Untold lives blog

01 February 2013

Heave Ho, Me Hearties!

The Library's East India Company archives include almost four thousand ships' journals and logs, one of which is that of the Falmouth a 499-ton vessel which left Portsmouth on 12 January 1763 under the command of one Geoffrey (Geffrie) O'Hara bound for Madras and southern China (IOR/L/MAR/B582D). O'Hara was a very experienced seaman whose career with the Company had begun when he served on the Benjamin in the 1743/4 sailing season (IOR/L/MAR/B122B); five more voyages on various East Indiamen followed and saw him rise eventually to the rank of Captain. The Falmouth was a ship with which he would have been familiar, as he had been on her as first mate between January 1757 and April 1759 when she sailed to Benkulen in Sumatra (IOR/L/MAR/B582B).

East India ship 065138

Portrait of an East Indiaman sailing from Madras. Painted and engraved by R. Dodd. Published in London, 1797.  Images Online  Noc

I was both surprised and delighted to make Captain O'Hara's acquaintance, as it were, during a  visit to the Museum of London Docklands. There on the third floor is a scale model of the Falmouth and as is often the way these days in the touchy-feely world of modern museums, alongside it is a touch screen prompting all who find their way to this part of the extensive displays to relive this very voyage by following the route and ports of call on a map and answering the questions posed by the dilemmas the eighteenth century mariners (and above all the Captain) actually faced. What would you have done running into a sudden storm off Madeira? Would you have chosen to resist when a Royal Navy party came aboard to impress (or in plain English, abduct) some of your best men? What to do when your ship's surgeon tells you that a few members of the crew are suffering from scurvy? I was pleased to discover that I was reckoned to have provided most of the right answers - the odds per question being one out of three alternatives - but my callous decision to sail on and abandon a sailor who had fallen out of the rigging on the home leg out from St. Helena was judged incorrect!  
Disappointing to relate, there is no evidence of Captain O'Hara undertaking any more voyages for the Company, although we do know that he brought the Falmouth home safe to the Blackwall anchorage in the Thames on 17 August 1764. From his perspective this was almost certainly a blessing in disguise, as she was stranded on the Sogar Bank in Bengal in June 1766 on her next journey to the East and never made it back to British waters.

Hedley Sutton

Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader



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