The Marco Polo was in its time called the “fastest ship in the world”. She was a 1625 ton three masted clipper ship built by James Smith and Co. of St. John, New Brunswick in Canada and launched in 1851. In 1852 she was bought by James Baines of the Black Ball Line and refitted for passengers specifically for the Australian packet service of assisted emigrants.
Thomas Robertson (1819-1873) Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
The Illustrated London Times described the Marco Polo: “her lines fore and aft are beautifully fine…she has an entrance as sharp as a steamboat [and a] bottom like a yacht; she has above water all the appearance of a frigate”
The master engaged for the Marco Polo was Scotsman Captain James Nicol “Bully” Forbes. The first voyage to Australia departed from Liverpool on 4 July 1852 and on board were my Scottish 3x great-grandparents James and Isabella Livingston and their five children.
Extract for Marco Polo’s passenger list
The Marco Polo sailed from the Mersey bound for Melbourne in July 1852 with some “930 government emigrants” on board, 661 were Scottish, and arrived at Hobson’s Bay in Port Phillip 68 days later on 18 September. The ship almost immediately returned to England arriving back in Liverpool on Boxing Day, after a 76 day voyage; the whole return trip being less than some ships took in the trip to Australia.
The regular “Admiralty Route” to Australia consisted basically of following the 39th parallel across the Indian Ocean after replenishing supplies at the Cape of Good Hope. This provided mariners with a single straight course to steer. In the first half of the nineteenth century the voyage from England to Australia averaged 120 days. The length of the journey was a deterrent to many prospective emigrants.
Clipper ships, like Marco Polo, as well as being able to attain high speeds under ideal conditions were also able to make progress when most vessels were becalmed (in the equatorial doldrums of the Atlantic). However there was another factor that contributed to Marco Polo’s record breaking voyage. Instead of following the Admiralty route Forbes adopted a course based on Towson’s “great circle” theory.
John Thomas Towson was a scientific examiner of masters and mates at Liverpool. He realised that because the earth is a sphere the shortest route between two points on the earth was in fact a curve and not a straight line. He termed this curve the “great circle”.
The apparent direct route across the Indian Ocean (following the 39th parallel) was longer than the “great circle” route which in practice became a series of chords on that curve. Adopting this required great skill using both the sextant and the chronometer so that would masters know precisely when to alter course (along the next chord). In 1847 Towson’s published his “Tables to Facilitate the Practice of Great Circle Sailing” and he was awarded £1,000.
The great circle to Australia led into Antarctica and hundreds of kilometres south of the Cape of Good Hope. In practice this was modified due to the extreme weather conditions, big seas and the risk of collision with ice bergs. However the winds of the roaring forties and to further south also made progress much quicker.
Bully Forbes was not the first to use Towson’s theory with Captain Godfrey in the Constance in 1850 ventured far south following Towson’s theory and reached Adelaide in 77 days. Few other such voyages followed until the record voyage of the Marco Polo after which the great circle route became more the norm especially in the rush by emigrants to get to the Victorian gold fields.
“The Marco Polo completed the round trip to Australia a total of twenty-five times in the fifteen years after the first voyage bringing around 150,000 immigrants to Victoria.” However, “Bully” Forbes virtually ended his master’s career in 1855 when attempting to set a record for the voyage to Australia in under 60 days in the 2600 ton Schomberg. This ship that he captained ran aground on a sandbar near Curdies River at the approach to Bass Strait.
My Scottish Livingston ancestors James and Isabella, who sailed on the Marco Polo, hailed from the village of Laroch in Argyllshire where their five children were born. James had been employed in the slate quarries in the Ballaculish area.
Why James decided, at the age of 47 years to leave home for Australia with his young family might never been exactly known, the Victorian gold rush had started and he received assisted passage.
The voyage to Australia was known to be an arduous one, but at that time many people, and probably the Livingstons, were conditioned to hardship.
One emigrating couple (from Somerset) wrote:
“The conditions [on the ship] were clearly not intolerable…if you lived on 7s 6d a week in a cottage built of mud and straw with an earth floor and a thatched roof, relieving yourself at the bottom of the garden into a pit with a rough seat bench over it, drawing your water from a well which might be several hundred yards away, and cooking your food over an open fire”.
(Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard)
There was a measles epidemic on board. 52 people died, 46 of whom were children under four years of age.
The following are extracts for Marco Polo’s passenger list showing: Livingston family: James, Isabella and young children,
and, single male: son, James.
It appears that both James and Isabella “reduced” their ages in these records possibly to meet eligibility requirement of assisted passage.
After arriving at Port Phillip on 18 September 1852, little is known where and how they lived, although it is likely that headed for the gold fields. Only a few years later in 1858, their daughter and my 2x great-grandmother Ann was married to Richard Robins Warren at Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and in 1863 James registered a mining claim there.
In later life James and Isabella lived at Kerang in northern Victoria and are buried in the local cemetery in unmarked graves. They lived to the ripe old age of 80 and 88 years old respectively.
*Charlwood, Don, “The Long Farewell: A history of the first migrations to Australia”,
1998, Burgewood Books, Warrandyte
*Empire (Sydney, NSW: 1850 – 1875), Wed 29 Sep 1852 , Page 2 , MELBOURNE SHIPPING.
*Western District Families – Stories of Pioneering Families From the Western District of
* Thompson, John, “Hell or Melbourne in 60 days”