PETRIE, WILLIAM SCOTT
(October 17, 1842 – May 16, 1888)
Cabin boy at age 14 Arbroath, Scotland 1856
Certificate of Competency as Master, London, England 1868
First Mate ‘Isle of France’, Mauritius 1869 -1870
Master of the ‘Medora’, Lyttleton, New Zealand 1873-1876
First Mate various vessels in Australian and Pacific Island waters 1876 – 1879
Master of ‘Windward Ho’, Levuka, Fiji 1880-1884
Perils at sea and at home for a labour recruiter
Moved to Suva, Fiji 1887.
By Michael Abrahams
Our great, great grandfather William Scott Petrie was born on 17 October 1842 in Arbroath, Scotland to parents David and Margaret (nee Scott) Petrie, the first of four sons and two daughters. His father was a seaman, as was his maternal grandfather, William Scott. Therefore, it came as no surprise that young William would choose to go to sea at an early age.
William, of Millgate Loan, Arbroath first turns up on the ‘Neptune’ in 1856 as a cabin boy at the age of 14. His apprenticeship lasts 4 years, served almost entirely on board the ‘Charity’ before attaining the rank of Able-Bodied Seamen on the same Arbroath registered vessel. The next two years were spent on three vessels, ‘Princess Alice,’ the ‘John’ and the ‘Volga’ before he qualified to fulfil the duties of a Second Mate in 1865.
He then served on the Hong Kong registered ‘Zephyr’ followed by the London registered ‘Bengal.’ In May 1867 William qualified as a First Mate, by this time on board the ‘Mary Scott’ and less than two years later he made application to be examined for a Certificate of Competency as Master. This he attained in December 1868 at the age of 26.
On 28 October 1868 William Scott Petrie married Emma Mary Howard (b. Maidenhead in 1845) at the Parish Church in Wooburn, Buckinghamshire, where Emma was living at the time. Their first child, Maud Wilhelmina Petrie, was born on 3 August 1869 in High Wycombe, just outside London though the birth was not registered until six weeks later.
What happens next is a matter of some conjecture. Clearly the family decides to depart for the other side of the world, though the reasons for doing so are unclear. We do know that a William Petrie applied for a passport in 1860 and may have already travelled abroad, including possibly to the Far East. It appears that at some time in 1869 he picked up a position as the Mate on the Colony of New South Wales registered, Scottish built, 312-ton wooden barque ‘Isle of France’ as he is recorded arriving in Sydney on 14 December of that year from Hong Kong. At a rough guess the family probably travelled as far as Mauritius with him, where he left them and continued to Hong Kong with a load of sugar, returning to Port Louis via Sydney carrying 21,640 lbs of tea, 7,059m bags of rice, 655 rolls of matting and 2,389 packages from Foochow (tea?). William is still Mate on the ‘Isle of France’ when she berths in Sydney on 16 August 1870 from Mauritius with 5,810 bags of sugar. There is no evidence that wife Emma and daughter Maud accompanied him. Could it be that family of crew and non-paying passengers were not always recorded in official documentation? William appears to now pursue work on the Trans-Tasman trade, as well as on coastal shipping in Australian waters, before deciding to head for Lyttleton, New Zealand.
In New Zealand William secures a Master’s position (1873-1876) on the 357-ton iron barque ‘Medora’ which carries a variety of cargoes, including coal from Newcastle, New South Wales, sugar from Mauritius and tea from China. In 1874 the ‘Medora’ is reported as having been towed clear of shipping when she spread her canvas in a strong south westerly.
She proceeds to Lyttleton with part cargo from Mauritius and transhipments from other vessels. On the return voyage from Foochow (Fuzhou) in September 1874 the ‘Medora’ gets caught in a typhoon, the third worst in Hong Kong’s history, and loses at least one mast, some spars and rigging. The tea is not seriously damaged and after a refit she proceeds to Dunedin.
On 7 April 1874, a second child, Emma Dora Petrie, is born in Lyttleton.
The following year, on 21 April 1875, the Brig ‘Thomas and Henry’ captained by William and with passengers Mrs Petrie and two children on board sailed for Newcastle, New South Wales. Again, one can only speculate that William left his family in New South Wales, perhaps Sydney.
