The Women of New Zealand
2 — The Voyage
Plans For the regular settlement of New Zealand were formed long before the British Government had made up its mind what course to pursue; they were, in fact, not only formed, but begun to be executed; and the New Zealand Company's first settlers had landed in Port Nicholson a week or two before the first signatures were set to the Treaty of Waitangi. The story of the various New Zealand Associations belongs elsewhere. It is enough to state here that the Company's action in despatching its ships, under the enthusiastic and vigorous direction of Wakefield, finally forced the Government's hand, and emigration to the new colony was able to proceed rapidly.
3. The Ship Kenilworth: Outward bound for New Zealand
Conditions in England were bad. Wages were low, employment difficult to obtain; the Company pushed its wares well, and there was a ready response. Already in the last months of 1839 over seven hundred men and women had left England for New Zealand, with close on four hundred children; and the stream flowed steadily for many years. It would be a wholesome exercise for us in these later days, reluctant travellers as we sometimes are, if we could even see the ships in which they sailed and the quarters that they occupied, remembering that the voyage was unlikely to be of less than four months' duration, page 36very likely to be longer, and did occasionally take as long as nine months. The discomforts would not appear to them perhaps, who had known no other standard of voyaging, so great as to us; but they must, nevertheless, have been extreme; and those who know to how weary a length five weeks can draw themselves out, and how easy it is to become hypercritical of the appearance and behaviour of one's fellow-passengers, will find no cause for surprise in the fact that in the long confinement and close quarters of these small ships irritation frequently spilled over into quarrelling and violence. One of the Company's first New Zealand bound ships had to put into Capetown in order to settle the differences among passengers and between passengers and captain. The captain himself was by no means always blameless, and against him there was during the voyage no appeal. An article in an early number of the Journal warns intending emigrants that 'the captain is a despot and should be obeyed. If he misuse his power on board, yield while under his control, even if you complain on reaching your destination.' There was, as we may suppose, little enough consolation in the prospect.
Passengers had to supply themselves with almost everything they might need to use on the voyage, even to the cabin furnishings. In a few ships, 'it sometimes happens' according to a Handbook published in 1849, 'that the bed-places are already fixed, page 37but this is only in the poop: to secure these, an early application is necessary.' By this date also the Company was providing for steerage passengers mattresses, bolsters, and cooking utensils; they still had to find their own blankets, sheets and towels, together with knives and forks, spoons, plates and drinking vessels. First class, or 'cabin', passengers had their food cooked and served to them 'as it would be at the table of an hotel, all necessary attendance being included.' All others had to do their own cooking; and both the 'second-cabin' or 'intermediate' passengers and those in the steerage generally made an arrangement with one or more of their own class to act as 'messmen' for a given period, a week, a month, or even for the whole voyage. If no intermediate passenger were willing to serve in this way, there would probably always be an assisted emigrant glad enough to earn a few pounds by cooking for the 'second-cabin'; but passengers in this class had to provide for themselves 'a can, to hold the supply of water, a wash basin, baking dish, tin pot, drinking can, tin plate, tea-pot, spoon, knife and fork for each individual', and an 'oval pot and teakettle for the mess.' A mess consisted of six or more persons, and the food, provided by the Company, was issued, in some ships daily, in others on three days a week, and cooked in the ship's galley at strictly regulated times, the firing being found at the ship's expense.page 38
A certain amount of live stock (sheep, pigs and poultry) was carried, and the cabin passengers, but they alone, were able to have fresh meat during a great part of the voyage. Indeed they fared remarkably well. A lively diarist, travelling out 'cabin' in 1842, remarks that at sea people 'appear to like, at all events they load their stomachs with, the most incongruous mixtures. At dinner, for instance, after rich pork, they will take roast duck with boiled ham, currant jelly and perhaps pickles, with boiled fowl, currant jelly and caper sauce; or roast mutton with tongue and pickles, plum jam; to say nothing of several sorts of stale vegetables, etc…. Rich tart or plum pudding, often a plate full of both, follow these simples, which just leave a corner in the stomach for a piece of new bread and strong cheese, thus preparing a foundation for rather a larger plate full of almonds and raisins or other dessert, than economical ladies would put upon table for a party of at any rate 4 or 5 people.' A dinner of this sort, the writer declares, has often been preceded by 'a 9 o'clock breakfast consisting of something like a pound of rich salmon immersed in butter, ham, five hot rolls, a plateful or two of boiled rice smothered with marmalade; to say nothing of a slight noontide refection of bread and cheese, Brandy, Port wine and Porter.' As he adds, 'It really is not surprising that people feel queerish at sea when several weeks have been passed on the water.'page 39
