A true event or a good yarn?

The story of this voyage was written by the well known shipping reporter and author for the 'Auckland Star', Forbes Eadie. Writing under his pseudonym 'Lee Fore Brace' his two part article was published in two New Zealand newspapers, the 'Auckland Star' in 1931 and reprinted in the 'Weekly News' in 1937.

Subsequent research by historians have failed to authenticate the voyage of the Brig Mermaid and no record of this vessel, its owner and captain, nor the Bristol barque England's Glory, mentioned in the log extracts,  can be found in shipping records in New Zealand or Australia, or at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. However, it was reported in Sydney by John Guard, captain of the brigantine Lynx, that a vessel from a sealing expedition to the south named the Mermaid was berthed at Port Nicholson to re-provision in 1820. 

The content of this well written story  is convincing and depicts a typical voyage of a whaler or sealer to the South Pacific and shows that the author was well versed in the whaling trade. 

Here is an abridged version of his story :


High on the shelves of a Sydney second-hand bookshop in the year 1931, lay several ancient leatherbound journals. Curious as to what they may contain, the bookseller was asked to fetch them down.
"Just a load of old rubbish." he stated, after he had climbed down grudgingly from his ladder and dusted the brown, rough, covers off with his coat sleeve.


Torn, stained and yellow with age, with the page edges crumbling to the touch, it needed only a glance at the old hand-writing and entries to realise that this was a priceless find.  Here was a first hand account of early New Zealand history. Purchase of the volumes was made for the sum of two shillings, which the bookseller was happy to accept to rid his shop of the  unwanted 'rubbish'.

The journals were found to be the origional log books of the brigatine MERMAID where Captain Jonathan Trevarthen, of Cornwall, had faithfully recorded  details of the direct voyage to New Zealand from England which began on the 14th September, 1795 and lasted for three years. The ships owners were listed in the journal as Master Joseph Thomas & Sons of Billiter Street, London. The Mermaid was described as a "Deep-sea Whaler".

Neglect and old age obscured the writing on many pages but much could be picked out using a magnifying glass. It is interesting to follow the voyage which begins in London, on the river Thames, and makes its way down to New Zealand. It was the first recorded voyage since Captain James Cook's discoveries of some years before.

England was at war with France during these times and there were many privateers  on the high seas of the Atlantic ocean and English Channel looking for rich prizes from the holds of mechant ships returning from overseas ports.

The Mermaid's log records:

"September 14th, 1795. Worked down the river Thames this a.m. came to best bower in Greenwich Roads. Completed loading stores and received on board six more seamen, who signed for the three year voyage."

"September 20th, 1795. Made departure this company with a convoy of 54 sail. Men-o-war Lion, Essex and Thunderer lead the van down the channel before a moderate gale from the east. At five hours spread stun'sls to keep up with convoy....."

"September 22nd.. Lizard Head bears NNE distance 12 miles, convoy has outsailed me during night due to light winds. Crew employed this day in getting up the eight pounders[cannon] from main hold. Set them up to larboard and starboard and told off gun crews..."

Five days later, on September 27th, a most unusual entry appears in the logbook of a humble whaling brig. A strange sail is sighted and excitement aboard mounts as they encountered an un-identified merchantship: 

"These 24 hrs strong winds from north. At 7 hrs a.m. saw strange sail on larboard bow. Clapped on all sail, including fore stun'sls and wind coming away strong soon overhauled him. At noon signalised him but he refused to show colours. Fired a blank charge across his bows and signaled him to heave to. As he took no notice fired shot across his bows. Then took him. Proved to be a French Guineaman homeward bound from the [Spanish]Main. Placed a prize crew aboard under Rossiter, third mate, with instructions to take him into Plymouth. Frenchman refused to fight after first broadside."

One could almost see the look of distgust on the old sea dogs face when he found there was to be no combat or attempt at a fight....