William next appears as the Mate on the wooden 72-ton schooner ‘Atlantic’, a known labour recruiting and trading vessel based in Sydney. The ‘Atlantic’ attracted some notoriety when she was stolen by the buccaneer Bully Hayes and used for kidnapping in Fiji waters in 1869. Hayes was arrested in Apia and found guilty, broke parole, and escaped to Shanghai.
On 26 June 1877, a third daughter, Florence Kate Petrie, was born in Sydney, with her Birth Certificate confirming that Emma and her daughters were residing at 125 Kent Street, Millers Point (as it is known today.) The Sands Sydney and Suburban Directory of 1877 lists Joseph Leddra, Master Mariner, as the principal resident of this property. Kent Street, given its proximity to Sydney’s foreshore and Circular Quay, appears to have been popular with mariners and boat builders. At the time, Leddra was the Captain and registered owner of the 255-ton New Brunswick built, and Sydney based, barque the ‘Elm Gove.’ I was equally fascinated to learn that Adolphus Meyer Brodziak, resided at 61 Kent Street. In 1870, he joined his friend Lewis (later Sir Lewis) Cohen in Levuka, where they established Cohen and Brodziak. Three years later this partnership evolved into A M Brodziak and Co. Adolphus returned to Sydney at the end of 1875 after making Simeon Lewis Lazarus Managing Partner of the Fiji company. Lewis Cohen’s sister Leah married my great uncle Abraham Abrahams, also of Levuka.
Petrie’s next move was to the Levuka based 250-ton wooden schooner ‘Dauntless’, again as the First Mate. Between 1877 and 1880 the ’Dauntless’ made five labour recruiting voyages to the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands and at least once during that time berthed in Sydney (1879), presumably allowing William to catch-up with his family. It is now clear that William’s association with Fiji predates that of the arrival of the family in Levuka.
The 1860’s and a large portion of the 1870’s were known by historians as the ‘unregulated’ years of the labour trade and were considered a magnet for less scrupulous operators, some of whom were responsible for shocking atrocities and the use of extremely violent means to recruit labourers.
From 1879 the recruiting of labourers for Fiji was regulated by law (Ordinance No. XXIV) and carried out under Colonial Government supervision. At the end of each year, planters, and others, were required to make application to the Agent General of Immigration for the number of labourers they required for the coming year. When the list of applications was complete suitable vessels were chartered by the Government to undertake this task. Every vessel carried a Government Agent on board. The money for the passage and other expenses were paid, in the first instance, by the Government and repaid by planters in three instalments once the agreed number of labourers had been allotted to them. Each labourer was indentured for three years and not transferable to other holdings, without the permission of the Agent General of Immigration. Wages were set by the Government and the provision of rations mandated. That said, penal sanctions favoured the planters and were widely used as a means of extending contracts or clawing back wages.
Regrettably, the ill-treatment of indentured labour was common, and the provisions of this Ordinance were often honoured in breach. The plantation owners were under an obligation to repatriate these Melanesian labourers if they wished to return to their island homes to the west of Fiji but not all of them did. Their dependence on Melanesian labour ceased from the mid-1880s as, from 1877 onwards, the land owners and the authorities determined that farm labour, to work in the cotton and sugar plantations in Fiji, should be brought from India under strict agreements which included the right to be repatriated.
As the decade ended construction of the 66-ton wooden schooner, ‘Windward Ho’, commenced on Mitchell’s Island at Scott’s Point by shipbuilders W McCulloch and J Sinclair. We know that William returned to Sydney just before Christmas 1879 on the ‘Gunga’ from Levuka to supervise the final preparations for the handover of the new vessel, which according to family sources was launched by Emma, or possibly daughter Maud. The Sydney Daily Telegraph of 6 July 1880 confirms that it was Captain Petrie’s daughter.
‘On Tuesday week last (29 June 1880) a handsome schooner yacht, built to the order of a Fiji firm under special survey, was launched from the building yards of Mr McCulloch, on the Manning River. As she glided off the ways she was christened Windward Ho by Miss Petrie, daughter of the Master, who for years past has been favourably known in the south sea island trade. The Windward Ho is one of the finest pieces of naval architecture that has ever been produced in New South Wales and reflects great credit on Mr McCulloch, her builder. …. This smart craft will be alongside Circular Quay in a few days, and sail for Levuka on receival of stores.’