On a long voyage food is still in our own days of rapid and comfortable travel apt to bulk disproportionately large in the interests of people normally quite abstemious—we need not think too hardly of these unfortunates. There were days then as now when it failed them. About three weeks out an entry in this diary reads: 'Dinner, pea soup; roast shoulder mutton, high; boiler pork, fat and high; bullock's tongue, salt and hard; cherry-pie, underbaked; green rhubarb pudding, insipid.' And even poultry palled. 'Had a piece of salt beef for dinner at the request of several, tired of fowls and ducks; it was horribly hard and salt.' Fresh vegetables would last only two or three weeks; after that they must put up with preserved carrots and preserved potatoes—'if obtainable.' Otherwise rice was used as a substitute. Passengers in this ship seem to have been lucky enough to have fresh bread; there was, it happened, a baker among the steerage passengers: the ship would not carry one. And for some unstated reason the captain gave orders after about seven weeks that no more bread was to be made. Ship's biscuit was provided on the scale of four pounds per week for each cabin passenger, three and a half pounds for the intermediates, five and a quarter in the steerage. It sounds a liberal supply, but it was not recommended by experienced travellers. A woman who had landed from the first ship in Wellington in writing to her parents advises that her brother page 40should bring with him, among 'things of most consequence' for the voyage, 'a good barrel of flour, some potatoes, oatmeal, white biscuit—for the ship biscuit is very inferior … and when the appetite is sickly it will not take it.' This woman had evidently found the allowances of flour and of potatoes insufficient. The amount of these is not given in the early advertisements, nor is oatmeal mentioned; but our Handbook of 1849 gives one and three-quarter pounds of flour as the amount issued weekly for each adult steerage passenger (children between one and twelve half rations, infants under one year, none), which, as it had to serve for puddings as well as bread, where bread was possible, certainly does not seem excessive. By 1856 the Canterbury Association had increased the flour ration to three pounds, and one pint of oatmeal had been added earlier. The meat ('Prime India Beef, Prime Mess Pork, and Preserved Meat in succession'), three and a half pounds a week, was evidently found to be enough, since this quantity varies little. Want of appetite for this 'horribly hard and salt' fare may very well have had something to do with it. Rice, pease, raisins, suet, tea, coffee, sugar, butter, pickled cabbage, salt and mustard, and three quarts of water daily (three and a half for intermediate, four for cabin, passengers), complete the 'dietary.' Cheese, like fresh meat, was provided for cabin class only; and the Aurora's passenger already quoted advises page 41her brother to bring some for himself, together with bacon, allspice, soda and tartaric acid. In most things the allowance for cabin and for intermediate passengers was larger than for those in the steerage, the exceptions being, besides 'biscuit', the various condiments, and butter, of which every adult passenger throughout the ship received half a pound weekly. As the butter was carried in kegs or barrels this would no doubt, and especially towards the end of the voyage, be enough.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Company prided itself on providing a dietary 'very much superior to what is usually within the emigrant's reach on shore,' it is not surprising that the fresh pork, pigeons, fish and potatoes in abundance that they were able to obtain when at so long last the voyage was over, made the earlier colonists exclaim, 'The country is like a paradise!' One family, landing in Lyttelton from the Sir George Seymour in December 1850, made straight for the baker's for fresh bread and butter, and ate the ambrosial stuff sitting on the rocks. 'We thought it the most delightful food, for we had had a hundred days' (but a brief hundred) 'of—and Co.'s contract feeding, which was something to be remembered.'
There can after all be little question that the quantity supplied was in the aggregate generally sufficient; but the Company might perhaps in addressing prospective steerage passengers have spared them page 42its boast of 'variety'—'The very variety of the food, and the fact that the emigrants take their meals in messes of at least six persons, affords ample room for the management of a good housewife.' It might be interesting for some 'good housewife' to work out a set of menus, keeping strictly to the list provided, and see how great a variety she could introduce into her four or five months' meals. 'Management' seems in the circumstances to be the mot juste. The later ships sometimes carried a few cows by agreement with prospective farmers, the arrangement being that the milk should be given to the use of officers and passengers; but it is doubtful whether any found its way to the steerage, unless in the case of sickness.
