Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

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The Great Voyage:
With Captain Forbes to Australia

In March 1853 the clipper Marco Polo left Liverpool on what was to be a record-breaking passage to Melbourne. Edwin Bird was aboard. Here is his journal of that voyage, with its brawls, music, dogfights and deaths, all part of normal sea travel at that time.

    Australia is now less than a day away by jet aircraft, and travel by ship is now mostly the preserve of the leisured traveller in search of retreat or recuperation. Yet little over a century ago, reaching Australia entailed a long and perilous voyage by sea. On March 13, 1853, the clipper Marco Polo left Liverpool for Melbourne on such a journey. Edwin Bird was one of her passengers.
    The Marco Polo was a unique vessel in many ways. She was solidly built and remarkably well appointed. She had good facilities for washing, and there was a doctor on board. On other ships carrying emigrants to Australia for the gold rush, filthy conditions, malnutrition and disease combined to kill anywhere up to 100 passengers in the course of a passage lasting months. But the Marco Polo, under Captain Forbes, broke all previous records on her second voyage by reaching Melbourne in just 78 days with the loss of only five lives. She became known as "the fastest ship in the world", and people came from all over England to see her on her return.
    Edwin Bird kept a diary of his voyage. Read today it gives a fascinating account of the hazards and pleasures experienced by sea travellers at that time. In I I weeks they passed from the cool of England to temperatures of 135°F., then to gales, sleet, hail and snow as Forbes sailed far south to cut sailing time. They encountered porpoises and whales, and Bird had his thumb bitten by a shark. They whiled away the time with cards, music, dogfighting, drink and frequent brawls. And over the whole adventure presided the brilliant but irascible ''Bully" Forbes, who kept discipline among passengers and crew by lashing offenders to the rigging clapping them in irons, or threatening to throw them overboard the ladies included.
    Of the diarist himself little is known. He was probably a merchant and, unlike many of his fellow passengers, he almost certainly returned to England. We know that at some time he lived in Wellington, Somerset. His journal, now in the National Library of Australia in Canberra, makes interesting jet-age reading, with its laconic acceptance of the facts of early Victorian life and the hardships of travel in his day.

The Journal of Edwin Bird

    SHE HALL'D OUT of the Salt House dock on Wednesday the 9th March 1853 at 1/2 past 10 O Clock in the Morning.
    There was a nice Band on Board and just as Her Noble Stern was Clearing the Dock Gates They struck up The Girls We Left Behind Us and Janet and Jenoe but However it did not take any effect on me. She lay in the River until Sunday Morning when she wayed Anchor, Fired four Salutes and was answered by the American Mail Ship Niagara and whent Beautifully down the River amidst the Cheers of Thousands of Spectators, the whole of the Pier Head for more than a mile being Crowded as well as the BirkenHead Side. Nothing of any consequence Happened to Her During Her Stay in the River. 1 Man fell over Board and Several Capsized. Mr. Gisborne, a Young Gentleman, a Birthmate of Mine, was Capsized but being a good Sailor managed to get astern of a Small Boat of the Black Ball Line. The Ship was very much Crowded in consequence of so many People going out in the River to Her Wishing their friends Farewell and a pleasant and prosperous Voyage to the Far Distant Shores of Australia.
    Our first day of Sailing was Sunday the 13th. The Tug Took us not far over the Bar as the wind was Blowing nicely down the River. When the tug left we gave Her to more Cannons and as many Huzars as the Lungs of the M Polo would permit. I slept on Board last night for the 1st time but not so comfortable as I could wish. We were all in confusion this day giving up our tickets and aranging the Births and so on. We found one stowaway just in time to send Him back with the Tug. Had he not the Capt Swore He would Have chucked Him over Board. I and my friend Gisborne workd very Hard all day arranging our Birth and at last got it very comfortable. A cup of Tea and a Hard Biscuit for Breakfast and no diner. It was Ketch who could all in such Bustle and confusion and the Band on Deck playing all the liveliest Tunes they could think off.

The Band Played On.,

Model of the Marco Polo at the NB Museum

March 14, M.

    A fine Breeze this Morning off Holy Head. Every Lady on Board was sick and a Great many of the men. Going 12 Nots an Hour, our Meals a little more comfortable to day.

T. 15.
   Not going much more than 5 Nots an Hour. The middle of the day quite a calm. We had a meeting and arranged our selfs into mefses of 30 each, which will make it much more comfortable. The band playd one the Poop in the evening.

