seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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First Irish Convict Ship Arrives in Botany Bay

The Queen, the first ship delivering Irish convicts, arrives at the penal settlement of Botany Bay in New South Wales, Australia on September 26, 1791. About 30% of all Australians are of Irish birth or descent. Many emigrated freely but many are descended from convicts transported there in the early years of the colony.

Britain has a policy of transportation. Up until the American Revolution most are sent to the American colonies or the West Indies. By the 1780s, Britain badly needs prison space. Petty criminals are housed on overcrowded prison ships anchored on the River Thames. In 1786, the government decides to start a prison settlement in the new colony at Botany Bay.

The transportation is arranged by a private company and those convicts who arrive there are actually the lucky ones, as conditions on the journey are horrendous and many die en route. The organisers of the transportation ships operate on a contract basis. They are paid a certain amount per head and the less provisions they give the prisoners the more profit they make.

The first two fleets of convict ships sail from England. The first ship to sail directly from Ireland is the Queen, which leaves Cork in April 1791 and joins the third fleet sailing from England. On board are 133 male convicts, 22 females and three children. The youngest on the ship is two-week-old Margaret, daughter of convict Sarah Brennan. The youngest convicts are 11-year-old David Fay and 12-year-old James Blake, convicted for stealing a pair of buckles. The oldest convict is 64-year-old Patrick Fitzgerald from Dublin, who is sentenced to seven years for stealing clothes. Seven men and one woman die on the voyage and within a year, half the men who had sailed on the Queen are dead. Young James Blake dies within a few months of landing.

The last convict ship sails from Ireland to Australia in 1853 and over the course of 60 years, 30,000 men and 9,000 women are transported for a minimum of seven years. While a good number of them are patriots and rebels – United Irishmen and Young Irelanders – the majority are transported for petty crimes.

Transportation continues for more than 60 years and is followed by assisted emigration. More than 100,000 travel on assisted passage during the 1850s alone. Some are assisted on their journey by charitable organisations in an effort to relieve distress. The last transportation ship, the Phoebe Dunbar, sails from Dun Laoghaire in 1853, bound for Perth.

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Launch of the RMS Oceanic

RMS Oceanic, the White Star Line‘s first liner built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, is launched on August 27, 1870, arriving in Liverpool, England for her maiden voyage on February 26, 1871.

Three sister ships are constructed in rapid succession: RMS Atlantic, SS Baltic, and SS Republic. All are of the same approximate dimensions with differences in tonnage.

Powered by a combination of steam and sail, RMS Oceanic has twelve boilers generating steam for a single four-cylinder compound steam engine. A single funnel exhausts smoke and four masts carry sails. The hull is constructed of iron and divided into eleven watertight compartments. Passenger accommodations are located on the two decks concealed within the hull. RMS Oceanic can carry 166 First Class passengers, referred to as Saloon Passengers in the day and 1,000 Steerage Passengers, along with a 143-man crew. White Star spares no expense in her construction, and the contemporary press describes the ship as an “imperial yacht.”

RMS Oceanic leaves Liverpool for her maiden voyage on March 2, 1871 carrying only 64 passengers, under Captain Sir Digby Murray. Not long after departing, she has to return because of overheated bearings. Her voyage restarts on March 16. From that point onward, RMS Oceanic is a success for The White Star Line.

In January, 1872, RMS Oceanic undergoes a refit, during which a large forecastle is added to help prevent the bow being inundated during high seas. Two new boilers are added to increase steam pressure and thus engine power, and the four masts are shortened.

RMS Oceanic continues sailing with the White Star line on the Liverpool to New York City route until March 11, 1875, when she is chartered to the Occidental & Oriental Steamship Company, for service between San Francisco, Yokohama and Hong Kong. White Star provides the officers, while the crew is Chinese. The ship itself remains in White Star colours, but flies the O&O flag. During the repositioning voyage from Liverpool to Hong Kong, RMS Oceanic sets a speed record for that route. Later, she also sets a speed record for Yokohama to San Francisco in December 1876, and then breaks her own record over that route in November, 1889, with a time of 13 days, 14 hours and 5 minutes.

On August 22, 1888, RMS Oceanic collides with the coastal liner SS City of Chester just outside the Golden Gate. The SS City of Chester sinks, killing 16 on board.

On January 7, 1890, Nellie Bly boards RMS Oceanic in Yokohama to cross the Pacific as part of her voyage Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. She arrives in San Francisco on January 21, 1890, which is a day behind schedule as a result of rough weather.

In 1895, RMS Oceanic is returned to White Star, which plans to put her back into service. She is sent back to Harland and Wolff for re-engining, but when the ship is inspected closely, it is found to be uneconomical to perform all the work needed. Instead, RMS Oceanic is sold for scrap, leaving Belfast for the last time on February 10, 1896, under tow, for a scrapyard on the River Thames.