Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
Anne Finniss, her son Travers, and the other guests camped in field tents belonging to the 11th Regiment of Foot, the British garrison then stationed in the colony of South Australia. These had been made habitable with stretcher beds off the ground and warm blankets. One tent had been outfitted with a cast iron bath. In a clearing near the river a warm fire had been lit, and after supper the company gravitated to chairs arranged around the blaze.
The gentlemen began to tell stories, an activity greatly enlivened when Captain Cadell himself arrived in a whaleboat with his captains, Davidson and Robertson. Miss Williams accompanied the group also, dressed demurely in Indian muslin and a grey woollen cloak, sitting quietly to Cadell’s right side, making little eye contact and appearing to Anne’s eye at least, to be distinctly unsettled.
There, around the hearth, Anne watched her son Travers hero-worship Cadell, as the young sea-captain told stories to fire a boy’s imagination. He told how at Travers’s own age of fourteen he had signed on as a midshipman on the Minerva, an East Indiaman of almost a thousand tons and one of the best trading ships afloat. He told of daily life on board as one of the ship’s most junior officers, on the ‘Great Circle’ route through the Indian Ocean.
He told stories of being double-crossed by a Portuguese trader in Macao, the pagodas of Canton, and double-dealing Chinese officials. There was scarcely a sound as he related his rapid promotion – fifth officer by the age of eighteen, and then his part in the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China, beginning with the requisitioning of the Minerva as a troop ship and ending with the bloody siege of Ting-hai.
Cadell told the enraptured audience of cannons with mouths wide as a man’s spread arms, of gunshot wounds and raw naked terror and Anne felt herself melt with admiration, knowing that she was not the only woman there who was deep in his thrall, the soft Scots tones of his voice working together with the sounds of the river and the night creatures.
‘I was third officer of the troopship Eruaad, at the end of the war,’ said Cadell, ‘and by then I was grown up indeed. Graduate of a hard school, I might add.’
He told of his promotion to first lieutenant, at which point he was given an incorrect navigational order by the captain that he refused to obey, believing that it would result in the destruction of the ship. ‘I lost my position,’ he said. ‘But I saved the lives of a hundred men in so doing.’ He locked his eyes on young Travers. ‘So do you know what I did then?’
The boy slowly shook his head. ‘No sir, I do not.’
Cadell grinned wolfishly. ‘I was given my own command and spent twelve months hunting the blood-thirsty pirates of the Malacca Strait. In appreciation of my efforts, I was given a sword by the Sultan Zainal Rashid Al-Mu’adzam Shah I of Kedah. It’s in my cabin in the Esmerelda, and I’ll show it to you the first chance I get.’
When Anne looked at Travers, his eyes shone, as if in rapture at the possibilities painted in the air by a skilled storyteller who did not shrink from placing himself as the centre of the action.
Near midnight, at the change of the tide, Cadell rose to his feet. He announced that he would head off back to his berth on the Lady Augusta, and finished with a rough schedule for the following day. The company rose and applauded, shouting ‘hear, hear,’ as the Scotsman and his entourage walked back to their boat, and rowed away with the current.
Preparations for the launch of the barge Eureka, arranged for one pm, took most of the following morning, with the women busy bathing, doing each other’s hair, and dressing in finery brought for the occasion. Only Mrs Younghusband had brought a maid to assist her, and Anne detested this need with a silent passion.
Travelling by carriage to the Goolwa jetty, they found it crowded with onlookers, both local and from as far away as Adelaide and the Hills. Anne and Travers were in time for the Governor, Sir Henry Edward Fox Young’s arrival, announced with the firing of cannons and musketry.
Miss Williams was there also, in an ostentatious blue satin dress with so many layers of petticoats so that it flared out from her tiny waist like the sails of a clipper.
The band had hardly finished their first tune when Captain Cadell mounted a dais and announced that the launch would not proceed until the following day due to a technical problem with the Eureka. There was a stunned silence, and Anne gripped her son’s hand, sensing his disappointment.
More disappointment and ill-luck dogged the launch. The following day the event was again scheduled for one pm, and a slightly smaller crowd gathered. The band was still enthusiastically present. Captain Cadell, as he had the day before, mounted the dais and regrettably announced that the launch was again not possible.
Anne happened to be very close when Miss Williams turned on Cadell and hissed. ‘You are making a fool of me. You’ve dragged me halfway around the country, for what?’ She threw down the scissors that would have cut the silk sash. ‘I will thank you to have my things collected, and find a coachman to take me to Adelaide, for I will not tarry here another day.’
Two days later, at eight in the morning, the barge Eureka was finally launched. Her decks had been garlanded with banksia flowers and in the absence of Miss Williams, Eliza Younghusband, just thirteen years old and smiling like a doll with this great honour, cut the ribbon to a chorus of shouts and cheers.
All that day men laboured to load and prepare the Lady Augusta for departure. Anne settled into the ladies’ quarters on board, and she and Travers partook of the feast planned for that day. The not-quite finished Goolwa Hotel was still a couple of months away from opening but her staff prepared yet another feast of Herculean proportions, and the diners were entertained by a member of the crew singing a bevy of colonial songs, Come, Fill the Flowing Bowl and Hurrah for a Bushman’s life. Anne thought that his voice was average, but his efforts pleased her nonetheless.
It was seven in the evening when the Lady Augusta’s steam was up and she powered away into the stream with the barge Eureka lashed to her starboard side, the departure bell ringing and the band playing “Off she Goes.”
The few words that Anne knew rang in her head as the musicians played, a fiddle taking the lead.
Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair,
She’s got time and money to spare,
Looks like rain but she don’t care,
Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair,
When they called out ‘Three cheers for Captain Cadell, and the first steamer on the Murray,’ followed by a bellow of ‘Huzzah!’
Even Anne knew that the Mary Ann was already one hundred and fifty miles upriver, having sailed a few days earlier. The official line, it seemed, was that the other paddle steamer was just some kind of experiment and didn’t really count. Captain Cadell, they reasoned, would swiftly overhaul it. Anne, like everyone else on board the Lady Augusta, believed that he would.
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron
Image is of Sir Henry Young in 1850. Source: State Library of South Australia