Voyage to British Columbia: a gold rush adventure

Getting to the gold diggings in British Columbia was a challenge in itself. For some gold seekers, the voyage to British Columbia marked the beginning of their journey. In the book, Pioneer Women of Vancouver Island, Annie Harvey tells the story of her parents’ six-month journey with their five young sons:

“My parents were born in Bury Saint Edmunds, Suffolk, and lived there until, from force of circumstances, it was thought wise to emigrate to Victoria, British Columbia, in the year 1861. Australia was, at that time, in a poor way, while the discovery of gold in BC had raised people’s hopes; everyone was expecting to regain lost fortunes in a short period. Then there was talk of a transcontinental railway being put through within ten years, when colonists would be able to return to England in much less time than if they went to Australia.”

After recovering from seasickness early in the voyage, the passengers settled down into a routine:

“My father gave the children a short period at lessons every morning. Sunday was not left unobserved, a short service being conducted on that day…The keeping of five little boys clean and tidy took much the time of my mother…Whist was played in the evening by captain and passengers, a bottle of beer being donated to the winner.”

The lighting in the cabin area was scarce, if any was available.

“My father speaks about the difficulty of dressing five little boys in the dark, clothes getting mixed etc. Sanitary arrangements, too, were very bad. The time spent on deck kept them in health.”

The Harveys brought with them a box of provisions which were opened a month after setting out on the voyage. A reference to biscuits and jam is mentioned.

On board the ship, ‘Pruth’ worked a captain and two mates, sailors, a steward and a “Bengalese cook, who worked in a kitchen about five feet square…There was a breakfast to be served for the children at 8 o’clock, another for the mates at 8:30, and cabin and first-class passengers at 9 o’clock. After that came the intermediate passengers and still later the crew. These meals, to be served three times a day, kept the cook well employed.”

“The food consisted of soup, tinned chicken, preserved meats, salt beef, occasionally fresh meat (there was livestock on board), pork, good potatoes, usually two kinds of puddings, cheese, raisins, figs, and nuts for dessert.”

Salt beef was part of the standard fare but by the time the ship passed the equator, many passengers were tired of it. “It was evidently thought it wise to kill one of the livestock, and a leg of mutton for dinner was an event in the voyage…”

As the ship passed below the equator, “the last but one chicken was killed…and also a pig was killed and prepared for table…”

As the ship continued on, “the weather got steadily colder and the breeze freshened into a regular hurricane…the ship rolled much and the passengers received injuries. It was necessary to confine the children to the cabin…A big sea struck the galley, washing cook and steward out and upsetting the stove…The greatest loss was that of livestock, namely the last pig and rooster, which went to feed Davy Jones.”

On September 10th, the ship reached Cape Horn and the passengers found themselves short of food and water. Ordinarily, ships stopped at the Falkland Islands to replenish, but the captain had decided not to, “preferring to take advantage of a favourable breeze.”

They encountered one storm after another. It was nearly impossible to venture out on the decks because they were so slippery. The sailors were in constant danger of being thrown overboard; only one did.  “The gale was so severe that my mother and her children were obliged again to keep to their berths, the latter being fed by their mother with mutton chops, cooked on the cabin stove by my father…”

There was not enough flour to make bread for breakfast…ship-biscuit was served instead. There was no butter left and water was rationed to one quart a day per passenger. Despite the lack of food and water, the captain passed another island without stopping.

“There was trouble between the captain and the crew. He was not liked by his men or the passengers, being very stingy and insulting. The passengers became very nervous.”

On October 24th, just over 4 months since their voyage began, the ship finally stopped at Callao. While the passengers disembarked, things took a turn for the worse as the crew abandoned ship and a new crew was hired, but they were drunk. By the time the passengers returned, a fight had broken out and the passengers were told to have firearms at the ready.

The passengers “did not undress for five nights, taking turns at sleeping, and even then having firearms at their sides. The decks were commanded by guns from the cabin windows. The first-class passengers’ food was broken into, they being obliged to partake of some of the sailors’ rations.”

A week later, Mrs. Harvey gave birth to a girl. The cook kept up the fire on the stove so she could have a warm drink, despite the captain’s orders to put it out. Two weeks later, the ‘Pruth’ reached Victoria Harbour on December 14, 1861.