Friday, September 6, 2013

Mariners: Caithness and the Prairie

Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope: Thomas Bowler
In March 1856 the brigantine (sometimes called schooner) Prairie, 150 tons, American-built, sailed from the Cape of Good Hope bound for Melbourne, with James Ramsey Caithness as master. The vessel was carrying Cape produce including wine, oats, flour and raisins; her crew numbered eleven and there were nine passengers on board. Weather during the voyage was stormy: the boats and watercasks staved, the bulwarks much damaged and the head rail on one side carried away.* 

Running repairs were made by the mariners as best they could but on proceeding to her destination the Prairie met a violent gale off Cape Otway on 26 May, when she was dismasted. This was a perilous situation, making headway impossible, and to save all on board as well as the cargo, Caithness ran the ship ashore at Sisters' Creek - between Rocky Cape and Emu Bay - on 2 June. Although some reports stated the ship was 'little injured' and might be refloated after her cargo had been discharged, this proved over-optimistic. James and some of the crew, who had had to resort to camping on the beach, were taken from the site of the wreck by the Titania and there would have been time to reflect bitterly on another lost ship and the costs thereof. The stranded cargo on the beach near Rocky Cape would be sold at public auction.

The voyage had taken over three months. Meanwhile, back home at the Cape, Eliza Caithness was soldiering on, caring for five boys aged ten and under. Two of these were Eliza and James's sons: Douglas Sturges was nearly a year old and Charles Chance, 4 years. Frederick James (6), Edward Harry (8) and George William (10) were children of James's first marriage. Then there was their older sister, Emily Mary Anne. James jnr, the eldest, by then about 17, had either left home or was thinking about doing so. It can't have been easy for Eliza and the family with the head of the household gone for three months at a time, nor for them to hear the news that the most recent trip had ended badly. 

Events of the preceding few years, particularly the death of his son Alfred in the Flying Dragon debacle, would take their toll on James's well-being. Though he couldn't have known it, at the time of the wreck of the Prairie he had only a brief future ahead of him. In 1858 a daughter, Kate Elizabeth, was added to the household: she was not quite two when her father died. James Ramsey Caithness would sail the seas no more.

Death Notice of James Ramsey Caithness
August 1860 (Cape Archives)

Tom Sheldon

*Loss of the Prairie report in People's Advocate, Launceston, 16 June 1856

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