The voyage out, Deborah Montgomerie

Over the Mountains of the Sea: Life on Migrant Ships, 1870-1885
David Hastings
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1869403754

When I was an undergraduate, one of the perennial questions examiners asked in the first-year course in 19th century New Zealand history ran: Why did British settlers migrate to New Zealand? The standard answer which lectures and tutorials had prepped us to give: in search of a better life. (As if anyone migrates in search of a worse life!) As an extra for experts, there was a variant answer. You could argue migrants came in search of a better life for their children (as if anyone migrates in search of a … oh! never mind) in order to recognise the hardships borne so bravely by the first-generation settlers. The big challenge was spinning more than a couple of hundred words out of bland cultural commonplaces. More advanced courses bored us with ideas about “push and pull” factors driving migration, “chain” migration and the heartwarming predisposition of migrants to retain aspects of their ethnic and cultural traditions even as they built their better lives here in the Brighter Britain of the South. The result: an enduring prejudice on my part (and I suspect many others) against the history of emigration as dull, complacent and relatively conflict-free.

Over the Mountains of the Sea is neither dull nor complacent. And it certainly regales the reader with more than a few stories of conflict. David Hastings is less concerned with the whys of the emigration process, though there is a sensible section on reasons for leaving home, and a good narrative chapter about the typical voyage – as far as any voyage was typical. He is much more interested (and much more interesting) on the dynamics of shipboard life. The final chapter follows a few migrants into their new worlds, but largely in the interests of narrative closure, rather than in the service of the shamrock and kilt schools of migrant studies. The voyagers’ trials and tribulations are the heart of the book with chapters on the routines of life at sea, inter-group tensions and on-board disciplinary regimes. Because single women were segregated from the general ship’s company, there is a separate chapter on the so-called “virgins’ cage”, while another chapter deals with the rigours of birth, death and disease at sea, and passengers’ relationships with the ships’ doctors. Chapter 9, “Land fever”, deals with the end of the voyage, a period as plagued by deep emotions as the “great wrench of the heart” which had dominated the voyage’s beginning.

Hastings’ argument is that the migrant ships can be treated as Victorian microcosms. He points out that the voyage out was mythologised by 19th century newspapermen and first-generation migrants as heroic and graceful (albeit a bit slow), then almost completely ignored by professional historians as being of less significance than the migrants’ experiences before and after embarkation. Instead of regarding the migrant ships as the historical equivalent of a magician’s hat transforming emigrants into immigrants as the magician changes a pocket handkerchief into a rabbit, we should take them seriously as social milieux.

There are certainly plenty of sources to draw on. Hastings used records from 250 voyages, including 82 diaries. While there are class and gender biases in the sources (with women and steerage passengers under-represented among the diarists), there are still sufficient steerage-authored diaries (40) and women’s diaries (24) to give voice to their experiences. In addition, Hastings skilfully interweaves material from officers’ journals, ship logs, newspaper reports, government inquiries and court records, and the records penned by cabin-class passengers, reading them against the grain to compensate for the imbalances in the first-person narratives. This matters because so much of the book hinges on a depiction of the migrant ship as a disciplined and regulated space. Like Victorian prisons, lunatic asylums and reformatories, these were spaces where people were contained and regulated according to class and gender. As Thomas Montgomery, a migrant on the Loch Gloy, wrote in 1883, once at sea, a ship’s inhabitants were “left to form a little world of our own, a copy in miniature of the big world we had left behind us with all its variety of character and feature, its jealousies and feuds, its diversity of creed and politics, its distinctions of rank and file”.

Ship captains and doctors were not just the men required to sail the ship and treat the sick: “each had social and political functions in enforcing the rules and acting as moral guardians of the ship’s company”. Migrants were not all alike, either in their aspirations or their experiences. Beyond the basic distinctions between cabin-class and steerage passenger were a multitude of other divisions and experiences. If their diaries are to be believed, single women enjoyed their time aboard ship more than their married counterparts; steerage-class male passengers, despite being required to work fetching and carrying coal, food and other provisions, scrubbing the decks, taking turns as night constables, helping as deckhands when storms threatened the ships, or volunteering their skills as bakers and carpenters to assist the crew, were more likely than first-class men to avail themselves of the opportunity to while away the voyage gambling; married men in steerage were more likely than their cabin-class counterparts to help their wives with domestic chores;  deck sports, chess, cards, reading parties and parlour games helped pass the time for those in the cabin classes. Line- and spear-fishing entertained all classes as participants and spectators, and offered fresh food as well as sport. Through a closer examination of these transient little worlds, and different people’s very different places in them, Hastings offers us a chance to think about some big topics, not just class and gender, those social-historical staples, but also religion, ethnicity, violence, crime, sickness, health, work, leisure, domesticity, privacy, deference and authority. This is rich material, well worked.

