Thomas Lowe at Sea

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

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

Thomas Lowe joined the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company from Scotland in 1841, and set off on his journey to Fort Vancouver, near the mouth of the Columbia River, in what was then called Oregon Territory. In the last post, here: he set off from Gravesend, London, in the barque, Vancouver. In this last post the Vancouver sailed past Lizard Point, “which is the last of Old England any of us will probably see for many years to come.” Unlike many who joined the HBC, he would return home.

We need to clarify that there were three HBC ships called Vancouver. The first was a schooner, of sixty tons, built at Fort Vancouver in 1826. It sailed to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], and the northwest coast in the years between 1827 and 1834. It was a poorly built vessel, and finally grounded on Rose Spit in the Queen Charlotte’s, in 1834. The crew abandoned ship and the Haida destroyed it.  

The second ship named Vancouver was a four hundred ton barque of British or African oak or teak, built on the same plan as the Prince Albert and Prince Rupert (see for more information on these two ships.) The second Vancouver was 103 feet long and twenty five and a half feet wide, with a depth of eleven feet, and the height between its decks was six feet six inches. All these ships had multiple decks for passengers: gentlemen-clerks like Thomas Lowe travelled in the upper deck and had cabins, but servants and employees took passage in steerage — the lower decks — where it is likely they slept in bunks and did not have separate and private cabins. A good source of information on ships that travelled to eastern Canada and United States is the book, The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing Ship, 1770-1860, by Edwin C. Guillet. The author, however, is writing about emigrant ships: it is unlikely that the HBC ships were as bad as some of the ships the emigrants travelled in! (Still, the book talks about maritime traditions that the HBC men shared, and so I will refer to it later in this thread).

So, in 1841, Thomas Lowe sailed in this second ship, Vancouver. This is not its maiden voyage, but the second sailing journey it had taken to Fort Vancouver. On its first it left London November 1838 and arrived at Fort Vancouver in June 1839. The ship remained on the coast for a year, it seems, sailing away from Fort Vancouver November 1840, and arriving in London in spring, 1841. On its second journey it left London September 11, 1841, and arrived at Fort Vancouver on April 4, 1842. Thomas Lowe did not arrive at Fort Vancouver with this ship, however, but was diverted to the northwest coast post of Fort Taku. 

(The third ship, Vancouver, was a brigantine of 192 tons, outfitted with an auxiliary engine and a screw propellor. This is the ship that was wrecked on Rose Spit, Queen Charlotte Islands, in August 1853!) We will continue with Thomas Lowe’s story:

15, Wednesday [September]. Wind almost contrary, and weather rainy and squally during the night, we were obliged to tack and the consequent change in the position of the vessel, when laying over on her other side, caused a great deal of confusion, as our boxes &c had not been properly secured.

16 Thursday. Strong breezes and cloudy weather, wind unfavourable and we are only making 4 knots an hour. Vessels are now becoming less numerous, three days ago we saw at least 50, today we have only seen 3; our stock of fresh vegetables is also drawing to a close, and today we have been obliged to break in upon our sea stores. 

But like the Prince Rupert and Prince Albert, they carry live animals on board for the use of the cabin passengers, but not, apparently, for those in steerage:

17 Friday. The sea has been very rough during the night, and the violent rocking and pitching of the vessel not at all congenial to repose. There are 4 dozen fowls, 4 sheep and 8 or 10 hogs on Board, for the use of the cabin, so that we will have a pretty fair supply of fresh provisions during the voyage. A number of the fowls have died today, and the rest, as yet, are in a very sickly state. We have got 6 Rams of the Merino breed to carry to Fort Vancouver. 

I think it probable that these sheep ended up at Fort Nisqually. I understand that their sheep were a breed that were not good wool-bearers, and the HBC probably brought in the Merinos to improve their stock. I grew up on a farm where we raised sheep: we had one raggedy-looking ewe that produced twins every year, although (to us kids) she looked like she was on her last legs. I finally understand now, after all these years, that she was just a different breed of sheep than the others. 

