The scandalous Chieftain


In the days when Nelson was more like a remote English village than a real New Zealand town, the settlers got pretty excited over the arrival of a ship from ‘home' bringing mail, goods and new citizens. The shipping news in those days and the advertisements from local shops would give details of the cargo, whether that meant the latest in spring hats or a fresh shipment of brandy in casks.    But the newspaper the Nelson Colonist had even hotter news to tell the 4000 citizens of Nelson in 1858 when the barque Chieftain arrived in port. The first mate was in confinement for a drunken assault on the captain, and the Colonist alleged there had been a mutiny among the crew. This was denied, but there were also allegations that the second-class passengers' quarters had been dirty.

Trafalgar Street, NelsonTrafalgar Street, Nelson. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, C3582
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Off the Rocks, NelsonAt The Rocks, Nelson, circa 1890s. [The barque is unidentified] Tyree Studio. Alexander Turnbull Library 10X8-0228-G
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"We had certainly but a glance at that part of her accommodations," said the report in the Colonist "and defer a closer inspection until after a little soap and water and disinfecting fluid has been used."

Passengers who had travelled second-class had every reason to be disgruntled, given that the voyage of the Chieftain had been advertised in The Times of London in glowing terms:

"New Zealand Gold Fields - for Nelson direct and New Plymouth, the beautiful full poop river-built clipper chieftain, will sail from the London docks about the 15th of April.  

This favourite ship possesses accommodation of a most superior order. Cabin passengers will be provided with an unlimited table and second-class passengers on a scale of the utmost liberality."  

After the Colonist report of mutiny, drunkenness and fighting on board, one of the passengers leapt to defend the Captain and crew through letters to the editor. But the Colonist discounted this letter as an ‘advertisement' and went on to report ‘the facts' surrounding the alleged mutiny:

"The mate gets intoxicated; assaults the Captain who seems to have acted with moderation, although severely cut and bleeding; some of the passengers join in the affray and thus, with blood freely flowing, the mate attempting to incite the passengers against the captain, and failing in this endeavouring to persuade the men to express dissatisfaction at least; the use of arms threatened, the captain cutlass in hand; the passengers enjoying a scene like an Irish wake, we are told that nothing approaching a mutiny took place."  

The paper goes on to give more detail on the second-class quarters, commenting that it was no wonder they were ‘most decidedly dirty' as they were also the passageway to the ship's stores for all provisions.

That was it for newspaper coverage of the controversy, but a final note of warning was issued in this advertisement:   "The captain and agent of the barque Chieftain will not be responsible for any debts contracted by the above vessel's crew."

This article originally appeared in Port Nelson Limited,  December 2003

Note - the debate continued in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 20 October 1858:

"Sir - I have always had such a horror of appearing in public print, that never before have I addressed an editor; nor should I now, but that, struck with astonishment and indignation at the paragraph in yesterday's number of the Colonist, headed " The barque Chieftain," I feel it due to the worthy and estimable captain of that vessel, that an immediate and explicit denial should be given to the statements therein contained.

And first, as to the complaints of the treatment of the passengers. Of course, I cannot prove a negative, and state that no complaints were made to the concoctor of that paragraph ; but this I do affirm, that the captain has in his possession a letter addressed to him by the passengers, testifying their appreciation of the care and attention they had received at his hands during the voyage, and thanking him for his kindness ; and that this testimonial bears the signatures of all the passengers, but those of one family and that of an ex-officer of the East India Company's service. The head of that family stated publicly at the dinner table, that his reason for not signing was, that he had not been asked to sign till after the intermediate and steerage passengers had signed; and the ex-officer's reason for his refusal to sign was, that, in the early part of the voyage, the captain had affronted him. I most distinctly and emphatically deny, that there has been anything approaching a mutiny on board ; and I defy any one to assert that the men have, on any occasion, refused to obey an order of the captain ; on the contrary, they have always treated him with the greatest respect, and deservedly so.

The chief mate, it is true, is in confinement, and that for drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and assaulting the captain, &c. &c. On the day succeeding the night on which the chief mate was intoxicated, and assaulted the captain, the latter received a most respectful letter, signed by the whole of the crew, intimating that, in consequence of the disgraceful conduct of the mate, they should decline to serve the vessel after her arrival in this port, if he were reinstated.

When a man makes a statement as to the cleanliness of any part of a vessel, he would exercise a little common sense, if, before making it, he obtained more than a "glance" at such particular part. I ask you, sir, and, through your publication, the public, if it is probable, that the testimonial to which I have before referred (and which is open to inspection at the office of Messrs. Nicholson and Ridings) would have been signed by all the second and third class passengers, if there were such a necessity for "soap, water, and disinfecting fluid," as your contemporary would lead its readers to suppose. Yours, &c, Wsr. Boorman, First-cabin passenger per Chieftain."

Updated 2022

Sources used in this story

  • The Barque Chieftain (1858, October 22) Colonist, p.2 col.4


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