Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The General Gate

In researching the Ewer's of early NSW, one of my primary interests was whether I could establish a family connection between any of them. Given the limited information available (convict musters, 1828 census of NSW, and maybe death certificiates) I was intrigued to find that two of the Ewer convicts, Nathaniel and Francis, most certainly knew of each other. The stole away together on the 'General Gate', a ship that left Boston, MA in 1818, captained by the wonderfully name Abimeleck Riggs that was heading to NZ to collect 11,000 seal skins. The 'General Gate' needed men, and the captain offered to take convicts and free men out of the colony of Sydney (even free men needed a permit to leave). Those who stole away met with nothing but misery, and the regular crews of the ship also suffered, some being cannibalised.

The following timeline is patched together from several sources, mainly those available at the New Zealn Elecronic Text Centre ( The Ewer's here are not relaed to me (as far as I know) but this is an amazing story.

The 'General Gate' spent some time in Sydney before leaving for New Zealand. After being fitted for the voyage she sailed on 29th June 1819 for the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. Among her passengers were the Revd. S. Marsden and several other clergymen, with some Maoris, all accredited to the Church Missionary Society. But she had on board other than legitimate passengers.

The Deposition of Francis Ewer (prisoner):
"I, Francis Ewer, state that I met Captain Riggs in Sydnoy about three weeks prior to the General Gates sailing from Port Jackson, and asked him if he wanted any man in my line, meaning a painter and glazier, or to do any work on board his vessel. He told me he wanted a head pump fixed, and asked what I would do it for. I told him twenty pounds. He said it was too much money, and that he could not have it done. I then said I was a prisoner for life, and wanted to make my escape. On hearing that he told me he would consider of it. After that he met me near Mr. Middleton’s house, and asked me if I was willing he was agreeable to take me. I told him, Yes. I had no other conversation with him until I met him by appointment at Mr. Storer’s. On my arrival at Mr. Storer’s I met Captain Riggs, Nat Ewer, Thos. Lewe, Henry Gordon, James McDonald, alias McDaniel, and a man named Smith. Mr. Storer came frequently in the room, attending to his business, bringing liquor, when the subject was dropped. I settled nothing finally that evening, but was requested to meet him again at Mr. Storer’s the next day (Saturday) for the purpose of finally settling and arranging about being taken away. Having met and arranged, he desired me to go down to Campbell’s wharf, and that he would bring his boat and take us off. After waiting about an hour Captain Riggs came with his boat and took us to the North Shore; landed us there, gave us provisions, and said he would use us as his own ship’s company. He said the reason for his not taking us then on board was he was afraid the ship would be smoked, but that he would come and take us off; and as a signal for us to know it was him he would have a light in the boat. We remained in the bush from Saturday night until late on Wednesday or early on Thursday morning, when he came and took us all on board his vessel, with the exception of Smith."

In fact, all the convicts Riggs lured to join his ship were accomplished 'mechanics' in the colony. Given that the clergymen were on board, the convicts had to be hidden on the ship as it sailed to New Zealand, as several convicts were known to the clergymen. And so they were hidden in the ship for the most part till it arrived in New Zealand.

The Deposition of Thomas Lewe (prisoner):
"On our arrival on board he gave us something to eat, and a glass of grog each. Being forward, I saw the carpenter, and second mate assisting him, holding a candle while he made a hole in the bulkhead. When the hole was finished, he, Captn. Riggs, ordered us in, and the bulkhead was again nailed up. After being clear of the harbour the carpenter came down and said to Henry Gordon, “The Captn. has ordered me to take you out of irons, steward,“ and told him he must go aft and do his duty as usual. Henry Gordon went aft, and we remained under the forecastle until Captn. Riggs came to us, when he said he should give us the same rations as his own ship’s company, and treat us as such, and asked us personally if Mr. Marsden knew any of us. Some answered “Yes,“ some “No,“ and those that Mr. Marsden did not know were sent on deck to work. On our arrival at New Zealand he called us aft, read his articles, and asked us to sign them, put us on equally with his own men, and I, as one, signed the articles."

