not averse to going into the rigging to help out. For example, Mr Greenhalgh, the diarist passenger on the Marco Polo’s second voyage to Australia recorded that on one occasion when the sailors were fatigued, Forbes went aloft to help with the reefing up of sails. On another occasion on the Lightning Fenwick recorded that when the jibboom was carried over the side and with the crew exhausted Forbes jumped on to the forecastle in a moment and in another he was overboard with a rope to carry out the hazardous task of securing the dislodged item. Lubbock recorded that, also on the Lightning, it was Forbes’ habit to go out on the swinging boom when the lower stunsail was set, in order to survey the ship. From this hazardous position he could easily have been dislodged and a fall into the ocean would almost certainly have proved fatal.
Determination and risk-taking
Coupled with his skill and experience as a deep sea sailor, Forbes also possessed a determined and driven personality, to the point of taking risks which other skippers might have considered unwise, in his quest to force a quick passage. It was said of Forbes that he would allow an officer to use his own judgement in making sail, but he was not to reduce canvas except by a direct order from the skipper. Early in the voyage of the Lightning from Liverpool to Melbourne, Captain Forbes was clearly itching to get on with some serious sailing. Diarist John Fenwick recorded “Still doing about 5 knots by Thursday and the Captain says we must set every yard of canvas and if that does not make her go we must put up our shirts.” Later in the same voyage Fenwick reported that the vessel ran on one occasion at 12 to 14 knots with the lee scuppers a long way underwater and the deck at an angle of “45deg or 50deg”. The second mate was on watch at the time and remarked “Now this is what I call carrying on.” Lubbock claimed (though no source was given) that on the Lightning’s record-breaking return journey from Australia “Forbes carried on in the most daring manner…keeping station at the break of the poop with a pistol in each hand in order to prevent his scared crew from letting go the royal halliards”. This behaviour by Forbes often struck terror in the hearts of his passengers. “We ought to petition the captain to keep up less sail, for he sees very little difference between frightening a man out of his wits and killing him outright”, was the position of one of Fenwick’s panicking fellow passengers on the Lightning. Indeed on the Marco Polo some passengers did petition Forbes to reduce sail and he is reputed to have refused with the now famous, but unproven phrase, “Hell or Melbourne”. The result of this combination of skill, daring and single-minded persistence was, of course, the three remarkable return passages to Australia in the Marco Polo (twice) and the Lightning, which propelled James Forbes to the top of his profession.
The down-side of Forbes’ driven, risk-taking approach to passage-making was that, in the opinion of contemporary observers, he often took chances which exceeded the definition of calculated risk and fell into the category of hazardous behaviour. John Fenwick, the diarist on the Lightning in 1854 recorded that Forbes unnecessarily sailed close to some remote islands so that, in Fenwick’s judgement, the ship was put in danger. The colour of the sea changed from “deep blue to a fine pea green”, indicating shallow water. When Fenwick pointed this out to the captain his response was. “Oh, yes! We have seven fathoms – four will do for us!” Fenwick felt that this was cutting the margin too fine, since the ship drew 3 fathoms and there was a heavy swell running. An even more alarming situation arose on the same journey, when they were approaching the remote Kerguelen Islands at night. This incident was also recorded by Fenwick. These islands, also known as the Desolation Islands, lie to the south east of the Cape of Good Hope in latitude 49 degrees S. There is one main island, Grande Terre, surrounded by about 300 smaller islands and shoals. A passage close to Grande Terre, either to south or north, in a large sailing ship and at night would certainly have been avoided by a more conservative master but Forbes appears to have deliberately headed for the Kerguelens to confirm the accuracy of his navigation, though a good look-out was kept. About 11pm the fore top stunsail boom was carried away, so the vessel was probably being sailed hard. Immediately after this incident “Land ahead” was called, the helm put up and the ship lost speed and coasted along with the land to windward. Again the cry went out “Land ahead” and “Land on the lee bow”, then “Land ahead” and “Land on the port bow”. Forbes remained cool and gave out orders rapidly to manage the situation. Fenwick was pulling with a group of sailors who thought grounding was inevitable. Some of the crew had donned life belts, anticipating the order to abandon ship but the expected shock of a collision with the rocky coast never came. They had escaped what had seemed like a certain wrecking. This incident illustrated two key aspects of Forbes’ make-up, his risk taking, which led to the crisis in the first place, but also his coolness and quick thinking under pressure, which rescued the vessel from hazard. Near certain death, either immediately or over the coming weeks and months, would have been the fate of the crew and passengers had they gone ashore for, as Fenwick wrote “The coast was precipitous, rocky and covered with snow and the night was very dark and very cold. How few could have reached the shore, and even there how few could have survived on the desolate and barren land in the middle of winter.”
Forbes subsequently sought to justify his actions to Fenwick, saying, “Breakers on both bows and breakers under the bow – they must imagine we don’t know where we are – as if we were on an Exploring expedition – I just came from the place I steered for and if I had missed it you would have said I did not know my business.” Fenwick was unconvinced by Forbes’ claim that he was in control of the situation. “If he wilfully came through those islands on such a dark night, it was to say the least, highly imprudent; a very little mishap would have cost us all our lives – many a ship has been lost in a much better position. Except the Captain and Mate (whose real opinions we do not know), all the others thought it was a case. The probability, however, is that he merely intended to sight the land in order to confirm his position and that we were between the islands before he knew it”. Don Charlwood commented in his book “Wrecks and Reputations” that he believed that Forbes sensed that Fenwick was unconvinced by his explanation of the passage through the Kerguelens. Ten days after the incident Mr and Mrs Fenwick were invited to Forbes’ cabin to take wine and look at his charts. Forbes again indulged in self-justification. Tellingly, John Fenwick said of the visit, “He declares that he saw land on the 16th and had his sister on deck looking at it fully ¼ hour before the stunsail boom was carried away. He also knew that we would exactly go between the islands, etc, etc. Anyhow this is his proper policy to be so knowing on the subject, but I don’t doubt the less that he found himself unexpectedly between the islands.”
Another aspect of Forbes’ success as a clipper captain was his skill as a navigator, which must have started with the formal training he received as a teenager at Mr Milne’s navigation school in his native Aberdeen. Since he first became an officer on the Monarch in 1844 but especially from the time of his first command on the Prince of Waterloo in 1846 – 1847, he would have been exercising navigation techniques on a daily basis. In 1847 a seminal work on navigation using the great circle principle was published by John Towson of the Liverpool Observatory, who was the examiner for Masters’ and Mates’ certificates in that city. The shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere is a sector of a great circle, ie one which has the same dimensions as the maximum for that sphere. Although not the originator of the idea of great circle sailing, Towson was the person who promulgated the practical application of the idea, which was composite great circle sailing. Most long journeys across the world’s oceans cannot precisely follow a great circle routing because of the intervention of the continents. In those circumstances the best compromise is to follow a series of intersecting sectors of great circles to avoid land masses. Up to that time skippers had followed the advice on routing contained in Admiralty charts which were based on Mercator’s projection, which gave a false impression of the shortest route to follow between distant ports. In the case of the journey from Liverpool to Melbourne, the Admiralty route took vessels directly down the Atlantic to the latitude of Cape Town and then ran down the easting in the same latitude, ie, following a constant course. The composite great circle route, on the other hand followed a course close to the coast of Brazil before cutting past the Cape of Good Hope and running to high southern latitudes before approaching the channel between Cape Otway and King Island from the south west on the route to Melbourne. This method of navigation required the skipper to follow a constantly changing compass heading. It was also often necessary for the master to repeatedly check the accuracy of his compass due to a lack of data on magnetic variation. Interestingly, the Admiralty published John Towson’s book but did not rescind its own advice on routing. Towson’s ideas were complemented in another significant work, by Lt Matthew Fontaine Maury of the US Navy. He painstakingly recorded the winds observed in different regions of the globe, so that ships’ masters could predict the likely sailing conditions during a passage.
The first skipper to follow Towson’s principle on the journey from Britain to Australia was Captain Godfrey in the Constance in 1850, which penetrated to high southerly latitudes and completed the journey to Adelaide in a creditable 77 days. Towson and Forbes knew each other, indeed, Towson examined James Forbes for his Master’s Certificate in 1852, shortly before the departure of the Marco Polo on her first Australian passage. Forbes was convinced by Towson’s ideas and implemented them on that first Australian journey in the Marco Polo, becoming the first clipper captain to do so. It is reported by Michael Stammers in “The Passage Makers” that Towson actually marked the route to Australia on a chart for Forbes before his departure, which, given their then recent meeting, seems credible.
As recorded earlier, on his return to Liverpool after his first record-making passage to Australia in the Marco Polo, James Forbes’ achievements were lauded at a testimonial presentation by the great and good of Liverpool. Forbes acknowledged his debt to John Towson by proposing a toast to him as the author of the system of great circle navigation and acknowledging the benefit he had received from Towson’s instructions. In reply, Towson spoke of Forbes’ genius. Later, in an 1854 article in Mercantile Marine Magazine and Nautical Record, John Towson wrote “In the first voyage home of the Marco Polo, I was struck in examining her chart and log, with the great amount of nautical skill displayed by her commander, especially in that part of the route which extended from 100W to the south-east trades. In this part of her route, if a line could have been stretched over the surface of the earth I do not believe the Marco Polo deviated five miles from the line in a run of 3,000 miles; and this feat of seamanship and navigation was accomplished under circumstances requiring every attention and an extraordinary amount of skill. We have no variation charts for these latitudes, and the variation changes rapidly; and, consequently, the mariner must be constantly observing to correct his compass”. Towson recognised what an unusually gifted skipper Forbes was to be able to comply with the constantly changing demands of great circle sailing over such long periods of time in the challenging wind and water conditions of the Southern Ocean. The two men, one the theoretician, the other the practical navigator, clearly held a deep respect for each other. In 1854 a public subscription for a testimonial to be presented to John Towson, for his work on great circle navigation, was launched and James Forbes made a donation of £20.
In May 1854, early in the journey of the Lightning to Australia, Fenwick the diarist recorded that he had a chat with the captain who revealed that he intended to travel as far south as latitude 55 degrees. He justified this strategy on the grounds that it would be very cold but that they would experience a far drier climate and more favourable winds than in 45 degrees south, “where many go”. He omitted to mention that the shortest routing required this plunge to the south. Later in the journey Fenwick reported, “There are two statements of latitude, 39S and 49S. We are kept in the dark for some reason or other.” It appears that Forbes did not want the passengers to know how far south they had travelled, since they might become alarmed by the thought of the risks involved – stronger winds, mountainous seas, intense cold and the risk of collision with icebergs.
The job of a seaman in the days of sail was both difficult and dangerous and the risks were multiplied on journeys thousands of miles from land in the stormy southern ocean. The loss of seamen overboard was not unusual and even accepted as the price to be paid for this mode of transport. Risks were multiplied yet again by a master who drove his ship to the limit of its capabilities and occasionally beyond, for days and weeks at a time. Controlling crews under such adverse circumstances was a difficult task. James Forbes’ approach to ensuring crew compliance with the orders of the master and his officers was essentially one of applying a brutal and unrelenting system of punishment. He was not alone in his approach, harsh punishment being the tool of choice elsewhere in the mercantile marine and in the Royal Navy. Only occasionally did Forbes show consideration towards his crews, for example helping aloft or ordering grog for them when they were exhausted. It is also worth recording that Forbes applied a similar disciplinary principle to passengers, especially those from the lower orders, who stepped out of line. After moving to Liverpool, Forbes was known by the sobriquet “Aberdeen” Forbes but this was subsequently replaced by “Bully” Forbes as his reputation for brutality spread.
Knowledge of Forbes’ behaviour is derived mostly from the observations of passengers who kept diaries, particularly Greenhalgh on Marco Polo’s second voyage, Fenwick on Lightning and Hoskins on Schomberg. Their observations are consistent with each other and almost certainly paint an accurate picture of this complex man. When a member of the crew transgressed in some way, or a situation irked him, Forbes typically flew into a rage and often attacked a miscreant physically. In March 1853 Greenhalgh observed an unpleasant incident. “Captain came round in the evening to see the lights out, caught one of the stewards carrying a bottle of spirits for some passengers on deck after hours, for which the captain got enraged, struck him several times and afterwards abused him shamefully by striking him with a large glass ship lamp cutting his face in several places, breaking his nose and giving him a pair of black eyes. I can assure you he was a nice spectacle the next morning was laid up and unable to fill his office for some time, he intends to bring the captain before the authorities in Melbourne for his brutal treatment, the spirits was not for himself but volunteered to fetch it for the passengers it is the opinion that the captain was very much in wrong.” Two months later on the same voyage, Greenhalgh was witness to a further incident. “One of the sailors put in irons was so starved and frozen that he could not move his hands. The Mate afterwards struck him and jumped upon him. He was put in irons on the quarterdeck for refusing to get up for his watch at 4am. He was pulled out of his berth and put in irons until 8am. He was completely frozen and cried like a child. The Captain asked him if he would submit but he would not answer. He ordered him to be taken below and remain in irons and fed on bread and water. The poor fellow will be starved to death. It was very hard treatment.” The weather too could trigger rage in Forbes. In late May, 1853, Greenhalgh was again the observer. “White squall sprang up in a moment, causing chaos. The Captain in a frightful rage, cursing and swearing at the sailors.” A year later on the Lightning, Fenwick recorded, “… the 1st cook caused a row because the crew could not get their tea and remonstrated with the cook. In turn he threw hot water at them (he was drunk and had been drunk since the ship departed, partly due to passengers plying him with drink to obtain favours). One of the crew attacked him and blacked his eyes when the officers intervened and were bringing the cook aft when the Captain saw him near the main hatch. He sprang off the poop and seized the cook like a terrier, he dragged him into the saloon as if he had been a child. The man was put in irons, hands and feet”.
Forbes’ approach to discipline appeared to have been copied by his officers, though, on occasion, they appeared to lack his zeal and consistency in carrying through their threats. On the Lightning, one of Fenwick’s neighbours was showing off his pistol on deck when it was snatched by the purser who further demanded that he also give up his powder and ammunition, which the gun owner refused to do. The purser then went between decks and insisted that all arms be given up and again the passengers failed to comply with his order. The purser then recruited the First Mate, “Bully” Bragg, and about half a dozen men to shore up his status, with Bragg threatening irons for non-compliance. However, this threat was not enforced and the matter dropped. Later in the same voyage, the unloved “Bully” Bragg showed his true colours. He had a penchant for picking on quiet or sick passengers and on 17th June was collaring and cuffing passengers off the poop deck, whom he felt had no right to be there. He tried this manouevre with John Fenwick who treated him with contempt. In response, Bragg threatened him with violence if he went on the poop again. Fenwick deliberately mounted the poop the same evening. Bragg saw him but ignored his presence.
On occasion, passengers fared only a little better than the crew in their dealings with Captain Forbes, though the threats of retribution were not always followed by implementation. Again from Greenhalgh’s diary. “One of first cabin passengers put in irons in a state of intoxication also used indifferent language to the first Mate.” And in May 1853, “3rd cabin passenger made a public demonstration about the poor quality of food, which annoyed the Captain who threatened to put the man in irons if he ever took such a liberty again.” And Greenhalgh on 17th March, 1853, “9.30pm the captain came to see lights extinguished, made several complaints, spoke his mind pretty freely, did not forget to say who he was, ordered no card playing after 8pm and swore he would put the first man in irons that disobeyed his orders…”
Luck – in the right place at the right time
In addition to his extensive sailing experience, his navigation skills and his extreme disciplinary regime, it has also to be remembered that Forbes was fortunate to be in the right place (Liverpool) at the right time (the start of the 1850s and the boom in demand for fast passages to Australia). He was also fortunate to be employed by James Baines and Co, who took commercial risks to obtain the biggest and fastest ships available and who also blatantly publicised their successes, including those of vessels captained by James Forbes, to enhance their commercial interests.
James Forbes’ complex, volatile personality
Forbes clearly had a volatile personality and would rapidly fly into a rage when provoked. However, other incidents than those recorded above suggest that Forbes could also be charming and very agreeable company, especially when dealing with those he considered his social equals. On board ship in the middle of the 19th century there was a marked social stratification, which reflected that obtaining in Britain at the time. The 1st class passengers and the master, the officers and the surgeon were placed at the top end of the hierarchy while the steerage passengers and the seamen were at the bottom end. In May 1854, Fenwick opined “After tea had a chat with the Captain who, by the bye is the civilest man on the ship.” On the Lightning’s outward journey, Greenhalgh recorded that “Several of the 1st Cabin passengers went out to bathe (ship was making little progress) and the captain also with them". Captain Forbes also found himself the object of female admiration. Lubbock records that on the return journey of the Lightning, “Forbes was presented with a handsome silver goblet by the lady passengers.” This was probably due to a combination of his charm and his towering public status. When Forbes was sent to Boston to oversee the fit-out of the Lightning he made many friends, “especially amongst the clergy as he was an enthusiastic churchman” and it also appears to have been through ecclesiastical activities that he became friends with Captain Lauchlan Mackay, who sailed back to Liverpool with him on the Lightning.
