One hot November day just over two hundred years ago in the fledgling convict settlement at Port Jackson, New South Wales (as the east coast of Australia was known), a midshipman only recently arrived in the colony found himself, within the space of eight months, appointed Acting Lieutenant and Commander of HMS ‘Lady Nelson’.
The year was 1803, only 15 years after the first of three fleets had arrived from England with a cargo of mostly convicts to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales.
The ship’s previous commander, Lieutenant George Curtoys, had become so ill from unloading cargo in the extreme heat that a replacement was needed on the spot.
The man chosen was James Simmons, at first a midshipman on the governor’s own ship then mate on the ‘Lady Nelson’.
He would have been just twenty-four or twenty-five at the time.
Who was this man, to be singled out for such an important role at such a young age, who received such praise from Governor King?
Most of us have heard of Captain Cook but who has heard of Lieutenant James Simmons? Yet he was heavily involved in Australia’s first military coup, in nurturing harmonious relationships with the indigenous Maori of New Zealand, in establishing Hobart Town and Launceston in Tasmania, and was entrusted with the papers incriminating Governor William Bligh (of ‘Mutiny of the Bounty’ fame) and the return of Bligh himself to London for court marshal, and much more. Read the full story in my book ‘Back to the Wall’.
He was one of the unsung heroes in Australia’s history. You can read his story and his mysterious past in ‘Back to the Wall’ here.
We’re lucky to have a complete transcript of the original log by Ida Lee in her book called ‘The Log of the Lady Nelson’.
Here are the first 2 dramatic months of his command of the ‘Lady Nelson’, unedited, which were already full of real daily life on board a sailing ship facing the unknown and the changing elements.* (Bold face emphasis is mine.)
LOG OF THE LADY NELSON.
J. SYMONS, Acting Lieutenant and Commander,
Port Jackson, New South Wales.
Sydney to Norfolk Island.
“Monday, 30th April 1804. P.M. Left the Heads. Winds variable. At 4 North
Head of Port Jackson 4 leagues. At 8 the Francis in sight. At 1 A.M. light
breezes and clear. At noon the Francis in company.
“Tuesday, 1st May. In company with the Francis at 5 lost sight of the Francis.
“Friday, 4th May. Fine clear weather: at 5 A.M. saw How’s Islands upon the
weather bow bearing north-north-east distant 5 leagues, bearing north-east 1/2 F. distant 6 leagues. At noon abreast of How’s Island east: distant 3 leagues.
“Saturday, 5th May. Tacked ship and stood in for How’s Island.
“Sunday, 6th May. P.M. Hard squalls of rain. How’s Island west by north 7
“Monday, 7th May. P.M. Still blowing hard: at 6 took in the fore-top-sail: at 4
split the mainsail and fore-top-mast stay-sail. At 9 fine pleasant weather:
employed about a new mainsail and bending a fore-top-mast stay-sail.
“Tuesday, 8th May. P.M. Fresh breezes and fine clear weather: at 4 bent new
mainsail: at 10 bore away for New Zealand. Have but 2 casks on board and no
“Tuesday, 29th May P.M. Cloudy weather with squalls.
“Wednesday, 30th May. Small breezes and fine weather. At 8 A.M. tacked ship:
at 9 split the fore-top-gallant-sail and carried away the main-top-gallant-yard.
“Thursday, 31st May. Moderate winds and cloudy weather. At 7 set up the maintop-gallant yard and set the sail: at 4 A.M. set the lower and fore-top-mast studding sail. At 8 carried away the fore keel pendant and lost the keel, at 10 took in the studding sail.
“Friday, 1st June. Small breezes. At 3 calm, light breezes and fine weather.
“Saturday, 2nd June. Cloudy with squalls of wind and rain. At 5 took in the
“Sunday, 3rd June. P.M. Fresh gales with squalls and bad sea from east-southeast. At 2 saw the Three Kings being south-west by west 3 leagues.
“Monday, 4th June. P.M. Bore away to leeward of the Three Kings and in search of wood and water, sent boat ashore, lost 4 oars overboard. At 7 P.M. the boat came on board with wood.
“Tuesday, 5th June. At 1 made sail close under shore of New Zealand.
