The voyage of the British India station’s brig-of-war, H. C. Tigris, from Bombay to Mer Island in the Torres Strait, in search of survivors of the Charles Eaton, is a minor historic event in its own right. Her commander, William Igglesden, and 2nd Lieut., George Borlase Kempthorne, were able chroniclers of that voyage, to the extent that it was not necessary for me to do much more for this blog than collect together some of what the two men did and said that is relevant. Igglesden in particular would never have guessed that his off-guard and private comments to his friend, Dr. T. B. Wilson, would still be in public circulation centuries later, (Sydney Herald, 27 Oct., 1836, p.2, digitized).
Much of what Kempthorne and Igglesden wrote, particularly their descriptions of Torres Strait Islanders, would be considered too racially biased to be taken seriously today but they do highlight the patronising attitudes of many early white visitors to the Strait, with whom the islanders had to negotiate their own terms of trade. To be fair to the two navy officers, they encountered the islanders in the wake of a gruesome event that was bound to inflate their prejudices.
It will be helpful, I think, to introduce the two navy authors with brief biographies, since even a small knowledge of their backgrounds and capabilities may be useful. Of the two, Commander William Igglesden is the less controversial, being generally regarded as a respected officer in East India Company’s Navy, subsequently the Indian Navy, with an unblemished service record. He was born in Dover, England, in 1801 and died at Gravesend in 1866. At the time of the Tigris voyage to and from the Torres Strait (March–October, 1836) he was 35 years old but suffering from unspecified ill health. By August 1836, he was already thinking about retiring from the navy. The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register (January–April, 1838, p. 263, online) states that he was transferred to the invalid establishment in December 1837. His voyage to the Torres Strait was his last major commission. By late 1839 he had retired from the navy and was already back in England. He had married Mary Ann Sharp on 1 Oct., 1828. She died young and on Jan 3, 1840, Igglesden married Mrs R. Lovelock, of Dover (Nautical Magazine and Navy Chronicle 1840, p. 143, online). He had children and presumably completed enough service in India to be eligible for a retirement from it at the age of 38, with a pension sufficient for his needs.
Igglesden’s private letter to Dr Wilson (Sydney Herald, 1836) is unguarded, longer and more informative than his article (Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society, vol. II, pp. 336–51, 1838–1839, online). He also ‘talks shop’ with Wilson, a former ship’s surgeon who had been serving on the convict ship Governor Ready when it was shipwrecked in the Torres Strait in 1829. There is no attempt by Igglesden to impress Wilson with knowledge that they already shared.
The Tigris commander was such a prolific poet that he must have spent a good part of his spare time indulging his passion. In retirement he published three large collections, intended for family and friends and obviously with small print runs. One of them was a collection of poems entitled Miscellaneous Poems, a Voyage through Torres Straits, some of which would have been written on his voyage back to Bombay. Unfortunately, I have never been able to track down a copy. What I do have is a complete copy of his Poetical Miscellanea, and a brief but useful review of another book of his poetry called Ocean Sprays . . . :
“Probably, if Commander Igglesden were possessed of less facility of rhyme and metre, he might prove a better poet. No work of human thought more needs the labor lima than poetry. We can give to our author, with perfect sincerity, commendation for good sense, kind and Christian feeling, and varied and instructive thought on passing events; but we can scarcely vouch his possession of the rare gift of poetic genius and fire. Should this volume fall centuries hence into the hands of some curious reader in the library of the British Museum, he will be able to construct from it, if not a perfect autobiography of the author, yet a lively sketch of many of his personal experiences and the more striking events of his times.”
Ocean Sprays and other Poems, dedicated to Charles Dickens, Esq. (The Christian Reformer: Unitarian reform and review, 1861, p.631.)
As a ‘centuries hence’ reader of the commander’s poems, I can agree with the reviewer. Igglesden’s poems are short links in a lengthy autobiography and he covers such topics as catching a cold and going to the dentist. His descriptions of shipboard events, however, such as losing a friend overboard or the death of a promising young officer, are evocative.
Igglesden was a follower of Unitarianism, a Christian church that also believes in the freedom of individuals to practice their chosen religions. According to Unitarians, Jesus was a great prophet but he was not a God. Nor did he claim to be. The fact that the Unitarian church rejects the Trinity sets it apart from other Christian religions. Given his acceptance of an egalitarian Christian belief system, Igglesden’s use of words like ‘savage’ to describe the Torres Strait Islanders can perhaps be a reference to the fact that he saw them as backward in their social structures and technologies. He did mock them at times and also described them in cruel and unflattering terms, but he tried to be a good – albeit paternalistic and patronising – Christian. The Mer islanders would have agreed in part with his assessment if it included lack of sophisticated tools and weaponry. Once they had been exposed to the goods brought in by visiting traders, they had an overwhelming desire to possess them, particularly iron goods, cutlery, cottons and weapons. They were, in some ways, in a hurry to catch up to the outside world, about which they had a great curiosity.
Many mariners and passengers passed the time on long voyages sketching and painting and Igglesden was no exception. I doubt that many of his amateur watercolour sketches have survived but six sketches from Muscat Cove were collectively sold at auction for a reported US$28,692. Igglesden’s single claim to fame was his command of the Tigris failed rescue mission. Today, however, ‘Muscat Cove’ is Muscat city, the capital of the Arab nation of Oman, south of Dubai on the Gulf of Oman. His six sketches would have historic interest.
