John Hemery and the Bengal Merchant

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John Hemery

Although he did not settle there himself, Jerseyman Captain John Hemery is famous in the annals of emigration to New Zealand, having commanded the vessel which took the first Scottish colonists there in 1840.

Captain John Hemery 1813 – 1881

John Hemery was born into a family of merchants and traders in Jersey, on 30 October 1813. His father Clement was a wealthy merchant and ship owner. His grandfather, also Clement, had fought in the Battle of Jersey in 1781, and been included in the famous painting by John Singleton Copley of the battle.

John went to sea at an early age, serving on the ship Lord Hungerford before buying his first vessel the Bengal Merchant in 1839 at the age of 26. In her he sailed to India, Australia and New Zealand. One of the passengers on the voyage to New Zealand, Alexander Majoribanks, described Hemery in his book Travels in New Zealand, published in 1846:

”The commanding officer of our ship, Captain John Hemery, from the Island of Jersey, was a handsome young man of good address, and though said to be opulent, preferring a sea life to any other – a singular choice I must admit. He had some faults, and who has not; but he was an excellent seaman; very sober and attentive to the duties of the ship, and a strict disciplinarian. He was disposed to be somewhat haughty in his deportment – keeping very much aloof from us all; but this, I am inclined to think, arose, in a great measure, from the situation in which he found himself placed; and really, when we consider his youth, and the difficult part which he had to act, amidst the jarrings and quarrels that invariably occur in emigrant ships, I cannot help feeling that this feeling was highly commendable.

Later John Hemery was owner and captain of the ‘’Constant’’ which on at least one occasion transported convicts from Ireland to Tasmania. He married Anna Beatty in 1844, and they had a total of 9 children. He retired from the sea in 1849, and embarked on a banking career. Settling in Canterbury, Kent, he was manager of the London and County Bank, and Lord Mayor of Canterbury in 1879. He died on 22 November 1881. An account of a convict voyage on the Constant can be read in Patrick Howard’s book To Hell or to Hobart.

John Hemery's brother Clement kept a diary which also has much information on John, his marriage, his travels, and life in Jersey in the middle of the 19th Century. This can be found in the library of La Société Jersiaise.

A poster advertising the voyage to New Zealand

Bengal Merchant

Special incentives were offered to single women to go out to the early settlements. The New Zealand Land Company was founded by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) in 1838 to promote the settlement of the colony by Britons. The company held a meeting in Glasgow in 1839, sponsored by the Duke of Hamilton, the Duke of Argyll and the Lord Provost of Glasgow, to encourage Scots to emigrate and posters such as this one were produced to generate interest. Eighty-nine adults and 33 children were selected to go on the first sailing from Scotland.

The Bengal Merchant left Port Glasgow in October 1839 and arrived at Port Nicholson, Wellington, in February 1840. There were probably no more than 1,000 Europeans living in New Zealand when the first Scots arrived. Wellington was a small and primitive town and its only ‘boarding house’ was a hut which had neither windows or doors. In spite of the difficulties they faced, the settlers proved to be hardy and self-reliant. Many New Zealanders living today can trace their descent to the passengers who sailed with the Bengal Merchant.

The Bengal Merchant was built at Calcutta, India, in 1812.

The 1820 edition of Lloyd's Register (the only edition before 1834) indicates that she was 464 tons, her then master's surname was Gordon, she belonged to Boehm and Co., she drew 18 feet when loaded, she was last surveyed at London, at the time of publication her intended voyage was to Bengal. Between 1829 and 1832, the Bengal Merchant made two voyages between India and Great Britain as an "Extra Ship" for the Honourable East India Company.

Captain's journal

On 2 March 1840 John Hemery, Captain of the Bengal Merchant, wrote the following entry in his journal:

Bengal Merchant
“I witnessed a curious scene in a native village the other day, it was a kind of wake for the Chief who was killed, the whole tribe was collected making the most dreadful noise I ever heard, such as making the most horrid faces, sticking their tongues out of their mouths and barking and growling like wolves. The most awful performances were the women who kept cutting their faces and bodies with shrieks. Some of them were one mass of blood all over the body, and I don’t think there were four inches of them without a deep gash, which they had inflicted with a sharp part of a shell. The sight was most dreadful.

This scene was one of the first witnessed by the English captain on his arrival in New Zealand. His reaction to this ‘most dreadful’ display of open and unrestrained mourning is revealing testimony. Only two weeks earlier Hemery had presided over the sea burial of a Scottish infant, and commented dryly on the family’s ‘cool’ response to the death of their baby:

”We found the mother quite composed laying the baby out, surrounded by several other women who suggested several curious ways of clothing it ready for burial, among other things they put a half-penny over each of its eyes. They then asked me what I thought was the best way of doing it and I told them to put a white cap on its head and a nightgown on its body, which they did. After all was done they begged of me to give them a bottle of rum. The baby’s body was then placed into a wine cask and put over the side of the ship while the family got quietly drunk”.

Later voyages

The Bengal Merchant left New Zealand on 22 June 1840 and arrived at Sydney on 6 July. On 20 July 1840 he is advertising for a carpenter, stating that he will be sailing in ten days. On 2 July 1840 he advises that the Bengal Merchant will sail to the Bay of Islands and the River Thames. He repeats the advert on 11 August 1840, saying he will sail positively on 8 August. He left for New Zealand on 15 August 1840, with a cargo that included 200 barrels of bottled beer, glass, hats, woollens, groceries, 2 kegs of gunpowder, paper, window sashes, sugar, books and coffee.

Absconding from ships in Australia was a common problem, and it is recorded that out of 22 crew on the Bengal Merchant, John Hemery lost five men.

On 1 December the Bengal Merchant arrived back in Sydney from Hokianga, New Zealand, with a cargo largely of pine logs, but also a case of muskets, clothes and hams. They had left Hokianga on 20 November.

Passenger's journal

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