The Emigrants Depart From Gravesend

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"Adieu! Adieu! My native shore
  Fades o'er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar
  And shrieks the wild sea-mew.

Yon sun that sets upon the sea
  We follow in his flight;
Farewell a while to him and Thee
  My native land--Good night."

[Note: This account of the Birman's departure is taken from Louis E. Ward's book Early Wellington. Full details of the book are given at the end of this excerpt.]

In the ship Birman, leaving Gravesend about a year after the despatch of the New Zealand Company's first chartered expeditionary ship Tory we find a typical example of an emigrant ship, and of the conditions under which intending settlers lived during their lengthy journey to a strange country.

From a letter published in 1848 (No. 257, Vol. 9 of Chamber's Journal) is taken the following arresting sketch of the sailing of the Birman.

The black and lofty hulk of a three-master ship of 800 tons register was lying in the river off Gravesend, waiting for the captain. Its destination was New Zealand, with a small stock of merchandise and 200 emigrants on board.

The scene on deck, to inexperienced landsmen's eyes, was one of inextricable confusion. A heavy shower had fallen about half an hour before; the decks, filthy with mud and mire, brought on board by visitors and lagging emigrants, were crowded and blocked up in all directions with stores of every description, mingled in indescribable disorder, amidst coils of rope and cable links, chairs, spare poles and timber, casks, boxes, bales and packages soddened with rain. Invisible, but imprisoned pigs were mingling their squeals and grunts in testimony of their disapproval, while a few others, either not yet housed or broken loose, took their chances with the human population, and grunted amongst the cordage for the few vegetables scattered about. Near the entry to the first cabin stood a couple of immense hencoops, cruelly crammed with live occupants, whose ragged and ruffled heads, projecting through the rails, gave token of unusual contact with rough weather and rougher usage.

Aloft in the rigging hung whole quarters of oxen newly slain, and the occasional bleating of sheep, stowed away in some undiscoverable recess, gave proof of the praiseworthy determination to stick to fresh provisions as long as it was possible to do so. Though a sparkling rain was still falling, the deck was populated with emigrants and parties of friends about to be sundered in a few brief moments, many of them probably for ever.

Some were buoyant with hope, and enjoyed the anticipation of employment, and plenty, to which it was too evident they were strangers. Others were downcast and cut a sorry figure to appear courageous; some were weeping bitterly; some were joking with uproarious but forced merriment; some made their way, as well as they could, towards the open hatchway, over piles of packages and through parties of miserable leave-takers, and got down the ladder into the huge belly of the ship.

A few candles glimmered here and there through its enormous length; but the darkness was too great to distinguish anything in the immediate vicinity of the hatchway.

As vision grew accustomed to gloom, we saw scenes of disorder greater than on deck above.

Every kind of receptacle, box, basket, bundle and cask of all shapes and sizes, were scattered on the floor, and amongst them lounged or squatted, as best they could, more than a hundred people of various callings, ages, and of both sexes.

Some had tramped it for miles and were resting in the oblivion of sleep, in spite of the din of voices and the lumbering of heavy articles about and around them.

Others had just arrived, and were busily engaged in the vain attempt to find vacant spaces whereon to settle themselves and their provisions and goods.

Some clamouring to be shown their berths, while others complained of the locality allotted them, far from the hatchway, and in almost total darkness. Crowds of little children who could scarcely walk, tottered about amongst the lumber, prattling and pleased with the novelty; aged men and women sat calm and still amidst the hubbub, waiting for their turn to be disposed of. A grandmother of a large party of self-exiles bound to the Antipodes, sat on a small bundle sucking the end of an empty dudeen; close by sat a pretty and interesting young girl upon a blue, spotless trunk, writing a letter, an upturned cask her table, her inkstand a tea-cup.

Her tears fell faster upon the paper than the words from her pen; which at intervals she laid down to wring her hands and hide her anguished head in her handkerchief.

"Come, old girl," said a bystander at length, "let me finish it for you; I'll tell our friends how merry we all are"--and he took the pen from her hand and assisted her tenderly up the ladder for a mouthful of fresh air. He then sat down and completed the epistle.

A small recess, about six and a half feet in width and height, formed the whole accommodation for each family for the next four or five months, clean and comfortable as expectations warranted.

Circumstances prevented better accommodation. Having inspected domestic arrangements and deposited their contributions to the marine larder, some pushed aside the curtains that enclosed their compartment, and went for a tour of inspection.

The sun was now shining brightly down the hatchway; some of the lumber was now stored away; many were on deck, but the place was still crowded, and it was a job to make way through groups busy in packing and arranging.

Some of the berths situated far away from the light of day, and visible only by the gleam of a dull candle suspended in a horn lantern, seemed too awfully dismal.

Between the berths, on each side of the vessel, piles of merchandise and ballast, reaching almost breast high, extended nearly the entire length of the interior.

Around the light of a single lantern suspended from a crossbeam, were congregated about a dozen middle-aged men of the class of small tradesmen, singing--"When passing through the waters deep, I ask in faith His promised aid."

The confused and incessant noises were above and around them as the oldest of the band raised his hand and solemnly said, "Let us pray."

As his peroration progressed, the perspiration streamed down his channelled features and lterally dropped upon his clothes.

It was a scene such as a Rembrandt might have embodied in a glorious picture.

The gleaming light on the face of the suppliant, partially obscured by the shadow of his raised hand, the deep dense darkness of the background, the dim discovered forms of the distant figures of the group; the statue-like motionless physiognomy of the nearer distances contrasted with the supplicating earnestness of the speaker; all together supplied the materials for a composition such as that monarch of the dark masters delighted to portray.

The morning sun was shining on the hills above Gravesend when the black looking hulk, for so many days an object of curiosity and interest, had disappeared from the river.

Anticipations for a fair wind were not realised; seasickness was prevalent as rough weather was encountered. The nights were most miserable and discouraging, and the majority of the passengers were longing to set foot ashore, and regretting having committed themselves to the hateful sea.

The ship had been driven back twice in attempting to start from the Downs, and the passengers were looking forward with horror to a third attempt which was to be made that night. Their apprehensions were groundless, for after a successful attempt they cleared the Downs next day and proceeded onward on a speedy and a prosperous voyage. The ship arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on the last day of the year, and the passengers who had been tossing for weeks on the billows, were delighted with the place. Soft bread and fresh meat, a luxury, were now to be had, and some were fortunate enough to obtain wine at fourpence and sixpence a bottle, and fine mutton and beef at three-halfpence a pound.

Some desired to finish their journey and stay there, as employment was plentiful, provisions were cheap, but rents were high and the weather was as warm there in December as the English summer.

The passengers had parted with seasickness, and now had voracious appetites. Grog was served up on Christmas Day, and they pleasurably anticipated a pint of wine on New Year's Day.

Services were conducted on board by the doctor [James Motherwell], who officiated as chaplain. Games were initiated by some of the energetic ones, resulting, in most cases, in the formation of friendships that in after life withstood the trials and vicissitudes of an early colonist's life.

Early Wellington Compiled by Louis E. Ward
Reprinted 1975 by Capper Press, Christchurch, New Zealand. pp8-10.

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