Thomas Lowe at the Sandwich Islands

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

In this post of the series on Thomas Lowe’s journey in the London Ship, Vancouver, he will reach the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii]. Or at least I hope he will. Let’s see how it turns out! In the last blogpost we end with his journal entry of January 10, 1842: he will arrive at the Sandwich Islands on Sunday, February 13. Can we squeeze one whole month into this blogpost? I think we can. 

But it will be a long slow month. On Thursday, January 13 Lowe wrote: “No wind and consequently no progress made. Cleared only about 30 Miles in the last 3 days. Weather warm and close but it is fortunately cloudy and this is what shelters us.” Fortunately, two days later he noted:

15 Saturday. We had a gentle breeze all night, but it slackened as the Sun rose, and we were becalmed until 8 o’clock at night. It was squally and rainy for some time, and then we got a regular stiff and favourable breeze from the N.E.; it gradually veered round until we had it abaft the beam where it continued steady and strong. This is just the best and fairest wind we could have, far more favourable than if it had been right aft, as it thus enables every sail to draw. Going 9 knots an hour.

16 Sunday. It continues thus all day with frequent squalls, and never abated in the least all day long, so that we may safely say that we have now fallen in with the S.E. Trade Winds, but this is in Latitude 25 degrees South, where as we expected to be under their influence in 30 degrees. Made a beautiful days run and are now in the Tropics.

So the London Ship, Vancouver, hit the South East Trade Winds earlier than was expected, which was a real bonus to their sailing journey. On Monday, Thomas Lowe wrote, “Trades steady all day. Painting the ship and taken advantage of this fine weather to improve her appearance and make her ready for Port. Now that we have got the Trade Winds, we expect to make a quick passage to the Islands.” The fine winds remained unchanged for the next week or more. On January 19 he wrote “Steady she goes, all’s well.” On January 20:

The wind still keeps steady but all day we have had heavy showers of rain. Stopped up the lee scuppers and filled two or three casks with rain water, besides what was caught on the awning and cover of the Long Boats. This will be a prize for clothes washing and I see the women already getting their tubs &c to commence without delay.”

It continued to rain all the next day, and Thomas Lowe wrote, “and the Breeze is neither so strong nor steady as lately.” But he saw schools of flying fish, although he said they were “scarcely half the size of those we saw in the Atlantic. Steering N..W. by W.” The fine weather returned the next day, and the crew were once again out “scraping and painting the Anchors and Stocks, tarring the rigging, varnishing the Yards, and getting new Ratlines bent.” A wooden ship takes a lot of maintenance to keep it looking fine, and all men who worked aboard the ship took pride in its appearance as it came into port. On Sunday Thomas Lowe wrote: “All goes on pleasantly and cheerfully, every one elated with the hope of speedily reaching our ports.” Then, on Monday 24:

With the wind o’ the larboard quarter and the sea smooth, we now generally make from 160 to 180 miles a day. But this is nearly as tiresome and certainly as monotonous as Calm, for as the wind keeps so steady, there is scarcely ever a sail to be shifted, or a pull on a Brace required. Yet as we fly through the water, it is cheerful and enlivening to hear it whiz behind us. Change is the great attraction of a Sailors life — if it were not for the constant diversity of scene, wind, and weather, they would find it very irksome, at least I think I can answer for the Passengers. I never felt tired rounding the Horn, as we were then kept in a constant state of excitement, I may say of confusion, but for all all that I was glad enough when we got clear of it.

