Hero skipper

Brown ordered passengers and crew to begin unloading ballast and hay.  Men like the clergyman Edward Tanner, more used to the weight of the Testament than heavy loads, lugged ballast stone up from the hold and heaved it over the side.  The ship’s crane did some of the work but the men were urged to make many trips to lighten the load before the change of tide.  The sun blazed down .

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

It is now known that only five years before the Calliance ended her days by smashing ashore on a rising tide, her captain had been hailed a hero for carrying out a 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 disaster. 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 and from Australia.

For London direct (will sail from Geelong the first week in December) the well-known first-class British-built ship, Calliance, A1 13 years (at Lloyds), 823 tons.  George Turnbull Brown, commander. This fine vessel is eminently suitable for a limited number of families who will enjoy every comfort in her commodious saloon.  Cabin passengers only, fare £40.

There was also charter work – like carrying would-be settlers to Camden Harbour in a pioneering venture.

 There were gasps from those standing on the starboard side as the ship slid past a towering pinnacle of rust-red rock against a headland at the entrance to the channel. From some distance back, Brown had privately admitted its resemblance, in the eyes of those more fanciful than he, to a figure of a huge native. Beyond the pinnacle his passengers saw that the luxurious vegetation was a topping for masses of red-brown rock that plunged into the sea in dramatic cliffs and headlands. This was Brecknock Harbour and further on, beyond the islands, their target and landing place.

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