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All at Sea – Maritime Folklore


The Marco Polo

The Marco Polo was 185-feet from stem-to-stern and weighed in at 1625-tons and was revolutionary in her glamour and size. It was advertised as ‘Home at Sea’ and featured a ‘ladies cabin’ and was ornately decorated including plush velvet, stained glass panels and fine dining rooms. She also had a hospital, including two doctors, and was ventilated. There were even large lead-lined tubs on deck for clothes washing!

The Marco Polo set out to Australia on the 4th July 1852.

One of the superstitions of the sea is that every man had a ‘lucky day’ and Captain ‘Bully’ Forbes, the master of the Marco Polo, believed his to be Sunday. In a previous voyage he had left Liverpool on a Sunday, sighted the Cape on a Sunday, crossed the equatorial line on a Sunday, recrossed the line on a Sunday and arrived back in Liverpool on a Sunday – so it was only natural that on the Marco Polo’s maiden voyage to Australia he should delay the start date from the Thursday 21st until Sunday 4th July.

‘Bully’ Forbes was notorious – and is said to have drawn his pistols on his crew in severe weather so they would not abandon their royal halliards post.

The Dead Horse Ceremony

One of the ceremonies on the Marco Polo was the Flogging of the Dead Horse. This was a tradition common to most ships and was accompanied by a designated song and ritual. It included a short haul shanty devised entirely for the ceremony and sometimes called ‘The Dead Horse’ or ‘Poor Old Man’.

Here’s what Clive Carey had to say:

‘Merchant seamen were given an ‘advance note’ (usually one month sometimes up to three months) – to enable them to purchase sea boots, oilskins and other sailing necessities. Often these ‘notes’ were given to boarding-house masters and squandered on prostitutes and alcohol – so, back on board, the sailor often referred to his first month as ‘working for a dead horse’

This is probably where the Australian expression flogging a dead horse originated.

The Dead Horse Ceremony was performed at eight bells, in the second dogwatch, on the last day of the first month at sea, when the hands would muster on deck to enact the Paying-off of the Dead Horse.

Earlier the sail-maker would have fashioned a crude effigy of a horse (probably stuffed with old rope and some holystones (the soft sandstone used for scrubbing the decks) and this ‘horse’ would be dragged across the deck where the ‘Old Man’ (Captain) would traditionally give each man a tot of rum. Then the ‘horse’ would be attached to a gantline (being a rove through a block on the main yardarm), up aloft, the youngest member of the crew would be sitting athwart the yard with a knife in his hand. On the word of command, the men would grab the gantline, running through a dead-block on the deck, and the shanty man would commence:

Oh, I say ol’ man yer horse is dead

And the sailors would respond with
An’ we say so, and we hope so!

Pulling aloft the ‘horse’ on the words ‘say’ and ‘hope’

When the ‘horse’ reached the yardarm the rope was cut and the ‘horse’ would drop to Davey Jones.

Marco Polo

The Marco Polo’s voyage to Australia was celebrated by a new tradition (which had been started in 1850) of a banquet and ball on the poop deck, under a canvas awning. Jon the first voyage James Baines gave an encouraging speech, as did the head of Cunard Line, Mr. Munn, and then Captain ‘Bully’ Forbes spoke.

This was the largest ship ever to sail to Australia and carried 930 emigrants, nearly all young and active ‘Britishers’ (not surprisingly the voyage was chartered by the Government Emigration Commission).

Married couples were berthed midship, single women aft, and single men forward. There were 80 officers and 80 seamen.

It should be noted that there were only two adult deaths (from natural causes) and only a few children (from measles). Ships of the time, often half the size of the Marco Polo, regularly saw between 50 – 100 deaths.

The Marco Polo arrived in Port Phillip Heads on the 18th September 1852 – a record of 68 days – having beaten the new steamer Australia – by a week!

On arrival Captain ‘Bully’ Forbes found forty to fifty ships laying idle in Port Phillip Harbour – all waiting desperately for crew. Forbes immediately clapped all his crew into prison for ‘insubordination’ (and thus avoiding any of them skipping off to the goldfields) and sailed off on 11th Oct 1852 for Liverpool.

The Marco Polo had three runs at the rounding of the precarious Cape Horn and finally arrived in Liverpool on the 26th December 1852 – 76 days out of Melbourne. The entire round journey had taken 5 months and 21 days – a world record. A huge crowd and a massive cloth banner proclaiming Marco Polo as ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’ met the ship. She carried some 100,000-pounds in gold dust and an 840-ounce nugget from the Victorian Colonial Government, a present for the Queen. Passengers, caught up in the excitement, threw small nuggets into the frenzied crowds.