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Emigrant Ships

Scottish Emigration was no new phenomenon. From the 13th century on there had been a steady flow, mostly to Germany and Scandinavia. In the 17th century, during the 30 Years War, maybe 60,000 Scottish soldiers fought as mercenaries and many other Scots went to Ulster in the same period. From 1700 to 1815 up to 80-90,000 may have left Scotland for overseas, including about 20,000 Highlanders and Islanders leaving for North America between 1763 and 1775, and another wave after the failure of the potato crop in 1782/3. At this time Highland landlords were dead set against emigration: they wanted people for the collection of kelp (seaweed, burnt to make soda), for fishing and to serve in family regiments in the Napoleonic wars. It was only after 1815 that migration came to be seen as a safety valve for the Highlands and Islands, most particularly in the period of the great potato famine, 1845-56.

Scotland never suffered the huge mortality that hit Ireland because only 200,000 were affected by poverty and hunger, compared with 3M Irish.  Thanks to the efficiency of the relief effort the Scottish figure had dropped to 70,000 by 1848. But by then what we have come to call ‘donor fatigue’ was also setting in. Landlords could see little improvement to the economy as a result of the relief works they had instigated and calculated that the closing down of the Central Board of Management for Highland Relief would mean a great increase in the poor rates that they would have to pay. There was much talk of chronic ‘Celtic laziness’, backed by dubious racial theorising and a fear that continued relief would merely perpetuate dependence.  Profits to be made from black cattle were down, while sheep farming was looking up.  Several large estates were virtually insolvent and the trustees running them, accountants and lawyers in Edinburgh and Glasgow, were responsible in law for a rigorous adherence to the bottom line.

There was undoubtedly coercion, with the many in arrears over their rent being offered a choice of a free passage or eviction from their crofts. Between 1841 and 1861 the population of the West Coast above Ardnamurchan and the Inner and Outer Hebrides went down by a third: Lewis, the Uists, Barra, Tiree, Mull and Skye lost most. After that, though emigration continued apace, it was largely from the Lowlands, driven not by destitution but by the prospect of better opportunities. A peak was reached in the 1920s, with 363,000 leaving for the US and Canada in that decade, and hundreds of thousands going to England, too. The Canadian Pacific Railroad Company had actively promoted Canada as a destination ever since it had been allocated 25 million acres between Winnipeg and the Rockies in 1880. It needed a steady flow of Scotsmen and women to open up this vast area.

From 1846 to 1855 over 2M people sailed across the Atlantic to the West.   This  amounted  to nearly half as many as in the 70 years from the time of the Independence Declaration to 1845.  Most of these immigrants were  impoverished  people  without civil rights.  They fled from political upheavals  and famine in the hope of starting their new life in a homeland, worthy of human beings.  But business people and tourists made this journey too. 

For  most  of  the passengers this sea journey was to become a time of hard tests  and  great  misery.   On  the  mail  boats there were so many people pressed together that undernourishment and illnesses occurred more and more frequently.   This  state of affairs improved only with the introduction of the  Steamships  which  with  effect  from  the  middle of the 19th century enticed the passengers away from the mail boats.  As long as the immigrants crowded on the mail boats the crossing became a real nightmare for many.   On  average  such  a journey took 35 to 40 days, but often twice as long in bad  weather.   The immigrants were accommodated between decks, normally up to  800  people  on  a 1000 ton ship.  One has to imagine the steerage as a dark  smelly  room which due to the large number people caused agoraphobia.  The  ships  bottom  was  sometimes positioned so low within the cargo space that  water  could freely ingress  through the planks.  Rats were a familiar sight and fresh air came only through the hatches.  However bad weather these hatches were frequently tightly closed causing stench due to lack of ventilation.  The hygienic devices, of which there were hardly any or very few, the  generation  of  the  smell became even worse.

Even  whilst  asleep,  the  steerage passengers were not able to forget the daily  inconveniences.   Sleep hardly came into consideration on 1.80 metre long  bunks,  which  were arranged in 2 or 3 tiers, one on top of the other.   The  bunks  were  45  centimetres  wide, or also 1.80 metres wide,  whereby  more than four passengers often then had to be accommodated in one bunk.   As  the  main  deck  was  off  limits  during  stormy  weather, the conditions  became  even  more aggravated.  To make matters worse, clothing and  the  bedding  was, for the most part, wet through, as the hatch covers were  not  closed  in  time when the storms began and waves lashed into the steerage  area.   Generally,  nothing dried until the end of the voyage, so everything remained damp and smelt accordingly.  After  the  conditions  in  the  steerage  area  and  the  situation of the passengers  leaked  out to the public by various investigations.  Parliament felt  compelled  to  pass  the Passenger Ship Law of 1848.  A minimum space requirement was now stipulated for each passenger.  However, Shipowners and Captains took no notice of this law for economic reasons.  Precisely  at  a  time  when  rigid  rules were laid down for relationships between  sexes,  on  the  majority of the emigrant ships there was not even separate areas for men and women.