Water must, of course, have been one of the chief difficulties in these little ships, and its use was strictly limited to drinking and cooking. 'Be sure,' a sister wrote to her brother, 'be sure you bring sea-soap, for you will not get fresh water to wash in.' It seems possible that the earliest emigrants were allowed to embark without a full understanding of this; and the Company found cause for complaint in the 'negligence of person almost universally conspicuous' amongst its assisted passengers, and was constrained to offer them some fatherly advice. 'Men neglect to shave themselves for days together.' But this even cabin passengers were sometimes obliged to do: with 'an ugly sea running,' it was 'much trouble to page 43get dressed, washing and shaving not to be done.' Men would perhaps have done well on this count also to follow and improve upon the advice of an early Canterbury settler, who recommended 'every gentleman who comes out here to wear a moustache; all those who have not done so have suffered very much from sunburned lips.' Many did, in fact, as the diary of a woman cabin passenger records, 'discontinue the use of the razor' during the voyage. 'Women,' the Company's writer continued, 'to whom personal appearance is really important, neglect themselves even to a greater extent than the men. "Who is to see us?" is what passes in their minds continually. We answer, Your husbands; and perhaps an unknown lover, whose affections may be either weakened or lost by observing a constant carelessness of person on the part of the woman of his choice.' Sound, if fair-weather, counsel. Even in fair weather it can have been no easy matter for a woman to keep herself and possibly several small children clean and tidy, with cold salt water in a small hand-basin as her only aid. In bad weather, unless she were a good sailor, it was probably true that she neglected her appearance; it is likely that even the single woman, whose lot was in some respects easier, cared then not two straws for any impression she might make on an 'unknown lover.' It is to be remembered too that steerage passengers were responsible for the entire ordering of their page 44crowded quarters: there were no stewards or stewardesses to make beds, sweep, dust, and wash the cabins. Mattresses were taken up to the deck for at least an occasional airing; and one woman complained that they got very dirty in the process, and advised her correspondents to provide themselves with strong covers to protect them. This again was possible only in good weather. If it were rough, men and women had enough to do preserving their belongings from total wreck. 'Anyone coming out must expect to have a good knocking about,' one wrote, 'as we were tossed about, first in a valley, then on a mountain. Some part of the time we were battened down, and the sea swamping over us by tons at a time, knocking all our things out of place, breaking crocks, upsetting our dinner and breakfast.' Cramped quarters ashore are difficult enough to deal with; at sea, when with every lurch of the ship 'all things animate and inanimate' were hurled about, children and chairs in terrifying and noisy confusion, neglect was surely excusable.
The steerage quarters were in three divisions—for married couples with their children under twelve years, for single men, and for single women. The married people had separate sleeping compartments: since space was extremely valuable they were very small, and ranged round the common saloon, if saloon it could be called. But the single men and the single women had their narrow beds (the mattresses page 45were six feet by eighteen inches) in rows round the walls of their respective rooms, space enough being left in the middle for tables and benches, and the tables when not in use were hoisted to the ceiling. When the mattresses were on deck, the wooden slats which then took the place of the modern springs were taken out to be scrubbed, and occasionally whitewashed underneath. In very rough weather the water poured down the companions, even through closed hatches, and leaked through the deck. Men and women were kept busy with mops and cloths, and charcoal stoves had to be brought down to dry the beds. The galley fires were sometimes put out by a wave larger than the rest, and passengers felt themselves lucky enough if they managed to get their meals cooked even three or four hours late. It seems that there must have been many occasions when personal appearance might justifiably be considered of minor importance.
Personal clothes could be washed only when rain water was caught as it ran from the sails (for bedclothes salt water was deemed sufficient); and passengers were warned not to rely too much on such opportunities occurring. This meant, of course, that a larger wardrobe was required than is necessary in a modern ship. Evidently some of the earlier emigrants were ill-provided; and the Company within a few months issued lists of the minimum stocks of clothing with which their emigrants would page 46be allowed to embark. Bearing in mind the length of the voyage, the uncertainty of laundry work being possible, and the difficulties of personal cleanliness, the lists make interesting and in some ways instructive reading. These are the articles that the Company considered essential 'for health and a decent appearance':
Male 2 fustian jackets, lined 6 coarse towels 2 pair fustian trousers 1 pair of boots with hobnails, etc. 2 pair duck trousers 1 pair shoes 2 round frocks 4 lbs soap 12 cotton shirts 1 pair blankets 6 pairs worsted stockings 2 pair sheets 2 Scotch caps 1 coverlet 6 handkerchiefs
Female 2 gowns, or 18 yds printed cotton 6 neckerchiefs 2 petticoats, or 6 yds of calico 6 towels 2 ditto flannel, or 6 yds flannel 1 pair stays 12 shifts, or 30 yds longcloth 6 pairs black worsted stockings 6 caps, or 3 yds muslin 2 pairs shoes 6 handkerchiefs 1 bonnet 6 aprons, or 6 yds check Needles, pins, buttons, thread, tapes, etc. 4 lbs marine soap, 2 lbs starch
One mattress and bolster for each couple, of coloured wool Knife, and fork, plate, spoon, drinking mug, etc.
