Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Chinchilla in Britain in 1849: HMS Constance, valuable cargo and a naval cover-up?

In my post of 16 November, I noted that live chinchillas had been brought to Britain for rich men's menageries decades before the get-rich-quick fur-breeding bubble of the 1950s. It is difficult to search old newspaper archives because references to chinchillas are usually to their fur and what items of clothing their fur had been made into. However, I did find this early snippet:
Norfolk News 8 December 1849. 
Several very fine eagles, a splendid bear, a lama, and a chinchilla were landed on Monday at Portsmouth from the Constance frigate, and conveyed to London for the Earl of Derby.
(The use of the Oxford comma is also interesting[,] and informative.)

Lord Derby was of course the 13th Earl, Edward Smith-Stanley (1775-1851) who kept a large menagerie at Knowsley in Lancashire and after whom a number of mammals and birds were named including Lord Derby’s Eland, the Derbyan Parakeet and the Stanley Rosella.

Incidentally, the ship that carried the chinchilla was HMS Constance, a 50-gun frigate of the fourth rate. She would have been returning from Valparaiso in Chile, then the base for the British pacific station. However, Constance was not a happy ship as this letter from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the same date as the above newspaper report indicates:
H.M.S. “Constance”.—The following letter has appeared in one of the London papers:—“Sir,—The public mind has been painfully interested by naval courts-martial and rumours of others that were ordered or about to be ordered. That fine frigate Constance has just arrived from those distant regions California and the Colombia river, and all the papers, both daily and weekly, have been teeming with complaints as to the state of discipline this ship is in. One paper recommends that she should be paid off immediately, as continuing here any longer in commission would be a disgrace to the service. You, sir, have always stood prominently forward to assert the rights of superior officers, but you have not the less ready to defend and support those of the juniors. I therefore venture, through your medium, to ask the Admiralty if it be true that they, annoyed with the exposure caused by the “Pitmanic Case,” and fearful that a parliamentary inquiry may be called for and insisted upon to ascertain the exact nature of the powers intrusted to naval captains, have made use of the influence which they can so well command to induce the sufferers on board the Constance to withdraw their requests for an inquiry into their conduct, which, if granted, must at once have powerfully attracted the attention of the whole nation, which has only just recovered from the shock occasioned by the infamous affair I have already alluded to. I will not disguise from you that I am an interested party. I have friends on board whose future career may be seriously affected by the treatment they have received, but if they and their connections perceive that my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty refuse to turn a deaf ear to the complaints that must have reached them, they may yet hope to rise in the service, but with which the commencement of their career has almost tended to disgust them.
“I am, Sir, your obedient servant,“A COUNTRY CLERGYMAN,“St. Sidwell’s, Exeter, Nov. 27.”
The Times reported from Plymouth:
Her Majesty’s frigate Constance, 50 [guns]. Captain G.W.C. Courtenay, is to be unmasted to-morrow, and paid off on Saturday [8 December]. Considerable restriction has been put on the liberty of the officers and crew of this ship since her arrival. Three seamen have been sent for a month to Exeter Gaol, for going ashore without leave; the cost of their maintenance while confined will be deducted from their sea wages.
The reason for Courtenay’s behaviour and A Country Clergyman’s complaint was that Constance was carrying commercial cargo (probably a nice little earner for a captain) valued at $1,750,000. She sailed from Valparaiso on 28 August (The Times, 5 November 1849). That sum is reckoned to be worth $55 million in today’s money.

HMS Constance in 1848 by Julian Tunstall Haverfield
Haverfield was Lieutenant of Marines on Constance

George William Conway Courtenay’s (1793-1863) private notes are now in the Courtenay & District Museum on Vancouver Island. The area was named after the captain of Constance. He proclaimed the land on Vancouver island to the Crown from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The extraordinary disciplinary measures he instigated on Constance to protect his cargo including flogging any lookout who failed to see a sail before he did, insisting officers went ashore only in full uniform, and going to great lengths to prevent his crew deserting in order to join the gold rush in California. Clearly, his junior officers thought him paranoid but in these days of patronage, Courtenay was very well connected and after Constance was paid off he was promoted to Rear Admiral and finally to Vice Admiral. The Country Clergyman from Exeter seems to have been ignored.

The mammals and birds bought back for Lord Derby—to curry favour with a powerful patron or for profit? Were they all South American, like the chinchilla and llama, and taken aboard at Valaparaiso, en route from Canada and around Cape Horn) If so, the bear would have been a Spectacled Bear. Or were some collected in North America as well?

That simple chinchilla story after a bit more digging provided a fascinating glimpse of the early Victorian Royal Navy and its system of favouritism and patronage. The system bears more than a passing resemblance to life in research in the 2010s.