John Dibbs

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Captain John Dibbs, master mariner, aged about 40.

Captain John Dibbs, (1790–1872) was a master mariner prominent during 1822-1835 in the seas around the colony of New South Wales, New Zealand and the Society Islands (now Tahiti). Dibbs was master of the schooner Endeavour 1822-1824, the brig Haweis 1824-1827 and the barque Lady Blackwood 1827-1834. He is credited as the European discoverer of Rarotonga and several other islands.[1] Most of his voyages involved the transporting of missionaries, trade, whaling and seal hunting. He was believed for over 170 years to have disappeared at sea in 1835. He was the father of Sir George Dibbs, a pre-Federation Australian politician, Sir Thomas Dibbs, an Australian banker, and John Campbell Dibbs, a successful Sydney businessman.

Early Years[edit]

Very few verifiable facts are known. John was born[2] and educated in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. His parents were John Dibbs and Elizabeth Simpson and John was one of several children. His father, uncle and grandfather did military service prior to his birth in 1790.

Maritime Training[edit]

It is very likely he trained as a midshipman through the Marine Society around 1806. The East India Company College (Hertford Heath, near Hertford) started in 1806, and trained 16-18 year olds, and if so John would have been one of the earliest intakes of students. He would have graduated to the East India Company Maritime Service in 1808. His activities 1808-1818 are unknown, but there are two general possibilities.

In 1808 at age 18 he graduates and becomes eligible for posting as a midshipman. Reportedly 25% of Scottish males served in the military between 1792 and 1815, so it’s possible (given his father’s and grandfather’s military service) that John joined the Royal Navy that was then involved with the War of 1812 and Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 at Waterloo the British economy went into recession, and there were thousands of ex-navy seamen out of work.

There is however no record of a Lieutenant Dibbs (or variant spellings) in the Royal Navy.[3]

The idea that John Dibbs was in the Royal Navy comes from a story first published in 1865 [4] detailing an 1828 voyage to England in a ship, the Lady Mary, under the command of a Captain Dibbs, a former Royal Navy lieutenant, and how he outwitted pirates off the coast of Brazil.

Merchant Marine officer grade promotions usually required a two-year tour at sea. Hence it's reasonable to assume that ...

  • John graduated from midshipman to 6th officer about 1810.
  • John is promoted to 5th officer about 1812.
  • John is promoted to 4th officer about 1814.
  • John is promoted to 3rd officer about 1816.

Scottish immigration to Canada peaked in 1819.[5][6] John is listed as the master of the Rothiemurchus, a ship rated at 322 tons owned by John Watson & Co, Leith, in March 1818. The Rothiemurchus made trips to Quebec in 1816 and 1817 (John was probably 1st officer), again in March 1818, and was wrecked in September 1818 [7][8] in the Baltic on her way in ballast to St. Petersburgh, after leaving Leith on 3 September 1818. She ended up on the Naas Reef, near Wisby, Gotland, when "driven on shore" on 15 September.

The vessel last appeared in the Lloyd's Registers in 1818, but she does not feature between 1812 and 1815, and part of the explanation is that this was not the name under which she originally sailed. Previously launched and known as The Bell of London, she was evidently owned by the Admiralty as a supply vessel or transport but she was advertised as up for sale prior to the Congress of Vienna and Wellington's subsequent campaign in Europe.[9]

This sale did not result in a buyer, and "the Rothiemurchus of London" was re-advertised as for sale in Edinburgh on 18 October 1815, and was now "presently lying in the harbour of Leith", although her former name was no longer mentioned. This time she was "set up at the sum of three thousand pounds Sterling", presumably the reserve price. Again she did not sell, and was again advertised for sale on 8 November, this time set up at £2500. By 26 February 1816 "the New Ship Rothiemurchus" had indeed found a new master, George Watson, and was advertised as ready to receive goods, and bound for Quebec in early April.

John joined the Westmoreland (rated at 600 tons) in Leith, Scotland, as 2nd officer in 1820. The Westmoreland (Captain Potton) transported immigrants and cargo from Leith to South Africa, then to Sydney via Hobart, the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and Tahiti. She was one of 26 immigrant ships the embarked some 4000 persons under the Albany Settlement Scheme of 1820,[10] the aim being to settle them in South Africa. On the Westmoreland were Rev. Thomas Kendall, the Maori chieftains Waitkato and Hongi Hika, to whom King George IV had gifted a suit of armor. While in England Hongi Hika had also negotiated a large quantity of muskets and ammunition for land from the French adventurer Baron Charles de Thierry who shipped them to Sydney. These munitions fundamentally changed the balance of power in Maori New Zealand.