The suggestion that materials should be brought by the women instead of garments already made up is indicative of the anxiety of the authorities that there should be as few idle moments as possible. In another note the further suggestion is made that the men, page 47while abstaining from 'anything which might appear like begging', should try to obtain from their friends or relatives any 'half worn garments' they might be willing to spare. 'These would save them much expense, and the making them up anew would form an employment for women and girls on board.' It may have been a wise anxiety, dictated possibly by experience. Cleaning, cooking and contriving, washing when possible—'We could wash very well,' one woman reported. 'I washed for four gentlemen on the voyage, and earned about £5'—caring for children, sewing and making over, and all under difficulties to us almost inconceivable, it seems, nevertheless, that for the housewife the voyage must have been something of a busman's holiday.
It was of course not the steerage passengers alone who suffered during rough weather, though their case may very well have been the worst. 'Had a wretched night,' reads an entry in the diary of a woman cabin passenger, 'from water coming into my bed from the deck, was obliged to nail my waterproof to the side of the ship.' The women in all classes were sometimes too much frightened to go to bed—the din of waves and wind and creaking timbers was in any case too great to allow of sleep.
A storm at sea in those days might, however, have horrors other than the obvious ones. The water for drinking and cooking was sometimes, though probably not always, drawn from the Thames, and was page 48horribly polluted. After about a week at sea, one traveller reports, it looked like pale ink, and tea made with it was undrinkable. In a few weeks the fermentation ceased and all was well; but with the pitching and rolling of the ship in every storm the sediment was disturbed and the water became as bad as ever. That in some ships there were many deaths from typhoid is not surprising. We are told, though the cause is not stated, that in one of the early ships for the Nelson settlement, sixty children died. This was, however, exceptional, though there were usually one or two deaths, and they were mainly among the children. Each ship carried a 'Surgeon Superintendent' in whose charge the 'free emigrants' were specially placed. He was provided with a free cabin passage, and the Company contracted to pay him ten shillings per head for each adult emigrant 'landed alive and in good health', with an additional bonus of £50 on receipt of a report 'from proper parties, satisfying the Directors that the duties of the Surgeon have been fully and adequately performed, and that he has paid every requisite attention to the health and comfort of the free Emigrants committed to his charge.' A cynical suspicion inevitably arises of a possible connection between the specific mention of adult emigrants and the fact that death claimed chiefly children and the children of 'emigrants.' But it is almost certainly unjust. The men appointed to the positions of Ships' Surgeons were, from page 49available evidence, well qualified, by humanity as well as by knowledge and skill; and in the conditions under which the voyages had to be made it would seem that deaths were most creditably few. The truth probably is that those who died were by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing predisposed to disease; many of them no doubt bore its seeds in them when they were brought on board, and were ill-fitted to withstand the rigours of a ship-board diet of a hundred years ago. Of some we know that they would not in any case have survived. One can, however, think with sympathy of mothers fighting for their babies' lives, with the dice so heavily loaded as they necessarily were.
If the doctors could not always save the sick children, they could at any rate ease things for the mothers when babies were born at sea, and there were few ships on which three or four births did not occur during the voyage. It is noticeable that the majority of these babies were, rather against probability, reported as 'doing well'—born though they were in all the turmoil and confusion incident to a voyage in a small sailing-ship, with the rudder 'working about' and the sails 'threshing against the mast' in a calm, or splitting in a sudden squall, and with so plentiful a lack of the kind of food suitable for a mother both before and after the baby's birth. To the regular noises of a modern steamer one's mind quickly adjusts itself; they are found even to be page 50soothing, so that the first night ashore after a long voyage is made sleepless by the unaccustomed quiet. Was it the same in these small ships, so quickly and so powerfully affected by any slightest change in the force or the direction of the wind? It must have been at best a wildly syncopated rhythm, jolting and jarring to the mind as well as to the body of a sick woman. Yet they survived.
