FIRST WAVE: Unlucky Ships

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter Seven: UNLUCKY SHIPS

An insult commonly levelled at bounty emigrants from Ireland was that they were dirty and diseased. They may have been unwashed and dishevelled, an understandable reflection of their subsistent-peasant backgrounds. The more serious accusation, however, was that their poor standard of personal cleanliness was directly linked with the killer-fevers of the age. Their untidy appearance provided grounds for assuming they were also carriers of devastating diseases like typhus and cholera.

All emigrants who gathered at British ports for colonial destinations such as Port Phillip had to overcome several legitimate fears about the journey that lay ahead of them. Principal among these was dying from illness contracted during the voyage. In the case of Port Phillip bound ships, fatalities from sickness averaged 3.5% of those who embarked. In real terms this meant that of the 13,092 emigrants who landed safely, another 475 died during the passage to Australia, including 303 children.(1)

Some vessels had very little illness but a considerable number experienced major outbreaks of disease, with horrific results. Often emigrants spent days or even weeks confined below decks due to bad weather ("Batten down the hatches!"). In distressing conditions -- dark, wet, cold, foul-smelling, with unending noise from the storm outside and the frightened people within -- it would have been difficult not to think negatively of those around you, to find fault and to blame.

Most ships carried Irish emigrants who, from contemporary accounts, looked and sounded very different to those from other parts of Britain. They were sometimes boisterously behaved, and they were clannish, sticking together despite their arguments. The congestion of bunk bedding and shared latrines increased tension. Suspicion of their unwashed, and therefore possibly contagious, bodies grew with the general irritation at their (mutually) trying circumstances.

Epidemic diseases

Ideas that poor hygiene led to poor health, and that disease spread from person to person, are not recent inventions. Understood imperfectly perhaps by modern standards, but by the middle of the nineteenth century simple connections, or pathological pathways, had already been made by emigration agents and medical officers in Britain and the colonies.

For instance, in 1839 John Marshall's well-run "London ships" already insisted on various measures to minimise the risk of disease outbreaks. These were publicised in his recruitment pamphlet.
"With a view to the preservation of perfect cleanliness, health and comfort on the passage, new bedding will be provided for all steerage passengers; they will not be allowed to take their own bedding on board (except sheets), filth being frequently introduced by such a practice, to the serious annoyance of all on board...Cleanliness being indispensable to the health and comfort of all on board during the voyage, steerage passengers will not be admitted unless furnished with a proper supply of clothing, especially linen, stockings &c. for the voyage...and such other articles of dress as are essential to cleanliness, health and comfort...combs, soap &c...every steerage passenger will be required, before embarkation, to put sufficient linen and other changes for a month's use into a box not more than 15 inches square...once a month the larger packages will be brought on deck, when each person must exchange his or her dirty clothes for clean ones..."(2)
Marshall's emphasis on new bedding and 'regular' changes of clothing was, in historical hindsight, particularly appropriate for combating one of the killer-fevers of the period. Typhus, also known as "gaol-fever" or "ship-fever", is caused by the spread of rickettsia prowazeki (through lice on humans) or rickettsia typhi (through fleas on rats). It is rife in crowded living conditions where clothing is unwashed and bodies huddle together for warmth.

The name "Fever" was a generic term in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, compounding the two distinct diseases Typhus and Typhoid Fever. Typhoid means 'like Typhus' and is caused by the spread of salmonella typhi (through contact with human faeces). It flourishes in conditions of poor sanitation and inadequate personal hygiene, and is normally ingested through contaminated food or drink.

Cramped sleeping quarters and primitive sanitary arrangements in the holds of emigrants ships were potentially 'ideal' environments for the incubation and contagion of Typhus and Typhoid Fever. Bad vessels were called Fever Ships. 

Other illnesses that spread in these conditions were "Scarlatina" or scarlet fever, chickenpox, measles, smallpox, whooping cough, and "croup", all contracted by inhalation and touch, and lethal for children. A final range of sicknesses, the ones that rendered the situation almost intolerable below deck, were dysentery, "bloody flux", and diarrhoea.

The Glen Huntly

Preventing the introduction of the already sick onto emigrant ships was the task of port medical officers and the Surgeon Superintendent of each vessel. Dr Boyter, the Government Emigration Agent for Scotland, and Superintendent James Brown, the Surgeon on the Glen Huntly, did not insist on rigorous standards of good health when loading their passengers. Perhaps they felt they could not, as the emigrants had already been waiting for several weeks for their ship at the Highland port of Oban. The consequences, however, were tragic.

