Surviving the Unthinkable; Shipwrecks and the Perils of Ocean Travel
On Saturday 14 July 1866 the Black Ball Line emigrant ship Netherby ran aground off King Island on her way to Brisbane. She had attempted to ‘thread the needle’, a tricky manoeuvre involving sailing through the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from mainland Australia. Discovered in 1798, the Strait shaved 700 miles off a voyage from England to Sydney, however it was also one of the roughest stretches of water in the world, with huge waves, treacherous shallows and jagged reefs. It was the latter which caught the Netherby so off-guard.
Amongst the 452 government migrants on board was the young George Massingham. His letter home to his mother, written a month after his ordeal, is one of my personal collection highlights for its full and frank account of the wreck and the subsequent hardships endured by passengers and crew marooned on King Island.
The trouble began after passing the Cape of Good Hope. Bad weather and gales dogged them all the way into the Strait and the weather was so dull that Captain Owens was unable to check their position. That night the Netherby struck the reef, sending the passengers into a panic. Wedged fast on the rocks and filling with water by the hour, the letter recounts how “at every roll she gave, you could hear the passengers from one end of the deck to the other groaning and shrieking till she settled herself – except that now and then she would give a thump against the rocks.”
Reaching for his most important belongings, Massingham bundled up his land order, watch and bible and joined the crew on deck. In the face of certain disaster, the Captain ordered the crew to begin saving stores and supplies, however, the sailors had other ideas and by now were roaring drunk on account of rescuing the liquor before the food.
At six o’clock Sunday morning the Netherby was still perched precariously on the rocks. Seeing now that they could reach the shore, the first mate was ordered to fix a line and anchor to the edge of the reef and they began to haul the boat backwards and forwards (women and children first), until everyone was safely off the stricken vessel. In true Robinson Crusoe style, the men set about building a hut later that afternoon and rations were issued, although Massingham relates how meagre these were as many of the stores still lay on board. The hut also proved to be a disaster, with smoke from the fire blowing in rather than out, and a lack of blankets making for a very cold first night on shore.
Monday morning saw the hut rebuilt (a much better job the second time round) and the crew returning to the ship to cut away the masts and re-provision. This was not the only thing they did whilst on board. When Massingham managed to return to the ship on Thursday he found that everything except a spare change of clothes had been removed to points unknown. It looks as if thieving was not uncommon and one member of a shooting party was late back one night after falling asleep and losing his way. Massingham wrote “we found out afterwards that the day before he had helped to get some luggage ashore, belonging to a saloon passenger, and instead of dividing among us all a bottle of … sherry … he kept it himself, and after occasional sips it is hardly to be wondered that when he sat down to rest he dropped asleep”.
Over the next few days, the crew and passengers settled into a routine of hunting (kangaroo was a particular favourite, along with “a little animal called a duck billed porcupine”), bringing stores from the ship and awaiting rescue. On the following Saturday, everyone was cheered by the arrival of news from the island lighthouse that a man had been despatched to Australia for a steamer.
What followed (at least for the 166 single men) was a 49 mile trek across the island to rendezvous with rescue steamers the Victoria and Pharos. I assume the women and children were also rescued, although Massingham doesn’t specify. He does however add that a little girl was born whilst on the island meaning that, miraculously, the emigrants arrived in Australia with one more amongst their number than they started with. An incredibly uplifting end to a nightmare voyage.
The Iwatas – A Family Apart
Although we have many fascinating collections of immigrant correspondence within Migration to New Worlds, one series that particularly engaged me was that of wife and husband Sonoko and Shigezo Iwata. Both of Japanese parents, Sonoko was born in Los Angeles whereas Shigezo was born in Japan, immigrating to the United States after graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo. The two met when introduced by a matchmaker and eloped when their families broke off the match. In 1941 the couple relocated to Thermal, California in order to farm and start a family and were active among the local Japanese community.
When Japan declared war on the United States and bombed Pearl Harbour, Shigezo, not being an American citizen, was arrested by the FBI and taken to Santa Fe and then to Lordsburg, New Mexico Internment Camp.
The earlier letters in the collection are written by Sonoko, frantically trying to establish where her husband has been taken and how she can send clothing and other essential items to him. Soon she is given notice that she and the children will also have to “evacuate” to a relocation camp. They were only allowed to take what they could carry and, with three young children to care for, her letters are filled with tough decisions about which of their precious and hard-earned belongings she would be able to keep.
