High Seas and High Teas
Author Roslyn Russell explores life on board emigrant ships in the 19th century
2 May 2016
On 9 July 1800, Pierce Collits was tried at the Old Bailey in London for receiving stolen goods, including muslin, lace and handkerchiefs, and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation.
On 14 December 1801, Pierce and his wife Mary, a free woman, arrived in Sydney on the Minorca. They would have endured a journey of some months on a vessel that carried both convicts and free settlers, and have landed in a colony that was only 13 years old when they arrived.
The story of Pierce Collits and his wife is one of successful settlement in a new land. They had three sons and six daughters, and became respected and prosperous. Pierce became a Chief Constable at Evan, Poundkeeper and Inspector of Cattle, and the keeper of the famous Collits' Inn at the foot of Mount York in the Blue Mountains. In the 1930s, a romanticised story involving Pierce and his daughter was immortalised in Collits' Inn, the first commercially successful Australian musical. Gladys Moncrieff starred in the 1933 production in Melbourne's Princess Theatre.
Pierce Collits is the only one of my ancestors who came to Australia from the British Isles in the 19th century to rate an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and certainly the only one to have inspired a musical! But there were other ancestors who made the journey—both as convicts and as free settlers—over the 112 years covered by High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia. They were a miniscule portion of a wave of migration to the Australian colonies that saw 1.6 million people arrive on these shores over that period.
Apart from the historical records relating to Pierce Collits, held in State Records NSW, and a history of the Field family, to which many of my ancestors belonged, I know nothing more about them as individuals. Accounts of their experiences on board the ships that brought them to Australia over the course of the 19th century are lacking: Mary Collits, although she was free, was illiterate, so there was no chance of her keeping a diary during the voyage on the Minorca in 1801. No family archives hold diaries or other accounts by ancestors who came as free settlers throughout the 19th century.
Researching High Seas & High Teas, however, has enabled me to imagine what Pierce and Mary Collits, and all my other ancestors who came to Australia by sea, endured on their voyages to Australia. None of them, I imagine, were accommodated in the superior cabins on the upper deck of the ship; they were either convicts, or assisted emigrants, and therefore confined to the lower deck, crammed in with other convicts and emigrants. In common with just about everyone on board, they would have been seasick, at least at first, and I wonder how long it took for them to get their 'sea legs'?
They would have had to collect their rations and prepare their meals to be boiled or baked by the emigrants' cook—and then eat the results, however palatable. Sharing sanitary arrangements and washing facilities with other emigrants, they would have been subject to diseases such as typhus and scarlet fever (although all emigrants had to show evidence that they had been vaccinated against smallpox before they embarked). I do not know whether any of my ancestors' family members or friends died on the voyage, but death at sea was not uncommon. Did they witness any solemn burials at sea?
How did my ancestors pass the time during the voyage? Did they drink the time away? Did they play cards, do embroidery, knit or sew, read, look out to sea and spot whales, dolphins, waterspouts or shipwrecks? How did they cope with the extremes of heat and cold as the ship passed from the northern to the southern latitudes? What did they feel when they arrived in Australia?
They did not tell me, but those who wrote diaries now held in the National Library's collection did. And from these diaries, featured in High Seas & High Teas, I can fill in the gaps, and appreciate what my ancestors went through to come to Australia.