South Australia - Immigration
Comment on Emigrant Ships
(Taken from Geoffrey H. Manning, A Colonial Experience.)
Few can imagine, except those who have experienced it, the excess of suffering that can be inflicted on passengers by commanders whilst at sea, and they assume such a different appearance and manner on shore, that no possible circumspection can guard against the chance of engaging with one. The only infallible rule is to secure a ship regularly in the trade, and then the captain for his own sake will act well to preserve a character for his ship.
(William Cobbett, An Emigrants' Guide)
During the first four years of emigration from Great Britain to South Australia, it was a notorious fact that ships, condemned as unfit for further service, in every trade, were patched up and chartered to bring out migrants. A question may arise as to how this was accomplished?
There were many shipowners along the banks of the River Thames who possessed sufficient influence to get a leaky ship and charter it to take out free emigrants and convicts to the Australian colonies. The enormous sacrifices that took place during those years ought to have been sufficient to have deterred the money-grubbing emigration speculators from risking people's lives in rotten ships in the future.
Unfortunately, such was not the case for, in 1840, there were several ships in the port of London fitting out which should have been condemned and broken up. For instance, the Java with about 300 immigrants on board sailed early in 1840 and the sides of her hull were so rotten that the ship's carpenters engaged in fitting her declared that its planks would not retain a screw or a nail.
It was true that persons were appointed by the government to inspect these ships and report on their seaworthiness but, unfortunately, those individuals were too apt to be deceived by eyesight and neglected to examine a vessel minutely. They went on board and found everything fresh and new and concluded that the ship was seaworthy. However, in many instances, if they had taken the trouble to raise a plank or two and thrust a knife into the sides of the vessel, they would have found the woods crumble to pieces. It is certain there was a great deal of misconduct.
The provisions doled out were too often of a most inferior quality, but once at sea complaints were useless - it was Hobson's choice - that or none! The emigrant ships were often overcrowded and proper ventilation was not secured below. The consequence of this was that on reaching equatorial latitudes fever broke out and the mortality, particularly among the children, was horrific.
A Mournful Record
Prior to 1849 the official records contain no information whatever of the mortality that it was natural to suppose on many emigrant ships. In fact, even when records were obliged to be kept, as from 1849, it was almost as bad as none at all, for neither the cause of death nor the date of death were given.
The Phoebe arrived in May 1846 when many passengers stated that while the provisions were of good quality, they were curtailed as to quality. Further, the porter allowed to mothers who had infants at the breast, was frequently found to have been diluted with water.
In the case of two ships arriving in 1849 (Brankenmoor and Prince Regent) not only were the dates and causes of death omitted, but names also, the only mention being the word 'adult' or 'child', as the case might have been. The Constance, 1849, had 19 deaths, all unspecified, and amongst persons of all ages; followed by the Samuel Boddington, Himalaya and Ascendant with an aggregate of 30 deaths, none of which were accounted for.
The Emily and the Harry Lorrequer, which arrived in 1849, and the Lysander and Omega in 1850, were the only vessels of these years that disclosed the dates of death as well as the names of the deceased, but no cause of death was recorded!
'Death has stalked over the waters, and the shark and the porpoise have made many a meal of human carcases supplied from the cholera ship - the bodies of men, women and children.' Such was a startling allegation in January 1850 about the Douglas - or what was called the 'Death Ship'.
The horrendous story of the vessel's journey to South Australia is best told in the words of the Editor of the Register: 'True, there was a variety to relieve the direful monotony on the voyage. Sales of effects belonging to the departed took place, and large sums were realised thereby; bodies, scarcely cold, were toppled into the deep, with little, if any, ceremonial Christian burial.
'A thoughtless captain, desirous of dispersing the gloom, danced on the deck with a lady's bustle... An officer was taken into adultery and a defrauded husband quenched his wrath with a glass of rum; a beer shop was opened by a penny-turning passenger, on the strength of a stock of porter bought from the captain...