For the next few months the logbook contains matter of fact entries of life aboard ship. After cruising for two months in the Sargossa Seas, the Mermaid got her first whale.

"December 24th. At daylight sighted spouters to leeward. Bore away and ordered three boats out. Mate's boat made fast to large sperm bull whale; bore up and fastened. Tryed out 85 bbls. Second mates boat foundered by large cow sperm; had to cut away to save boat's crew. No one injured... "

On New Years Day the Mermaid got three more whales and four blackfish. She cruised for a month along the equator, meeting with only moderate luck, then set off on the long slant heading for Cape Horn, where Captain Trevarthen hoped to get many 'fish'. Nothing untoward happened until she was in the latitude of Rio de Janeiro ["Riajaneero" as the old captain spelled it], when they met up with the barque England's Glory out of Bristol. The logbook explains:

"February 26th 1796. At the a.m. of this day met in with the Bristol barque England's Glory. Homeward bound, she was from the New Holland [Australia] fisheries, a full ship, with 900 bbls. of sperm and 7,800 sealskin pelts, which she has taken on the coast of New Zeeland.
Received from him sailing directions for the coast of the new lands and also purchased 20 stand of small arms, giving him bills of exchange on Master Thoms for same."

Of particular interest to New Zealander's, the Mermaid's log continued;

"Exchanged John Begg, boat-steerer, who is scurviefied, for an Indian of New Zealand who has a good knowledge of the coast and signed him as boat-steerer and pilot on a lay of thirty of one thousand. The Indian speaks good English and was a pilot on the Endeavour with Commander Cook."

The brig continued her passage down to Cape Horn. She was there in mid summer and the weather was kind, allowing her to make the voyage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in just seven days. On March 15th, 1796, the log reads:

"Made the Pacific this day. Wind and weather from Staten Land have been moderate and fair and nothing like what I expected. many strange and divers birds accompany the brig by day and night; many small ones spotted black and white have been caught and make good messing when stewed. The larger ones called gannies are rank with fish oil and are lousy. Secured a small sperm bull this day, trying out 54 bbls. Millions of fish fought around the carcase. At p.m. of this day set course for Juan Fernandez Island to wood and water."

The voyage continued....each day a new record of life aboard ship was entered in the log book, relieved at times by snippits of other information:

"Sounded at noon this day and found no bottom at 100 fathoms."
"Killed our last hog this day which weighed 18 stone." "Cut a large carbuncle from Mr. Jenk's neck, which gave him much relief from pain."
"Water getting low and bad smelling. Placed crew on half allowance."
"Flogged Seaman Jones this day for stealing water. Gave him 50 but he deserved 5 score. Will give him the balance if he does it again. Locked the water butts."
"Several of the crew are getting scurviefied. Issued double malt and hops this day for beer."

The Mermaid was 244 days out of London when she made Fernandez Island. The brigantine stayed a full month on the island, while the crew worked on making new sails, repairing the rigging and fumigating the vessel. She finally took her departure, not without incident, on June 17th, 1796, setting a course for Easter Island.

The log reads;

"Secured many goats....good fruit....many divers and kinds of fishes, chief of which is the lobster without claws but found no inhabitants or living people hereabouts."
"Brought all the shore party aboard at the a.m. of this day, all hands now being free from the scurvy. Logged, Mr. Jenks, mate, for having made orange beer and supplying same to the crew. Seamen Jones and Nightingale refused duty and requested that they be allowed to depart from the brig and live ashore. Flogged both each with 50 lashes for insubordination. Took 24 milch goats aboard and nine bbls. of salted fish. Secured anchors and took departure from island at noon."

All hands aloft
On June 24th the Captain made the following entry:

"All hands mustered aft this day at noon, making complaint that they got no sleep from the baa-ing and bleating of the nanny goats. Settled the complaint by ordering the cook to kill all goats and salt them down for further use. Crew mustered again at 4p.m. and refused to eat rations of goat flesh. Settled the matter by ordering the cook to make soup of goats meat and issue the usual rations, with goats flesh as an extra. Distance this day 111 miles..."

