Who was James Smith?

Notes on his journal

The manuscript of James Smith's Journal was discovered among the possessions of my late grandfather. It is written in a leather bound notebook of some 150 pages, measuring seven inches by four and a half inches.

Who was James Smith? The journal tells us little: His birthday fell on 16th November, and he had a brother (see 9th October 1829). He had a correspondent called John Nash (see 8th October 1829). He clearly was a butcher, or at least someone familiar with farm animals and poultry. Beyond those few scant details we know nothing for certain. However, I believe that he was James, the brother of my great great grandmother Ann Smith, of West Monkton in Somerset. James was baptised at West Monkton on 13th December 1809, and the parish register tells us that he was born just a month earlier on 13th November 1809. It is possible that at his baptism the clergyman asked his mother when he was born, to which she might have replied "a month ago". In which case the difference of three days between his recorded date of birth and James's own idea of his birthday might be acceptable. James would thus have been 19 years old when Sesostris set off for the East.

James's father, John, was a butcher, and James had a younger brother named John. A John Nash, who later became a master coach builder at Taunton (see the 1851 census), had been born in West Monkton at about the same time as James. I have not been able to trace the first officer, Mr Leaver, who had perhaps secured young James his post as ship's butcher.

If my identification is correct, I can find no trace of James in later records such as the census. Perhaps it was the story of James that encouraged his nephew, William Kidner (1841-1900), to accept a commission as architect to oversee the construction of Holy Trinity, Shanghai.

There are few surviving accounts written by below-deck hands or tradesmen. Literacy would have been rare among such men, let alone the interest to record the details of the voyage. Why did James Smith write it? Throwing a bucket of water through the port (27 January 1830), does not appear the mark of a seaman. On the other hand, he makes little of crossing the line recording merely that he 'had a small visit from Nept[une]' (4 December 1829). It seems that the schoolhouse at West Monkton deserves no little credit for teaching James to write.

James' relationship with the first officer, Mr Leaver, would strike me as very unusual unless they were on familiar terms - on 9th October 1829 Mr Leaver shows him a letter he has received from a Mr Shilliby. Would it be normal for an officer to share his correspondence with the ship's butcher? And on January 18th, Mr Leaver gives him two bottles of brandy. James, however, makes no mention at all of Mr Leaver leaving the ship; after Sesostris has left Bombay we merely come across a new first officer of a very different character - another Mr Smith, (just to confuse things).

Could the journal have been written on behalf of the captain? It is two months into the voyage before James records the position of the ship, information that would surely have been entered every noon into the ship's official record. Furthermore, would an official record have contained so many personal notes? I think the journal was written for his own interest and record, and it may have taken two months for Captain Yates to have been aware of it. Once he was, I surmise, he received the news with good humour and a nice condescension, for there must surely be some official collusion in the recording of the latitude and longitude every day. "Mister, make sure you show the log to the butcher before you dine!" "Aye aye, Captain". I wonder.

I have been loyal to James Smith's spelling and punctuation (or lack of it) in my transcription of the journal. This may cause some confusion to the reader at first, but to attempt a modernisation of the text would, in my view, strip the account of much of its immediacy and interest, and more importantly turn it from James Smith's own narrative into something quite different.


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