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British Ships to South Africa in the 1800's - Wilhelmina

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British Ships to South Africa in the 1800's - Wilhelmina

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Wilhelmina Brig 168 tons


[Taken from his 'Recollections of a Natal Colonist', written about 1905]

William Lister was born on 1 March 1828, in Pentrich, Derbyshire, England, where his father and grandfather were tenant farmers of the Duke of Devonshire. He explains in his own words what moved him to go out to South Africa: 'The motive which induced me, at the age of 22, to emigrate to the colony then known as Natal ........ was the glamour which all new countries seem to call over the enterprising youth of the British Isles, prompting them to seek their fortune in the colonies of England.'

On the 10th of October 1850, I sailed from Liverpool in the brig Wilhelmina, Jasper Robbins, master, for Port Natal, in South Africa. It was known then as Port Naytal. The registered tonnage of our little ship was 168, her burden or carrying power about 200 tons. We managed, by hauling sometimes close to the wind to clear the Irish Channel, the Bay of Buscay [sic] was negotiated, with the North East Trade wind we sailed merrily on till caught in the doldrums near the equator. Our passengers numbered about ten, five or six young men, and Commander Maxwell, Mrs Maxwell, three boys and one little girl, besides two or three servants. We could scarcely have wished for a pleasanter captain than Robbins, and he was only some seven or eight years senior to the young fellows in the cabin. Of course we were provided with guns and rifles and other murderous weapons useful or otherwise, as well as saddlery and the usual impediments emigrants supplied themselves with in those days. In fine weather we often amused ourselves with shooting with a pea rifle at a bottle towed astern of the brig. Owing to the bobbing about of the bottle on the waves it was a very difficult mark to hit. Little Tom Maxwell broke the bottle at his first shot, whereupon Captain Robbins declared he must shoot no more, for he said he would spoil that shot.

The Wilhelmina was a good sea boat, but by no means a good sailer and unless the wind was free, she made a god deal of leeway. However she quite outsailed a little Dutch brig we fell in with somewhere about the Line. The Dutchman chalked up his longitude on a board. This longitude was evidently computed by 'dead reckoning' and very Dutch at that, for it required considerable correcting. However we parted the best of friends after the usual enquiries and sea going courtesies. The brig seemed lightly laden but I think the old skipper made us understand he was 52 days out from Amsterdam bound for Callao, and I presume turned in for a big smoke and possibly a drain of schnapps.

Near the latitude of the Cape we had for two or three days a north west gale of wind. Robbins decided to scud before it under close topsails and jib. The little brig rode well over the mountainous waves and she was carefully steered, for had a wave come over the poop it would have swept the decks clean.

But the finest specimen of the captain's seamanship was off the South African coast. A white squall from a cloudless sky, providentially off the land, came suddenly down upon us with studding sails set. Of course all hands were on deck immediately. Robbins himself took the wheel, and gave his orders sharp and clear, had studding sails and booms hauled on board and in due rotation royal top gallant topsail, foresail, ditto on the main mast spanker, jib and flying jib were all stored and handled without the loss of a spar or a bit of canvas.

We made a fairly good run from Liverpool and saw no land until I think between Mossel Bay and Algoa Bay. Then that awful current which flows down the coast from the Mozambique channel caught us, and without a good westerly wind, progress was out of the question. New Year's day dawned upon us, 1851. It was Captain Robbin's 80th birthday and was duly celebrated. January 7th the Bluff was sighted. The pilot came over the Bar in a whale boat, the anchor was dropped, the sails were furled, and the good ship Wilhelmina, after waiting a tide or two crossed the Bar under full sail, drawing about 12 feet of water. We soon bade adieu to the little brig, her gallant captain, her mate and second mate, cook, steward, and the crew of six sailors before the mast, thankful that our voyage of 88 days had been so much more pleasant and prosperous than the voyages of many immigrant ships which had been landing passengers in Port Natal, during the previous 12 to 18 months. Contrast this with the magnificent Union Castle steamers which now cross the Bar with 27 feet of water under their keels; so much for breakwaters and persistent dredging.

Extract taken from William Lister's memoirs was provided by Jennifer Southorn.