On July 31st, 320 days out, the Mermaid arrived at Easter Island. The log entry is very complete, Captain Trevarthen finding the island had little to offer. His log entry sums it up:

"Landed on the main island this a.m. Found no water no wood and little vegetation. Few people hereabouts and those we saw hid themselves in the hills. Explored large valley running over centre of island, but when halfway the crew refused to go further. Large and fearsome looking stone gods are standing on platforms up and down the valley some of them five fathoms high. The trade winds sweep down the valley making a moaning sound among the gods......the place seems to be haunted.......made several cast of a seine net from the beach but got no fish. Shot three seals which gave us fresh meat to the crew. Very disappointed with the barreness of this land. In the evening unmoored and proceeded to sea. At six hours set a final course to south and west for a landfall in New Zeeland...."

The long journey from this point to the coast of New Zealand went without incident. As a precaution, due to the unknown waters which lay ahead,   the Captain ordered the topsails to be reefed each night as darkness fell,   despite the good calm weather. The logbook contains only matter of fact entries of ships position and the weather from the end of July, when they left Easter Island. Water and stores were noted as getting low during this period of time. 

Log entry dated October 25th, 1796.

"At noon of this day estimate the Mermaid's position to be 100 miles east from New Zeeland, but from the large number of longshore birds about, consider position to be nearer the land than given by observation. Throughout this day stationed a hand at fore and mainmast heads to lookout for land.
At dusk this day large patches of floating kelp and driftwood noticed on surface of the water. At 7hrs. p.m. wore ship around and stood back on course to East and throughout night reached to windward under reefed lowers."

At dawn, on the following day, a brown bird flew aboard the vessel and landed on the deck where it was captured by the crew.

"October 26, 1796. At dawn of this day shore bird flew aboard and being very tired was captured. This bird, the Indian Pilot calls a peepee forarroah. . It is a brown bird, the size of a raven and has a long tail...." [Pipi Wharauroa - long tailed cuckoo]
"At 4 hrs. a.m. set all sail and headed west -by- north. At noon high land seen on larboard bow. At 2hrs. p.m. took soundings at intervals. Indian pilot cannot name this part of the main. To the south, about 14 leagues off, appear high snow covered mountains. During the night saw several fires on the main. Latitude by observation 41 degrees 30 minutes south. Longitude by deduction 177 degrees 30 minutes east..."

Looking at a map of New Zealand today, this position would place the Mermaid just north-East of Cook Strait, with the snow capped mountains "14 leagues off" in a southerly direction, being the tops of the Southern Alps. It was apparent that his steersman had not travelled this far south with Captain Cook.

"October 27th. Brought the land close aboard this daylight. Pilot informs me that the cape abeam is called Tee Cow Cow and the land hereabouts is thickly populated. Several praus [canoes] seen close inshore, but my signals to come aboard were unheeded..."

[Cape Te Kaukau - situated north of Palliser Bay]

On the very next day the Mermaid made her first contact with the native "Indians" of New Zealand...... maori

"At noon this day a party of Indians came off from the main and boarded us. They seem to be friendly people of goodly stature and dressed in grass coats Two of them were painted blue on the face with circles and lines. My pilot tells me that they are not his tribe, but he is friendly with them, having met them before leaving the coast. We exchanged nails and buttons for a mess of large cod fish which are named Fawpooka. At the p.m. had trouble getting the Indian to leave the brig.... "

Being on an unknown coast, Captain Trevarthen proceeded with some caution, relying on the local knowledge of his pilot to steer them clear of dangers.

"November 2. At daylight this day rounded a cape which Captain Cook has named East Cape and altered course due west to enter large bay named Plenty. At noon saw what appeared to be a ship on fire near the main. Stood down and came close to, but found that the smoke was coming from a burning island about three leagues off the main. This island appears to be a volcano, as the water hereabouts is warm, and the smoke rises to a hight of 100 fathoms from the island. Circled the island, and at four hours p.m. stood away to the north and west."

