Philipe de Carteret, circumnavigator

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Philippe de Carteret, circumnavigator


This article by A C Saunders was first published in the 1931 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

A Pitcairn Islands stamp depicting the Swallow

In the middle of the 18th Century our sailors were making many discoveries in the, until then, unknown parts of the World. We hear of the adventurous voyages of Anson, Byron, Wallis, de Carteret and Cooke, all good sailors, at a time when a sailor's life meant many dangers and great hardships. Apart from other dangers, sailors were often badly fed, miserably quartered, and sometimes were subject to the tyranny of brutal officers. It therefore required a great love of the sea and a spirit of adventure for a young man to volunteer for service in the Navy when most of the crew were composed of pressed men, or those who had joined the service to escape the worse conditions of a prison. Once they joined they had little say as to where they would like to go, and members of a crew oftimes found themselves bound on a voyage of discovery only after they were well away from the land.

Press gangs

Press gangs were then the terror of all sea-faring men between the age of 18 and 45, for such gangs, on His Majesty's Service, could enter any house or any ship and press likely men for His Majesty's Service. Many a merchant vessel lying at a foreign port, and probably just about to sail for home, might, without any warning, be depleted of her best seamen, only sufficient being left to navigate the vessel, and those thus pressed immediately came under the strictest Naval discipline, and probably never saw their homes again for a very long time.

And it was not as if they benefitted by their transfer to His Majesty's Service, for, in the middle of the 18th Century, the rate of pay to seamen was the same as that paid to men in the reign of Charles II, and it was not until the end of the century that an AB received the magnificent sum of one shilling a day. Sometimes wages were overdue and we hear of a crew in the year 1780 refusing to weigh anchor until their six months arrears were paid, and, they having come under Naval discipline, the ringleaders were courtmartialled for mutiny and three of them sentenced to death.

Prize money

Once aboard a man of war, much depended upon the Captain as to whether the crew were content or not, for the only gleam of hope in their lives was the possibility of a good war and many prizes. If a good prize were captured, a sailor would sometimes change into a comparatively rich man, and in the year 1762 we have an instance of how one of the vessels under Sir Charles Saunders captured the Spanish vessel Hermione a very rich prize. Sir Charles, who never saw the prize, received as his share over £40,000, the Captain of the Active £62,000, and each seaman and marine £485.

We can well imagine the return to a home port after a successful cruise, and what a welcome Jack would receive from the many Mollys and other friends who were ready to help him spend his easily gained fortune.

Five days before the War I was appointed Collector HM Customs at Portsmouth, and later, Naval Examiner in this Command and Chairman of the Aliens Board. The Mate of our launch had been a CPO on His Majesty's yacht. He had many tales to tell of the many distinguished people he had met, but the most delightful of all were the tales he told of his great-grandfather, who had been a night watchman at Portsmouth Hard.

It was then the time when prize crews often arrived home, and the watchmen were especially warned that they were not to take anything out of the pockets of any drunken sailor they might meet on their rounds. It was a great slur on their character; the watchmen went about in couples, and when they came across a drunken sailor they gently lifted him upside down, and shook him so well that any coins left in his pockets by his friends were scattered over the roadway. Then they carefully propped poor Jack against the wall, and, after having carefully picked up what they could find in the roadway, continued on their beat, and as worthy citizens, snuggling under their blankets, heard the hour and weather being called, they thanked Providence for the protection granted them by the Watchers of the night.

Thus prize money soon went, many lost their all in a very few days, and many reaped but little benefit from their prize money.

Voyages of discovery

But there was no prize money for those who ventured on voyages of discovery, and therefore these men deserve the greatest credit for so gallantly setting forth on a voyage from which there might be no return. They were urged by the real spirit of adventure, and it is all the more gratifying to know that such brave men lived in a time when the Navy was often the hotbed of corruption.

It is somewhat surprising to learn the frauds connived at by those in authority in those days. Boys were entered as belonging to a ship as ABs, often when still in the nursery, in order to get the necessary sea service for promotion, and we hear of a conscientious inspecting officer inquiring of the captain of a vessel about the duty on which a certain AB was employed, and being informed that he was engaged on shore duty. The AB in question was the son of the officer, and was then an infant of one year, in charge of a nurse. Entry into the Navy in the middle of the 18th Century was very different from that of the present day.

Captain's servant

Lieutenant Hamilton, in a letter to Mr Daniel Messervy, about this time, stated that he had managed to get a young Lempriere entered on his ship as a Captain's servant, and hoped later to get him promoted to a midshipman. Lempriere's friends evidently resented the idea of his being a servant, but Hamilton replied that it was no uncommon method of entry, and that many gentlemen's sons adopted this course, as such servants only waited on the captain, and slept near the officer's quarters.

