Sea voyages

Scene: Emigrants to South Australia

Emigrants to South Australia, by Robert Hillingford, circa 1860. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia, PIC T2278.

The decision to emigrate was final. For most assisted emigrants in the nineteenth century there was no prospect of returning home. Very few had travelled far from home and their journeys began with great apprehension.

Emigrants’ first decision was when to leave home to meet their ship. It was difficult because few expected a ship to leave on the advertised date and passengers waiting in port had to find their own accommodation.

Voyages began slowly. For ships leaving London, it could take weeks to make their way down the River Thames into the English Channel and find winds that would take them south into the open sea. Some captains left their officers to take the ship down the Thames because the passage could be tedious. They stayed in London to conclude business and met it at the Downs, an anchorage where the river meets the sea.

The ship would encounter its first storms in the open ocean. Ships were not watertight and the accommodation below decks could be ankle-deep in seawater. Seasickness would spread through the ship and it brought depression along with physical illness.

Sailing south, it would take about four weeks to reach the Equator. That usually meant calmer and warmer weather so passengers could take air on deck and dry their bedding. Here the ship might be lucky and catch a steady breeze through the tropics. Or, others might be caught in the doldrums, the tedium of no wind, no progress in the passage and hot sleepless, airless nights.

Captains tried to avoid calling at ports. They were expensive, because the ship had to pay port charges and pay for stores that it took onboard including water. Stopping in ports also cost time and there were risks of disease or that the crew would jump ship.

Ships sailed south past Africa to the reach the roaring forties, the winds that would take them east to Australia. By that time the ship was usually three quarters of the way through its passage and the passengers were used to the sea. The winds rocked the ship and made it uncomfortable but passengers welcomed the increased speed. The weather would be cold in southern latitudes.

Male emigrants could be expected to help with some of the work of the ship. They might work the manual pumps that took water out of the hold or add their weight to help adjust the sails. Women and children could be stuck below decks with no air and no light. The hatches would be closed to keep the water out and the air could be thick with so many people stuck in close quarters.

As the ships sailed closer to Australia, captains could choose a more northerly course, the weather would improve slightly and lift the passengers’ spirits. Many passengers wrote of signs that they were reaching their destination, of seeing an increase in seabirds and of smelling the land before they could see it. The first sight of land would excite the whole ship.

When they reached Australia passengers had spent more than one hundred days onboard. Some diarists wrote about their apprehension at leaving the ship of leaving the friendships and the space that, however uncomfortable, had become familiar.

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