Circassian: 1550s, in reference to a people of the northern Caucasus along the Black Sea, from Circassia, Latinized from Russian Cherkesŭ, which is of unknown origin. Their name for themselves is Adighe. Their language is non-Indo-European. The race was noted for the “fine physical formation of its members, especially its women” [Century Dictionary], who were much sought by neighbouring nations as concubines, etc. [The Online Etymology Dictionary].
An unusual name for a ship, one would think, yet there were plenty named thus. The Lloyd’s Register Foundation, Heritage and Education Centre website has ten different ships listed with that name within its webpages, for a total of 42 documents. The earliest survey listed is 1835. Our Circassian (convict voyage 1832/33) had no documents recorded within the Foundation’s pages. Circassian’s surgeon superintendent’s journal was nowhere to be found – not in the The National Archives (Kew) catalogue, nor in the National Library of Australia’s AJCP digitised files. Without it, there is nothing written about the voyage in general or the sickness on board in particular. No reference in Nicholson’s Log of Logs. Not even ‘Wikipedia’ (to date) has managed to post a page about this ship.
I do, however, have a theory about that journal other than the possibility the original was mis-filed in the Admiralty or National Archive filing systems (see the header ‘The Ship’s Surgeon’ below).
The Ship’s Owners
It is clear that from her very first voyage that Circassian was an East India trader. She most likely sailed under licence for the East India Company. However, I have not been able to find her name in sources specialising in these ships.
Circassian appeared in Lloyds list of India licenced ships for the 1822 season. The entry shows the ship built in Newcastle in 1822, sailing on 12th October that year. The master L Wasse was bound for Bengal; the ship’s ‘husband’ (agent) was T. Smith. The following year Circassian appears in Lloyd’s Register as a 400 ton ship built in Newcastle and shows the owner as Smith & Co. The entry reflects the same journey made by Captain L Wasse from London to Calcutta, Bengal.
In 1824 Circassian is listed firstly with Smith & Co. as owner and Wasse as master – probably returning to London from Calcutta. She then changes ownership and command to E Rule and G Douthwaite respectively, for voyages variously to Madras, Bengal and Ceylon on an annual basis from 1825 to 1832. Once back from Madras in 1832 the ship must have been repaired and refitted for her convict transportation role in August under new ownership; the listing ‘Capt.& Co.’ suggests that Captain Douthwaite and some shareholders had purchased her from E. Rule.
The Ship’s Builder
William Smith & Co. (same family as original owner) was the builder. In 1810 the St Peter’s yard was acquired by Alderman and Mayor Thomas Smith, proprietor of St. Lawrence Ropery, Newcastle. He and his sons William and Thomas traded as a family business. On the Alderman’s death in 1836, the name changed to T & W Smith. From 1811 to 1861 the family companies built over fifty vessels – more than one of them would be utilised as transport for convicts, e.g. John Renwick built 1826 and Robert Small built 1835. The Smith family also had another shipyard in North Shields, where it built iron vessels.
The Ship’s Unwilling Passengers
Circassian sailed from Plymouth on 14th October 1832 with 192 male convicts on board. The ship arrived in Hobart, VDL on 16th February 1833. These men had been convicted and sentenced in Assizes and Quarter Sessions courts in many counties throughout Britain as well as from gaol deliveries in Middlesex, London and other counties. Three of them were military prisoners who had been court martialled.
Six of the convicts died on the voyage, but without the records available from the surgeon’s journal, I am not able to identify those who did not make landfall. The number of arrivals in Hobart is therefore 186 prisoners. The full list of transportees is available on the original Home Office Transportation Registers in HO11-8, folios 220 to 225 for those intrepid convict researchers who may wish to check them against the arrivals in Hobart. I have to say that this process is generally an unrewarding task as transcriptions can be unreliable.
The Ship’s Guards and Carers
Circassian was the third ship to have 21st Regiment troops embark for service in Australia, and the first to arrive in Van Diemen’s Land. The voyage of 1832/33 was the only convict voyage Circassian undertook. In 1833, a total of 14 convict ships arrived in VDL, most engaging 21st Regiment guards.
The 21st troops embarked at Deptford on 14th August 1832. Sergeant Lovett Taylor, selected for the Circassian voyage died of cholera on 21st August and Sergeant Henry Hunt replaced him. Thus the complement to VDL was two officers, one sergeant, 27 rank and file as shown left. Of these troops six served in the Swan River Colony with Privates David Earnshaw and John Gill being discharged and settling there.
