Life and death on the High Seas

Thomas Blunderfield was born in  April 1781, the twelfth child of Thomas, a yeoman farmer of Heckingham, and his wife Martha. Three previous sons had been named Thomas but each had died in infancy. He would certainly have worked on the family farm as a young boy but as the youngest of five surviving sons there would have been no prospect of him inheriting the farm and would need to seek other work to gain an independent income. Whilst in the nearby coastal town of Great Yarmouth he met Mary Hunt and they married at St Nicholas's Church on the 5th of May 1805. Initially, the couple lived in Great Yarmouth where their first child was born but sadly died within a few weeks. By 1807 they had moved to the village of Loddon where they had three children. It is not known what form of work Thomas undertook in Loddon but by 1812 he had made his mind up to go to sea and joined the Honourable East India Company  as a Ship's Steward on a wage of £2 a month. In sole charge of the ship's provisions, it was a position of some responsibility. Mary moved back to Great Yarmouth, probably with her parents, where she had three more children.

First Voyage
Thomas's first voyage, at the age of 31, was to India aboard the 614 Ton 'Alexander' (built in Liverpool around 1803 and similar to that pictured on the right). The ship, under the command of  Captain Charles Hazell Newell, left Portsmouth on the 4th June 1812, stopped briefly in Madeira and arrived in Calcutta on the 28th November (a voyage of almost 6 months!). The 'Alexander' left Kedgeree at the mouth of the Ganges on the 19th January 1813, stopped at Benkulen in Sumatra, where the East India Company had a pepper factory, Saint Helena in the South Atlantic  and finally arrived in the River Thames at Blackwall on the 14th August 1813.

Eight months later, on the 11th April 1814, the 'Alexander' sailed again for Madras and Bengal. This time Thomas appears in the crew list as 'Cooper and Steward'. Unusually, the Journal for this voyage only records the outbound leg, ending on the 9th October 1814 in Calcutta. It also carries the following declaration ' This is to certify that this is the Original Journal of the late Captain C H Newell deceased'. During a stop on the return voyage, at Point de Galle (SW Ceylon), a fire broke out out  on board a nearby ship the 'Bengal'. Captain Newell died whilst helping to fight this fire but the 'Bengal' was lost. The 'Alexander' finally arrived back in England on the 25th June 1815 under the command of Captain Henry Cobb.

The next two voyages that Thomas made were both bound for China aboard the larger 1200 Ton 'Cabalva'. The first appears to have been uneventful but the second was full of drama and ended in disaster.

The Loss of the Cabalva
On the morning of the 14th April 1818, the 'Cabalva', in company with another East Indiaman the 'Lady Melville', set sail from Gravesend bound for Canton. The ship's company, commanded by Captain James Dalrymple, consisted altogether of 130 men; including six officers, a surgeon, the ship's steward (Thomas), seven midshipmen, the captain's servant and one passenger. Under the guidance of an old and experienced pilot and with favourable winds, the ship made good progress through the Channel. However, at 11am on the 17th of April, just SSW of the Ower-light ship near Portsmouth, the 'Cabalva' ran aground. The pilot was obviously shocked, grew pale and clearly feared for his livelihood but had the presence of mind to order the wheel to be put a-port, allowing the ship to gain sea-room. An examination of the vessel revealed that there was nine inches of water in the well. The Captain discussed with his officers whether to proceed, or go into port to get the ship caulked. The decision was to proceed and the dejected pilot was put ashore.

After several days at sea, the leak increased to fourteen inches an hour so the pumps had to be manned day and night. At the Cape of Good Hope, the 'Cabalva' fell in with the Honourable Company's ship the 'Scalesby Castle' from whom they learned that the Ower-light ship had been found to have drifted several miles in shore, by which intelligence the enigma was solved and the pilot, captain and crew cleared of any negligence. The captain also learned that his wife had safely given birth to a little girl. Some days later they encountered a gale and were separated from the other two ships. The pounding the ship received in the gale caused the leak to increase to twenty inches an hour and so the decision was taken to divert to Bombay and have the ship caulked. The hands at the pumps were doubled and the officers commanded not to carry too much sail, lest the ship be strained and leak increased.