All passengers were warned to pack their possessions with particular care, and if possible 'in tin boxes.' 'Those who do not like to go to the expense of this,' however, 'will find boxes lined with … pitch paper answer the same purpose.' The kind of trunk recommended was a 'bullock trunk,' which was very strong and said to be impervious to sea air. 'Leather trunks are very expensive, and are themselves liable to mildew.' Many cabin passengers used the brass-bound sea-chests of cedar or mahogany, which still beautify New Zealand homes, appearing to have stood unharmed the long voyage and the passing of the years. But tin was best. 'Let everything you care about be cased in tin,' a woman wrote from Port Nicholson, 'as the air spoils all.' Nor was there only air to be contended against. Another passenger spoke of the 'salt-water drip over all our things in the cabin.' Even in a properly constructed chest, as it might have to be opened during the voyage and was liable to get wet in a heavy sea, boots and shoes were found to become mouldy.page 51
Steerage passengers had to provide themselves with strong canvas bags for the clothes immediately needed. All boxes were stowed in the hold; and while those of cabin passengers were hoisted between decks several times a week, people in the steerage were allowed access to theirs only every three or four weeks. Twenty cubic feet was the space allowed each adult passenger free (the Canterbury Association reduced this by half for assisted emigrants); passengers other than steerage class could have more, paying, as they do now, for excess luggage as freight. The charge for this in the forties was at the rate of fifty shillings per ton, or forty cubic feet.
The fact that no boxes were allowed in the steerage quarters is a pretty clear indication of how restricted they were. To be battened down for the greater part of several days and nights, a hundred or more necessarily imperfectly washed men, women and children, must have been a nasty experience. It should be remembered too that they ate (when it was possible) where they slept—there were no separate rooms. Bad weather in tropical waters simply does not bear thinking about. Even cabinclass passengers, except those who had secured the superior accommodation in the poop, suffered greatly. A woman diarist records a thunderstorm with heavy rain. 'The heat has been dreadful as hatchways and skylights were obliged to be closed, and many were ill from the rolling and the heat.' page 52A week later she says, 'The sunsets and moonlight evenings are now most delightful, but oh! the horrors of 10 o'clock! it is like descending (to compare great things with small) from Paradiso to Purgatorio.' And in a short month, 'Our cabins below are as cold now as they were hot in the tropics.' She is full of pity for her fellow-passengers in even less comfortable circumstances. 'Now,' she writes a fortnight afterwards, 'the weather being milder the steerage people have begun to walk upon deck a little, they spend a great deal of time in bed during the cold weather.'
4. Dance on board the emigrant ship, Randolph
There were of course other, but mainly day-time, diversions. The Company suggested that all who possibly could should bring a book or two, which could be collected at the beginning of the voyage and used for the common benefit as a circulating library; and that circles should be formed for those who could not read, each to be conducted by one who could. The formation of discussion circles was also advocated in which questions might be debated bearing on various aspects of colonisation. Most strongly of all, classes for children were recommended, to be held, with a regularity broken only by stress of weather, for two hours each morning and one in the afternoon. Teachers for these classes were often to be found among the cabin and intermediate passengers, men and women willing and thankful to be able to get through some of their own time in a way so likely to be useful. The Company's accent on regularity was, however, generally found to be a counsel of perfection. Deck sports—races and round games—were also among the possibilities. The more literary-minded found an outlet in the production of 'newspapers'—there was often more than one issued in a ship; and it was sometimes from the steerage that the first move came. The women in the steerage may have taken little part in the writing, though the reading and discussion may very well have served to page 54lighten a weary hour; and in other parts of the ship women did occasionally contribute.
Christmas at sea must have been very strange to these travellers. 'We thought of you on Christmas day,' a young woman told her parents; 'we thought how comfortable you all would be sitting round the fire, while we were tossed about on the bottomless sea'—a cruel break with tradition. But there were compensations, for she goes on, 'We had a sight on Christmas day that would have been worth £5; we saw a most beautiful iceberg in the open sea.' In most ships no doubt some special dinner-time effort would be made, within the cook's resources, to mark the day. The cabin passengers in one ship were served with 'roast turkey, goose and ducks, boiled fowls, beef, and plum-pudding, champagne.' It is pleasing to know that 'Dr W. gave the emigrants a sheep and glasses of grog.' It was not turkey and plum-pudding; but as they were then well on in the fifth month of the voyage, probably none had ever known a Christmas dinner that tasted better.