The Tigris’s second lieutenant, George Borlace Kempthorne, was born at Helston, Cornwall in October, 1810, raised at Bodmin, Cornwall, died in 1870 and was 25 years old when he joined the Tigris for its mission to the Torres Strait. Captain Igglesden, in a later testimonial, would say of him that he ‘was attentive and competent to the various duties which the peculiar services of the Tigris entailed upon him . . . I have no hesitation in recording the opinion that Lieut. Kempthorne was, as a seaman, navigator and disciplinarian, efficient for command in the Indian Navy.’
In the year previous to the 1836 Tigris mission, an article by Kempthorne had been published (Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. v., pp. 263–85), entitled ‘Notes on a survey along the eastern shores of the Persian Gulf, in 1828’. Kempthorne had joined the navy as a 16-year-old midshipman and promptly served on the survey ship for two years, keeping detailed journal or diary notes. Getting them published seven years later in a prestigious journal was an achievement that made it inevitable that he would maintain similar notes about the Tigris mission. Sure enough, they were published as an article (Transactions of the Bombay Geographic Society, vol. viii, pp. 219–35, 365–82, Jan. 1847–May 1849). Kempthorne, like Igglesden, had aspirations as a writer but he had to wait for 13 years to see his notes and observations in print.
Kempthorne stood out from the rest of the officers aboard the Tigris in that he could claim to be a credible author and was able to devote time to his journal and perhaps also assist with the log book entries. His detailed paper on his visit to the Torres Strait and to the deserted settlement at Raffles Bay is much longer than the more time-stretched commander’s abbreviated effort. He is also fond of the florid prose fashionable at that time.
The Tigris, unusually for a British navy vessel venturing into relatively new territories, had no scientist observers and collectors on board so Kempthorne took it upon himself to collect a few botanical specimens, while a few Mer artefacts he received as gifts or bartered for, were donated to the Truro Museum in Cornwall and later transferred to the British Museum. Only a handful of Torres Strait artefacts from the 1830s appear to have survived, with most of those collected by Captain Lewis and donated to the Australia Museum lost in the Garden Palace fire in 1882.
Kempthorne officially obtained the rank of commander in 1841, but took sick leave to England in 1842, during which time he passed a short course in steamship navigation and also married. When he attempted to return to the Navy in 1845 as a ship’s commander, he discovered to his great shock and dismay that he had been dismissed from this position on numerous grounds. They included the charge that over a period of 20 years of maritime service, he had spent 10 years on sick leave, with the result that his navigation skills were so lacking that some men reportedly were afraid to sail with him. Given the number of colleagues prepared to testify to his skills as a navigator and commander, the charge of incompetence seems harsh. In addition, however, he was also accused of possibly falsifying his log book when the iron steamship he was commanding collided with another vessel.
He retained his title as a commander but ended his working life as an onshore navy warehouse storekeeper, due, I presume, to his history of ill-health. A panel of medical experts had previously recommended that he be given a land-based position. It was a significant role change for the proud senior commander who could be critical in his assessment of others, including the British Admiralty at Bombay. His claims about the Navy’s fleet in India being under-resourced were fair but they would not have been universally well received.
It has to be noted that the Tigris arrived and anchored off Mer on the morning of 28th July 1836 and left early the following morning. Most of her crew had contact with Mer islanders on board the brig. During that time, the islanders clearly made every effort to be attentive, respectful and friendly, with only a small child receiving a scolding from his father and banishment from the brig, for taking and concealing a silver spoon. Igglesden and Kempthorne were among those who went ashore for a time to distribute trinkets and other gifts but they gave them to whoever happened to be on the beach at the time. None of the recipients had been directly involved in rescuing and protecting the two survivors from the Charles Eaton and this did create resentment.
For two days after leaving Mer the collective attention of the ship’s company focused on navigating through a terrifying maze of reefs, rocks and low sandy isles, before meeting up with the Isabella on the 31st of July. Lewis, Igglesden and his officers interviewed the still-confusing ship’s boy, John Ireland, but his responses were garbled to the point of hysteria and less reliable than those obtained at Sydney by Captain (later Admiral) P. P. King. Nevertheless, if there was any value in the Tigris mission it was probably this interview. Ireland had witnessed an horrific sequence of events and apart from sharing the details with little William, had barely spoken about them to anyone for two years. Surrounded by fellow Englishmen armed only with kind eyes, sympathetic words and poised pens he was finally able to express his pent-up emotions in what must have been, for him, a cathartic release.
After a day visit to Wednesday Island to ask questions, obtain a few unhelpful responses and hand out more trinkets in an awkward display of unwanted bonhomie, the Tigris finally left the strait and was off Cape Croker on the night of the 6th August when she was grounded on a submerged coral rock and lost her rudder. The rudderless brig was nevertheless safely navigated to Raffles Bay the following day and remained there for 10 days while a replacement rudder was built from local timber.
The commander and first lieutenant primarily had contact with two male mainland Aborigines at Raffles Bay called Wellington and Waterloo, who had been regular visitors to the former British settlement. They saw no women or children, or any family groupings. We pay some attention to the Tigris stories now because they visited the Torres Strait and the northern coast of Australia at a time when their inhabitants were beginning ‘first contact’ with Europeans. Visitors prepared to chronicle and publish even a little about the natives’ still largely untouched cultures and languages were rare so their contributions do have some minor value. The Raffles Bay settlement in particular was so short lived that only one illustration of the local Aborigines dating from that period has survived (see below).