Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

The Incomparable Captain Cadell

John Nicholson
Allen and Unwin 307 pages
ISBN: 1 74114 108 7

reviewed by David Skea

Victorian Britain produced many a person who left his native shore, established outposts in the then British Empire and then demonstrated the hard work, tenacity and moral standards that made the age famous. Some of the names that come to mind are David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes, Florence Nightingale and Stamford Raffles. And at one time, perhaps, there could have been added the name of Francis Cadell, who became well known in South Australia as the person who established a steam river boat service on the Murray.

Francis William Cadell was born in 1822 and reportedly died in 1879 at the wrong end of a loaded revolver. He was the third of eleven children of a moderately wealthy Scottish family, many of whom became army officers—two of his brothers becoming generals, one winning a Victoria Cross. The family had shipping and coal mining interests and epitomised the Victorian ideals of hard work and a place in society.

At the age of 14, at his own insistence (according to Cadell's father), Cadell joined an "East Indiaman," the Minerva, as a midshipman. Then followed three voyages to Macau and Canton and a promotion to fifth mate. Cadell's next trip was more exiting as the "Opium Wars" had started and the Minerva was pressed into service as a troop transport. So at the age of 18, Cadell was off to his first war and for the next 3 years or so, was a spectator at many of its decisive battles. And, if his father's reminiscences are to be believed, he was also involved in "punishing pirates," for which he was rewarded with an ornamental sword. It was during this time that he probably met some of the more unsavoury characters that became his associates in his later life.

In 1844 his father bought a small trading sloop, The Royal Sovereign, and young Francis was installed as its captain. On one trip to South America, Cadell saw a major river system, the Amazon, just waiting to be opened up with river steamers. Returning home he took time to learn about these new paddle steamers in Robert Napier's shipyard in Glasgow (the book also mentions Tyneside).

In 1848 Cadell, back in command of The Royal Sovereign, visited Adelaide. This first visit lasted only ten days, but he cannot have missed the regular arrival of drays laden with copper from the mines at Kapunda or the wheat being produced: good regular cargoes. Also he would have heard the talk about a large broad river to the east, the Murray, and talk of river boats and paddle steamers.

His next exploit was to design and build a fast clipper ship, The Queen of Sheba, and in 1852 he was back in Adelaide as the commander of this fine vessel. He quickly found a niche in the Adelaide society and had little trouble in obtaining passengers and cargo, soon setting up a fast clipper service between Adelaide and Melbourne.

Now Cadell had the ear of the South Australian Governor, and monies were made available to start a steam river boat on the River Murray, and much of this book is devoted to telling this story. However, socialising in Adelaide and running a river steamer business profitably are two different things, especially when you are also competing with the settlers and the store keepers you are supplying. In the end the inevitable happened, and in 1858 Cadell was declared bankrupt.

Cadell next appeared in New Zealand as Commandant of the Waikato Steam Transport Service, a support flotilla for the New Zealand Government forces in the Maori Wars. However, he was too late for the major actions, the storming of Mere Mere and Rangiriri. Thereafter he fell out with the authorities and left.

Back in South Australia in 1867, Cadell led an expedition into North Australia charged with selecting "a favourable site for the survey of 300,000 acres of good land within reasonable distance of a good harbour, easy navigable and conveniently situated as a port of call, with a healthy site for a Capital, and in close proximity to fresh water and timber." Being a sailor he decided to approach the land from the sea rather than trekking across Australia, and hence he sailed up the east coast of Australia and through the Torres Strait. His recommendation, a site on the Liverpool River, however, was rejected, and another expedition, dispatched under Surveyor-General Goyder, selected Darwin as the site for the city.

Whilst sailing round Australia via the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Cadell must have come across the pearl luggers then operating on the north of Australia. Most of the divers were "blackbirds," indigenous people from Papua or the Pacific Islands. Although slavery had been abolished in British Territories in 1834, its sanitised alter ego "blackbirding" continued for a further 50 years, and Queensland did not outlaw the practice until 1902. "Blackbirds" were indentured labourers who had consented to be transported to another place, employed for an agreed period in return for food, clothing, shelter and wages, and return to their homes at the end of the agreement. The problem was that in most cases some or all of these conditions were ignored: the labourers were kidnapped or induced into agreements under false pretences. Many were starved, beaten and dumped at the end of their service.

So it would seem that in 1867 Cadell saw an opportunity, and having the wherewithal, his ship, became a supplier in this market. The New Zealand Herald reported on May 20, 1870, that "the clipper schooner Lulu, the property of Captain Cadell, arrived from a cruise among the New Hebrides... she also had on board 27 passengers..." The 27 passengers included 23 indentured labourers from the Sandwich Islands. Cadell later turned up off the north-west coast of Australia with 50 pearl divers from the Alor and Solar islands north of Timor. At this stage he was a newcomer to the pearling coast that within a few years he came to dominate.

And so the story goes on until 1879 when, by some accounts, Cadell was shot six times by his Filipino steward Perman, who reportedly said to onlookers "I have shot the Captain because I have been in his service for 5 years without receiving any wages." A report from a Captain Carpenter tells that Perman was arrested by the Dutch authorities in Ambon, brought to trial, found guilty and hanged on a gallows outside the courthouse. However, Cadell's brother demanded that the British take action and in October, 1879, Perman, still alive, was extradited to Singapore, brought to trial there and acquitted.

The dust jacket of this book says "The bizarre true story of the man who built a paddle steamer fleet on the River Murray and of his spectacular fall from grace." Well, he did build a paddle steamer fleet and opened up the River Murray, but so did another. His competitor, William Randall, was first on the river with a steam boat, didn't have any government monies to help build his fleet, and also outlasted Cadell.

And was he "incomparable"? Not really. Many aspiring heroes start out along the same path and fall by the wayside. I'm minded of that line from the Beggars Opera after Captain Macheath was arrested by Peachum. "Your case, Mr. Macheath, is not particular..." Neither was Cadell's, but it makes a good story.


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