Early nineteenth century Australia didn’t breed weaklings. The first colonials born in Australia ‘currency lads and lasses’ were, according to Commissioner Bigge, taller, fairer, stronger, healthier, better educated and more industrious than their immigrant counterparts; and, it goes without saying, their parents. James Bellamy Bloodworth, born in Sydney in 1790, was one of them.
He began his working life as an apprentice in the government dockyard, situated near the present day Museum of Contemporary Art. He was probably there in 1807 when Robert Campbell merchant launched his first ship, the 136 ton brig Perseverance. Bloodworth was certainly on the ship in October 1809 when it headed for the Bay of Islands, off the north island of New Zealand, for a cargo of spars (timber for masts). He was ship’s carpenter under the command of Captain Frederick Hasselberg, one of a crew of sixteen, in addition to five apprentices and two Tahitians. Bloodworth’s job was woodworking and timber repairs but he was probably also responsible for the packing of cargo (dunnage), fresh water and anchoring. While at the Bay of Islands they learned from a young Maori woman of the destruction of the ship Boyd and the massacre of its crew, except for four who had been taken prisoner. The captains and seamen of the Perseverance and a number of other ships pursued the natives, killed at least sixteen of them, recovered the four prisoners and returned to Sydney with the Boyd longboat and the young Maori woman seeking protection. You can see it was no life for the faint-hearted.
Hasselberg’s main task was to find new sealing grounds for Campbell & Co, so they sailed into the cold and furious Subantarctic region beneath New Zealand, ocean of the soaring albatross. In January 1810 they discovered and named the uninhabited Campbell Island which became a seal-hunting base. It has a mean annual temperature of 7 degrees and for most of the year has less than one hour of sun, but it was awash with seals and penguins. In July 1810 they discovered and named Macquarie Island. It was swarming with both seals and elephant seals.
Here is a scene at Campbell Island on 4th November that same year. Perseverance bobs alone in Perseverance Harbour. Its jollyboat heads towards shore, rowed by two strapping men and two enthusiastic boys (one Maori, the other twelve-year-old George Allwright apprentice son of Thomas Allwright baker); carrying also Captain Hasselberg, wearing a “thick flushing boat cloak and strong high water boots”, and a young woman Elizabeth Farr (I have no idea what she is doing on a brig but perhaps she is the Captain’s mistress). Their purpose is to collect oil casks produced on site by a gang left on the island. On their return, about two miles from shore, an unexpected gust upsets the jolly boat throwing all into the water. Seaman Jackson and the Maori boy swim for shore.
The Sydney Gazette continues the story: “Bloodworth…sprung forward to the assistance of the woman…she could swim…he turned towards his Commander, who…after struggling some minutes to sustain himself with an oar and boat-hook, before he reached him sunk into the abyss of eternity. His next object was to save, if possible, the little boy…and he unhappily, sunk as he approached him…his female charge remained alone the object of his attention. The poor creature was exhausted, and had not the power of contributing to her own deliverance. With one arm supporting her he swam upwards of a mile through a rough sea, and with her gained the strand; but vain had been the labour, for respiration had forever ceased.”
A sealing brig was no place for wimps. Imagine living on a dreary diet of salted pork, bread and sweet tea, even if supplemented with rum. Imagine living and sleeping in the cramped forecastle, following orders whether you agreed with them or not, and working to exhaustion with little let-up. Imagine tempestuous storms, heavy snows, upset boats, lost masts, anchors, cables and canvas.
But it was worse if you were one of the sealing gangs left on a bleak deserted shore for up to eighteen months, to harvest seals and prepare skins and oil. Sealing was a business few of us would stomach and not just because of our ethics. Seal colonies lived on exposed rocky coasts above dangerous surf and backed by steep cliffs, so just entering their habitat was dangerous. To get their prey, sealers used a hook to hold the seal, then clubbed it on the snout with a piece of hardwood to stun it, then killed it with a lance and skinned it with a knife. The skins were then laid out to dry or cured with salt; the carcasses boiled down to produce oil.
It was a lucrative and competitive industry. Sealing and whaling were Australia’s two major exports before wool displaced them. Ship-building was a thriving industry. The main markets for fur skins were China and Britain, for hats, boots and other clothing. Oil was used for lighting, cooking, leather treating, candles and soap. High-grade oil from the elephant seal was in high demand because it was odourless and smoke-free. One estimate was that 100,000 skins were procured in the first season. In 1820 two ships alone carried 410 tons of elephant oil to England. It is not surprising that within a decade, seals on Macquarie and Campbell Islands had been almost wiped out. But many became rich on the carcasses, including seamen and sealers whose pay was a percentage of the profits, depending on their status.
That was the beginning of James Bellamy Bloodworth’s career. He always considered himself a ship’s carpenter, but in 1812 he turned to other pursuits. Over a lifetime he was a publican, butcher, candle maker, boat builder, station owner (at Dabee, Bylong and Bungary), city landholder, investor, bankrupt and commissioner of the peace. As a currency lad I get the impression he was not much different from many of his contemporaries.
The featured image is a model of the 136 ton brig Perseverance sourced from Modelers Central, authorities in ship model kit building: https://www.modelerscentral.com