Ups and downs in cross­ing over

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

On March 15, 1858, the con­vict Thomas Smith, al­ready im­pli­cated in the theft of a cask of salted beef, at­tempted once again to sup­ple­ment his wretched diet, this time with a hunk of fresh turkey. Ac­cord­ing to John Bower, the sur­geon-su­per­in­ten­dent on the ship Lord Raglan, Smith was dis­cov­ered “close to the turkey pen with a quan­tity of feath­ers on his clothes, and ap­par­ently en­gaged in pluck­ing the birds which were stolen from the coop’’. Caught red-handed, Smith not only missed out on his turkey din­ner but was thrown in the pun­ish­ment box for three days on a diet of bread and wa­ter. “He threat­ened that it would not be for noth­ing,’’ Bower noted in his di­ary.

Be­tween 1787 and 1900, about 1.6 mil­lion im­mi­grants sailed to Aus­tralia, nearly half of them govern­ment as­sisted, the ma­jor­ity from the Bri­tish Isles. Just 10 per cent were con­victs. Dur­ing the 19th cen­tury the de­vel­op­ment of steamships slashed the length of the voy­age from months to weeks, but that still left the pas­sen­gers with plenty of time to kill. Many whiled away their days and nights scrib­bling and sketch­ing in di­aries, leav­ing us with a vivid record of their time at sea.

Roslyn Rus­sell has drawn on the Na­tional Li­brary’s col­lec­tion of about 100 di­aries and first­hand ac­counts to pro­duce a fas­ci­nat­ing book about the first wave of colo­nial mi­grants. While some of the writ­ers, such as Sur­geon Bower, oc­cu­pied po­si­tions of au­thor­ity, most were sim­ply pas­sen­gers pre­pared to risk the haz­ards of a long voy­age for the chance to build new lives in Aus­tralia.

The colonies of New South Wales, Vic­to­ria and South Aus­tralia were keen to en­cour­age im­mi­gra­tion, but they wouldn’t take just any­one. Some trades were more in de­mand than oth­ers (agri­cul­tural work­ers were al­ways sought af­ter). As well as be­ing “sober, in­dus­tri­ous, and of gen­eral good moral char­ac­ter’’, el­i­gi­ble mi­grants were re­quired to be healthy and “free from all bod­ily or men­tal de­fects’’. Due to the lack of sin­gle women in the Aus­tralian colonies, sin­gle men were not ac­cepted “with­out a cor­re­spond­ing num­ber of young sin­gle women of

Off the Cape, a Man Over­board

Durham Bouilli-tin good char­ac­ter to equalise the sexes’’. (As the book is strictly con­cerned with those em­i­grat­ing from the Bri­tish Isles, Rus­sell does not ex­plore the vexed ques­tion of racial el­i­gi­bil­ity, es­pe­cially as it ap­plied to the Chi­nese.)

So­cial class was the key fac­tor that de­ter­mined how pas­sen­gers ex­pe­ri­enced the voy­age to Aus­tralia. The rich and high-born could travel the ocean in style, din­ing on fresh meat at the cap­tain’s ta­ble; the lower classes forced down mut­ton fat pud­ding while gag­ging on the stench from the ship’s bilges. Not sur­pris­ingly, epi­demics of dis­eases such as measles and scar­let fever tended to take a higher toll in steer­age than in the first and se­cond-class cab­ins above.

Given the foul con­di­tions en­dured by some of the poor­est em­i­grants, the com­plaints of the scrib­bling classes of­ten seem laugh­ably triv­ial. Rev­erend John Wol­las­ton, an Angli­can cler­gy­man sail­ing to Western Aus­tralia on the Henry in 1840, fell out with the ship’s cap­tain and its sur­geon. While dis­miss­ing the for­mer as “a screw and a lit­tle of a bully’’, the chap­lain was more with­er­ing to­wards the sur­geon: “Doc­tor

by Wil­liam Daniell (1840s), left; page de­tail from

(1874), above

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