Let me remind you: Thomas Lowe is only seventeen years old! As you will remember, on Tuesday, November 30, 1841, Lowe wrote in his journal, “This is St. Andrews day, and my 17th birthday. As the most of us are Scotch, we had a regale in honor of the day…”

On Saturday, January 29, they saw an “immense school of whales, and blackfish, close to us, and when the mist cleared away, saw a ship under bare poles to windward. On looking more attentively we soon ascertained it to be a Whaler, from the invariable custom of these vessels having a lookout stationed at each mast head. On seeing us, she made sail and stood for us, but as she showed no colors, and did not appear to be very anxious to speak, we never shortened sail.” (That almost suggests they could have been pirates.) The Vancouver left the Whaler in its dust, and that evening, sailed across the equator. Lowe said the Captain expected to be in the Sandwich Islands in 15 days, “if the N.E. Trade Winds prove as strong as the South Easters have done. We have been enabled to cross the line without being becalmed, or even having the least diminution in the winds. In the Atlantic this would be a rare occurrence indeed.”

On the first of February, “Light variable winds and heavy showers of rain. Saw a number of Tropic Birds and Boobies, and from that and various other signs supposed land not to be far distant.” On Wednesday, February 2:

A foggy and uncomfortable day, with light Westerly winds and incessant rain. The night was uncommonly dark and much Lightning.

3 Thursday. Two brown Sharks seen astern this morning. Raining the whole day, and blowing in puffs from every point of the Compass. Got no meridian observations and the Log gives her but little way. Lightened freely at night. [?]

4 Friday. During the day made little or no progress and it was not until 9 pm that we were carried 4 or 5 knots an hour by a light but steady breeze from the N.East. North East winds are prevalent here, and now that we have been so fortunate as to fall in with them, expect to be more or less under their benign influence to the Islands, which we will probably reach in 10 days.

For the next three days the wind carried them northward, and Lowe saw bonitos and porpoises in the sea that surrounded them. Anticipation of arrival at their destination remained at a fever pitch, but on Tuesday, February 8, Lowe wrote:

It is generally said that the last week of a voyage is always the longest, and it has certainly been verified in our case. Having nothing to look forward to, we thought nothing of 2 or 3 weeks, the time gliding silently past, and there was nothing to mark its flight. But now the tables are turned, all is bustle and plans for our enjoyment while on shore. It is exactly 5 months yesterday since I joined the Vancouver at Gravesend. After being so long tossed about and cooped up on ship-board, it will be a great relaxation to get freedom on shore. So far, with few and trivial exceptions, everyone has been blessed with good health, and none more so than myself. Through the mercy of God we have been safely born over many a thousand miles to within a short distance of our first landing place. We have made a run of 208 miles within the last 24 hours, and will probably make the same tomorrow.

On Thursday February 12 they

saw the NE. point of Owhyhee [O’ahu] about 6 o’clock in the morning, about 50 miles distant. Shortly afterwards Mowee [Maui] hove in sight, and we coasted these about a distance of 8 miles off. In the course of the day we passed Ranai and in the evening saw the Island of Morotoc [Moloka’i?]. On Mowee we saw several fires burning. Continued running until 10 o’clock at night, when every sail was furled except the topsails and mizzen, as the weather looked gloomy and we expected to be at the Islands of Woahoo before daylight. It blew strong all night, and when we came in sight of Diamond Hill [Diamond Head] and only 6 miles distant from the town of Honolulu, we hove to and continued so till daylight.

The Sandwich Islands is, of course, the Hawaiian Islands — a range of mountain tops that stick out above the level of the sea, some 1800 miles from the nearest continent. They were formed by volcanic activity over a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle, and there are eight large islands plus numerous mostly uninhabited smaller islands, atolls, and reefs. The Sandwich Islands were “discovered” and named by Captain James Cook in 1778. But Native Hawaiians have occupied the islands for many years before Cook found them there, and modern archaeological evidence indicates the first Hawaiian settlement might have been as early as 124 A.D.

