CAPTAIN MURDOCH McDONALD-JohnMcLean
Captain Hector McDonald (1805-1902) was the brother-in-law of Captains Duncan and Murdoch McKenzie. He was married to their sister, Ann, and they lived at Ardheslaig, Loch Torridon, about 50 miles from Inverness in the Western Highlands.
The McDonalds migrated to New Zealand direct from Scotland in 1856 on the Lord Burleigh with their six children. Their seventh (and last) child, Murdoch (named after his uncle, Murdoch McKenzie), was born at Waipu in 1857 and grew up on the McDonald farm at the Braigh.
When he was about twenty Murdoch had some health problems and it was thought that a short stint at sea, with the clean sea wind blowing across the deck, would revive his condition. And so he signed up on a vessel skippered by his cousin, John McKenzie, son of Duncan “Prince” McKenzie.
Murdoch liked it enough to make the sea his career. He was following in the footsteps of his father, uncles, and some of his brothers and first cousins. Indeed it could be said that salt water flowed in the veins of the McKenzie-McDonald clan.
Murdoch obtained his captain’s certificate on sailing ships and then around 1895 moved to steam vessels. This was not all that common as many sea captains, who grew up in the age of sail, found it difficult to adapt to the very different steam vessels and often chose to retire early rather than to have to master what was effectively an entirely new trade. And so the captains of the early steamships tended to be younger men who had had little or no experience of sailing ships.
Murdoch McDonald joined the Alexander Currie line of Melbourne, which ran steam vessels between Australia and Calcutta. The main cargos carried from Australia was horses. Murdoch and his brother, Colin, who also captained steam ships for the Currie line, were regarded as the best skippers in the horse trade as the percentage of deaths of the animals on their voyages was much less than that of the other captains. It was said that their farming background at the Braigh gave them an edge over other skippers.
The demand for horses in British India was endless and those that came from Australia were called “Walers” since they were mostly bred in New South Wales. Not only racehorses but also polo ponies as every cavalry regiment that arrived from Britain for a tour of duty (several years) required several hundred polo ponies for the inter-regimental tournaments. The cavalry also needed horses for when they were on active duty on the North-West Frontier and elsewhere and so did the mounted police in the age before the widespread use of motor vehicles.
Having got to know the East, Captain Murdoch McDonald moved from Australia to Singapore in 1905. While his wife enjoyed the colonial life of Singapore Murdoch worked for the Straits Steamship Company, one of the many steam lines operated by the British to carry the trade of the Empire.
As stamp collectors would know, the colony of the Straits Settlements consisted of Singapore, Malacca, Penang and the island of Labuan off Borneo. The Governor in Singapore was never the Governor of Singapore; he was the Governor of the colony of the Straits Settlements, the word “Straits” coming from the Straits of Malacca, between western Malaya and Sumatra, which, carrying the trade between east Asia and Europe, is one of the most important seaways of the world.
The vessels of the Straits Steamship Company provided a regular service from Singapore to all parts of the Malayan coast, across to Borneo and even up to Bangkok. Although quite small ships, they carried both passengers and cargo, which latter consisted largely of sheet rubber, tapioca, wood and copra. They sometimes put into coves where they loaded only a few bags of copra. If the natives wanted a ship to stop, they would hoist a signal – usually a bucket on a coconut tree – and the ship would anchor offshore.
The captains were British – often Scottish – while the crews were mainly Chinese in the engine room and catering departments, and Malay seamen on deck. Most ships had a crew of about eighty. The deck livestock would consist of pigs, humped back cattle, chickens and fighting cocks. There were three galleys – one for Europeans, one for Chinese and one for Moslems.
As captain of the ss Klang, Murdoch’s routine was to leave Singapore every Saturday afternoon, returning the following Thursday. By 1925 he was 67 and he decided that the voyage he was to make out of Singapore on 30th October would be his last before retiring to Melbourne with his wife. In the words of Tales from the South China Seas he is described as follows, “Old McDonald was Master (of the Klang) – a gentle, old bible-puncher he was, a bearded bloke and fairly elderly”.
On this particular routine voyage to Penang the Klang had eight European passengers and over 200 deck passengers, mostly Malay Moslems. Each of the deck passengers had a little cane mat, which they put down on the deck and that was their bit of space. In the words of Tales From The South China Seas, “By the time they got out to Raffles lighthouse, some Malays decided it was time to say prayers to Mecca. ...They had lain their mats down and unfortunately they were Hajis – that’s to say they’d just come back from Mecca – and in those days they used to stain their whiskers red with lead.
They went to the ship’s rail at the stern to “Al-Allah” to Mecca. When they returned another fellow had picked up their mats, thrown them in the scuppers and put his down. Of course there was an argument and the next thing – out with the kris (dagger).....
The Mate was up with the old man on the bridge and the first intimation they got that there was something wrong down on the decks was when all these deck passengers – women, kids and all – began trying to get up on the prom deck. In the meantime a kemudi (helmsman, who was off duty having his food, saw all this and managed to climb up over the awning spars on to the bridge and told them that some fellows had run amok [an unfortunate Malay custom] and were foaming at the mouth like mad dogs.
So the Mate said to the old man, “I’ll go down and see what I can do.”
And the old man (McDonald) said, “No, you’d better leave it to me”. So down went the old chap and he met these two coming along the deck, which was clear now because all the other passengers had crowded the other side to get out of the way. The old man went up to one of them, put his hand on his shoulder to ease him down and this fellow just disembowelled him there and then. Then he and the other fellow got busy with a few more.”
In all seven people were killed and five wounded, including the chief engineer, Mr. McWilliam Rae, who also confronted one of the madmen and was stabbed in the chest for his efforts. The carnage lasted for half an hour until one of the maniacs stabbed the other.
The Mate put the ship hard over and returned to Singapore, anchoring off Johnson’s Pier with the flag up indicating that the police were required on board.
Two Inspectors and eight constables arrived, armed with rifles and bayonets. They went to the stern part of the upper deck where they found the remaining madman. For fifteen minutes they tried to persuade him to drop his knife, but without success, and so Inspector Bostock shot him in the leg. Then the chief officer, William Lutkin, told the police that the captain had been killed and so the Inspectors ordered the man to be shot down The two officers fired their rifles and the multiple murderer died upon reaching the pier.
The irony was that, when he was stabbed, Captain McDonald was armed with a pistol but he did not use it. He was described by the Northern Advocate as “one of the mildest mannered men one could possibly have met with unless rivalled by his brother, Captain Colin McDonald.” (1December, 1925)Murdoch McDonald was not the only one of his family to die at sea; his older brother, Duncan, had been the captain of a fore-and aft schooner, the Acadian, when, in March, 1880, he took her out oof Napier and neither captain nor ship was ever seen again. And let’s not forget Murdoch’s cousin, Captain Kenneth McKenzie (son of Duncan “Prince”) who, in August, 1881, perished when his ship, the Rona, sank off Kaipara Heads.
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