Emma 1836

A letter written at Kangaroo Island on 28 November 1836 and addressed to George Fife Angas in London, recounted details of a terrible voyage and high stock losses on a voyage to South Australia.  Written by Charles Simeon Hare, personal secretary to John Morphett, who emigrated to South Australia with his wife, Anna Maria, on board the brig Emma, the report is miserable reading for anyone with a regard for animals.

Emma was a 2 masted brig, built in England in 1824.  Under the ownership of John Pirie & Co, the ship traded to the West Indies & South America before being chartered by the South Australian Company to carry passengers, stores and, most importantly, stock to the new colony.  Under the command of Captain John Nelson, Emma sailed from London on 21 April 1836.   She called in at the Cape of Good Hope to load more stores, additional cattle and other stock. While at the Cape, Charles Hare wrote his first report back to George Angas, detailing heavy gales and complaints about Captain Nelson.  In addition to his own grievances, Hare mentions that agents at the Cape had also sent Pirie "a protest against Captain Nelson". 

The number of passengers on board 'Emma' are variously reported as either 22 or 23, but these numbers don’t seem to include the Captain’s wife or the six children of other passengers.  Nearly all the passengers were employed by the Company. Charles Hare was apparently in charge of the Company’s livestock during the voyage (his employer, John Morphett, had sailed on the Cygnet about a month before Hare and his wife).

Leaving the Cape, Emma encountered more bad weather which took a severe toll on the stock and tested Hare’s ability and knowledge trying to keep the poor animals alive.  A few days out from the Cape the ‘best Vriesland cow’ died. A few days later the ‘best grey mare died after a heavy squall’. A week later another cow died, and Hare used her hide to try to cover the sores on a stallion and 2 other mares.  Within 10 days all 3 of these horses had died, plus a number of sheep, 5 goats and all the poultry.  The animals were suffering so much that in his November 1836 letter Hare wrote that if the animals had been his, he would have cut their throats and thrown them overboard as an act of mercy to them. He commented about their arrival at Kangaroo Island that “The ship came in here in an almost wrecked condition” Somehow, Hare managed to land one sheep and about half of the Merino rams that he had loaded at the Cape.

Arriving at Nepean Bay on 5 October 1836, Emma’s arrival at the small settlement increased the  struggle to support the number of people living there.  Hare reported that, “In as bad condition as the Emma came in here, I found the settlement in a perhaps worse condition.   Conditions were made worse when Captain Nelson introduced spirits to the settlement, which meant that most of the men were continually drunk and very little work was being done.   With relief, Emma and her passengers left Kangaroo Island, arriving at Holdfast Bay on 11 December. 

After unloading her passengers and stores at Holdfast Bay, Emma returned briefly to Kangaroo Island before sailing for Hobart Town on 23 December 1836.  Arriving at Hobart Town on 31 December 1836 , she was still in the harbour there on 6 January 1837  and on 10 January the Colonial Times reported that one of Emma’s crew had been fined for misconduct on the ship.  Emma finally sailed for Spencer Gulf with general cargo and passengers in mid-February 1837.

On a return trip to Hobart in May 1837, Captain Nelson brought another one of his crew up on charges of stealing canvas.   The case was dismissed and Emma departed Hobart bound for South Australia on 27 June 1837. On 21 October 1837 Nelson and his ship departed Hobart, bound for Isle de France (Mauritius), returning on 6 February 1838.  On all of these voyages, including the initial voyage to Kangaroo Island, Captain Nelson’s wife is listed as a passenger.  Various reports of his movements between South Australia and Tasmania also list at least one son, J W Nelson.  Details of the ship’s arrival at Hobart in September 1837 include what could be an additional 3 family members.

On 2 November 1838, Captain John Nelson was charged at the Hobart Court with a breach of the Port Act for allowing a ‘James Thompson’ to come on board Emma and then leaving the colony without special permission. Thompson was actually ‘James Grant’, a Clerk at the Hobart Ordnance Stores, who was dodging a warrant for embezzlement.  Nelson was fined £50. 

The Cornwall Chronicle reported that Emma departed Launceston on 12 January 1839 with a load of colonial produce. With Captain Nelson still in command, Emma was returning to England.  Little is known about Emma’s voyages after this return to England, however in 1855 she was registered in Hartlepool, England with a new owner and captain.  On 18 November 1861, while on a voyage from Fécamp to Hartlepool, Emma was stranded at Walde, 5 miles east of Calais.  After this incident Emma may have continued to work until 23 December 1870. 

No further information about Captain John Nelson’s life or career is known.

From the Facebook site of the Pioneers Association of South Australia 6 Oct 2022. Research by Anthea Taylor.

See also https://sites.google.com/view/first8ships/emma