Short Stories

Aboard an Emigrant Ship By Hesba Stretton

 

Aboard an Emigrant Ship

by Hesba Stretton

Published in All The Year Round, April 12, 1862.

Some families are born emigrants; they inherit the propensity to rove as they inherit an ancestral brow, or an hereditary nose. The old proverb, "A rolling stone gathers no moss," has no terrors for them. They see neither use nor beauty in a stone whose surface is moss and mouldiness. If the vagrant tendency be merged for one generation in a few quiet domesticated women wedded to steady stationary irremovable husbands, it bursts forth again in their sons, who can no more settle down to a fixed occupation of their paternal homes than a horde of gipsies could take root in the cold dead solemn respectability of a cathedral town. I know a quiet man, who has lived his whole life, of upwards of thirty years, in the same little town in one of the midland counties, working silently at the same employment: in whose heart the Great Eastern has excited a romantic attachment, superior to the slow affection he professes for the once young woman to whom he has been engaged for fifteen years. When the Great Eastern is in port, he pays a substitute to take his work, and goes off to visit her, though his wages are those of a country letter-carrier. His distress at her manifold misfortunes is pathetic. He inquires of any news of the great ship with the solicitude of an ardent affection. And he is happy when she herself is declared faultless, and the blame of her misadventures is cast upon defective management.

Emigration is instinctive in my own family. The past generation, consisting of four sisters, was a band of staid sensible domestic home-keeping English matrons, strong and grave in character, with no perceptible tinge of Bohemiamsm. They dwelt inland, too, with husbands permanently localised in their own districts, who had no more experience of emigration than the Vicar of Wakefield had. My own father inhabited the same house for more than fifty years; and all the travelling he ever did was on the map, to which he was wont to refer instantly upon the mention of any place, at home or abroad. Still, at our fireside, there were narrated exciting traditions of the wanderings of our mother's family. How her uncle had lived for years with a Red Indian tribe, in the backwoods of America; and how he had become a bona fide chief, with an unpronounceable name, by marrying an Indian chief's daughter, who had given to us a race of red cousins. How her step-brother, who had never done any good in England, and had left it with scarcely a shilling, was growing wealthy and important in South Australia. And how her ancestors—for she had ancestors—were ever foremost in expeditions of religion, enterprise, discovery, or gain, that would take them away to foreign shores. As children we sat round our nursery-fire and discussed the subject of emigration. I recollect how our eldest sister, who took after her father, and remains to this day immovable in the house where she was born, combated our plans decisively, and finished a singularly fluent speech—for her—with the Irish argument, "If Providence had intended you to emigrate to America, you would have been born there." Nevertheless, over Australia, in Port Natal, in India, in Canada, in California, and in New Zealand, our emigrant race is scattered.

Going from my home among a group of mountains in ancient Siluria, where not a murmur of the existence of an ocean lingers in the deep valleys, though the ripple-marks of its primeval tides and the fossils of its earliest inhabitants are perpetuated in the rocks—going thence, for the second time in my life, to the sea-shore, and to the great populous port of Liverpool—I am fascinated by everything that betokens the immediate vicinity of the sea; the dress of the naval officers; the hardy, weather-beaten faces of the seamen; the maritime talk of the children, who chatter familiarly of the tide, and the shore, and the ships, as our children prattle of bird-nesting and mushroom-hunting; above all, the thousands of masts, with their appendant shrouds and tackling, which stretch in clear lines against the sky, like colossal geometrical cobwebs, in whose meshes my eyes and thoughts are caught and detained by an irresistible charm.

The friend I am visiting has a brother, who is doctor of a ship; and he spins yarns to me, in which he unites a sailor's vivid fluency with the close and correct observation of an educated man. His talk is of voyages amid dense fog-banks, and fantastic icebergs; of threatened wrecks; of deeds of devotion and daring; of marvellous escapes. So, when the doctor invites me to spend some hours on board his ship the day before she sails, when the emigrants embark, I accept the invitation eagerly. My friend, who regards me as a country cousin, utterly incapable of steering a clear course through the bewilderments of Liverpool, conducts me to the landing-stage; and plants me at one end with instructions not to move until I see the steam-tug, the Sea King, which is plying between the shore, and the vessel lying out in the river, with the Blue-Peter floating from her mast-head.

Receiving my orders with humility, I watch him carefully out of sight, and instantly quit my post, and wander among the groups, which already occupy the floating stage; from whom I ask rural questions, in defiance of my instructions. Seeing a steam-tug lying outside two other boats, with quite a different funnel to the one my friend directed me to look for, I inquire from a very marine-looking man what it is, and receive the answer "The Favourite, waiting on the ship yonder." He points to my emigrant vessel; I dart across the two boats; the Favourite's steam is getting up; the captain, with his feet planted firmly on his paddle-box, looks down upon me with the air of a despotic monarch; and I forget my instructions altogether.

"Are you going to the Australian ship in the river?" I ask.

"Yes."

"Will you take me? I am a friend of the doctor's, and I'm to meet him there."

"Doctor's not gone aboard yet. Besides, if you ain't a passenger, my orders are not to take friends. Lumbering the ship with friends! You can't go."

I stand passively and despairingly watching the paddle-wheel make its first revolution, when a friendly seaman, who has just withdrawn the gangway, winks graciously at me, and bids me jump. I jump, under the awful eye of the despotic captain, and he takes no more notice of me than if I had become suddenly invisible. He has done his duty.

The ship: I have never been on board a ship before, but my hereditary instincts make me feel instantly at home. I measure it with my eye, as an architect might shrewdly scrutinise a building erected by some other architect. I know that this place is to be the abode of three hundred people, for upwards of two months; and to me it looks no larger in proportion than the toy we used to freight with pebbles, and man with dolls, and float upon our mountain tarn, with a string six yards long to convey it safely across. "Three hundred passengers," I exclaim, mentally, "there will not be room for them to stir!" But, referring to the Ships Passengers Act, I find that every emigrant ship passing within the tropics, must have a space of fifteen clear superficial feet upon the main deck, or on the deck immediately below, unencumbered with luggage or lading, for every passenger above fourteen years of age. I read, too, that the decks will be surveyed by an emigrant officer, before the ship sails; and I leave the matter to his superior judgment.

I feel circumscribed in limit above deck; but, in the steerage cabin below, my feeling is simply suffocation, empty though it is, with the exception of one poor girl in a rusty black dress, who sits mournfully on a trunk beside the door of a berth. The steerage is a long low narrow apartment, with a very narrow, immovable table and two benches running its entire length; the height is more than the minimum required by the act, which is six feet, yet it makes me almost afraid of walking upright; perhaps on the same principle that our geese always bend their long necks when they pass under the lofty doorway of the barn. The light is dismal, for it is admitted only by the open hatchway by which I have descended, and through a few panes of glass an inch and a half thick. Down each side of this room, are a number of little closets, not half so spacious as our country pantries, but looking very like them, with substantial shelves, about twenty inches wide, two on each side, and two along the end; they are plain deal shelves, with a board fastened along the outer edge to form them into a kind of case, but there is no other indication that these are designed for sleeping-rooms; and the whole space for standing in them is six feet by three, for six persons. The girl, who has red eyes and a pale face, tells me she has come from Halifax, in Yorkshire, to start her only brother to Australia, but he is standing on the landing stage, to look out for some decent comrades to share his berth with—a very wise precaution. For six persons to inhabit a closet of this size day and night without quarrelling, must require a miracle of good sense and good temper.