In one of several reports made by the Port Phillip authorities after the Glen Huntly limped into the Bay flying the yellow fever flag, the source of the problem was revealed.
"The emigrants amounting to about one hundred and seventy, were taken on board at Oban, in which town it appears Fever was then prevalent...Whilst undergoing [repairs to the ship's hull at Greenock, after twice running aground at Oban], Fever appeared among the passengers, in consequence of which several of them (about seventeen) had to be removed from on board and sent to the Hospital at Greenock, where seven or eight died...The repairs of the ship having been concluded, they were re-embarked after a stay of about seven weeks at Greenock, and sailed for New South Wales on the 13th Decr [1839]. The convalescents alluded to were most of them excessively debilitated, and several of the passengers who had fever on board but were not removed to the Hospital, were also far from being perfectly restored to health.(3)
Even before leaving Glasgow, "seven or eight" had already died. On the voyage out a further ten died from Fever, one from Scarlatina, one from Measles, one from Smallpox, and two from unspecified "other complaints". A further three died from Fever in Quarantine after their arrival. Out of the 169 emigrants who had embarked from Oban on the Glen Huntly, at least 25 were dead, a mortality rate of nearly 15%.

In a later version of the Immigration Board's series of reports in 1840, the circumstances were politely, but damningly, summarised for La Trobe.
"It is evident that the ship left Greenock for sea with disease on board, and that her departure under such circumstances was permitted by the authorities under the vague expectation that her passage into a finer more genial climate might render her healthy...It is to be feared that the state of discomfort & uncleanliness into which the emigrants were evidently thrown at the commencement of the voyage from bad weather and inexperience of the gentleman in charge was never remedied or ameliorated during the whole voyage, and the state of their bedding &c. [subsequently piled on Brighton beach and burnt] at their landing date strongly impressed the authorities at P. Phillip that this conjecture is a true one...It is not intended to cast any imputations upon the character of the Surgeon Supt. beyond that of evident inexperience in the character of the duties which devolved upon him in enforcing that order, cleanliness and regularity, on board an Immigrant ship".(4)
It should be noted here that the fever ship Glen Huntly carried an all Scottish contingent. These emigrants were Highlanders who boarded initially at Oban in Argyll, rather than Irish internal-migrants boarding at Glasgow. The luck, or otherwise of getting on a 'good' ship was related to the port they loaded from, not the ethnic background of the emigrants they would travel with.

Dangerous ports

Map 8 below shows that high death rates from disease were directly related to a vessel's port of departure. The map locates those bounty ships that had more than ten deaths during their voyage. All the British ports involved in sending emigrants to Port Phillip had one fever ship, but Glasgow had three and Liverpool had six. There is a point where bad luck becomes bad management.

Map 8: DANGEROUS PORTS. A simple depiction of the number of fever ships that departed from each British port for Port Phillip 1839-1845. A fever ship is defined as having 10 or more disease-related deaths on the voyage, including deaths in quarantine after arrival.

A total of 13 ships suffered more than 10 sickness-related deaths. In 1839 the William Metcalfe from Plymouth and the Westminster from London had 11 and 10 deaths respectively. In 1840 the fever ship Glen Huntly registered 25 deaths, including 3 in quarantine after her arrival. In 1841 no less than 5 fever ships from Liverpool entered the Rip -- the Salsette (13 deaths), the Georgiana (17), the Argyle (45), the England (18), and the Wallace (10) -- followed by the Ward Chipman from Bristol (23 dead). In 1842 came the Robert Benn and the Manlius from Glasgow, having lost 19 and 61 respectively, and the Martin Luther from London via Cork with 12 deaths. Last of all, the Wallace arrived again from Liverpool, this time having lost 38 lives to sickness.

Every exporter, and importer, of bounty emigrants was in pursuit of profit. The priority they gave to their financial self-interest varied only in degree. For example, in 1842 the Port Phillip District Superintendent, Charles La Trobe, informed the Governor in Sydney that all consignors were extracting additional fees from the emigrants, despite their intention to also claim the full bounty rebate for each one of them: "...from Mr Marshall downwards, a practice has prevailed with many of the exporters, to exact sums of various amounts, under diverse pretexts, from the emigrants, in part payment of their passages...a most culpable practice".(5)