In 1848, Edward Jerningham Wakefield advised intending colonists that while music was a great comfort on the voyage to New Zealand, it should be learned before embarkation. Nothing, he claimed, was more disagreeable than a fellow passenger learning to sing or struggling to master an instrument. Trawling through the records of the settlers who came out 30 years later, Hastings finds many more disagreeable things: passengers so lazy or so uncaring they defecated and urinated around their beds; a ship’s doctor suspected of murdering his wife en route; a passenger allegedly suffocated in his bunk while the steerage quarters were being fumigated. In close quarters, enemies were “easily made”, and the book devotes a whole chapter to the tension between passengers, noting that, however personalised the conflicts were, they emerged along the fault lines of the social landscape: class, gender, marital status, religion and occupation all played a role. “Far from travelling in a spirit of social egalitarianism to build an ideal society in a new world,” Hastings argues, “the migrants actively preserved the social map as they knew it.”

There is a Foucauldian analysis of shipboard social relations lurking between the pages of this book. The theoretical underpinning of the analysis is handled lightly, sometimes too lightly. I suspect the master’s thesis on which Over the Mountains of the Sea is based was heavily larded with references to the literature about Victorian social discipline, punishment and surveillance. The book is published by a leading university press, and, in the notes, room should have been found for references to the international literature. A few token nods are made to works about 19th century New Zealand, but that’s it. The great bulk of the notes chart the author’s course through the primary sources. Not everyone will read the notes, but restricting them in this way will limit the book’s impact on the historiography. Given the ambition to move beyond a simple retelling of the migration stories and use the material to put forward an argument which unpacks the migrants’ cultural baggage, the notes have not been used to good effect.

There are a host of useful examples of the tussles which preoccupied migrants and those charged with the duty of transporting them safely to the new world. Hastings portrays ship’s officers as engaged in a “never-ending struggle to maintain discipline, order and good conduct”. This struggle had ethical as well as practical dimensions. In classic 19th-century fashion, considerations of personal routine, cleanliness and public health became moral as well as medical flash-points. One pities Millen Coughtrey, the surgeon-superintendent on the Chile, during its turbulent 1873 voyage. George Savill, an Essex baker, repeatedly challenged Coughtrey’s authority. He was insolent and violent and refused to get out of bed at the regulation time of seven o’clock. A member of the crew was sent to roust him but he baulked, “ ‘saying he was an Englishman and would not be dragged out of bed’ ”. Coughtrey went to the officer of the watch who ordered Savill up. Savill refused, reducing the officer of the watch to the undignified ploy of attempting to pull him out of bed by his feet. Savill was too strong and, after winning the tug o’ war, was left to rise at his own convenience; he continued to challenge the officers’ authority for the remainder of the trip.

On the same voyage, George Thorpe openly defied rules about shipboard hygiene by hanging a diarrhoea-stained sheet from an oar on the main deck then going to play cards. After Coughtrey scolded him, Thorpe promised to “ ‘knock his bloody head off’ ” when they reached Auckland. William Coates, another notorious lay-a-bed, “ ‘seldom washed before breakfast’ ”. An inspection of the area under his bunk turned up rubbish hiding a bucket of urine and faeces. John Hunter, an Irish bricklayer, got into a series of fistfights with the schoolmaster. When Coughtrey investigated he found that Hunter had been brazenly interfering: “ ‘If the schoolmaster taught the children to do a sum one way, Hunter would insist they do it another.’ ”

As if Coughtrey didn’t have trouble enough with the male passengers, some of the females also proved intractable. After Anne Vesey got into a fight with a messmate over a tea towel, Coughtrey ordered her locked up for the remainder of the voyage. A bunk was enclosed to make a cell and Vesey confined there for 50 days. The surgeon’s medical journal reveals that he had previously diagnosed her with a uterine disease. In addition to being prone to outbursts of violence, she experienced pain during intercourse, suffered from excruciating, irregular periods and fluid retention, and needed catheterisation to properly empty her bladder. Her gynaecological problems were, he believed, the real source of the trouble: “ ‘the pain is much aggravated by her violent and ungovernable temper, wch [sic] we so often find accompanying the least lesion of the womb.’ ” This is not the received version of our migrant forebears. For every well-brought up young lady quietly sketching in first class, there may have been a pain-wracked termagant like Anne Vesey; for each respectable husband manfully helping his wife with the laundry, a belligerent, brazen, wannabe schoolmaster like John Hunter, handy with his fists and reluctant to know his place.

Hastings, a deputy editor at the New Zealand Herald, has a journalist’s eye for a good story and a historian’s determination to work out what the stories mean. The book is well written and well illustrated, including a selection of contemporary photographs and sketches, most notably a delightful series of drawings made by young Mary Dobie on the May Queen during 1877. The bibliography includes a full list of the diaries and references to some of the international literature excised from the notes. Over the Mountains of the Sea is a fine book and a good indication that 19th century migrant history – for a long time something of a genteel historical  backwater –  may in fact be an ocean; deep, stormy and worth traversing.


Deborah Montgomerie’s last book Love in Time of War: Letter Writing in the Second World War was reviewed in our December 2005 issue.


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