On Tuesday the 7th of July, at four o'clock in the morning, the second officer ordered that look outs be posted on the fore-yards, as the ships position and course were dubious. The wind was brisk but not heavy and the 'Cabalva',  with the wind on her quarter, cut her way majestically through the dusky waves at a modest 7 knots. Apart from the seas breaking on the bow, the only sounds were the snoring of those asleep, the steps of the officers walking the deck and the occasional doleful cry of birds flying above - suddenly the men stationed aloft shouted out repeatedly "Breakers - breakers on the larboard-bow! hard a-port! hard a-port! Too late! All is lost! hard a-port!" The helm was thrown a-port and the vessel rounded to, glanced for a few seconds over the rocky bottom and then struck with great force smashing the hull. One of the men on the fore-yard arm was thrown down and was either dashed to pieces or carried away by the waves. Still with much sail, the vessel heeled violently from side to side. The captain shouted "Cut away the main mast! down with the foremast! stand clear the masts!" Everyone sought refuge whilst the task was accomplished with hatchets and similar instruments until the masts gave way and fell with all their tackling into the foaming ocean. No sooner are the masts cut away in a sinking ship, than the feeling of perfect equality arises amongst her crew.

As a glorious sunrise brought the dawn, efforts were made to float the large cutter - no sooner had this been achieved than some of the youngest and stronger crew climbed in, pushing aside weaker and injured wretches. Captain Dalrymple declined going off in this boat; but the sworn officers (except the second) all jumped on board her and the boat made directly for the reef. The second officer, surgeon, several mid-shipmen and crew later swam ashore with the aid of cork jackets. The party in the cutter had no oars and were using a rope tied to the wreck to control their drift towards the reef about 150 yards away - unfortunately a tremendous surf broke over them and threw every soul clean out and dashed them against the rocks.

For some time after, individuals designed their own plans for getting ashore. One sailor went to the captain's cabin and drank a bottle of brandy before cheerfully jumping over the side and succeeded in swimming ashore, aided by a bale of cloth which he steered to protect him from the rocks. Another group of about twenty sailors and the captain created a raft from the booms. This was successfully launched and supported their swim to the shore but as they approached the rocks they too encountered the surf and everyone was thrown on to the reef to be battered further by subsequent breakers. The captain and several others disappeared into the sea and were drowned, many broke arms and legs and had nasty cuts.

The coral reef, which was almost covered with water when the ship struck, appeared to rise out of the sea as the tide ebbed and was strewn with a confused heap of articles - casks of wine, beer and brandy; trunks and bales, some containing gold, silver and fine glass; fine English muslin and Irish linen. Disorder reigned, not only amongst the debris but worst among the survivors. The seamen, almost frantic, grew brutally selfish, they took themselves to the beer and spirits, fought each other over the gold, cut open bales and dressed themselves in the most grotesque and ridiculous garbs. There was an abundance of port and spirits on the reef but little fresh water and no food.

Three or four miles to the north-west were a group of sand-banks, only three feet above the surface of the sea but likely to afford better protection than the reefs - so began a gradual migration towards them, with many sailors carrying several bottles of spirits. No one had shoes, so feet became badly lacerated walking and wading across the coral. The next day, officers tried to persuade parties of men to return to the wreck to see if any victuals and water-casks could be saved before the ship went totally to pieces but to no avail, there was hardly a sober man amongst them. Fortunately, some later arrivals had brought with them six or seven pieces of pork, three casks of fresh water which, together with a young shark that had been caught and some lobsters, produced a dinner for 120 men. When the tide came in that afternoon, it set so strong that the rocks near the ship were completely inundated and the wind drove everything light and floatable over towards the sand banks. Although everything was gathered up, there was little of practical use except for a powder keg that was completely dry. Using some powder, remnants of linen and driftwood a comfortable fire was lit. That evening a tent was constructed from wooden spars covered with fine English linen but could scarcely accommodate more than  fifty men.

Whilst many of the more prudent and skilful men worked tirelessly to better the situation, there was a large faction who held to the old motto of 'every man for himself' and these spent most of the time drinking and sleeping. It was good luck that many casks had been washed up on a nearby sandbank and so this drunken band established their settlement on this bank which soon became referred to as 'Beer Island'. Further visits were made to the ship, which yielded more provisions including six live pigs and five live sheep, as well as several drowned animals and fowl. The ships large cutter, although damaged, was retrieved and hauled back three miles to the sand bank.