There is no mistaking the Mermaid's location at this point, where the Captain has vividly described volcanic White Island in the Bay of Plenty. The brig continued her journey to the north towards Auckland, her passage taking her on to the east side of Great Barrier Island.

"Several islands to larboard and starboard and large island to north and by west which the pilot tells me is named Oa tea Heerikeemata. Stood away for Heerikeemata as pilot tells me there is a good harbour on the leeward side of the island. At nightfall, come up to island, but stood away again as coast is covered with haze.
At dark a large prau came off from the island bringing one hog and many fishes. The Indians rubbed their faces against our pilot's face and all of them cried, as they are relations. To the west is a large bay which Commander Cook has named Howareegree, [Hauraki Gulf], which seems to be shut in by high mountains on the south and lower land on the north. The Indians stayed with us during the night. We gave them a mess of salt beef and biscuits but they spat out the meat and ate the biscuits.
One of them is lined with blue circles on the nose and cheeks. My pilot calls the markings Amookoo. This Indian seems to be a chief, as the others do what he tells them....."

The log continues to tell how the Mermaid came to anchor on the west side of Great Barrier and was welcomed by an even larger fleet of Maori canoes from around Port Fitroy.

"November 4. At daylight this day came up to soundings on the west side of Heerikeematter. A fleet of ten praus came off and piloted the brig into a large land-locked bay on the north and west coast. Came to best bower in 12 fathoms at head of the bay, at nine a.m. Brig was soon surrounded by large fleet of praus, more than fifty coming into the bay after we anchored. Many Indians boarded the brig, among them being the King named Pekai. Gave him one kettle and three trousers and one knife, which pleased him much. At three hours landed and found large timber growing down to water's edge, some of them being seven fathoms around. These trees are called cowdie [kauri] and are good for spars.

Port Fitzroy

With Mr. Jenks, I went to the hippar of the king and received a good mess of pork and fish. My pilot is a relative of the king and he has arranged that we get eight spars. I gave a present of some callico stuffs to the king's wives and a jack-knife to his son, who boarded us in the bay.
They received us well, and with their wives returned with us to the brig. To fix our bargain, I gave the king nine hatchets, two more pots and one shirt and jacket, together with a box of iron spikes....."

This was a picture of life at Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier Island some 200 years ago when the visitors were received with great kindness and stayed for a period of three months while the vessel was careened [ship layed on her side], her bottom was scrubbed and tarred, new masts, spars and yards were fitted and new sails made as required. The vessel was completely overhauled from stem to stern.

The local Maori supplied the brig with abundant supplies of fresh, dried and salted fish and also vegetables for her stores when making ready for her departure for the east coast, shortly after Christmas, 1797.
On January 8. 1797 she took her departure from Port Fitzroy and stood to the north. Four maori from the Gt. Barrier tribe signed on as boatmen.
For two months the Mermaid cruised and worked in the waters off the east coast until by the beginning of March when her hold was fully laden with whale oil and spermaceti.

On March 14th, 1797, she took her final departure of these waters, before setting a course for New Holland. The logbook gives the final farewell, both to New Zealand and the Mermaid's maori pilot and steersman:

"Completed wooding and watering this day and at 1 hr. p.m. took anchors aboard. Paid off my Indian pilot with one case of tobacco, six hatchets, one sack of biscuits, and one bale of old canvas which was more than he asked. Signed on 8 Indians for the voyage to New Holland. Took departure from the Bay at 3 hours p.m."

Thus ended the outward bound voyage of the Mermaid from London, England to New Zealand over 200 years ago. This story may never have been told, had the old leather-bound volumes not been discovered, lying dusty and decaying, in the second-hand bookshop in Sydney.
Saved from the 'old rubbish' category in the year 1931, their present condition or whereabouts is unknown.