With  crowds  of  people  pushed  together in small spaces, smells and dirt could  not  be  avoided.   On  one occasion a Canadian Government Inspector found  during  investigations  on the mail boat "Lady MacNaughton" that the few vacant spaces between decks were filled with ship biscuit leftovers,  bones, rags and all types of rubbish, all rotting and full of maggots.  The stench  was  considered  to  be worse than the filth as one could shut ones eyes  in  order  not to see the dirt, but the stench was ever present.  The smell  of  rotting wood and that of earlier and new cargo intermingled with the odour of hundreds of people producing an unbearable stench.

Hermann  Melville,  the  author  of Moby Dick remembers his time as a crew member on a transatlantic ship.  When one week after sailing "one put one's head  through  the front hatch one could believe that one was placing one's head into a suddenly opened cesspit.

But  not  only  stench  and  dirt  caused the passengers between decks much trouble.   For  their health the completely inadequate food was surely more detrimental with which they had to exist for weeks and months.  A  shipowner  admitted  openly that the normal diet was adequate to prevent dying  of starvation but not to survive and thrive." Small wonder therefore that  on  some  ships  ten  percent of the passengers died on the sea.  The surviving  passengers  were  almost always undernourished when they finally set foot on land.

At  the  beginning  of  the flood of immigrants the passengers had to bring their  own  food  for  consumption  on board, but later a law was passed to ensure  minimum  rations  were  available.   The  Shipowners  and Captains, however,  found  many  ways to evade such legislation.  It was for instance customary  to  have the required provisions on board at the time of sailing but  to  send  back to land after sailing a large part of the provisions on with  the  help  of escort vessels.  It also happened that food was sold to the  immigrants  at  cut throat prices instead of being distributed free of charge as prescribed.  A  further difficulty was the preparation of food.  On nearly all ships the cooking  facilities were totally insufficient for the number of passengers. Often  the  facilities  could not be used at all in bad weather.  It can be taken  from  a  contemporary  report that often only six cooking facilities were available for 400 passengers.  A constant battle raged over the preparation of meals.  Women travelling on their own often had no choice but to starve for days on end.  Sometimes the ships  cook  would prepare meals for the immigrants but demand payment for the  privilege.   Thus  bribery became the only means of acquiring several meals  per day.  Poorer passengers without the required financial resources had to make do with one warm meal per day or even one meal every other day.

An  equally  big  problem was the drinking water supply.  A law stated that each  adult  passenger  was  entitled to 3 litres of fresh water daily.  Many  ships.  however.  obtained their water from rivers and this was often not  fresh.   Furthermore  the storage of water in barrels left a lot to be desired.   According  to  legislation water was to be kept in clean barrels provided  for  the  purpose,  but  in  actual  practice this did not occur.  Consequently  the  water  was often putrid and practically undrinkable upon distribution, and led to diseases such as cholera, smallpox and typhoid.

On  some  ships  these  diseases  spread  to  such an extent that a captain recorded  the  following:-  "it is a miracle, indeed, that so many survived the journey." Of course the immigrants were medically examined before going on  board  the ships, but these examinations were more than superficial and correspondingly  useless.   Feared  more  than  other diseases was typhoid.  This  disease  was  widespread  whenever many people stayed together and it became  known  as "jail fever or camp fever".  When the wave of immigration reached  its  climax and the number of typhoid cases on the ships increased dramatically, the disease was called "ship fever".

Despite  all  the  difficulties, migration continued across the Atlantic to the  land  of  promise.   America.   without  diminishing.  Fortunately the journeys  were  not  always  difficult.   On some mail-boats the immigrants formed  self-help  groups  in  order  to  cope  with  the adversities of the journey.   They cared for the sick, attempted to protect themselves against theft  and helped women who travelled alone to resist encroachment from the crew and other passengers.

Around  the  middle  of  the  19th  century some 0.25M people crossed the Atlantic on average and up to 0.50M during peak periods.  The mail boats  transported ambitious  cargoes  ranging  from rails for railways to French  wine.   With  the introduction of steam ships to the traffic across the Atlantic mail boats became less viable.  By 1863 steam ships had gained a  45%  share of the passenger traffic and by 1866 the percentage had grown to 81%   The  mail  boats  managed  to remain competitive for a while carrying heavy cargos  such  as  grain  and coal.  By 1878 however 3 of the 5 major lines  had  been  shut down, namely the Red Star Line, The Blue Swallowtail Line  and  the Dramatic  Line.   The  trail blazing Black Ball Line ceased trading  after  the  summer  of 1878  and most ocean-going mail boats were turned  into  cash.  On the 18th May 1881 the last mail boat arrived in New York.  She was appropriate named "NE PLUS ULTRA" - No Further."