This was quite true. In 1839, in Marshall's own recruitment pamphlet, a 5 Pound payment was demanded from "Single Males", even if they were "well acquainted with agricultural work". Others who were not so acquainted, "single mechanics" or tradesmen, "must pay their own passage" at the sum of 21 Pounds. In this way Marshall was deferring the entire risk of possible refusal of bounty back onto the heads of those who wanted to go. (If, however, they could persuade their unmarried sister to travel on the same vessel, "they will both be taken free!").(6)

La Trobe's investigation into the Salsette from Liverpool in 1841 uncovered uglier evidence of systemic efforts to reduce the shippers' costs at the expense of the emigrants' welfare. He found that in that instance, "the provision made by the agents in Liverpool for the comfort and health of the immigrants was very inadequate...there was an insufficiency of water [not remedied "until they were considerably past the Cape"]." La Trobe criticised "the badness of the bread", the spoiling of "flour" through bad packaging and stowage, and the poor quality of "the beef and pork". (In reply to the latter, the unloading agents insisted "there was both bad and good in each cask"!).He also remarked on the oddness of these inadequacies occurring despite the fact that "the provisions were examined and approved by Lieut. Henry, R.N., the Government Emigrant Agent of the port of Liverpool".(7)

The District Superintendent was particularly angered by the apparent coercion of the ship's Surgeon by the "supercargo" during the passage: "...that the surgeon superintendent  of the ship was put on board by the importers without having received any power and authority whatsoever to see that justice was done to the immigrants during the voyage, as respects the quality of the provisions...the duty of serving out the daily rations being under the sole control and management of the supercargo, who was one of the joint proprietors".(8)

As a result of the shippers' representative (the "supercargo", abbreviating 'superintending owner of cargo'), doling out meagre and "spoiled" food rations, the impact of disease on board was increased. By the time the Salsette arrived in Port Phillip Bay, some 13 emigrants had died.

In a later letter to Governor Sir George Gipps, La Trobe tried to press home his argument. He reported that "from the very week of their disembarkation, and before they could provide for themselves, a very considerable number of the immigrants by the Salsette were attacked by low fever then rife in the town and neighbourhood. Many have since died, and in general it has been observed by the medical men that these immigrants were, from previous hardship, and insufficient nourishment, much less able to bear up against than others, and much more liable to sink, even after the fever had been subdued".(9)

To no avail. "These bounties may be paid", the Governor had already ruled. Although he also said, "Unless Messrs [A.B. Smith & Co of Sydney's] future ships are better managed, I shall not feel at liberty to grant any fresh permission to them to import immigrants".(10) Hark the sound of a very light slap on the wrist.

Mortality rates (A)

The most consistent records of births and deaths on emigrant ships are the Returns of Persons compiled by the Port Phillip Immigration Board for the eighteen month period 1 January 1841 to 30 June 1842.(11) Prior to this, ship's surgeons, under instructions from their employers, the emigration agents, refused to supply the Board with this information. It was not until new regulations in 1840 came into force that they were compelled to provide a proper Return of Deaths On Board to port authorities.(12)

While these official returns are limited to a one and a half year portion of the five year bounty scheme, they actually cover the busiest part of it -- 51 ships, out of the total 71, landed emigrants at Port Phillip in 1841 and 1842. During this time 9,395 emigrants, men, women and children, disembarked at Melbourne, but at the cost of 325 lives lost to disease on the voyages. These figures indicate a mortality rate of 3.45% between the nominated dates. (Adding 325 deaths and subtracting 166 births from 9,395 emigrants landed provides the number of people who embarked, from which this average mortality percentage has been calculated).

The mortality rate of 3.45% over all 51 vessels in the one and a half year period is used as a benchmark in Graph 9. Seven ships from Liverpool and seven ships from Glasgow are then compared with this benchmark. The consecutive 'runs' of vessels from Liverpool and Glasgow depicted in the graph were all dedicated emigrant ships, fitted out below deck for the trade, and carrying in excess of 100 passengers on Bounty. Individual mortality rates have been calculated for each voyage.

Graph 9: FEVER SHIP DEATH RATES. A line graph comparing a series of mortality rates on ships from Liverpool and Glasgow with the bench-marked average percentage of disease-related deaths (3.45%) incurred over the same period (1 Jan 1841 - 30 Jun 1842) by vessels from all ports. Source: British Parliamentary Papers, 1842 & 1843, Vols XXXI & XXXIV.

Ships from Liverpool suffered high death rates in 1841. Five ships, starting with the Salsette, were flying the yellow fever flag when they arrived at Port Phillip and three of these were immediately put under Quarantine. After official inquiries and complaints to their consignor, A.B. Smith and Co of Sydney, standards for the later vessels seem to have improved, with death rates reduced to about average.

