Life and Death in the Age of Sail: The passage to Australia
UNSW Press, 365pp, $49.95 hb
The Age of Sail might be presumed to cover several centuries, beginning, say, as far back as the great age of European exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and continuing until wind-powered sea travel was gradually replaced, in the late nineteenth century, by steamships.
The euphonious title of Robin Haines’s book is therefore a little misleading. She deals only with British assisted emigrants to Australia in the nineteenth century, putting their personal accounts into historical and statistical context, or rather, fleshing out the statistics with the human stories from which they are extrapolated. These emigrants are working-class people for the most part, ambitious and, of course, self-selected by their literacy, with social networks strong enough to encourage them to write their shipboard letters or diaries to keep in touch with those they had left behind in Britain. They are also, as Haines points out, self-selected for success in the new colonies, since the successful were the most likely to have descendants who would preserve the diaries and letters of their fortunate ancestors.
Haines’s book comes to life in the extracts from firsthand accounts of the voyage out. It is illuminating to hear the voice of a new mother on board a ship in the 1840s describing the advantages of confinement on board: ‘I done quite as well on the mighty ocean and better than I did with my former two.’ On land, these mothers would never have been able to afford the medical attention and long periods in hospital that were provided free as part of their passage to Australia. However, the statistics do not bear out the advantages these women perceived: in this period, home births assisted by a midwife were a safer alternative, and infant mortality on the voyages to Australia remained higher than on land, although adult mortality compared more favourably.