Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Australian landfall, March 1855

The Caesar sailed south to Cape Town and then east across the Roaring Forties (latitude 40 degrees south), which seemed not to be roaring much that particular year, according to Middendorf’s description. Unlike the 10 day storm that we experienced crossing the Southern Ocean in the 1970s, the passengers of the Caesar apparently had a very pleasant crossing. Also unlike us so many years later on the Ellinis, the little German sailing ship appears not to have stopped in Western Australia: Perth was just a tiny colonial outpost in the 1850s. The Caesar sailed on across the Great Australian Bight and headed for Bass Strait, the stretch of sea between Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first sightings of Australia convey the excitement of landfall after months at sea:

Finally we reached the longitude of the mainland and steered for Bass Strait. As we neared the entrance, however, the wind was blowing from the strait and the Captain decided to go around Van Diemen’s Land. That was a further long journey; we had either east winds or calm the whole time. The air coming from the land carried a whiff of vegetation to us, and I often stood for hours at a time on the deck, just to catch this wonderful peat-like smell that suggested the nearness of land, because I was getting dreadfully weary of this story at the end. On Friday the 2nd of March, after it had been misty for several days, heavy rain fell. Towards evening it ceased and I stood on the deck. The curtain of cloud seemed to slowly lift, and far off on the horizon the steep high mountains of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land climbed in a blue line out of the sea. The air was very clear and everyone could see land. Nonetheless, it took a long time before the people believed it. It seemed to many just not possible that they now really had before their eyes what they had for so many days longed for. In the meantime the news went from mouth to mouth and the deck was soon full of people who wanted to establish for themselves the comforting conviction that “the whole world has not actually been turned into water”. The sick came crawling out, or had themselves carried, and on all the convalescents it worked better, of course, than all the half-mouldy pills in my poor pharmacy.

The land that we had seen was the south coast of the island. Towards evening it was out of sight again and we traversed back and forth with unfavourable winds for several more days without making any substantial headway, as the ship was in very bad shape. Finally, on the morning of the 9th, with good winds, we approached the mainland of Australia. The air was very dense and when we saw the high coast, we were already very near it. A long, high mountain range, which stretched out in the south into flat running foothills, lay in view of the eager immigrant. Everyone was on deck. They put on their Sunday clothes and mutually congratulated each other. Gradually the contours of the heights stood out more clearly, one could distinguish the trees that decked the peaks, and in the background one could see a high mountain whose sharp apex was shrouded in haze. We sailed by some low green foothills only a small distance away.

Sailing south

The voyage of the Caesar wasn’t all misery. Ernst Middendorf does capture some of the wonder and romance of a long sea voyage in his descriptions. His favourite pastime was to climb into the crows nest and observe the world from high up. I think I would have enjoyed this too, despite my hesitancy about heights. I suspect passengers were not permitted to climb the rigging. There are advantages to being a ship’s doctor, though it would take much to compensate for carrying the burden (and in the minds of some, the responsibility) of the recent cholera epidemic. Here is an excerpt from Dr Middendorf’s journal, dated 6th January 1855.

If I really want to feel free and happy and shake off all ill-humour, I climb up the main mast, high into the top… Our whole little world lies under me, and from wholly objective observation, much in it seems more bearable to me, even engaging. But first I draw free breaths and with deep gulps enjoy the fresh air that cools me and moves my high seat in a gentle swing, back and forth. The sea affords its full magnificent impression, the waves flatten themselves in the distance and the broad expanse seems to curve towards the horizon. A glance downwards shows the slim form of the ship. It effortlessly cuts through the blue deep and with every rising and sinking, the white foamy waves rush round its bow. Behind the ship the backwash circles, a row of eddies left behind by the rudder, and beside it, the log rope that governs the sea clock that records the miles…

Gottfried Fischer leaned on the railing enjoying the same vista from deck level as that in which Middendorf revelled high in the rigging. He felt a vague envy as he glanced up at the young doctor, who he had noticed a while before swinging himself into the shrouds and clambering toward the sky. What a relief it must be, Gottfried thought, to sit in the crow’s nest, away from the crowds, with just the wind and the sea and the wide, wide world. The doctor was a decent enough fellow, obviously inexperienced, a bit full of himself, but he was not uncaring, and Gottfried had seen the toll the recent epidemic had taken on the man. Middendorf had borne the brunt of the passenger’s complaints and criticisms without trying to defend himself, getting on with his job, though It was clear there was little he could do. Once the disease had gained a hold, Dr Middendorf had not much more in his doctor’s bag than the passengers themselves had to stop it. He had stood anxiously by with the rest, wondering if his turn would come soon too. But he had not been idle or resigned himself to hopelessness and depression. He had moved from sick bed to sick bed, administering his medicines with compassion and patience, speaking words of comfort, though he knew that there was little hope. Middendorf was young, only 23 or 24, at the start of his career. To lose so many patients so soon was hardly a good way to start life as a doctor.