As these letters were their only means of communication, we get an insightful look at their new situations and surroundings and the official proceedings they were subjected to. The letters were often delayed and went through thorough censorship; as is evident from the envelopes. The delays in communication resulted in worry for both sides, and although they were clearly aware that they were not the only ones reading the letters, there are moments of tenderness, and reminiscences of some of their fondest shared memories.
After her relocation, Sonoko gives updates on life in the relocation camp and on their children, and in one emotional return letter Shigezo worries that they will no longer remember him. A constant theme throughout the letters is the couple’s efforts to obtain a re-hearing for Shigezo after his initial hearing denied him release. For this he required recommendations from American citizens who had known him for at least a year. This proved problematic as, although he had lived in American for over twenty years, the majority of his close acquaintances were within the Japanese community.
It was not until summer 1943 that Shigezo was granted parole and joined his family at Poston, however they were not permitted to leave until 1945. The hearing and the months leading up to it are documented in his 1943 diary. Our collection on the Iwata family is rounded off with a selection of documents showing Shegizo’s journey to becoming an American citizen, including his citizenship certificate.
You can read the full collection of their correspondence here.
Scandal in British Guiana
Migration to New Worlds contains a large number of Colonial Office files from The National Archives, UK. A lot of these hefty tomes are filled with typical records of immigration, emigration and the movement of people throughout the British colonies. In the bureaucracy of government it is easy, one would imagine, for things to slip through the cracks. With the reams of letters that were sent between offices, plantations and courts across the Empire, it would have been possible now and then for a message to be lost, or a point overlooked. In Emigration (and Coolie Immigration), 1886. Volume 3. Despatches: British Guiana I came across a government oversight that caused a much deserved stir. This was the case of Burun, an indentured labourer who had been imprisoned for five years longer than his original sentence.
On 16 October 1874, Burun was found guilty of attempting to commit bestiality and sentenced to penal servitude for five years. His sentence, however, was not properly interpreted to him and he believed the sentence was for 15 years instead. After being imprisoned for almost 10 years, on 14 August 1884 Burun petitioned for a remission of his sentence. On receiving this petition on 18 August 1884, the Inspector of Prisons remarked “I do not think it desirable that any indulgence should be granted in this case.”
Burun’s petition for release however did act as a catalyst for the powers that be to recognise their error, and on 11 September, the Governor wrote the following minute in regard to Burun: “Let the prisoner be sent to Georgetown with a view to his immediate release”.
Unfortunately, the Immigration Agent General, A. H. Alexander, was not informed and only became aware of it when the local newspaper, The Argosy, reported the scandal. Alexander then attempted to rectify the situation. He reported:
“The worst fact however, remains viz: that after having been illegally deprived of his liberty for nearly five years, and having during that been flogged and undergone the other punishments enumerated … this immigrant was cast adrift in Georgetown nearly ninety miles from the Estate to which he had been indentured without a certificate to prevent his arrest by the police and with a mere pittance of ten dollars ‘to enable him to get to his relatives and afford him some means of subsistence until he can obtain work.’”
Alexander argued that this man had been terribly wronged, with other punishments he had to endure including 109 days reduction of rations; 77 days bread and water; 9 days in dark cells and 24 lashes by flogging on top of his overly long incarceration.
Interestingly, Alexander’s letter is framed by the correspondence of Governor Henry T. Irving, who writes to Lord Granville, and in doing so, attempts to discredit Alexander’s account of things. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure if Alexander’s attempts to redress the situation were honourable, or if he was covering his back as well, but it would be nice to think there was an attempt at human decency behind this.
The tragic case of Burun highlights the human price of colonialism; a regime that did not respect the rights of all people. It also illuminates the fact that government scandals are certainly not a modern occurrence.
The Saga of Thiers’ Automatic Ship Ventilator
Terrible hygiene, cramped quarters, creepy crawlies and epidemics – being a passenger on a nineteenth century sailing ship was a notoriously dangerous affair. Nowhere was this truer than on board the ships that transferred indentured workers from India to colonies in the West Indies. With poor ventilation the cause of so many health problems on board sailing ships, a wealth of correspondence included in the War and Colonial Office Department and Colonial Office: Emigration Original Correspondence files on an invention designed to significantly improve matters caught my eye; Thiers Automatic Ship Ventilator.