Waitkato and Hongi Hika and their armaments were landed in New Zealand in July 1821, and the Westmoreland continued north east to Tahiti for extra cargo and passengers (notably Rev. John Williams , before heading to Sydney.

Arrival in New South Wales[edit]

On his arrival in Sydney in 1821 on the Westmoreland Captain Dibbs became acquainted with Robert Campbell Sr. (of the Sydney traders Campbell & Co), his sons, John (20), Robert (18) and Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) on the incoming voyage from Otaheite (Tahiti) and New Zealand in 1821.

Robert Campbell Sr. and Rev. Williams offered him command of the schooner Endeavour to trade in the Tahiti region. During this time, while ferring Rev. Williams around the islands, John became acquainted with René Primevère Lesson and Jules de Blosseville of the French royal corvette Coquille, on a hydographic expedition. In May 1823, John and Jules de Blosseville, on the Endeavour returned to Maupiti Island to map it for the Coquille expedition.[11] On 25 July 1823, Captain Dibbs (re)discovered Armstrong Island (now called Rarotonga), and nearby islands Mitiero and Mauke.

In March 1824, the Russian hydrographic mission under Otto von Kotzebue stayed in Otaheite for 10 days, and met with Captain Dibbs.[12]

Captain Dibbs was also present in Otahiete for the coronation of King Pomare III on 21 April 1824, before heading to Sydney with cargo and a group of missionaries, notably George Bennet (missionary) and Daniel Tyerman.

On 16 July 1824 on the voyage to Sydney from Tahiti, the crew and passengers stopped in the Bay of Islands where a Wesleyan mission was located. An altercation with the local Maori Ngāti Pou tribe resulted in the Whangaroa Incident [13] where the Endevour was boarded by Maori warriors and the crew menaced. The situation was defused by the timely arrival of another Maori chieftain, Ngāti Uru chief Te Ara. The incident was initially described by Rev. Tyerman as a mostly a problem of cultural differences, but in later years the story became a perilous cannibal adventure that defined the Maori (to European readers) as barbarian savages.

The Endeavour finally returned to Sydney in mid August 1824.[14]

Captain Dibbs was appointed the London Missionary Society Master of Ships[15] for the Pacific station and served in this capacity until 1827.

In March 1825, he was given command of the Campbell & Co brig Haweis (from Capt Jamison) and ferried missionaries around New Zealand and Tahiti, and also traded, until mid-1827.

The Haweis made a voyage to Mauritius (off the east coast of Africa) in early 1827 – April 1827,[14] selling the cargo of sugar in Hobart on the return voyage. The vessel appears to have been under the command of the 1st officer, a Mr. Doyle, as John was still in Otaheite, and rejoined the Haweis in Hobart.

In June 1827, in Launceston on the return voyage from Hobart to Sydney, John assaulted a river pilot, one John Williams, who filed a formal complaint.[16] In the court document it is stated that the Haweis had a crew of Tahitians, and John was fluent enough in their language to be able to command them. The court document ends by stating that the accused was "not apprehended, effected his escape".

The Lady Blackwood scudding through the Bay of Biscay. Painting by George Gregory, 1892.

In 1821 Campbell & Co had acquired the barque Lady Blackwood in Calcutta. Captain John handed the Haweis over to Capt John James around September 1827, and on 29 September, departed for Calcutta[14] to take command of the Lady Blackwood. He arrived in Calcutta from Singapore on the Donna Carmelita, listed as on Country Service (i.e. as an East India company employee), and returned to Sydney in mid April 1828.

His first trading voyage in the Lady Blackwood was to Valparaiso, Chile, May – November 1828,[14] returning with a cargo of wheat, barley, other grains and some breeding mares.


The London Missionary Society records[17] that at Raiatea (now Tahiti), "25 Aug 1825, Mary, wife of John Dibbys, Master schooner Haweis, died in childbirth." There is no other known information on Mary, but it’s most probable that she was from Sydney or New Zealand, and they would have been married by mid-1824. She may have been the daughter of an LMS missionary,[18][19] as John transported many of them with families around the region. Shipping records[14] indicate that the Haweis was on a return voyage to Sydney from Tahiti in August 1825.

