In September of 1886 readers of the Semi-Weekly Patriot were treated to a serialized memoir written by the then 83 year old Captain Robert Turnbull which ran under the title “A Veteran of the Sea. A Life on the Ocean Wave.”
Captain Turnbull’s story ran through several issues of the newspaper for about a month. It began with his early training and experience as a young lad growing up in County Durham, England, where he had been born on 29 March 1803. The sea brought him to Prince Edward Island before he turned 20 and in some respects the rest of his story is about a life split between land and sea until his death in Charlottetown in March 1892.
Turnbull lived out much of his early life on the Island in the Crapaud area before moving to Charlottetown. His narrative contains, as the Semi-Weekly Patriot notes, a record of a “chequered life.” What it shows is the extent to which the life of a 19th century seaman was a precarious one. Often faced with domineering and overzealous petty officers and captains the only option for a crew member was to cut his losses, forego any pay owned and walk away from the ship. This is exactly what Turnbull does at the beginning of his story. Following where ever work and opportunity took him, he ended up in Tryon where his ship-learned skills also served him well on land. Like many of those on the Island he had one foot on the land and one afloat, pursuing whatever chance opportunity would bring.
Turnbull scarcely mentions his personal life. He was married to an Island widow twice his age in 1826. Neither her name nor that of their daughter born eight months later are mentioned in the memoir, except that the latter name, Hannah Gray, is used for one of Turnbull’s ships. The marriage apparently brought with it a parcel of land and thereafter the farm was a fallback for Turnbull. And he needed one, for he was often the victim of financial problems; pay not forthcoming or only partially provided, loss of all revenue from a bankrupt shipbuilder, loss of a vessel from shipwreck. A life lived on on credit and trust was dependent of the financial success of others over whom he had no control but this was typical of the times and Turnbull was certainly not the only one in the colony who had to face starting over.
Turrnbull’s first wife died in 1856 when she was 73. Robert was just 50 at the time and within four months had married again to Mary Duncan of Charlottetown and appears to have removed to the capital about this time. In 1864 the family was living near the cornet of Water and Pownal Streets. They had seven children.
One thing that Robert Turnbull possessed and depended on was his skill as a mariner, rising to be a mate and then a captain, although lacking in any sort of documented qualifications. In fact, Turnbull barely makes any impression on the documentary record. He as noted as captain in a number of port clearance records in the newspaper, as the owner of the Hannah Gray at the time of the schooner’s launch, and otherwise the record appears to be silent.
That, in part, is what makes his memoir so valuable. We are used to the biographies of the political and business leaders, the great and the good. The stories of others in Island society are less well told. Turnbull’s memoir also gives us much information about the early history of Crapaud and Tryon. I was delighted, for example, with the mention of Palmer’s Crapaud race course, perhaps the first in the colony.
Unfortunately we do not have all of what Robert Turnbull would liked to have told is. Several issues of the Semi-Weekly Patriot are missing including the issue which begins the series, so we join Turnbull at chapter two, having missed his earliest adventures. Further, we are faced with a premature conclusion as, after running for about a month, and in spite of the usual “to be continued” at the conclusion of an episode, it does not appear to be continued, and we are left somewhere in the late 1840s or early 50s wondering what came next. Did Turnbull become ill or tire of the task of writing or did the editor tire of the tale? We will probably never know. From other newspaper accounts we know that Capt. Turnbull continued in the coasting trade into the 1870s, sometimes trading as far as St. John’s, Boston, or New York. In 1847 he commanded the Rob Roy, in 1850 the Isabella, 1857 the Albion, 1858 the Afton, 1859 the Pearl, and in 1866 the Ambrose.
The transcript, accessed at the link below, which initially covered only Turnbull’s time on Prince Edward Island, has been updated and now contains the complete memoir. The file is in PDF format and should automatically load and open on most browsers. Click below to open the document.
I am once again highly indebted to expert documentary researcher Gary Carroll for pointing me toward the Turnbull memoir and sharing his knowledge. Much of the biographical detail used in this introduction comes from an article by Allan J. MacRae concerning one of Turnbull’s sons, William Duncan Turnbull, who was at the centre of an incident which almost brought Chile and the United States into conflict in 1891. “William Turnbull and the Brink of War” appears in the Island Magazine #30 Fall/Winter 1991.