by Gary Ives
Any publican or barman perforce hears many a strange tale, but among the oddest, to my reckoning, is the grim story concerning what happened aboard Her Majesty’s Ship Pharoah, a tale told for years in the Jack Staff and Anchor, my family’s two-hundred year old pub in Plymouth.
I have a particular interest in the events, as my wife’s distant cousin, Mr. Fenton Ball, a later habitué of our establishment, was one of the principals in those wicked happenings. Events of this account are also documented in the “Proceedings of the Admiralty Court of Inquiry of the Strange Events Which Occurred at Sea Around Christmas Day 1853 Aboard HMS Pharoah.”
Mister Fenton Ball boarded Her Majesty’s good ship Pharoah quite miserable under the pall of a broken heart and a menacing threat to his life. His betrothed Miss Emily Cornthwaite, had broken their engagement and subsequently announced her betrothal to ship’s chandler Karl Vanderhoek, a Hollender with wealth to rival Croesus.
Crushed, Fenton appealed to his uncle, Sir Stanley Ives, who held a good position in the Admiralty. “Uncle, I must quit London, sir, yea even England if possible for every street, every passing coach, every market presents to me the unbearable thought of confronting my dearest Emily or even worse that vile, murderous Dutchman.”
Vanderhoek had threatened to horsewhip Fenton Ball on the instant, should ever their paths cross. “I beg you, find a posting for me somewhere far away, where I may seek the restoration of my bruised and troubled soul. Can you help me, Uncle? I beseech you.”
Sir Stanley, only too pleased to accommodate this request from this feckless nephew, set about finding such a spot as far from England as possible. Fenton had brought naught but disappointment to his now-deceased father: gambling debts, his trifling with a coachman’s twelve-year old daughter, rumors of indecencies with a half-wit of a stable boy, and now the latest scandal of his cowardly shirking the duel Karl Vanderhoek had challenged. Little wonder Miss Emily had discarded such baggage for the wealthy Dutchman.
Within a fortnight, his appointment was delivered by Admiralty messenger. He would be Secretary to the Assistant Postmaster, New South Wales, a two-year commission. Fenton readied his affairs quickly, as the Pharoah’s departure from Portsmith was but a scant two days hence.
The ship, a converted collier, was one of those designated vessels refitted to carry criminals under sentence of transport. The Pharoah, a small ship, carried 78 of these wretched souls, sixty men and twelve women with their six brats.
Besides the condemned, the Pharoah carried three passengers: Fenton Ball and the Rev. Philo Pleck, a missionary accompanied by his Australian black named Ungud. Pleck and Ball shared a tiny cabin forward below decks. The black, at the captain’s request, had been lent to the ship’s crew as an assistant cook and server and slept amidships with the crew.
Pleck related that he had brought him home to England so that linguists might study his primitive aboriginal dialect. To Ball’s astonishment Pleck could and did actually converse with his black in that strange, unintelligible heathen tongue peppered now and then with a few Christian English words. Now the pair were returning to Australia where Rev. Pleck had years earlier established a mission deep in the bush.
Pleck, a cleric of sour disposition, wore a sallow complexion and a perpetual frown. Upon his cleric’s black suit he wore a heavy silver cross suspended from a chain. His black wore a similar though much smaller crucifix. Although Ball and Pleck shared the tiny cabin, he was ill-disposed to converse with anyone other than his fearsome black who came around to tend his master.
At the captain’s table Pleck’s speech was restricted to the blessing. It is a common superstition among men of the sea that a cleric aboard ship brings misfortune. As no one liked this dour man, his paucity of speech was welcomed.
Until the Pharoah entered the calmer waters off the African coast, both Ball and the reverend lay ill in their hammocks: silent, green and thoroughly miserable. Though one might overcome seasickness, there was little relief from the miasma.
No matter where one got to aboard the Pharoah, there was but rare escape from the malodorous stench of vapors rising day and night from the hatches above the holds where the defecations, piss, and vomit of thieves, murderers, cutpurses, and whores fermented in the tropical heat along with the pungent reek from the four pairs of Glouchestershire pigs, breeding stock bound for the Antipodes.
On deck, Fenton Ball would ply his neck cloth to his nostrils and face the breeze seated on an upturned bucket near the poop deck taffrail. In fair weather the wretches were permitted above decks in groups of twenty for intervals to exercise under the sun.
