Beaver in the Pacific

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

This title will confuse people who may think there are beaver in the Pacific Ocean, but that is not so. In this series we are following the course of the two ships, the Steamer Beaver, and the HBC ship Columbia, as they make their way under sail to Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, from London, England, in 1835-6. The two ships have just rounded Cape Horn in the southern hemisphere’s summertime: the current date is November 29, 1835.

The last log entry for the Beaver once she was in the Pacific was this: “November 29. Drizzling rain and foggy. Made land.  Bearing N.N.E. and tacked to the Westward. Longitude 75 degrees, 45′ [West], latitude 49 degrees, 29′ [South].” I have explained previously that the person who copied out this journal missed many log entries that were not of interest to him. Here, especially, there is a large blank. The journal continues its next entry a whole week later, but it continues to tell the story of the Beaver in the Pacific:

December 6. Fresh breeze throughout, with showers of rain. Longitude 83 degrees [page cuts off the remainder], Latitude, 45 degrees, 19′. 

December 8. Calm and clear. A Danish ship in sight bound to the west.

December 10. Moderate breeze. A sail in sight standing to the N.E.; wind N by W.

December 12. Moderate breeze and cloudy. Made the Island of Juan Fernandez, N by W 1/2 west. Bent the cables and got the anchor over. Tacked and stood in for the land, working into Cumberland harbour.

I already told you that there is an interesting history in this blogpost: the Juan Fernandez Islands is the archipelago of three islands off the coast of Chile, where mariner Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four years sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Before that time the islands were a hideout for pirates, and sometime after Selkirk’s marooning author Daniel Defoe published his book, Robinson Crusoe, which is supposedly based on Selkirk’s story. But in fact the title of Defoe’s book was not titled Robinson Crusoe — it was published in April 1719, under the “surprising title” of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque: Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

I found it surprising that the two ships, the Beaver, and the Columbia, although in the Pacific, are not heading toward Valparaiso, on the South American coast. Cumberland harbour is in Valparaiso District, however, but it is 460 miles due west of that city. The islands are found at Latitude 33 degrees 28′ South, and longitude 78 degrees 51′ West. This harbour is actually on one of the three islands that make up the Juan Fernandez Islands. Cumberland Harbour is, however, hardly a safe harbour, being entirely exposed to the wind and waves from the east. An recent example of its lack of safety is that, in 2010, a tsunami that resulted from an earthquake in Chile struck the islands, and most of the town of San Juan Bautista, on Robinson Crusoe Island, was destroyed. San Juan Bautista is the largest community on the islands, and it sits on the north shore of Cumberland Harbour. 

 On December 13, 1835, at 8 pm, the Beaver came to anchor in Cumberland Harbour in 12 fathoms of water. It must have been windy and she drifted overnight, possibly dragging her anchor. She re-anchored in what was presumably more sheltered water on the starboard shore, when “the wind shifted and swung us inshore with only two and a half fathoms under stern. Shifted berth and warped her farther out, and let go anchor in 12 fathoms. Gave her 45 fathoms of chain. At 11 am the Columbia hove in sight.”

I believe warped means that the seamen towed her further out with the ships’ boats. The Beaver‘s journal continues three days later:

December 16. Fresh breeze throughout with heavy squalls off the land. People employed getting water off to the Columbia. Carpenter making a main boom.

December 18. Light breeze N.N.W; weighed anchor and made sail for the Sandwich Islands. Hove to and sent two boat loads of water on board the Columbia. At midnight the island bore S by E 1/2 E.

December 19. Moderate breeze throughout, N.N.W. People employed unbending cable and stowing anchors. 8.30 am hove to, to send water on board the Columbia. Longitude 80 degrees 0′ West, Latitude 30 degrees 54′ [South].

The latitude puts them well north of Santiago and Valparaiso, and just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. If they are not already in the trade winds, they will be there soon. The ships’s destination, the Sandwich Islands, or Hawaii, is on the north side of the equator [0 degrees], and the Tropic of Cancer [30 degrees North] runs just north of that cluster of islands. That should give you a good idea of where they are now. 

December 20. Light breeze NW. Hove to for the Columbia, made sail, and shortened sail for Columbia. Read prayers to the ship’s company.