Ships from Glasgow were generally comparable to the average in 1841, with the exception of the third ship, the Grindlay, which carried 147 survivors off the India from Rio de Janeiro to Port Phillip. The India from Glasgow was burnt-out at sea in the South Atlantic, when 16 emigrants and a seamen were drowned in the panic to launch the ship's boats. Apart from these non-disease related deaths, the first five ships, which were all contracted by Robert How and Co of Sydney, suffered death rates no worse than the bench-marked average.

However, the last two ships in this group were sent in 1842 by a new consignor, Francis Reid and Co of Glasgow. Both of them were fever ships, and the last of them, the Manlius, suffered 61 deaths from disease (41 adults and 20 children) out of 298 emigrants embarked.

Map 8 demonstrates that high disease-related death rates on emigrant ships were linked to particular ports of origin. Graph 9 indicates that deaths from disease can also be more accurately linked to particular consignors of bounty emigrants. The different experiences of the Glasgow ships contracted by Robert How in 1841, and those organised by Francis Reid in 1842, provide graphic evidence of this.

Mortality rates (B)

The tragedy of the India shows that there was more to fatalities at sea than illness alone. The risks that potential bounty emigrants had to face down before committing to the voyage went beyond the horror of Fever. There were accidental deaths, the not insignificant consequences of fire and shipwreck. To gain a real appreciation of these dangers as they weighed on the minds of the emigrants, it is necessary to expand our measure of mortality beyond the statistical certainty of the official Returns of Persons.

Calculating a death rate for the entire 'first wave' of bounty emigration to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845 requires information from additional sources. The core of data is drawn from Lists of Immigrants and Returns of Persons. This has been supplemented by shipping reports from colonial newspapers, published books, 'ancestry' sites (where these rely on original manuscripts or published histories), and government posts (e.g. <heritagevictoria> on quarantine cemeteries at Point Ormond and Port Gellibrand).

When all but the last vessel is taken into account, emigrant ships had an average mortality rate of 3.55% over the course of the bounty scheme. This percentage is very similar to the 3.45% arrived at from the Returns of Persons for the shorter period of eighteen months. The aggregated index of deaths for five years was calculated in the same way: 13,092 emigrants landed at Port Phillip, plus 475 deaths on board and in quarantine, minus 217 on board births, equals 13,350 emigrants who embarked from British ports. However, this figure still only tells part of the story.

The 'rabbit out of the hat' for this chapter concerns the last shipload of bounty emigrants. In 1845 the seventy-first ship, the Cataraqui, carried 369 assisted migrants intended for Port Phillip. The reason it has not appeared so far in this study is that only one of this consignment survived the voyage and reached their destination.

On 20 April 1845, the 800 ton Cataraqui left Liverpool. According to her almost entirely posthumous List of Immigrants, she had on board 62 families (61 men, 62 women) with 190 children (93 boys, 97 girls) and 60 young adults (23 male, 33 female).(13) Contracted by emigration agents William Smith and Son of Liverpool (not connected to A.B. Smith and Co of Sydney), and specially overseen by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in London under recently amended regulations, she sailed with an experienced Master (Captain William Finlay) and two Surgeons (brothers Charles and Edward Carpenter).

On 4 August 1845, the Cataraqui struck teeth-shaped rocks off King Island. The surviving First Mate, Thomas Guthrie, recalled "At half-past four [AM], it being quite dark and raining hard, blowing a fearful gale, and the sea running mountains high, the ship struck on the west coast of King's Island, at the entrance to Bass' Straits".(14)

In a note to the Cataraqui's List of Immigrants that was subsequently published in the Government Gazette, the Port Phillip Immigration Agent, Dr John Patterson, summarised the circumstances leading to Captain Finlay's fatal error.

"The ship Cataraqui...had a very favourable passage until the middle of July, when after passing St. Paul's Island she met with continued heavy weather. As she approached the termination of her voyage, several days passed without satisfactory observations being obtained; but on the evening of the 3rd of August, she was considered to be about 141 degrees 22 minutes East longitude and 39 degrees 17 Minutes South latitude, or about 100 miles from land, according to the ship's reckoning. She was nevertheless hove-to until three o'clock A.M., on the 4th, when she bore away steering East by North. An hour after, she ran upon the reefs near the south-western extremity of King's Island, where she was totally lost".(15)
The difficulty of taking clear navigational observations of the sun and the horizon during the last part of the journey prevented accurate measurements of longitude and latitude being made. As a result, Captain Finlay believed he was many miles north and west of his actual position. All but one of the 369 bounty emigrants on board drowned, along with 39 members of the crew, including the Captain and both Surgeons.

