Voyages with a Merchant Prince (excerpt)

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In the summer of 1830 Thomas Ripley, a Liverpool shipowner, set sail on a voyage that would make his fortune. Thomas, who grew up in a sailors’ tavern, had big dreams of making a great deal of money, and he had the energy and the audacity to make them come true. This is his story.

The ship he sailed in was a fine three-masted vessel, owned by Ripley himself. Thomas decided he would take his young wife with him. Together they set out on a journey that would change many lives. When they boarded the ship and said farewell to Liverpool, the young couple were excited by the idea of all the experiences that lay ahead of them, the exotic foreign countries they would visit, the sights they would see, the wildlife and the scenery, the new foods they might taste, and the people they would meet.

Thomas knew that they would encounter all sorts of dangers on the way. Julia was aware that the sea voyage to China was hazardous and the threat from pirates was real, but she was prepared to face rough seas and deprivation to be with Tom and to experience adventure. She did not know that her husband had hired a rebellious crew, and the hardships of the voyage would drive them to mutiny.

Here's an extract from the diary Tom's wife kept on board the good ship Bencoolen:-

Monday September 13th 1830 – A most serious catastrophe had almost befallen us. No less than the loss of our steward – but the fates perceiving to what a miserable condition we should be reduced by such a misfortune, kindly averted the dreadful calamity. His skill as a cuisenaire he thinks unequalled. Indeed he has a most exalted idea of his own abilities altogether. Yesterday he begged I would allow him to make a kind of pudding, which according to his account was the finest French dish that could be made. I consented. He told me he must have a piece of new calico to boil it in, which I gave him. But when the pudding made its appearance, it fell far short of our expectations, and very far from his description, it was so insipid that we merely tasted it and sent it away. This morning by way of a joke the Captain told the steward that we had been told he had been so dirty as to boil the pudding in his nightcap. But he took it in earnest, for he said he could not suppose the Captain would tell him a lie, so when we were at dinner he went on deck and got the cloth washed and dried, boasting to the men how he would convince us all of our error. But as soon as he was out of sight, one of the men, to keep up the joke, got his nightcap and rolled it up in the cloth. In the afternoon the Captain, Tom and I were standing together on the quarterdeck. The steward took advantage of the opportunity and came boldly to us to vindicate his wounded reputation

“I have been accused,” says he, “of having boiled the pudden in my nightcap. I have brought this to show it is the piece of calico Mrs. Ripley gave me for the purpose, and you may see it has been used.” Upon which Tom began to unfold and examine it, when O! Misericord, out fell the luckless nightcap. I wish I had either the pencil of Cruickshank or the pen of Cervantes, to describe the effect upon our poor steward. His countenance changed instantly and he was almost struck mute; it was like an apparition to him. His first act upon returning to his senses was to throw the innocent cause of his distress overboard. He then in great bustle, carried his trunk to the forecastle and declared he would no longer be subject to such indignities. He said he would work as a sailor although when the Captain asked him if he could take his turn at the wheel [he said]

“No, Sir, but I can sweep the decks.”

A sad degradation from making the finest French dishes – however in the course of the evening he returned to his post, though much broken in spirit, for, he said to me

“The men will now laugh at me so I shall be obliged to carry my head in my bosom.”

He threatened dreadful vengeance upon the person who had tricked him, but of course, no one would acknowledge to it. The scene upon deck was so truly ludicrous that Tom scarcely ceased laughing the whole evening.

Monday September 20th – Rose this morning after a perfectly sleepless night, blowing almost a hurricane. According to Mr. Roe’s account, the most melancholy sea and melancholy night he ever witnessed. The bosun says he has not experienced such a night for ten years, so that we freshwater sailors, as they call us, might well think it a severe gale … we sustained no damage of any consequence and the storm did not continue many hours, but we felt the effects for some time after the wind had subsided, the vessel rolling most dreadfully. But we consoled ourselves by reflecting that we were proceeding on our way at the rate of two hundred miles per day.

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