Guest post: What was your ancestor's voyage to New Zealand like for them?

Guest contributor: Janelle Penney

So, you've tracked down the passenger list of the ship your ancestor arrived in NZ aboard and perhaps you've even managed to find a picture of the vessel, but you still want to know more - what was it like to travel aboard that ship?

Some of us are lucky - our ancestor left behind a letter or a diary which tells the story of their experiences in their own words - but for most of us, there is only silence from our forbears. We have to find what we can about that voyage as seen through others' eyes, and work out from that what the experience of our own ancestor was probably like.

HISTORICAL NEWSPAPERS are a common source of voyage descriptions. Many NZ newspapers of the 19th and early 20th century, in addition to publishing the names of passengers who arrived at the local port, would also list cargo brought aboard the vessel and give some description of the voyage itself, based on information provided by those operating the ship. Sometimes passengers who had died or given birth might be named, but the weather encountered en route, voyage duration, the 'healthfulness' (or not) of the voyage, are the kinds of topics that crop up most frequently. To look for voyage descriptions, try the Papers Past website of digitised NZ newspapers.

Of course, not all papers are to be found on the website, though it is gradually growing over time. Compilations of newspaper accounts, (supplemented with some useful photos) such as "White Wings", are still of value in tracking down information. "White Wing" by Sir Henry Brett, covers passenger ships in the NZ trade 1840 to 1885. There are reference copies of the original two-volume edition available in the Central Auckland Research Centre and loan copies of a 1976 reprinttwo-volume edition available in the library system. There is also a condensed version, but I personally prefer the two volume original.

Newspapers on microfilm are also a source but may require either a visit to the library concerned or sending a request to staff of the relevant institution. The Central Auckland Research Centre, for instance, holds the NZ Herald from November 1863 on microfilm.

VOYAGE ACCOUNTS by crew members or by passengers, are even more desirable research material than the newspapers. Your own ancestor may not have been a diarist or left a letter about the voyage, but maybe one of their fellow-travellers did? Some shipboard diaries have been published and many more exist in manuscript form and are held in archives, libraries, museums and private family collections. An invaluable source to track down this material has been published by the NZ Society of Genealogists "A guide to firsthand shipboard accounts for voyages to New Zealand, 1840-1900" by Martha Donaldson.
Checking the ship name and date of voyage will tell you if someone produced something about your ancestor's voyage. There is always the faint hope that such a diary or shipboard account might even name your ancestor, if he/she was an acquaintance onboard of the person doing the writing. For a lucky few, the hope may even be fulfilled, but a word of warning - most diarists were people travelling in the better class cabins who had more free time (and perhaps education) for such pursuits. The bulk of people who travelled to NZ as immigrants travelled in steerage, and lived both at a physical and social distance from the cabin passengers during the trip. Having said that, there is still much valuable insight to be gathered from such diaries, for many of the experiences of shipboard life were common to all.

Now that the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives have been digitised up to 1906, official reports made about the voyages from people like ship's doctors, or government inquiries that were mounted about particularly-problem filled voyages, can be accessed online.

Another source of shipboard accounts is Ian Nicholson's remarkable"Log of logs : a catalogue of logs, journals, shipboard diaries, letters and all forms of voyage narratives, 1788 to 1993, for Australian and New Zealand and surrounding oceans."
Note that each volume should be checked in turn, as each is a separate listing and may contain different entries for the same ship and voyage.

GAINING INSIGHT. You may not have the good fortune to find a voyage account that relates to your ancestor's ship, but there are still resources available that will enable you to gain some understanding of what they experienced. Indeed, I would recommend the following two things to anyone with immigrant ancestors of the 19th century, no matter how well-informed you may be about their personal experience. The two things are: a splendid book about the experience of immigrants aboard ship, which is a distillation of ten years of study by the author of shipboard accounts ("Over the mountains of the sea : life on the migrant ships 1870-1885"); and a visit to the immigration exhibition at the Voyager Maritime Museum.

The Voyager Maritime Museum is located at the Viaduct Harbour down on Quay Street. (You really can't miss it - it's the only building with a large yacht parked outside on the street!). It contains much of interest to family historians and in particular a replica of a 19th century vessel's immigrants' quarters, in steerage, complete with a mechanised floor that replicates the swaying feeling of being aboard ship. If you want to experience a little of the dark, cramped, creaking and swaying world your ancestors' survived during their voyage, this offers you a unique opportunity. Only the rats, cockroaches, damp, and smell of bodily wastes are lacking. Believe me, when you are standing in the middle of that exhibition space, they are easy to imagine.

And one last note about the museum - if you have the good fortune to be a JAFA (a resident of Auckland), it is free. (See the website for details).

This entry was posted on Saturday, 27 August 2011 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

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