Every emigrant embarking on the journey to Port Phillip risked shipwreck. The entrance to Bass Strait was particularly hazardous to ships at the end of a long voyage, with few sightings of land to provide reliable reference points along the way. For example, on 13 May 1835 the convict ship Neva, sailing from Cork to Sydney, struck reefs off the north-west of King Island. From this vessel's original complement of 150 female convicts with 33 children, and 9 'free women' (wives of previously transported male convicts) with 22 children, only 15 survivors remained to be rescued a month later.

When the 368 emigrant deaths from the Cataraqui are taken into account, the overall mortality rate for the Bounty Scheme of 1839-1845 rises from 3.55% (mainly disease related) to 6.05%. The dangers of a vessel foundering en route, along with the threat of falling fatally ill during the passage, were more than idle fears. For every 100 bounty emigrants who arrived alive at Port Phillip, six did not.

In conclusion, this chapter has questioned the accusation that Irish emigrants were particularly dirty and diseased. In the absence of more precise registers of ship-board deaths, it has investigated what information is available from the Immigrants Lists and Returns of Persons.

The Irish were undoubtedly responsible for some of the instances of Fever and other contagious illnesses on emigrant ships to Port Phillip. About 60% of all emigrants were Irish.
It is probable, in a logical and statistical sense, that they were therefore 'responsible' for a commensurate portion of introduced disease. However, whether they were the major source of incubation and contagion beyond their equivalent proportion of total emigrant numbers is a moot point. It is more likely that emigrants from Ireland were being scapegoated by this allegation, at least to some degree.

For example, in the early 1830s an epidemic of Cholera swept through Ireland. Cholera is a disease of poverty and Ireland was very poor. However, similar outbreaks of this killer-disease occurred throughout Britain at this time. Similar conditions of inadequate housing, poor sanitation and contaminated water supply, meant that the Scottish Highlands and crowded cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and London were also hard hit.

It is possible then, to exaggerate the influence of the Irish in this regard. The information that was compiled in the Immigration Board's 'Lists' and 'Returns' suggests a much stronger link existed between the fever ships and their ports of origin, and those who organised each shipment, than with the respective 'national' backgrounds of the emigrants themselves.

Vessels from the Irish port of Cork, for instance, had lower disease-related mortality than the Scottish port of Glasgow. And Liverpool, a major port of departure for both English and Irish emigrants, was responsible for the most fever ships of all.


(1) Author's figures derived from Lists of Immigrants
(2) 'Australian Packet Ships - Emigration to New South Wales - Free Passage', 1839, (John Marshall, Australian Emigration Agent, 26 Birchin Lane, Cornhill, London), in Twenty Years Experience in Australia, London, Smith Elder & Co., pp. 62-63
(3) Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 19/P1, 1840/0479
(4) As above
(5) British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Accounts and Papers (5) Emigration, Vol XXXIV, Appendix M, p. 76
(6) Australian Packet Ships 1839, p. 61
(7) 'Attachments to the Report from the Committee on Immigration 1841', Australasian Chronicle (Sydney), Saturday 11 September 1841
(8) As above, La Trobe's Letter, 25 January 1841
(9) As above, La Trobe's Letter, 9 March 1841
(10) As above, Governor Gipp's Letter, 14 February 1841
(11)'Return of Persons' 1 July 1840 - 30 June 1841, British Parliamentary Papers, Accounts and Papers (6) Emigration, 1842, Vol. XXXI, Appendix I, p. 56; and 'Return of Persons' 1 July 1841 - 30 June 1842, British Parliamentary Papers, Accounts and Papers (5) Emigration, 1843, Vol. XXXIV, Appendix B, p. 58.
(12) 'Testimony of James Denham Pinnock, Immigration Agent,' 1841, British Parliamentary Papers, 1841, New South Wales (EMIGRATION) Copy of a Despatch..., pp. 18-19
(13) <>
(14) Port Phillip Herald, 13 September 1845, in The Courier (Hobart), 20 September 1845
(15) 'Government Notice: Shipwreck of the Emigrant Vessel "Cataraqui" on King's Island, 4th August, 1845', Port Phillip Government Gazette, No. 90, Wednesday, September 24, 1845, pp. 418-423


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