Despite its jazzy Victorian title, it’s difficult to find a reference to Mr. Thiers of New Orleans and his remarkable invention outside of this collection. This is surprising, since it certainly took up a lot of the British government’s time. In a set of correspondence entitled Use of Thiers’ Self-Acting Ventilator on board Vessels Conveying Emigrants from Calcutta to the West Indies from 1877, Sir Stephen Walcott acted on a request from the Indian government to investigate this new invention, and was duly impressed by agents Mosses and Mitchell’s sensational claims. Walcott outlines how the apparatus works, provides glittering testimonials, and delivers letters from Admiral Sir William Mends regarding the invention’s performance on troop ships. Skimming over a few disadvantages, Walcott concludes that “nothing in short can be more scientific and simple”.
The Emigration Commission and the Indian Government firmly believed that Thiers’ ventilator was a game changer, and within a year duly amended the Indian Emigration Act – all ships conveying indentured workers now had to install at least two of Thiers’ apparatus from the start of the next season (see Regulation of Indian Government Regarding Emigrant Vesses to be Fitted with "Thiers' Automatic Ventilators").
This amendment turned out to be somewhat ambitious, which is demonstrated by the extraordinary amount of wrangling that occupies multiple letters from nearly thirty different documents. The apparatus could only be fitted in England, and was expensive – costing £310 per ship. Additionally, many of the contractors used slippery clauses in their contracts to claim government liability for the cost. To make matters worse, contractors such as Tyser & Company and Sandbach, Tinne & Company claimed that the ventilator simply did not work. What followed were multiple postponements of the amendment, demands from contractors for money and requests for exemptions. The controversy continued right up to 1892, when the ventilator was still being fitted but was highly criticised by the on board surgeon superintendent.
What is interesting about these letters is how quickly initial fervour becomes obliterated by the cost. The conditions on board indentured workers’ ships were deemed ‘sufficient’ by contractors more concerned with fulfilling the bare minimum of their contracts than improving the welfare of passengers and by a government that became more reticent about their new rules once they realised they may have to foot the bill.
As a result, what started as a simple instruction from domestic government turned into a tedious bureaucratic saga that lasted for 15 years. More importantly, these letters highlight just how difficult it was to negotiate the framework of the British Empire to make even the simplest of improvements to the quality of life for indentured Indian passengers.
A Brush with Ellis Island
Amongst the varied material from National Museums Liverpool: Maritime Archives & Library is a travel account by Dorothy Holt. The manuscript covers her 1922 trip on the Georgic to New York. The journal is a little unusual in Migration to New Worlds as Dorothy always plans to return to England after her stay with friends.
Dorothy’s account of her journey and stay in New York is charmingly personal, covering her delight in her cabin bunk, reaction to Ellis Island and thoughts on the food and culture of New York. Dorothy gives the reader an insight into the travel conditions of a third class passenger in the 1920s. With a cabin of four female passengers, a choice of two sittings for dinner, religious services and some on board entertainment, the arrangements do not sound especially challenging. The 36 hours of seasickness that Dorothy initially experiences are less appealing though.
Some confusion about the need for a security bond when visiting New York meant Dorothy was not allowed to disembark the ship and was instead escorted to Ellis Island. Ellis Island processed 12 million immigrants in its 62 year run as a federal-operated immigration station. Its power to detain or turn away migrants gave Ellis Island an ominous reputation, although in reality only 2% of potential immigrants were refused entry. Dorothy was indignant and anxious about having to be processed with all the other immigrants.
Dorothy is fairly direct about the otherness she sees in anyone who is not English. The Irish travellers who join the boat at Queenstown have different manners and religion to Dorothy but she likes them well enough and enjoys the concert they give. She seems less impressed by the size of the Italian community in America (“but nearly all the racketeers the main ones are Italians”) or the thought of sharing the mass dormitory on Ellis Island with “all those different nationalities”. However, she’s very pleased with the cuisines that other cultures bring, and makes special note of a meal in Chin Lees Restaurant where she has chop suey and something called mushroom ‘charmaine’ (perhaps chow mein).
Despite her unease with different nationalities, Dorothy does believe in good manners. She disapproves of the young white men who prevent a black passenger from joining their games and is thoroughly heartened to hear that on a subsequent night a young white woman refuses to dance with the rude white men while accepting the invitation from the previously shunned black man. Dorothy sums up that despite a longing to visit New York again she would much rather live in England, even saying: “It’s strange how very proud one is to be able to tell people that one is English. When I was classed as an alien I felt like a Bolshevik.”