The ‘Windward Ho’, on which William would be the Master for the next five years (1880-1884), departed Sydney for Levuka on 4 August 1880, with Mrs Petrie and three daughters on board, as well a Miss Jones and a Mr Lennox. According to The Evening News of 23 September 1880 she made the voyage in 14 days. As a result, we now know that the Petrie family arrived in Fiji on 18 August 1880. Three months later, on 22 November 1880, Emma gave birth prematurely to a son John at Tonga Street, Levuka. Sadly, he died the following day.
The ‘Windward Ho’ was registered in Levuka, by its owner George McEvoy of Cicia (also owner of the ‘Dauntless’), on 24 February 1881.
On 19 March 1881, a report in the Fiji Times states that ‘the immigration departments are pushing forward preparations for next season’s labour operations as rapidly as possible, and eight vessels are at present under charter for the service. The fleet is a fine one both as regards tonnage and sailing capacity and is constituted as follows: The Winifred (recorded in the Ships Registry as the ‘Winefred’, though commonly referred to as the ‘Winifred’, as I will do in this article), Meg Merillies, Tubal Cain, Jessie Kelly, Au Revoir, Windward Ho, Gael and Isabel.’
What constituted a ‘labour trading season’ is not clear, though two or three voyages a year were not uncommon (each lasting up to three months.) The smaller and more manoeuvrable schooners, like the ‘Winifred’ and the ‘Windward Ho’, were able to recruit in bays and inlets that were more difficult to navigate for larger vessels – a decided advantage along
with their speed, wind conditions permitting. Indeed, I discovered that the ‘Winifred’ entered at least two sailing regattas in Auckland. In the race of 1883, for trading vessels over 50 tons, the ‘Winifred’ was reported to have won first place, which she then appears to have lost on a protest. The ‘Meg Merillies’, prior to her labour recruiting days, held the record for the Auckland to Levuka (1880) run of 5 days and 18 hours.
We know from the National Archives of Fiji that the ‘Windward Ho’ was commissioned by the Colonial Government at least three times and clearly, William’s voyages around the islands were not without challenges.
The first charter of the ‘Windward Ho’ by the Colonial Government departed Suva on 28 March 1881 and was to the New Hebrides. It would be reasonable to assume William had made earlier visits to these islands on the ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Dauntless.’ The ‘Windward Ho’ was fired upon at Pentecost Island (Raga Island as it was locally known, directly north of Ambrym on the map above) and while recruiting, one of the crew, a Fijian, was shot dead. She returned to Suva on 27 June 1881. It does not appear to have been an overly successful venture in terms of the number of new recruits brought to Fiji. The diaries of the Government Agent on board, Mr G L’Estrange, are held by the National Archives of Fiji in Suva.
Later that year the ‘Windward Ho’ returns to the New Hebrides. This time the voyage also includes the Solomon Islands, where William secured most of his 48 recruits. She sailed back into Suva port on 11 November 1881, just two days short of three months at sea. According to the Melbourne Argus of November 1881, Petrie expressed ‘an increasing difficulty in obtaining labourers and predicts the next seasons recruiting vessels will have to go much further afield, probably to the islands of Bougainville, New Britain etc.’
In 1882 the ‘Windward Ho’ was chartered by the Mago Island Company. During the 1860s a cotton plantation was established on the island by the Ryder brothers of Australia. When the bottom fell out of the cotton market, sugar cane was grown in its place and a mill built on Mago. A succession of owners followed the Ryders, including the Borron family. It is here that William appears to have developed a strong friendship with James Borron, a fellow Scot and Manager of the sugar mill. It is also noteworthy that the Accountant for Mago Island Company at the time was Herbert Edward Ambler, our great grandfather, who married William’s daughter Maud Wilhelmina (Minnie) Petrie in 1892.
Returning to Suva on 15 September 1882, Petrie disclosed that ‘the Captain, and four of the crew of the French cutter, Portobello, had been murdered at the island of Santo and the vessel pillaged. A French man-of- war subsequently visited Santo but failed to apprehend the perpetrators.’
The perils of the trade continued when in January 1883, whilst in the Solomon Islands, the crew of the ‘Windward Ho’ was fired upon. Two recruits were wounded, and a Mr Coll and the Boatswain were transferred to the schooner ‘Winifred’, one suffering from a bullet wound and the other from a spear thrust.