“Wednesday, 6th June. Land distant 2 leagues: came to anchor in bay on the east side of New Zealand: went ashore, got some wood and water: at 6 A.M. went on shore again and got some water: at 9 A.M. got under weigh and bore away for the River Thames.
“Thursday, 7th June. P.M. At 6 came to anchor in a small bay to the northward of River Thames. At 7 went on shore, found it a bad landing: could not get water: got some wood. At 9 got under weigh and stood round for the mouth of the River Thames.
“Friday, 8th June. P.M. At 3 came to anchor on the north-west side of River
Thames with the bower anchor in 11 fathoms water and sent boat ashore for
wood and water. At 11 weighed anchor and made sail out of the river on account of the natives being so numerous on board
“Saturday, 9th June. Cloudy weather: all sail set standing along the coast. At 12 A.M. Cavill’s Island bearing north-west distant 10 miles. At daylight made all sail into the bay bearing west: tacked occasionally: at 11 shortened sail and came to in 10 fathoms of water with best bower anchor.
“Sunday, 10th June. Moderate breezes: at 2 sent boat ashore: at 6 returned with wood and water.
“Monday, 11th June. Got some wood and water: at 10 wind north-north-west—
hard squalls of wind and rain.
“Tuesday, 12th June. At 6 the boat came on board with wood and an account that James Cavanagh a prisoner who was sent to cut wood had run into the Brush and that a party of men had been in pursuit of him and could not find him and he was left behind: at 1/4 past 9 a heavy squall: gave the vessel more cable: found her driving in shore very fast: the gale continuing and a heavy sea. Set the top-sail, mainsail and fore-top-stay sail and cut the cable, not being able to get anchor on account of vessel driving so fast: the anchor was lost, 120 fathoms of cable. 1/4 before 10 tacked ship, 10 past 10 began to run between Cavill’s Island and mainland, not being able to work out of the bay, up keel and fore-sail down jib and mainsail. At 11 being quite clear of land shortened sail and hove to.
“Wednesday, 13th June. P.M. At 9 more moderate. Latitude by observation 33
degrees 8 minutes.
“Thursday, 14th June. P.M. Fine clear weather: at 8 took one reef in the maintop-sail and set the stay-sail.
“Friday, 15th June. P.M. Light airs, clear weather: set the fore and main courses: at 9 fresh breezes: took in top-gallant sails: at 10 strong breezes and squally: at 12 A.M. tacked ship and close reefed top-sail, furled the jib and mainsail and sent down top-gallant yards.
“Saturday, 16th June. P.M. Fresh breezes and clear: at 1 got main-top-gallant
yard up and set the sail.
“Sunday, 17th June. Light airs from northward. Set the square mainsail: at 12
“Monday, 18th June. P.M. Light wind and clear weather: at 8 wore ship.
“Tuesday, 19th June. P.M. At 12 saw Norfolk Island bearing south 1/2 east
distant 7 leagues.
“Wednesday, 20th June. P.M. At 5 Norfolk island distant 6 leagues. At 8 Norfolk Island distant 4 leagues.
“Thursday, 21st June. P.M. At 4 Norfolk Island distant 5 leagues: at sunset
Norfolk Island distant 5 leagues: at 8 Norfolk Island S.E.E. 3 leagues: at 9 fired
3 guns as signal for a boat.
“Friday, 22nd June. P.M. A boat from Cascade boarded us and took on board the officers of New South Wales Corps and baggage and left a pilot on board: at 10 A.M. a boat came and took on shore more baggage belonging to officers of New South Wales Corps.
“Saturday, 23rd June. P.M. Stretched off land to get round to Sydney (Norfolk
Island) but the wind and weather not permitting stretched off and on all night: at 6 close in with the land: at 8 A.M. tacked ship and stood off from the land: at 10A.M. lowered the boat and sent her with second mate and four men on shore.
“Sunday, 24th June. P.M. Stretching off and on the land to the windward. At 8
A.M. a boat arrived from the shore with a cask of pork and biscuits, the 2nd
mate and 2 men brought the account that the boat was lost and that 1 man
George Cockswain was drowned. At 10 loaded the boat with sundries for the
shore but not being able to make good her landing returned to the ship. We stood off for Governor King’s island with the boat towing astern.
*’The Log of the Lady Nelson’ by Ida Lee.