'Indeed, such was the scarcity of the ship's dietary, we are told a rat was skinned, dressed and eaten by the cabin passengers, while anything they could lay their hands on was grabbed by those in the steerage... It is the opinion of all or a great majority of the passengers that several lives, out of the seventeen that died, might have been saved if proper attention had been paid and medical comforts served out to them.
'Three officers... had "fancy girls" selected from among the fair passengers. These libertine pranks occasioned little or no surprise on board. With abhorrence we visited the ship and saw one poor fellow in articulo mortis, whom Dr Duncan had kindly and promptly visited. Until that gentleman came he was dying with no friendly hand to aid him among his fellow-passengers: custom had made them cold and careless...
'English emigration agents for these cheap ships are mere sordid actors in a dismal farce. The Emigration Agent here is not, we believe, called upon to interfere when persons have arrived without any charge upon the Land Fund of this colony; but in our mind the claims of humanity are imperative, and such claims ought not to be shirked under any pretence...
'In conclusion, we regret to state, that whilst we have been writing death has been busy again, more victims have been added to the dismal catalogue of mortality on board the death-ship, under concomitant circumstances of the most disgusting loathsomeness and intoxication.
'But what decency, what sobriety, what cleanliness, what humanity can be expected on board a vessel whose commander and surgeon are habitually drunk? Many men less culpable have been tried for manslaughter, and we fear that the lives of some of the passengers by the Douglas will be charged against those who pretended to command and superintend, but forsook or neglected their duty. Britons, bestir yourselves! The honour of the British name is at stake, and all through the reckless use of stimulating drinks.'
A few months later the Stratheden arrived and it seemed cursed with the class known as 'medical drunkards' who seemed to flock to these shores as if to a congenial clime. Let our learned Editor recite the story of this individual, who earned for himself a niche in the portrait gallery of mad doctors.
'The medical chest, with its phials and fittings were, it is true, at the service of the sick, but the unsteady hand and intoxicated brain of the wretched sot who should have administered the physic and medicines were unfit to compound the one, or apply the other; and had it not been for the fortunate presence of a passenger doctor, there is no knowing what fatal consequences might have resulted...
'Under the influence of some singular calculation the doctor appears to have supposed that the medical comforts were put on board for his own use; at all events he prescribed them for himself, and most scrupulously (or rather unscrupulously, followed the prescription.
'For gross obscenity in the cabin, whilst under the influence of drink, the unworthy doctor of the Stratheden was banished from the cabin by the commander; and he even so far forgot himself as to challenge the chief officer to a pugilistic encounter... Unlike the Douglas, however, the Stratheden was fortunately under the command of a gentleman and skilful navigator...'
The Ascendant was out again in 1851, with still more deaths and - as before - unspecified; the same remarks held good for the Hydaspes. In the same year the Reliance arrived, having lost 19 passengers of all ages, and from various numerated causes. In 1852 the Amazon arrived, having lost 19 passengers - of the dates or causes of whose deaths no mention is made.
The Phoebe Dunbar added materially to the casualties of that year, there being 13 deaths; also the Gloucester with 23 deaths, the Sea Park and Macedon, 14 each and the memorable Shackamaxon with 61 deaths. There are many others that might be included in this enumeration but I forbear. By reference to the published Immigration Agent's reports one finds continued complaints of inefficiency and neglect on the part of surgeons, matrons and those other officers to whom the management of the emigrants was entrusted. Gratuities were often stopped and fines sometimes inflicted.
With reference to the Shackmaxon, the charges against the Surgeon-Superintendent were so serious that a Board of Enquiry was appointed and its report stated that all the responsible personnel performed 'with the least approach to efficiency, the responsible duties with which they were entrusted.'
In respect of those ships where the cause of death was reported, a sad list of fatal ailments was disclosed. Fever, convulsions, inflammation, cholera, diarrhoea, bronchitis, measles and scarlatina constituted the majority of the cases. In some ships such as the Medina in 1852, from July 10 to August 13 twelve deaths occurred from diarrhoea; next year on the Neptune 'measles and diarrhoea carried off sixteen victims'. Yet, a greater number, smitten down by various maladies, were 'buried' from the Epaminondas about the same time.