 The carpenter and the sail-maker (whose bag containing needles and other articles providentially washed up on the sand) proceeded without delay to repair the large cutter. Other searches turned up navigation items such as a quadrant, a sextant, log-reel, chronometers and a Nautical Guide to the East Indies but no compass could be found. With the assistance of these instruments, the exact location and name of the reef was ascertained as was the fact that the nearest inhabited country was the island of St. Mauritius some 250 miles SSW. A plan was developed to send out the large cutter with an officer and some sailors to reach Mauritius, Bourbon or failing these, Madagascar.

At first light on Tuesday 14th of July, exactly a week after striking the reef, the cutter was launched and quickly caught the breeze. The crew, weakened through the lack of food and the strong motion of the small boat, all became extremely sea-sick, which added to the toil of this dangerous voyage. Cloud and rain prevented a noon observation on that first day but later glimpses of the sun, when it occasionally burst through, indicated that they were running a SSW course at the rate of five to six knots. After a troubled night, with no sleep, the next dawn brought a bright and cloudless sky - at noon an accurate observation was possible. The weather deteriorated and squalls frequently rose to a prodigious height demanding great effort and skill from the helmsman, whilst three hands were employed in continuous baling. The trailing log was lost and that evening the sun did not set clear, so their position was based upon much guesswork.  It wasn't until two o'clock that the sky cleared and a bearing could be taken on the southern cross which showed them to be considerably off-course and in danger of not being able to make the island. However, not long after dawn, land was spotted and soon determined to be Round Island close to but leeward of Mauritius. It was essential to work to windward but the squalls forced constant easing of the sails. Having got to a position some fourteen miles leeward of Port Louis, they found they could not make any way to windward and so took in the sails and attempted to row. Luckily a shift in the wind after sunset allowed them to work into shore under sail but, ignorant of the entrance to Port Louis, they elected to anchor in nine feet of water, close under land, until the dawn. The next morning they were able to row into Port Louis to the surprise and amazement of other sailors on ships in the port.

The agent of the East India Company was immediately informed of the wreck and it's position, and within an hour, two British navy ships, the frigate 'Magicienne' and the brig 'Challenger', were dispatched to rescue the remaining survivors. On Sunday the 20th July, the look-out on the mast head of the 'Magicienne' was heard to shout 'Breakers on the larboard bow!' Hard a-port!' but this time it did not herald danger but the discovery of the 'Cabalva' and the tents on the sand-banks.

Whilst the 'Magicienne' remained anchored at the sand bank for several days, in order to salvage any of the 'Cabalva's' cargo, the 'Challenger' carried the ship-wrecked crew back to Mauritius and distributed them on board several vessels which lay in Port Louis harbour. Some took up new engagements and dispersed to all quarters of the globe, others took their passage back to England. Seventeen men, including Captain Dalrymple, lost their lives and the financial loss of the ship and it's cargo to the East India Company (who never insured) was estimated to be £350,000.

Was Thomas in the 'Beer Island' gang or one of the more industrious survivors on the sand bank? Probably the latter, as he continued to serve with the Honourable East India Company as a Ship's Steward.

To read the full 65 page narrative written by the Sixth Mate Mr C W Francken click here. It is a remarkable and detailed account, well worth reading in full.

Soon back at work
The shipwreck clearly didn't deter Thomas from a sea going life, because the following year, on the 3rd May 1819, he left England for the first of three voyages, as Ship's Steward, aboard the 1318 Ton 'General Kyd'  all bound for China and under the command of Captain Alexander Nairne. The last of these arriving back in England at Blackwall on the 28th March 1824.

There is then a gap of 27 months before his next known voyage begins on the  18th July 1826. I have searched for him in the crew lists of the most likely 18 (out of 31) HEIC ships that he could have served on during this time. This might be because he was in prison! There is an entry in the discharge books for the Fleet Prison in London, for the release of a Thomas Blunderfield on the the 27th May 1825.

Whilst researching the ship's Journal for his next voyage, aboard the 1331 Ton 'Winchelsea', it was a surprise to find two Thomas Blunderfields in the crew list. His eldest son Thomas, aged 15 years, was listed as a Boatswain's Servant This first voyage with his son was directly to Whampoa in China and lasted just under 11 months.