For the majority of ships there were no ports of call. 'We never saw land after we left Dover till we saw New Zealand.' They needed all the diversions that could be devised. Some of these were provided by nature—porpoises played about the little ships, whales spouted near and far, and flying-fishes, each in sunny weather with its small rainbow, were as fascinating then as now; while by night there was page 55the lovely miracle of phosphorescent waters. Strange birds too were seen: cape pigeons, cape hens, boobies, stormy petrels, sea swallows, albatross; all of them were interesting, and some provided 'sport' for the men and sometimes fresh meat for the messes. Three weeks from New Zealand one passenger reported 'a sunset of such beauty as to be well nigh worth coming this far to look at.' More often then than now there were other ships to be seen, lovely ghosts on a night of moon, or with sails gleaming in the sunlight; and they supplied an interest and a pleasure that are denied to modern travellers by sea, for very often they passed so closely that shouted conversation was possible, and not infrequently a boat could be lowered and sent across, if the stranger were homeward bound, with letters. 'About 2 p.m.,' reads an entry in a diary, 'spoke and boarded the Blair of Maryport… from Colombo to Liverpool out 87 days.' An officer and two passengers 'went on board, took about 50 letters and a present for the Captain of a basket of potatoes. They stayed on board for half an hour and had some lunch.' It was not possible that the homeward bound ship could tell the other much news, but 'our party told him of the Income Tax and of the death of the Duke of Orleans.' And for 'our party' the little excursion must have been an immense pleasure, while their report on their return would be listened to by the stay-at-homes with pleasure little less. If the ships were bound in the same general page 56direction there was of course great rivalry, and in the extreme monotony of the life aboard feeling ran absurdly high. 'The Plantagenet … is considered one of the smartest ships belonging to Wigram and Green…. Consequently we are not so much annoyed with her at slowly drawing ahead as we otherwise should have been.'
Occasionally a calm, in other respects most trying— 'Nasty calm day with heavy pitching motion of ship over the long swells, most disagreeable'—was made the opportunity for a lively relief from boredom. On one voyage of which a record remains two boats were lowered one afternoon; the mate took 'a good party of the gentlemen' in the jolly boat, while five ladies accompanied the captain in the gig. 'It was rather dreadful,' one of these ladies reported, 'getting up and down a loose ladder which swayed about from the side of the ship,' and with imagination's eye on the costumes of the fifties one can believe it; 'but it was a delightful change getting away from the ship for a little while, and we had great fun running races, hailing each other, singing, etc. We got home with a good appetite for the Dolphins which were fried in batter and proved very good eating, though I doubt whether we should have liked them much on land.' No boatload went rowing from the steerage on this occasion; but fishing was an occupation with which all could amuse themselves who could beg a little bait from the mess page 57cook, and possibly there was dolphin fried, though not 'in batter,' in other quarters than the 'cabin' that evening.
A less pleasant diversion was provided by unlisted passengers. 'Have seen during the past few days many little black ants on the floor of the cabin, they bite sharply,' says a passenger; and on another day he reports a conversation overheard at breakfast: 'What do the cockroaches live on?' 'Cabin passengers, Mr C.' But ants and cockroaches were not the worst of these little troubles. 'Painted the side of the cabin where the panels and sofa were taken down on Saturday'…. 'made further search for bugs and worked all morning at arranging the cabin.' Ants, cockroaches and bugs were not respecters of persons—they may indeed have found happier hunting in the cabin quarters; for it is in the diary of a lady cabin passenger that this plaintive entry is found: 'This evening I determined to enjoy a night's rest, so manfully lighting a second candle I examined well the walls of my prison and caught and slew about 30 be-you-gones ! ! !' This was a sore trial, but one which has been not unknown to voyagers in our own time, at least 'within living memory'.
In some ways the women who made these adventurous journeys were much less well equipped for them than the modern women. The greater suitability for travel of present day dress is obvious. Even those page 58who do not run to slacks or shorts for the voyage at least do not have to battle with dresses that need to be 'reefed and double-reefed' for a walk on deck in windy weather, nor with the wide hats that frequently blew overboard. 'Two hats have blown overboard this week, so Mrs W—has been busy at work. Luckily she brought plenty of plush so the old story of the ill wind holds good in her case.' It was better indeed when in cooler weather 'bonnets were substituted for hats.' But while there is considerable charm in the old pictures of ladies parading the decks in crinolines, bonnets and shawls, it cannot be said that they look particularly ship-shape. They do not appear, however, to have suffered any very conscious inconvenience—they could not miss the freedom they had never known. It did on the other hand take all their courage to face certain 'disagreeables' to which the modern woman does not give a thought. There was an inescapable publicity about the ship-board life to which it took time to accustom oneself in those days; and one young lady complains of the discomfort she felt at 'encountering people in my dressing-gown' on the way to the bath—she was travelling cabin class, and 'we have a capital salt water bath every morning if we like, both plunge and shower.' But the spirit which had carried her, so very unsuitably garbed, down that swaying ladder into the captain's gig, brought her triumphantly through this trial also. 'Now,' she says after page 59about three weeks, 'I have got quite used to it, and enjoy the Bath extremely.' It was good training for the colonial life that was before them. 'Once away from what we are accustomed to,' an early arrival in Canterbury wrote, 'I cannot help thinking how perfectly absurd many of the at home absolute necessaries seem.' The right spirit, and they had it in abundance.