Later on he wrote that young Lempriere was improving in his English, and that he had hopes of getting him promoted, and so asked for a bill to buy the necessary cloth to make a midshipman's uniform.

Jersey was somewhat fortunate in being exempt from press gangs, and Jersey vessels were not interfered with, although during the Rebellion our rights were sometimes ignored. But, notwithstanding the many hardships of the Navy in those days, many were willing to volunteer for duty, and among such we hear of a Jerseyman who not only made a great name for himself as a celebrated discoverer, but as one who subsequently rose to the rank of Rear Admiral of the British Navy.

Philip de Carteret

Philip de Carteret

Philip de Carteret was born in the year 1733, and he was the son of Charles de Carteret, Seigneur de la Trinité. Entering the Navy at an early age, he, at the age of 31, as Lieutenant of the Tamus, sailed round the world in Commodore Byron's expedition. The Commodore's vessel was HMS Dolphin. During the voyage he was appointed first Lieutenant of the Dolphin in place of the first Lieutenant who had been appointed Captain of the Tamus, and he remained on the Commodore's vessel until she anchored in the Downs after a voyage of 22 months.

He had gained great experience, and was well recommended as a good sailor, and when he reported himself at head quarters he was informed that he had been promoted Captain of the sloop Swallow, about to be sent on another expedition round the world with the Dolphin under Captain Wallis.

He had just returned from a long voyage, and when he saw his new command he was deeply disappointed, for he found the sloop to be old and in a very unseaworthy condition. She had been built at Rotherhithe in the year 1745, and carried 14 guns. Her tonnage was 278, and her crew numbered 125 men. Her gun deck was 91 feet long, 26 feet wide, and the depth in hold was 6ft 10¼.

Her bottom was protected by a sheathing of iron and she had the reputation of being a very bad sailor. It was not a very suitable vessel for a long cruise, and when de Carteret applied for a forge and other things to be supplied, he was informed that a forge was not necessary. He therefore expected that the Swallow would only accompany the Dolphin for a certain distance and the destination of the vessel was kept secret from the crew. When de Carteret had been Lieutenant to Commodore Byron, and the Dolphin had left Rio Janeiro, the crew were under the impression that they were on a voyage to the West Indies, but Byron, mustering his crew, after they were well out at sea, told them the truth that they were on a voyage round the world, and wound up by saying that he had been authorized to tell them that those who behaved themselves would be granted double pay, and he thereby satisfied his crew, who told him they would do their best to make the voyage a success.

During that voyage the Dolphin encountered very heavy weather and the 1st Lieutenant had some of his teeth knocked out and his shoulder badly bruised. The water became very foul and Byron caused it to be purified by forcing a stream of air through it by means of a ventilating tube.

Second in command

Evidently the experience gained by de Carteret in his voyage with Commodore Byron had suggested that he would be a very good second in command for Wallis' expedition, and he was directed to hasten the provisioning of the Swallow as quickly as possible. He was soon undeceived as to his destination and when he found that the Swallow was such a bad sailor, he suggested to Wallis that his 1st Lieutenant should be placed in charge of the Swallow to take her home, and he should take his place as 1st Lieutenant of the Dolphin, but Wallis considered that any such action would receive but little favour at the Admiralty.

Start of voyage

Therefore, on 22 August 1766, the expedition consisting of HMS Dolphin, Swallow and a store ship named the Prince Frederick sailed from Plymouth and arrived at Madeira on 7 September and anchored about one mile from the shore. Nine of the crew, fearing they were about to begin a very long voyage, swam ashore and took their money with them, but they were found next day in a pitiable condition and brought on board again. The whole crew was assembled and de Carteret asked the prisoners why they had, at the risk of their lives, deserted the vessel. The men replied that suspecting they were at the commencement of a long voyage they thought they would take the opportunity of getting a skinful of liquor.

The men had rendered themselves liable to the severest punishment and all depended on the Captain of the vessel. De Carteret was not only a good seaman but he was a brave and humane man, and seeing their wretched plight, he told them he was glad to see there were such good swimmers aboard his vessel, whose services might be useful at some future date. This wise action pleased the crew, and during the rest of the cruise he had the most loyal and devoted service.

When at Madeira, Wallis sent an officer to call on the Governor and inform him that if he would salute the British vessel the compliment would be returned, and on 8 September the Dolphin fired a salute of 13 guns and the 14 guns were fired from the fort. Possibly the Gunner had no mathematical head, or the Governor's courtesy accounted for the extra gun thus fired.