Two-Quid a Month
There mustn't have been inflation at that time, since Thomas's pay was the same in 1828 as it was when he started in 1812 - £2 per month. The ship's Captain was paid £10, the Surgeon £5, the Carpenter £4 (clearly an important job), Ordinary Seamen £1-15s and boys just 10s per month. Wages were paid at the end of the voyage, although some money could be advanced by the purser if needed in foreign ports. The Ledgers and Pay Records survive for many of the voyages and make interesting reading. For example, for the voyage aboard the 'General Kyd in 1821/2,  he earned £39-8s-0d (for 19months and 21 days service). The following deductions were then made: Imprest £4 (this would be the amount advanced to Thomas during the voyage), Absence Paid His Attorney £6 (this is not his lawyer but debts that had accumulated during his absence, for example house rent, his family's food etc), Greenwich Hospital Duty 10s-6d. His ‘take home’ pay amounted to £28-17s-6d).

Their last Voyage
In 1823, two new 1300 Ton ships had been ordered from the shipbuilders Wigram & Green at Blackwall. The 'Edinburgh' was launched on the 9th November 1825  and the 'Abercrombie Robinson' on the 11th December 1825. They were both owned by Henry Bonham and chartered by the East India Company for four voyages each between 1825 and 1831.

On the 22 February 1828, Thomas and his son left England on board the 1331 Ton 'Abercrombie Robinson' bound for India and China under the command of Captain John Innes. On this voyage, Thomas Junior was a Servant to the Ship's Carpenter. After 14 weeks at sea, the ship arrived in Bombay on the 4 June 1828 and stayed for several weeks. Sadly, just before the ship left Bombay on the 11th August 1828, the following notes appear in the ship's journal.

Saturday 9 Aug 1828 – Bombay. Departed this life, Thomas Blunderfield, Carpenter’s Servant and Joseph Ellis, Gunners Servant.
Sunday 10 Aug 1828 – Bombay. Sent the bodies of the deceased Thomas Blunderfield and Joseph Ellis on shore for interment.
Monday 11 Aug 1828 – 2am Pilot left the ship.
Tuesday 12 Aug 1828 – Towards China. Cholera began to make it’s appearance amongst the Ship’s Company in the course of the night – seven new men attacked by this dreadful disease.

This must have been a dreadful blow to his father, made worse by the fact that the ship left a few hours after his son's body had been taken ashore for burial - was he even able to attend the burial? The daily sick report around this time typically numbered 25 to 35. Deaths and burials at sea were a daily occurrence and fumigation was frequent. However, by early September the sick report was down to 6 or 7 per day but deaths were still being recorded.

After a brief stop in Singapore, the ship continued to China, arriving in Macau on the 23 September 1828. After a stay of 7 weeks, they set sail for England on the 13 December 1828, stopping for a couple of days (including New Year's Eve) in Jakarta and in Saint Helena then back to Southampton. Cholera was still present and on the 12 February 1829, two days after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the following notes appear in the ship's journal.

Thursday 12 Feb 1829 – Towards St Helena. At 3am, Thomas Blunderfield, Ship’s Steward and at 7am Robert Halpen, Armourer, departed this life.
Friday 13 Feb 1829 – Towards St Helena. At 1am, committed the bodies of the deceased Thomas Blunderfield and Robert Halpen to the Deep with the usual Ceremony.
Saturday 14 Feb 1829 – Towards St Helena. Appointed Edward Allen, Ordinary Seaman, to the station of Ship’s Steward.

From a ship's company of around 150, the journal records that 55 men died or drowned during this voyage, one is even recorded as having 'jumped overboard'.

When sailors died at sea, either through disease or accident, the body was normally buried at sea usually in pieces of weighted sailcloth. The master conducted the ceremony before the crew and recorded the fact in the ship's log. In the Royal Navy the dead were sewn into their hammocks which was weighted with round shot. The sail-maker would put the last stitch through the dead man's nose to ensure that he really was dead.

The ships of the Honourable East India Company apparently kept better log-books, showing position, sea conditions and weather, than the Navy did at the time. These are proving to be a valuable source of information for climatologists researching historical weather patterns and so the data has been published on the internet. The map above shows the daily positions (at noon) of the 'Abercrombie Robinson' during the final voyage of Thomas and his son - the blue square shows Bombay where Thomas (Junior) died and the green square the ship's position at sea on the day that Thomas (Senior) died.

A Widow's Pension
In 1625 the East India Company established the 'Poplar Fund', which was  a mandatory pension scheme. Company mariners of all ranks and rates paid tuppence, later thruppence, in the pound from their pay. From this fund, temporary or permanent relief, including widows’ pensions or admission to almhouses was doled out frugally. Consequently, on the 13th May 1829,  Mary Blunderfield as the widow of a Ship's Steward was granted an annual pension of £8 during her widowhood and £3 for each child under the age of 21 years (five at that date) until they reached a prescribed age. Mary did not remarry and in October 1843 petitioned Trinity House for an additional pension on the grounds that the £8 she received from India House was not sufficient to support her. Mary died in 1858 aged 78 years.