On 1 April 1883, the ‘Windward Ho’ departs Suva with 57 return labourers to land at Ambrym Island. Captain Petrie reports ‘all going well, with 43 new recruits on board’ until 8 May when his Boat-steerer, James Ludlow, left the boat to pick up some additional recruits. According to Petrie, ‘a messenger came to the beach town that afternoon stating that James Ludlow had been killed and told us the name of the two men who shot him and the towns they belonged to. Waited three days, got no further information and left.’ This version came from the Auckland Star of 18 July 1883.
The second recruiting voyage of ‘Windward Ho’ to the New Hebrides, officially recorded as being commissioned by the Colonial Government, departed Suva on 5 July 1883 with Government Agent T Fitzpatrick on board. By all accounts William and the ‘Windward Ho’ returned on 3 October 1883 without incident.
The same cannot be said about the third and final, as far as we have been able to determine, charter by the Colonial Government. The ‘Windward Ho’ made a quick turnaround and departed Suva for the Solomon Islands on 11 October 1883. On his return on 17 January 1884 Captain Petrie, and his Boatswain, faced a charge of wilful murder. What follows is an amalgam of several articles which appeared in Trans-Tasman newspapers under various headlines including ‘Affray on a Labour Schooner’; ‘A Homicidal Maniac’ and ‘Justifiable Homicide.’ The events took place off one of the Solomon Islands in December 1883.
‘One of the recruits appeared suddenly to be seized with a frenzy and attacked all hands with a butcher’s cleaver seriously wounding eight or ten men. The deck of the vessel was described as looking like the floor of a slaughterhouse. Seeing Petrie and his weapon the man took refuge in the hold and though wounded was armed with poison arrows and spears and considered dangerous. After consulting the Government Agent (T Fitzpatrick) on board, the Boat-steer was ordered to disable him with a rifle shot, through a hole bored in the bulkhead. He was hit in the shoulder and died two days later, whether from the shot or wounds received in the melee, is not clear. Testimonies were given to Captain Petrie’s humane conduct and extreme care of the dying and wounded during the investigation that followed. In court the Government Agent stated his belief that it was necessary for the general safety of all on board that this man be shot. The Chief Judicial Commissioner of Fiji, Sir Henry Wrenfordsley, considering those who had been wounded and the sixty persons placed in extreme peril, concluded the act was justifiable and acquitted the accused.’
I add a brief, but important, historical aside about the Intercolonial Convention that was held in Sydney in November and December 1883. William Petrie along with over 170 prominent colonists (a veritable who’s who of Fiji’s nascent business community), in expressing their dissatisfaction about the way the Colony was being administered, sought to be included in any federation of Australian colonies that was being considered by the delegates to the Convention, which interestingly also included the Premier and Colonial Treasurer of New Zealand. The ‘Memorial’ as it was styled, but better described as a petition, is an interesting read and among the many grievances was one ‘that your Majesty’s subjects in this Colony are discontented and grieved that all right of being represented or heard in the Councils of this colony is denied to them, and that they have no voice in the administration of the colony, the enactments of its laws, or the public expenditure.’ Perhaps no one should be surprised that the petition failed!
Some context is appropriate regarding the two New Zealand built vessels, the ‘Winifred’ and the ‘Meg Merillies’ mentioned above. Both the 79-ton wooden schooner ‘Winifred’ and 135-ton wooden brigantine ‘Meg Merillies’ plied many of the same routes as the ‘Windward Ho’ and were, for a time, under the command of John Meredith. Meredith secured his various seaman’s tickets in Sydney (Master’s Certificate of Competency issued on 30 January 1877) and spent several years working in Australian coastal waters servicing ports like Maryborough, Queensland where he would have met many of the crews and Masters of labour recruiting vessels, including some from Fiji. There is little doubt that Petrie and Meredith were known to each other.
The Melbourne Argus of 17 January 1885 reported that ‘the schooner Winifred has been in the Fiji trade for over six years, during which time she has recruited 1,500 men and returned about 1,000. No case of mortality has ever occurred among her people and no complaint has ever been lodged against her. She has been sailed by several Masters, but for over half the time by John Meredith, who was formally in government service of Fiji and to whose good character testimony is borne by Bishop Selwyn and the captains of several of Her Majesty’s ships of war for whom he has repeatedly acted as guide and interpreter. The Winifred has always filled up well, because the vessel and the captain are so well known, and she has regularly made three trips every year returning with her full complement.’ Apparently on her last voyage she sailed under a new arms prohibition and returned little more than half full. Meredith discovered that Queensland vessels were trading not with Tower muskets, as formerly permitted by Fiji, but with Snyder rifles. The Argus continues ‘realising how thoroughly Fiji had been handicapped, the agents of the Winifred had withdrawn her from the trade. There are now but two vessels recruiting for Fiji exclusive of one in which the Government has since placed Captain Meredith (the ‘Meg Merillies’) and dispatched him to recruit labourers for government service.’ A similar piece appeared in the Auckland Star of 4 December 1884.
