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Thomas James McGrath
Australia, Tasmania & Tahiti
Thomas James McGrath was born in Concord, New South Wales on 23 October, 1815. He was the son of Michael McGrath who had been born in Waterford, Ireland in 1772. An Irish rebel, Michael McGrath had been sentenced to seven years transportation at Kildare in 1808 and travelled to Sydney the following year on board Boyd. It is possible that he then became embroiled in rebel activities in Australia; the Irish were treated by the authorities there in much the same way as they were in their homeland by the English. In 1820 he was sentenced for life and eventually sent to Port Macquarie, a notorious penal settlement in Tasmania. He was then voluntarily admitted and released several times to the Benevolent Asylum run by the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. This was not a mental asylum and Michael died there a few years later on 12 January, 1851, aged 74.
Michael McGrath had married Elizabeth Sommerville on 19 May, 1812. She was the daughter of James and Ann Sommerville and was born on 18 February, 1796 along with a sister, Phillis; Elizabeth and Phillis were the first twins born in the colony of New South Wales and they also held their weddings together.
Their father, James Sommerville had been born on 25 September, 1766 in London. He was sentenced, presumably for theft, in 1793 and sent to NSW. In March of 1804 he enlisted as a private with the Sydney Loyalists. The colony in Australia was riddled with experienced Irish rebels and there were numerous skirmishes with the authorities, sometimes aided by convict help; many convicts shared a common experience with the Irish rebels at the hands of the infamous "flogging parson, Samuel Marsden. The rebellion eventually came to an end with the Battle of Vinegar Hill in Sydney. James himself died in Richmond, NSW on 28 January, 1846.
Thomas James McGrath was the third child of Michael McGrath and Elizabeth Sommerville. Aged only 3 months, he was admitted to an orphanage following several siblings. By age 13 he was a housekeeper to an A.B. Spark in Sydney. A life of petty crime seemed to follow. On 23 February, 1833, Thomas was tried in Sydney for the breaking, entering and robbery of a warehouse. He was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania in October, 1833 but more crimes followed.
On 10 February, 1834 he was suspected of sheep stealing having been found with the carcase of a sheep. He was sentenced to two years hard labour on a chain gang. Nine months later he was under strong suspicion of having taken and carried away from the premises of Mr James Cowie, two ducks and one drake. That felony earned him two years imprisonment and hard labour at Port Arthur, on the Grass Tree Hill chain gang. His record seems to be clear after that until the full term of his imprisonment expired on 25 April, 1839.
Shortly after this on 10 December, 1840 Thomas was married to Elizabeth Pearce in Hobart and together they went on to have six children, three boys and three girls.
From then on Thomas seems to have had a clean record. He took work on boats and must have shown promise; before long he had become a master mariner and eventually captained a number of whaling boats. Not all of his sea journeys were successful however and a number of reports in local papers can help trace the story. It was reported in 1849 that a 158 ton brig, the Abeona captained by McGrath, was wrecked near South West Cape, Tasmania, as it chased a whale into the harbour. Thomas McGrath was praised for his efforts in saving the lives of all his men and today, a point at the entrance to the bay marking the wreck site is still called Abeona. Shortly after there was another incident in New Zealand as reported below:-
The Marys left Hawke's Bay on the 5th July, and had boisterous weather off the East Cape, as well as during her passage to this port. The brig. Patriot, Captain McGrath, of whose wreck we gave notice last week, went ashore on the morning of the 12th June. She was a Hobart Town whaler, and had been whaling at Hawke's Bay - when the catastrophe happened she had 150 barrels of oil on board, all of which had been saved as well as her stores, and the greater part of her rigging. Her hull is now high and dry at Hawke's Bay, but very much damaged. The Captain was still with the remains of his vessel when the Marys left. One man was killed by a spar falling upon him, after the brig had gone ashore.
The New Zealander, 4 August, 1849.Whaling, and sailing the waters of the south Pacific, was evidently a dangerous occupation. Ten years later, Thomas was involved in another shipwreck in the Chatham Islands near New Zealand. Again this was reported in the local press:-
The Esther arrived at Wellington yesterday morning from the Chatham Islands, after a passage of seven days. Captain Blair reports the total loss of two whalers at the Chatham Islands. The barque Terror, of Hobart Town, struck on a reef on the east coast of the Chatham islands on the 12th April, at 2 o'clock, a.m. On the same morning the American whaler Franklin, of New Bedford, at anchor at Pitt's Island, parted her chains, and went on the rocks on the north side of that Island. There was a heavy sea, but not much wind at the time; shortly after the Franklin went ashore, however, the wind rose, and both vessels went to pieces. Nearly all the oil on board the Terror was saved, and 70 out of 700 barrels belonging to the Franklin. Fortunately no lives were lost. Both vessels had about 700 barrels of oil on board. Captain McGrath and two men of the Terror, and thirteen men belonging to the Franklin, are passengers by the Esther.
