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Party like its 1839! The visit of HMS Medea

It is difficult today to understand the social life of Charlottetown in the 1830s. As a small closed society cut off from the mainland for upwards of five months per year there was a hunger for diversion. The small British army garrison with officer-gentlemen and a tiny cadre of colonial officials formed the core of society. The establishment of the Hydrographic Survey in Charlottetown did not occur until 1841 and so in the 1830s the only Royal Navy presence were the occasional visits of warships on patrols of the Gulf waters.  Such a visit took place in September of 1839 and the presence of officers and crew of 135 men was a welcome addition to the social activity of the port.  Many of the crew were no doubt allowed shore leave  enlivening the grog houses and other places of entertainment of the town. However for the officers of the ship and the elite of the community the main event took place, not on the shore, but aboard HMS Medea.

Although Charlottetown had had steamer service since 1833 when the Pocahontas began to shuttle back and forth to Pictou, the Medea was a rarity, being one of the earliest steam vessels in the Royal Navy fleet. The first Royal Navy steamship was HMS Dee, commissioned in 1832 and the following year HMS Medea was launched from Woolwich Dockyard.

Model of the HMS Medea, built 1833

The Medea was 179 feet long and had a 32 foot beam. she was powered by a side-level steam engine driving paddles on the sides of the ship.  Armed relatively lightly with two 10-inch pivot guns and two 32 pound carronades she, like many of the early steamships, performed a variety of duties including towing of larger warships and cruising and keeping a Royal Naval presence throughout the world. She spent a few years in the Mediterranean Sea and in 1838 was attached for duties in North America and the West Indies. Operating primarily out of Halifax she cruised in Maritime waters until November of 1839.  Her first visit to Charlottetown was in September 1838 when she stopped to pick up P.E.I. delegates for a meeting with Lord Durham, then investigating the governance of the North America colonies.

Her visit to Charlottetown a year later appears to have been another matter entirely. Ignoring a description of the technology or armaments or the appearance of the crew a surviving account of her visit instead noted the significant social component of the visit with its grand ball and supper which took place aboard the ship.  An account of the event was written for the P.E.I. Gazette and was reprinted in the Halifax Colonial Pearl newspaper of 20 September 1839.

On arriving at the side of this beautiful Steamer, you were ushered into a covered stair-case, formed by polished pikes, supporting snowy-white canvass, which you ascended and entered a spacious saloon. The ladies were conducted to Capt. Nott’s elegant cabin, to throw off their wrappings, and walk forth resplendent with that beauty and loveliness natural to the daughters of Prince Edward Island.

The qaudrilles, the waltz, the gallopade, each had their sway by their respective votaries. At eleven o’clock a scene of canvas was raised, and what delicacies there were displayed!  A most spacious table with a hollow centre, was set out with all the delicacies which were procured from every quarter of the globe. The whole quarter deck from the stern to the funnel was covered with a lofty awning, composed of canvas and covered with different coloured flags. Along the centre of the roof were chandeliers of every possible shape, composed of bayonets, swords and cutlasses, and around the sides lamps and scouces of fanciful shapes were suspended, all of which gave brilliancy to the splendid scene. In the middle of the deck large ottomans and couches were formed over the skylights and hatches of the ship. After several toasts were drank the table was deserted by its votaries, and we could then more particularly observe its elegant appearance. It was a hollow square, at one end of which was raised a most superb chandelier, formed of broad swords, bunting and evergreens surmounted by a crown composed entirely of most beautiful flowers. At each corner of the table was suspended an ensign, on a boarding pike. Dancing was again resumed and continued until daylight.

Before the end of the year the Medea left the maritime waters but her presence in the area is remembered through her grounding on a rocky outcrop on the eastern approach to Shediac Harbour on 17 September 1838. She was floated off without injury the following day but her brief and unwelcome visit is commemorated through Medea Rock in Shediac Bay which is frequently used some 180 years later as a race mark for local yacht races.

H.M. Steamer Medea in action at MIr’s Bay where 13 junks were captured or destroyed. London Illustrated News.

HMS Medea was later posted to the far east where in 1849 she gained fame by engaging in a battle with a Chinese pirate fleet capturing or destroying 13 of the large junks.  The ship remained on the Navy List until 1867.

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