Forbes enjoyed alcohol but his attitude to others who indulged themselves was anything but tolerant. Again, Greenhalgh is the main source of information on this issue. 22nd April 1853. “A man put in irons for insulting the first mate and being drunk and was put in irons for several days fed upon bread and water. He would not be silent and the Captain was determined not to have his noise, ordered him to be gagged which consisted of a piece of rusty iron placed in his mouth and tied behind his head, a very painful operation which soon fetched blood. He was in this state for one hour and then allowed to have it out. He took care to be quiet enough afterwards”. 23rd April 1853. “The captain ordered no more spirits to be sold owing to so much dissipation”. 16th May 1853. “The Baker and First Cook put in irons for being drunk”. 27th May 1853. “Chief Steward put in irons for being drunk and disorderly”. On the other hand, Forbes became loquacious and even boastful when fuelled by alcohol. For example, at his testimonial lunch after the completion of the first Marco Polo voyage, he is reported to have said that on his last voyage he had done his best and he could not say he would do the same again, but if he did he would do it in a shorter time! He certainly regarded alcohol as a way of alleviating discomfort and suffering. In all his ships he would send down bottles of spirits to passengers who had suffered a soaked berth. At Forbes’ birthday celebrations on the Schomberg, he and most of the saloon gentlemen indulged in a long drinking session which appears to have given the captain a bad hangover, as reported by Hopkins, the Schomberg diarist.
John Fenwick, the Lightning diarist, observed Forbes particularly closely and noted Forbes’ adhesion to an old seafarer’s superstition. “It is amusing to watch his anxious watchfulness – every step or two he looks up at the sails and whistles for a wind. Then he orders a pull at this and a stretch at that. But to see him seriously whistling – that’s a joke.” Greenhalgh, the Marco Polo diarist, was unimpressed by Forbes’ honesty. Apparently when passengers were booking their tickets to Australia they were told that the price was the same if they wished to travel on to Melbourne from Port Philip, the destination of the ship but during the voyage Forbes informed them that onward travel would actually cost 10/- , which they must pay to him. They were left with no alternative but to pay up, as the cost of making alternative arrangements was even greater. Consistent with Forbes’ penchant for risk-taking was his enthusiasm for gambling. In June 1854, during the Lightning’s voyage out to Australia, she came upon another ship which looked like the Red Jacket, the clipper belonging to Black Ball rival, the White Star Line. Forbes offered to bet anyone £50 that it was the Red Jacket, but no one took him on. It turned out not to be the Red Jacket! On the Schomberg there was a rumour amongst the passengers that Forbes had laid a wager of more than £1000 on making a record passage in that ship. If so, that bet too was lost but in tragic circumstances.
How James Forbes became captain of the Schomberg
In late 1853 or early in 1854, James Baines and Co had ordered a new clipper, to be called the Schomberg, from the shipyard of Alexander Hall in Aberdeen, to engage in the carriage of emigrants to Australia. From as early as 24th February 1854 the Schomberg was slated in Black Ball advertisements, though initially without a sailing date. At that stage Schomberg’s master was named as Captain William Henry Duguid, who had just joined the Black Ball line. However, in February 1854, a crisis befell the Black Ball clipper Conway when she put into Greenock with storm damage and an outbreak of cholera amongst passengers and crew. (A full account of the incident will be found in the article “Biography of Clipper Ship Conway (1851 – 1874)” on this site). Her master, Captain Liston was dismissed from his post for not informing the competent authorities about the cholera outbreak at the earliest possible opportunity and James Baines delegated Captain Duguid to resolve the crisis and take the Conway on to Australia. The consequence was that the Schomberg now lacked a master, though she would not be ready to sail for many months. Although Duguid was still named as master of the Schomberg in advertisements until as late as 28th June 1854, it would have been clear to James Baines from the middle of February of that year that he would need to find a new master for the new ship. James Nicol Forbes was at that time in Boston supervising the fit-out of the Lightning. He then sailed for Australia in that vessel, leaving Liverpool on 14th May 1854. It was a fast passage and the return journey of 63 days was a record. Forbes probably expected to remain in command of that superb vessel. However, Forbes was clearly the best qualified candidate to skipper the new vessel, in which so much national prestige had been invested and he was nominated as Schomberg’s replacement master, probably immediately after his return in the Lightning, his name appearing in advertisements as captain of the Schomberg from November 1854. This may have been a fateful turn of events, given that Duguid’s style and conduct were totally different from those of Forbes. Duguid, a steady individual, never broke a record for a fast passage and the only vessels lost under his command (Solway and Juliet) were due to extreme weather conditions.
The construction and launch of the Schomberg
At 2600 tons, the Schomberg was the largest sailing ship ever constructed in Britain, when she was completed. She was also the largest such British-registered vessel, being about 12 tons heavier than the Donald McKay from the shipyard in Boston of the celebrated American designer of the same name. Fully loaded Schomberg was expected to weigh 3500 to 4000 tons. She had 3 masts, 3 decks, a poop and a forecastle and was fitted out for the carriage of up to 1000 passengers. Although Alexander Hall was famous for the sailing qualities of its clippers, built at the Footdee shipyard, being much smaller, they were not as fast as the big American and Canadian vessels. Halls’ ships did have a characteristic “Aberdeen clipper-build” and this shape was repeated in the Schomberg. However, the overall hull design may have been copied from McKay. The most unusual feature of the Schomberg was the system of diagonal planking used to form the hull, another Alexander Hall innovation. There were 4 layers of larch, two placed diagonally, one vertically and one horizontally and the outside skin was of pitch pine, also placed horizontally. The wooden layers were separated by felt and Archangel tar, the whole being held together with African oak trenails (large wooden screws). Schomberg could carry 16,000 sq yds of canvas.
The construction of this vessel was seen as a very important local event in Aberdeen and the Scottish and Aberdeen connections were lauded by the Aberdeen Journal. Designed in Aberdeen, built in Aberdeen and commanded by an Aberdonian, who was the most celebrated clipper captain of the age. The larch planking was grown in Aberdeenshire and even the celebrated rival American ship designer, Donald McKay, hailed from Nairn, not far to the north west. The original date set for the launch of the Schomberg was 20th March 1855 but notices were placed in the local paper postponing the event to 5th April at the request of the owners. This appeared to have been done in order to accommodate Mr Austin Layard the Member pf Parliament for Aylebury and a friend of Thomas Mackay, one of Schomberg’s part-owners, who was asked to perform the launching ceremony. Layard had been elected Lord Rector of Marischal College, one of Aberdeen’s two universities, by a large majority of the students and was in the city to be installed. On the appointed day a crowd estimated at 20,000 gathered to watch the launch, the largest such gathering for 50 years. At ten minutes to 2pm the ship slipped into the water and 20 minutes later she had been moved to the Victoria Dock. Because she had been built under cover she had neither masts nor rigging. A gang of 70 Liverpool riggers was brought to Aberdeen to finish the ship’s topsides and then sail her to Liverpool.
Only VIPs were allowed into the shipyard for the launch and afterwards they were entertained to a banquet, described by the Aberdeen Journal as follows. “..it was one of the finest things of the kind we have ever been present at – wines, fruits, and cake of every description, crowding the table in the richest luxuriance”. The event was chaired by Mr James Hall, son of the shipyard’s founder and the top table was populated by the great and good of Aberdeen, along with Mackay and Harrison, representing the owners, Captain Forbes and, of course, Mr Layard. As was typical of such events there was much speech-making and toasting “pledged in flowing bumpers”. The conditions were right for Forbes to be induced to make a prediction of a fast passage. Mr Mackay for the owners proposed a cheer for Captain Forbes and called for “a voyage of 60 days and Forbes the fastest man of the age”. Forbes could not resist. He said his last ship had gone like lightning but proposed to make Schomberg go like greased lightning. However, James Hall warned, with some prescience, that while all parties had done their best, nothing had yet been achieved. “My experience in such matters leads me, when things have gone on for a long while smoothly, to look out for squalls.” Had Forbes heard and heeded this advice, he might have proceeded more cannily, to use a Doric word.
A fine photograph exists of the Schomberg fitting out at Waterloo Quay in the Victoria Dock, Aberdeen (see p 408 of “The Passage Makers”), with her bow pointing east towards the harbour entrance. This location is very close to the site of Hall’s shipyard in York Street, Footdee, as can be seen from the characteristic tower of St Clement’s (East) Church, which lies in St Clement Street.
Schomberg sails for Liverpool
By Saturday, 30th June, 1855, Schomberg was ready to start her voyage to Liverpool. At 1pm, which was an hour before high water, she slipped her moorings and was towed towards the harbour entrance by two tugs. Cannons were fired and a throng of spectators cheered with pride as this largest of ships moved off. Even though she was only ballasted with 1700 tons and drew a mere 17ft, there was barely enough water to float Schomberg. Her progress was slow due to her brushing the harbour bottom from time to time, even though a channel had been dredged to accommodate her. But about a length from the pier head she became stuck and could not proceed. At low water she keeled over at a considerable angle but was not damaged as the sea state was calm. One hundred and fifty tons of ballast were then removed and Schomberg was refloated about 1 ½ hours before the next high water. She was towed out to sea between midnight and 1am, still with many spectators present to watch her go. In that part of Scotland day length in mid-summer is very extensive and the nights are not very dark.
James Forbes must have been relieved to get away, especially since there was a party of VIPs on board, lady and gentleman friends and relatives of Mackay and Harrison. Forbes proceeded north about on his way to Schomberg’s home port of Liverpool, taking a route between the Shetland Islands and the mainland of the north of Scotland and then turning southwards through the Minches which separate the Outer Hebrides from the Inner Hebrides and the west coast mainland. The ship was crewed by the gang of Liverpool riggers. It took a frustrating 10 days to complete the journey to Liverpool. On 4 days the ship was becalmed and a party was able to land on South Uist, one of the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. Forbes accompanied the party and demonstrated his athleticism by running down a sheep. On only one occasion did wind conditions allow some serious sailing with the vessel achieving 12 knots, though she was close-hauled to the wind. Schomberg was picked up by a steam tug off Port Lynas, Anglesey, on Wednesday 11th July and towed into the Mersey at about 10am. By evening she was moored in the Sandon Dock.
Schomberg prepares to leave for Australia
The monthly Black Ball packet for Australia usually left Liverpool on the 5th of the month, or thereby. Schomberg was initially slated for the September 1855 sailing, but was then put back to October. In the Sandon Dock the Schomberg was loaded with 3000 tons of cargo, mainly iron rails and equipment for the construction of a bridge over the Yarra river in Melbourne. Eventually she also carried 31,800 newspapers and 17,093 letters. Her human cargo was limited to 430 souls, due to the large cargo, including 54 1st class passengers. Many of the elite passengers were returning, successful colonialists. Schomberg also carried sufficient provisions for both the outward and the return journeys, due to the difficulty of obtaining supplies of an adequate quality in Melbourne. Perhaps James Baines and James Forbes were also anticipating making a quick turn-around in pursuit of another record passage. When fully loaded Schomberg drew 21ft 6in forward and 24ft 6in aft.
According to Lubbock, Schomberg was hauled through the pierheads “amidst the cheers of a patriotic crowd of sightseers with the boast “Sixty days to Melbourne” flying from her signal halliards” on a Saturday, presumably Saturday 29th September. She then lay in the river off Prince’s Pier, while passengers were loaded and final batches of mail taken on board. The Liverpool Mail pronounced. “While in the river her splendid appearance has excited the eulogies of our numerous connoisseurs in marine architecture and we can only hope that under the care of her clever commander she will make the most rapid and pleasant run to the antipodes ever recorded.”
The lithograph of the Schomberg, alluded to at the start of this story, was crafted by TC Dutton, from a painting by GH Andrew. It is dated 8th October 1855, 2 days after the Schomberg sailed. According to Michael Stammers, this portrays the Schomberg leaving Aberdeen but this is clearly not true, as anyone familiar with Aberdeen harbour will quickly testify. It is actually Schomberg in the River Mersey, at some stage during the week before her departure early on Saturday 6th October 1855. The steam tug Samson, which was Liverpool-based, is seen lying alongside her. As noted in the paragraph above, Schomberg is alleged to have flown signal flags boasting “Sixty Days to Australia” and a string of such flags is clearly visible in the Dutton lithograph. However, this string of flags, though difficult to interpret, does not say “Sixty Days to Australia”. The flag sequence is shown in the accompanying photograph and consists of 1. 4 x 4 alternating yellow and blue squares, with the upper right (next to the halyard) blue. 2. Red with v-shaped cut out at the free end. 3. Blue square inside a white background. 4. 2 x 2 alternating yellow and blue squares, with the upper right (next to the halyard) blue. 5. Triangular flag split into 3 sectors in the sequence, top to bottom blue – white – red. The three coloured sectors are themselves triangular with the apices converging at the free end of the flag.
The signal code in use at the time would probably have been that due to Captain Frederick Marryat, devised in 1817 but in widespread use throughout the 19th century. The first (ie top) flag does not correspond to any in the Marryat code, the next 3 flags correspond exactly to the numerals 5,1,9 and the final flag, like the first, does not match any of the Marryat flags. The first flag, while not exactly a Marryat flag is similar to the rendezvous flag, which has white squares where the Schomberg flag has yellow ones. I am indebted to Chris Jones, Marine Historian, for the above introduction to the Marryat flag code. If the top flag is meant to be the rendezvous flag, then the wrong colour might have arisen at the hands of either the artist or the lithographer. However, Rendezvous 519 is the code for Messker in Russia, which does not make sense. But if the 5th and final flag has also been inadvertently altered by the artist or lithographer, what might its true identity be? It actually looks close to the flag for number 6. Six should be (top to bottom) blue, yellow, red, with the yellow sector having parallel sides, not converging ones. Rendezvous 5196 is the code for Port Phillip, the bay on which Melbourne stands and the destination of the Schomberg! This explanation for the Schomberg’s signal flags looks persuasive and calls into question the alleged message being displayed when the ship entered the river a few days earlier. Perhaps the signal flags were changed though there would have been little reason to do so.
Schomberg was unable to leave on schedule on 5th October due to there being insufficient water in the river. Mr Buck of the Liverpool Seamen’s and Emigrants’ Friend Society and Bethel Union conducted the final religious service on board the Schomberg on the evening of Friday 5th October. Captain Forbes and his wife and some friends were also on board. The last mails were brought out by steamer, possibly the Samson, at 9pm. Buck records “Commodore Forbes, commander of the ship, and his lady, and other friends, with myself, entered the steamer, and, as we pushed off three loud cheers broke forth from the noble vessel….” It appears that Forbes spent the night of 5th October at home returning very early the following morning. Schomberg’s anchor was weighed about 6am and by 8am the ship was out of the Mersey. Her maiden voyage to Australia had begun.
Since 1849, when he first captained a vessel, the Cleopatra, for James Baines, James Nicol Forbes’ fortunes had been on an upward slope and the gradient of that slope steepened when he achieved command of first the Marco Polo, then the Lightning and now the Schomberg, the biggest clipper ever built in Britain and possibly in the world. He had achieved many fast passages with his brand of tireless, aggressive sailing, navigation technique and brutal and unrelenting discipline. He was lauded everywhere he went, he had boasted about his future achievements and he had delivered on his predictions. He seemed unstoppable and had probably begun to believe in the inevitability of his own future success. On this maiden voyage in the Schomberg he had been set and readily accepted a target of 60 days to reach Australia, 3 days faster than his record return voyage in the Lightning. But not every passage he had made was in a record, or near record, time. The outward journey to Australia in the Lightning, at 77 days was good but not exceptional. He should have reflected that even the most skilled master also needs luck with sailing conditions, by injecting some qualification into his boasts. Bad luck occasionally disrupts the most carefully laid schedule. So it was on Schomberg’s maiden voyage to Australia.
Schomberg’s voyage to Australia begins
In Forbes’ own words, “…in the early part of the voyage met with light baffling winds, the equator not being crossed until the 28th day after sailing, and a detention of ten days from calms marking the crossing of the Line. From the equator to the meridian of Greenwich the ship met with light baffling and contrary winds which protracted the voyage to fifty five days from our departure from Liverpool, - the distance ordinarily occupying not more than thirty eight days”. Remarkably, given the poor sailing conditions, Schomberg managed to lose her main top mast on 16th October. This was not replaced for 4 days and Forbes claimed that this slowed the vessel by 10 knots. Long before he was heading for high latitudes and their strong westerlies in the southern ocean, Forbes already knew that he had no chance of reaching Melbourne in 60 days. He was about 17 days behind schedule when he actually needed to be ahead. His image as an inevitable record-maker was bound to suffer. Forbes would not have been aware, but Black Ball advertisements had already started to appear slating Schomberg for the regular run to Australia on 5th June 1856.
During a period of calm on the run down the Atlantic, Schomberg encountered the tea clipper Vision, commanded by an old friend of James Forbes, Captain Douglas, on her way to Liverpool. She too was an Alexander Hall-built ship and had similar planking to the Schomberg. Forbes set out in a boat with some of his 1st class passengers to visit the Vision and the boat later returned with both Douglas and Forbes, who dined together before the Schomberg’s band struck up and dancing followed on the poop deck, in which both masters participated. About 6pm another boat travelled over to Vision with gifts of a pig, some chickens and a bag of potatoes. Vision took letters from Schomberg for posting in Liverpool and the two vessels parted. This meeting is beautifully portrayed in a line drawing inside the front cover of “The Passage Makers”.
Schomberg is wrecked
From the Greenwich meridian to 130 degrees east, Schomberg enjoyed good sailing conditions. The ship averaged 6 degrees of easting per day and on one occasion achieved a speed of 15 ½ knots. During this long run in the southern ocean Schomberg passed within 1 ½ miles of the high cliffs of the Kerguelens (Desolation Island). Clearly Forbes was following a similar track to that he had taken in the Lightning. However, this good run came to an end on 22nd December when adverse winds from east to south east started to blow and continued for the next 4 days, requiring frequent tacking in order to make progress. The land of Australia was first sighted on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, in the region of Cape Bridgewater, which lies about 80 miles west of Cape Otway. However, on 26th December at about 11pm in the evening the vessel found herself too close to land and went ashore. Hopes of re-floating her were soon dashed, as a gale developed over the next few days. In any case the tidal range is small, only about 1 ½ ft, along the Victoria coast, so waiting for high tide would have been of little benefit in re-floating the ship. How and why the Schomberg was wrecked will be explored in detail below.
