Legends: My ancestor was eaten by cannibals!

As legends go there would probably none to equal that of my fifth great grandfather, William Hugh Travers …unbelievably murdered and eaten by cannibals!!

It has not been possible to find any details about William’s background before he sailed on the “Speke” from England in 1808. Records show William as a twenty-year-old Irish seaman. Like other seamen of this era, William would have gone to sea when a boy, probably no more than 16 years old. Life on board was hard but it did offer a chance of freedom and adventure, regular food, even if it was not of the best quality, and reliable pay. This is more than what he may have been able to achieve if he was locked in poverty in Ireland. I can recommend reading “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, although written about a sea journey in 1834, it does an insight into what life on board a sailing ship was like for William. A free on line version can be viewed at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2055/2055-h/2055-h.htm

The Speke sailed from Falmouth, England, on 18 May 1808 and arrived in Australia at Port Jackson on 16 November 1808. The vessel had been contracted by the British government to transport 99 female convicts to Australia, including my five times great-grandmother, Elizabeth Davis/Davison, who was only 16 years old at the time. At sea for months, there was no possibility of separating the female convicts from the crew and the crew was encouraged to take “wives” for the duration of the voyage. A report titled, “A Selection of Reports and Papers to the House of Commons. Vol. 58” stated: “Improprieties will be committed on board a female convict ship under the best regulations, but females who do not wish to do wrong should not be compelled against their inclinations”.

Such “improprieties” were not uncommon and are detailed in “The Floating Brothel” written by Sian Rees describing the voyage of the Lady Juliana in 1789 which sailed under similar conditions to the Speke. It is unlikely that any woman, especially a sixteen-year-old girl, such as Elizabeth, would have any choice in the matter, if she wanted to survive the voyage and arrive safely in Australia.

William chose Elizabeth, and by the time the ship arrived in Sydney, she was almost five months pregnant. Elizabeth was sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta to work and await birth while William returned to life on the sea. Their son, Edward Mortimer Davis, was born on 11 April 1809. Elizabeth died in 1811 when her son was two years old. William’s name is documented in the Colonial Secretary’s Papers as the father of Edward. Edward used his father’s surname in later years, being known as Edward Mortimer Travers. (Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1825. New South Wales Government. The main series of letters received 1788-1825. Series 897, Reels 6041-6064, 6071-6072. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood)

Had William developed an attachment to Elizabeth? Was he aware that she was pregnant with his son? Regardless of possible answers to those questions, William was contracted to the ship and there would have been little choice or opportunity to remain in the colony regardless of any feelings he may have had towards Elizabeth. At this point he disappears from records, possibly returning to England on the Speke to continue his life at sea.

It is not until 1814 that William reappears in an article in the Sydney Gazette about the voyage of the commericial schooner, the Cumberland, and William is identified as a member of the crew attacked and killed in the “Friendly Islands”: The article provides a background to the incident Sydney Gazette Sat 22 Oct 1814 p. 2. National Library of Australia:

On Thursday arrived the “Cumberland” a colonial schooner, Mr. Goodenough master, from Islands to the Eastward of the Friendly Islands, which she from hence proceeded the 18th of January last, with a view of procuring sandalwood, but failing in that object, has brought a lading of a wood possessing the property of dying various shades of yellow. This they procured at the island of Loratonga, 16 leagues E of Tongataboo, the natives of which are of the Otaheitan complexion, and of similar manners, but taller and much better formed.

On their first and second attempts to land, they were prevented by the natives, who attacked them with slings, from which they threw round stones 6 lbs. weight with surprising dexterity. They nevertheless effected a landing afterwards, and became very friendly with the natives, who were employed in procuring the wood, and paid as labourers for their assistance, in tochies,(Tongan word for adze) tomahawks, and other suitable articles. They continued a friendly intercourse until the 12th of August ; when John Croker one of the crew who had accompanied Mr Wentworth on shore, was assaulted and killed in his presence with a club so instantaneously and unexpectedly as to render Mr Wentworth’s aid wholly ineffectual. As soon as he saw the unfortunate man knocked down, he drew and snapped his pistol at the assailant—but it missed fire; and as there was no time for deliberation, he rushed forward to his assistance—but human aid was then of no avail, for his head was bruised to a mummy, and his corporal pains had ceased for ever.

Mr. W. having now only to provide for his own safety, took a pistol from the dead man’s body, and menacing and menaced, made his way to his boat. In another quarter a similar assault had been made on others of the crew, who were on shore for provisions, and all massacred: these were William Travis, George Strait, and an Otaheitan, and Ann Butcher, an unfortunate woman who had gone from this port in the vessel, was killed at the same time, when ashore on a visit to some native women who had shewn her much kindness.

Mr. Goodenough affirms it to be his opinion, that all the murdered persons were afterwards devoured, as they had seen a part of one that exhibited every appearance of its remaining a fragment of a cannibal festival.

More details of this voyage are provided in “Rarotongan Sandalwood: The Visit of Goodenough to Rarotonga in 1814. H E Maude and Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe. The Journal of Polynesian Society. Vol. 71, No. 1 (March 1962), pp. 32-56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20703963.

When the Cumberland departed for the Pacific Islands, it was clear that the British government was well aware of the disruption these commercial voyages were inflicting on island communities. Six weeks before the Cumberland left Port Jackson, Governor Macquarie had promulgated a Government and General Order dated December 1, 1813, requiring a good behavior bond of £1,000 from all vessels trading in the Pacific Islands, to be forfeited on the occurrence of several specified acts against the natives of these islands.

Despite the warning issued in this order, the Cumberland sailed to Walker’s Island (Rarotonga) arriving in March with the expectation of finding the untapped treasure of aromatic Sandalwood and to take their share before the find was exhausted. They went on to breech the government order and it appears that these were not disclosed on their return.

When the ship arrived in Rarotonga the captain ignored initial attempts by the islanders to drive them off, was ignorant of tribal conflicts and rivalries, and had no respect for the islanders’ way of life. Reading the full story of the voyage it is clear that the crew of the Cumberland only wanted three things: a bountiful commercial cargo, food, and women; and “what they wanted they took with a free hand, not noticeably concerned with the niceties of legal ownership.”

The final straw was the desecration, on the 12 August 1814, of the marae (community sacred place) where they took coconuts from the storehouse belonging to the chief. They could hardly have done anything more calculated to offend not only the chief and people of Avarua but, to a lesser degree, the whole island of Rarotonga.

Retribution was swift. The two European seamen, George Strait and my ancestor, William Travis, who were engaged in supervising the carrying away of the coconuts, were attacked and killed. Travis was killed by the people of Titama at Matavera while Strait was despatched at Turangi. Captain Goodenough told that the men had been murdered and later eaten in a ceremony involving cannibalism.

So that is the story of my ancestor William Travis as far as I have been able to find so far. It leave me feeling horrified at the social norms and attitudes of Europeans and my ancestors involvement. Nonetheless it is a tale worth telling to generations to come.

1 thought on “Legends: My ancestor was eaten by cannibals!

  1. It is upsetting to find out our ancestors were involved in these actions, norms and cultures being so different then. Interesting to read though. Well researched and documented. (One could say a hard story to swallow.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s