Swallow and Dolphin

Magellan Straits

They then made for Cape Verde Islands and thence to the Straits of Magellan, where all vessels encountered most terrible weather, and during a storm the vessels parted company and never met again during the voyage. De Carteret was therefore in a very uncomfortable position and did not know what to do. His vessel was not fit for a long voyage, and with the separation from the Dolphin and the store ship, he had no supplies with which to barter with the natives he might come across. But eventually he decided to carry on.

Dr Marett, the President of La Société Jersiaise, has lent me a most interesting pamphlet containing a letter from de Carteret to Dr Mathew Maty, the Secretary of the Royal Society, London. The letter is dated 11 February 1767, and contained a description of the natives of Patagonia. The Swallow was then anchored off Port Famine, Straits of Magellan, and he had taken the opportunity of sending it by the Prince Frederick about to return to England, but it never reached its destination.

De Carteret fortunately had kept a copy of his letter, and on his return he sent a duplicate to the Royal Society, who published it. In this letter he describes how, as his vessel sailed along the coast, the natives followed the vessel on horseback, and when the Swallow anchored off Cape Virgin Mary, the natives made fires on the shore and showed signs that they wished them to visit them. Therefore Captains Wallis and de Carteret were rowed ashore accompanied by a number of armed sailors, but the natives received them in a very friendly manner, and to show their trust in the strangers they placed a number of children by the waterside and retired some distance away.

De Carteret describes the Patagonians as very lusty and tall, ranging from six feet to six feet seven inches in height. They had very good teeth and appeared very intelligent and now and then they used a Spanish word, thus showing that they knew something of that country.

Voyage continues

The vessels parted company on 11 April 1767, but de Carteret, having decided to continue the voyage, called his crew together and told them that it was their duty to continue the voyage as originally outlined, and the crew, having faith in their captain, agreed with his decision.

After passing through the Straits of Magellan, they sailed north as far as the coast of Chile, all the time encountering such bad weather that when on 1 May the Swallow was swamped by a tremendous sea, they almost gave up hope of continuing the voyage or ever returning home; but they bravely struggled on and on the 10th they managed to reach Juan Fernandez, where they were watched from the shore by the Spaniards. As they seemed to be unfavourable disposed towards them, they made for the Island of Masafuera where they anchored. With great difficulty, owing to the bad weather and heavy surf, they managed to land a crew and obtain fresh water, and then sailed for Pitcairn Island, so named after the Midshipman who first sighted it.

On 10 August the Swallow sprang a leak, and this misfortune, added to the fact that many of the crew were down with scurvy, greatly depressed the crew, but two days later they came in sight of a group of small islands and anchored near the largest of them. Natives watched them from the shore, but de Carteret sent a boat in charge of the master to the shore to get water and fresh provisions. He especially enjoined the master to use the utmost tact in dealing with the natives.

One of de Carteret's charts

Trouble with natives

When the boat reached the shore, the natives, who were very black and absolutely destitute of clothing, met them in a friendly spirit, and in exchange for small presents gave them a quantity of yams, cocoa nuts and fresh fish. Unfortunately the master lost his head, and in spite of the protests of the natives, began chopping down a sacred tree, with the result that the natives took shelter in the neighbouring woods and commenced to attack the English crew. The sailors used their guns but the natives followed them down to the boat, with the result that the master and three sailors were so badly wounded with arrows that all subsequently died.

De Carteret was thus in a very bad position, for the ship needed repairs and the crew rest, fresh water and provisions and, all through the stupidity of one man, it became necessary for the ship to leave the island, and as they sailed away, they could see the natives all along the coast dancing their war dances, and apparently in a most hostile mood.

They passed Trevenion Island but here the natives appeared to have been forewarned, for when a boat was sent out to take soundings, it was attacked by natives, who only dispersed after one of the ship's guns had been fired. He named the islands Queen Charlotte Islands.

On 25 August, after keeping a WNW course they came to Gower Island, where in exchange for some nails they obtained a supply of cocoa nuts. The natives were powerfully built men armed with spears and bows and arrows, the tips of which were made of flint. When they returned for a fresh supply of provisions, the natives attacked the ship's boat but the crew managed to beat them off and capture one of their canoes laden with fish and cocoa nuts.

Wallis Island

It was no use staying in these inhospitable waters, so they sailed away, and on 28 August anchored in Saint George's Bay in Nova Britannia, near Wallis Island. Captain de Carteret was now a very sick man; his vessel was in a very leaky condition and those of the crew, not down with scurvy, were in a very exhausted condition in trying to keep the ship afloat by pumping. They were now about 7,500 miles west of America, and as no natives appeared to inhabit the island, it was decided to stay here for a time and do such repairs as were possible.