W. 16.
    A Regular calm all day which was a fine thing for the Ladies. We danced for 2 Hours on Deck in the evening. The Band was in attendance. Finished off with a song or Two and a Capital lecture from Mrs Janes respecting the Colony. We had our Grub very comfortable to day. One or two fellows Had the fits and Scard the Gals.

T.. 17.
    Going very well all day and particularly so in the evening as she was going 14 Nots per Hour. The Band playing and dancing in the evening. 1 Girl is quite insane through a fright. The Black cook Doctor Johnson went into the wrong Bed last night being a little on the Fly and Whiskey. The Captain came down on the second Deck inspecting the lights being Burnt privately after 9 0 Clock and as regards to loud singing and cards. He talked to them in the right style. I was looking down through the Hatch-way and said Hear Hear, without Rules and regulations and sticking to them amongst so many pafsengers we should never reach our Destination. He said it was quite right and that He would do His Duty and caution us to take care of our Luggage as there was 13 of the Swell Mob on Board, but I had and eye on them. Those abaft the Main Mast agreed to watch by night and take it in turns 2 of a night I from 9 till 1 and the other from 1 till 6 0 Clock, which wont be more than two watches each during the Voyage and twill put them on their Guard.

F. 18.
   Going Beautiful all day, Heeving South West by West. We are now clear of the Chard and on the Bay of Biscay. Oh A Female gave Birth to a little Marco Polo Gentleman. A Young Lady brought it to me for my opinion. I told her I thought it a rum object. She laughed and went on. There was a man in the lower Deck Had the Delerium tremurus through Drinking. I went to Mr McDonald and we put Him in Irons for the night as He frightened us so the night before. We all ran to the cabin doors in our night drefs, Ladies too, fancying the ship was on fire. We calld another meeting respecting a weekly paper to be issued which was agreed to the 1st number to come on Monday the 21st, the price 2s a month.

S. 19.
   A fine Breese going 13 Nots an Hour Steering the same as yesterday. By 6 0 Clock this evening we were off the Bay of Biscay. Oh. Was fined a Bottle of Brandy each 3 of us for being on the Fore Castle. Going on at Smashing rate, every thing Comfortable.

Sun. 20th.
    Blowing quite a Gale all through the Night and continued all day going 13 Nots an Hour with the top Sail and Royal close reefd Ladies all Sick again, not one present at the Dinner table. A good one too (Soup good).

M. 21.
   A Rough Night but going very well. A sea struck the vefsel this morning which tofsed 2 Young Fellows with their Births completely on the Deck which caused a Deal of Fun. Spoke to a Brig about 3 this afternoon which left Liverpool 5 days before us. The Captain of the Brig was formerly a mate under Forbes, so they Had a long talk to each other and wishing a prosperous Voyage to each other. One of the Sailors got well roped by the Mate for Stealing a Bottle of Rum from a little Boy that was patsing by. I saw him turn the capstan Down the Ladder and in the Forecastle Cabin where He was deviding the spoil amongst His Brother Chips. Little did He then calculate of the Rope Yam He was about to receive. We are now about 1700 miles from Liverpool and of Madeira and expecting within a day or two to be in the trade winds. The Captain says we are ful 2 Days in advance of His Last Voyage as regards the time we left Liverpool and Speake very confident of His being safe at anchor in Australia in 8 Weeks. I Hope His Wishes may prove true. Music, Dog Fighting, Dancing and Singing is the order of the evening.

T. 22.
   There was a tremendous Row on board last night late in the 3rd Cabin though I should emagine from the effects of Whiskey, which ended in a Watch and 10£ being stold from the same Place. The Looser dont Know where He lost it but fancies it was wen or while He Was Walking on Deck with a Mifs Bloomen. Our first paper has been issued to day which Has given some dissatisfaction as its well Hitting the Proper Nails on the Head. We have been steady all Day. I should say about 6 Nots an Hour Steering South W by West. Our Captain Has given the Band a good Lecture this after noon respecting them getting Drunk of an evening and being Disorderly and if any more comes to His ear, He would Rig up a Plank and send them all adrift. Griffiths which was the Leader was addrefsed and a more evil fellow there is not on Board the Marco Polo. Neither Have I ever seen Him Tipsey but Hope to Morrow that I will see that He shall not be culpable in the matter As He Has been our Steward at No 4 Mefs since we Have been on Board and Has to look after 32 Passengers and we are the only ones to tell whether He Has done His Duty or not or whether the report is true. They have delayed 2 hours on Deck this evening and was much amused at seeing the style of walking with 2 old Sailors. A Great number of porpoises Has been seen today which caused a Deal of excitement amongst the Land Sharkes. It being a Beautiful evening I am now just going on Deck to enjoy my tobacco.