“Away, away, what nectar spray she flings about her bow.
What diamonds flash in every splash that drips upon my brow.
She knows she bears a soul that dares, and loves the dark rough sea;
More sail! I say, let, let her fly. This is the hour for me.”
A few days of unusual “God-send” good weather marked the speedy start of the “Sheila’s” recorded first voyage from Calcutta to the West Indies, but before long “it was blowing and raining all the time, with a nasty sea running.” The Captain of the fast, new British clipper would recall “it was as much as we could do to hold on to what we had” but he still engaged and won an impromptu race with a pair of similar sailing ships that had left the Indian port three days earlier in 1877.
During the night, the powerful “Sheila” even swept past “its nearest competitor,” the legendary tea clipper, the then eight-year-old “Cutty Sark” off the wild African coast in a “pretty” but “far too squally” contest. Built on the Scottish River Clyde as well, but for the rival Jock Willis Shipping Line, the vessel travelling from “Whampoa (China) bound for New York” with general cargo, mostly tea, was left six miles astern.
Earlier, beating into the Bay of Bengal, “We were in the monsoon, and the usual weather was on us – a strong gale drawing into south, heavy squalls of wind, rain, and a turbulent sea (hatefully short and choppy).” It was “an exciting time” so “we put the ‘Sheila’ on her mettle” and “we had to give her every inch of canvas she could stagger under, grudgingly taking in sail by sail, as the weather got too bad…”
With “all that number” of 626 “coolies” on board including 120 women and 85 children, the skipper, William H. Angel deems it “a God-send” to “have a few days of fine weather to start with, so as to get the poor wretches accustomed to their new surroundings, and ease up the sea-sickness, which otherwise they would have to endure.”
Confined to “fittings,” within the improved, much taller seven-foot high space between the top and lower decks of the specially designed “coolie clipper,” installed at the Eden Gardens in-shore berth, the quota of human cargo would have huddled apprehensive and vomiting in the hot, semi-darkness, unable to glimpse the “Sheila” pulling away from their India which for most proved the final farewell.
Extending the full length and beam of the ship at around 245 feet with 38 foot-beams, and “no obstructions whatever” this area featured central iron stanchions to support the main floor, and the masts; lower-hold ventilators and pumps to bring in essential fresh air. Assigned quarters were unmarried females right aft, married couples and children amidships, and unmarried males right forward. They all slept in bunks raised 18 inches above the deck. The “coolies” were “cleared out of the ‘tween decks three times a day when the weather was fine” if not, “they were rounded up at one end of the ‘tween decks and counted.” At least five would die on the trip from stomach ailments and their bodies tossed overboard. However five births and the safe delivery of the remaining “living cargo” meant “the number of souls” were equal as “when we left Calcutta” making the Captain a happy man and his trip maximum profits.
The ship’s carpenter and helpers put up the ‘tween “fittings,” and the latrines on the higher, main deck. “When completed it showed up the advantage of the ‘Sheila’ over the old type of coolie carrying ships, that were not built for the express purpose, but adapted to it – somehow.”
According to his memoir, the “Sheila” had to wait three months for the annual “coolie” season to open on September 1 since sailing ships were prohibited from leaving Calcutta before that date, to avoid the bad weather in the Bay and off the notorious Cape of Good Hope.
In his “Angelmaster” account published nearly 40 years after the “Sheila’s” maiden documented journey, Angel would remember on subsequent voyages, leaving at the same date, the “veritable gale of wind; the tug towing us bows under against the heavy head seas” and having to “make sail to keep the ship from being driven back, and as fast as possible, press on all the canvas.”
This time led by the “Bombay” tug down the long waterway, “my men once more lustily gave voice to their shanties, as the anchors came up from the mud of the river, glad at the prospect of once more getting into the purer and cooler atmosphere of the Bay of Bengal. In the afternoon we anchored off Fultah point, owing to lack of water to cross a bar until midnight, when, it being a moonlight night, we weighed anchor again and proceeded. As a rule the pilots object to move in the river Hooghly in the dark; it is a very dangerous river to navigate, the sand banks are constantly shifting, and consequently the pilots are guided by landmarks which have to be constantly attended to,” he wrote.
Entering the “doldrum region” between the monsoon and the south east trades, the “Sheila” encountered “squalls from all points, and copious rains.” Melancholy started to set in, with a male “coolie” attempting suicide by jumping overboard but “we rescued him by lifeboat, and on enquiry found the cause assigned was jealousy.”
In Calcutta, Angel hired 12 extra men to increase his staff to 45. “They looked all right, but I could see that they were not so good as my old crew, and that could not be expected – unless you get men that have been left behind, say, through being in hospital – those which you pick up, as a rule, have been in some trouble, or they would not be so stranded.”
In contrast, his home unit including the faithful “black men” Barbadian cook, “Slushie” and the Jamaican steward, James who had worked with Angel for the past five years “were an exceptionally good lot.” who “would obey my officers or myself with alacrity and cheerfulness, never mind what the order was…”
“Slushie” had just married “a white girl” whose mother was “a very respectable woman” selling fish in Cleveland market. He would relate, “We kept the wedding up in style, sah; was married in St. Michael’s Church, Pitt Street; wife dressed in white with bridal veil and bunch of flowers. Had four coaches. De company invited was four coloured ladies, and three white women; three coloured genl’mens and four white chaps. Had a big spread after the ceremony in the house; lots to eat and drink. Capt’n Angel he gave me four bottles of port wine, and the steward he gave me plenty of rum, and then there was beer.”
Later, the ladies sang. Slushie explained: “It was all right at first, sah, quite all right, until the white chaps drank the rum and pitched into the wine that was intended for de ladies and drank that; then they started in and mixed their drinks by going for de beer. Then they wanted to kiss all round, and wanted to kiss the bride. I wasn’t going to stand that, so I egspostulated, and I wanted to put one white chap out of the window into the street; but unfortunately we was in a back room, so he went into the court, and – and cussed. So I had to call in a policeman, as the other white trash interfered; so I put ‘em all out.”
The “coolies” were not the only indentured people aboard. Seven Liverpool white apprentice-midshipmen or “first voyagers” were bound to the “Sheila” owning merchant firm Sandbach and Tinne for four years. “Their people paid a premium for them, which was returned to the boys in two years as pay.” The older sailors were allowed “frequent tots of rum – the boys never.”
Ten weeks on, Captain Angel expresses some mysterious regrets although he reveals no details of what precipitated extreme measures. “But the lot of extra men I shipped in Calcutta in accordance with government requirements, were of a different sort, and if they had dared, would have caused trouble; but they were very firmly handled – if you know what that means on shipboard – some of them I left in jail in Trinidad, and the balance I paid off in Demerara. So now our present crew were as per original; and they were as glad to get rid of their late shipmates as I was.”
ID reads the steward James was chaffed about wanting to marry one of the ship’s Indian indentured girls on arrival in Trinidad: “But, steward, surely you would not care to marry one of them? – you a Christian! Why, they are heathens!” The Jamaican replied, “Well, yes, that is so, but before I married her, I would Christianize her first, and baptise her up a bit.”