Purchase of A Private Journal of a Voyage to Australia 1838-39 by James Bell
In March of this year, the Foundation contributed $20,000 to the Library’s purchase of A Private Journal of a Voyage to Australia 1838-39. It is 225 pages bound in green vellum, kept by James Bell, passenger on the Planter, Deptford, 25 November 1838 to 15 May 1839, Port Adelaide.
The journal’s value to the SA Memory project as an account of one of the earliest voyages to South Australia, to which many South Australians can trace their ancestry, is obvious. It fits easily with the Library’s catalogue alongside copies of the ship’s manifest records and other journals of passage to Adelaide, most notably the diary kept by Mary Thomas on the Africaine in 1836.
According to Collections Specialist Tony Leschen, “A Private Journal of a Voyage to Australia 1838-39 by James Bell is highly unusual because the voyage was so eventful-including a mutiny which required a detour to Rio de Janeiro and a storm which involved the loss of spars and sails-but more because of its frankness.” On the title page James Bell writes
Kept in conformity with a promise made to C. Perry, Bellisle Street, Workington [Cumberland, England] and with the intention of being sent to her, as a small token of respect for her many good qualities and the friendship with which she has honoured me–.
In the Preface he also writes “that it is to be considered wholly private” and “that it must never be read by a third party.” We can only assume that these codicils are why his journal conveys a surprising amount of debauchery on board, particularly from the ship’s captain, Thomas Beazley. While historians would caution against generalising the values of South Australian settlers based on this narrative, it certainly casts a new light on our conceptions of Victorian society. According to Leschen, “The will be a lot of interest in reading the journal, by historians and descendents of the passengers once it is transcribed.”
Not much is known about the Planter or James Bell apart from this journal. The ship was built at Newcastle on Tyne in 1835, weighed 347 tons and carried 106 passengers to South Australia. James Bell travelled as an ‘Intermediate cabin’ class passenger on the Planter, though he never states his business in South Australia. He appears to have been of Scottish birth according to his journal entry on 9 December 1838, with its reference to ‘the quiet scenes of Scotland on a Sabbath morning’. It is likely he was the person by that name who died on 18 December 1840 “of brain fever, after a few days’ illness,” as recorded on the S.A. Register, 19 December 1840. The West Terrace Cemetery burial register records he lived in Rundle Street, Adelaide and was 24 years of age.