At the time after the vessel struck there seems to have been a degree of panic amongst the passengers and some of them crowded round the captain demanding that he lower the lifeboats. However, the Schomberg had grounded on a part of the coast which was very rocky and it was not then obvious that lifeboats could get safely to shore at night and with a heavy sea running. Mr Millar, a passenger, approached the captain and volunteered with Mr Dixon, another passenger, to take a small boat and explore the adjacent coast to find if there was a safe spot on which to land the passengers, there being no immediate danger to the ship or its inhabitants. He asked for two good sailors to row with them. Curiously, Forbes accepted the offer, when one would have expected him to put one of his officers in command. Perhaps Forbes was distracted by the enormity of the crisis that he faced? The boat was lowered over the side and the oars were passed down to Millar and his crew. Unfortunately, one oar got caught under the ship’s timbers and as a wave lifted his dingy, the oar punched a hole in it. Millar and his crew managed to extract the oar but this caused the boat to start filling with water. Millar was equal to the occasion and plugged the leak successfully with a handkerchief. The dingy then rowed off on its mission. Millar’s survey showed that the Schomberg proved to have had an immense piece of good fortune, because she had been immobilised near to the only stretch of sandy beach along that part of the coast. A strong sea was still running and Millar judged that the repeated waves, with heavy back-surge, would present a substantial risk of swamping if the lifeboats attempted to land. Millar and his crew then returned to the Schomberg to report their findings to Captain Forbes. He urged Forbes to wait until morning when it would be low water and this was agreed. Millar's dingy then pushed off again and they resumed their observations, hoping for a suitable window of opportunity to land the passengers.
It was not long before Millar returned to the Schomberg, because some of his crew thought they has spotted the faint beam of a lighthouse on a dark headland. Forbes ordered rockets to be sent off and signal guns to be fired, in the hope of attracting attention to their plight. But they had been clutching at straws, since the light proved to be a star. About 3.30am on 27th December the steamer Queen, on passage from Port Phillip to Portland, saw the blue lights, a distress signal, on the Schomberg and changed course to close with her. A little later the smoke from the steamer was seen on the stricken vessel and judged to be about 10 miles away. Forbes ordered more rockets, signal guns, blue lights and distress flags to attract the attention of the steamer. Mr Lawrie, the Second Mate, was ordered by Forbes to pick a crew to row out to the steamer and inform her master of their predicament. Meanwhile, Millar and his crew had also seen the steamer and returned to the Schomberg, arriving some time after Lawrie’s boat had left. Millar suggested that Forbes’ presence might be needed on the steamer and proposed rowing him out to the vessel. Forbes agreed and slid down a rope from the stern of the Schomberg into Millar’s boat. By this time the lifeboat under the command of Lawrie returned to the ship and as Millar’s crew were by now exhausted, Forbes made a risky transfer between boats at sea to continue his journey. The Queen arrived off the Schomberg before 5am but could not go alongside, due to the sea state. She anchored 2 cables’ length from the stranded vessel. Captain Doran, with the agreement of his passengers, offered to take on board as many passengers as possible and to interrupt his journey to Portland in order to deliver the Schomberg passengers to Port Phillip.
Schomberg’s passengers are rescued
About 5am, when there was sufficient light (it was mid-summer) the transfer of passengers began and was completed without mishap 6 to 7 hours later. The passengers were transferred in the ship’s boats and it was necessary to impose some order on the situation to ensure that the most vulnerable departed first, Millar again playing a prominent role. The passengers were told to leave behind all of their luggage, though not everyone did so. Forbes also sent the ship’s surgeon, Dr Samuel William Hardy, to alert Schomberg’s agent in Melbourne, Mackay, Baines and Co and to mobilise help. At 12 noon on December 27th the Queen, heavily overloaded with most of the Schomberg’s passengers and the mail, departed for Port Phillip, passing the heads early Friday morning and arriving at the Railway Quay at Hobson’s Bay about 6.30 am. Those passengers who required assistance were accommodated in the Immigrants’ Depot in King Street. The Hobson’s Bay Railway Company helpfully organised a train to take passengers on to Melbourne.
The struggle to save the Schomberg and her cargo
Some volunteer passengers, about 7 in number including Millar and the crew remained on board the Schomberg. On Thursday afternoon, 27th December, another steamer, the Champion, under Captain Helpman, arrived off the Schomberg and took on board her remaining passengers. She departed about 11pm in the evening. One hundred and six crew members remained on the Schomberg. During the evening of Thursday 27th December about 40 of the crew under Boatswain Hodges went ashore, erected a hut and established a temporary base. They were reported to have taken their personal effects as well as some provisions. Some of the land party may have helped themselves to drink from the provisions. The behaviour of the crew on shore was represented in some newspapers to have been either a mutiny or at least a refusal of orders, claiming that Hodges and his colleagues declined to return to the ship when ordered to do so, judging it to be unsafe. However, Hodges subsequently refuted this suggestion, saying that they had obeyed instructions and did return to the ship when ordered to do so. When the steamer Burra Burra visited the Schomberg the following day, Friday, 28th December, her captain. James Lawrence, reported that at midday all hands were on board and doing their duty. Certainly no charges were levelled against the shore party when they were within the jurisdiction of the civil authorities. Refusal of orders by crew members was a serious offence which was not tolerated by ships’ masters. Forbes would surely have taken action had such a transgression occurred. However, in a letter from James Nicol Forbes published in the Argus on 4th January 1856, he wrote” I have much pleasure in acknowledging that the greater number of seamen showed themselves possessed of the true qualities of British tars in as trying circumstances as ever sailors were placed”, which perhaps suggests that some did not behave well. The remainder of the crew, including Forbes and his officers continued their occupation of the ship, though conditions were deteriorating and it was reported that the hold was flooded to a depth of 12 ft.
On Friday 28th December further assistance arrived, some by chance, some planned. The Melbourne Argus reported that the schooner Jane Elizabeth sighted the Schomberg about 10am and was alongside by 12 noon. (It would have been impossible for the schooner to go along side, so any transfers which took place must have been by boat). The Jane Elizabeth brought away 220 packages of passengers’ luggage and arrived at Port Phillip Heads on Saturday, December 29th. The state of the Schomberg on Friday, 28th December, had deteriorated since the previous day, with the stern post now split and 15 ft of water in her hold. A steamer, the Burra Burra under Captain James Lawrence, was on passage from Melbourne to Adelaide and called in on the Schomberg on Friday, to see if they could render any assistance. Lawrence found the Schomberg stuck on sand but, in his opinion, she had previously struck rocks. At that time Schomberg had 16ft of water in her hold. He spoke to Captain Forbes who gave him an account of the wrecking, perhaps the first record of Forbes’ explanation of the ship’s loss. Two steamers, the Marion and the Keera were chartered by Mackay, Baines and Co and departed for the wreck site on Friday 28th with Mr Murphy, a representative of the firm, a stevedore and 20 men to take off passengers’ luggage. Captain Kerr, Mr Shillinglaw and six water police also went down in the Keera and Captain Matthews, the Lloyds Agent at Melbourne, was on board too. They reached the wreck the following day, Saturday, 29th and Captain Matthews went on board to talk to Captain Forbes, where he remained overnight. At the request of Captain Matthews, the Keera stood off the Schomberg overnight before returning to Port Phillip the following day, Sunday, 30th December, where she arrived about 5.30pm with the luggage and valuable parts of Schomberg’s cargo.
About Friday 28th December, Forbes ordered that the fore- and main masts to be cut away to relieve the strain on the hull of the continual battering by the seas which caused the vessel to roll violently. Waves were breaking right over the vessel. The mizzen mast was subsequently cut away but it was clear that by now the Schomberg was a lost cause. On Sunday, 30th, conditions remained bad and the decision was taken to abandon ship. The following day, Monday 31st December, Captain Forbes, Captain Matthews and Mr Murphy visited the wreck for the last time but conditions were too dangerous for them to remain and they were taken off in the ship’s boats. The Keera then returned to Melbourne with Captain Forbes, Captain Ferguson and several Custom House and Water Police officials on board, arriving on the 1st January of the New Year.
The steamer Marion under Captain McEwan arrived off the wreck, expecting to evacuate the Schomberg’s crew but could not get alongside and returned to Port Phillip. Mr Murphy, Mr Guthrie, 3 customs officers, 5 water police, the officers and crew of Schomberg and the stevedore and 20 hands went on shore, though the landing from the ship’s boats was difficult due to the heavy surf and rocks. They erected tents on the beach and took charge of salvageable property as it washed up on shore from the vessel progressively breaking up. A detachment of mounted police was assigned the task of keeping away looters, many such people having arrived at the site in the hope of easy pickings. According to Don Charlwood “For weeks afterwards local Aborigines were seen wearing dresses in ways never envisaged in London fashion houses”! The behaviour of the local population disgusted the Warrnambool Examiner, which said, “We are afraid that the stranding of the Schomberg has not improved the morals of a number of the evil-disposed residing in this neighbourhood. Previous to the sale of the wreck we believe there were numbers of people with drays and other means of carrying away booty in a brazen fashion.”
On 2nd January 1856, the steamer Queen again tried to get close to the Schomberg but had to abandon the attempt. Some of Schomberg’s crew, on the beach at Curdie’s Creek, attempted to launch two boats to row out to the wreck but they were flipped over by the surf. There was nothing else for the crew to do. Since they could not be evacuated by sea, they, with the exception of the First Mate and the steward, who remained at the wreck site, set out to march, led by the ship’s band, to the nearest town, Warrnambool, about 70 miles distant. They were accompanied by Mr Murphy, the stevedore and his gang. They arrived on 5th January and received a sympathetic welcome from the townspeople, who described them as “a lot of fine fellows and some of them remarkably intelligent.” On 10th January they were taken by the steamer, Champion, to Hobson’s Bay, arriving the following day.
By 7th January 1856 all that could be discerned of the Schomberg from the shore was the bowsprit and the fore part of the vessel but she did not entirely break up for some years. The wreck was actually auctioned in Melbourne on Saturday 12th January, along with some salvaged goods, though the new owners, who paid £147 18s for the privilege, did not attempt a salvage operation. The auctioneers received cash for the goods sold and the new owners then became responsible for their protection. Some were immediately fleeced by criminals. One thief was intercepted loading his dray with kegs of stolen butter but defied anyone to take the goods off him. Eventually he was forced to give up his booty. Some nine years later the wreck was sold on to two sea captains and a Melbourne merchant. Sadly, the two sea captains drowned when their small boat was sunk while surveying the wreck. The front portion of the vessel, which had remained relatively intact, became detached sometime before 1870 and floated off, eventually washing up mostly at Tauperikaka Creek on the west cost of the South Island of New Zealand, where small parts of the vessel can still be viewed in the local visitor centre.
Captain Forbes under attack from Schomberg’s passengers and the press
The loss of the Schomberg, the largest merchant vessel ever to sail to Australia, skippered by the most famous clipper captain of the age caused a sensation and the wrecking and its aftermath were avidly followed by the Australian press. The Schomberg’s passengers arrived back at Hobson’s Bay on Friday 28th December and very quickly afterwards stories appeared in the newspapers, some cryptic, some patent, speculating on the cause of the disaster and implying that the behaviour of Captain Forbes and some of his colleagues had been less than professional. The Geelong Advertiser on 31st January said “The cause of disaster is the subject of much private comment.” On the same day the Shipping Gazette wrote “Very serious rumours were propagated in Sydney yesterday concerning the conduct of Captain Forbes.” The following day, 1st January, the Melbourne Age was much more specific. “These reports are of so strange a character that they are rather calculated to create suspicions wherever they have not already existed…” and “In the first place the intelligence that the Schomberg had gone ashore outside Cape Otway took everyone by surprise and promoted the ready question, how could the vessel have possibly got there? More than one passenger has told us that the vessel was kept near the land in spite of the remonstrances of the passengers.” The Melbourne Argus, rival of the Age, was more measured. “Many rumours are rife with respect to the stranding of this ship which being merely rumours we deem it inadvisable to publish but we presume the history of this wreck will form the subject of a rigid and impartial inquiry.” In addition to rumours concerning culpability for the stranding of the Schomberg, others alluded to defects in the morality of “certain gentlemen”. The Age on the 2nd of January wrote, “Besides the statements relating to the circumstances of the wreck we have heard many others respecting the general conduct of certain of the officers during the entire voyage which indicates a recklessness that one might very reasonably suppose would lead to some such catastrophe…. But here is the indubitable fact that certain transactions took place in the presence of some hundreds of witnesses and that they furnish matter for public conversation of a quite unreserved kind and since the transactions are of a kind that seriously implicate the character both personal and professional of certain gentlemen it is but justice to these gentlemen that there should be such an enquiry instituted as will exonerate them of blame if the charges are unfounded….”. The public’s appetite was titillated by these veiled comments, which promised sensational revelations to come. They were not to be disappointed.
As early as Sunday, 30th December, there was a meeting of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to lay plans for the relief of the Schomberg’s passengers and a further meeting was held on 2nd January at which it was decided to lobby the Government of the colony to urge the setting up of an inquiry into the cause of the sinking of the Schomberg, after receiving a report from a committee of the passengers which criticised the conduct of the captain and officers of the ship. A committee of the Chamber was set up and it met the following day to dole out aid. Passengers had in many cases lost everything they owned with the exception of the clothes they were wearing and valuables held about their persons. Even where luggage had been salvaged it was saturated with sea water and, in most cases, valueless. Passengers’ expenses for emergency clothing, bedding, food and so on amounted to £400 but a subscription appeal mounted by the Chamber had by then only raised £100. It redoubled its efforts to raise more money. Independently, an advertisement appeared in the Argus at this time helpfully advertising free passages to Wellington, New Zealand on the Seringatapam for Schomberg passengers who were artisans, labourers and female domestic servants.
The anger of the passengers did not take long to make a public appearance. On 1st January they held a meeting on the wharf during the afternoon, to complain about both the treatment that had been meted out to them during the voyage and the conduct of Captain Forbes. They wanted to gain publicity for their grievances but, unfortunately, the press was not present at the meeting. A secretary was appointed to draw up a report, which is presumed to have been the one presented the following day to the Chamber of Commerce. The passengers clearly needed more publicity and the help of the press. A further public meeting of the disgruntled passengers was organised and advertised in the local papers. It was held in the Mechanics’ Institute on the evening of Thursday 3rd January 1856. The Melbourne Age got behind the passengers’ cause by urging them to reveal all at the meeting, “The interests of society imperatively demand that a full exposure should be made of whatever occurred on board the Schomberg that was derogatory either to the private or the professional character of the officers.” No doubt the Age was interested in generating more copy, as well as in uncovering the truth.
Schomberg’s passengers hold an indignation meeting
The public meeting of the passengers was held on the 3rd January at 12 noon, at the Mechanics’ Institute, Collins-street. Proceedings were reported in the press the following day and related sensational and lurid claims about the behaviour of Captain Forbes and Dr Hardy the surgeon, as well as dealing with alleged professional deficiencies leading to the loss of the vessel and claimed failures to deliver contractual obligations concerning the quality and quantity of food and drink. Mr Hawker chaired the meeting. He told the assembled audience that he was not involved in drawing up the resolutions and that the purpose of the meeting was to investigate the cause of the wreck and to reclaim the luggage of passengers.” However, neither the resolutions nor the general run of comments kept closely to this stated aim, nor was the discussion held closely to the terms of each resolution as it was being discussed. The meeting appeared more to serve the purpose of providing a platform for the angry and dispossessed passengers to vent their feelings. Four resolutions were presented and passed by acclamation.
The first resolution was proposed by Mr Melville. “That the conduct of the captain, the surgeon, and officers of the Schomberg was ungentlemanly, discourteous and tyrannical and grossly immoral.” After a couple of contributions to the discussion which were high on indignation but low on facts, Mr Fenn made a very helpful intervention. His opinion was that it was “not English” to make such sweeping charges without specific examples. After this the factual examples to support the motion poured out.
Mr Gotkin related a confrontation between Mr Melville and the Captain. Melville complained that provisions were short to the point where he was half starved. Also the quality was not fit for a dog. Forbes reacted angrily to this accusation, saying that they were a set of dirty dogs and what they had was good enough. In similar vein, Mr Stark gave an account of another passenger complaint about provisions being under weight. Instead of listening to the complainant Forbes told him to “go forward to his cabin”. The passenger remonstrated and the captain shoved him violently forward and said “go down to your cabin or I will kick you down”. The brutal behaviour of the skipper was illustrated with a tale of violence perpetrated by Forbes on two Irish crew members, accompanied by what would now be called a racial slur.