Gottfried’s thoughts wandered away from the doctor as his eyes drifted down to the sea racing alongside the ship. He saw dolphins at the bow, their grace and beauty filling him with fascination, even joy, despite the sadness that had engulfed him and Viktoria over recent weeks. The sea had taken Heironimys, lowered over the side in his weighted canvas shroud, his little dehydrated body released to sink into the dark waters of the Atlantic. He had been so young, just three, his life snuffed out almost before it had begun. The future that Gottfried had imagined for his children when he and Vicki had decided to emigrate was one that Heironimys would never know. Viktoria’s grief had been hard to bear, but so many were grieving. Whole families had died, and there were some children who were now parentless. How would they survive in the distant colony, he wondered?

Gottfried thought of their home in Harheim, where he and Vicki had lived their first years together, expanding their young family. They had moved back there shortly after Caroline was born. Their years in Harheim, close to his family, had been good ones but hard ones, years in which the conviction slowly grew that they should start a new life in the New World. They had thought first of America, the land that had caught the imagination of so many of his compatriots. He had seen many leave, and he had become convinced it was the best chance of a good life for his young family. Then he had heard about the Vinedressers Scheme, an opportunity for an assisted passage, not to America but to Australia, a land mysterious but exciting on the far side of the world. Viktoria had not been enthusiastic at first. How could they leave home and family for a land they had never seen?

But he had won her over, little by little, and by the time they left she was as excited as him. But the leaving had not been easy. He thought of his ageing parents, his brothers and sisters, remembered their sadness as they had boarded the Hamburg train. He felt the pain of parting again. Could it be just a month back? Already that seemed like another world, and Gottfried knew it was a world that he would never see again. It was a big thing to emigrate, to turn your back on home and family, on the country of your birth. It was a big thing to start again. He had no idea how things would turn out, but he had felt certain of his decision to leave. The death of his little boy was not something he had reckoned with and he felt the pain threatening again to drag him into regret and self reproach. He looked across the deck and saw Vicki staring out to sea, lost in her own anger and grief, little William cradled in her arms. He wondered how they would recover from their loss. They must focus on life, not death, or they would never survive.

Of course they had known there would be risks with moving, but they had not imagined that tragedy would strike them so soon after their departure. He went over everything again his mind, the nights they had laid awake arguing about this emigration, weighing up all the factors, trying to come to unity over their future. Despite everything, he was sure it had been the right thing to leave. There was no future in Harheim and Australia was a land of promise. They both knew it would be hard, but eventually life would settle down and they would know that they had made the right decision.

Gottfried’s gaze moved to the bow of the ship and the expanse of ocean that lay before them. The ship listed slightly, he heard the hum of the wind through the rigging, the crack of the full bellied sails as the ship sped southwards, up and down in the long swell. The sea was a deep blue, the air warm. It was mid-winter in Harheim, and the world familiar to him would be covered in snow. He shook thoughts of home and sadness from his head and focussed his eyes forward. Tropical breezes blew through his hair, an equatorial sun warmed his back. With so much death behind him was extra thankful to be alive. Alive and sailing south.

Cholera deaths on the Caesar. 1854.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Tuesday 27 March 1855 carried the final death toll for the emigrant ship Caesar, from Hamburg. A scan of the original can be seen online here.

Mar 26 – ….The Caesar has had a long passage of 116 days from Hamburg to this port.  She has on board 184 German immigrants, who are all in good health.  About 11 days after leaving Hamburg the cholera broke out on board this vessel, and carried off 66 persons, the greater portion of who were children.  There were no fresh cases after crossing the Equator. Four births have occurred during the passage (one still-born).  The immigrants are principally vine dressers and farm labourers.  The Caesar put into Twofold Bay on 10th instant, landed 63 of her passengers, and sailed from this port on the 24th instant.

Another website gives a list of crew on board the ship on her arrival in Sydney; they numbered 14 including the captain. There was also the good doctor, Ernst Middendorf. So on arrival there were 199 people on the Caesar. Three of these were babies born on the voyage. At departure from Hamburg there were 261. 66 of the 261 had died en route, a fatality rate of a little over 25%.

The MSF figures quoted in my last blog entry indicated that 5% of infected persons get severe disease, 20% of people mild to moderate diarrhoea, while the other 75% have few symptoms. The death rate on the Caesar would indicate that everyone who developed even mild to moderate symptoms died, and this may be a reflection of the generally weakened state of the people on board when the epidemic hit. The 75% who did not die were almost certainly infected too, but never developed any clinical illness.

