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Aboard an Emigrant Ship By Hesba Stretton

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.


The main deck is quiet; on the quarterdeck the pilot saunters leisurely, whistling a sentimental tune; a knot of sailors are gathered in the forecastle; one of them a seaman after my imagination, and after the model of nautical pictures; middle height, sturdy, broad-chested and muscular, with slender legs; a face massive, but clearly moulded: grizzly hair, and shaggy, overhanging eyebrows, like moustaches; deep-set keen eyes and a humorous mouth, up to the lower lip of which a strong dark beard is growing. All the men look leisurely. There is but one busy person visible above deck, and he is the black cook in the galley opposite the forecastle; he seems of a contented disposition, and is cooking, by a species of magic, dinner for three hundred, in a hole not larger than one of our fireplaces at home. The cooking galley forms part of a house on deck; it is a small wooden lodge in the fore-part of the ship, and contains the intermediate berths, which are similar to those in the steerage below, but possess the advantages of more air and light, and of ensurance against being enclosed between decks in case of storms. Yawning before the entrance to the intermediate cabin, is a large square trap-door, now open, which reveals to my astonished eyes the immense depth and space of the hold of the ship. Upon the brink of this opening stands an anxious fretted-looking man, the ship's husband, who has to bear all the minor worry of the arrangements, and is bandied about from spot to spot, to meet and remove every difficulty. He is pensive just now, having time to be so; and I stand for a few minutes beside him. The hold is very like a left-luggage office on an immense scale. There are boxes, chests, tubs, barrels, sacks, and coffers, of every description. Here is a piano, looking as little and insignificant as a lady's work-box; there, is a steam-engine, packed in a case, and labelled "To be kept dry," as if it were only a plated teapot. The ship's husband directs my attention to the barrels of pork, and the great casks of water, provided for his large family during their seventy or eighty days' voyage. "Three quarts per day for statute adult," he says, and repeats in a tone wavering between high dudgeon and paternal satisfaction; "three quarts per day for statute adult at least, of sweet pure water; not to mention what is used in cooking."

I leave him, still pensive and at leisure; and, passing the sauntering pilot on the quarterdeck, descend a narrow flight of steps into the saloon of the first cabin passengers; it appears to me sumptuous, height and good size, with panelled walls of white and gold, cushioned seats, and a large dining-table. In one corner is the door of the captain's cabin, which impresses me as a very roomy place, after the berths in the steerage and intermediate. There are a chest of drawers, two or three chairs, a set of bookshelves, and some ornaments: consisting of ostrich eggs, an odd-looking weapon or two, and a picture of a man overboard. There is also a real bed—not a shelf—and the steward, a slim agile man, with a head covered with black curly hair in such profusion as to make it look out of all proportion to his body, is laying on sheets and blankets with the dexterity of a housemaid. This is the only token of human residence I have seen, for it is a received maxim that we live where we sleep; and this is the only preparation for sleep I have come upon. I turn, somewhat comforted, to the doctor's cabin. To denote its size by a pleasant word, it is snug; scarcely large enough to swing a cat in, if our tender-hearted doctor could take a fancy to such an amusement. And thinking of cats in connexion with the doctor's pet canary, which is to accompany him on his voyage, and is now chirping plaintively over his last fresh-gathered groundsel—I go back into the saloon to speak to a custom-house officer, concerning cats and rats. To be sure, there are rats, as I suspected, with all my strong country prejudice against them; rats in such numbers that the officer informs me gravely, there were nearly four hundred killed yesterday, and it makes no perceptible diminution; only, to reassure me for the doctor's safety, he adds, that they never gnaw the outer timbers of a vessel, being too wise for that. "As for cats, bless you! the seamen are that fond of them, that if there was a cat and a parson aboard, and one of them had to be thrown overboard, they'd ten times rather throw the parson. They've got some notion about Jonah in connexion with parsons." As he speaks, I see that the cabin opposite to our doctor's is ticketed with the name of a Reverend Somebody; and the ship's carpenter comes out of it grumbling, having had a difficulty in fixing a reading-desk to the approbation of its tenant.

The doctor and his wife having come onboard, make for the quarter-deck at once, as to a place of refuge. I look down from thence upon our less privileged shipmates of the steerage and intermediate, and see them involved in a distracting whirl of confusion, which continues hopelessly all the afternoon. There are people of every age, down to babies but a few weeks old;" men shouting; children crying; women silenced by utter inability to make themselves heard. Luggage is strewed about the deck in unsorted heaps. Every spot is full; every square foot is littered; every person is in a ferment. The majority of the women seem to give up all effort at settling, as if it were contrary to any reasonable expectation; so they seat themselves doggedly upon their most valued trunks, and make up their minds to voyage on them to Australia. The mates, and the carpenter, and the steward, are harassed out of their senses: yet their labour is easy and placid compared to that of the oppressed ship's husband, who has no rest, bodily or mental, for a single instant. The exertions of the black cook are fearful to behold, for he is preparing dinner for these multitudes. The dinner is served out in messes for four; and already the tin dishes and cans are coming into active use. When the ship is in order, the doctor tells me, it will be his duty to taste of every meal prepared for all but the first-cabin passengers, in order that he may judge whether it be wholesome and properly cooked. Today the meal is taken upon the tops of boxes; on the quarter-deck steps; on the door-sill of the intermediate; on the floor of the deck, where there happens to be any space. It is cut with pocketknives, or eaten in bites, or torn to pieces with fingers. As I watch a party, consisting of an old woman and three men engaged in the primitive process last mentioned, the woman apologises, and I venture upon asking her why she is emigrating.

"Why, I've two sons out there," she says, pointing down the river, "and they've sent me money to go out to them, but I know it'll kill me. I'm over sixty."

"Do you know anything about Australia?"