Mr Stockdale then enlivened the meeting with claims of blatant sexual misconduct by both the Captain and the Surgeon, each successive revelation being greeted with expressions of shock and outrage from the audience. Stockdale claimed that it was widely known that the Captain and his officers kept two young female passengers out of their cabins until “very unseasonable hours”. Matters came to a head one night when one of the ladies returned from the Captain’s cabin at 1am and her companion did not return to her quarters in the second class accommodation until 4am, wearing only her nightdress. The mess of which she was a member locked the door and would not let her in for some time, to ensure her circumstances became widely known. Mr Gotkin said he had intervened at this point and tried, unsuccessfully, to break down the door. He was berated by the person who had locked the door as a result. Moral indignation was at fever-pitch and the next day members of the mess wrote a letter to the girl asking her to withdraw. She took the letter to Captain Forbes who, predictably, went down to the cabin and in his usual style berated the members of Mess 8 for their behaviour, threatening them with irons and refusing to believe anything they told him by way of justification for their actions. The members of the mess did not back off and told Forbes that if he dared to put anyone in irons they would take action against him in Melbourne. Mr Kelson then made further claims concerning the “kept women”, extending the accusation to Dr Hardy. He is reported to have said regarding Dr Hardy “it was every day, all day, and all night.” When he went to the doctor for medicine the girl was sitting in his cabin. At this point another passenger interjected, “I have seen her in the bed. It was on St Stephen’s Day” (26th December, the day of the wrecking). Further accusations were made against Forbes and Hardy in relation to the girls getting preferential treatment. It was alleged that they were fed from the Saloon (ie first class) table and that they were allowed to take all their luggage with them when the passengers were evacuated on the Queen . The first resolution was modified to include only “some of the officers” and passed as amended. Interestingly, passengers John Dixon, William Charnock and James Grieve subsequently wrote a letter to the editor of the Age pointing out that three of the Schomberg’s officers - Mr Kean the chief officer, Mr Laurie the second officer and Mr Hodges, the Boatswain – had both performed well and behaved well.
The second resolution was then moved by Mr Gotkin. “That it is not only the general impression of the passengers by the Schomberg, but to the certain knowledge of many of those here assembled, that the loss of that fine ship can only be attributed to the gross negligence of the captain.” The accusation was laid against Captain Forbes that on the evening of 26th December 1855, when the third officer informed him that the ship was close to land he said “Let her go to h—l, and tell me when she is on the beach” and that such words demonstrated that he wrecked the ship deliberately. Mr Stockdale contended that Forbes’ behaviour had been reckless from the outset of the voyage. When they sighted an iceberg in the Southern Ocean Forbes deliberately sailed so close that the keel passed over part of it. On another occasion they met another vessel and Forbes got too close, so that he carried away the signal halyards of the other ship and afterwards joked about it. On the evening of 26th December he (Gotkin) was very alarmed by their closeness to shore. When the captain finally came on deck he did not immediately ‘bout ship, even though they were clearly in danger. Mr Johnson, a passenger and a sailor, charged that the ship could have been saved if the anchor had been ready to let go but it was never bent, nor the anchor raised.
Mr Carpenter moved the third resolution, “That this meeting is of opinion that the contracts entered into between James Baines and Co of Liverpool, and the passengers by the Schomberg have not been fulfilled.” The passengers were aware that under Act of Parliament, they were due 3 quarts of water per passenger per day but never received more than 2 quarts and latterly not more than 1 1/2 quarts. They also complained about the substitution of molasses for sugar, filthy tables and shortages of crockery and cutlery. The pork was served in such a condition that not even the Captain’s favourite ladies would touch it and towards the end of the voyage they got nothing else but pork. The soup stank, the meat was tainted, the Hock and Moselle ran out and the sherry was undrinkable. Mr Charles said they had been promised a bathroom but it had been pressed into use to confine a mentally deranged passenger. The resolution was carried.
Mr Stockdale put the fourth resolution, “That a deputation be appointed to wait on His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, praying that an investigation be held into the circumstances attending the loss of the Schomberg, and the property of the passengers.” The resolution was put and carried and a deputation appointed.
Captain Forbes gives his version of events
When Captain Forbes arrived back at Hobsons Bay in the Keera on 1st January, he would quickly have become aware that damaging rumours were being spread about his competence and morals. He already knew from Captain Mathews, the Lloyd’s Agent in Melbourne, that there was a rumour in town that the anchors were not bent at the time of the wrecking, a claim which Forbes denied. He wrote a letter, dated 3rd January, to the Argus giving his account of the Schomberg’s loss. It was published on the 4th January. Was the timing, before the public meeting of the passengers, coincidental or deliberate? Certainly, by publishing before that meeting he could avoid answering any uncomfortable claims which might be made against him and instead stick to his own agenda. This letter was the only contribution he made personally to public comment before his return to Liverpool later in the year. Basically, his story was that he had to pass through the area where the ship was wrecked in order to get from Cape Bridgewater to Cape Otway. As he was approaching the coast at 10.30pm, with the land faintly visible, the wind fell to a dead calm. He put the ship about but she missed stays. He had 17 fathoms and thought he would be able to wear the ship round so that she was again heading out to sea but a current, which was not marked on any chart, swept him onto a sandbank, which also was not charted. He kept on sail in the hope of forcing the vessel over the obstacle but to no avail, so only then did he drop anchor, the anchors being ready to be deployed. He had been a victim of circumstances.
Public debate on the loss of the Schomberg continues
The following day after the publication of the Forbes letter, passenger Isaac Kelson responded, picking out two items which he said were misrepresentations in Forbes’ missive. Forbes had said that at 10.30pm, half an hour before the wrecking, that land was faintly visible but Kelson said that at that time “the land was most distinctly visible ahead on our weather bow and on our lee and the moon at the time was shining with the greatest splendour. The trees on the land could be seen most distinctly with the naked eye. On our lee stretching a long way out into the sea I could plainly see a long line of breakers, also the white surge on the coast all round.” Kelson’s second point concerned the wind. Forbes said that the wind fell off to a dead calm at 10.30, but this was untrue. While the wind lessened gradually as they approached the land, it did not fall to a dead calm and the ship made steady progress towards the shore. The wind only dropped to a dead calm during the tacking manoeuvre. Other letters in the press cast doubt on certain other aspects of Captain Forbes’ account. “Davy Jones” asked how it could have been that Forbes did not know about a 4 knot current when the lead had been cast, since the lead gives information on both depth and drift. JDB Carr, a Schomberg passenger took Forbes to task concerning the preparedness of the ground tackle. “neither of the chains were bent, both of the hause holes were plugged up, nor was there a single lashing cast off the anchors, which confined them to the forecastle head during the voyage. I was on the forecastle when the ship struck. I was there when the starboard anchor was ordered to be let go, which with their greatest dispatch could not be done for at least 35 minutes. I was one of those who assisted the chief officer of the Schomberg in prizing the anchors over the bow with handspikes and it was with considerable difficulty and much delay that her hauspipe was cleared. “
The coverage of the Schomberg story, including editorial comment, did not let up. James Forbes must have felt, with some justification, that he was not only under trial by newspaper, but he had already been convicted. However, his own letter had itself stimulated some of that comment. The Age continued to be hostile to Forbes’s account. On 4th January it charged that he had failed to deal with all the issues, including those relating to his conduct, the lack of a plausible explanation for him being so close to a dangerous coast and, especially, his “very weak” assertion that the anchors were ready to be deployed. On 7th January in an editorial entitled “Nautical Manners and Morals” it unleashed a thunderous broadside. “Everybody who has had the misfortune to spend three or four months on board a vessel commanded by a man of rude, surly or brutal manners – addicted very much to the use of a blasphemous style of speech, overbearing and insolent in his bearing towards his passengers, and savagely tyrannical in his treatment of the crew – will agree with us that those three or four months were about as wretched as any he ever spent in his life.” It made clear that, in its opinion, Forbes conformed to this stereotype. Further, it accused Forbes and his officers of “indulging in open profligacy of the most flagitious kind during the voyage. In plain language, they are accused of making the Schomberg a brothel, and that in the most shameless way, -not covertly and quietly but openly and in defiance of the good senses and good feelings of the passengers.”
The Argus was more cautious, emphasising the need for an inquiry and cautioning that “The passengers of the wrecked ship constitute the proper witnesses but the wrong jury, when the captain is on trial.” But even the Argus concluded “We have no doubt whatsoever that the anchors were not ready to let go at the time when they would probably have saved the ship.”
An inadequate legal framework
The unsatisfactory legal framework that existed in the colony, within which to examine the causes of the loss of the Schomberg, was also outlined by the Argus. “Legislation does not exist in the colony which would allow the causes of a shipwreck to be investigated, unless a crime has been committed or a dead body is the result.” Even so, the Colonial Government came under pressure from several sources to investigate the wrecking of the vessel. They were lobbied by the Chamber of Commerce and received a reply which said “The loss of the Schomberg has met with the most serious attention of Her Majesty’s Government and that the subject has been referred to the law officers of the Crown.” Isaak Kelson, the passengers’ leader, wrote to the Colonial Secretary seeking a meeting with the Governor. However, all that they were offered was a meeting with an official, Mr Haines. Kelson was less than happy, pointing out that if there had been a single death the Coroner would have held an inquest but because the several hundred passengers had been put in danger, but had survived, it was difficult to get any action. His delegation finally got to meet the Government representative on 11th January when they were told that the matter had been referred for legal opinion. In the Colony’s Legislative Council Mr Sargood gave notice that he should ask the Chief Secretary whether the Government had commenced any inquiry as to the cause of the loss near Cape Otway of the Royal Mail ship Schomberg with her valuable cargo and part of the passengers’ luggage; and if no such steps had been taken, whether it was the intention of the Government to institute an early investigation. Mr Sargood’s question finally got answered but the result was both opaque and unhelpful. The Chief Secretary said that “steps had been taken by the Government to arrive at the object aimed at in the question of the hon mover but it was not desirable to enter into further detail as to what those steps were at the present time.” The Government’s obfuscation was probably due to its inability to find a way of directly examining the causes of the loss of the Schomberg. Had she been a Royal Navy vessel, the captain would have been held accountable wherever in the world the loss had occurred. Had this (merchant) ship been lost in a foreign port an inquiry could have been held under the Passengers Act, 1855. But this law, inexplicably, did not apply to loss of a merchant ship in a colony. The colonial government had to settle for operating within the law as it stood.
Prosecution incompetence and the dispersion of witnesses
In addition to an inadequate legal framework, two other problems were to bedevil the prosecution in the three separate trials to which Forbes was subject. The first of these was the progressive loss of witnesses, both crew and passengers. In many cases, passengers were travelling on to other parts of Australia to fulfil engagements, which made them unavailable to return to Williamstown. Others who were still present in the area were running out of funds and could not even afford to travel relatively short distance to court. When the ship was wrecked the crew were paid off and, typically having little money, had to find other engagements. This was usually not difficult in Melbourne, where sailors frequently jumped ship to try their luck as gold miners, leaving their vessels short-handed. The second problem for the prosecution was the unsuitability and incompetence of the officers entrusted with the first and second prosecutions. Against Forbes’ lawyer, Albert Read, who was both sharp and proficient in court tactics, they proved to be no match.
First legal action
The first legal proceedings against James Nicol Forbes were instituted at the Williamstown Water Police Court on 7th January 1856. At the instance of some of the Schomberg’s passengers, who complained of shortness in quantity and poor quality of water and provisions during the voyage from Liverpool, an information was laid by Mr Broad, the Immigration Agent for Williamstown for a breach of the Passengers Act 1955. This Act had come into force on 1st October 1855, replacing a previous Act and the Schomberg action was the first to be brought under the new legislation. Lt Pascoe, RN was the magistrate hearing the case. Forbes appeared at the Court, saying that no summons had been served on him, but having heard about the action, he presented himself voluntarily. This was a bizarre stance for Forbes to take as his story was soon proved to be a complete fabrication. Mr Broad was in possession of an affidavit sworn by a constable that he served the summons on Forbes at 2.20pm the previous day. Mr Freeman, the Inspector of Police had added a note to the back of the affidavit giving the circumstances. Apparently, after some difficulty, Forbes was located by the constable and the summons served. Forbes took out his watch, noted the time and tore the summons in pieces! Forbes had to admit to the bench that the summons had indeed been served as claimed by the prosecution. He then asked for a postponement in order for him to be prepared with his witnesses. His defence would be ready as soon as his officers returned from the wreck in a few days (they actually returned on 11th January). The magistrate adjourned the hearing until Wednesday, 16th January. At the resumed hearing Forbes was represented by Albert Read. Eighteen passenger witnesses were assembled by Mr Broad. Albert Read first ascertained that some had bought their tickets before the date on which the 1855 Act came into force and some afterwards. Which Act applied asked Read, with justification, the old one or the new one? The magistrate decided that it should be the new one, surely a bizarre decision, which could subsequently have formed grounds for appeal had that been necessary. The witnesses then provided their individual testimonies, which were all unique and often contradictory, with some being satisfied with food that others found repulsive. The complaint that sugar was replaced by molasses was swept aside when Read pointed out that such substitution was allowed under the new Act. Read contended that there was no case to answer. The magistrate felt that the only point which Forbes had to answer concerned the supply of water (3 quarts per person per day) allowed under the new Act. This time the wily Read pointed out that some passengers went short because their vessels were too small and in no case did a passenger measure, as opposed to estimate, the actual quantity of water doled out. The magistrate found that the case was unproven and dismissed the action.
Second legal action
Another information alleging neglect of duty under the Merchant Shipping Act had been laid against James Nicol Forbes by Mr Shillinglaw of the Water Police before the first case had been dismissed, this time at the District Police Court. Forbes was in attendance on Monday 14th January 1856 when the case began. The prosecution was led by Mr Gurner, the Crown Solicitor and Albert Read again presented Forbes’ defence. The summons was worded thus, “on the 26th December 1855, you (Captain Forbes) did neglect your duty as such master as aforesaid, by omitting to do certain lawful acts proper and requisite to be done by you, necessary to preserve such ship from loss.” Read immediately objected that the charge was incompetent. The summons did not fully and sufficiently set out the charge or specify the statute under which it was made. The bench agreed with Read and the case was stood over until Thursday 17th January. However, bail for Forbes was set at a swingeing £500 with two sureties of £250 each. There was a rumour that Forbes intended shortly to leave the colony, which may have prompted the bench to set the bail tariff so high. The hearing resumed the following day but this time the Crown Solicitor was absent. He had left Mr Shillinglaw to hold the fort. Albert Read must have smirked with delight when he realised whom his opponent would be. Shillinglaw rose to present his case. His instructions were to lay a second information against Captain Forbes and to ask their Worships to remand the defendant to Williamstown where the second information against him would be heard. Albert Read rose to his feet to object. No further information had been provided to his client since the previous day, as required by the magistrates and therefore it would be impossible to proceed. The magistrates felt that they could not refuse the Government’s request but they insisted that the Crown must furnish the accused with the specific charges to be laid against him. Shillinglaw floundered, saying that the charge of neglect of duty in not letting the anchor go involved many questions of nautical experience and that he was not in a position to proceed immediately. The bench had had enough of the Crown’s shambolic performance and dismissed the case, without a specific charge being laid, or any evidence being heard.
Third legal action
James Nicol Forbes was not yet off the hook because a criminal indictment for neglect of duty was instituted against him on the same day, Friday 18thJanuary, that the second prosecution had ended in chaos. Jonathan Richard Saxby, the Third Mate, who was officer of the watch at the time of the wrecking, was also indicted. They were charged with “having neglected to do certain acts to wit not letting go the anchor whereby the ship was lost.” The case came up for preliminary hearing on Saturday, 19th January at the Williamstown Police Court. There was a full bench with Lt. Pascoe RN in the chair, supported by Captain Ferguson, the Harbourmaster and Lt Crawford RN. Mr Shillinglaw again led for the prosecution and Albert Read led for the defence. All the witnesses were directed to leave the court and Read informed the bench that the charge was similar to the one against Captain Forbes which had been dismissed the previous day. Were the bench aware of this? The bench thought the case had been struck out. Was it competent for the bench to consider a charge which had been before another bench? The bench considered that since the merits of the case had not been investigated, nor evidence taken, it was their duty to go on with the case. Mr Shillinglaw, for whom this whole affair must have been a nightmare, did not get off to a good start. He tried to explain the Government’s position but was cut short, as his statement was considered irrelevant to the proceedings. He was told just to call his witnesses and make his case. Apparently Shillinglaw’s instructions were to present only enough evidence to secure a remand so as to allow the Attorney General to prepare the full case for the prosecution. Shillinglaw called only a single witness, Mr Melville, to testify on the matter of the anchor, others apparently being no longer available. Melville testified that on the night of 26th December 1855 the anchor was let go 2 hours after the vessel struck. Shillinglaw then called Saxby but Albert Read objected that Saxby was on the charge sheet and therefore might incriminate himself. The bench took note of this objection but required Saxby to testify. Saxby gave an account of the ship’s condition and movements on the tragic night and his own interactions with the captain and the doctor. When Forbes came on deck he took over control from Saxby. On the matter of the anchor, it had been ready to let go but, in his opinion, it would have been an act of folly to deploy it as the ship was wearing.
Henry Cooper Keen, the 1st Mate was asked on what night the port and starboard chains were got up but Read objected that this was nothing to do with letting the anchor go and the bench, inexplicably, decided that questions should be confined events occurring on the 26thDecember. The anchor was let go after the ship struck but he could not say at what time. The reason was to prevent the ship getting on the rocks. The bench asked Shillinglaw if he was in a position to show that the anchor ought to have been let go earlier, because in their view that was crucial. Shillinglaw’s weak answer was that he could do no more than examine the witnesses. Albert Read thought he had cornered the prosecution by attempting to confine the issue to events on the 26th December concerning the anchor. “Did the not letting go the anchor before endanger the safety of the ship? Read contended that this was the only question which required an answer but the bench disabused him of this notion. The charge in the information was in accordance with the wording of the Act and was not confined to this single item.
Meanwhile, the Boatswain, James Hodges, the only officer on the Schomberg to testify against Captain Forbes, was called. His evidence as a seasoned mariner was crucial to the prosecution because it could not be undermined on the basis that he lacked experience of marine matters. Hodges’s testimony was at variance with a number of crucial issues in the defence case, including their nearness to land, when the anchors were bent and when let go. The defence had to discredit Hodges and their line of attack was to suggest that Hodges had been bribed by the passengers to trim his evidence to suit the passengers’ version of events. Albert Read even extended the bribery claim to include Mr Shillinglaw, who was leading for the defence but then tried to withdraw the claim, perhaps realising that he was on dangerous ground. Both Hodges and Shillinglaw later denied the bribery claims as a misrepresentation of what actually took place.
