Sailing ships, and later steamers, played a vital part in South Australia's History. They were a link between the young colony and Britain, bringing migrants, mail and cargo. During the early years of settlement they made the long, and often dangerous, journey to South Australia. The length of a voyage depended on wind conditions and the weather. An emigrant never knew exactly how long the voyage would take. A trip could be a three months' holiday, but more often than not it turned out to be a nightmare. The loss of life on these journeys was appalling, in particular among women and children. At times the casualty rate was as high as ten per cent, sometimes even higher. The Shackamaxon, which left Liverpool on 4 October 1852 with 696 migrants for Port Adelaide lost 65 people, mostly children through scarlet fever. Those surviving this trip eventually settled in South Australia. Some, including George and Mary Hollitt, went as far north as Wirrabara.
Most of the emigrants traveled in steerage accommodations, between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Shipowners had found emigrants a new source of profit and had built a flimsy, temporary floor beneath the main deck and on top of the cargo hold. Often it was so far down in the hold that water would seep up through the planking. Rats scurried about. Ventilation and light were poor and came only from the hatches when they were open. During a storm, access to the main deck was impossible as hatches were battened down tightly. A storm could last for a few days or up to a week or more but the hatches would stay down. Lights could not be used during the storm because of the danger of fires.
Only the wealthy migrants could affort to travel in cabins. Most of the new settlers though stayed in the steerage section of the ship between decks, which was often flooded. The long and uncomfortable trip tried everyone's patience and quarrels and drunkenness were regular. Even the Buffalo, which carried the first Governor in 1836, had its troubles. George Stevenson, wrote in his journal, 'the Governor's mules, pigs, cow, geese, turkeys and dogs must have their full allowance of water, and, that they may not suffer, another pint is this day struck off our allowance in addition to the pint at Rio. It is impossible to repeat what is said in all quarters of such conduct. Everything is sacrificed to his own selfish purposes'.
On the Asia, aboard which H. Hussey arrived in 1839, many children had died from measles and whooping cough. According to him 'it attacked the juveniles with great and fatal effect, and we lost 25 in all, as many as three in one family. The great heat, when near the Line, proved too much for many of the little ones, and one after another they succumbed. Three in one day had to be committed to the deep, the last of them in the evening, the funeral service being read by the light of a lantern'.
When the James Jardine, arrived at Port Adelaide on 29 June 1859, she had taken 131 days to complete the trip. This 810 ton ship left with 352 people on board, but before she reached South Australian waters five children had been born and six people had died.
Upon arrival it was reported that 'the ship seemed well adapted for emigrants, being lofty between decks and well ventilated'. However, many complaints were made regarding the quality of the flour, 'which on inspection was found very bad, and from the statements of the Surgeon-Superintendent, the baker, and the Master of the ship, there was no doubt that it was from the beginning of the voyage of very inferior quality'. In the opinion of the Emigration Board some deduction should be made from the payment of freight on that account.
Still there were other problems at times during these long voyages. Two young women, sisters, who had sailed on the James Jardine, made a complaint against the Surgeon who on one occasion called them improper names. As it turned out these two girls had during the voyage, 'behaved in a most insubordinate manner and were in the constant habit of insulting the Surgeon and the Matron. They walked about the single women's apartment a great part of the night, and wished to be allowed to lie in bed during the day. They also had constantly and intentionally interrupted the evening prayers, and shocked the ears of well-behaved girls by profane cursing and swearing'.
It was proved to the satisfaction of the Immigration Board that their complaint against the Surgeon was quite unfounded and that, on the occasion referred to, he was vainly 'endeavouring to induce them to get out of bed after ten o'clock in the day'. Another complaint dealt with was the fact that the Captain of the ship had 'held such communication with one of the single women as to seriously interfere with proper discipline and decorum on board'. He was found guilty of 'conduct which had a direct tendency to encourage indecency and immorality'.
Few ships, no matter from which country, were specially built to carry large numbers of passengers. Most ships had a small number of cabins for business people or wealthy passengers. Almost all migrants travelled between decks, in shared accommodation with rows of bunks. Ships leaving from German ports were often as ill prepared as those from Britain. The Skjold, a 406 tons ship, left Altona with German Lutherans on 3 July 1841. When it arrived at Port Adelaide on 28 October 1841 it had lost fifty-two passengers. The George Wasington, a former American Liner, arrived at Port Adelaide on 11 September 1844 after a fast 108 day trip from Bremen during which six of the nearly 190 passengers died.
The Heloise, a 476 ton sailing ship, left Bremerhaven on 12 October 1846 with 214 passengers, including more than one hundred children, and crew. It arrived at Port Adelaide on 17 March 1847. During this voyage, Christiana Huf gave birth to her fifth child while the weather was hot and steamy and the sea rough with water sloshing around her.