Wellington Spectator, May 25, 1859The following year came a report of yet another shipwreck.
Sebastopol lost at Chatham Islands
Sebastopol — London ship, in ballast, bound for Valparaiso. Wrecked on the Horomaunga beach in 1860. Captain McGrath. The same captain of the Terror. He had left some wreckage from the Terror, which he would take away, and was again wrecked almost in the same place.
Otago Witness, 18 June, 1859What came next was the captaincy of a ship that was to taint his name for the rest of his life. He took charge of a ship called the 'Grecian' and it is clear from contemporary accounts and history books since that whaling was not his only line of work. A local Tasmanian newspaper sets the scene for what was to follow:-
The Cruise of the Grecian
The long absence of the whaling brig Grecian, belonging to the estate of Mrs Seal of this port, has, for some time past, been the subject of comment among seafaring men. In The Southland News (NZ) of 23rd ult. is the report of a case brought by Captain McGrath against Messrs Maning and Whitton agents for the vessel, to recover the sum of £37 17s 10d, wages alleged to be due, and which reveals one of tho most romantic stories of maritime adventure which we have ever met with beyond the realms of fiction.
The Mercury, Hobart, 18 February 1864A detailed account of the trial exists covering every aspect of the questioning, most of which centered on the lack of a sufficient log book kept by Thomas and precisely what his intentions were; the voyage, it seemed, had been rather light on whaling. Although McGrath was never formally convicted, one book adequately sums up exactly the kind of work that McGrath indulged in during that year of 1863:-
Tonga: the Tale of the Hobart Whaler 'Grecian'
from Slavers in Paradise - The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864
Captain Thomas James McGrath, master of the 209-ton Tasmanian whaler Grecian, left Hobart on 17 December 1861 for a whaling voyage to the South Seas. With the exception of one islander his crew of twenty-seven were all of European extraction and for the most part old hands at the whaling game.
After picking up a lady friend at Botany Bay the captain spent over a year on the whaling grounds, selling more than six tuns of whale oil at Wellington in January 1863. Here, and also at the Chatham Islands, the crew were changed: it seems probable that in fact they left the ship voluntarily. These were replaced by fifteen Maoris and Portuguese and ten others, who were to be discharged at the first Australian or New Zealand port called at after 20 May. McGrath then headed for the islands and on 17 May 'he proposed to the crew that they should enter on the slave trade as being more profitable', adding that 'the islanders could easily be sold on the South American coast' .
A seaman named John Turner and seven others refused and were landed at Niue Island three days later, their articles having by then expired. While they were disembarking, the Niueans, accompanied by the missionary W.G. Lawes, arrived on the scene and gave them five minutes to leave; the second mate, who was in charge of the ship's boat, agreed to take them on board again, only to be charged by the captain with disobeying orders 'in not leaving the men on the rocks as he was told to do'.
Ten days later they were put ashore at Tutuila, and on reaching Apia they were joined by another shipmate, John Bryan, who had been landed at Levuka when he also objected to serving on a slaver.' Bryan told them that after leaving Samoa the Grecian had gone to Tonga and that: the captain there induced a large party of natives to come on board to trade, and while they were dining on the 'tween decks, closed the hatches upon them, men, women and children to the number of about 130, and sailed with them for the Peruvian coast.
This kidnapping could only have taken place at 'Ata, the isolated southernmost outlier in the Tongan Group, for apart from a few men from Niuafo'ou no other Tongan island lost any of its inhabitants. In 1929 an anthropologist, Edward Gifford, published this account of the 'Ata abductions, obtained from two informants who were school children on the island at the time: When the Peruvian raider appeared she was black with white doors painted on her sides to make her look like a man-of-war. Vehi went aboard and presumably arranged the kidnapping. When he returned ashore, he made a proclamation that each family was to send a good-looking man aboard with provisions to sell. There was to be no selling on shore, and furthermore the selling on the ships was to take place below decks. Once the Ata people were aboard they were sent to various rooms to select the goods they wanted in exchange. After entering the rooms the doors were locked.
