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Bound for where?(1789)


Port Louis, Falkland Islands, c1838

It was high summer 1790 in the Malvinas islands of the South Atlantic. Ramon Clairac, commander of the small Spanish garrison at Port Loneliness, had some puzzling information to send to his Viceroy in Buenos Aires.

It all began when two American sealing captains, John Palmer and George Bright, arrived at his house on February the 7th. The Peregrine's papers were for Canton; the Betsy carried 500 sealskins. The motive for their visit was to request a replacement anchor.

Under instructions to enforce Spain's ownership of these waters, the Commander took separate sworn statements from the intruders. As interpreter, he used Francisco Franco, a sailor from the Spanish vessel Our Lady of the Rosary.

The captains showed their clearance papers from New York and Madeira, which were duly copied. The ensuing interrogations were wide-ranging. Where had they come from; when did they depart and when did they arrive? How many crew members were carried? What was the cargo? What ships did they meet on the way? Did they learn any news from Europe? And so on.

Clairac was especially keen to learn about the colony of "New Ireland" that he had heard mentioned the previous July in the course of another sworn deposition. On that occasion, John Loveday, captain of the English ship Audacious, had told him how he met two store-ships which were on their way back to Britain, after delivering supplies to that new colony.

What the Commander learned now from Palmer was rather more surprising. While he was in transit at the Cape Verde islands (prior to arrival at the Malvinas), a ship had arrived from the Cape of Good Hope, seeking food supplies for the colonists, who were dying of hunger. And another ship was there, carrying a "cargo" (the original wording) of 200 women, destined either for "Staten Island" or "New Ireland".

The Analysis

The question one asks is, "where are these places?". The straightforward answer is puzzling: yes, there is an island named "New Ireland" to the north of Australia (part of Papua New Guinea), but it has never been colonized in the manner described. What about "Staten Island", close to Tierra del Fuego, and only a few days distant from the Malvinas? Again, the answer is decidedly negative.

Could these names have changed over time? Interestingly, around 1780, there had been a British plan to establish a colony of named "New Ireland" around Penobscot Bay (in the modern state of Maine, USA). Sources say this idea was dropped after 1783. But there is one piece of evidence that is hard to ignore: Captain Loveday had given an accurate description of a local animal - the opossum - a well-known North American mammal. Still, it makes no sense for ships travelling from Britain to North America to choose a route through the South Atlantic. The answer has to lie somewhere in the Southern hemisphere.

The hunt for "Staten Island" starts somewhat promisingly. In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited the coast of New Zealand: thinking it might be part of a greater landmass stretching as far as the tip of South America, he called the place "Staten Landt", the same term used by his countrymen Le Maire and Schouten when they named that island offshore of Tierra del Fuego in 1615. To avoid subsequent confusion, Tasman's choice was superseded on some maps by the Dutch term "Nieuw Zeeland".

The Solution

New Zealand is a most unlikely choice, since British colonization did not begin until 1841. But it was originally subordinate to New South Wales. So, what about Australia? Finally, the trail begins to look promising. Under a policy of prisoner transportation for a wide range of crimes, the first fleet of convict ships, with military escort, arrived at Port Jackson (modern Sydney) in 1788. Yes, food did indeed run short, and HMS Sirius visited Cape Town in January 1789 to obtain extra supplies. And yes, two of the convict ships (Fishburn and Goldengrove) were seen by Captain Loveday during a layover at Malvinas in 1789, as they returned to England.

And what about the opossum? It turns out that the common brushtail possum is native to this area of Australia.

And those 200 women that Captain Palmer mentioned earlier? This is where the story gets "juicy". The ship in question was the Lady Juliana, which left Plymouth in July 1789 with 226 female convicts, stopping along the way at Tenerife, Cape Verde, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, and eventually arriving in June 1790. At a stroke, the colony's female population doubled. The presence of some convicted prostitutes among these passengers has given rise to speculation about what really happened along the way. Be that as it may, these women arrived, survived and assimilated — they are part of the genetic foundation of the modern nation.

The Lingering Doubt

There can be little doubt about which British colony the Lady Juliana was bound for; but one more mystery remains — Why did all the ship’s captains questioned by the Spanish governor use the name “New Ireland” (Nueva Irlanda) when the terms “Botany Bay” and “New South Wales” were already in circulation? Was there, as some commentators allege, intent to mislead or deceive? After all, Clairac did try to learn more about this new colony.

The deception theory is hard to believe, if only because there would have been little opportunity (or reason) for Captain Loveday to meet with Palmer and Bright and plan such a tactic. They were private operators, a long time and a long distance away from their home ports, and not noticeably beholden to any British authority. The absence of motive would be especially true for the two Americans, formerly colonials but now citizens of an independent state.

Nonetheless, Spain’s long-standing belief in its right to govern large parts of the globe may have been reason enough not to give her further encouragement. The name could perhaps have been devised as a “smoke screen”, to allow the New South Wales colony to get “on its feet”.

A quick review of some names given to new territories in the Age of Exploration (see here) shows no less than three instances of “New Ireland” between 1767 and 1779. British place-names were being sprinkled freely over the globe: in the space of just five years, Captain Cook added “New Caledonia” (Scotland), “New Hebrides” (Scottish islands) and “New Wales” (his original name for New South Wales). Might Ireland’s turn have been next? Perhaps so, because prior use did not deter others in Canada and New England from proposing the same for political reasons (it happened for a fourth time in 1846).

I contend that there was no wilful misinformation on the part of the three sealer captains: they may simply have repeated the name that they heard. I believe that (for reasons that are not yet clear) the name “New Ireland” was simply “in the air”.

First posted: August 2013
Last revision: September 2013
Illustration: “View of the Harbor of Port Louis Berkley Sound, East Falkland” by Lt. Lowcay; accessed at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/
Spanish Archive: AGI,ESTADO,80,N.1; accessed at: http://pares.mcu.es; transcript at: http://patlibros.org/rcv/doc.php