At last the weather changed, after a few days of “tacking and running an exceedingly zig zag course.”

19, Sunday. Wind driving us N.W. instead of W.S.W., which ought to be our course. Large numbers of porpoises are following the ship, and offering an excellent mark for the Harpoon. If they continue as plentiful tomorrow, I daresay we may strike some of them as harpoons or [blank] are not yet sought out. In general they are about 6 feet in length, and swim rapidly. Saw a rainbow at 6 pm, which far surpassed in brilliancy and beauty any I ever witnessed on shore, and continued for a greater length of time.

As an ex-sailor myself, I have witnessed the vast numbers of porpoises that will swim for the horizon to play in the bow-waves of the ship, until they get bored. I never saw a rainbow at sea, however, though it sounds like a fabulous experience. The next day, the crew balanced the vessel by moving lumber around, and Lowe said that “this alteration has caused considerable improvement in her sailing.” It is interesting, however, that the ship carried lumber at all, as there was no shortage of it in the Pacific Northwest. It is likely they delivered it to the Sandwich Islands post where there was a large market for lumber. It is also likely that the lumber was oak or teak, and not any of the type of trees found in the Pacific Northwest. Lowe’s journal continues:

A favourable wind having sprung up during the night, we are now scudding before it at the rate of 7 knots an hour. Everything would go on pleasantly were it not for the almost constant showers of rain which we experience. They don’t continue long and are very seldom heavy, but occur so frequently that the Decks are kept constantly wet, which obliged me, much against my will, to keep below, unless I want to get myself wet, which is very disagreeable at Sea where there is no means of getting oneself dried, the only remedy being change of Clothes, which is not always desirable. 

At this point they were “steering pretty far West,” and were in the North latitude 45 degrees, according to Lowe. “If this wind would only continue, we would cross the “Line” in a fortnight, altho’ we are yet 2500 Miles distant from it.” “Crossing the Line” was of course, crossing the Equator, which is something that Lowe did not yet understand would not be something he enjoyed. I will speak of this unpleasant experience in my next Thomas Lowe post.

25 Saturday. The first thing that generally awakens me in the morning, is the crowing of some half dozen Cocks which we have on board. It reminds me forcibly of home, but appears a strange sound on shipboard, and totally at variance with everything around. The Sea is here of a very light transparent blue colour, entirely different from what we have hitherto seen. The weather is now getting exceedingly warm, and the sailors are to be seen, here and there, making light trowsers &c for themselves, of duck, which they buy expressly for the purpose.

Now, this is interesting: “Duck” comes from the Dutch word, “doek,” meaning “cloth.” It is any of a broad range of strong, durable, plain-woven fabrics made originally from tow yarns and subsequently from either flax or cotton. It is a lighter fabric than canvas and has, almost invariably, single threads in both warp and weft. Tow Yarns, from which duck is woven, are spun from the shorter fibres created during the milling process of line-spun yarns. Because of these shorter fibres, duck is often softer and fuzzier. 

There is scarcely a man on board who does not make his own Clothes, of course to a landsman’s eye they wouldn’t look either very ship shape, or becoming, being cut in a manner peculiarly seamanlike, but Jack is always much prouder of his own Manufacture & Cut, than with any he can get on shore. This is a beautiful day, scarcely a breath of wind to ruffle the smooth surface of the Ocean, but (for my part, at least) a good steady breeze to waft us on our Voyage would be ten times more acceptable than all this beautiful weather, for at present we are all but becalmed, and under the burning rays of a Tropical sun.

 26 Sunday. A slight breeze has now sprung up but not so favourable as we could have desired, bearing us South East instead of South West. We expect soon to be under the influence of the Trade Winds which in all probability will carry us right through the Tropics. Made 60 Miles today.