Among the transports was a skeletal figure called Jack Ribbon, a convict who had escaped Australia as a stowaway aboard a visiting American whaler and then had found his way back to England only to be recaptured and sentenced to life. This man Ribbon held some familiarity with the Reverend Pleck for, whenever his lot was paraded on deck, he could be seen pointing a bony finger towards Pleck all the while feeding tales to his mates.
Wanting to know more, one afternoon Ball called the wretch over, asking the nature of his discourse, flaunting before him a wedge of hard cheese.
“Goblin is ’ow ’ees known down under, gov’nah, ee’s like a witch, ’ee is. Him an that black devil, them two they got strange powers, they do.”
“Poppycock, man. You’d be well advised to mind your tongue.”
“Just as you say, sir. But ’ee’s got a ’istory in the colony, ’ee does.
“History, you say? Just what sort of history, man? Let’s have it, and this cheese is yours.”
“Well, yer honor, this Reverend Pleck, ’ee come down years ago, ’ee did, with a young wife. Him and ’er they set them up a mission up at Woolawoolangaroo Springs, way deep in the bush for a bunch of wretched abos.
“Wife, she didn’t last a year. Some says it was the fever, others claim t’was the water and they was even rumours of murder, sir, murder, I say, which maybe the Reverend was the one done the poor girl in.
“This carpenter, Jimmy Setts, ’ee was me mate, tole me he ’eard Goblin ordered the abos to feed her to the crocs as they believed yer human sacrifice would prevent bad things or bring rain or babies or whatever them sorry blacks was in want of, you see.”
“Go on, man.”
“Me, I reckoned t’was the water. See, the abo words for that place means ‘Crazy Water.’ Some of me mates was took up there to build their cabin and the chapel, said them abos would’nt drink from the spring even though the water run crystal clear. Said they walked near ’alf a mile to fetch water from the muddy river or else sucked it dirty from the ground with them tubes your abos carry around.
“Now the Rev. asks the Governor can Jimmy Setts stay there at the mission till the end of the dry season, as he was in sore need of a carpenter. So Jimmy tole me as time went on was a madness set in soon after the missus died. Rev. Pleck he gets ’is Christian religion all mixed up with them pitiful blacks’ heathen mumbo-jumbo.
“Said they was sacrificin’ kangaroos, your lizards and snakes too, whatever poor creatures his blacks brought in. First, they blinded ever what creature it was, then set about sacrificin’ ’em, and, get this, nailin’ ’em to little crosses. That’s right, blindin’ then nailin’ them critters in a manner like they was our Lord.
“Then ’avin’ some kindee communion where they eat up them carcasses, believin’ such foolery brought down the Lord’s protection. Pullin’ dead critters off’n crosses to eat like it was holy. Hell and death, says I. Oh it were dreadful, Jimmy said, and give him fits in his sleep.
“The tales, well they got around the colony, and the Governor, he sent a couple lieutenants up the Woolawoolangaroo Springs for a look-see. Soon after them two officers returned, the Governor he packed Rev. Pleck and his nasty black off on the next returning frigate.
“But that ain’t all, sir. Jimmy Setts and them two lieutenants dropped dead within a week of each other, cursed by Goblin or his wicked black they say.
“Thankee for the cheese, m’lord. Jist watch yersel, gov.”
Ball dismissed the rogue with the wedge of cheese, but his words he could not so easily rid himself of. And then, a month later, as the Pharaoh rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the weather turned frightful. The convicts wailed and prayed as the little ship pitched and yawed hard against the angry, mountainous waves.
Ball, Rev. Pleck and the black Ungud, like the convicts, feared for their lives. Then the first tragedy stuck. At first light, one cold, rough morning, a little girl of three or four was found dead in the galley, burned horribly. The poor child, it was assumed, must have strayed into the galley and fallen into the galley fire presumably having lost balance during heavy seas.
The little one’s death brought down a gloom upon the ship. All was somber, however, at the captain’s table. As Pleck was being served from the meat trencher, the other diners noted with disgust and amazement his rattling on to black Ungud in their heathen jibber-jabber, the two of them actually grinning like wicked children. Ball recalled Jack Ribbon’s invectives.
The next day funeral services were held amidships where the child’s remains sewn into dirty jute sack were committed to the sea. And once again Ball noted sneering grins between Pleck and the ugly black. The captain addressed all assembled advising everyone to keep close watch on the children.
“A ship, it’s no place for bairns. Now you’ve unhappily seen such misfortune as comes from bein’ negligent minding younglings. I’m charging you all to do yer duty. Hear me now, mind them chicks.”
