The journey to New Zealand began for most migrants with an overland trip to the English ports of London or Plymouth, or to Greenock docks near Glasgow. If ships were not ready to leave, passengers had to wait for up to a fortnight, often without enough money for decent board and lodging. In the 1870s, government barracks at Plymouth and Blackwall accommodated people waiting to board.
At London, the loaded ships were towed by steam tug to Gravesend, where cabin passengers boarded. They escaped the usual crowding, pushing and confusion on the dockside. On the day of sailing, carpenters could be still putting up partitions and bunks – temporary fittings in space used for cargo on the return voyage.
Feelings on departure
Passengers embarked knowing they were leaving their native land and often their loved ones, perhaps never to return. An 1841 emigrant recorded that no one was in a talkative humour as they took ‘a last long aching gaze’ at their native shore, but noted later that ‘the hope of the future’ drove regret away. 1 Women often recorded the pain of parting. One wrote in 1865 that she felt ‘dreary and lonely and unhappy’ and could do nothing but cry. 2 After a month at sea in 1869, a woman migrant took out ‘likenesses’ of her family, read their letters, and had a good cry. 3 But in 1858 a woman who felt inclined to join other women crying, asked herself what there was to cry about and set about tidying her bunk.
Diversions and entertainment
Boredom on the long voyage was relieved by such novel sights as dolphins, flying fish, albatrosses and whales. For cabin passengers at least, books, chess and cards helped pass the time. Quoits, a game using plaited rings of rope, was played on deck. Entertainments ranged from simple debates to the performance of plays. Concerts were popular, and newspapers were produced on several ships.
The monotony was also relieved by passing ships. People waved handkerchiefs, and letters were sometimes passed to home-bound vessels – the ships would heave to and people would row small boats back and forth. In the Southern Ocean encounters with other ships were rare.
Sights at sea
During their travels, passengers saw strange and wonderful things. In the Southern Ocean in 1843 a passenger ‘saw a sunset of such glorious beauty as to be well nigh worth coming thus far to look at’. 4 Watching flying fish ‘afforded infinite amusement’, one diarist noted. 5 On an 1881 voyage, the single women from steerage were brought up onto the poop deck (where they were not normally allowed) to view the phenomenon of phosphorescence on the waves.
Close confinement often led to quarrelling and ‘cabin fever’. In one account of the Lord Auckland’s 1842 voyage, a ‘regular row’ involving sailors and emigrants, ‘all fighting together, and shouting, cursing, swearing and screaming in a general mass’, erupted when the sweetheart of a hysterical woman attacked the surgeon. 6 In another report, the ‘great national dislike between Scandinavians and Germans’ on board the Friedeberg (1873) led to endless ‘petty squabbles’. 7
Fire and shipwreck
Shipwreck or fire was a threat on every voyage. Possibly the worst disaster occurred when the Cospatrick caught fire and sank in 1874, causing the loss of 470 people. Some dramatic voyages ended happily. On 1 January 1874 the Surat ran ashore on the Catlins coast. The ship was a write-off, but all 268 passengers were rescued and taken to Dunedin by steamer. In another incident in 1878, the Piako began to burn in the Atlantic. Its passengers were transferred to a passing ship and taken to Pernambuco in Brazil, where the fire was extinguished and the ship repaired.
Anticipation mounted as voyages neared their end, and the immigrants would be on deck before daybreak to watch for the first sign of their new home. Vessels that arrived carrying disease were quarantined. At quarantine stations, passengers and bedding were disinfected. In a few sad cases, deaths in quarantine cut short the new lives for which immigrants had hoped.