"Indeed, I don't know nothing; I went to the Mechanics' at home, to hear a gentleman as was preaching about it, and he said they were all upside down. I'm sure I never can walk upside down, myself, and my lads ought to have known it."

Before I can make any attempt to comfort and enlighten this disconsolate emigrant, the tug comes alongside again, bringing the owner of the ship, the government commissioners, and the captain, with the residue of the passengers. The captain (consumptive, and not in the least like what I had made him out to be in my mind), and the owner, and the commissioners, immediately sit down to dinner, as the first and most pressing part of their business.

I make a second raid upon the main-deck. Here is a young farmer, a sturdy bluff bronzed young fellow, who knows what work is: beside him lies a sheep-dog of the true Scotch breed, asleep: not curled up lazily like a spaniel, but dozing watchfully, with his head resting on his outstretched paws. The young man smiles when I lay my hand caressingly on the dog's sagacious head; and the dog wags his tail with a friendly salute. His name (the dog's, I don't ask the man's) is Moss; five pounds his master has paid for his passage, and is to find him in provisions; he only paid fifteen pounds for himself, rations and all; but rather than leave Moss behind, he says, he would pay fifty pounds for him. I tell him, what has been told to me, that there were objections raised against the doctor taking out a terrier, because of the danger of madness in passing the tropics. So the farmer quietly takes Moss down into the steerage, and lays the docile creature in his own berth, well covered up from observation with blankets and rugs.


Close by—but all are close by within these narrow limits—is a girl, in voluminous skirts, a mantle, a turban, hat, and a spangled net, chaffering with a vendor of small wares; the object of the bargain being a boot-brush, which the pedlar offers for fourpence and recommends fluently. The turban hat is shaken, and its wearer produces two-pence from a bag hung for safety round her neck; then the wrath of the insulted dealer waxes eloquent, and he exclaims with a look and accent of cutting sarcasm, "Twopence! Where did you buy your hat?" Meeting this fashionable emigrant shortly after in a comparatively quiet corner, she informs me that she is going out alone; she has no friends expecting her in Australia, and—no—she does not think of going into service.

I suppose order is being restored; but the confusion is like the darkness of the night: denser just before the dawn. A helpless woman is shedding tears upon her topmost trunk, which stands breast-high before her. She is from the country, like myself, and tells me, weeping, that she is losing her faculties, for she is certain sure that when she came on deck Liverpool was to our right-hand, and now it is to our left. I look, and to my amazement find that her statement is correct; and from that moment I myself am plunged in bewilderment. The doctor explains something about the vessel turning with the tide, but I do not comprehend him in the least; all I know, is, that it makes me extremely uncomfortable to cast my eyes towards the shore, for Birkenhead and Liverpool seems to have changed sites, and I have my doubts as to our landing in the right place.

The commissioners come on deck now; and the names of the crew and passengers are called over. The ship's husband has classified them, and appointed their berths; so there is nothing to do but to pass muster: this, however, is not so easy as it appears; the mate, and steward, and every official at liberty are actively employed in diving into the steerage, and exploring corners, in search of the persons wanted, whose names are shouted in every variety of key, until they appear, bewildered and frightened, under the impression that they have transgressed some unknown regulation. Then there is an inspection of decks, and pumps, and boats, and hose of the fire-engine.

Gradually the luggage gets stowed into the hold. It is stowed below, with the utmost indifference. Indeed, there is no pathos nor patriotism manifested. One must be in some measure comfortable, to be pathetic; and patriotism requires a very high degree of contentedness. If we weep here, it may be from fatigue, hunger, or exhaustion; but we cannot cherish sentiment. Even the doctor's little wife is too busy, knocking up nails and arranging the cabin for her husband's use, to find any time for tears. She tells me there will be plenty of time for them tonight. Miracles are wrought in the last hour before the sun goes down; for no naked lights are allowed between decks. The rule is stringent, but needful; and the doctor tells me of cases of illness, where the face could only be seen dimly, by covered lights. Once, he was called in the night to attend an apparently dying man, and found him laid straight upon his berth with a lighted candle, a holy candle, in each hand, "to light his soul to eternity!" One movement of the restless sufferer might have enveloped the ship in flames; and though it was at the risk of his life to disregard the religion of the ignorant people about him, he snatched the dangerous lights away, and extinguished them amid imprecations.

It is time to go; the twilight is falling; at the next high tide, in the sunrise, the ship will sail. In the tug alongside, many of the friends who have lumbered the ship, are already collected, and are looking up, from time to time, to the faces hanging over the gunwale. The vessel is ship-shape. The many ropes of the tackling are strung, like a huge harp, for the winds to play upon; the boats are slung up to their allotted places, all seaworthy, and ready for immediate use; the commissioners are satisfied that the provisions of the Ships Passengers Act have been complied with; the captain is going on shore, for the last time, to receive a certificate to that effect. On the deck of the Favourite are two sailor lads kissing a weeping old woman; a brother and sister standing at the edge of the gangway hand-in-hand; a girl gazing upward with a sorrowfully-set face, to catch every glimpse of a seaman busy in the rigging. The commissioners, the ship's owner, and the slim captain, step on to the paddle-box; and the doctor brings his wife to my side—closely veiled now, but brave to the last. We emerge from the shadow of the ship's great black hulk, into the last crimson gleam of day. Above us, all along the gunwale, are ranged the dark figures of the emigrants, crowding in great numbers towards the forecastle, where the sailors are gathered, and from whom rises the first note of a cheer, which runs through the whole line, and is repeated again and again—rather mournfully, as our feeble echo reaches them. In a few minutes we see the ship from the shore: a quiet, solitary, deserted-looking shape on the water, with no hint of the life, and sorrow, and hope, and fear, crowded together in that little space.



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