The Regalia, a small ship of 360 tons, was chartered by the British government to transport 129 Irish male convicts from Dublin to Sydney during 1826. Details of the voyage were recounted by William Sacheverell Coke, Officer of the Guard, in letters to his father D’Ewes Coke and uncle John. Ensign Coke, aged 20, was undertaking his first command of the Guard on a convict ship. A complete list of the names, crimes and sentences of the Irish convicts is available at the link to the Regalia.
While stationed at Chatham barracks Ensign Coke prepared for the journey. He asked his father to procure cheeses and pickles while he ordered clothes, linen, medicines, utensils, stationery and books. On 25th October 1825, the Guard of 30 rank-and-file marched from Chatham to Deptford to join the Regalia for the passage. Each officer was to receive an allowance of £95 in addition to his pay and provisions. Coke agreed with the Master, Robert Burt, to be messed (that is fed) and provided with wine during the voyage for an extra £50.
On first becoming acquainted with the Master at Deptford, W S Coke judged him to be ‘a plain, honest, North Country man’, a view which was to change drastically on closer acquaintance. While loading at the depot there was trouble with two Irish soldiers of the Guard who were rebellious. One had threatened to throw the Mate overboard and said he would be the death of him before the voyage was over. The second, being mutinous, was taken prisoner and escorted back to Chatham barracks.
Early sailing ships were not particularly easy to steer with everything depending on the force and direction of the wind and, when close to shore, the tides. The Regalia was particularly unlucky in both respects and the Master’s fondness for alcohol (see below) cannot have helped matters. While making her way down the Thames the Regalia ran foul of a collier (a small ship typically carrying coal). The collision caused her to leak and spoiled 50 bags of biscuit. The ship cleared the English Channel but in the St George Channel a gale struck and drove the Regalia towards Bardsey Island off the Welsh coast. With a lucky change of wind the vessel swung towards the Irish coast but it was three nights before the storm abated, the ship struggling against the heavy seas all this time. Outside Dublin heads the Regalia was in danger of running around on the Kish sunken sands but was warned by a collier in time to bear away. As a precaution against the effects of heavy weather, Ensign Coke had nailed down all the boxes in his cabin and fastened them with cord. During the storm they all gave way, nevertheless, and were pitched from one side of the cabin to the other. With the constant tossing of the ship, he found that it was impossible to sleep in a fixed berth and so resolved to purchase a hammock at Dublin.
On arrival at Dún Laoghaire on 16 January 1826, the officers from the Regalia repaired to the Hibernian hotel to rest. Ensign Coke purchased his hammock together with a dinner service and a barrel of Irish whiskey. He also requested his father to apply for an unattached company by purchase to enable William to attain the rank of Lieutenant. This was a popular way of buying a rank in the British Army at the time.
In mid January 1826, W S Coke attended the examination of the Irish male prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia on the Essex prison hulk. Hulks were ships no longer fit for use at sea which were moored, sometimes for years, for use as accommodation for convicts awaiting transportation. He was not favourably impressed:
…we have to take a terrible bad set with us – they have set the ship on fire five times during this last fortnight. The Guard was obliged to shoot one of them.
This judgement seems a little harsh where 15 year old Michael Burke (7 years for vagrancy) was concerned. At embarkation 34 prisoners were brought from a Dublin prison by a party of Light Dragoons and 99 transferred from the Essex. On board they were searched for knives and matches.
All being finalised the Regalia fired an 18 pounder carronade for the pilot to take her out of Dublin harbour in early March 1826. Her bad luck with the weather continued. In the open sea, a gale sprang up which became violent towards nightfall. They dropped anchor in an effort to avoid being driven onto a lee shore by the wind. At 9 o’clock the ship’s anchor chain gave way at 120 fathoms. On being cast loose the Regalia was indeed driven to the shore expecting to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. The kedge anchor, fixed to a hemp cable, was let down and this anchor held until the storm subsided, so the battered transport was able to return to Dún Laoghaire. The terror experienced by the convicts, mostly trapped below with no hope of escape should the ship sink, can only be imagined.