The Vehi referred to was a Tongan named Paul Vehi, who had lived for two years in Sydney; he claimed to have been appointed Mayor of 'Ata by King George I and was generally blamed for the kidnapping, though it seems probable that he too was deceived by the captain. It is significant that the people of 'Ata should have remembered that the Grecian had white doors or ports on her bulwarks which made her look like a warship, for in actual fact she had formerly been a 6-gun brig-of-war and when in Wellington she had been refitted 'in a suspicious manner, but no notice was taken by the authorities, as the master was well-known to them as an experienced whaler'.
Captain McGrath was decidedly hazy as to his movements between June 1863, when he got rid of Bryan, and about December, when he turned up again with his ship at Stewart Island, where he settled with the lady from Botany Bay. He was strongly suspected of having been engaged in slaving operations, but although in a Court action for arrears of wages claimed to be due from the owner's agents he stated that he had taken fifty Tongans from Niuatoputapu to Vanua Levu, he denied that they had been sold.'
Captain Moresby, of H.M.S. Basilisk, called at Niuatoputapu in 1872 specifically to enquire whether any islanders had been kidnapped but was told by the local trader that apart from an unsuccessful attempt to obtain labour two years previously no recruiters had visited the island; on the other hand Axman, the German trader on nearby Niuafo'ou, informed him that five years before his visit a ship had called there and under pretence of taking the islanders to Fiji, where they would earn plenty of money, induced 30 of the men to go on board; not one of the 30 have ever since been heard of. It is supposed that they were taken to Sunday or Rasue [Raoul] Island for the purpose of being sent to work the Peruvian guano islands.
The statement was confirmed by the head missionary teacher, who spoke a little English, and apart from the fact that the date of the visit is incorrect, as it often is in hearsay verbal accounts of past events, there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report. The Grecian's route from 'Ata to Levuka would have taken her close to the isolated southern Lau Island of Ono i Lau and Captain McGrath apparently made an attempt to obtain recruits there also, for it was reported in July that 'the Peruvian slavers have been to Ono' and, no recruiting vessel from South America came anywhere near Fiji. He was, however, unsuccessful as is clear from the British Consul's report in October that no one had been taken from the Fiji consular district.
That it was McGrath who also called at Niuafo'ou is even more probable: for no captain from South America is likely to have known that Fiji would be a place of work both plausible and attractive to the men of Niuafo'ou, whereas McGrath evidently knew the Tongan and other Western Pacific Groups intimately through his whaling voyages, had just been to Fiji and would have been passing near the island on his way, as Turner said, to the Peruvian coast. Perhaps fortunately for McGrath, since she had not been licensed by the Peruvian Government to engage in the Polynesian labour trade, the Grecian did not have to arrive at any Peruvian port with her recruits, where her appearance would have excited considerable attention, particularly from ships of the French Pacific Fleet and the British Pacific Station at Callao. For on 19 July the barque General Prim, owned by Ugarte y Santiago, arrived with 174 recruits (101 males and 73 females) from 'the island of Frinately'.
What seems to have happened is that the Grecian, making for South America with a full load of passengers, met the General Prim, which had left Callao in March in search of recruits (who by the middle of 1863 were becoming hard to obtain), most probably at or near Pukapuka, and sold them outright, to the mutual advantage of both parties. Captain Olano, of the General Prim, on being told that his new passengers were from the Friendly Islands, would have transcribed this information as best he could.
Offers to buy recruits and transfers between ships were quite frequently made by those engaged in the Peruvian trade, and the fact that the General Prim had obtained her complement by purchase would have occasioned little comment." As regards the numbers taken from 'Ata it is suggested that a more exact figure than the ' about 130' given by John Bryan could be 144, i.e. 174 landed by the General Prim, less 30 taken from Niuafo'ou.
According to an account given to the Rev. A.H. Wood, one other attempt was made to kidnap Tongans at about the period of the Peruvian labour trade. The ship involved called at 'Uiha, one of the Ha'apai Islands, and some of the islanders had actually been taken to her when their compatriots ashore, by banging on an iron pan, succeeded in luring the sailors to return: presumably under the impression that more wished to recruit. Once ashore they were successfully ambushed, the ship seized and their friends released. The tradition is well known in Tonga and in evidence of its authenticity the 'Uiha people point to five small cannon, allegedly from the ship, and still preserved on their island. If true, it could account for the fate of the Margarita, which left Callao on 26 January, bound for the islands: and vanished.
