Wednesday, November 30, 2011


The master of a sailing ship had to be a special kind of man. He was responsible for the ship, its crew, the passengers and the cargo. He was at sea for months at a time without benefit of wireless or radar and had to depend on his skills and experience to cope with unexpected situations. He had to know the seas, understand the weather, navigate by the stars, and still keep his mind on the practicalities of sails, spars and sheets (i.e. ropes) as well as the routines of a ship at sea.

In daily life the master had to be brave and decisive, firm but gentle, wise and insightful. He had the lives of hundreds of people in his hands. They had to work and play and survive together no matter what the circumstances, and the master was expected to bring the ship safely to her destination and answer to all for his actions. It is not surprising that a ship’s captain was sometimes a religious man, and often a philosopher and psychologist as well. Such a man was my great grandfather (pictured), Captain Thomas Eddes Phillips, for twelve years master of the sailing ship Euterpe.

Captain Phillips was twenty nine when he first became involved in bringing immigrants to New Zealand. It was, however, as the master of Euterpe that he was best known. Thousands of descendants of those early immigrants have cause to be grateful for his skill and care. The ship was named after the Greek muse of music and lyric poetry, and the muse’s figure has gazed out across the water from the bow for more than a century, as she still does today. Her face is handsome, perhaps a little aloof, and she has watched over the fortunes of the ship since she was launched in 1863.

Euterpe was one of the slowest boats afloat. Her best run out to New Zealand was 103 days to Dunedin with the wind behind her. But she was an extraordinarily happy ship, and Captain Phillips was one of her most respected masters. Alone in quiet moments in his cabin, with its single bed, small bureau and neat closet, he might have contemplated a sampler which still hangs on the bulkhead which says “Do Right and Fear Not”.

The captain was responsible for everything. He was the ship’s pastor if no minister was travelling, and conducted services on Sundays with hymns and readings from the Bible. A death meant a burial at sea, with the captain reading the burial service over the body, wrapped in its weighted canvas shroud, before it was tipped overboard. “It put a damper on the whole ship" reported one diarist.

The captain was disciplinarian when tempers flared in the cramped quarters on board, and he would have to wade in and restore order. Drunkenness was another problem: “drinking was carried on to a large extent so that the serving out of beer & spirits had to be stopped by order of the Captain” wrote a passenger. Another reported that “many of the crew and passengers were drunk” but assured his family back home that "the captain was quite sober".

Captain Phillips was no killjoy though, he could celebrate with the best of them. When his 44th birthday came round on the voyage of 1879 the Euterpe Times reported “We have great pleasure in recording the fact that our esteemed Master Captain Phillips met a number of his friends in the Saloon on Thursday evening last the 2nd inst when by toast and sentiment the anniversary of his birth was duly celebrated.”

The captain helped bail out the sleeping quarters when rough seas swamped the ship: “The captain with a body of sailors were quickly on the spot & covered the hatch tray over with canvas to prevent any more water from coming down and then we all set to work in bailing out the water for it was touching the bottom bunks in our cabin and the ship rolling caused the water to flow from one side to the other and washed away everything that was loose."

It was the captain who noticed that the bowsprit was damaged and had it secured with chains and spars and made safe to carry sail, “a work which did his ingenuity credit, and saved not only the bowsprit, but prevented a much more serious delay in bringing the ship to her destination.” It was the captain who wrote up the mileages on a blackboard so the passengers knew how far they had progressed each day. It was the captain who prevented the sailors from daubing passengers with tar and molasses during the ceremony of “Crossing the Line” although he allowed water to be freely sloshed over anyone who ventured on deck. And it was the captain who arranged for those passengers who had nowhere to go on arrival at Lyttelton to be accommodated in the Immigration Barracks.

It is no surprise that Captain Phillips received warm testimonials from grateful passengers. They praised him for the “kind and considerate manner in which you have discharged your duties and the readiness you have displayed to make our voyage to New Zealand as pleasant as possible” and declared that “in our opinion the care and attention shown for the welfare of the ship is beyond all praise”.

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