REVIEW: Private Journal of a Passage to Australia by James Bell

TITLE:  Private Journal of A Voyage to Australia
AUTHOR: James Bell. (Introduction and Epilogue by Anthony Laube).
PUBLISHER: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978 1 74237 795 7         202 pages.

Buy it here…

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

In 1838, when 21-year-old James Bell set sail from England on the long voyage to Australia, he began to keep a journal. Somehow, at some time in the 150 years since then, that journal made its way back to England where it was found on a stall in a London street market, auctioned by Bonhams for A$22,000 to the State Library of South Australia, and returned to Adelaide. James Bell would have been amazed to know that what began for him as the fulfillment of a promise to a friend would end up being published, especially since he had stated plainly that “it must never be read by a third party”.

Tantalizing as that prohibition is, young James was a pious and rather Puritanical young man and there is nothing scandalous about his writing or his behaviour. Unfortunately, he could not say the same for his fellow passengers. “I am sure”, he writes, “no person of any principles of virtue could call himself quite comfortable while his eyes and ears were annoyed every day by people who have long since rendered themselves insensible to the admonitions of conscience, or…are gratifying their depraved senses by revelling in the ignominy of Vice”.  Even as his journey is nearing its end, he is still worrying that “as water wears away the flinty rock” so contact with these people would gradually undermine his own “principles of virtue”.

So, James goes into little detail about the vice he sees. Instead, he assiduously charts the ship’s progress (or, more often, lack of progress) from day to day, recording the weather, the discomfort, the homesickness, boredom and quarrels, a birth and a death, the brief spells ashore, and the captain’s incompetence. And his was not an uneventful voyage, especially as just a third of the way through it the crew mutinied and the passengers were obliged to take over the sailing and security of the ship until they arrived in “Rio Janeira”.

James was an interested observer in Rio, where he was “much struck” by the appearance of slaves and much bitten by mosquitoes; and in the early South African settlement of Algoa Bay, where he describes the few houses, the settlers (only 2,500 of them), and the native people. But he was not a born storyteller. His journal is sparse and factual and dotted with quotations from his favourite poems. Yet it does convey what it was like to be confined for months on a small ship with limited supplies, and in the company of strangers. His ‘home’ was a two metre square, ‘Intermediate’ class cabin below deck; the ship was becalmed, lost masts and sails in terrifying storms, and several times came close to disaster; and it was an era in which navigation and charts were unreliable and landfall uncertain. The good ship Planter was constantly and frustratingly overtaken by other ships, including one of the new iron steam ships which filled James with delight and envy at her speed. A day when he could write “we make 4 to 5 miles an hour” was a good day. It took 9 days of waiting for favourable weather before the ship could leave the Thames estuary behind at the start of this voyage and it was a seemingly interminable 169 days before James finally set foot in Adelaide on the South Australian coast.

Anthony Laub, an historian and a librarian at the State Library of South Australia, deciphered and transcribed James’s journal and has provided footnotes and an interesting introduction which describes the convict-free, land-development scheme which attracted migrants such as James to South Australia. He also provides an epilogue telling us briefly what became of James and some of his fellow passengers after they arrived in Adelaide. In spite of all that James observed of them, many seem to have become good and respected citizens.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/