Valerie Bence


John and Mary Williams LMS Missionaries. Sailed to the South Seas on board the Harriet 1816-17



It starts by not sailing on a Thursday or Friday

or the first Monday in April or the second in August,

Saturdays or Sundays were preferred, the 17th and 29th being especially auspicious.

Don’t step on board left foot first, wear green or carry a black bag

don’t have red hair, be cross-eyed, clap

or whistle unless you are the youngest on board or the ship’s cook;

best not to be a woman, unless you’re naked

or about to give birth.

Never throw stones into the sea, leave a bowl or bucket

upside-down, have flowers on board or cut hair or toenails

once a ship has sailed. Sailors should sleep only on their backs.

Never let a bell ring - unless a watch bell or it will ring for death. 

It’s useful to have a loved one’s hair knitted into your sock,

to ensure your return to dry land, but don’t let them wave you goodbye…

Don’t join a ship whose name ends in ‘a’, change a ship’s name

after launch or stick a knife in a mast -

          unless you are becalmed as it will summon-up the wind.

Never say thirteen, say twelve plus one; if there is a death on board

the sailmaker should stitch the body in sailcloth with thirteen stitches,

the last one through the nose, to make sure they are dead

           and don’t follow the ship.

Never say ‘goodbye’ ‘drown’ or ‘pig’ - especially not ‘pig’ 

(use Gruff, Little Fella or Mr Dennis) but it is fine to say pig if you have one

tattooed upon a knee

pig on knee, safety at sea;

In the galley, never cross knives on the table, stir tea with a knife or fork

or pass salt directly to another person - pass the salt, pass sorrow

never borrow a spoon, always eat fish from head to tail.

Egg shells must be broken into tiny pieces, to stop witches getting in.

         Pray for an albatross or dolphin to show the way to land,

never harm them, they carry the spirits of dead sailors.




A year she lived like this, newly married Mary

amongst such men who wore gold in their ears

to improve their eyesight or to pay Davy Jones if drowned at sea;

men who would never reach through the rungs of a ladder

to handle a flag – which would break the Holy Trinity…


A year to get there. If the world had been flat

they would surely have gone over the edge -

more dangerous then, they say

than becoming astronaut, blasting off the earth.

She would return without him, leaving seven babies behind.


A year’s journey before she stood in dimity

and cotton lawn quite unfit for climate,

a little behind her husband in the small boat.

Soon she would have to disembark, blinded by the blue,

step on land as if she knew what she was doing.


Removing her too dainty shoes, she took his hand

jumped delicately onto bone dry sand.

They had God in their luggage;

but she may have had in her pocket the feather of a wren

killed on New Year’s Day, for safe passage


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