R.C. Bruce spent many years in the 19th century sailing on British, colonial and American merchant ships, interspersed with spells on the Otago and Queensland goldfields. His 1914 memoir, Reminiscences of a wanderer (written under the name 'Able Seaman' and published by Whitcombe & Tombs), is a ripping yarn of a nomadic labouring life at sea and on land.
Born in Scotland in 1843, Robert Cunningham Bruce went to sea at the age of 14 and spent the next two decades sailing ‘before the mast' (that is, as a deck hand) around the world. He tried his luck on the Otago goldfields in the early 1860s, before returning to the sea for a further 15 years (including a spell on the American Great Lakes). His Reminiscences recount tales of saloon brawls on the ‘Barbary Coast', San Francisco's notorious sailortown; a narrow escape from floods on the Arrow River in Otago; ‘bucko' (cruel) officers on Yankee ‘blood boats', including one who shot a crewman; encounters with bushrangers on the Queensland diggings; surviving a bout of malaria in Batavia (Jakarta); a crew terrorised by a deranged, violent shipmate, who disappeared mysteriously at sea one dark night; street battles with knife-wielding Irish 'packet rats' in New York; discussing Shakespeare and the Bible with Japanese shipmates; various sweethearts won and lost; and storms and hurricanes by the dozen.
Violence was a regular part of 19th-century seafaring life. Here, for example, is Bruce's account of a scrap with a bullying shipmate on a vessel bound for Frisco:
Suddenly swerving and ducking, I gave him what the Yankees call a tremendous ‘rib bender' with both fists simultaneously, and I felt sure in my own mind that this had really settled the fight. When he again rose I thought he was ‘groggy', and I got in a good blow on the jaw, which made him reel so that he fell against a stanchion, and there he lay, unable to rise for some time. He said his neck had been injured in the fall and that he could fight no more at present. ‘But,' he continued, ‘I am just as good a man as you.' I said, ‘Yes, and I am just as good a man as you.' After this fight I had no more trouble, and the man behaved himself as well as anyone on board. Even more, he admitted to me one day that he had deserved all he got, but added that he had never had any chance in life. Brought up in the gutters of an Irish city, he had, since going to sea, mainly associated with blackguards. After this I actually began to have a liking for the man.
Bruce also celebrated seafaring culture and traditions, reproducing a handful of popular sea shanties: 'Storm along', 'Rolling river', 'Rio Grande', 'Good-bye, fare you well' and 'Blow the man down'.
Leaving the sea in 1877, Bruce settled in New Zealand and took up farming in the Rangitikei district. He was elected to Parliament for the Rangitikei seat in 1884, serving until 1890 and again in 1892-3. A prominent early conservationist, he preserved several fine stands of native bush, including the R.C. Bruce Memorial Park at Hunterville. He died on 23 April 1917. The Bruce Road to the skifield at Whakapapa, Mt Ruapehu, was also named after him, in acknowledgement of substantial donations his estate made to its development in 1923.