On 15th September, she sailed from the Bay of Islands on a sealing expedition which took her in due course to Dusky Sound. There the frightful character of the captain manifested itself in imprisoning the men, placing them in irons, tying them up to the rigging, flogging them and then rubbing brine into the wounds caused by his punishment. The chief objects of his brutality were the prisoners he had smuggled on board while in Sydney and he put forward the pretext that the men were going to steal one of his boats.

Thomas Lewe again:
"The next morning he called us all up, and tied Francis Ewer and James Johnson up in the rigging, and flogged them himself. He then liberated Purcell, but sent me with the other three in the hold, and there kept us, without allowing us any provisions, for five weeks, and only granted one hour per day for each man to come up and catch fish, but if we did not catch fish we must starve. Sometimes he sent us bread which was not fit to be issued to the crew, and has continued since that time to keep us on that kind of bread until we were taken out of the vessel by the Captn. of the Dromedary."

On 12th April, 1820, H.M.S. Dromedary was in the Bay of Islands returning from Sydney, and on the look out for a cargo of spars to take to England for the Navy. The General Gates was there too. Having received information of the condition of affairs that prevailed on the American ship, Captain Skinner paid her a visit, and found, as had been represented, that a large number of Sydney convicts were on board. These were all gathered together and taken on board the Dromedary. Then it became known that they had been enticed away, concealed and cruelly treated. Riggs, the captain, was therefore placed under arrest, and with the ship, and convicts, sent to Sydney where he arrived on 12th May, 1820, in charge of a British crew.

In due course, the captain was brought before the Sydney Court, upon the charge of having violated the usual bond under the Port Regulations not to take away a convict without the Governor's permission, and fined in 12 penalties of £500 each. However, while all this was occurring, teams of sealers had been left behind on New Zealand to work, some for over a year.

They suffered horrendously at the hands of the Maori tribes of the area, including cannibalism. The following was published in the “Columbian Sentinel” (Boston), August 18, 1824:

In the Sultana from London arrived Mr. Joseph Price of Wilmington, Del., who was one of the crew of the brig General Gates of Boston. He furnishes the following account of the capture and butchery of most of the boats crew that landed on the coast of New Zealand.

“Sailed from Hobart Town, Van Dieman's Land, August 10, 1821, and on the 21st myself and 5 others, viz.: Thomas Router of London; James Webster; William Rawson of N. London; William Smith and James West both of New York, were landed on the coast of New Zealand in a whale boat with provisions, for the purpose of procuring seal skins.

“In six weeks we procured 3563 skins and the 11th of October we were taken by the natives of New Zealand between 10 and 11 o'clock at night. They set fire to our huts, burnt our skins, and the provisions we had left. They tied our hands behind our backs and we were marched by them to Lookinglass Bay which was upwards of 150 miles. During the whole of this time we had nothing to eat but roasted fish which the natives subsist on themselves:—Thence to Sandy Bay which is better than 200 miles; —when we arrived here, there was a tribe of savages who took us before their King and Queen, and the moment we were brought before them John Router, of London, was ordered to be killed. They tied him to a tree, and two Savages one before and one behind him, with a club each, knocked him on the head. They then cut off his head and buried it; the rest of the body these inhuman people deposited in a kind of oven, under ground, and roasted it as a person would roast an animal—of this they gave us to eat, and having nothing else we partook of it, which tasted very much like roasted pork. Consider dear reader, what a state our mind must be in at those awful moments. They tied the remaining five of us to a tree with fifty to guard us; the next day James Webster was killed and roasted; the day after this William Rawson of New London was killed and roasted; and the following day William Smith of New York, shared the fate of his unhappy companions. On the next day from what we could understand from the chief, James West, of New York, was to die; but fortunately for us, the night previous to his intended fate, a heavy squall rose from the east with rain, thunder and lightning, which so frightened the natives that they all ran away towards the west, making such a yelling noise as I never heard before, leaving us under the tree. We now untied each other, and walked away towards the beach where our boat was laying, which was about seven miles as nigh as we could guess. We now found our boat, two oars and the steer-oar, with her masts and sails. At the joy of finding our boat, I thought I was so strong as to carry her myself; we immediately launched her into the surf, and happy for us that Providence directed us to depart so soon as we did; for we were not thirty yards from the beach when 700 of the New Zealanders came in search of us. We were in the boat three days, having nothing to eat when we were picked up by the brig Maguary, captain White, belonging to Sydney, New South Wales, where we were landed on the 10th of November 1821.—Thence I sailed in English ship Admiral Cockburn to the Isle of France:—thence in the ship Julia-Ann of Calcutta to London. West was left in Sydney Hospital, sick.”