December 21. Moderate breeze N.N.W. Signalized longitude to the Columbia, 3 miles distant. People employed repairing topsail. 

December 22. Light breeze throughout. Showed longitude to the Columbia. Island of Ambrose sighted, bearing N. E. 1/2 E. 

December 23. Light breeze from NW. Ambrose Island E.S.E.

December 24. Calm and clear. Spoke [to] the Columbia. Columbia sent a boat aboard for fresh beef. At 8 pm hailed the Columbia and requested Captain [William] Darby to send the doctor on board, as Mr. [unidentified] Hilton was very unwell, also one of the crew. At 7 am Mr. [George] Prattent came on board with a message from Captain Darby, saying the doctor pleaded illness as an excuse for not coming.

I wonder what he really said. As we know from the second post in this series, the second officer aboard the Columbia reported Captain William Darby for drunkenness. Well, that second officer was George Prattent, and he was now aboard the Beaver and talking to Captain David Home. I wonder if he covered up for his Captain?

Here is George Prattent’s story, from Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide. Born in Devon in 1811 or so, he was 2nd mate aboard the barque Nereide in 1833-1835. At one point he became so frustrated aboard that ship that he refused to keep the log, which was part of his job. He transferred to the Columbia in 1835, also as 2nd Mate. In Hawaii he had a dispute with Captain Darby, and was transferred to the Beaver, with the Beaver‘s second mate replacing him aboard the Columbia. When Prattent reached Fort Vancouver he accused Captain Darby of being a drunk, and also of illegally obtaining furs and trading them on his own account. (Where would Captain Darby have traded for furs at this point in time?) Darby made similar accusations of Prattent, and part of Darby’s case was proven: that of leaving the ship in inexperienced hands. It actually sounds as if both of these men were drinking, together, on at least one occasion. On the return journey to London, they both worked aboard the Columbia, which must have made it an uncomfortable journey. Both were fired on their arrival home.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I know the name of the doctor who was so unwilling to treat one or two of his patients. 

So let’s tell a few more stories of the Beaver in the Pacific. The next day is Christmas Day, and the log reads: “Light breeze S.E. Showed longitude to the Columbia, bearing S.E. Longitude 81 degrees 59′ [West], latitude 24 degrees 20′ [South].” Their last location was at 80 degrees West Longitude, and 30 degrees South latitude, so they are sailing west and north toward the Hawaiian Islands. Ambrose Island, mentioned above on December 23, is part of what Chile now calls Islas de los Desventurados, or “Unfortunate Islands,” located off the Chilean coast at 26 degrees, 32″ South, and 80 degrees West. This cluster of islands is now well behind the two ships, and by their latitude locations you can see that the equator is approaching — only 24 degrees away from their readings of Christmas Day, 1835. The Beaver’s journal continues, and we will now take it all the way to the end of the year.

December 28. Moderate S.E. trade throughout. Altered course to close with the Columbia.

December 29. Moderate trade wind S.E. Unbent the mainsail for repairs. Columbia bearing S.E. by E.

December 30. Fresh trade east with rain. Longitude 92 degrees 8″ [West].

Unbending the main sails means they removed them for repairs. And of course they are in the trade winds, and have been since they crossed the 30 degree line of Latitude, five or so degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The trade winds always blew toward the equator and to the east, and the region between 30 degrees North and 30 degrees South latitudes was known as the Horse Latitudes! As always, when the ships approached the equator they sailed into “the Doldrums,” when the wind and currents died. 

But they weren’t there yet.

To return to the beginning of this story of the Beaver in the Pacific, go here:

When the next section of this journal is published, it will show up here:  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved.  




2 thoughts on “Beaver in the Pacific

  1. Tom Holloway

    Excellent. Selkirk was marooned on Juan Fernandez from 1704 to 1709. Defoe set Crusoe’s island in the Caribbean, otherwise the “cannibals” would not have landed with “Friday,” who escaped and became Crusoe’s “man.” On Darby’s furs, one possibility is that beaver pelts were treated like currency, and may have circulated in Hawaii as such, despite HBC rules against private trading in furs by its employees.

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