During the proceedings, Mr Shillinglaw asked for the ship’s logbook to be produced. He was informed by Mr Read that it was in the Custom House and it was the first time it had been asked for. In fact, the logbook was never presented during the preliminary hearing or the full trial which followed, which seems strange since it contained details of the ship’s management. The defence were certainly less than cooperative on this point and the prosecution not sufficiently engaged to ensure that the document was produced in time.
Shillinglaw closed the case for the prosecution on a particularly wimpish note. He could call more passengers as witnesses but he did not see how their evidence would add to his case, since they were not seamen. He appeared to have conceded the line relentlessly followed by Mr Read, that amateurs could not make valid comments on any marine issue. Perhaps Mr Shillinglaw should have had the courage to say that even though witnesses were not experienced in marine matters they could still give relevant factual evidence? After adjourning for half an hour the bench returned to say that one matter concerning the anchors remained to be cleared up. In its opinion it had not been shown that the anchors were in readiness or that it was impracticable to prepare them. Read asked the Bench that if they adjourned the case then the defence should know precisely the matter they had to answer. The cases against both Forbes and Saxby were adjourned to the following Tuesday, 22nd January.
At the resumed hearing Albert Read got straight to the crux of the matter. The main point they now had to answer, he claimed, was as to whether the chains were clear and the anchors bent when it was requisite that they ought to have been and the only evidence to the contrary was that of Boatswain Hodges. He would produce Mr McIntosh, the proprietor of the British Hotel who would testify as to Hodges being bribed. He also claimed that, in any case, the bending of the chains to the anchors had nothing to do with the loss of the ship. Therefore the failure to bend the chains to the anchors could not be an offence under the Act. The cause of the Schomberg’s loss was a hidden rock and it was not Captain Forbes’ fault that the coast had not been adequately surveyed.
When Captain Matthews, the Lloyds Agent at Melbourne was examined he gave a significant piece of information concerning the anchors. When he went on board the Schomberg 3 days after she was stranded, he informed Forbes that there was a rumour in town that the anchor chains were not bent. Forbes claimed the anchors were bent and the 1st Mate backed him up, so Matthews asked to see the ship’s log. There was an entry for when the chains had been brought on deck but no entry recording the bending of the chains. Matthews agreed that the entry should be made at that time in his presence and this was done. One wonders what else the log might have revealed, had it ever been seen by the prosecution.
Mr McIntosh, the landlord of the British Hotel, testified that he had seen money passed by the passengers to Hodges at a meeting on his premises and heard the matter of bending chains to the anchors mentioned. Thinking this suspicious he decided to contact Mr Read. Several of the Schomberg’s officers were staying at the British Hotel, which may have been significant. Further to the claim of bribery, Mr McIntosh also said that purser’s mate, Mr Osbaldison had told him that Mr Shillinglaw had promised positions in the Mounted Police to both himself and to Hodges. These were incendiary claims.
The Court then adjourned for a brief period before the chairman, Lt Pascoe, returned to inform Captain Forbes that he would be committed to stand trial for having lost the ship through negligence in not having the anchors ready and the cables bent. They clearly felt that there was enough substance in the prosecution case to send the matter to a higher court. Albert Read then threw a final spanner in the works by demanding that the evidence of all witnesses be read over in the presence of the witnesses before a committal could be ordered. However, the bench declined to take this course, instead saying that they would send everything to the Attorney-General. Boatswain Hodges had failed to appear at this resumed preliminary hearing, which destroyed the case against Third Mate Saxby and the charge against him was dismissed. Shillinglaw applied for a warrant to be issued to arraign Hodges, who had done his own credibility and the case for the prosecution no good by absenting himself. The prosecution was finding it increasingly difficult to mount a credible case due to witnesses running out of money and refusing to attend court. They could not afford to lose Hodges, their key witness.
Third legal action – The criminal trial
At the Criminal Sessions held on 15th February 1856, Mr Dawson, a barrister who was part of the team which had taken over Forbes’ defence, applied for a date to be fixed for his trial. It eventually got underway on Thursday 21st February at the Melbourne Criminal Sessions before His Honour, Chief Justice Sir William a’Beckett and a jury. Robert Molesworth, the Crown Solicitor, led for the prosecution and Messers Dawson, Wright and Fellows represented the defendant, James Nicol Forbes.
Robert Molesworth was in a different league to his predecessors who had led attempted prosecutions of Forbes. In summary, the indictment of Forbes, prepared by Robert Molesworth, was that on 26th December 1855 he failed to change course, keep a due and proper distance from shore, keep diligent watch on the deck of the ship, have the anchors ready to let go on approaching shore, failed to let the anchor go and keep the ship from standing in too close to the shore. Forbes pleaded not guilty to the charges levelled against him. At the request of Mr Dawson, he was allowed to sit next to his legal team in order to explain nautical terms to them. This conveniently took Forbes out of the limelight and made the trial look more like an inquiry into the loss of the vessel.
The Solicitor General then summarised his case against Forbes. The day before the wrecking of the Schomberg, Forbes had shown appropriate caution in tacking his ship well before they reached a position dangerously close to the shore but on 26th December he behaved differently. At about 9pm he saw that there was land ahead but he did not remain on deck, preferring instead to keep the company of the doctor and a lady in his cabin “apparently careless of the safety of the vessel”. Why was he in that position in the first place, since he did not need to be there? The wind was from the east and the ship was lying with her head towards the shore, as close hauled as she could be. The night was light, he knew he was near land and he was bound to take necessary precautions. When he realised that he was in danger of going ashore he attempted to put the ship about but missed stays. It then became necessary to wear the ship but she ran onto a sandbank and never got off. He had failed to have the chains bent to the anchors when near land and so precious time was lost before they could be deployed. He should have known that little reliance could be placed upon the charts but appeared to be depending upon their accuracy. The wind often dies away near shore thus rendering a large ship liable to missing stays. Also currents are often stronger near shore. There were several possible reasons why the defendant was so close to shore. Perhaps he was infatuated with his female companion and lost concentration, or perhaps he was guilty of braggadocio, or that he was trying to impress the passengers with his sailing skills, or even that he was attempting to shorten his passage time, even though he could not have gained a day.
Molesworth began questioning his witnesses, the first of which was Boatswain James Hodges. When the ship had first sighted the coast of Australia on 24th December he had taken it upon himself, without orders, to pipe all hands and put the ship about. Between 10pm and 11pm on 26th December he was called to pipe all hands. It was a moonlit night, land was clearly visible and Captain Forbes confirmed to him that he had seen land. Even so he delayed putting the ship about for 20 minutes. The vessel started to turn her head to the wind but missed stays, necessitating an attempt to wear her round on to the opposite tack. Before the manoeuvre was completed she ran aground. Normally the anchors would be got ready and the chains bent 2 or 3 days before reaching land, which was Captain Forbes’ normal practice but on this occasion the anchors were still stowed and the chains not bent, so that the anchors could not be immediately let go, the preparations for which would have taken about 1 hour. Letting go the anchors when the ship missed stays might have saved her. Captain Forbes did not deploy the anchors until 2 hours after the vessel struck.
If Hodges’s evidence had been believed, Forbes would probably have been convicted. The defence team again sought to undermine Hodges’ credibility. Indeed, the sharp legal minds of the defence team ruthlessly exposed the limitations of this solid, but uneducated, practical seaman. He could not use logarithms and caused mirth in the court by wrongly identifying directions on a chart. Inexplicably this line of questioning was permitted even though his evidence did not depend upon him possessing a knowledge of navigation. This uncomplicated man illustrated both his humility and dignity by saying in explanation for his errors, “I am not a navigator but I am a seaman. I do not profess to know how to navigate a ship.” The next line of questioning concerned his behaviour after the wrecking when he went ashore with 40 of the crew. Had he deserted ship? “In point of fact neither I nor any member of the crew deserted ship. I never declined doing my duty. We returned to the ship and remained until we were ordered on shore. I never left the ship without permission.” The final and probably most damaging accusation was that he had been bribed to give false evidence. He had visited the British Hotel to attend a meeting of the Schomberg’s passengers. He was the only member of the crew present and Mr Shillinglaw was also there. The passengers gave him a subscription of 8 shillings for his expenses in travelling to Williamstown. Mr Shillinglaw did not offer him a position with the Mounted Police but he (Hodges) did ask him about entry to the Water Police. He had been laid off and had no means of income. But he was no longer interested in joining the Water Police as he was earning a living working for a sailmaker. Hodges’s explanation of events at the British Hotel was plausible but clearly open to an alternative interpretation. Under further, relentless questioning, Hodges managed to give unconvincing and contradictory answers to questions about the timing of various events. He had been thoroughly undermined as a witness.
Other than the evidence of Hodges, the most damaging material from the defence point of view concerned whether it was advisable for Forbes ever to be so close to the coast. Captain Matthews, the Lloyds Agent at Melbourne was sworn and repeated his account of the failure of Forbes to enter the bending of the cables in the ship’s log, even though he claimed he had done so. With regard to sailing near to the shore, Matthews said he was a prudent man and did not run risks. He would have avoided working up to Cape Otway along the coast as a means of avoiding King Island and he would have bent anchors 1 or 2 days before reaching land. If he had missed stays he would have taken the risk and let the anchor go but not if he knew he had room to wear. Captain Doran of the steamer Queen was another experienced sea captain to testify. It would have been wise to bend the anchors on approaching the coast. He would not have approached the coast nearer than 4 or 5 miles and he would have let the anchors go when the ship failed to wear. Captain Devey was master of a sailing ship travelling between Britain and Australia. He would not have approached the coast nearer than 3 or 4 miles. He would not have gone so near shore as the Schomberg if he could have avoided it. He too customarily bent his anchors when 2 or 3 days out. The evidence of these three seasoned ships’ masters was consistent, authoritative and, one would have thought, damning regarding at least one charge that Forbes was facing, that of failing to keep a due and proper distance from shore.
At that point the Solicitor General closed the case for the Crown. Mr Dawson rose to contend that no case had been made against the defendant. There was no evidence of Captain Forbes having omitted to do any single act by which the ship might have been prevented from immediate destruction. His Honour, Chief Justice Sir William a’Beckett immediately agreed with Mr Dawson. The witnesses had given opinions that Captain Forbes had not taken the course they thought would have been most prudent, or that they would have adopted. But the defendant was not charged with imprudence. In his opinion there was no evidence to support the information in law. His Honour then directed the jury to acquit Captain Forbes. So, in the end, Forbes did not have to account in court for his actions and his own evidence was not tested under oath. He was free to leave the court, but hardly with his reputation untarnished and this was to have consequences for his future. The question of why the Schomberg was lost had still not been explained. The legal framework of the Colony of Victoria had completely failed on this vital issue of public confidence and public safety.
Aftermath of the criminal trial of Captain Forbes
The outcome of this criminal trial was almost as sensational as the loss of the Schomberg itself. There was amazement in the press as to how Sir William a’Beckett could have reached such a conclusion. The Argus editorial said, “Never before in the history of these colonies has so much interest been excited by a wreck not involving the loss of life as by that of the Schimberg and so strong has been the feeling against Captain Forbes that nothing short of his being brought to trial would have satisfied the public mind. The trial was in fact, even by the friends of Captain Forbes, deemed necessary because it was by them looked upon as the only means by which his character could be cleared. By some extraordinary hallucination the Chief Justice has been prevented from appreciating the nature and importance of the trial and he has arbitrarily deprived the public of that thorough investigation and decision by a competent tribunal which for the sake of the highest interests of the community were imperatively required.” Though the Argus was making an important point regarding public expectations of the case, it had surely overlooked an overriding legal point, that if the prosecution had failed to demonstrate there was a case to answer, the only course of action was to stop the trial. But did others agree with the conclusion of the Chief Justice? The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “The wisdom of the direction of the Chief Justice has been freely discussed since the trial and his conduct is almost universally condemned…the bar, at least those members with whom I have spoken since, do not coincide with the Chief Justice in his opinion that there was “no case to go to the jury” but hold to the contrary that the evidence on the last count, which charges the captain with willful negligence in standing too close to the shore, was quite sufficient to warrant sending the case to the jury.”
Who was responsible for the wrecking of the Schomberg?
Carrying out the work of an impartial inquiry at this distance in time and with only documentary evidence available is impossible but it can be shown, using all reliable sources, particularly witness statements and newspaper reports, that the apparently factual data are consistent with two fairly coherent but divergent accounts of the events leading up to the wrecking of the Schomberg. For simplicity, these will be called the “Forbes” account and the “Passenger” account, though they are not exclusively derived from those sources. By highlighting the points at which the accounts vary fundamentally, it is possible to offer a plausible explanation for why they differ. The two summary accounts of the wrecking of the Schomberg follow.
Schomberg first made landfall in Australia on 24th December 1855, in the region of Portland. By this time she had lost the westerlies and was faced by headwinds which required frequent tacking to make progress towards Melbourne. On the first occasion of sighting land, James Hodges, the Boatswain was called on deck by a seaman and Hodges took it upon himself to pipe all hands and put the ship about without orders. For the next two days the wind continued to blow from the south east. Late at night on 25th December, or early the next day they came close to land, perhaps within a quarter of a mile of the coast, tacked and stood out to westward, losing sight of the land. The nearness to the coast had alarmed some of the passengers. During the whole of the next day, Wednesday, 26th December the wind was blowing a half-gale, still from an easterly direction. At noon they sighted Moonlight Head and stood out to the south and by east, close hauled, with the mizzen topsail reefed and the royals and topgallant sails taken in. At about 3pm the mainsail split and another one was sent up. About 5.30pm, when about 3 miles from shore, she tacked out.
About 9pm on the evening of 26th December James Hodges, the Boatswain, heard that the ship was close in and came on deck of his own accord. Jonathan Saxby was the officer of the watch and Hodges spoke to him several times. On the approach to land the Schomberg was variously reported to be travelling at 5 to 8 knots. James Connolly, a passenger, said that land was just visible at 9pm. It was a clear night and the moon rose before 10pm. As they approached the shore the wind dropped but not, at this time, to a dead calm. The Captain had been seen on deck several times during the evening and a number of passengers approached him to say they were close to land. About 10pm Forbes was in his cabin and 15 minutes later, Miss Hart, a young female passenger was taken into the cabin by the Doctor. Lights were brought into the cabin, so that the inmates could play cards. Passenger Lyndon Carpenter saw the Captain, the Doctor and Miss Hart in the cabin.
Saxby went to the Captain’s cabin and reported the ship was approaching shore and had been seen for some time. He was told to get out and to call the Captain when the ship was on the beach. He had to call the captain three times before he came on deck at about 10.30pm. At about this time, passenger Mr Melville was standing on deck and clearly saw land directly ahead at a distance he estimated at about 2 miles. However, another passenger confirmed that at this time, the moon was shining with great splendour, land was clearly visible ahead on both the lee and weather bows and trees could be clearly seen with the naked eye. On the lee side stretching a long way out into the sea a long line of breakers could be clearly seen, also there was a white surge on the coast all round. It is likely that the vessel was closer to shore than 2 miles. Saxby had taken the precaution of ordering Hodges to pipe all hands but Forbes did not appear for 15 minutes afterwards. After being called up, the hands were on deck for about 20 minutes before the instruction was given to put the ship about. James Hodges reported that there was talk of the shore amongst some of the passengers. The captain was on deck at this time and remained on deck continuously until the ship struck. Before the order was given to go about, the passengers on deck could clearly hear the roar of the surf. When Forbes came on deck he took command and told Saxby to see that they were ready to put about. Forbes then scanned the coast with a telescope and took a tour around the deck, coming forward and speaking to Hodges. Hodges enquired if it was time to put the helm down but Forbes replied that there was still plenty of time. Hodges estimated that at that time they were not 20 yards from the reef on the lee side and not more than half a mile from land. It was a further 10 minutes before Forbes gave the order to ‘bout ship, shortly before 11pm.
Initially the ship went round about 4 points on the compass but then she missed stays and started to go back again. At this time the wind had fallen to a dead calm for the first time. Many orders were then given in quick succession. Forbes knew that his anchors were not ready to go and gave the order to bend the anchors to the 1st Mate, who ordered Hodges to go down and commence getting the anchors ready. Forbes ordered the crew to wear the ship and she started to come around with her head out to sea. At this time a breeze had sprung up from the land and the crew squared the afteryards to take advantage of this when the ship struck on a reef very close to visible breakers, sometime between 11pm and 11.15pm. She did not take the ground until about 10 minutes after she missed stays. Immediately after she struck the waves were lifting the afterpart of the vessel and dropping it on the ground, which was hard. The foresail and mainsail were quickly taken down and the topgallant sails were clewed up.
The anchor chains had been got up as the Schomberg approached land and passed round the windlass ready for bending. The shackles were by the ring of the anchor but the chain was not close. While travelling, the hawse holes had been plugged with wooden plugs to prevent entry of seawater into the forecastle and they were still plugged on the approach to land. The anchors were lashed to the top of the forecastle during the journey and they too were still in that position. Each anchor weighed 68 cwt. It was normal practice with sailing ships’ captains, including Captain Forbes, to bend the anchor chains to the anchors 2 – 4 days before making land but on this occasion the anchors were not bent until late on 26th December about 11pm, after the vessel had struck. The 1st Mate gave Hodges an instruction to prepare the anchors about 11pm and he went down to do so, but was knocked off this task by the necessity to square the yards. Hodges estimated it would take an hour and a half to bend the anchors and ¾ of an hour to get the hawse plugs out. A passenger reported being present on the forecastle when it was ordered to let the starboard anchor go. Because of the need for preparations, that could not be done for some time. He also helped the 1st Mate to prize the anchors over the bow with hand spikes. Considerable difficulty was experienced in removing the hawse plugs. It was not until 1.30am on 27th of December, 2 ½ hours after the ship struck that the Captain was able to give the order to deploy the anchors and they were let go. Both Hodges and the 1st Mate were concerned that the anchor might penetrate the bottom of the ship as she moved about.
