Friday, February 14, 2014

Tracing a Master Mariner 4

George Henry Caithness first appears in South Africa in August 1852 when he is sponsor at the baptism in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, of Charles Chance Caithness, son of Captain James Ramsay Caithness and the latter’s second wife, Eliza (nee Noyle).

Baptism entry, St George's Cathedral register, 29 August 1852: Charles Chance Caithness son of James Ramsay Caithness, Master Mariner, and Eliza. George Henry Caithness's name at right.

Durham Gaol
Diet for Class 2 Prisoners, Durham Gaol

Having weathered the storm of bankruptcy proceedings in 1850 and seen the inside of Durham Gaol* – a particularly gloomy and depressing place where conditions were harsh and the staple prison diet was oatmeal porridge – George undoubtedly needed a change of scene, as well as employment.

It makes sense that he chose the Cape Colony since his elder brother James was established there as a merchant captain. Not that James was having an easy time of it: he had lost his first wife, leaving him with six children to rear, remarried in 1851 and in the same year lost his ship Diadem.**

Still, James would have had good contacts in the colonial maritime community and George had plenty of experience behind him as well as having acquired his official Master’s Certificate. By 1857 he was trading between Port Natal and the island of Mauritius (Isle de France) as master of the 100 ton schooner Pet.

The connection between Natal and Mauritius had been strong since the 1840s. Then with the burgeoning sugar industry in Natal in the 1850s, coupled with a downturn in sugar production on that island, several Mauritians moved to Natal to start plantations on the coast. Among these was James Renault Sanders later a leader in Natal sugar and founder of the well-known Tongaat family.

The earliest mention of George and the Pet occurs in Lloyd's List, 30 September 1857 where the schooner is reported as having 'cleared outwards September 29' from Port Natal.

George's regular sailing schedule can be tracked through the press, for example:

Arrived at Natal 22 June 1858 ‘Pet’ (schooner) 100 t , G Caithness, from Mauritius.

In the following extracts, all referring to the Pet with Caithness as master, the date of publication is shown first:

11 March 1858. At Natal 24 Dec 1857, from London.  Left 13 Jan 1858 for Mauritius.
29 March 1858. At Mauritius 6 Feb 1858 from Natal.
24 June 1858. At Natal 8 April 1858. Put back for Mauritius with loss of chain plates. ***
15 July 1858. At Mauritius 10 May 1858. From Natal. And sailed 19 June on her return.
30 Dec 1858. At Table Bay 10th Nov 1858. For Natal.

George's schedule leaves a convenient gap for his marriage at Durban, Natal, to Leopoltina Jones nee Knapp on 19 July 1858.

Marriage entry St Paul's, Durban: George Caithness and Leopoltina Jones born Knapp
29 July 1858. George's occupation is given as 'Captain Merchant Service'.
A strange signature from George: perhaps he was nervous. He is described as 'widower' so presumably his first wife Caroline had died prior to this date though no record of the event has been found.

Durban in 1857


*** Chain plates were essential: the shrouds, pieces of standing rigging which hold the mast up from side to side, connect at the top of the mast and terminate at the bottom ends at the chain plates which are tied into the hull. The loss of chain plates would have been good reason for George to put back for Mauritius.

Tom Sheldon

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