Considering the large number of ships that made the long voyage from England to New Zealand, there were surprisingly few disasters. But there were enough. We hear of fearful gales, and terrifying seas smashing over the decks, carrying away skylights, binnacles and compasses, of masts crashing and water pouring below. Sometimes all on board, men and women alike, were kept at the pumps ceaselessly for days and nights together, in the slender, fading hope of saving their lives. The wonder is that they did so frequently survive against such fearful odds.
All sea perils were of course immensely greater when ships had no means such as we have of communication. Fire at sea, still the most greatly dreaded of all disasters, meant then a very slender chance of escape for those on board. Of the 473 people aboard the Cospatrick, bound for Auckland in 1874, only three survived. Fire broke out at midnight and spread so rapidly, in spite of the efforts of passengers and crew to control it, that it terribly hampered the work of getting out the boats, and the first two lowered page 60sank at once. Two were kept afloat; but after four days of terror enough a gale sprang up, and one of these was never seen again. In the remaining boat forty-one men drifted about for ten days before being picked up. By then all but five had died of hunger, thirst and exposure, many of them having first become insane. Of the five rescued, two died on board the rescuing vessel.
This was perhaps the biggest of all the sea tragedies of New Zealand colonisation. But there are still living in Dunedin a brother and sister who as children in 1861 suffered and escaped this terror of fire at sea; and the story, as vividly told by their grandmother, who also with her husband was one of the nine passengers to go through the terrible experience, is still a lively memory in the minds of other New Zealanders. From the day that she left Plymouth, Nelson bound with general cargo, the William Brown was in trouble. The Bay of Biscay proved no better than its reputation, and day after day the small 400-ton ship was buffeted and tossed by gales and angry seas. Days grew to weeks, and a month after leaving home she had beaten her way against mainly contrary winds to a position about two hundred miles from Madeira. Now at last things began to take on a more cheerful appearance. With a favourable wind all spirits rose, and that night they sat long over their meal, the captain leading the discussion of their more hopeful prospects. A few page 61minutes after he had gone on deck, however, one of the men came to him to report smoke from the hold. Storms, contrary gales, high seas, had after all been favours compared with this. The story was told in a letter to her family in New Zealand, written by the passenger referred to, as soon as she was safely back in England, and printed in the London Times of that date. Her husband, who had gone on deck with the captain and therefore heard the first report, hastened down to their cabin with the news. 'I folded up my knitting, put on my bonnet and shawl and went up.' All hands were now at work with buckets. The women collected the children from their beds, took them on to the poop, dressed them, and wrapped them in blankets. Then they went below again to their cabins, by this time full of smoke, and taking such small valuables as they could carry, purses and papers, returned to the deck, sheltering under blankets from the rain which had now begun to fall. The captain's desk and sextant were brought up from his cabin by the steward, together with a bag of biscuits and a cask of water; but the man was overcome by the smoke when he returned below for the chest. He was brought on deck, but all their efforts to restore life were fruitless. There was oil and turpentine among the cargo, and before long it was obvious that to save the ship was impossible. Sitting 'perfectly quiet,' the women and children watched the two boats being lowered, the women page 62wondering whether there would be room for all aboard, and, quietly still, saying good-bye to their husbands in case of the worst. A heavy sea was running, and there was great danger to the boats tossing beside the burning vessel—danger too that the foremast would be burnt through and fall on them before they could get clear. Eventually all were got into the two boats, made fast together, and the captain cut the rope that still held them to the ship. There was only one chance for them— that the glare of the fire, now burning fiercely, would be seen by a passing ship. They must therefore keep close to their disastrous little vessel; but with the wind increasing and a cross sea rising, it was beyond their powers. In imminent peril of being swamped, they lost three oars, and 'worked as men who work for their lives,' and yet they drifted farther and farther from the one small patch of the wide Atlantic where hope lay. And when about an hour after midnight they saw approaching the green and red lights for which they longed, they were missed, and the ship passed out of their sight again. Their shouts were unheard; they had a rifle, but it was wet and would not fire; they had a lantern, but could not strike a light. Still one chance remained, and they took it, though with heavy hearts. The second mate and the crew of the gig were cut loose from the long-boat, and sent off in what seemed the forlorn hope of getting in touch with the ship, page 63their would-be rescuer. At the first sight of dawn those waiting in the long-boat tied two red handkerchiefs to one of their remaining oars and held them aloft; and as the light grew, once more they saw the ship bearing down upon them. Ship and gig had found each other; they were saved. The steward's was the only life lost; but it would almost certainly have been otherwise had there been ninety passengers instead of only nine.