Nevertheless, some were ready to take advantage of the least opportunity to escape. During the storm, two prisoners were discovered who had secreted themselves in the long boat with their leg irons removed. Both were stripped ready to swim ashore but neither man could have survived in the raging sea.
The Regalia waited at Dublin for the replacement of her main anchor. While detained on shore, relationships between the officers on the ship began to deteriorate. Coke disputed with the Surgeon James Rutherford about their respective duties. He became depressed and fretted about the delay. He also began to question the ability of the Master by claiming that he had already lost two ships and seemed to know little about navigation. Coke devised a plan should an accident befall the ship:
I and the soldiers will at all events secure the largest of the three Boats to ourselves by force of Arms…the Doctor goes in our boat.
On 18 March 1826 the Regalia again sailed from Dún Laoghaire. This time she encountered better luck with the wind and waves. She proceeded in calm weather until the tropics where she was becalmed for 17 days in the Doldrums while attempting to engage the South East Trade winds. The Doldrums were justly infamous at that time for little or no winds for long periods, meaning that sailing ships could become becalmed there for months, sometimes until all on board starved. Fortunately, the Regalia escaped this fate. At the Equator, Neptune came on board with his acolytes dripping with seaweed and slime. Soldiers who had not crossed the line before were shaved and coated with tar in the traditional ceremony.
While positioned south of the equator, a pirate ship came into view. The Master was disposed to allow their enemy to take what they wanted but Coke was determined to fight and stationed the soldiers in readiness for battle. He warned the Master that he would be shot on arrival in Australia if it was known he had failed to resist. The drama was averted by a thunderstorm with a heavy swell in which they lost sight of the pirate ship.
The daily routine on board was by now well established. Surgeon Rutherford and Ensign Coke took their meals with Master Burt who had shown himself to have a prodigious predilection for alcohol. He took four glasses of brandy during the afternoon and the same number of sherry. At dinner he drank a double share of claret by which time he was, unsurprisingly, inebriated. Coke predicted the Master would either go mad or kill himself.
It seems that Coke was not alone in making plans to leave the ship prematurely. As the northern stars were left in their rear on their journey southwards an elderly prisoner, who had received kindly treatment, told of a plot to seize the ship and sail her to South America. All the guard was to be murdered while the Surgeon, Master and crew were to be left unharmed. Leaders, they were told, had already been chosen. However no uprising was attempted.
Among the islands near Cape Frio the Regalia was becalmed again. Coke went ashore on Ilapranda to inspect a sugar plantation. He filled the boat with tropical fruit – oranges, pineapples and coconuts. After a delay of nine days they entered the harbour at Rio de Janeiro. Ensign Coke, who clearly had social connections well above his army rank, dined with Admiral Sir George Eyre and went to the Court where the Emperor and Empress were in attendance. He also spent an evening at the opera.
The Regalia came to anchor at Sydney Cove on 5 August 1826. Surprisingly, after all the delays and bad weather, there had been no deaths during the voyage. Prisoners under punishment who were destined for the penal stations at Port Macquarie, Morton Bay or Norfolk Island were sent to the Phoenix hulk which lay at Lavender Bay. The Phoenix hulk is well known in Australian literature because its first master – Captain Murray – was the first person Frank The Poet met in his tour of hell.
Lieutenant Coke settled into the military barracks on a peninsula at the edge of the harbour. His primary duty was to sit on the Criminal Court and he described its proceedings:
The Court…consists of the Judge, one Counsel against the Prisoner & the Wittness…the prisoners seldom employ a man to defend them. We sometimes condemn five in a day to be hanged. It is more in appearance like an Inquisition…men are condemned with little ceremony.
This was the administration of justice which prevailed in the colony under Governor Sir Ralph Darling.