Reading Captain N. G. Hatch’s interesting story in your magazine recalls a coolie ship story with a sequel, for the ship Moy, owned by Jarnes Nourse, left Demerara for Calcutta, July 1890, with 700 returned coolies— that is, coolies who have served their several years on the plantations and are entitled to return at Governmental expense. After a long and dreary passage, Table Mountain was sighted, the fish tackle was rove off, and the anchors made ready for use.
When darkness came on. the Cape was about 25 miles off, and the most perfect calin set in, lasting throughout the night and accompanied by heavy dew. In the early morning hours a thick fog blanketed us. During this time, except for an occasional swell flapping the sails, there was no sound or breath of wind.
At daybreak the sun tried to pierce the fog without success. and the awakening coolies seemed awed by the stillness, and even their voices were hushed.
Suddenly. at 8 a.m. a small fishing boat manned by four men rowing, shot alongside, one of them singing out so that all hands could hear : “Drop your anchor! Drop your anchor! You are right on top of Mouille Point!”
The mate, who was on deck. rushed forward and let go the port anchor. Sails and yards were quickly lowered, and for a few minutes all hands were busy. I was the first man aloft on the mizzen, and on reaching the topgallant yard, to my astonishment, I felt that I was really on shore. Signal Hill was close alongside and the land stretched for miles in a perfect panorama over the blanket of fog below me. I sang out to the deck and a rocket signal was fired, and after we had swung to the tide, the rocks were about 25 feet from our rudder. That morning, remarkable to say, was one day out of hundreds that no one had been sent aloft to overhaul or stop a buntline.
In a few minutes the smallest tug imaginable came alongside, the skipper hailed our captain asking for the number of coolies aboard, and receiving the answer asked for £750. One pound a head and fifty pounds for the ship! The two captains faced each other on their respective decks, and the tugboat man, to help his side, warned our captain that if a breeze sprang up she would tighten up on the cable and go ashore. Our captain had no alternative but to accept as it was too big a risk to trust to an off-shore wind blowing first. The verbal offer was accepted, a rope was handed us and in a half of an hour we were riding at a safe anchorage off Cape Town, taking in our fresh provisions. live stock and water ; proceeding that evening for Calcutta.
On the following trip from Calcutta to the West Indies with green coolies, we were dismasted in the Bay of Bengal, and made a fine job of her during the three weeks re-fitting (oh, what work ! ) with our spare spars. It took us eight days to chisel the head of the iron fore topmast off so that it would pass through the cap. it being bent too much to permit it to go through. The day before we made Table Bay we were partially dismasted, by losing our fore topmast, jibboom and main topgallant mast.
After clearing the wreckage we squared away with a light fair breeze, and the same tugboat came alongside when five miles off and towed us in for £50. How the tug captain must have looked forward to the visits of the Moy.
For the next three weeks, to our delight, we lads acted as boat boys and were on shore every day for provisions and dancing attendance on our captain. In due course we sailed for Demerara.
During the Boer War I arrived in Cape Town as an officer of a transport. What a difference in a few years! Quiet, sleepy, seductive Cape Town. with an occasional visit from a barque, a Union Liner, and a Currie boat every two weeks, had blossomed into a bustling port with over 100 vessels of every size and form, and buzzing with war activity.
The day we arrived I recognised a man standing at the gangway of our steamer as the captain of the tugboat who had towed the Moy into port many years before. I spoke to him, and we recalled the old story of the £750. Ile told me that after our captain had fixed up and acknowledged his debt.
Our captain was about sixty years of age, and one of the finest types of seafaring men that ever stepped a ship’s deck; a strict disciplinarian, he ordinarily was feared by all of us. Brought up in the old East Indiaman days, he still retained the customs of that trade, he was most autocratic in his ways, and one of his old-fashioned customs was in a gale of wind to order : “All hands on deck, reef topsails and foresail.” If blowing very hard : “Goosewing lower topsails”
As sailors will realise, in the nineties the procedure was nearly obsolete, the motto being that :
“If she cannot carry a full upper topsail, take it in.”