This blogpost will end with Thomas Lowe’s journal entry of Sunday, February 13, when he says, “Rounded the Cape at 4 am., fired two 12-pounders as a private signal to the Company’s Agent here, and hoisted the colors. All hands (crew and passengers) were on deck from 4 in the morning. About 6 o’clock we saw the Pilot boat shove off manned by half a dozen Kanakas (so the common Islanders are called), the Pilot, an old weather-beaten Tar, steering. He soon brought us to the anchorage grounds, but it may be two or three days before we get into the harbour as the Island is surrounded by Coral reefs, and the channel between long lines of breakers, very intricate navigation. There were three American vessels lying in the Harbour and one of the Company’s Vessels, the Cowlitz, commanded by Captain [William] Brotchie, which had only arrived two days ago from California, bringing Sir George Simpson (the Governor), Dr. [John] McLoughlin (in command at Fort Vancouver), and 4 or 5 other Gentlemen in the Service.”

I will have plenty to say of this meeting on the Sandwich Islands in due course, but this, that follows, is very interesting, and its the first time I have seen this story! Some local historians might dig up more information on this — looking at you, Tom!

The Columbia (another of the Company’s ships) had only sailed on Friday last for England, with its mainmast and topmast seriously damaged, the Cowlitz and Columbia had been lying within a short distance of one another in Bakers’ Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia River, when they were both at the same instant struck by Lightning. The Columbia had got a strip of 10 feet long knocked out of her mainmast, her topmast splintered and the Mate knocked down. The Cowlitz got her mainmast slightly injured, & both the Mates who were standing at the Capstan were stunned, but none of them dangerously.

Lightning strikes placed ships in great danger: if a lightning bolt struck a mast it could splinter it, bringing it to the deck and disabling the ship. A strike could kill a man; it could also find the powder magazine and blow the entire ship out of the water! In 1841, ships had no protection against lightning strikes — but things soon changed. Credit to the story that follows goes to Steve Anderson, now retired from his position as Manager of the replica Fort Nisqually at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.

In 1846, the Royal Navy ship Fisgard was stationed off Fort Nisqually (anchored off Anderson Island, in fact. For a while Anderson Island bore the name of Fisgard Island — this is why). The ship’s job was to provide a British presence in the area to support the upcoming Boundary commission discussions between the Americans and the British. Before she left London, however, the Royal Navy had installed aboard the Fisgard a new-fangled, untested, experimental lightning conductor, consisting of copper rods, plates, and nails on the ships spars and hull. No one believed it would work — but it did.

At 7.45 pm on September 26, 1846, a powerful bolt of lightning struck the ship’s main spar and shook the Fisgard to its core. “A sudden report, as if many guns had gone off, threw all hands into the utmost consternation.” The alarmed crew watched as the lightning followed the trail of copper down the mast, and those who were nearest described the effect of the fluid-like strike as illuminating the mast with a most beautiful stream of purple light. The bolt of lightning grounded in the sea, leaving the ship entirely undamaged. When the Fisgard returned to London, it was greeted with fanfare, largely due to the fact that she had beaten the lightning strike.

The last is a great story, and it changed history. But I want to learn more about the effect of the lightning strikes on Governor Simpson as he sailed to California and Hawaii in 1841, and on the London ship, Columbia. Even though I have had Thomas Lowe’s journal for ages, I did not take in this most interesting story! But that’s what happens when you begin to re-write original stories: you chase down other stories connected to them and discover new occurrences that must be researched and explained. I think you can say, a book is never complete. There is always more to say.

To read the last entry of Thomas Lowe’s journal, go here:

To continue with this series when the next post is published, go here:

Here’s a link to my current book, should you want to order it: Thomas Lowe is a character in the book, by the way. 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved. 

5 thoughts on “Thomas Lowe at the Sandwich Islands

  1. Ilene

    Wondering if Playgreen Inn at Norway House, Manitoba, owned by the Lowe Family, would have been connected with this Thomas Lowe?

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      No, not as far as I know. Two of his brothers came to the Pacific Northwest, one died, and one settled in Duncan, B.C. Whether or not one of this man’s children was involved with the Playgreen Inn, I do not know. But as far as I know, there is no connection.