In December 1828 John married Sophia Allwright (19) the daughter of convicts Thomas Allwright and Sophia Langford, in Sydney, and took her back to St. Andrews in early 1829 on the Lady Blackwood. A son, John (the most likely name[20]), was born prematurely soon after arrival in London in August 1829 but died after 6 hours.[21] They had three other sons, John Campbell (b. 1830), Thomas Allwright (b. 1833) and George Richard (b. 1834), all who became prominent in the colony before federation. An unnamed daughter (b.1832) is believed to have died soon after birth as no baptismal record is extant.

"Disappearance at Sea", and the real story[edit]

For generations, it was thought and always said by the family that Captain John Dibbs disappeared at sea in 1835, and was never heard of again. It was only in 2009 that part of the true story finally emerged when records from the HEIC archives were located in London.

Examination of shipping records between 1829 and 1833 show that John was engaged mostly in the seal and whaling trade in the Lady Blackwood. During his last voyage, something happened which caused major personality changes and he was diagnosed with "mania furiosa", with symptoms of uncontrollable rages. The most likely cause is a severe head injury, such as a depressed skull fracture. He and Sophia lived apart for a few months, and then when his condition became unmanageable, the East India Company (through the assistance of John Campbell) arranged for him to be transferred to the company asylum in Calcutta run by Dr. Isaac Beardsmore, then later to another facility in London.[22]

Aug 1835 Capt John departs for Calcutta aboard the Africaine, restrained in his cabin. He appears to have been accompanied or escorted by a Captain Carew.

Nov 1837 John is shipped to England aboard the Catherine at a cost of Rs.600. He was reportedly so uncontrollable that he had to be placed in a straight jacket.

The 1841 census in England lists John Dibbs, born in Scotland around 1790, in an East India Company Asylum, Pembroke House, in London. He was described as a naval officer. John Dibbs and his wife Elizabeth Simpson had a son John who was baptised on 14 November 1790 in St Andrews and St Leonards, Scotland, for whom no other records have been found. East India Company records[23] show John Dibbs, a ship’s captain, as a patient in the lunatic Asylum of Isaac Beardsmore in Calcutta, India in 1835. He was diagnosed with 'mania furiosa'. After many letters to the Governor of Bengal,[24] a passage to London was arranged in June 1837 on the Catherine. It was hoped that the better climate there would effect an improvement in his health. His former place of abode was 'unknown' but he himself stated that he was born in St Andrews, Scotland, that his father was a grocer and alive in 1829 and that his wife and children were in Sydney, where he had property.

After a year, in 1838, he had not improved and was described as 'haughty and sullen' and 'unwilling to take treatment'. His main occupations were reading and walking and religious attendance. He was in otherwise good health. Details of the diet of the patients are given for each day of the week. Breakfast was always one pint of milk and five ounces of thick round bread. For dinner there was typically half a pound of meat such as mutton, with potatoes or barley broth, five ounces of bread, a pudding like rice pudding and one and a half pints of beer. There were carrots on Thursday, specially mentioned. There was always a teatime serving of one pint of tea and a thick round of bread and butter. For supper there was bread and cheese and beer for those who liked it. John must have thrived, at least physically as he spent the next 37 years in the care of the East India Company, moving with them to their new Royal India Asylum in Ealing, London. He died aged 81 in 1872. His death certificate states that he had dementia for 37 years, an enlarged prostate and the cause of death[25] seems to have been urania poisoning.