The lead line was on deck, having been brought up on 25th December. It was the quartermaster’s duty to heave the lead. During the wearing of the ship the order was also given to cast the lead. A cast of the lead was taken over the bow. No passenger reported hearing the depth of water, nor did Hodges, who was prepared to swear that he did not know what depth was reported.
On Christmas Day Schomberg made land near Cape Bridgewater at about 1pm. The wind was blowing fresh from the east south east. During that night and the following day the wind continued from the same point, requiring the ship to tack frequently. On 26th December at 12 noon with the wind blowing fresh the ship tacked out when about 4 miles off shore. At 6pm they stood in again, the wind still blowing from the same quarter. That evening Jonathan Saxby, the 3rd Mate was the officer of the watch, coming on duty at 8pm. At the time they were standing in for the shore on the starboard tack and close hauled, under single-reefed topsails and reefed topgallant sails. At 8pm land was not in sight. The moon rose between 9.15pm and 9.30pm and he thought he saw a fogbank ahead. He called Captain Forbes, who told him that it was land, not fog. The Captain left him in charge and told him to stand on. At 10pm he saw land distinctly and at the same time he saw Forbes on the Poop deck also looking at the land. Captain Forbes then went forwards with his glass in his hand. At 10.30 as the ship was approaching land, the wind fell. He asked the Doctor to call the Captain. The captain came up, took charge and ordered all clear for the ship to be put about. Forbes believed he was 4 to 5 miles from shore at that time and described the land as being faintly visible and the wind falling, eventually to a dead calm. The Captain did not subsequently leave the deck. Saxby’s reason for calling the captain was his seeing land pretty clear. At the time the ship was progressing at 4 – 5 knots (3 – 4 knots according to the 1st Mate). Kean, the 1st Mate, was on deck and heard the Captain give the order to call all hands to put the ship about. There was nothing in his voice to make him suspect any danger. Shortly before 11pm, the helm was put down to go about and the afteryards were hauled. At that time the wind faded to a dead calm. The ship would not come round and went off, due to the force of the current. At this time the breakers were seen a long way off, according to the 1st Mate. The 1st Mate described the current as drifting westwards the whole time at 4mph. The current was discovered when a small boat was lowered after she had struck. Forbes, in a conversation with Captain Lawrence of the Burra Burra, attributed the current to the recent strong easterlies. A light breeze sprang up from the land and the ship payed off well, so that he thought they had cleared the land but just after that she struck. The 1st Mate estimated that they were 1 ½ miles from shore. The captain was cool and collected. The Captain was unaware of the current running to the west and it was not marked on any chart. Similarly, the sandspit on to which they ran was not charted either. Saxby gave exactly the same comment. After the ship was grounded all sail was kept on to try to force her over the spit but when this was found to be of no avail, about an hour after she was stranded, the sails were clewed up and the anchors let go to prevent her drifting. The ship’s head was out to sea. The boats were then deployed and preparations made to save the passengers. However, about 2 hours after striking, her head bore round straight for the shore and she thumped heavily.
The leads and lines were on deck. Between giving the order to go about and the ship grounding, Forbes gave orders to heave the lead immediately before the vessel struck and while wearing the ship and both the order and the depth of 17 fathoms was heard by 3rd Mate, Saxby, the Surgeon and the 5th Mate. After she struck a cast of the lead was made all round the vessel. There were 18ft to 20ft all round the vessel but she drew more (about 24ft 6in at the stern when she departed from Liverpool).
One anchor chain was on deck, ready for bending, 5 days before the grounding and the other one got up the same day or the day before. First Mate Kean did not recall these events in exactly this form. He said that he got both chains on deck on 25th December. The 1st Mate said that Captain Forbes had told him to have everything ready but not to bend the anchors to prevent water entering the forecastle. (Apparently all Alexander Hall clippers, including the Schomberg, had their hawsepipes set low, which made water ingress a particular problem for them). It was claimed that the anchors were ready to be let go when the vessel struck and the starboard anchor was dropped when ordered, immediately after the vessel struck. There was an alternative account, that the starboard anchor was bent an hour before the ship struck, ie about 10pm on Wednesday 26th December, and the port anchor had been bent after the starboard anchor had been let go. The 1st Mate gave a slightly different version. He said that the cables were bent when the order was given to let go, though he did not know what time the anchors were deployed because he was not on duty. But separately he said that after the Captain gave the first order to let go, the anchor was dropped in 30 seconds and that he had put the stock of the anchor over the side himself. This conflicts with the account which said that it was an hour after the ship grounded before the anchor was dropped because all sail had been kept up to try to drive the vessel over the sandspit and that it was only after it became obvious that she was stuck that the sails were clewed up and the anchor let go. There was plenty of spare chain before the windlass. Coincidentally, the ship Gulnare of Glasgow was off Warrnambool on 26th December, bound for Melbourne. Her 1st Mate, William Gunn remembered Schomberg passing them at sea and he looked at her through his glass and saw that her port anchor was partly over the rail and partly on deck, an observation which was not corroborated by any of the Schomberg’s officers.
What are the fundamental differences between the “Forbes” and “Passenger” accounts
Ignoring minor variations in the accounts of individual recollections, relating to exact timing of events, etc and, for the moment, ignoring issues on which one side was silent, the two versions contrast markedly in 7 fundamental features concerning the fateful events of 26th December 1855. They are as follows.
1. How visible was the land at 10.30pm? "Forbes" says the land was faintly visible, about 4 to 5 miles distant, but the "Passengers" say land was distinctly visible not more than 2 miles, ahead and on both lee and weather bows and further that they were very close to surf .
2. How near to land was the ship at 11pm when she struck? The 1st Mate ("Forbes") estimated the distance at 1½ miles. The "Passengers" estimated it was much nearer than that.
3. Who called the Captain up at 10.30pm? "Forbes" says the Surgeon, Mr Hardy, while the "Passenger" say it was the Officer of the Watch, 3rd Mate, Jonathan Saxby.
4. How long before the order was given to ‘bout ship after the Captain came on deck? "Forbes" says it was immediately but the "Passengers" say it was at least 15 minutes.
5. After the ship struck the reef, how long was sail kept up? "Forbes" says it was kept up for an hour while it was attempted to drive the vessel over the reef, while the "Passengers" say the sails were clewed up immediately.
6. When were the anchor chains bent to the anchors? "Forbes" said they were bent before the ship struck, while the "Passengers" said the anchors were not bent until after the ship struck.
7. When were the anchors actually let go? "Forbes" says the starboard anchor was let go about an hour after the ship struck, while the "Passengers" say it was not until 2 ½ hours after the ship struck.
Was there a conspiracy?
It is an unavoidable conclusion, from the divergence between the two narratives, that either the passengers and Mr Hodges, on the one hand, or Captain Forbes and his officers , on the other hand, conspired together to give a false account of the Schomberg’s wrecking. So, who was telling “porky pies”?
Neither the passengers nor the officers formed a detached and disinterested group of bystanders. The passengers were bound together by the shared misfortune of being on the Schomberg when she was wrecked and thus landed on a foreign shore having, in many cases, lost almost all of their worldly possessions. Fairly or not, they quickly focussed on Captain Forbes as the author of their misfortune and attacked him in the press and at public meetings. They may well have wanted to see him identified as the villain and held to account. In those circumstances it might have been tempting to help the process along by at least exaggerating their claims. But an organised conspiracy of the passengers would have been difficult to accomplish. There were more than 400 of them, they had little opportunity to conspire between the wrecking late on 26th December, 1855 and their arrival at Hobson’s Bay on 28th December, after which various claims of Forbes’ immorality and incompetence surfaced in the press. Many of the passengers were independently-minded, they did not constitute an organised hierarchy with a powerful leader and they quickly held a provisional meeting to vent their grievances. At the subsequent main meeting, after an emotional start, Mr Trott, a fellow passenger, berated them for not giving concrete examples of the behaviours of which they were complaining. This was, in his opinion, “un-English” and contrary to that nation’s cherished sense of fair play. The audience took the upbraiding to heart and specific examples then poured forth. For all these reasons, an organised conspiracy by the passengers looks highly improbable.
Although, on its own, constituting no more than circumstantial evidence, a conspiracy by James Forbes and his officers would have been far easier both to organise and to enforce. The officers depended upon Forbes for patronage. Without his support they would not be offered continuing employment, or gain promotions, on Black Ball vessels. Helping their Captain out of a tight spot would be in their own future interests. Also, there were not many of them, essentially 1st to 5th mates, plus one or two extras. Several officers shared the same hotel, the British, giving them an opportunity to confer, while the ensuing legal processes were played out. Further, the narrative with which they needed to comply was readily available in the form of the letter of self-justification from Forbes to the editor of the Melbourne Argus, published on 4th January 1856. Forbes potentially faced ruin, if it were to be shown that he, the most famous clipper captain on the planet, had lost the newest, biggest and most admired clipper by carelessness, incompetence or design. His reputation would be destroyed and along with it his ability to gain prestigious new commands and his access to wealth. There was also a threat to both his moral standing and his family life half a world away in Liverpool. Forbes clearly had a motive.
Who was telling lies?
There are some sources of evidence on specific issues that can reasonably be taken as both informed and objective. There are also other sources of information, which by their origin would have been difficult to maintain as part of a conspiracy. How can such information be used to evaluate the contrasting positions of "Forbes" and the "Passengers"?
Could an experienced sailor have been expected to detect the coastal current? A correspondent in the Argus, “Davy Jones”, pointed out that if there was a 4 knot current running in a westerly direction along the coast Forbes should have noticed it as he tacked in and out through the period 24th to 26th December. Also, casting the lead indicates both depth and drift. However, according to the 1st Mate, Mr Kean, the current was discovered not by means of the lead, while the ship was wearing, but after the ship struck, when a small boat was launched.
In which direction was the coastal current flowing? Captain Forbes and his officers consistently claimed that a 4 knot current was running in a westerly direction and that it was known to local seafarers. However, Captain John Allan, a mariner from Warrnambool, wrote to the editor of the Age, describing Forbes’ claim as “fabulous”. He said that any seasoned mariner from that coast, including himself and Captain Gray, would testify that the current there always ran to the east, even against an east wind. In support of his statement he pointed out that most of the floating wreckage from the Schomberg was to be found to the east of the wreck site, not the west. Much later, when the bow section of the Schomberg broke free and floated away, it too went in an easterly direction, ending up in New Zealand. Reference to modern charts shows that the main current along the south coast of Australia does indeed run from west to east. (I’m indebted to Ron Sproston of the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum for directing me to information on present day currents.). There seems little doubt that Forbes’ claim of a 4 knot east to west current was false.
Did the Ship really have 17 fathoms when she missed stays? According to Forbes and his officers the Schomberg was stranded in 3 to 4 fathoms of water. When the steamer Queen arrived on site 4 hours later she anchored about 2 cables (approximately 200metres) away in 7 fathoms of water. Doubts were expressed in the press that when the Schomberg missed stays, she could possibly have had 17 fathoms, since Captain Forbes said that the lead had been cast immediately before the vessel struck. It might also be considered remarkable that so many officers heard both the command to cast the lead and the 17 fathom result of the cast, when neither any passenger, nor the Boatswain heard the depth being called out. This was at a time when the decks were well populated with passengers.
Were the anchors really bent and ready to let go before the Vessel struck? Several passengers gave evidence, often in great detail, relating to various aspects of the process of preparing the anchors. A typical example is the evidence of passenger JDB Carr who wrote as follows in response to the letter of Captain Forbes in the Argus. “…neither of the chains were bent, both of the hause holes were plugged up, nor was there a single lashing cast off the anchors which confined them to the forecastle head during the voyage. I was on the forecastle when the ship struck. I was there when the starboard anchor was ordered to be let go, which with their greatest dispatch could not be done for at least 35 minutes. I was one of those who assisted the chief officer of the Schomberg in prizing the anchors over the bow with handspikes and it was with considerable difficulty and much delay that her hauspipe was cleared….. the ship’s ground tackle was not ready for immediate use, as safety and marine laws require…” . The newspapers too were convinced that the passengers were telling the truth. The Age reporting on the passengers’ public meeting of 3rd January said, “Forbes’ assertion that the anchor was ready to be deployed looks very weak when so many testified at the passenger meeting that it was otherwise, including one passenger who was himself a seaman.” The Argus, too, was unconvinced by Forbes’ account. “We have no doubt whatsoever that the anchors were not ready to let go at the time when they would probably have saved the ship.” When Captain Matthews, the Lloyds Agent at Melbourne came aboard the Schomberg on 29th December he told Forbes that it was reported in town that the chains were not bent. Forbes replied that the chains were bent but did not say when this had occurred and 1st Mate Kean, who was present, confirmed what the captain had said. Matthews then asked to see the ship’s log and asked if the bending of the chains had been written up and Forbes said he believed it had been, but on checking the log, Matthews found that there was no entry confirming the action and Forbes then admitted that no entry had been made.
Was the ship really 1 ½ miles offshore when she struck at 11pm? The ship appears to have immediately stuck fast and not moved appreciably in the intervening years, maintaining her orientation with her head out to sea. This is not surprising since she must have been holed very quickly and started to fill with water. Less than a day after being stranded her hold was reported to be flooded to a depth of 12ft. The “sandbank” must have had a rocky base. The present location of the wreck on Schomberg reef is less than 1/3 mile from land. Don Charlwood, on visiting the location, estimated the wreck site to be about 1/5 mile offshore.
On all 5 of the above points the Forbes account is deeply suspect. There are other questions directly bearing upon the cause of the Schomberg’s loss which do not derive from the differences detected in the two narratives of the wrecking.
Was Forbes’ reported behaviour on the Schomberg exaggerated? Earlier an assessment of Forbes’ personality was made using incidents from his life before he became master of the Schomberg. In summary, Forbes had a volatile personality and, while he could be charming, civilised and excellent company, even minor transgressions by subordinates could instantly make him become physically violent and verbally abusive. He was authoritarian, over-sensitive to criticism and adhered to the dictum “Do as I say and not as I do”. Forbes was single-minded, driven and had a strong belief in his own abilities as a navigator and practical seaman. He was a fearless risk-taker, even reckless, but cool in an emergency. Looking in total at Forbes’ behaviour on the Schomberg, as reported by the passengers, all the incidents seem to fall comfortably within this established behavioural envelope, with the exception of sexual liaisons, which had not been reported from his previous voyages. It is not obvious that the Schomberg’s passengers were exaggerating in any way. The Tasmanian Daily News took a similar line, saying, “But the charges themselves are of such a character as would hardly have been hazarded at a public meeting, without some very strong foundations.”
Does this conclusion extend to Forbes’ behaviour towards and with women? Forbes was often charming in the company of upper class women, which seems to have resulted in the lady passengers on the Lightning presented him with a handsome silver goblet. Similarly, a 1st class passenger on the Schomberg noted, “Nothing can exceed his attention to the ladies, and (don’t smile, for it is true) he is quite a courtier in his manner to them.” However, his behaviour towards women of lower status was probably less charming and more sexually direct. In Liverpool, an action was brought by Catalina Field, one of the stewardesses on board of the ship Lightning during her passage from Melbourne to Liverpool, against Captain Forbes. The nature of the action was not disclosed but Forbes agreed to pay £40 into Court as a surety in the event of the case going against him. The trial was due to be heard on 30th November 1854 but appears never to have taken place, suggesting that Forbes may have bought Miss Field off to avoid public disclosure of the evidence against him. Later, when Forbes returned to Australia in 1857 as master of the Hastings, he was charged with the attempted rape of a servant of Mr GS Warry on the 3rd day of the Ipswich Races (near Brisbane). He was acquitted but the Argus commented. “Had the defendant been charged with common assault, it is very likely he would have been convicted and fined, perhaps the heaviest penalty for such an offence; for it is absolutely necessary, for the sake of public morality and public decency, that virtuous females should be protected against the libertine advances of amorous gentlemen like Captain Forbes, who it appears, has this time “caught a tartar”.”
The claims that both Forbes and the Surgeon carried on intense liaisons with two young female passengers (Miss Hart, the Surgeon’s moll was 18, while Dr Hardy was 47 and Forbes was 35) are believable because of the multiplicity of witnesses and the detail of the incidents described. As with the matter of bending of the chains to the anchors, it looks highly unlikely that these incidents involving the two women could have been wholly made up by the passengers, though in those repressed Victorian times, some exaggeration would not be surprising. Forbes’ wife Jane did not enjoy good health and she is thought to have travelled on only one journey to Australia with him, the second Marco Polo voyage. The temptation to participate in a sexual liaison in the absence of his wife, especially one freely proffered, may have been difficult for Forbes to resist. The conclusion must be that the reports of Forbes’ behaviour do not seem to have been invented and possibly not generally exaggerated.
