Life at Sea

Married couples' accommodation in steerage
Married couples' accommodation in steerage: bunks to the left and right; central table; light from the uncovered hatch.
Source: State Library of Victoria Newspaper Collection

Most migrants making the voyage to Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century set out unaccustomed to sea travel, but by the end of the journey shared an experience few others had—a passage through some of the world's most treacherous oceans. With the introduction of the faster, but more dangerous 'Great Circle' route in the 1850s, free settlers were ironically less likely to survive the journey than their earlier convict counterparts.

For 'steerage' passengers in particular, cramped and unhygienic quarters became worse when tremendous storms were encountered in the Southern Ocean. At such times, all passengers were confined below deck for days, sick and tossed around, often in complete darkness, and fearing for their lives.

Our water barrels were rolling from side to side and our cans, teapots and cooking utensils were adding to the confusion by bouncing one after the other down the area between the bunks. Some of the young ladies [were] screaming and some tried to climb up the hatchways screaming to the officers to let them out.
— Anne Grafton migrated from England in 1858

Unfortunately, the ship's doctor was not able to offer much in the way of relief from seasickness—

(It is) enough to pitch my insides out. It's all up to me. I am not able to stir. The doctor can give me no relief, but at that I am not surprised. He is very young, never been to sea and is just as ill as all the other people.
— William Merrifield travelled to Australia on the Lincolnshire in 1858.

Deaths at sea were tragically common. As many as one in five children, and one in 60 adults died on the voyage to Australia. For the burial, the body was sewn into a piece of canvas or placed in a rough coffin (often hastily knocked up by the ship's carpenter) and weighed down with pig iron or lead to help it sink.

A plank had been placed on deck, one end over the ship's side, and upon this plank the sailors placed the body, covering it with an ensign. The sailors gently lifted the ensign and running out the plank and lifting up one end, the body dropped over the side into the water.
— Thomas Park arrived in 1852 from England, aboard the Great Britain's maiden voyage.

In the late eighteenth century, Captain Cook and others had discovered that a lack of vitamin C was the cause of scurvy. The juice of oranges, lemons and limes was subsequently given to sailors and passengers to prevent death from scurvy.

Water kept in wooden barrels would become very stale after a few months. Rats and mice would fall into the open barrels and drown, and algae would grow in the barrels and make people violently ill. The link between cholera and contaminated drinking water was not discovered until 1848, but even after this, ships continued to draw water from polluted rivers in ports that they visited.

To feed the sailors and passengers, stores were kept in the hold and opened as needed by the cooks. Stores such as pickled meat (pork or beef in brine) flour, sugar and dried pulses (peas) were kept on board in wooden barrels. These barrels were usually fitted with lids, but were often kept open overnight. The stores could be raided by hungry rats and mice, leaving traces from their nocturnal visits, and the grain and flour stores were often infested with weevils. Adulterated food and water caused diseases like dysentery to be commonplace, resulting in many deaths on some voyages.

Vinegar and chloride of lime were used to wash the wooden floors and decks of the ships, as fresh water was reserved for drinking and cooking. Cleaning with vinegar helped prevent the spread of disease and made the ship smell better. It also removed the vomit of people suffering from sea-sickness and other diseases.

The death toll among passengers squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths on clipper ships was often very high. On one of the voyages of the Marco Polo, captained by the infamous 'Bully' Forbes, 53 passengers died. All but two were children. In contrast, the loss of only seven passengers on a voyage of the Champion of the Seas was considered as commendable—

The ship Champion of the Seas has again made a highly successful voyage to this port [of Melbourne] bringing about 400 passengers - 277 of whom are passage-warrant holders. Dr. Bowden, surgeon-superintendent, reports them to be in a highly healthy state, no diseases but measles having exhibited itself. There were seven deaths during the voyage - six of them infants not more than five years old, and one, the ship's engineer of consumption.
The Argus, November 1865.


Visit the Marco Polo webpages:

What happened on the first voyage of the Marco Polo to Australia?

Who was 'Bully Forbes'?

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'A Burial at Sea'