Hero skipper

Ballast stones from a shipwrecked sailing vessel, the Calliance, are still piled haphazardly on the shore of Camden Harbour in Australia’s last frontier – the isolated Kimberley.

Only five years before the ship ended its days when it smashed ashore on a rising tide, her captain had been hailed as a hero for an exceptionally courageous rescue.

In 1858, George Turnbull Brown was commanding another sailing ship, the Merchantman, carrying soldiers from the United Kingdom to Calcutta to reinforce the garrisons in Britain’s prime colony of India.

His medical officer became ill and Turnbull Brown  had to put in to Rio de Janeiro so the man could be treated.

Leaving once more for India, the Merchantman was a long way off its original course – a fact that saved the lives of 226 people bound for Australia.

These people – among 180 passengers and 47 crew of the vessel Eastern City, were bound from Liverpool to Australia. Sixty were women and children.

The Eastern City had a good run to the Equator. Leaving Liverpool on July 10, 1858, they crossed the equatorial line on August 11.

It looked like being a speedy passage.

But then came that most feared of disasters for a sailing ship in particular. Fire!

In high seas  on August 23 – after a half-gale the day before – smoke was seen coming from among goods in the forehold. The captain, Johnstone, rallied his passengers and crew, who fought valiantly all day and the following night to extinguish smoke and rising flames.

But they were unsuccessful. The ship was drifting in the white-caps, women crying around the calm and gallant captain at the wheel, as their menfolk doggedly but fruitlessly continued to empty  buckets of seawater down into the hold.

They were more than 600 miles from any land. The ship’s boats could only carry half its complement, and the seas were too high in any case for there to be a hope of survival.

Final farewells were being made, said a first-class passenger later, when a sail was sighted at 2.30pm. It was Turnbull Brown’s Merchantman.

He swung his ship close past the stern of the stricken vessel, conversing briefly with Johnstone by loud-speaker trumpets. Next, “coming about” in a stiff wind to return to the weeping 227 people, the Merchantman lowered boats into the high waves. By 8pm, all were safely off – except for a male passenger from the Isle of Skye who had gone below to recuperate from illness before the fire and was not seen again.

The rest were now safely aboard the Merchantman, and being cared for by soldiers and seamen.

“Captain Brown went among us like a father,” said a passenger. His wife was also on board. “On behalf of the female passengers . . . sincere thanks to Mrs Brown for her kind and considerate attention to them and their children.”  

In London months later,  a gold timepiece was presented to the hero captain by the Lords for Trade for his “gallant conduct” in the rescue.

A newspaper article said Captain Brown was now in command of the Calliance, from the port of Sunderland. His second and third mates, who had made great efforts in the rescue,  also gained positions on the Calliance as it prepared for its glamorous runs to, from and around Australia.