Voyage to New Zealand

I’ve been asked how much of what happened on the Lady Rosalind (the fictional 1840’s sailing ship in The Widow’s Secret) was based on real events. The short answer is that Elisabeth Godwin’s story is entirely fictional, but the backdrop of shipboard life is based on events from real diaries from various immigrant ships.

The sailing voyage from Britain to New Zealand really did take three to four months, sometimes even longer. Just imagine: a third of a year on a 100-foot (30 metre) wooden vessel in the middle of a vast ocean, alongside a couple of hundred other desperate souls, with land rarely seen and even more rarely visited. Half way around the earth, crossing the tropics, the equator and the truly terrifying Southern Ocean, to a little-know cluster of islands.

The pictures show the approximate route and a painting of the first immigrant ships to reach Wellington from Britain (Clayton, Matthew Thomas, 1831-1922: Settlement of Wellington by the New Zealand Company. Historical gathering of pioneer ships in Port Nicholson, March 8, 1840. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.)  

All too often, the first days were some of the worst, stuck in the vomit-inducing English Channel, unable to move against head-winds. Many were later becalmed in the fierce heat of the doldrums, while in the Southern Ocean, some voyages really did see icebergs, while almost all encountered fierce storms and whales.

The conditions on board were no picnic – jam-packed bunks, tiffs with fellow passengers, rudimentary sanitation, infectious diseases, vermin (rodents, cockroaches and lice are featured in many diaries), childbirth, accidental injuries, and blocked bowels from the stodgy food. It’s a wonder there weren’t more deaths.

The photos show what the steerage bunks would have looked like, compared to a cabin bed, as well as the long central table that ran through steerage. [Taken at the Edwin Fox Museum in Picton, New Zealand, which is well worth a visit. http://www.edwinfoxsociety.com/]

After reading the diaries, I had a vivid picture my ancestors in their steerage bunks. They were tradespeople from the foul backstreets of London, farm-workers from small villages in Kent and crofters from the Scottish islands. Presumably they had little experience of the world beyond a day’s walk or ride. How would they cope, suddenly thrust into an epic adventure? I suspect they survived thanks to a strong streak of stoicism, a tight-knit community of fellow-travellers (often whole families), and a desperation to seek a new life.

Regarding the last of these, there was often little choice, with many being thrown out of their homes and jobs due to changes in land laws and mechanisation in the industrial revolution. Progress, as ever, benefits the rich over the poor. The sailing ships were truly a microcosm of British society, with a small number of wealthy colonists in the cabins and a large horde of working-class emigrants in steerage. Those in cabins enjoyed three-course meals with wine and were destined either for land purchased from the New Zealand Company or for well-paid employment. Those in steerage got a bunk in the communal area, basic meals, and the opportunity to experience such delights as cooking, cleaning, emptying toilet buckets and scrubbing decks.

The picture shows a series of sketches of life on board an emigrant ship. (Reproduced with the permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand; from `The Illustrated New Zealand Herald’, 9 April, 1875.) 

And yet, the voyage had its up-sides. The best ships had a school, ample (if monotonous) food, fresh air and a competent ship’s surgeon, leading to improved health, especially amongst the poorer city children. Irrepressible human spirit meant that all voyages had their own entertainments, including plays, poetry reading, newspapers, wildlife-watching, sketching, games, crafts and dancing (as well as many less-desirable activities such as drinking, fighting, playing pranks and shooting birds with sling-shots). The captain, chief mate and surgeon kept a fairly tight rein, no doubt well aware of how fast the atmosphere might turn sour.

Thirty hours in an economy seat on board an airplane to get to New Zealand suddenly doesn’t seem so bad!

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