Moresby of the Port and the Plain

‘Our work off East Cape, when it was summed up, resulted in the laying down of more than 2,000 miles of fixed soundings and a trigonometrical chart of all the adjacent islands and coastline. We felt that our desires of the last year in this respect were now fulfilled, and that the Basilisk had opened an accurately surveyed highway for commerce between Australia, Northern New Guinea, and China’ John Moresby, Two Admirals, 1909.
‘On the other side of Grassy Bay, two miles to the east, was Clarence Hill, the house of the admiral. None but a poet’s pen could do justice to this the loveliest corner in beautiful Bermuda.’ John Moresby, Two Admirals, 1909.

  • Careening the Floating Dock Bermuda in the Camber at the Royal Naval Dockyard, about 1880.

    Careening the Floating Dock Bermuda in the Camber at the Royal Naval Dockyard, about 1880.

  • Moresby?s Plain in 1900, being the recreational ground created by the eponymous Captain out of a quarry site: it remains in use to this day as he intended.

    Moresby?s Plain in 1900, being the recreational ground created by the eponymous Captain out of a quarry site: it remains in use to this day as he intended.

  • Captain Moresby?s chart of his discoveries by survey of the archipelago just east of New Guinea in 1873.

    Captain Moresby?s chart of his discoveries by survey of the archipelago just east of New Guinea in 1873.

  • The handsome building of the Bermuda Dockyard Sailors? Home on Ireland Island South, fully demolished in the early 1980s.

    The handsome building of the Bermuda Dockyard Sailors? Home on Ireland Island South, fully demolished in the early 1980s.

  • Admiral John Moresby, of New Guinea and Bermuda, in later years, a portrait published in his autobiography in 1909.

    Admiral John Moresby, of New Guinea and Bermuda, in later years, a portrait published in his autobiography in 1909.

  • The original Cottage of 1827 that was home to Moresby and his family when in Bermuda in the 1870s, demolished in 1937.

    The original Cottage of 1827 that was home to Moresby and his family when in Bermuda in the 1870s, demolished in 1937.


The archipelagos of the Azores in the east and Bermuda in the west dominate the central seas of the North Atlantic, for while they are but small patches of dry land supported on oceanic volcanoes, they are all that the distressed mariner can hope to find in the vast area of that watery part of the globe.

Half way round the world, on the other side of the globe, as they say as if the world were the flat covers of a book connected by a thin spine of land and sea, on the western side of the great Pacific lies in contrast, New Guinea, the second largest island on earth, second only to Greenland.

One would not necessarily stop to think that there is any connection between the land of old-fashioned headhunters and Bermuda, with its modern version of that trade that results in the acquisition of heads intact with living bodies.

Yet one John Moresby, late Admiral and sometime Captain-in-Charge of the Royal Navy, has planted, or imposed, the Moresby surname on New Guinea and Bermuda, for his father is the Moresby of the principal Port in the former place and he of the Plain (and House) in the latter.

The capital of independent Papua New Guinea remains Port Moresby, while the great playing field at the Bermuda Dockyard retains its appellation as Moresby Plain, sometimes seen in the possessive, as John Moresby’s creation it was.

Between John and his father, two generations of Moresbys gave a century of service to the Royal Navy, much of it in overseas duty, with John’s including the pleasant position as Captain-in-Charge at the Bermuda Dockyard, flying his pennant on the old warship, HMS Terror, a fixture of Grassy Bay for many years in its dotage.

The old boy was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Fairfax Moresby, GCB, KMT, DCL, born in 1786, and slipping his moorings at the good age of 91, about the time son John took up, at Bermuda, one of his last active postings of a long naval career.

During part of his service, Fairfax was the senior officer in the early 1820s at Mauritius, acting on orders to suppress the trade in slaves in eastern Africa, concluding in 1822 the ‘Moresby Treaty’ restricting the local slave trade and giving British warships the right to search and apprehend vessels that might be so engaged.

Later as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Station at Valparaiso in the early 1850s, he assisted in the moving to Norfolk Island of some of the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, the latter today, like Bermuda, one of the last of the oceanic islands of what is now Britain’s clutch of ‘Overseas Territories’.

His son John was born in 1830 and entered naval service as a cadet at the age of 12. Yet a teenager, John was on the Mediterranean and American Stations, so it is possibly that he visited Bermuda between 1845 and 1849.

His most significant posting began in 1871, prior to that of Bermuda in 1878, when he was authorised to survey the coast of New Guinea out of the Australian Station.

During the course of that work, he discovered the ‘China Straits’, which promised a shorter route between Australia and the Far East.

John Moresby claimed New Guinea for Britain at the appropriately named ‘Possession Island’, but it is not known if he informed the indigenous population of their transfer to Queen Victoria’s imperial inventory of real estate.

All this work was carried out in HMS Basilisk, named for the king of serpents, but a slow and ageing ‘paddle sloop’, which had earlier served on the North America and West Indies Station, headquartered at Bermuda.

After New Guinea, while hoping for another sea appointment, ‘But here, too, I was doomed to disappointment’, Captain John Fairfax arrived on his first land position, after a period of coastguard work, at Bermuda in April 1878, where he lived in ‘The Cottage’, the official residence of the Captain-in Charge.

Shortly afterwards, on 27 August, after the annual careening of the great Floating Dock, a hurricane of considerable proportions struck without warning and ‘often our men were blown off the breakwater into the camber’, as the Dockyard workers attempted to keep the Dock central to the Camber during the storm, only to have it break all its chains, but saved by a sudden change of wind direction.

Thereafter Captain Moresby turned his attention to the creation of the Moresby Plain recreation ground, noting that the only way to accomplish the task was ‘by manipulating the labour and by personal supervision, without reference to the home authorities a proceeding somewhat dangerous, but worth the risk’.

A more private one followed that sporting facility, for ‘The Cottage was a relaxation, for on a little islet lying before it, I had built, with the aid of my boat’s crew and my own hands, an American bowling-alley, connecting it to my garden with a light bridge’.

Lastly, Moresby was responsible for the building of a Sailors’ Home on the south side of The Lagoon, ‘a handsome building with accommodation for 200 men, and billiards and tennis-courts, etc, for their amusement’.

Perhaps to the amusement of some, that fine building was demolished in the early 1980s after years of neglect.

On 1 April 1881, Captain John Moresby, later Rear Admiral, left Bermuda after a three-year stint at the Royal Naval Dockyard: ‘I handed over my command to another, when parting kindnesses, warm farewells, and much speechifying, poured in on me from all quarters, together with gratifying official recognition; but I think the Commander-in-Chief Sir Leopold McClintock’s last words were my greatest pleasure, when he simply said: “I hope I shall be regretted as you are when I also give up my command”.’

In a recent generation, two Bermuda residents (a Col TS and a Dr EH) had cause to be stationed for short periods in Papua New Guinea, but in those days the connection between the Port and the Plain was not appreciated: both managed to leave with their heads intact despite that lack of intelligence of a cross-global heritage nature.

Thanks are due to Geoffrey Roome of London for the donation of John Moresby’s autobiographical book, Two Admirals, published in 1909, to the Library of the National Museum of Bermuda.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

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Published Nov 19, 2011 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 19, 2011 at 8:26 am)

Moresby of the Port and the Plain

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