Known Voyages
From the detailed records that were kept by the East India Company, it has been possible to determine the ships that Thomas sailed on and the periods he was away from home (quite a lot!). The sailing dates of the East Indiamen were arranged so that the China ships could take the S.W. monsoon up the coast and the N.E. for the return passage, thus an average voyage took about 18 months.

In the following voyage summaries, the location 'Downs' appears frequently. This is a shallow area of sea close to Deal in Kent which provided an anchorage and shelter from SW Gales before ships entered the English Channel. Deal also had a time-ball tower that enabled ships to set their marine chronometers.  Whampoa is an Anglicisation of the Chinese "Huangpu", it is on the Canton River, upstream from Macau and just downstream from Guangzhou (Canton). Macau is the first port near the entrance to the Canton River from the South China Sea. The other location that perhaps needs explanation is 'Second Bar' - this was a sand bar about 20 miles down river from Whampoa..

It is interesting to see that Thomas visited St Helena twice, perhaps three times, between 1815 and 1821 when Napoleon was exiled there. The ships usually stayed for about a week to unload stores and take on water and other provisions.

1812/13 Bengal and Benkulen
(Capt. Charles Hazell Newell).
4 Jun 1812 Portsmouth  - 18 Jun 1812 Madeira - 28 Nov 1812  Calcutta - 19 Jan 1813 Kedgeree - 4 Mar 1813 Benkulen - 31 May 1813 St Helena - 14 Aug 1813 Blackwall.

1814/15 Bengal (Capt. Charles Hazell Newell and Capt. Henry Cobb).
9 Apr 1814 Portsmouth - 26 May 1814 Madeira – 19 Sep 1814 Madras - 9 Oct 1814 Bengal …..
voyage ended 25 Jun 1815


1816/17 Bombay and China (Capt. John Hine)
23 Jan 1816 Downs - 15 May 1816 Bombay - 13 Jul 1816 Penang - 26 Jul 1816 Malacca - 19 Aug 1816 Whampoa - 20 Oct 1816 Second Bar - 2 Mar 1817 St Helena - 6 May 1817 Gravesend.

1818/** China (Capt. James Dalrymple)
16 Apr 1818 Downs - wrecked on Cadargos Shoals, Carajos Reefs (about 250 miles NW of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean) 7 Jul 1818 - Captain, Surgeon's Mate and 15 crew drowned.

'General Kyd'
1819/20 Madras and China (Capt. Alexander Nairne)
1 Mar 1819 Portsmouth - 12 Jun 1819 Madras - 23 Aug 1819 Penang - 16 Sep 1819 Malacca - 19 Oct 1819 Whampoa - 16 Dec 1819 Second Bar - 20 Apr 1820 St Helena - 19 Jun 1820 Downs.

1821/22 Bengal and China (Capt. Alexander Nairne)
23 Jan 1821 Downs - 29 Aug 1822 Moorings

1823/24 Bengal and China (Capt. Alexander Nairne)
8 Jan 1823 Downs - 10 May 1823 New Anchorage - 2 Aug 1823 Penang - 20 Aug 1823 Singapore - 3 Oct 1823 Whampoa - 13 Nov 1823 Second Bar - 7 Feb 1824 St Helena - 28 Mar 1824 Blackwall

******* Here there is a gap of over two years where there are no records of him being at sea. This might be because he was in prison! There is an entry in the discharge books for the Fleet Prison in London, for the release of a Thomas Blunderfield on the the 27th May 1825.

1826/27 China (Capt. Roger B Everest)
18 Jul 1826 Downs - 24 Dec 1826 Whampoa - 11 Feb 1827 Second Bar - 25 Apr 1827 St Helena - 3 Jun 1827 Downs

'Abercrombie Robinson'
Named after the then Deputy Director (later the Chairman) of the Honourable East India Company Sir George Abercrombie Robinson.
1828/9 Bombay and China (Capt John Innes)
21 Feb 1828 Downs - 5 Jun 1828 Bombay - 3 Sep 1828 Malacca - 26 Sep 1828 Whampoa - 12 Dec 1828 Macau - 22 Feb 1829 St Helena - 20 Apr 1829 Blackwall. Both Thomas and his son died during this voyage.