As a result of the large number of emigrants sailing for South Australia, conditions on ships did improve. When the Berar arrived from Liverpool, after eighty-eight days at sea, with 349 people on board two births and two deaths occurred at sea. One of a prematurely born infant, who survived only a few hours, the other a child of two years. The Berar was well adapted for emigrants, being lofty, well lighted, and ventilated. A trellised barricade was constructed some distance from the front of the poop, which effectually prevented any communication between the single women and the crew or male passengers. This arrangement was highly commended by the Surgeon-Superindentent, who was of the opinion that it ought to form part of the arrangements on board of every emigrant ship.
The provisions, medical comforts, water, and medicines were good and abundant. The conduct of the master and officers of the ship was in every respect praiseworthy - they were kind, civil, and obliging to the people. The Surgeon-Superintendent reports that Mrs C. Stapley, who had charge of the single women on board, performed her duties in the most efficient manner. She returned in the vessel to England, to resume her duties as matron of the Servants' Home.
The behaviour of the emigrants on this particular trip had generally been excellent. The school was well attended and marked progress was made in writing and arithmetic - the general attendance being between thirty and forty daily. The distilling apparatus on board had a cooking apparatus attached to it. The food was always well prepared and ready at the fixed hours for distribution. The Surgeon-Superintendent speaks highly of the beneficial effects resulting from Dr. Edmond's patent ventilating apparatus, which is undoubtedly a very great improvement on all previous systems of ventilation used in emigrant ships, producing constant updraught of the air in the 'tween decks, going on, though imperceptibly, at all times both by night and day. At the muster there was no complaint, but the great majority of the people acknowledged with gratitude the kindness they had experienced during the voyage.
A personal account of a voyage from Cornwall to South Australia was provided in 1936 by John Tamblyn who undertook the trip in 1865. The Lincoln was a new boat, having made only a trial trip before she was commissioned to take emigrants to the South Seas. It was a lonely evening somewhere about 6 p.m. when sails were set and we quietly sailed out to the open sea. Naturally the decks were crowded until the lights failed, then we had to go between decks. On Wednesday morning the sun shone brightly, a light breeze blowing, sailing along about 5 or 7 knots an hour made it very pleasant on the wide ocean. On reaching the Bay of Biscay the wind died down and we were becalmed for 9 days. There were no waves, but huge swells. These swells seemed as if they would engulf the ship. Now on the breast of a huge monster then almost immediately down in a deep trough with an immense roller on either side. Believe me, it scared many of us.
Day after day we were tossed about in this fashion, when suddenly a light breeze sprang up and the Bay of Biscay was left behind never to be seen by many of us again. The wind became strong and the rolling and pitching of the boat proved too much for a large number as there was a considerable amount of sea sickness. Every day was taking us nearer the equator and of course higher temperatures. At last on reaching the line, sad to say the wind ceased to blow. For about a fortnight the sea was like a monstrous sea of glass. The heat was so intense that the pitch that held the deck together melted.
My sister Elizabeth Jane who was jubilant when Australia won the toss, was taken ill. She never rallied and died of "Brain Fever" at the age of 24 years. To me, and no doubt to many others, it was the saddest sight one might ever hope to see. A crew of 40 men of all nationalities gathered round an oblong piece of canvas containing the remains of one who so recently was so full of life and love. Then the sliding through the scuttle on a plank, accompanied by the burial service at sea. It floated for a little while then disappeared and everything went on as before. Many a sympathetic heart went out to the bereaved ones. Copious tears fell. Now she rests and has been resting for more than 70 years. I shall never forget the look on many a stern sailors' face as the silent tears rolled down their dusky faces.
Day after day passed - no wind - intense heat - glassy waters. Water everywhere, slightest motion only. What a magnificent picture that ship made, every sail set ready to catch the slightest breeze. Only a slight rolling caused by the moving waters. The sun pouring down its burning rays, only to drive the migrants 'tween decks where the atmosphere charged with chloride of lime made it almost unbearable. The boys and girls, however, were better off than the adults as we were compelled to attend school daily. We were sheltered from the burning sun by an awning.
We had now been on the Equator nearly a fortnight. Many a time I have stood alongside the man at the wheel and glanced over the set sails of that beautiful clipper built ship. One Saturday morning a lovely bright sun-shiny day, the look-out shouted land ahead. This was Kangaroo Island. It was about 4 o'clock when we passed the island bowling along towards Port Adelaide. On Sunday morning a tug came out and we tied up at Port Adelaide at 8.30 a.m. Sunday morning 3 December 1865.
Naturally everyone was much relieved when they finally arrived at their destination, including the ship's crew. As a ship would often stay in port for a long time, waiting to be unloaded and negotiating a return cargo, crew members would make the most of it while in port. This often led to major problems and forced several captains to have notices printed in the daily newspapers that they 'would not be answerable for any debts contracted by their crew'. Sadly though, not all ships made it to South Australia, many were wrecked at sea or on the Australian coast.
One of the longest serving sailing ships was the clipper City of Adelaide, launched in 1864 in Sunderland, she was still sailing eighty years later. This ship was originally part of the Devitt & Moore Company which also operated the South Australian and the Pekina. Other ships with South Australian names were the Coonatto, a composite clipper built in Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe, South London in the Thames yard of Bilbe & Perry. In 1863 she made her maiden voyage to China and Australia.