02 June 2011

From the Archives: How Much Did the Captain Drink?

While gathering material for the latest exhibition, I noticed a rather grubby volume lurking in the archives with the following written on the front:

‘Wine.Book. HMS Rosario 1870. Luke Humphreys. HMS Nymphe 1875’

‘Wine Book’ was enough to catch my attention, and the volume provided a nice distraction on a quiet Friday afternoon.

HMS Peterel (sister ship to the Rosario)
HMS Rosario, under the command of Commander George Palmer, is perhaps best known for seizing the schooner Daphne under suspicion it was involved in the illegal act of ‘blackbirding’ in 1869. The term refers to the coercion of people, mainly Pacific Islanders and Aborigines, through trickery or kidnapping and then selling them as slave labour. Unfortunately the case against the crew of the Daphne could not be proven. Commander Palmer brought charges at the Vice Admiralty Court of New South Wales, but they were dismissed by Chief Justice Sir Alfred Stephen, on the grounds that the British Slave Trade Act (1839) did not apply to the South Pacific Ocean.

Commander Palmer published his experience in Kidnapping in the South Seas: Being the Narrative of a Three Months’ Cruise of H.M. Ship Rosario (Edinburgh, 1871), which the Dunedin Public Library purchased in 1935. The Rosario and Nymphe ‘Wine Book’ was included in the acquisition.

Commander Palmer's Dedication
Kidnapping in the South Seas

The book itself is a standard account ledger for recording sums and figures, covered, possibly aboard ship, with a cloth cover tied at the inner front and rear boards. Along the top of each page is a list of alcoholic beverages from ale and brandy to sherry and rum. Down the left-hand column are the names of the officers serving on board Separate messes (such as the sick mess) are occasionally noted. Against each name is a number in the appropriate column, keeping account of how much was consumed, with an expended tally at the bottom of each column. The last pages of the ledger record prices paid and number of cases for each month.

From the October 1869 entries
The answer to ‘how much did the captain drink’ is, well, practically nothing. According to the ledger it would appear that Commander Palmer was something of a teetotaller. There are no marks against his name until 26 September 1869 when Palmer enjoyed 1.5 glasses of amontillado. The largest record is under the succeeding captain, Henry Joseph Challis, who took command of the Rosario in April 1870. Along the bottom of the 2 September page is written ‘Captain: 1 case of port (3 dozen), 1 dozen champagne large, 1 ditto small, 2 dozen sherry, 1 ditto brandy’. It can be assumed (at least for the sake of his liver) that Challis was entertaining other ranking officers or guests aboard ship.

Luke Humphreys, the crewman who kept the ledger, eventually settled in Gisborne, New Zealand. My attempt to find out more about him sadly took a dark turn, as it was discovered that Humphreys committed suicide as an elderly man in 1913. According to the Poverty Bay Herald the coroner returned the verdict that he ‘died from the effect of a revolver shot fired by himself into his head, whilst suffering from temporary insanity brought on by serious family trouble and his own ill-health’.

Although no mention is made in the 1935 acquisition register, it is presumed Palmer’s narrative and the 'wine book' were among Humphreys’ possessions and later sold by his family. Tucked into the pages of the ledger was a finely printed menu for an honorary dinner for Judges Brookfield and Puckey of Gisborne dated 27 May 1882. Humphreys was one of fifty to attend and must have been an upstanding member of the community at the time. Something of his good and honest character was reflected thirteen years earlier. Against the 24 August 1869 entry in the logbook is ‘1 Sherry Broken (by Humphreys)’ written in his own hand.

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