The Watery Grave: Death at Sea on Voyages to New Zealand, 1840-80

In the latest contribution to our Conference Showcase Series, guest-blogger Associate Professor Lydon Fraser, explores the ways in which death at sea was managed on the long sea voyages to New Zealand during the Victorian era.

David Carr, writing aboard the Lyttelton-bound Lancashire Witch in 1863, solemnly recorded ‘a morning of greate mortality’ on the long run east across the southern oceans: ‘Before I got on deck their was two children droped overboard. And a short time after Breakfast a Mrs Commings had gone the way of all flesh leaving behind her six motherless Children and Husband to morne her loss. Alass they will long deplore’, he lamented, ‘for how few can live with no mothers love’. The words of a Forfarshire farm-labourer, so utterly heart-wrenching and raw even at this distance, make me wonder how people coped with death at sea during the great waves of migration to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. What does it tell us about their ‘deathways’ and how they adapted them to a harsh maritime world?

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Report of a death from the shipboard diary of Edith Emery on board the Zealandia to Lyttelton in 1879 (ARC 1988.50 203/88, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand): ‘a little boy died today at 6am and was buried at 6pm. We were all sent below, I was very glad of that, & the sails were tunred & the ship was brought to a standstill’.

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been wrestling with in research for a new book on death in Victorian New Zealand. ‘The voyage out’ has held an enduring fascination for me since I first encountered a marvellous cabin class diorama at the Canterbury Museum as a child. I still try to imagine what everyday life was like aboard ship, whether huddled in steerage, swinging from the rigging, or kicking back in the relatively privileged space depicted in the exhibition. I think of the smell of salt air and water closets, the sound of sails, gulls and wind, the terror of storms, the food, and the dark menagerie of cockroaches, rats and fleas. I doubt that I could have endured such an ordeal gleefully!

The migrant writers whose testimony I am using for my study talked about all these issues and much, much more. It is small wonder that shipboard accounts from the period have been among the most popular items in the manuscript collections at the Canterbury Museum and elsewhere across New Zealand. I have now read over 200 and I am startled by their variety. Many are the original journals, as we might expect, but others took the form of letters home, and quite a few were published as books or serialized in local newspapers during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the best are now only available as transcriptions or rest in private hands. There is a predictable bias toward the well-to-do, men, and English-born Protestants. But there are also minority voices and – in terms of death – all were eyewitnesses to tragedy.

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The beautifully bound diary of William Henry Jewell, Echunga, 1862 (EP & CS 84, Canterbury Museum). Four days after the burial of ‘a poor little thing’ on the voyage, Jewell reported the grisly find of a child’s leg in the stomach of a captured shark and the efforts of the sailors to keep this news confidential ‘on account of so many being sick on board’.

The short presentation that accompanies this blog post is from a poster session for the Remember Me: The Changing Face of Memorialisation conference at the University of Hull. For that talk, and for the longer paper, I focus on a handful of key themes. The link I make here between departure and death is quite original, as far as I can tell, and neatly illustrated by diarist Rebecca Dawber in 1870: ‘It was a bitter, bitter parting. Father, brothers & sisters, I almost feel as if I had buried them’. I wrestle with sharks (though not literally!) and other omens before exploring how the prospect of a watery grave created great distress for migrant writers by disrupting more familiar relations between the living and the dead. The hardest part comes last: reading the death of children in the moving testimony of their parents. At the very end I conclude that migrants dealing with death at sea drew upon shared meanings about human life in this place and the one to come, and that these were deeply embedded in Christian traditions.

You can view Lyndon’s video presentation here:

Lyndon Fraser is professional historian who works at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and as a Research Fellow in Human History at the Canterbury Museum. His most recent books include Rushing for Gold: Life and Commerce on the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia (Otago University Press, 2016, co-edited with Lloyd Carpenter) and History Making a Difference: New Approaches from Aotearoa (Cambridge Scholars, 2017, co-edited with Katie Pickles, Marguerite Hill, Sarah Murray and Greg Ryan). Lyndon’s poster presentation ‘The Watery Grave’ was presented via remote link as part of the Remember Me Conference (4-7 April, 2018).

Featured Image: Clipper Ship Lancashire Witch 1575 Tons Register (PAH8537)



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