Canada rose as a nation out of British North America. The nation was born when 4 of the larger regions (Québec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) joined together on 1 July 1867. ‘Co-Chaidreachas’ (confederation) is the Gàidhlig term used to describe when provinces join together to create a new country. Through time the other provinces joined them. Newfoundland was the last province to join Canada, in 1949

The first emigrants to Australia were those forcibly transported in the late 18th century.  The American War of Independence in 1783 meant an end to transportation to the American Colonies, and following the establishment of a Penal Colony at Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1788, Australia became the focus for transportation. Thousands were transported as convicts, and often their wives and families were sent out with them.

"Free settlers" such as farmers and traders also emigrated to Australia seeking new opportunities, or assisted by emigration societies encouraged by colonists to help with the labour shortage.  This was especially the case in the mid-19th century during the Irish famine, and also large numbers of Scottish emigrants from the Highlands (1851-1859) were assisted by the Highland and Island Emigration Society. Emigrants made a variety of new lives for themselves in Australia and New Zealand; they found work on farms, in industry and building railways.   Emigration to Australia peaked during the 1850s when many people hoped to find their fortune on the newly discovered goldfields.

Child emigration was undertaken by religious and charitable organisations with Canada and Australia being the main destinations.  The Children's Friend Society, established in 1830, sent out its first party of child migrants to Australia in 1832.  In 1844 the Ragged School Movement began, and sent out 150 children to New South Wales in 1849.  In 1850 Parliament legalised Poor Law Guardians to fund emigration of children to the colonies.

Between 1788 - 1886 some 158,830 convicts from England and Ireland were transported and landed in the Australian Colonies - 134,262 males and 24,568 females. Some 2,911 died on the way.  They were transported in 477 ships many of which made more than one journey. (See Charles Bateson's "The Convict Ships" for details).  After being sentenced to transportation many convicts had to spend months in prison hulks before a ship to transport them was available.  An image of one of the many prison hulks below.  The journey to Australia itself could take up to 4 months and sometimes longer.  Conditions in the transports improved over time as did the time taken by the voyage.

New Zealand
Emigration to New Zealand did not really begin until the 1840s when it became a British Colony.  This was because New Zealand had never been a penal colony and had only been settled by Europeans in the 1820s.  Immigration schemes began in 1840.  The British Colonial politician, EG Wakefield, manager of the New Zealand Company (1839-1849) was opposed to offering free land to settlers, so instead advocated that land should be sold and the profits used to finance emigrants, to obtain labourers, who would have their passage paid for in return for their labour.  (He had previously instigated this scheme in Australia a decade earlier.)  Land was aggressively purchased from the Maoris to sell to the settlers, resulting in a number of wars between the settlers and the natives.  Emigration escalated in 1861 with the discovery of gold, with New Zealand's population rocketing from 99,000 in 1861 to 256,000 in 1871.  From the 1870s onwards, a large number of public work projects to build roads and railways, required labourers who were mainly recruited in England and Northern Europe.  They were given assisted passage, with as many as 46,000 arriving in 1874 alone.  Immigration continued in lesser numbers until the economic depression in the 1890s and World War I.   Many emigrants to New Zealand travelled via Australia.


- the Queen of Nations was described on her arrival at Auckland in 1874 as an Aberdeen Clipper built in 1861. She made only one voyage to New Zealand. She sailed from the Mersey on March 17, and proceeded to Belfast to take in a full complement of immigrants, and finally sailed on March 21, under Captain Donald. She carried light winds and fine weather to the Equator, which was crossed on April 23. On the 22nd of the following month the meridian of the Cape was passed. She experienced a succession of south-east gales, which ran the vessel down to 54 degrees south. A few days before sighting the Three Kings, on July 2, the vessel was in company with the James Wishart, and the 2 ships sailed in company until arrival at Auckland on July 5. Three deaths occurred during the voyage. The passage occupied 105 days from Belfast, and the James Wishart took 106 from Gravesend.

About a week before the arrival of the Queen of Nations at Auckland great excitement was caused by a false report being circulated that the ship had been wrecked and all the passengers and crew had perished.

South Africa
In 1806 the Cape of Good Hope was ceded to Britain from Holland and Britons began to settle there.  Despite armed clashes with the Boers and Zulus, an assisted emigration scheme to help settle the colony was introduced by the government in 1819; the 1st party of settlers arriving at Algoa Bay in 1820 after a 3 month voyage.  From 1870 onwards emigration to the colony increased following the discovery of gold and diamonds.  Some settlers sailed from Liverpool to South Africa.  The British settlers of 1820 are extremely well documented.  The original records are in the Public Archives of the Cape Province, Cape Town, Republic of South Africa.  Others sailed for Natal around 1850 and are documented in the Natal Archives, Pietermaritzburg.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013