Why was the Schomberg ever allowed to get close to a dangerous, uncharted coast? The chart of the Victoria coast that Forbes was using was probably that created by the cartographer and navigator Matthew Flinders about 50 years previously. Flinders was a cautious surveyor and did not go closer in than 20 fathoms, the consequence of which was that his charts cannot be relied upon for near coastal features. Experienced mariners in the region were aware that the coast was very dangerous, partly because of the rocky nature and partly because of the absence of a detailed survey. When news of the Schomberg’s stranding became known the first reaction by the press was to question how Schomberg could have got into such a spot when she did not need to be there. The Age commented, “In the first place the intelligence that the Schomberg had gone ashore outside Cape Otway (the location of the wreck was not then precisely known) took everyone by surprise and promoted the ready question, How could the vessel have possibly got there?” Forbes claimed that he had to pass through the area in order to get from Cape Bridgewater to Cape Otway. Others speculated that he was working his way along the coast in order to avoid King Island on the approach to Cape Otway. Another suggestion was that he was trying to save time but none of these proposals explains why he came so close to the coast before he tacked out again. Close in the wind is calmer but currents are more likely to be encountered. Schomberg was a big ship and built for speed, being long and narrow. As such she was not particularly responsive and thus at risk of missing stays, if tacked in light winds.
Captain Doran, the master of the steamship which rescued the passengers knew the Otway coast well and could speak with some authority. He plied regularly between Melbourne and Warrnambool. “Perhaps I might have gone within 4 or 5 miles. According to the evidence I have heard today, I would not have gone so near the shore if I could have avoided it…..” Captain B Matthews, the Lloyds agent at Melbourne, had experience as master of a ship for 20 years. He accepted that “nautical men differ in their judgement as to what course to pursue in reference to keeping near to the shore. I have always been a prudent man and have run no risks. I might have kept 5 miles from shore. Captain Devey, master of a sailing ship just arrived from England on his 4th trip to Australia said, “I would not have approached the coast nearer than 3 or 4 miles.” The independent opinion was clear: keep away from the coast in a sailing ship.
Should the anchors have been let go earlier? (Assuming they were ready to be deployed)
Experienced, independent captains were cautious with their opinions. Captain Matthews said, “When the ship missed stays, not having room to wear, I should have let the anchor go at all risks. If I had room to wear neither I nor any other sailor would have let the anchor go. I should be encumbered with the anchor and perhaps got on shore with it.” There was a general recognition that letting the anchor go was not risk-free, but it was curious that Forbes and his officers consistently claimed that letting the anchors go when the ship missed stays would have led inevitably to disaster.
Inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the statements of Forbes and his officers.
There were significant inconsistencies in the various statements made by Forbes and his officers, particularly concerning the preparation and deployment of the anchors. The first mate gave two versions for bending the anchor chains to the anchors. These variations were as follows. 1. Anchors were both bent and ready to let drop at 11pm when the vessel struck. 2. The starboard anchor was bent at 10pm on 26th and the port anchor was bent immediately after the starboard anchor was let go, ie about 12 midnight. He was also confused about recording the depth of water measured immediately after the vessel missed stays. He said that he recorded 17 fathoms in the ship’s log but later it was shown that no entry had been made. Forbes also claimed that the entry had been made in the log. This unreliable evidence is certainly consistent with a conspiracy.
Did Forbes and his officers conspired to present a false version of the Schomberg’s wrecking?
It is concluded that there is a high probability that Captain Forbes with the assistance of his officers and perhaps one or two others, such as the 1st Mate of the Gulnare and some anonymous correspondents, participated in a conspiracy to present a version of the wrecking of the Schomberg which was at variance with the truth. Forbes had a contempt other authority, as demonstrated by his blatant lie concerning the serving of a summons on him on 6 January 1856 and it is likely that he lacked scruples. But why? How would Forbes have benefitted from such a deception? In a sense, James Forbes was already in trouble before the Schomberg was wrecked. Entirely as a result of adverse weather conditions, he was bound to make a slow passage. This would be very embarrassing given his previous stellar performances in the Marco Polo and the Lightning and his boastful claim that he would make the passage in the Schomberg in 60 days. His reputation as the greatest clipper captain would be bound to take a knock, though he might have avoided some of the damage by making a fast passage home. But if responsibility for the loss of the Schomberg had been pinned on him the magnitude of the damage would have been far greater. The following scenario sets out how events may have unfolded and accounts for the components of the alleged Forbes conspiracy. So, how might events have played out?
A hypothetical scenario for the wrecking of the Schomberg
Sometime during the voyage of the Schomberg from Liverpool to Port Phillip, Captain Forbes and Surgeon Dr Hardy made the acquaintance of two young women passengers. At some stage the relationship progressed to one of passion. The women may have been flattered to receive attention from the two most powerful men on the ship, one of them a household name, or they may have calculated that they would gain some advantage from sharing their sexual favours. The two men suffered from the arrogance of power and made little attempt to conceal the liaison from the other passengers. Many passengers did not approve of this licentiousness, especially from two men in positions of great responsibility. Passengers were also resentful of the women being granted privileges, such as eating from the Saloon table, even though they were not 1st class passengers. Probably the relationships were quite intense, given the passenger comment that “it was every day, all day and all night.”
Captain Forbes already knew by the time the ship reached Australian waters that she would achieve what for him would be a slow passage. As a consequence he was not driving the ship with his usual intensity and attention to detail, choosing instead to spend time with his young female companion. Forbes was a very experienced sailor and a skilled navigator and it cannot have been incompetence or stupidity which led him to leave his anchors unbent as he approached land, or to allow the vessel to get perilously close to a dangerous coast. But the distraction of a relationship with a young woman may well have led to him deviating from his usual attentiveness. Forbes was an authoritarian master with a foul temper when aroused and his fellow officers were very cautious and reluctant to act independently, without his specific instructions. As a consequence of this dominance, no one took it upon themselves to make good his omissions, though Hodges, the Boatswain had been courageous enough to ‘bout ship without orders when, on 24th December, they were first close to land at Cape Bridgewater. Even though strong adverse winds were slowing their progress towards Port Phillip, Captain Forbes must have been aware that he would only have a few more days to enjoy the sexual favours of his companion and there was Christmas to celebrate too. Once the passengers had disembarked they would be dispersed over a vast country and his absorbing liaison would come to an abrupt end. He had no incentive to save a few hours by hard driving.
During the evening of 26th December the ship was heading in towards the rocky coast near Moonlight Head at 5 – 8 knots, close-hauled on the starboard tack and with a strong easterly wind blowing. At 8pm there was a change of watch and 3rd officer Jonathan Saxby came on duty. It was a clear night and at about 9.15pm the moon rose. There were plenty of passengers on deck. Captain Forbes and Dr Hardy were planning an evening of fun in the captain’s cabin with their female companions, which would start with a session of cards. At 9pm land was just visible, though Saxby initially thought it was a fog bank. He called the skipper on deck and he identified the apparition as land. Forbes went back to his cabin. As the land got progressively closer passengers started to remark on their approach and Saxby again went to the Captain’s cabin door. Forbes was irritated by Saxby’s interruption and told him in no uncertain terms to go away, with the instruction to call him when the ship was on the beach. Forbes had intended this remark to be ironic but passengers who overheard it took it literally and thought he intended deliberately to run the vessel into the shore. This caused a lot of alarm.
All the time land was getting closer and trees could be seen, along with long runs of surf ahead and on both quarters. Saxby took the precaution of calling out all hands to prepare to go about but did not dare himself to give that order. At 10.30 Saxby again called up Captain Forbes, who took command. The assembled passengers and crew expected him to give the order to ‘bout ship immediately but he did not. Did they not know that he was the most famous clipper captain, who had been at sea since the age of 14? He was a cool operator and would take his time to assess the situation, free from the clamour of mere passengers who knew nothing of the sea. He had got out of tight situations before and was sure he would do so again. He scanned the coast with his telescope and went forward, speaking to Hodges, the boatswain, in the process. Hodges, clearly anxious that they should ‘bout ship without delay enquired of the Captain if it was time to do so, but he was not going to take advice from the ship’s boatswain either and replied that there was plenty of time. It was about 15 minutes after he arrived on deck that the Captain gave the order to put the helm down. By this time they were very close to land, not more than ½ a mile out and perhaps only 20 yards from the reef, indicated by white surf.
Progressively, as the ship had approached the coast, the wind had been falling. When the helm was put down, the ship initially turned to starboard but the wind then died away completely and she became unresponsive, the bow backing away to port. By this time Forbes must have realised he had a crisis on his hands. Had his anchors been ready to let go he would have done so, but they were not. He immediately wore the ship, to attempt to continue the bow coming round in an anti-clockwise direction, with the intention of getting her heading out to sea again. While this was going on he also called for the lead to be cast, to find what water was available and he commanded the 1st Mate to bend the chains to the anchors, though this was a lengthy process and the anchors would not be available to let go for at least 2 hours. The wearing initially went well and the sails caught a breeze, which picked up off the land. Hodges, who was working on the anchors was interrupted to work on the squaring of the afteryards. However, before the manouevre was completed the vessel ran onto the reef, striking it with her stern and lodging firmly on rocky ground under the sand. It was close to high water and because the vessel was so firmly lodged, there was no point in keeping sail up and the order was given to clew up the sails so as to limit the rolling of the vessel. As soon as the anchors were available they were deployed but it was 1.30 in the morning before they could be let go.
Forbes immediately realised that he would need to concoct a plausible story to account for the ship’s loss which deflected blame from himself to the “slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.” The components were as follows. The vessel missed stays because of the wind dying away near land, which was the first piece of misfortune he was to claim. He could not drop anchor because the chains were not bent so, to justify wearing the vessel, he had to invent plenty of water, hence the claim for 17 fathoms. But if he had 17 fathoms, why was the manoeuvre not completed successfully? He had then to invent a current running at 4 knots from east to west pushing him onto a sandbank, neither the current, which he claimed to be ignorant of, nor the sandbank, being marked on the chart. He had depended on the chart but it had let him down. If he claimed that the sails had been left up to try to drive the vessel over the sandbank, it would imply that they were barely stranded. Although the anchors had not been let go until 2 ½ hours after the stranding, Forbes claimed they were let go after 1 hour when he realised the ship could not easily be got off. He claimed he did not bend the chains to the anchors 3 or 4 days before making land, as was his normal practice, because he was trying to avoid ingress of water to the forecastle. He flatly denied passenger claims that the anchors were not bent at the time that the vessel missed stays. The 3rd officer’s claim that he asked the doctor to call the captain was invented to throw doubt on the passengers’ allegation that the doctor was actually in the Captain’s cabin with Forbes and Miss Hart. The estimates of distances at sea made by passengers could not be relied upon because they lacked experience and the captain and some of his officers exaggerated the distances from land to justify not acting earlier. Why was the ship so close to a dangerous coast? The best Forbes could manage was that he had to pass through the area. The charge of immoral personal behaviour by himself and the surgeon? It was ignored. He would not even acknowledge such an outrageous allegation.
As has been seen, a combination of an unhelpful legal framework in the colony, incompetence on the part of Government law officers and smart legal defence of Forbes’ case allowed him to steer clear of the dangerous shoals of giving evidence on oath and having the veracity of that evidence tested under cross-examination. Forbes appeared to have escaped from another tight spot by staying cool and using his wits. Or had he? The Australian newspapers eventually reached Britain and some of the articles, including the juicy ones, were reprinted. He and Dr Hardy would still have some explaining to do when they got home.
Forbes’ defence post-trial
Before he left he continued to marshall his defences against the charges, legal, professional and moral that had been laid against him. He had won in the High Court but he had yet to be exonerated in the court of public opinion. At the end of his trial in the High Court his barrister, Mr Dawson stated that he had brought to court several first class passengers from the Schomberg, along with a number of masters of other vessels who, had the case gone to trial would have testified for Forbes concerning professional matters of seamanship and issues relating to his conduct. The Melbourne Argus, always more favourable to Forbes than its rival the Age, gave prominence to a number of letters from Forbes supporters and also published a favourable editorial exonerating Forbes. “Certainly these letters are very staggering to any one whose mind has been prejudiced against Captain Forbes, but who is not insensible to the force and weight of evidence. Nothing could be more satisfactory than these testimonials to character, unless we can suppose the writers without any conceivable interest in doing so, have joined in a conspiracy to deceive the public on a question so easily brought to the test. Captain Forbes is perfectly entitled, therefore, to consider himself exonerated on this point of personal character.”
Captain Forbes and Doctor Hardy return to Britain
James Nicol Forbes left Australia for Britain on the first available Black Ball ship, the Ocean Chief under Captain Tobin, which left about 8th March, 1856. The vessel arrived off St Ives, Cornwall, not a usual calling place for Black Ballers, on Friday evening, 9th May, the journey having taken 73 days. Forbes then travelled by rail to Liverpool arriving late on Saturday evening. Once back he continued spinning the events reported from Australia for the benefit of the British audience, including his wife and family and those of Dr Hardy.
Hardy probably travelled home with Forbes in the Ocean Chief and then dashed back to Kirkaldy where his wife and family lived and where he was a prominent member of the Church of Scotland, not an organisation known for its tolerance of moral laxity. He was immediately required to appear before an ecclesiastical court to answer the claims which had been made concerning his Christian and moral character during his time as surgeon on the Schomberg. Apparently he was cleared by the church court, though how they could meaningfully address events claimed to have occurred on board an emigrant ship half a world away is difficult to comprehend.
Captain Forbes successfully continues his defence in Britain
Knowledge of the loss of the Schomberg reached Britain on 22nd March 1856 with the arrival of the Lightning at Queenstown. Full reports of the sensational revelations made at the indignation meeting held by the Schomberg's passengers on 3rd January were published in Lloyds List on 6th April. On his return to Britain, Forbes quickly penned a letter to the press. It appeared in the Liverpool Daily News on Tuesday, 13th May and was widely reprinted. He claimed that the report was “entirely one-sided and did me a grievous wrong”. His line of attack was familiar: ignore the specifics of the charges, point to the decisions of the courts and the opinions of upper class passengers, who could be more readily believed that the lower orders who were the authors of the allegations. Forbes claimed there were two charges levelled against him and one against the ship. He said he was charged with bad seamanship and immoral conduct and the charge against the ship concerned the supply of bad provisions. Forbes’ presentation in this way obscured the fact that two of the so-called charges were in a court of law and one in the court of public opinion. It also obscures the fact that, as skipper, he was in absolute control of everything that happened on the vessel, including the supply of provisions and he did stand accused in that capacity.
His defence for the charges of bad seamanship and bad provisions was that the courts had thrown them out “instantly”, which was an exaggeration. Thus, he claimed, his character as a sailor was unaffected. An observer in Australia might have found difficulty in acceding to that opinion. Forbes’ defence on the “charge” of immorality was to point out that he and Dr Hardy had been coupled together in the accusation and that Hardy had been exonerated in an ecclesiastical court. For good measure Forbes referred to a letter of support from a passenger, Rev Ross, who was a Wesleyan minister. He “would not have tolerated the gross immoralities so vilely alleged against me.”
James Baines, Captain Forbes and the Hastings
The British newspapers were more interested in the verdicts of the Australian courts than the evidence presented in them and took the outcome as a vindication of Captain Forbes. The wrecking of the Schomberg quickly became old news in Britain and disappeared from the pages of the press. But it seems likely that Forbes’ acquittal did not wipe the slate clean for James Baines, his employer and friend. He was not offered any Black Ball command and Forbes did not return to sea for 7 months. Perhaps James Baines’ calculation was a simple commercial one. He could hardly advertise Forbes as a fast and safe master of a Black Ball vessel, especially one carrying unaccompanied female passengers, without risking the Schomberg affair being brought back to public attention. Captain Forbes, although exonerated in the courts of law concerning his skills as a seaman, had stood accused of a flagrant violation of societal norms. In these circumstances it seems that James Forbes decided that in order to continue his career he would have to become a ship owner himself and to take over the captaincy of his own vessel.
The Hastings was a 997 ton register wooden ship built in 1853 by B Appleby at Hampton, New Brunswick. In late 1856, the Hastings, under Captain Marshall, sailed for Quebec, possibly taking emigrants out but certainly bringing timber back. After that voyage she was sold to James Forbes and at least one other financial partner, whose identity is presently unknown. It is claimed that Forbes did not require a mortgage to buy his share of this ship, an indicator of the wealth he had accumulated during his long and successful career. Hastings’ first assignment in Forbes’ ownership was to sail under the Black Ball flag in fulfilment of a contract with the Emigration Commissioners for the transport of emigrants to Moreton Bay, Queensland (ie Brisbane). When Black Ball advertisements appeared in the newspapers slating Hastings to sail for Australia in February 1857, her master was identified as Captain Jones and this designation was maintained until she actually left Birkenhead for the antipodes on February 21st 1857, or thereby. Immediately after she had sailed, the Liverpool Daily Post and the Liverpool Mail both identified her master as Captain Alexander Newlands. He was another famous Black Ball master, who hailed from Liverpool and who had sailed the Champion of the Seas, James Baines’ second Donald Mackay clipper, on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic and on her first return journey to Australia. On board the Hastings but as a passenger was her new part-owner, James Nicol Forbes! It is a reasonable supposition that James Baines would not allow Forbes to be designated as master on a Black Ball flagged vessel to avoid the risk of bad publicity, though he was happy enough with Forbes part-owning the vessel.
The Hastings arrived in Moreton Bay, the location of Brisbane, on 30th May 1857 carrying 385 passengers in total. There had been two infant deaths and 5 births during the journey and very little sickness. At the destination the passengers called a meeting on board ship to thank the captain, the surgeon and the officers for their care and consideration during the voyage and the meeting ended with the singing of the National Anthem. The total journey time had been 93 days which was reasonably fast, given that they called at Queenstown, presumably to pick up emigrants and at Sydney to drop off Captain Forbes. While crossing Moreton Bay the Hastings was briefly grounded on a sandspit and was initially thought to be undamaged. Passengers were ferried ashore by the steamer Breadalbane, landing at Brisbane, starting on Wednesday 3rd June and hiring got underway the following day. An advertisement appeared in the local newspaper on 13th June offering for sale the fittings of the Hastings, consisting of the well-seasoned pine boards which had been used to construct the passengers’ berths, application to be made to Captain Forbes. Once the journey had been completed, Newlands had left the vessel and Forbes assumed command.