Evidently at some time the island had been inhabited for they found some hens and dogs and traces of fires. So de Carteret took possession of the island and called it Wallis Island and nailed to a tree a large piece of wood faced with lead on which was engraved the date, 7 September 1767, the name of the ship and master. They anchored in a bay they called English Cove, and here they did what repairs they could, and what with freedom on shore and fresh water and provisions, the health of the crew greatly improved.

After loading the vessel with a good supply of shellfish, cocoa nuts and the "delicious cocoa nut cabbage which is crisp, juicy and somewhat of the flavour of a chestnut but when boiled of a parnsip", and water, they sailed away, and on the 11th they passed an island which they called Sandwich Island, where the natives came out in their canoes, 80 to 100 feet in length, to barter cocoa nuts for a few nails. The natives here, although they had woolly hair, had neither flat noses nor thick lips and they showed certain decorative instincts in their dress which consisted of circles of shells on their arms and legs and a feather stuck above each ear.

Sailing westward they came in sight of New Hanover and other islands which they called Duke of Portland Islands, but they could not land as the natives were very hostile and were only prevented from boarding the Swallow by the firing of the ship's guns. On 2 November the Swallow anchored off Mandana and boats were sent ashore to get water, but the crew saw no natives. However during the night they heard a great noise coming from the shore, and next morning, when a second boat was sent for water a number of natives appeared holding up something white, and when he saw this, de Carteret ordered the Lieutenant to go ashore and hold up a white sheet to show the natives that the Swallow wished friendly relations.

Two natives then stepped forward, and to the surprise of the Lieutenant, asked him in Spanish and Dutch particulars of the vessel. Evidently the replies were not satisfactory, for later on they saw the natives fully armed, acting in a most aggressive manner. So de Carteret, after having shown his contempt by calling the bay Deceitful Bay, sailed away for Batavia and reached the Straits of Macassar on 14 November 1767.

Chart of Queen Charlotte Islands


The ship was in a bad condition, the captain was ill and the crew so depleted with sickness and death that it was absolutely necessary to take shelter somewhere. To add to their misfortunes, when they reached the Straits the Swallow was attacked by a piratical vessel which they had for some time noticed cruising about. However, the Swallow was defended so gallantly that the pirate, armed with swivel and other guns, was sent with all her crew to the bottom. The fight had lasted several hours but the Swallow received but little damage and only two of her crew were wounded.

De Carteret then sent a lieutenant to take a letter for the Governor, asking permission to beach his vessel, so that he might land his crew and do sundry repairs. At that time 13 of his men had died and 30 more were on the point of death with scurvy. But all hopes of friendly treatment by the Dutch Governor were dashed to the ground, for, when the boat reached the shore, the Lieutenant was forbidden to land, his letter was taken to the Governor, and he had to wait in the open boat, without any shelter from the sun, or refreshment, for several hours, until he was directed to return to the Swallow and tell his captain that the Governor was sending two of his officials to give his decision.

They arrived soon after the Lieutenant had reached the ship only to tell de Carteret that he was to depart immediately and not to land any of his men. De Carteret showed them the condition in which his men were and said it was absolutely necessary for his ship to be freshly provisioned, but they simply shook their heads and said they were only obeying orders. De Carteret, seeing that the position was more or less hopeless, and that if he went to sea again in his present condition it would mean disaster, then told the delegates that if he were not allowed to land his sick and obtain provisions, he would run his ship ashore and use his guns in selling the lives of his crew as dearly as possible.

This somewhat staggered the Dutchman who then adopted a different tone and asked de Carteret to do nothing until they had reported matters to headquarters. He told them that he would wait until next morning before taking action, and they went on shore, but soon after, two vessels sailed out of port filled with soldiers and anchored at some distance for and aft of the Swallow. They refused to hold any communication with the English, and de Carteret was getting his ship ready for action when a boat was seen coming from the shore loaded with provisions, and the officer in charge told the English captain that the Governor had decided to allow him to land his sick at some distance from the town, and that he would be at liberty to buy what provisions he required, but it must be understood that they were to have no dealings with the natives.

The sick were then landed but the area allowed them was restricted, and guards were posted all round the camp so that the crew could not wander about the country and they had to buy provisions at a very exorbitant rate. Whilst here they received information that the Dolphin had arrived at Batavia and left, and shortly afterwards the Captain was informed by letter that a plot was on foot for the King of Bory, a local magnate, who had been incited by the Dutchmen, to attack the English.

