The Tale of Bully Forbes

Hell or Melbourne

This is the motto of the Captain of the Marco Polo, James “Bully” Forbes. He became famous in Australia and England in 1852 when as Captain of the Marco Polo, he broke the record for the quickest time to travel from Liverpool to Port Phillip. He made the journey in 68 days, which was remarkable for the time. He had 900 passengers on board. Nearly all were highland Scots who were, in a wonderful irony, being displaced by sheep in the highlands and islands of Scotland to be sent to Australia to tend the sheep of the squatters.

The most wonderful part is that a lot of the squatters were in fact Scottish themselves. But things would be a little different in Australia.

The Marco Polo was initially a cargo ship. It was converted to take passengers. In fact it was historic for a number of reasons the Marco Polo. Nearly 100 people died on the way out, many were children who died of measles. It was by all accounts a miserable journey. Sanitation was non existent, the highlanders were enclosed in damp, stinking and rancid accommodation. Faecal matter and urine seeped through the upper decks soaking the highlanders.

The Marco Polo from Wikipedia

Captain Bully Forbes used the Roaring Forties to maximise speed. The Roaring Forties were the easterly winds that roared out of the southern ocean. The captains of these ships would sail down the coast of Africa and after reaching Cape Town, the bravest like Forbes, would sail deep into the southern ocean to make use of the winds. It was the subject of much bravado in the pubs of Liverpool and Port Phillip.

For these tiny vessels sailed into the biggest wilderness on the planet, where no man lived and where the smallest and largest of creatures had existed for millennia. Where the winds and currents brought the coldest water to the surface of the ocean and phytoplankton turned the water green so that great mountains of water blue, green, and grey would break over the little ships and send water through every opening in the decks, breaking off hinges and near drowning the passengers crammed between decks.

If they had of been allowed on deck they would have seen as they crested a wave, the valleys and hills of this watery world. The noise of the wind, the crash of the waves, the scream of the sails and the humming of rope and gear a terrifying soundtrack.

What they couldn’t have known that a giant ice block, adrift from the vast shelf, its roots deep in the freezing waters, invisible in the mist and dark of an Antarctic spring could send them to the bottom , or a late cold snap could see them embayed in the ice until all aboard starved. Captain Forbes tried unsuccessfully to break his own record but it was not to be. By the time he was in charge of the Schomberg, the gold rush was in full swing and there were far more paying customers. The Schomberg left Liverpool for Melbourne on 6 October 1855 and was wrecked off a reef off Peterborough on 26 December 1855.

Captain Forbes who if witnesses are to be believed was still celebrating Christmas over drinks and cards with a couple of the female passengers ignored the warnings from his crew that he was too close to shore. The passengers sued the company believing that Forbes in a fit of pique, he let the ship sink, because of the slowness of the voyage.

Although he was absolved of blame because the sandbar was not charted he ended up down and out in Calcutta for a while before getting the Captaincy of General Wyndham.

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