Don Charlwood, author of 11 books on his war-time experiences and early shipping, described how sea voyages came alive to him through the legacy of shipboard diaries he read at the State Library.
The diaries tell us many stories. Many migrants were so sea -sick and terrified by the motion of the ship that they wished they had never left home. They desperately missed their loved ones, and for some, the disappearance of the North Star below the horizon made them very sad.
Immigration to Australia was under government supervision and although much had been learnt from the convict voyages, conditions were still very cramped. 93% of passengers were steerage. Unmarried men travelled in the bow of the ship, single women in the stern and married couples and families were amidships. They slept in bunks 6ft by 3ft, in pairs with another 2 above, and separated from the next by 18 inches. Down the middle ran a long table. Cabin passengers were above the steerage passengers, having privacy and more room.
Salted meat, rice, dried potatoes and peas comprised much of the diet for the steerage passengers. Rations were handed out to the men, prepared by the women, but cooked by the men, as women weren't allowed in the galley. There were some strange meals prepared. The diet of the cabin passengers included fresh meat and wine. All were encouraged to bring personal supplies to add variety to their diet, so the steerage area was cluttered with bottles of jams, mustards, pickles, dried meats, etc. All these items rolled around during storms, making a terrifying noise. One man kept on sleeping whilst a jar of molasses spilt over his face and even a poor cow fell through an open hatch.
The ship's surgeon was in charge of the passengers and although there was the occasional drunkard most did a good job. Dr. Robert Scot Skirving wrote about his difficult, but successful attempt at a forceps delivery, in a gloomy cabin awash with water, during a hard westerly gale. Washing was not compulsory, and even cabin passengers could have feet so black that they could be mistaken for shoes.
After the discovery of gold, voyages became quicker thanks to Towson, an Englishman, and Maury, an American, who calculated that the quickest route was a great circle. This meant going down south to 55-degree latitude, about 800 nautical miles south of Australia. Most ships followed 40 degrees latitude and only whalers and explorers went down to 55 degrees. (In 1996-7, in an around the world race, Tony Bullimore was rescued at 52 degrees south). New ships were built, mostly in North America, like the "Schomberg", which was 2,600 tons with the equivalent of 3.3 acres of sail. It foundered on its maiden voyage, although its passengers were rescued. The "Lightning" came out in 77 days and returned in 63. A passenger, Fenwick wrote a wonderful diary of that voyage. One of the most dangerous parts of the journey was coming towards land, between King Island and Cape Otway, because thick fog in these parts made it impossible to use a sextant.
The diaries are wonderful. Apart from gaining an insight into the personality of the writers, we can relive the voyages through their descriptions of funny incidents, accidents, fires, births, deaths, entertainment, fights, sightings of bird and animal life, the stars, sightings of other ships. Best of all are the descriptions of storms, with the wind roaring up and down the rigging, the mountains of sea, and the terror felt with each lurch of the ship. The relief of having survived is very palpable.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
NOTE Don Charlwood's books, including "The Long Farewell" are published by Burgewood Books, PO Box 326, Warrandyte, Victoria 3113. Telephone: 03 9844 2512. Fax: 03 9844 0664. E-Mail link: Burgewood Books
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