In two days it would be Christmas and the captain, to restore spirits aboard the Pharoah, sent down an order to the cook to prepare for Christmas Day meat pies and puddings enough for all aboard: officers, crew, convicts, all.
However the afternoon of the funeral the ship’s cook, ran screaming from the galley, and foaming at the mouth then fell dead just before the helm. At evening meal, prepared and served by Ungud, the captain lamented the loss of the cook, and the whole table was amazed when Rev. Pleck spoke up.
“Captain, may I offer assistance in the preparation of the Christmas meal? You see, my black learnt his skills under my tutelage at our mission in the wild. On feast days, sometimes our mission fed upwards of a hundred aborigines, so I am somewhat familiar with comestibles. This would give you ample time to find a permanent cook replacement from members of your crew and still celebrate the feast of the birth of our Lord as the ship is sorely in need of joy.”
The captain readily acceded to this, welcoming such Christian charity.
Pleck added, “I would ask that the crew be advised to stay clear of the galley. My man Ungud will pass rations through the hatch topside to the various mess captains.”
Pleck absented himself from our cabin for the next two days and nights. On Christmas morning he informed the captain the pies and puddings would be ready for the afternoon meal. In order not to spoil the joy of the day, the cook’s funeral was delayed until the next morning.
The Christmas pies and puddings were delicious and augmented by the captain’s generous issue of a double ration of rum for the crew and even a single ration for each convict. The low spirits were indeed lifted, and soft singing could be heard below decks throughout the evening. The euphoria was not to last, though, as morning brought the sounds of the bosun’s pipe summoning all hands to amidships for funeral services.
The body of the cook had been taken by his mates below, washed, then sewn into a canvas and weighted with shot as is the custom. This was brought topside borne by two seamen, who, after laying the enveloped deceased before the mast, spoke in grave low tones to the captain who then announced the funeral services would be delayed for an hour.
The two seamen were ordered to carry the corpse below to the captain’s cabin. The captain called for all ship’s officers to whom he announced that the seamen had confided to him that the cook’s body had suffered a substantial loss of weight since death.
On the captain’s orders, the First Lieutenant opened the canvas with his clasp knife, and there before the amazed officers lay a ship’s fender of knotted manila line with two balls of nine pound shot but no cook.
Spurred by Jack Ribbon’s tales as to the source of the meat in the Christmas pies, questions arose. Among the convicts it had earlier been supposed that one of the Glouchestershire pigs had been butchered. A quick inventory of the critters found eight living, breathing pigs. Within minutes the rumor had reached every ear aboard the Pharoah, producing a tumult of seething anger and unease, particularly among the convicts.
The Captain ordered the First Lieutenant to open the armory, arming the crew with muskets and cutlasses then locking the hatches to the holds where the convicts were now approaching a state of riot.
The captain summoned Pleck and the black and, in his cabin, questioned them. What was said is truly remarkable, as Pleck calmly admitted to the captain, before witnesses, that indeed the cook’s body had been cannibalized by all aboard. In fact he, Pleck, and Ungud had poisoned the unfortunate cook in order to gain access to a sacrifice worthy to save the ship from destruction.
“Ungud’s gift of prophecy, you must understand, foresees great peril ahead. Something had to be done. You must needs trust the divine knowledge he is privileged to. You see, Captain,” Pleck continued, “the little girl’s arms and legs were simply not enough. A greater sacrifice was needed. You’ll see, sir. Trouble lies ahead, but we now are sure to weather any storm, though, if necessary, the whores’ brats may be offered.”
The Pharoah arrived at Botany Bay less one child, one cook, one Reverand Pleck, and one black called Ungud. Though the child and cook were accounted for, the fates of Pleck and Ungud remain officially unknown. However as the Glouchestershire pigs were being crated for unloading, seamen were to find in the ship’s pig sty handsome silver crosses and bits of a brass chain among a crush of long bones and human teeth.
Fenton Ball’s commission in New South Wales was terminated barely three months into service. The finger-pointing and sly winks from clerks and other secretaries sorely vexed the man to no end as did their cruel sobriquet “Fenton Ball the Cannibal.”
Ultimately, a fever ended his service to the government of New South Wales. His return to Plymouth found a broken man with the bent frame and lined visage of one twenty years older. His last year was a sorry existence of ill health and alcoholic stupor, much of it spent in the Jack Staff and Anchor.
The story of HMS Pharoah had conferred some notoriety on the man and there, in a dim corner, the sad wretch would recount his tale to anyone for a pint of bitters and a meat pie.
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Ives