John Dibbs was buried from the Royal India Asylum, Ealing, in the South Ealing Cemetery.[26]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Register of St.Andrew's baptisms 1739 -1803. John Dibbs was born in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland on 8 Nov 1790 to John Dibbs (Shoemaker in St.Andrews) and Elizabeth Simpson and Baptised on 14 November by Dr.Adamson. Witnesses were James Greig and Thomas Aikman.
  3. ^ Navy List, site containing over 11,000 names of commissioned Royal Navy officers during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)
  4. ^ 'The Leisure Hour' magazine, 1865, reprinted in the Religious Tract Societypublication, undated, but believed to be about 1885, and elsewhere, The vessel is named as the Lady Mary, but this would appear to be the Lady Blackwood as this is the ship Captain John sailed back to England in 1829. If so, this is written by a child passenger on the Lady Blackwood, and is in all likelihood much embellished with the retelling many years later, hence the wrong ship name and other details. The Lady Blackwood returned to Sydney in March 1830, and yet there is no mention of this pirate adventure reported in the Sydney Gazette, nor in a letter dated 18 March 1830 (original in the Mitchell Library, Sydney) by Mrs. Sophia Dibbs to a friend.
  5. ^
  6. ^ "The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855", Lucille H. Campey (2005) ISBN 1-897045-01-8. p.153-155 Glengarry and Beyond
  7. ^ Caledonian Mercury 10 October 1818: "The Rothiemurchus, Dibbs, of and from Leith to Petersburgh, was driven on shore on Gothland 15th ult. and it was feared would not be got off. The materials, &c. expected to be saved."
  8. ^
  9. ^ Caledonian Mercury, 5 March 1815 there appears the following: "By Authority of the Right Honourable the Judge of The High Court of Admiralty. On Wednesday the 22d day of March 1815, there is to be exposed to public roup [auction] and sale, before the said Judge, at Edinburgh, within the Ordinary Court place, at two o'clock afternoon, The Ship or Vessel sometime called THE BELL OF LONDON, now the ROTHIEMURCHUS, With her haill [whole] furniture and apparelling, conform to inventory, as presently lying in the harbour of Cromarty, which ship was built at Kingston Port, in Elgin, and launched in the year 1812, and admeasures per register 315 30-94th tons, and is then to be set up at the sum of L.4200 14s. 3d. Sterling. The conditions of sale, and inventory of the said Ship or Vessel, together with the certificate of registry, are to be seen at the Admiralty Office, Parliament Square, or in the hands of Mr John Peat, one of the Procurators of Court, any awful [sic] day betwixt and the time of sale."
  10. ^\ describes in detail the concept, organization, pitfalls and results of this scheme.
  11. ^
  12. ^ In "A New Voyage Round the World in the Years 1823, 24, 25, and 26. Vol. 1" he mentions "...the ship possessed by the Queen. This is commanded by an Englishman, and a part of the crew is also English. It was just returned from a voyage among the Society Islands, where it had been to collect tribute, and was preparing to carry a cargo of cocoa-oil, stowed in thick bamboo-canes, to Port Jackson. From the Captain, who visited me, I gained much information concerning the present state of affairs in these seas.". This is of course Captain Dibbs and the Endeavour. The rest of the crew were Tahitians.
  13. ^ Alexander Maxwell & Evan Roberts (2014) The Whangaroa Incident, 16 July 1824 A European–Māori Encounter and Its Many Incarnations, The Journal of Pacific History, 49:1,50-75, DOI: 10.1080/00223344.2013.869845
  14. ^ a b c d e All shipping dates can be found in the on-line archives of the Sydney Gazette and other colonial newspapers of the time. See This on-line resource has been invaluable in piecing together John’s history during 1820-1835, mostly by locating Shipping News references to the Westmoreland, Endeavour, Haweis and Lady Blackwood, and their various captains, placing them in a time line, and drawing inferences and conclusions.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Unpublished Dibbs family letter, 1974, referring to LMS Archives in Raiatea. The original LMS source is yet to be relocated. LMS archives are found at but much is not as yet on line. Same document mentions an older relative stating that Sophia told him Captain John was a widower.
  18. ^ Journal and proceedings - Royal Australian Historical Society, Volumes 9-10, (1924) p216ff. This article discusses the voyage of René Primevère Lesson as described in Voyage autour du monde sur la Coquille published in 1838. Lesson met M. Deps, the master of the schooner Endeavour. M. Deps is of course Capt. Dibbs. Lesson also recounts a May 1823 meeting between himself, Capt.Dibbs, and Rev. William Pascoe Crook and his daughters aged 20 and 16. lists their names as Mary and Nancy Anna. states that Rev. Samuel Marsden married Mary Crook to Johann Christian Simon Handt at St.James Church, Sydney in 1832. So she can’t be the Mary who died in 1825.
  19. ^ Another possibility was Mary Cover Hassall (1799-1825). Her father and brother were closely involved with Robert and John Campbell and the LMS, and ran a business provisioning LMS missionaries to Otaheite. She was born and raised in Sydney. Hassall family records indicate she married Rev. Walter Lawry on 22 November 1819, and spent the next four years in Tonga. The Lawry's returned to Cornwall and Mary died soon after giving birth to a daughter in 1825.
  20. ^ Scottish tradition was that first sons were named after the grandfather.
  21. ^ Letter by Mrs. Sophia Dibbs to a friend, dated 18 March 1830, on her return to Sydney from Scotland. Original held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.
  22. ^ Ernst, W., "Asylum Provision and the East India Company in the Nineteenth Century", (Medical History, 1998, 42: 476-502).
  23. ^ British Library: IOR/K/2/34, IOR/K/2/1, IOR/L/MIL/5/423
  24. ^ British Library: IOR/V/27/750/16
  25. ^
  26. ^ Formerly the Ealing and Old Brentford Cemetery, grave 15, row G, block C