The year of 1854 was nothing but a holocaust for unwitting passengers - the John Bunyan furnished 29 victims, the James Fernie, 29; the Marion, 15; the Nugget, 14. the Dirigo, 14 - with other ships the annual decimation totalled 237.
"Treatment of Passengers on the Arab" is traversed in the Register,
28 January 1843, page 1d,
"Passengers by the Arab" on
23 July 1926, page 14h.
"The Phoebe's Emigrants" is in the Observer,
9 May 1846, page 4b.
The flogging of female passengers on the emigrant ship Ramilies is reported in the Adelaide Times,
30 April 1849, page 3e.
A discussion of deaths on migrant ships is discussed under the heading "A Mournful Document" in the Express,
29 January 1866, page 2c.
A public meeting of emigrants by the barque Indian and their complaints is reported in the Register,
1, 19 and 26 September 1849, pages 3a, 2c and 2d,
3 October 1849, page 1c.
We should be grieved if our description of the foul doings on the Indian were to go forth among the humbler classes of our countrymen, who may be turning their thoughts to emigration, without modification. All ships are not like the Indian. To produce such a state of facts requires the union of an execrable captain with a still more execrable surgeon.
(South Australian, 11 June 1850, page 4a.)
Also see South Australian,
16 September 1850, page 2b,
SA Gazette & Mining Journal,
1 September 1849, page 3b,
27 October 1849, page 3c,
29 December 1849, page 4d.
For similar complaints about the Mary Ann see Observer,
22 September 1849, page 4c,
6 October 1849 (supp.),
6 and 27 October 1849 (supp.) and page 2c,
Eliza and John Munn in the Register,
3 and 10 October 1849, pages 4c-e and 2d,
Stratheden in the Observer,
2 March 1850 (supp.).
"The Douglas - The Death Ship" is discussed in the Register,
15, 16, 17 and 25 January 1850, pages 2d, 3a, 2c-3a-4a and 2d.
Duke of Cornwall in the Register,
27 May 1852, page 2e,
20, 22, 26 and 31 January 1853, pages 3a, 2e, 3d and 2d-3d,
23 April 1853, page 2e,
10 May 1853, page 3d,
28 September 1853, page 2c (supp.).
Neptune in the Register,
12 January 1854, page 3f,
10 and 15 February 1854, pages 3a and 3e,
6 March 1854, page 3f,
13 and 14 January 1854, pages 2f and 3d,
Neptune in the Observer,
17 February 1854, page 2a (supp.),
Morning Star in the Observer,
7 November 1863, page 6b.
Lady Jocelyn in the Advertiser,
15 December 1875, page 6c,
Trevelyan in the Register,
29 September 1876, page 6e,
Herschel in the Chronicle,
10 February 1877, page 4b,
British Enterprise in the Register,
5 and 28 April 1877, pages 4d-5d-6a and 4d,
10 September 1877, page 6d,
18 February 1878, page 6c.
Reminiscences of a voyage in the Tarquin in 1864 are in the Register,
22 July 1904, page 4f.
A complaint from the Matron of the Hougomont is in the Observer,
1 December 1866, page 3c (supp.).
The Hesperides is described in the Express,
5 August 1875, page 3c.
"Drunkenness on Board Emigrant Ships" is in the Express,
17 January 1876, page 3b.
"Complaints of Immigrants" is in the Register,
31 January 1877, page 6f.
"The Herschel Enquiry" is in the Register,
18 and 29 January 1877, pages 5b and 6d,
5 February 1877, page 6d,
10 February 1877, page 10d,
"The Lochee Immigrant Ship" on
10 February 1877, page 13c.
A letter of complaint about conditions on the emigrant ship Berkshire is in the Register,
3 January 1883, page 7a; also see
4 and 10 January 1883, pages 6a and 7c,
27 July 1883, pages 4g-6b.
A description of the Hesperus is in the Observer,
29 September 1883, page 30b,
"A Visit to the Hesperus" in the Register,
20 November 1884, page 6a; also see
8 June 1887, page 5a.
"Steamer Indarra Quarantined" is in the Register,
2 and 3 January 1913, page 5b and 6f.