The ship had the usual range of crew troubles while at anchor. This included 7 seamen who tried to dupe the chief officer, Dennis Black into letting them take a boat to search for an alleged man overboard. Black did not fall for the ruse, but they took a boat anyway and 5 of the gang ended in gaol for between 4 and 12 weeks. Two other seamen tried to jump ship by pushing off on a floating stage which had been used to effect repairs to the bow. They washed up on Moreton Island several days later in a famished condition. They were then taken off by the steamer Yarra Yarra but then jumped overboard from that vessel and tried to swim to shore, where they were prevented from landing by the local Aborigines. The fugitives were rescued by chief mate of the Hastings, Dennis Black. Eventually, the absconders were sent down for a month each. In a separate action, another crew member successfully sued Captain Forbes for unpaid wages.
Captain Forbes accused of attempted rape
Having left the ship to visit Sydney, Forbes subsequently moved on to Brisbane to re-join his vessel and take command. While at Brisbane he stayed with friends at Ipswich, 20 miles SW of the city, apparently to attend the races. They had been held regularly at the local race track since 1852. On the evening of the 11th June, which was the 3rd day of the races, he apparently propositioned, Jane Johnson, a female servant of chemist, Mr GS Warry. She subsequently claimed that Forbes had tried to rape her. He was brought up at the Police Court in Brisbane on a warrant issued by the Ipswich bench. Forbes was bound over in the sum of £500 and two sureties of £250 each to appear before the Ipswich bench the following day at 10am. Forbes did not attend as required, saying that he was told the steamer, which was due to go to Ipswich on Wednesday morning, would not be calling there. The Brisbane magistrates accepted his story and he finally appeared to answer the charge a day late.
The Ipswich magistrates then, unusually, ordered that the hearing would be held in private and the police magistrate requested the single press reporter present to withdraw. He successfully argued to remain, but was only allowed to do so on condition that he give an undertaking not to publish the evidence unless it was read and deposited in open court. The North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser commenting on the decision of the magistrates said, “As a general rule we decidedly object to these secret inquisitions by the magistracy as making too great a distinction between the rich and the poor, and savouring too much of partiality towards the former. “ But then conceded that “in the present case there can be no doubt whatsoever that considering the serious nature of the charges against Captain Forbes and the very doubtful and unsatisfactory evidence to support it we have no hesitation in saying that there were very slight grounds indeed for preferring a grave charge of this kind against the defendant.” The Melbourne Argus, less helpfully, reminded its readers that Captain Forbes had been master of the Schomberg and implied that Forbes’ approach to Miss Johnson had had libidinous intent. The examination of the case by the magistrates lasted from 10am to 8pm when the bench dismissed the case. It is likely that there was some substance to the accusation if the magistrates needed 10 hours to reach their decision. Again Forbes had avoided having to defend his actions in open court.
The wrecking of the Hastings
The Hastings, with Forbes now in command, left Moreton Bay on 6th September 1857 but had to run to Sydney, due to the damage inflicted on her entry into Moreton Bay, which caused her to leak. She soon got away again and headed for Bombay on the west coast of India, which she reached before the end of the year. Almost the whole of 1858 and 1859 was spent by James Forbes travelling in the Hastings between the ports of Bombay, Colombo and Calcutta in India and Rangoon in Burma. This occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Mutiny when, in addition to the normal commercial opportunities, there was also much demand from the military for ship transport.
The Hastings left Bombay on 20 Dec 1857, called at Colombo from 4th to 6th January, 1858 ,arriving off Sagar Island at the mouth of the Hooghli River on 31st January and then travelling on to Calcutta. Starting on 10th March the Hastings returned from Calcutta to Bombay, where she arrived on 9th June. On July 3rd the Hastings returned to the Indian east coast. While at Calcutta, the she suffered minor damage from a collision involving several vessels. The steamer Queen Victoria lost her anchor chains in Garden Reach and collided with the Stuart Wortley, setting her adrift and both vessels then crashed into the Margaret and the Bushire Merchant. Finally, all the vessels ran into the Hastings which was reported to be due to leave for Moulemein, the capital of British Burma. Surprisingly, apart from losing anchors there was no serious damage to any of the vessels.
The next voyage undertaken by the Hastings, according to Lloyd’s List, was actually from Calcutta to Rangoon in Burma which lay on the other (west) side of the Gulf of Martaban from Moulemein. She left Rangoon on 19th November 1858 for Bombay, reaching that port on 14th December. On 30th January of the following year Hastings returned to Rangoon, reaching her destination on 11th March before returning to Bombay. When the Hastings arrived at her destination she was in a leaky condition and was making 10 in. of water per hour. She was hauled out of dock and her defects made good.
Forbes had been constantly at work as master of the vessel since he assumed command in Australia and, contrary to some suggestions, he does not seem to have spent much time ashore. His next plan seems to have been to return to Britain, but taking a cargo which could be sold on arrival. By 4th November 1859 Hastings had travelled from Bombay to the Kooria Mooria Islands in the Gulf of Oman. These islands had been ceded to Queen Victoria in 1856 by the Imam of Muscat. They possessed workable deposits of guano, though in much smaller quantities than Ichaboe and the Chincha Islands off Peru. Forbes is reported to have loaded with 1300 tons of avian excreta and left for the Cape of Good Hope, the onward journey up the Atlantic and home. From 24th to 28th December Hastings encountered strong westerly gales and sprung a leak which caused Forbes to abandon her about 130 miles up the coast to the north of Port Elizabeth. James Forbes and his crew were rescued by the French barque, Chevreuil. It appeared that the Hastings was about to sink but she was still afloat the next day, when the Craigievar took her in tow in an attempt at salvage. One day later the Hastings was finally cut adrift and became a total wreck, debris and seamen’s chests washing up along the coast. Thus Forbes lost both his ship and her cargo. It is not known if either was insured. James Forbes left Cape Town to return to Britain in the steamer Celt, on her regular run to Plymouth, in the middle of January, 1860.
Captain Forbes’ sailing career – the final phase
After Forbes’ period as part-owner and master of the Hastings ended he next appears to have gone into partnership with John Dixon, a Liverpool sailmaker, in a chandlery. At the time of the 1861 Census, which was held on the night of 7/8 April, James Nicol Forbes and his wife, Jane, were boarders at 21/22 Cecil Street, St Clement Danes, Westminster. Perhaps this was a holiday for the long-suffering Mrs Forbes as James was about to return to the sea. According to Michael Stammers James Forbes may have served as master in the ship Earl of Derby in the early 1860s, though he conceded that his source may not have be reliable. A search of Lloyd's List for this period reveals several ships by the name of the Earl of Derby but none of them was commanded by James Forbes. However, it is possible that James Forbes who, according to Stammers, was working as agent for the owners of the Earl of Derby at this time, was involved in the salvage of the Earl of Derby when she was wrecked on the Irish coast in both 1861 and 1862.
Also according to Michael Stammers, Forbes commanded a ship called the Ajax in both 1862 and 1864 on trips to Montreal. Lloyds' records verify that he was taken on to skipper a vessel called the Ajax in 1862 but provide no support for a similar appointment in 1864, when he was master of the General Windham (see below). There were several ships with the name Ajax plying their trade on the oceans of the world at that time and, in the 1860s, newspaper reports often did not record the name of a ship's master, as they had done formerly. The details of Forbes' association with the Ajax remain elusive.
James Forbes did command a ship, the General Wyndham in the mid-1860s. On 17th June 1863 She left Liverpool for Calcutta with James Forbes as her master. Her date of arrival is not currently known but on 22nd March 1864, while leaving Calcutta for China, the General Windham came into contact with another sailing vessel, the Warwick Castle, in Garden Reach. Forbes' ship suffered considerable damage and put back to Calcutta but as all the damage was topsides, she did not need to be taken out of the water. Damage to the Warwick Castle was limited to her having had her wheel knocked away and, after survey, she proceeded. Lubbock gives an account of Forbes from his time in China. He was described as a “a seedy broken down looking skipper, with the forced joviality of a broken-hearted man. He discussed the passage down the China Seas (it was SW monsoon time) with some of the tea clipper captains and displayed all his old bravado, declaring he would “force a passage”. In spite of his big talk he took 50 days to Anjer. Lubbock also said, “I have come across one characteristic story of his visit to Hong Kong. He was insulted by two Americans on the Waterfront; in a moment he had his coat off and did not let up until he had given them a good thrashing.” As is often the case with Lubbock, the source of these stories is unclear. The date of the return of the General Windham to Britain is not known. At the beginning of September 1865 the General Wyndham, under James Forbes sailed from Liverpool for Charleston to collect a cargo of cotton. She arrived back in the Mersey on 6th February 1866 after a very fast passage in 17 days. So, Forbes did still have the ability to drive a ship hard. There followed a third passage in the General Windham for James Forbes. On 22nd February 1866 she entered outwards at Liverpool for Charleston, though further details of this journey are not currently available.
Return to the Marco Polo
James Forbes had been a shareholder in the Marco Polo, the vessel in which he had made two spectacular round trips to Australia in less than 6 months in 1852 and 1853, but he sold his 8 shares to James Baines in 1863. She was still sailing under the Black Ball flag in 1866 but was becoming run down with old age. Also, she had suffered severe damage to her bows in the Southern Ocean when she collided with an iceberg. Perhaps Baines held on to the vessel for so long because of the cachet attached to her name. At this time the Marco Polo was commanded by Captain Arnold and on May 4th 1866 she arrived back in London after a round trip to Australia. She was slated to return to Australia as the regular Black Ball packet on 5th July. On his return Arnold was appointed master of a new vessel, the British Consul. Sadly Captain Arnold never took up his new appointment. He caught cholera and in a few days had died at his home in Birkenhead in the middle of October 1866. Sadly his wife was pregnant at the time. The Marco Polo did not sail as scheduled and it is thought that her next voyage under the Black Ball flag began on 5th February 1867 from Liverpool for Mobile. Fittingly her master was James Nicol Forbes, who had apparently already retired. The reason for his return is unclear. It would be appealing to suppose that it was a nostalgic return to the scene of his early triumphs in the ship which made him a household name but, equally likely, James Baines may simply have needed a skipper in a hurry and, since passengers were not involved, turned to Forbes. The voyage did not start well. Two days after departure Marco Polo was back in port for urgent repairs before resuming her journey on 12th February. She arrived in Mobile on 17th April, after a rather slow passage but was quicker on her return to Liverpool arriving back at her home port on 3rd June. She then appears to have had a further trip to Mobile under the command of James Forbes and on August 12th 1867 Marco Polo arrived back at her home port and discharged her load of cotton. James Nicol Forbes was paid off for the last time and retreated to his home at 78 Westbourne Street, Everton, which overlooked the Mersey with its constant comings and goings. The Marco Polo was moved to the Queen’s Dock and put up for sale, her intended date of disposal being advertised for 12th September, though it is not clear that she was actually sold at this time. Thus ended the sailing career of a remarkable man. He had lived life in the fast lane since he went to sea at the age of about 14 and was only 46 when he retired, though he had spent 32 years in the Mercantile Marine, at least 20 of them as a master.
James Nicol Forbes’ family life
Like many sea captains in foreign trade, James Forbes married quite late and had only a limited family. He wed his first wife Jane Duncan, a Glaswegian, at St Michael’s Anglican Church on 29th May 1849. Jane was only 17 at the time and James was 28. They only had one daughter, Margaret Jane, born 19th February 1851. She would have been conceived in mid-May 1850, after the return of James Forbes from Callao in the Cleopatra. Apparently, Jane Forbes (nee Duncan) did not enjoy robust health. She is thought only to have travelled on one journey with her husband, the second Marco Polo voyage between early March 1853 and mid-September of the same year. It is reported that Jane Forbes became seriously ill in 1857 and she died at the young age of 32 in September 1864. James Forbes’ whereabouts at the time are not known. When her mother died, Margaret Jane Forbes was only 13. She married Robert Neild, a cotton manufacturer of Pennington, Leigh in 1868, when she was only 17. It appeared that she had made a good marriage and the couple produced two girls and two boys between 1869 and 1877 but her husband then died and Margaret Jane may have fallen on hard times. At the Census of 1881 her occupation was given as ship’s stewardess. At about this time she married for a second time to John Mann another ship’s steward. The two boys from Margaret Jane’s first marriage, Robert and John Neild also went to sea, Robert becoming a chef and John a steward. According to Michael Stammers, the two boys took the surname Forbes-Mann in recognition of the achievements of their famous grandfather. The Forbes connection with the sea was thus maintained, but not in an elevated position in the mercantile marine hierarchy.
Forbes remarried in April 1866 to Ann Bellman, who hailed from Oxford. The marriage produced one child, a son, James Nicol Forbes jun., who was born in 1867. James jun. did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He led a relatively short and possibly dissolute life as a barman. In 1901 he was a patient at the West Derby Union Infirmary, originally a workhouse but subsequently converted to a hospital for the poor. He appears never to have married and he died at the age of 41 in 1908.
What conclusions have other writers reached about the wrecking of the Schomberg?
It is interesting to compare the conclusions reached here with those reached by other writers concerning Captain Forbes’ behaviour and the wrecking of the Schomberg. Basil Lubbock mentions the charge of immorality against Forbes, but did not give an opinion on the veracity or otherwise of the passengers’ claims. Michael Stammers consistently gave Forbes the benefit of the doubt. Regarding the near-wrecking of the Lightning on the Kerguelens in 1854 he wrote “This was in no way Forbes’ fault, and his own excellent seamanship and the weatherly qualities of the Lightning extricated them from this dangerous situation…” And with regard to the Schomberg Stammers wrote “The passengers, many of whom had lost all their possessions in the wreck, were out to pillory him as the cause of their misfortunes and he and his officers were the subject of all kinds of slanderous remarks…….and all their grievances about food and accommodation were dredged up….” And relating to Hodges’s evidence. “…but it was proved that he had been bribed by the passengers and his evidence was worthless.” However, Stammers did say with regard to the attempted rape allegation against Forbes that this incident “perhaps suggests that the charges of immorality laid at his door after the Schomberg’s wreck “might have had some substance.” Don Charlwood was the only author to come close to the conclusions reached here about Forbes. Charlwood wrote as follows in relation to Forbes on the night of the wrecking. “One can only speculate whether involvement with her or feelings over parting from her were factors distracting Forbes from his duty. It is clear enough that his ship was not the matter of prime importance to him that night”. Of the indignation meeting, Charlwood wrote. ”Distasteful though the tone of the indignation meeting had been, one can scarcely escape the conclusion that Forbes had female distractions.” What is totally new about the present investigation is the claim that Forbes and his officers engaged in a conspiracy to deflect blame for the loss of the Schomberg from the captain’s distraction by a young woman to “hazard of the sea”, something over which he had no control.
James Forbes had lived his life at a fast pace, accumulating deep sea sailing experience from the age of 14 or so, becoming master of the Prince of Waterloo only 11 or 12 years later and being entrusted with the biggest and fastest clippers some 6 years after that. Forbes had also been blessed with an amazing amount of good luck, that is the coincidence of events which had a beneficial outcome. When he lost the Prince of Waterloo in the St Lawrence he was fortunate that the Wilson Kennedy was ready for delivery but needed a master. When he found himself among the Kerguelens at night, it was not just skill which got him out of that tight corner. When the Schomberg was wrecked it was adjacent to the only sandy beach for many miles of a dangerous rocky coast. He also had a big measure of luck in the, for him, beneficial circumstances surrounding the various trials he had to face, the inadequate legal framework, the incompetence of the prosecution, the dispersion of prosecution witnesses and the inexplicable decision of Sir Thomas a’Becket.. But, the biggest beneficial coincidence of them all was probably his presence in Liverpool at the start of the boom in emigration to Australia, which gave him the stage on which he could shine.
James Forbes’ ascendancy to the captaincy of the Schomberg in 1855 should have been the next step upwards in his, to that time, stellar career. Instead, sexual dalliance, coupled with hubris, led to his fall from grace. Although he continued sailing for some time he was no longer a figure of national pride and was relegated largely to grubbing around in old tubs for the remaining years of his sailing career. He had escaped the worst consequences of the loss of the Schomberg by keeping his cool while in a tight corner, as he had done on other occasions throughout his career. His wits did not desert him in the Schomberg aftermath and he successfully navigated the storms and shoals of the legal process and the scorn of a largely sceptical public by inventing an account for Schomberg’s loss which blamed outside causes. However, it is proposed here that he left behind enough evidence of his calculated deception for the truth of the matter finally to emerge almost exactly 160 years after the wrecking.
Captain James Nicol Forbes died of pneumonia at his home in Everton on 4th June 1874. He was only 53. When his first wife, Jane had died in 1864 she was buried in a brick vault in Smithdown Road Cemetery. James Forbes was buried in the same lair. Curiously, the brother of his second wife was also buried there. The grand monument raised above the grave bears the inscription “The late commander of the celebrated clipper ship Marco Polo”. This is fitting because, of all the voyages that Forbes undertook, it was the two journeys to Australia in the Marco Polo, “the fastest ship in the world” that established his status in the public mind and made him a household name throughout Britain and beyond. While he had many faults, his brilliant navigational skills, seamanship and relentless drive for a fast passage deservedly place him high in the pantheon of British maritime history. His colourful personality also ensured that he will not quickly be forgotten for other reasons too.