Plying to the Gaspé Coast

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A brigantine skippered by John Romeril

This article by A J Romeril was first published in the 1963 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Charles Robin and Co

It was the third week of March in the year 1852, and several vessels in the old harbour, Jersey, were loading, taking in stores and water, final preparations for their departure, on top of the next spring tide, towards Paspebiac. Some of the vessels would belong to Charles Robin & Co and would not be coming back to their winter quarters until November.

Small brigs, brigantines and schooners, of 40 to 150 tons burthen, 14 or 15 of them carried the cured cod, capelin and other goods, to markets in South America, the West Indies and the Roman Catholic countries of Southern Europe.

Outward bound from Jersey or Bristol, perhaps Liverpool, their cargo would be trade goods for the supplies of the firm’s own stations about the Gaspé Coast, six on the North Shore and, I think, about 20 on the South Shore, over a coastline of 120 miles or more. These stations were under the control of the Chief Agent at Paspebiac,

In addition to cargo, the outward-bound fleet would be carrying some trained men, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, sail makers and others, employed in ship yards and workshops; also a number of apprentices for store and office work. The apprentices were bound for four years, at the end of which they received the sum of £20.

The arrival of the first ship of the year from Jersey was quite an event in these far-off times, and a salute of guns was fired from the wharf and answered by the vessel's signal gun; the cartridges having been made a day or two before (½lb coarse black powder in each neatly sewn up silk bag) a hefty wad of rope yarn and tallow to tamp down the charge, the touch hole well and truly primed, then, aided by the touch of a red hot poker, a really satisfying report took place.

Probably the main brace was spliced as well, at some time in the day. There was one person I had not mentioned; he was to be my father, and had decided to go to sea. He was employed as "boy" on one of the vessels now arriving after a rough and very uncomfortable crossing; in fact he nearly gave up the idea, but did not like backing out so soon. Continuing the life, he worked through the various grades to Master, passing the required examination in 1862.

The Gaspé Coast was not a pleasant place at the end of April; there was still plenty of snow, now melting, and conditions on shore were atrocious and uncomfort¬able. The houses of the “habitants" (French Canadians) shabby and in many cases just one large room, shared by the family, the farm animals, poultry and dogs.

Paspebiac

No doctor or dentists

No doctor or dentist practised on the Coast, indeed the Jersey vessels were often asked for first aid and medicine, which they gave as far as their medicine chest would allow. The extraction of an aching tooth could be quite a grim affair, the victim forcibly held down, whilst the operator "had a go".

Then, too, the "habitants" adopted an unfriendly attitude to the Jersey folk, at times in no uncertain manner. Truly a wild place!

The cod fishing season started as soon as weather conditions would allow, and this work was almost entirely carried out by the French Canadians, but no idle hands were tolerated on the staff of CRC, afloat or ashore, and if these dodgers could be found, they were at once detailed to help the fishermen.

This meant in effect that for a long day they would be sitting in a dory (a small flat bottomed boat) jigging a cod line over each side, each line mounting two hooks. These "dories", too, could be some way from the parent vessel. There was no escape.

The catches were landed every day (on the South Coast that is) and, as there was no money in circulation, each fisherman's haul was weighed, valued and credited to the owner's account, to be later exchanged for goods purchased at the stores. A poor cod season meant that the company would have to "carry" the families concerned over the coming winter.

Once landed, the fish were carefully cleaned, washed and lightly salted, then they were laid out on the shingle to be dried by the sun and the wind. They were in the charge of the beach master (an expert in the process of curing) and his crew.

Special care had to be taken that the cod were not exposed to rain or dampness. This would immediately spoil the quality of the cod and it would become 2nd class fish. Finally came the packing in wooden tubs, each holding one quintal (1½ Ib), ready for dispatch to the several markets. The curing is now carried out under cover of large sheds.

Rio de Janiero was always an early call for vessels exporting the new season's prime cod, and their captains pressed on at all costs to be the first arrival. The winner would be certain of an excellent market, and moreover have earned a bonus for himself and crew.

Yellow fever

Rio, however, suffered severely from yellow fever, a fast killer and the scourge of the place. It was not uncommon to see a number of vessels tied up at the wharves, with not a soul on board. The crew, in some cases, had been wiped out by the fever, or possibly had deserted if a case appeared on the vessel.

On one occasion, my father, lunching with the ship's broker, called at his office the following afternoon to see him. It was a shock to be told that the unfortu¬nate man had died in the night, a victim of the fever, and that he had already been buried.

Naples was another port frequently visited by the CRC carriers; an agency for the distribution of their goods had been established there, which is still in business. Pompeii had not been uncovered yet, but a tunnel had been driven some distance into the ruins and shown to visitors by torchlight.

Jersey vessel Patruus at Naples

At Naples, in 1860, the tattered, footsore and absolutely starving troops of Garibaldi marched into the town. Some made their way to the harbour, begging for food, any food, even to the contents of the swill tubs.

With three or possibly four round trips to the various markets, and because all navigation ceased in the Gulf of St Lawrence by 1 December, the carrier fleet would be arriving at their winter quarters; with their cargoes would come presents from theJersey folk out there. Cod, capelin, Caraquet oysters, cranberries, apples, butter, all came over, and we at home had a share sent over by my uncle, who was Chief Agent of CRC at Paspebiac.

In 1852, harbour accommodation was quite inadequate in St Helier, and the old Harbour, near Commercial Buildings, was the only shelter. The Victoria Pier had been built and the Albert Pier was not complete and incoming cargoes often had to be discharged over the side into carts alongside, the vessels having been beached at high tide.

There was a light shown on the harbour head at St Helier, and the next was at St Peter Port, Guernsey. Elizabeth Castle breakwater had not yet been built. Half the rocks bore no warning beacons and their positions were observed with the help of cross bearings on objects ashore.

Sailing directions of that period strongly advised all shipping to stand off the Island in the dark hours, as at that time pilots were not available. No less than 28 pilots were authorised for the West Coast and eight for the East. Competition was fierce and the pilots went right up into the English Channel when shipping was expected shortly.

In his 28 years at sea my father had seen many changes. The steamer had taken the place of sails and iron vessels replaced the wooden ones. However, the magnificent clippers were still in their heyday, and the world watched the struggle to be first home from China each year.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1875 gave the Board of Trade surveyor power of inspecting and detaining vessels not found seaworthy.

The load line was the idea of James Hall, a prominent Tyneside ship owner. Introduced in Parliament and piloted through by Samuel Plimsoll, the line is known by his name.

At first the mark was fixed by the owners, and it was not until 1890 that it was subject to the approval of the Board of Trade.

The Plimsoll mark did, however, interfere with a cargo of hardware, shipped at Bristol for Hamburg. To my father's intense disgust, his vessel was turned back at the dock head and some 20 tons taken out of her before she was allowed to leave. "And it was only to Hamburg," he would always say indignantly when he spun the yarn.

He lived to see the first 'plane to visit Jersey land at West Park in, I think, 1909. The plane had crossed from St Malo in thirty minutes.

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