De Carteret immediately brought the matter to the notice of the Governor of Macassar, who denied all knowledge of such a plot, but the Jerseyman was very suspicious and his men having somewhat recovered their health, and repairs to the ship having been made, he took on board a good supply of provisions and sailed away for Java on 26 May 1768, and arrived there seven days later. The Swallow was in a most unseaworthy condition and they had great difficulty in keeping afloat, therefore de Carteret asked permission of the Governor to beach his vessel and have her properly repaired.

Repairs to ship

After much hesitation and many delays he was allowed to proceed to Onrust in charge of a pilot and the Swallow was anchored off the port on 22 June. Even now difficulties were put in his way and it was not until 24 July that, when the ship's bottom was examined, it was found that the timbers were in a rotten condition and a new keel had to be fitted on to the vessel.

When in this neighbourhood, they came across a derelict of His Majesty's Navy manned by a number of British sailors who were left stranded in a somewhat unfriendly country. All the officers had died and they could get no replies to their reports to headquarters, if such reports ever reached England, and here were these men trying to subsist in a most pitiable condition by selling such stores as they could spare. They had been here for several years and had probably been posted as lost.

The Dutch Governor here was a man of great importance and whenever he went abroad his carriage was accompanied by horse soldiers, and two natives ran in front of the carriage armed with long sticks to clear the way for his Excellency. When other people in carriages met the Governor's carriage, they were expected to stop and get out to pay their respects to the Governor, and our English skipper was informed that he would be expected to comply with the local custom, otherwise the natives would not hesitate to use their sticks.

But the Seigneur de la Trinité would hear none of this, and bluntly let it be known that if he were interfered with in any way he knew how to protect himself, as he always had his pistols with him. Such arrogant conduct was reported to the Governor and he sent word that the local custom was suspended in the case of the Englishman, but during all his stay here no hospitality was shown by the Dutchmen.

A book published the year after the Swallow's voyage

Table Bay

On 5 September the repairs were completed, and having supplemented his crew with some of the English sailors, he left Onrust on his voyage home. Twenty-four of his men had died, and as many were unfit for duty, nine of whom died on the voyage to Table Bay, where the Swallow arrived on 23 November 1768. De Carteret himself was in a very sickly condition, but his troubles were nearly over, and during the six weeks they stayed at Table Bay they were most hospitably treated, and, what with good food, fresh air, shore life and the prospect of soon reaching home, the crew recovered their health and spirits, and the Swallow sailed from Cape Town on 7 January 1769, and arrived at St Helena on the 20th of the month.

After leaving St Helena, they saw a large French vessel in the distance, and as the two vessels drew near to one another, the Frenchmen lowered a boat and made for the Swallow. A French officer came aboard and told de Carteret that it was reported that the Swallow had been lost in the Straits of Magellan, and he tried to find out particulars of what they had done since they had parted from the Dolphin.

He told them that the Captain of the French vessel was the celebrated navigator Bougainville, but the Jerseyman was very cautious and wanted to report in person to his government what discoveries he had made. Disappointed, the French left the Swallow and on 27 March 1769 she anchored at Spithead after a very adventurous voyage of two and a half years.

No rewards

This was not the age of special stunts when successful efforts to catch the public eye were hysterically rewarded. Here we have a captain and crew, who in the interests of future generations had faced dangers daily for two and a half years. It was not the age of Amy Johnsons or other celebrities, and we know of no special reward being granted to de Carteret for his wonderful service. He received no special promotion or vote of thanks, and only in 1771 was he promoted to port rank and commanded the Druid and Endymion, retiring from the service in 1794 with the nominal rank of Rear Admiral. He was then in a very bad state of health and had lost all power of speech, and thus he lingered for two years at his home in Southampton awaiting death which took place on 20 July 1796.

The Swallow, little better than a cutter with one mast rigged fore and aft, had done her work, and on 20 June 1769 she was sold at Deptford for £545.

De Carteret married a daughter of Sir John Sylvester, Recorder of London, and his son succeeded him as Seigneur de la Trinite and also to the baronetcy conferred on his grandfather.

Great sailor

Historians have described de Carteret as one of the greatest navigators of his age, and apart from the discovery of the Queen Charlotte Islands and many other islands, he showed the true grit of a great sailor, and it was through his great personality and the way in which he faced dangers and hardships that he was able to return home after his wonderful journey. His men knew they had a good sailor and a considerate Captain and they were ready to follow him anywhere as they fully trusted him; and Jerseymen should be proud of the great sailor who had brought such honour to his native Isle.

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