It is, of course, only the few who seriously anticipate such disasters; if it were not so, New Zealand's history would have been very different. 'I folded up my knitting, put on my bonnet and shawl, and went up.' So figuratively hundreds of other women folded up their knitting, and, putting on bonnets and shawls, quietly faced these and other perils, and all the acute discomforts of the long voyage to the new land where their hopes rested. Dangers and discomforts were accepted without fuss. Indeed the spirit of all these diaries is one of great cheerfulness, even of enjoyment. The young, unmarried women who were given free passages by the Company or by the Government, though they had not the responsibilities nor quite the same difficulties as the married women, had nevertheless their own special troubles, and in some respects were more to be pitied. In at any rate all ships except the quite early ones, and it may have been the same in these (information has not been available), they were in charge of a matron working page 64under the ship's surgeon. The rules that bound them were strict. They were not allowed to speak to any of the men—officers, crew, or other passengers; 'if we do,' wrote one of these girls in her diary, 'the punishment will be confinement for a week and to be fed on bread and water.' The punishment was several times incurred by a few of the wilder spirits; but on the whole the girls in this ship seem to have been very tractable. The extreme roughness of the weather encountered may have had something to do with it; for long days at a time they were battened down in their own quarters, where the water was sometimes ankle deep, and there was not much chance of breaches of discipline. They were divided into messes of eight, and provisions for a week were served out to the captain of each. They prepared their own food, but were not allowed in the galley, and had to hand it to a 'constable' who passed it on to the cook and returned it to them ready for the table. They washed not only their persons but their clothes in cold salt water. 'I want to see how the others get on before I try,' says the cautious writer of this diary; and later, 'The salt water washes better than I expected it would.' They had to get up at five to do it, and the days were often long enough already. They were allowed on the forward deck whenever the weather was fine enough, and some of them were completely happy as long as that was possible. But they had to go early below—in some ships they were page 65locked in at 8 p.m.—where, however, in good weather, they could have 'such rare fun' with dancing (there were concertina players among them), games, and theatricals which sometimes the married women came to watch. And the rest of the ship seems to have been mindful of them; when albatrosses were shot, one was sent down for them to see; and the captain and his wife were kindly and attentive. The matron had plenty of sewing for them to do; they were not obliged to take it, but most of them were glad enough to do so, and the name of the girl was put into each piece of work she did, so that her capability in this matter at least might be seen when she landed at her destination. It was not an easy life by any means; and the matron's was often much harder, as readers of Mrs Duff Hewett's little book, Looking Back, will know. Nevertheless, like the women in other parts of the ship, on the whole they felt their pleasure greater than their pain. 'I enjoyed it,' the writer of this diary, now in her ninety-first year, said in answer to a question, 'I really enjoyed it.' And indeed the entries in her diary give ample evidence of it.
In those days, however, the end of the voyage can surely never have come, as it does for a few rarely good travellers now, too soon. When the first sight of land was expected, some of the men sat up all night, climbing the rigging and stretching their eyes as soon as the first dim light of day appeared; page 66and once land was certainly announced the whole ship was in a ferment. 'We first saw it,' runs a woman's letter, '… in the morning about 3 o'clock, like a very black cloud. I promise you there were not many in bed after the cry of land in sight was given.' It was the first they had seen since they had left Dover, and 'one of the most picturesque and beautiful scenes that I ever beheld.' They were near the entrance to Port Nicholson, the first of the Company's passenger ships to arrive, and the end was in sight. But that was 20 January, and two more days were to pass before they reached their final anchorage off Petone beach—the sort of sickening delay that ship after little ship experienced as long as they graced the seas. Indeed even to-day New Zealand frequently offers no kindlier welcome; it is not uncommon to experience halcyon weather for the first twelve thousand miles, only to be mercilessly buffeted by wild winds and heavy seas almost within sight of port. Even the 16,000-tonner must sometimes still be hove to and wait with what patience she may the pleasure of the elements. But this, the strong nor' wester that kept these early settlers from their desired haven, was the final hindrance. On 22 January they beat their way into that noble harbour; and opposite Pito-one, where the hills opened out into the fertile valley of the Hutt, they dropped anchor. The white sails were furled. The voyage was over.