The Upfill-Brown Collection (4 December 1991)

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Date of Auction: 4th December 1991

Sold for £820

Estimate: £250 - £350

ABYSSINIA 1867-8 (W. R. O. Servt., C. Wilkins, H. M. S. Octavia), polished, nearly very fine


Sold with an original manuscript autobiography, 6lpp, written at the age of 86, and a letter of recommendation from Lieut. Mostyn, H. M. S. Octavia. Cornelius Wilkins gives a fascinating insight into everyday life in the Royal Navy which he joined in 1863 as a college servant. He joined H. M. S. Octavia in 1865 and served aboard her until his discharge to shore in July, 1869. Octavia left Portsmouth in September, 1865 for Madeira and the Island of Teneriffe. 'From Teneriffe we proceeded to Sierra Leone, a port on the West Coast of Africa oftimes called the 'White Man's Grave' on account of so much yellow fever generally found there. At this place we shipped 24 natives or Kroomen as they are called for the purpose of doing any special work on board when the sun's the hottest. One peculiarity about some of these men was that they had no names by which they could be entered on the ship's books, so names were given to them on board such as Tom Peasoup, Jack Sunday, Long Tom, Harry Teakettle, Sam Friday and Black Joe. I think the latter name was given on account of the intense darkness of his skin. It was very amusing how they would answer to these names when called.’ Wilkins records that of the 24 Kroomen only 5 were returned to Sierra Leone in 1869, most of them having died from fevers or smallpox. Full of amusing anecdotes and incidents, his story takes the Octavia to the Cape of Good Hope and onward to Bombay where she became the Flag Ship on the East Indies Station. He describes a visit to Zanzibar where he played with the band at the Sultan's palace. The Octavia conveyed Sir Robert Napier and his staff to Abyssinia 'and I was told off to assist in attending to them during that two weeks voyage to the Red Sea, and landed Sir Robert and his staff at Zoula in Annesley Bay.’ Wilkins served briefly on H. M. S. Trafalgar as Second Wardroom Steward in the Mediterranean before being finally paid off. He joined the Guion Line of steamers and spent two years running immigrants to New York and describes his experiences during a hurricane that nearly proved fatal. In 1875 Wilkins joined the Mexican Navy aboard the 'Independencia’ one of two war ships built by Messrs Laird of Birkenhead for the Mexican government. Commanded and crewed by ex Royal Navy Officers and men, all were under a 12 month contract. Wilkins describes in detail his experiences fighting against the rebels in Mexico where he narrowly escapes being captured. On his return from Mexico to England he hangs up his hammock and returns to life as a civilian.