I recently posted a link to the text of Captain Robert Turnbull’s memoir relating his accounts of his early life on Prince Edward Island. I have now completed transcription of the remainder of this remarkable 10,000 word article which was published in several installments in the Patriot newspaper in September of 1886.
Although the first installment, which takes Turnbull up to the time of his first nautical experience, is missing, the rest of the narrative is riveting as he recounts his earliest adventure afloat. There is no indication that Turnbull came from a nautical family but in 1817, aged about fourteen, he was found aboard a vessel as an apprentice on a mercantile vessel, sometimes serving as a cabin boy. At a time when many in England hardly strayed more than a score of miles from their birthplace, the next few years took Turnbull to Portugal, Nova Scotia, Denmark, ports in what is now Latvia and Lithuania, Russia (including a visit to the far-north post of Archangel), Holland, Jamaica, Quebec, and Newfoundland, as well as several ports in Great Britain. On these trips he suffered abuse and beatings from some captains and mates, as well as kindnesses from others. His early experience included shipwrecks and strandings, injury and injustice, exposure and starvation. He deserted his vessel several times, including on a visit to Prince Edward Island where he was to make his permanent home.
As an apprentice he was expected to be constantly learning seamanship and his learning included being put in life-threatening situations. Without any formal educational standard he could only learn from others and he was constantly being presented with new situations.
The challenges for an apprentice, especially for one who does not appear to have grown up around the docks or aboard ships, were significant. Sailing vessels were complex structures with many moveable and stable parts, many of which had strange names and unique activities completely foreign to those on shore. The language peculiarities of life at sea went far beyond “avast” and “ahoy” and many terms are almost completely unknown today. For example, Turnbull noted being asked to undertake “crossing the yards” which he had never done before but was expected to undertake without additional instruction. A description of the process appeared in a seamanship manual dating from 1847;
The jeers being rove, reeve the pendants and falls, hitch the pendants around the quarters of the yard, splice in the lanyard of the D thimble, and take the yard tackles forward to keep the yard clear of the mast. The lists and braces being rove man the lists and jeer falls, “sway, away” and when the yard comes abreast of the futtock stays pass the lashing of the D thimble, parcel it well, overall, frap all parts together, and cover all with canvass, reeve the truss pendants, turn in the blocks, reeve the falls, haul taught the tresses and square the yard by lifts and braces.
For Turnbull the years of his apprenticeship were the most significant of his life. His surviving memoir covers about twenty-five years but the vast majority of his recollections deal with the years before he reached that age of twenty. His memoir is a glimpse into a type of existence rarely documented and is a valuable contribution to our understanding of life at sea in the first half of the 19th century.
More background on Turnbull’s life and times can be found in my original posting found here
The full text of Captain Robert Turnbull’s memoir, to which I have added some explanatory notes, can be found by following the link below. The document is in PDF format and make take some time to load.