The wife of Private Joseph MacNamara and Private Martin Kelly were treated for cholera by the surgeon superintendent on the voyage.
The Master for this voyage was Captain George Douthwaite and the Surgeon Superintendent William Porteous R.N.
The Ship’s Surgeon
William Porteous R.N. was appointed to the position of Assistant Surgeon in the Royal Navy in December 1807 and Surgeon in 1809. His only role as a surgeon superintendent on a convict ship was on the Circassian voyage. Porteous – if he followed the habit of all other surgeons on convict voyages – would have boarded the ship even before the 21st Regiment troops at Deptford.
The surgeon was treating two people for cholera some weeks before she sailed from Plymouth, and he sent a letter dated 29th August 1832 while still on the Thames which was later published in the medical journal Lancet the following month. Thus the case notes of two cholera patients were written and despatched to a W. Maclean Esq., copied perhaps from the Journal separately by Porteous as Circassian made her way east along the Thames. So what happened to the Journal? Read on …
William Porteous aboard Circassian arrived in Hobart on 16th February 1833. If there were hospitalisations to attend to and paperwork relating to the six deaths of the convicts, it could have been March before he completed his journal and left the ship. How would he have ensured his journal returned to England? Would he have handed it to authorities in Hobart, or sent it by the next available ship to London? Or did he plan to take it back to England himself? If the latter, then we know how it could have been lost forever.
Porteous booked his return passage to London on the cargo vessel Rifleman. She was a 302 ton barque built in Montreal in 1825. Rifleman had been in Australian waters in the years before she was acquired by Captain Robert Hutchinson in 1832. As master/owner he set sail for Van Diemen’s Land in June 1832 with his cargo and arrived in Hobart in November that year. Then, upon arrival, with all the prescience of a seaman, he advertised the vessel for sale! The return trip to England left Hobart on 14th April 1833. It was some months before it was assumed she had disappeared without a trace, along with her crew and six passengers, somewhere in the vicinity of Auckland Island.
Later that year the Sydney Herald scooped the story of a discovery by the captain and crew of a whaler operating on the west of Auckland Island. Fast forward to 1996 when a group of divers from New Zealand investigated a wreck discovered ten years earlier by accident. It was Rifleman. In 2012 a report on the findings from the wrecksite became available. Had the Surgeon’s journal been among the Porteous effects? We will never know; perhaps easier to search for a lost file at the National Archives. Click on the story here.
The Ship’s Demise
Discovering the fate of Circassian at first seemed an impossible task. I worked my way through Lloyds Registers from the 1833 convict voyage arrival, every year until 1841. Along the way I found other ships named Circassian: one built in Sunderland in 1839 – a snow and later a brig, another built in 1841 in Newport. And then I came full-circle and found a ship built in Newcastle in 1841 by Thompson Smith at Willington Quay (probably not of the Smith family who built the 1822 model). I went no further into the future – it seems the world will always have plenty of Circassians.
After searching a number of resources for missing ships, ghost ships, vessels lost at sea, wrecks etc. I returned to 1833 and discovered this entry in ‘List of Shipwrecks of 1833’. It certainly suggested geography associated with Captain George Douthwaite – but his name is not mentioned, nor any details of the ship in order to pin it down.
Then I found something else, ‘The Circassian, Capt. Douthwaite, sailed on Wednesday [6th March 1833] in ballast for Ceylon’. Must be the one!
Wikipedia, Wikipedia Commons.
Lloyd’s Registers 1822-1841.
The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, Charles Bateson, 1974.
Claim a Convict website.
Convict Records, State Library of Queensland website.
Australian Medical Pioneer Index.
Log of Logs Vols. 1, Ian Nicholson 1993.
Treatment of Cholera on Board the Circassian by William Porteous, Lancet, 1832.
Australasian Underwater Cultural Heritage Database (map).
Riddle of the Rifleman, McCrystal, Day and Fry, Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand, 2012 (out of print).
Circassian Transportation Roll HO11-8-220/225, National Archives, Kew.
21st Regiment Embarkation Roll WO25-3503, National Archives, Kew.
21st Regiment Musters & Pay Lists WO12-3801 to 3809, National Archives, Kew.
The Colonist 16 Nov 1832.
The Colonist 22 Feb 1833.
Hobart Town Courier 8 Mar 1833.
Hobart Town Chronicle 16 Apr 1833.
The Sydney Herald 18 Nov 1833.
The Colonist 17 Dec 1833.
The Sydney Monitor 7 Mar 1834.
© Diane Oldman 2023