The trade winds are the two permanent bands of easterly winds that encircle the earth on both sides of the equator. In the northern hemisphere the trade winds blow steadily from the north east, the air flowing from tropical high-pressure belts to the low-pressure zone at the equator (in the southern hemisphere they blow from the south east). Ships sailing to North America relied on the trade winds to make their journey easier: in fact, trade winds and ocean currents define the routes that sailing ships use even today. Lowe’s journal continues:

28 Tuesday. Running very much to the Eastward. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon came in sight of Palma, the Westernmost of the Canary Islands; sailed close by it and saw the Peak of Teneriffe at a distance of about 70 miles. Made very little way for the last three days, and not altogether in the right direction either.

The ship is off the Canary Islands — in other words, off the coast of Spain. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, and the so-called “Peak of Teneriffe” is Mt Teide, a volcano that stands 3,700 meters above the sea, last active in 1909.  Even out at sea the weather was hot, with the thermometer rarely falling below 83 degrees in the shade. Lowe spent some of his time out on the deck, especially from 6 in the evening to midnight. “That is the only time I can enjoy myself, being compelled to remain below during the day on account of the excessive heat. The Moon is this Latitude is always bright, tonight one might read (and I took advantage of it) not only without difficulty but with perfect ease.” His journal continues:

1 Friday [October] Spread an awning over the Deck to shelter us from the powerful rays of the Sun. Everything gets sadly rusted with the Sea Air; my Keys and every Iron or Steel thing I possess are as rusty as well can be, and worse than all, I fear I may get rusty myself for want of exercise. Making an average of 5 1/2 knots an hour. A heavy rain came on at 6 pm. I sleep at present with nothing over me but a single sheet, and find even that too much.

Two days later the ship caught the North East Trade Winds, and Lowe saw Flying Fish, “unable to fly above a Cables length, without dipping their wings (or fins) in the water.” Dolphins and Bonitos pursued the flying fish, “ready to seize them whenever they touch the water, and they [the flying fish] have likewise numerous enemies of the Feathered tribe, and ready to dart upon them in the air, so that, between fish and fowl, they are sometimes put to sad straits.”

A few days later the ship was off St. Antonia, “the largest and most Westerly of the Cape de Verde Islands, sailed close by it. It is mountainous and bare, the highest point being about 7,400 feet above the level of the surrounding Ocean. We passed on the West side, which seemed craggy and uninhabited, except by Wild Goats.” Cape Verde is an country 350 miles off the coast of Africa, consisting of ten rocky islands. It was an important stopover for the Atlantic slave trade and when that died, the then-prosperous islands suffered financially. It became the home of privateers and pirates. Then, because it was an important stopover for shipping routes, merchants set up shop on the islands. Today it is a tourist destination. Lowe’s journal continues:

6 Wednesday. Came in sight of Brava & Fuego, another two of the Cape de Verdes, situated about 100 Miles South from St. Antonia. Saw a large ship, homeward bound, put into Fuego, very probably for fruit and fresh provisions. 

The men aboard kept an eye open for ships “as we are now in their track, but none hove in sight,” Lowe said, disappointed. He had written some letters to send home. His journal continues:

Owing to the excessive heat of the Weather, I wrapt myself in my Pea Jacket and slept in the Pinnace, where I contrived to pass the night more comfortable than I could have done below. However it is not always a safe plan to do this, as sometimes a tremendous dew falls at night, besides the injurious effects of the Moon beams in these Latitudes.

The Pinnace is the small boat, with oars, that is part of the equipment of the larger ship. But this superstition, that says that moon beams in this latitude are harmful to sleepers, I have not been able to explain. Can anyone else explain this superstition, if superstition it is? I will ask the question of followers of Maritime History on Twitter: it’s amazing what information you can get from people who are on that site. Maybe I will come up with the answer before you do — who knows.

Thomas Lowe’s journal will continue as he crosses the equator and runs into another not-so-pleasant maritime tradition — which, I have discovered, was part of the early fur trade traditions, too. To go back to the beginning of this thread, go here:

When the next post is finished, I will post it here:

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.









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