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"HELL OR MELBOURNE"
EXPLOITS of the NOTORIOUS
CAPTAIN "BULLY" FORBES,
the most famous and the most romantic of all skippers that raced from English ports to Australia in the days of the gold rushes, had a meteoric rise to fame. But he came to an
ignominious end. So many stories have been told of the man that it is difficult to dissociate fact from legend. In every way James Nicol Forbes was a remarkable figure. He was born in Aber- -deen in 1821. When he was aged 18 years Forbes did not have a shilling in his pocket. But the sea was in his blood, and he was not long in gaining command of a ship. An old brig was his first command; yet he made such a wonderfully good passages to the Argentine in it that he came under the notice of Mr. James Baines the head of the famous Black Ball line. Baines gave Forbes command of the Maria, and later of the Cleopatra, which were both on the Australian run. They were poor ships but the achievements of Forbes with them soon made him known wherever square rigged ships were sailed. He speedily astonished the shipping world with two wonderful voyages in the Marco Polo and a still more famous voyage in that remarkable vessel the Lightning.
Everyone wondered how Forbes made such fast times, but an idea of his methods is gained fiom the "Hell or Melbourne"
incident. Forbes had no consideration for either his crew or his passengers. From the beginning to the end of each voyage he would let it be known in no uncertain fashion that storms would not deter him. On one of his voyages the passengers be- came so frightened at the way in which he was forcing the vessel that a deputation waited upon him and asked him to shorten sail. Forbe's reply was a curt refusal.
In his most truculent manner he barked, "This is a case of Hell or Melbourne!"
It was little wonder that Forbes earned the name of "Bully. " It is reliably re- corded that to achieve his record passages, he adopted the methods of the equally notorious American "Bully" Waterman, Such as padlocking his sheets and over- awing his crew from the poop with a brace of levelled pistols. Forbes could never have been accused of cowardice. In response to a challenge he once crawled while the vessel was in full sail from the spanker boom to the shark's fin, on the jib boom. It was his custom while on the speedy Lightning to go out on the swinging boom when the lower stunsail was set, and from there to survey his ship while it was racing
before the westerlies.
First Voyage to Australia
The first voyage Forbes made to Aus- -stralia in the Marco Polo in 1852 made him the pride of the Black Ball line. At the farewell dinner given before the vessel sailed Forbes remarked, "Do not be sur- prised if you see me back in the Mersey again within six months." The listeners scoffed. The Marco Polo which carried 930 immigrants for the Emigration Commis- sioners arrived off Port Phillip Heads after a run of only 68 days. The record of the steamer Australian was defeated by a week, for the Marco Polo covered the distance it an average of 336 nautical miles a day. When Forbes arrived the colony of Victoria was in a ferment following the discovery of gold. Everybody had rushed to the diggings. Forbes found 50 vessels "held up" in Port Phillip because their crews had deserted. He promptly had the whole of his crew imprisoned on a charge of insubordination. They were kept in prison until he was ready to sail again. The Marco Polo left on the return voyage on October 11, 1852 and she anchored in the Mersey on Sunday, December, 26, only 76 days out from Mel- Melbourne. The round trip occcupied only 5 months and 21 days. So Forbes had made good his boast.
When James Baines was told that the vessel was in the Mersey he replied, "Non-
sense, man, The Marco Polo has not arrived out yet." Within, half an hour he was face to face with Forbes who from the masthead of the Marco Polo flew a pennant on which were the words "The fastest ship in the world." The Marco Polo brought home more than £100,000 worth of gold dust including a present of 340 oz. from the Victorian Government to Queen Victoria. The imagination of the people was fired when they were told by the ships officers that on their arrival at Melbourne small boats had swarmed around the Marco Polo and the occupants had thrown nuggets to the passengers on deck.
When the Marco Polo set out on its next trip Forbes was even more boastful
As soon as sail was set he assembled the passengers on deck and addressed them as follows - "Ladies and Gentlemen - On my last trip I astonished the world. This trip I intend to astonish the Almighty." But he met adverse winds and he took 75 days on the outward trip. The round trip occupied six months which was an- other great achievement.
End of the Lightning
Forbes was sent by James Baines to bring the recently built Lightning from Boston. On the first voyage of the Light- ning to Australia "Bully" Forbes had as his mate "Bully" Bragg. The voyage occupied 77 days, but the return trip to the Mersey was made in 64 days 3 hours 10 minutes, a record which has never been broken by a sailing ship. The round trip including 20 days in port occupied only 5 months 8 days 21 hours. The cargo from Victoria in-
cluded £1,000, 000 worth of gold dust. The Lightning was burned on October 31, 1869, while she was lying along side the pier at Geelong after having loaded 4,000 bales of
James Baines built an emigrant ship which was designed to surpass anything of its kind on the seas. It was named Schomberg. It had a builder's measurement tonnage of 2,600 tons, and it cost £43,103. Forbes was placed in command. At the dinner before the sailing in 1855 he declared that he would make the passage 60 days.
Conflicting stories have been published of the wreck of the Schomberg, but Basil Lubbock, the recognised authority on clipper ships, writes - "In Liverpool at the banquets in his honour Forbes was too ready with wine tinted promises of what he would do with the Schomberg, and chagrin at this, his first failure was the real cause of his failure." The Schomberg proved sluggish, and poor time was being made when it ran aground 35 miles west of Cape Otway. It was stated that the accident might have been averted but for Captain Forbess's ill temper. He was play- ing cards and was losing when the mate informed him that the Schomberg was getting close under the land. Forbes was in a bad temper, and he insisted upon playing another rubber. By the time he went on deck it was too late. He ordered " 'Bout ship," but as there was some wind and a current was running to the west- ward the ship refused to come round. The ship slid on the bank and stuck fast in four fathoms of water. Forbes cried, "Let her go to hell, and tell me when she is on the beach. " He went below and it was left to the mate, Henry Cooper Keen, to take charge and disembark the passengers.
A Fitting Epitaph
A court of inquiry was held, and Forbes was acquitted of all blame because the sandbank was uncharted. The passengers, however, were indignant at what had hap- pened. At a mass meeting held in Mel-
bourne they declared that Forbes was so disgusted by the slow passage of the Schom- berg that he had let the vessel go ashore out of pique.
Forbes never commanded a vessel of the Black Ball line again. He remained in Australia some time "a silent and sad man." In 1857 he obtained command of the Hastings, but he lost it in December, I859. A year or two later he was "on the beach" at Calcutta. In 1864, during the cotton famine, he was in Hong Kong in command of the General Wyndham,owned by Gibbs, Bright, and Co. He was described as "a seedy, broken down skipper with the forced joviality of a broken-hearted man" He still retained some of his old time fighting spirit how- ever, and a story is told that while in Hong Kong he insulted two Americans. When they look offence he pulled off his coat and soundly thrashed them both. He kept command of the General Wyndham until 1866. On June 4, 1870, he died in Liverpool. On his tombstone in Smith- down road cemetery is written :- "Master of the famous Marco Polo."