This month’s post comes from Graham Hannaford, former student at the Centre for History at UHI and current PhD student at Federation University, Australia.
Imagine being on this ship: “Three hundred Ross-shire emigrants sailed in her, but she got no further than Plymouth. There her rotten hold filled with water and she was declared unfit. Her passengers … were put ashore”. The ship was the Asia and the quote is from John Prebble’s. The Highland Clearances. He continues “and all record of what happened to them is lost”.
But it isn’t lost. On 10 July 1840 the John O’Groat Journal published a letter from Andrew Ross, a house carpenter and joiner. He wrote from Port Macquarie in New South Wales:
We sailed from Cromarty on the 17th September, 1838, aboard the ship Asia. On the 18th we experienced a severe gale of contrary wind, in consequence of which our ship became very leaky, so much so that it required the utmost exertions of both the crew and emigrants to keep her afloat, as she was making from four to six feet water in the hour. In this state we were battered about till October 13th, when, by the providence of God, we anchored in Plymouth Sound. In a few days after, the ship was brought into her Majesty’s dock, at Davenport [sic], to be repaired. In the meantime, we were removed to a comfortable hulk.* After getting a thorough repair, as we expected, the ship came out of dock, and, to our great surprise, she still leaked a great deal of water. Seeing this, we petitioned Lord Glenelg for another ship, and each of the emigrants signed a declaration to the effect that we would not proceed in the Asia; this was the cause of our long delay. The ship, however, being found, on inspection to be sea worthy, we had to proceed, which we did by leaving Plymouth on the 22d of January. We performed our voyage in four months and three days. We did not see a speck of land from the day that we left Lizard Point, in Cornwall, until we saw the head-lands of Sydney. What is remarkable none died on the voyage from England to this place, although no less than eleven children died on the passage from Scotland to England.
* The Vigo.
The children who died on the voyage were aged between 6 months and 10 years old, and included Charles Smith, age 10, who drowned at Devonport. News of the ship’s condition had reached Sydney. On 11 March 1839, the Sydney Herald reported that “it was probable that the passengers would be forwarded by another vessel”. However, it noted on 13 May 1839 in its “Shipping Intelligence” the ship’ arrival three days before. The arrival was also recorded by the Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser which added that the nine births since the ship left Plymouth made “the number arrived two less than the ship sailed with”.
Tales of conditions on emigrant ships to the New World, frequently tell of privations and hardship. Many of these troubles resulted from disease, poor preparation for the voyage, or bad weather such as the Asia encountered. Lucille Campey has studied the emigrant ships in detail and, despite the legends of ‘brutal captains, leaky ships’ and ‘slave trade’ conditions, concludes that these are unrepresentative. While travelling in steerage was deeply unpleasant, at this time most people lived in what we would consider overcrowded and unsanitary conditions so life below decks would not have come as a surprise. More than one vessel never reached its destination and of those which did, it was rare to arrive with the entire original passenger manifest intact.In the fifty years since the arrival in New South Wales of the First Fleet, Sydney Harbour had become a bustling port, receiving ships from around the world. This would be the sight which greeted the Asia when it eventually reached port in May 1839. The Asia had been and remained a familiar visitor to Sydney, bringing cargoes of convicts to the colony in 1820, 1824, 1827, 1828, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, 1836, 1837, 1840, 1841 and 1847. Very few convicts are recorded as having died on any of the voyages.
Andrew Ross’ letter home concluded with the sad news that “all those who came from Dingwall are very far scattered. I cannot give any account of them. The nearest of them is 200 miles distant from me”.
- John Prebble, The Highland Clearances (Penguin, 1976 reprint)
- Lucille Campey, After the Hector: The Scottish Pioneers of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, 1773-1852 (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 2004)
- John O’Groat Journal and Weekly Advertiser for Caithness Sutherland Orkney and Shetland 10 July 1840
Reproduced with the kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
- “Free settler or felon”: data base of Hunter Valley ancestors https://jenwilletts.com/searchaction.php
- Sydney Herald 11 March 1839 and 13 May 1839 (accessed trove.nla.gov.au 20 February 2018)
- Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser 13 May 1839 (accessed trove.nla.gov.au 20 February 2018)
 John Prebble, The Highland Clearances (Penguin, 1976 reprint) pp. 198-9
 Lucille Campey, After the Hector: The Scottish Pioneers of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, 1773-1852 (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 2004), pp. 165, 181.
 Lucille Campey, The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 2004), p. 153.