Following this little taste of the slave trade, McGrath paid off his crew and stopped off at Stewart Island, a very cold place far south from Hobart. Here he built himself a rough abode, a single-room lean-to with a chimney. Other whalers often lived on the island and it was a good place to sell them illegal liquor. Thomas soon got fed up with being there and it was at this point that he filed his petition against Messrs Maning and Whitton agents for the recovery of wages paid. The question as to his voyage, the lack of a log book and further irregularities raised a lot of questions with the authorities and before long the case was turned against McGrath. The Grecian was taken from him for return to its owner, a bit the worse for wear. Thomas was faced with a fine of £100 or gaol. The local press were understandably agog with all the findings from the trial. One such story sums up the press fever that followed:-
The adventures of Captain McGrath, of the Grecian, are already looked upon as forming a pretty close parallel in the minds of Hobartonians at least to those of the famous Kidd and his redoubtable compatriots ; but we did not think that the force of Tasmanian imagination would have gone so far as the endeavor to work out a similar sequel to the adventures of our romantic whaling skipper. We have read yarns without end about heaps of treasure buried in out of the way places by marine marauders, and afterwards brought to light through the medium of mysterious documents, written in undecipherable characters with ink which could only be rendered visible by the application of some chemical agent. Stories of wonderful " gold beetles," impossible keys, and monstrous copper caskets full of golden dollars have inflamed the imagination, and aroused the cupidity of our boyhood, and led to the ransacking of innumerable "dark corners" in the hopeful idea that some "illustrious pirate" might possibly have smoked his pipe in them in days gone. All these mythical notions, however, disappeared on the growth of maturer reason, and we certainly had a good laugh the other day on hearing that a party of adult treasure-seekers had been exploring all the "nooks and crannies" of ' the old whaling brig of which we have heard so much lately, in the hopes of discovering the " plant" of the jovial McGrath. Such an absurdity is scarcely to be credited, but it is true. It scorns that when ordered to find bail on the occasion of the recent trials at Invercargill, the captain said that "he could find bail to any amount if he could get on board the ship." The steward heard him say so, and imported the remark to Tasmania whereupon a vigorous search was instituted of the cabins and cabin fittings; in the forecastle, between the oil casks. And in every other possible and impossible place where money could be conveniently hidden, but without success. We know not how far the reports of the search, which have reached us, are true; but we are informed that a policeman was stationed alongside the vessel , while it was being executed, in case some explorer luckier than the rest, should have his cupidity excited, and skedaddle with the treasure or his less fortunate companions could be made aware of it’s value.
The Mercury, Hobart, 9 March, 1864No record has been found for his imprisonment and the last that is known of him is his death in Papeete, Tahiti on 13 June, 1882, aged 66. Shortly before that, the following letter appeared in the pages of The Mercury of Hobart for 25 February, 1881. The Mr McGrath referred to is Thomas' son, John:-
A correspondent writing from Earlham, takes exception to a paragraph which appeared some days ago in reference to Mr. McGrath’s retirement from the East Coast trade.. He says that Mr. McGrath did not relinquish the trade on account of it not paying him, but was called away to Tahiti in consequence of the failing health of his father, who resides there, and that after finishing some business there, he will resume his connection with the East Coast.
An obituary ten years later for Thomas' wife, Elizabeth, sheds a bit more light on the family and their connections with the sea:-
DEATH OF AN OLD RESIDENT
Mrs Elizabeth McGrath, of the late Captain T. J. McGrath, of this port, passed away yesterday at the residence of her son-in law, Mr. William Garrett, after a painful illness of about seven years duration. The deceased was a native of this city, and 73 years of age, and it may be added that her mother was only 10 years old when she landed at Crayfish Point in the very early days of the colony. Captain McGrath, it may be remembered, died some nine years ago at Tahiti. There were two sons and two daughters issue of marriage. Both sons followed in the father's footsteps in adopting the sea as a profession, and are well-known here, Captain J. W. McGrath being at present in command of the whaling barque Waterwitch, and Captain J. T. McGrath living ashore at Spring Bay.
The Mercury 5/10/1891
Thomas James McGrath
Whalebone engraving of the barque Terror
Three whaling boats engaged in whaling