These reports explain why, throughout the 1880’s, the Colonial Government seems to have been more favourably disposed towards Meredith for their commissions, rather than some other sea captains.
John married his first cousin and our great aunt, Emma Goldfinder (the name of the ship on which she was born) Ambler (sister of Herbert) and departed the labour trade in Fiji sometime after August 1889 (his last reported return to Suva port on the ‘Meg Merillies’) to work for the administration of the Protectorate of British New Guinea. On 17 June 1897, the Sydney Morning Herald brings news ‘of the death of Captain Meredith when he is attacked with fever at Sudest Island (Louisiade Archipelago), consumption supervening, causing his death on 17th May last. The deceased was especially successful in the Fiji labour trade where he obtained the goodwill of all.’ Aunt Emma and daughter Francis returned to England and Emma died in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1950 at the age of 97.
It has been difficult to piece together what William did after the trial in February 1884. It appears likely that he continued to accept charters until the ‘Windward Ho’ sailed for Sydney, arriving on 24 November 1884, when she was offered for sale by George McEvoy, now of Melbourne and formerly of Cicia. The ‘Windward Ho’ was purchased by Donald McLeod during a visit to Sydney in 1885 around the time he divested himself of his interest in the French New Hebrides Company.
The family moved to Suva in 1887 and we can only conclude that William continued his maritime exploits until his health deteriorated.
William died in Suva on 16 May 1888 from ‘enteritis’ according to his death certificate – something that is borne out by various family stories of how he had been suffering from acute dysentery. Apparently, his friend James Borron invited him to Mago Island to recuperate, but this only made him worse and when he returned to Suva it was a matter of days before he died. He left his property, valued at £781, 2s and 7p, to his wife, Emma.
Captain William Scott Petrie was buried in Plot number 567 in Suva Cemetery. His headstone was destroyed by the earthquake of 1953 and I am told was pieced together by my grandmother Minnie Abrahams. My cousin, John Thomson, was able to take down the inscription on a visit in 1981, which read:
The fractured headstone has since disappeared, and as soon as the location of the plot is confirmed, we hope to replace it with a new one.
William’s eldest daughter Maud was nineteen at the time of his death and it is reasonable to assume that she had already met her future husband Herbert, probably through the Mago Island connection. They married in 1892 and had five children including John’s grandmother Constance Penelope (Connie) and my grandmother Maud Wilhelmina (Minnie) Ambler. The children’s mother died six days after giving birth to Minnie. She was followed three months later, and rather suddenly, by her two-year-old daughter Joyce who died of ‘convulsions.’ Herbert, along with William’s wife Emma and others, took responsibility for raising the four remaining children, which included bothers Lloyd and Victor. This responsibility fell increasingly to Emma, Connie and their Aunt Dora Ragg (nee Pertie) after the death of Herbert in 1908. Emma, or Granny Petrie as she was known, moved to Auckland in 1921 where she lived with her younger daughter Florence (Florrie) and granddaughter Dorrie. She died on 12 January 1937 aged 91 and is buried in Purewa Cemetery.
The family line continued in Fiji for another four, in some cases five, generations with Connie marrying William (Bill) Kearsley (telegraph and wireless engineer); Dora and Hugh Ragg (considered by many the father of Fiji’s tourist industry); Florrie and Robert Boyd OBE (Chairman Native Land Commission and member of the Legislative Council) and my grandparents Minnie and Vivian Abrahams (see separate entry on this website.)
I am indebted to my cousins John Thomson and Virginia Nicholls, both of whom have thoroughly researched the various branches of our family, including the Petries. John’s histories were a most valuable resource for me, and I am grateful for his permission to use some of that information here. My thanks also to Lindsey Shaw of the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney for providing important background material on some of the vessels and crews mentioned in this article.
We (John, Virginia and I) are three of the many great, great grandchildren of William Scott and Emma Mary Petrie.