Seamen were are tough bunch of men. They crewed the First Fleet ships, fathered children to convict women, settled in the new colony, while others died on the inward and outward voyages. Life at sea during the age of sail was filled with dangers, even though these men were familiar with the discomfort and hardship of ship life.
Seamen were separated from their homes and families for long periods at sea. They were crowded below decks in skimpy and cramped living conditions, were often cold and wet, and were continually subjected to appalling dangers in the rigging of a rolling and pitching ship. Discipline on board ship was strict; if men disobeyed the Officers orders, they endured floggings with the cat o’ nine tails or other forms of punishment. But there was also a lighter side to this kind of life, often displayed in a sense of comradeship which arose from share privation and danger.
Sea rations were salt beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale, rum and some form of ship’s biscuit. The quality of food deteriorated rapidly because of storage problems, lack of ventilation, vermin, poor drainage and the long distances between ports for fresh food. The men often became sick, and died at sea as a result of scurvy (a deficiency of vitamin C, normally sourced from fresh fruit and vegetables).
Ship-wrecks were a major hazard of sea life; the loss of the Sirius on Norfolk Island and the relief ship Guardian, sent out from England, to an iceberg near the Cape of Good Hope with her valuable cargo, caused sever hard-ship to the colony.
Mollie Gillen wrote in The Founder of Australia; when the First Fleet sailed 323 Ships’ Crew had embarked, 17 died, discharged or ran on the voyage and 306 landed at Sydney Cove. Amongst the Trades and Occupations of Convicts, there were 33 known Seamen.
Joseph Bone, aged 40 from Plymouth, embarked on Supply on 24 November 1786 as carpenter’s crew. On 11 May 1787 he was promoted to carpenter’s mate. At Port Jackson on 13 July 1788 he was discharged, being infirm. He left Port Jackson aboard Alexander and died at sea, as did James Bones on 16 October and Robert Allen on 14 October 1788, when scurvy swept throughout the ship. Seaman Alexander Bailey also from Alexander, was buried at Sydney Cove on 7 July 1788, a week before the ship sailed on the homeward voyage. James Brown on the return voyage of Borrowdale, died on 2 November 1788 as the ship was about to enter Rio de Janeiro with only three of the seventeen man crew free from scurvy.
Seaman John Clement and convict Elizabeth Dalton on Lady Penrhyn, had a daughter Frances Hannah Clement, who was baptised at Port Jackson on 20 April 1788. Joseph Downey was the son of Seaman Joseph Downey and convict Sarah Bellamy. The child was born on Lady Penrhyn, but died two weeks after being baptised in Port Jackson. John Hart, son of Seaman John Fisher was born to convict Catherine Hart and baptised on 21 October 1787 while Lady Penrhyn was at the Cape of Good Hope. In Port Jackson, the lovers continually came together with a fatal result on 25 March 1788. Arthur Bowes Smyth: This Evening Abt 7 o’clock died John Fisher, Seaman on board our Ship of Dysentery – several of the men on board had the same disorder & recover’d, & I attributed the death of this young man (abt. 20 years old) in a great measure to his own imprudence, in swimming on Shore naked in the middle of the night to one of the Convict women wt, whom he formed a Connection & who had a child by him while on board – he wd, lye abt, wt, her in the woods all night in the Dews, & return on board again a little before day light, whereby he caught a most violet cold & made his disorder infinitely more putrid than it wd, otherwise have been, (if he did not wholey occasion it by such improper conduct).
Convicts listed as Seamen under Trade or Profession pre 1788, ably turned their hands to farming. Thomas Akers, worked his grant in Mulgrave Place; he also set his name to a petition from the Hawkesbury settlers protesting the high cost of labour and goods. William Boggis, was settled on Norfolk Island from 1790 and there successfully farmed. Back in Sydney by 1801 he disappeared from the records; most likely worked his way back to England on an outward bound ship. John Hall went to Norfolk Island in 1790 and farmed on various allotments, and left the Island in 1807 by Porpoise for Van Diemen’s Land. He held 30 acres at Sandy Bay, Hobart and died there in 1817. John Ramsay off Scarborough farmed his various granted allotments and in 1795 accompanied Matthew Everingham in an attempt to cross the Blue Mountains. At age 77 he was working at Kissing Point as a Gardner.
For past centuries, seaman have been arriving on Australian shores. From sail to coal power, to containers, seamen have crewed hundreds of inward and outward ships into major and minor ports. The ships bought convicts, immigrants, officials, goods and chattels to the ever growing population. Being an island nation Australia depends on its shipping and those that crew them.
Gillen Mollie, The Founders of Australia – A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet
Marcombe, David, The Victorian Sailor
Eric Rolls, Visions of Australia – Impressions of the Landscape