And on two other occassions, it appears that sealing parties dropped by the 'General Gates' suffered at the hands of cannibals. Indeed, the entire trip of the 'General Gate' seems ill fated. Captain Riggs smuggled convicts out of Sydney, then treated his crew terribly, left sealing teams to be cannibalised. One of these occassions, the only survivor left to tell the tale was an Australian aboriginal woman and her child, taken from Kangaroo Island by Captain Riggs and left with a sealing crew in New Zealand. Surely one of the first instances of contact between the Australian and New Zealand indigenous cultures.

Riggs though, had his revenge against the Maori, as related by the Revd. J. F. H. Wohlers, who resided in Ruapuke, Stewart Island, from 1844 until his death in 1885.:

"It must have been about 1820–1830—I knew a few who were present—when the Maoris in the south first came into touch with the Europeans. The captain of a whaling vessel placed a few of her people in an uninhabited bay in Stewart

Island to catch fur seals, whilst he went whale-fishing with the rest of the crew. The natives, however, did not approve of this. Soon a number of men and women went across from Ruapuke to Stewart Island, fell upon the sealers, and killed and cooked them. They then looked for their provisions. At that time they were quite unacquainted with European things. They took the flour for white ash, and amused themselves with throwing it at one another and watching the white dust fly. Then they found something that looked like provisions, and they chewed it till foam came out of their mouths (it was soap), but it was not to their taste. Still worse did the tobacco taste, which they, therefore, called Heaven's gall (Aurangi). A vessel held some black seed (gunpowder), which they scattered about as a useless thing. Then when they had satisfied themselves with the flesh of the dead men and in the evening sat around a bright fire—oh! what a fright—lightning and flames of fire suddenly broke out amongst them. The fire had lit the powder they had thrown away. Some time afterwards some canoes with all their crews were lost, and no one knew for a long time what had become of them, until later some whale fishers came from Australia, who became friendly with the natives, and these brought the news that an American whaling captain known to them, when he found that the men he had left on Stewart Island had been killed and eaten, whilst sailing about, meeting some canoes, had sailed them down.

And as Robert McNabb eloquently concludes in his chapter on the 'General Gate' in 'Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835':

'As further recording the movements of the General Gates, it may be mentioned that in March, 1824, she sailed from Waihoa for Manila, and in February, 1825, was coasting out of that port. What became of this vessel that commenced by stealing convicts, that experienced arrest by a man of war, that found her officers imprisoned, that ultimately had her gangs plundered and eaten by the Maoris or kidnapped by captains of sealing vessels, and what was the end of the inhuman monster who commanded her, remains a mystery. Diligent search by the author in the shipping files of the Boston papers failed to throw any light upon the question, and the burning of the Customs records of that port seems to close up all avenues to further information.'

I've checked US and UK censuses, even the 1828 Australian census. The 'General Gate' and her captain appear nowhere else in records after this time. Given the amazing (and dramatic) connection this boat had with the early history of Australia and New Zealand, I hope that further light can be shed on this boat and this man some day.

To bring this long blog full circle, I'm intrigued that these two Ewer convicts knew one another. Both returned to Sydney, and while I can not find a NSW, Qld, WA, SA or Tas record for the death of either, they certainly were in the colony for a few years afterwards, according to Colonial records. Nathaniel received a Certificate of Freedom by 1925, and Francis was in Port Macquarie for a number of years, apparently after again making his escape from the colony.

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