Cholera on board

Some years ago I did a course in refugee health which had a strong focus on health care in the context of complex humanitarian disasters. One of the situations we discussed was how to handle a cholera epidemic. One thing I remember from that course is that cholera is an illness in which only about 5% of infected persons develop severe diarrhoea. According to the MSF textbook, Refugee Health, An approach to emergency situations (1997), “among infected persons 75% of them will have no symptoms, 20% will have mild or moderate diarrhoea and only 5% a severe clinical infection (or clinical cholera). Cholera is a bacterial infection that I have seldom, if ever, seen in my career as a doctor. This perhaps reflects the locations I have practiced, which have been mainly in developed countries. However, even during the year I spent in southern Africa, the two years working on a ship off the west coast of Africa, and shorter sojourns in the Himalayas and the South Pacific, I don’t remember seeing a single confirmed case of cholera. My main contact with the disease has been in providing vaccinations to people travelling to areas in which they might be exposed, but not one traveller that I have vaccinated has come back with stories to relate of cholera exposure.

Cholera infection is usually acquired by eating food infected with the bacteria. However, in overcrowded conditions where there is poor hygiene, direct transmission from person to person may also occur. Although cholera is quite treatable, an outbreak on a ship is a medical emergency. On a ship in the 1850s it was a catastrophe. This was what happened on the Caesar as it sailed south from Tenerife toward the equator carrying the Fischer family and hundreds of others, from Germany to Australia in December 1854. The feeling associated with the onset of the disaster is easy to discern in Dr Middendorf’s description of the first few cases:

I was called by a man to his child, who was said to have sickened suddenly. I came on deck; the air was humid and damp, the sails hung limp, flapping about the mast, the moon shimmered wanly through the ragged clouds. With a feeling of foreboding, I climbed down the stairway from the quarterdeck and felt a leaden weight in my feet. A wave of hot air came at me from the large hatch and took my breath away, and at the bottom, near the stair, where the air was freshest, sat a woman with a child, whose pallid face was lit by the wan light of the lantern. The child was dying, as I could see at a glance. The woman was crying, but the man was still calm. I couldn’t give them any hope, but I stayed with them, and two hours later the child was dead. While the mother was still bewailing the loss of this infant, she was suddenly alarmed by crying from her second child, who had been sleeping quietly until then. We went at once to the bed. The face of this child – quite healthy until now – was deformed, with sunken eyes and deathly white; there was terrible diarrhoea and continual vomiting. As the day broke, this child was dead too. The father, who was hitherto composed, now wailed, while the mother had no more tears but sat calmly.

Depressed, and in uneasy anticipation of what was to come, I was going towards the cabin when I was fetched by a sailor, who called me to one of his comrades. He was the leading sailor and had still been standing at the helm at 6 o’clock. He lay wrapped in his blanket and looked at me lifelessly with his eyes deep sunken in his head. His face had a deathly colour and was covered with cold sweat, his limbs icy cold and drawn together in a spasm. Every method of bringing him back to himself was fruitless. He died at 1 am.

I was no longer in any doubt as to our tragic fate. I went straight to the captain and informed him that we had cholera on board and that we would lose many people.

Off the West African coast, the Caesar was struck by cholera.

Off the West African coast, the Caesar was struck by cholera. (Wikipedia)

The passengers of the Caesar had been at sea for 11 days, and should by then have been getting used to the continuing rolling of the ship through the heavy swells. Dr Middendorf however comments that many were still weak from seasickness, making them more susceptible to illness. The weeks that followed were a depressing time of sickness and death, with sea burials a nightly event. The effect on the passengers was predictable:

The mood of the passengers passed through all the stages that occur in such circumstances: first alarm, then courage or desperation, and finally apathy. No-one knew whether he would be still alive the next day. On land one can protect oneself or flee, but on a ship several hundred miles from the nearest coast, one must have patience and resign oneself. The happiest were the children. They clambered about on the boat under which the dead were laid, and they had no inkling that in many cases they would be stowed under it themselves in a few days time…

Four of the children on the ship were my ancestors. The oldest of the Fischer children was my grandfather’s grandmother, Caroline. She was seven years old when they departed and she had three younger brothers, Charles 5, Heironimys 3 and William who was just one year old. Only Heironimys succumbed to cholera, but it is not unlikely that the rest of the family was ill too. Despite the comment by Dr Middendorf, I find it hard to believe that the children were happy and unaffected by the death and suffering around them. Perhaps the smallest ones, but certainly Caroline, at seven, must have been aware of how desperate the situation was. For their parents Gottfried and Viktoria, both in their early thirties, it must have been a nightmare, and they must have wondered more than once what they had brought their family to, and indeed whether any of them would ever see Australia.

Cholera on board ship, 1800s

In any such situation people react in different ways, as the doctor observed:

In general, there seemed little sense in their helping one another; no-one bothered about another, even though each could be soon in dire need of the other; that was somehow disputed, so everyone was on their own. In contrast, it was also gratifying that a few real Good Samaritan hearts were to be found, who, with the greatest self-sacrifice, helped where they could.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking to imagine that my ancestors were among the “Good Samaritans,” but what I have read of Caroline’s later life makes me think that though she was only seven she was likely to have been one of the helpers. Later in life, even after raising 11 children of her own, she ended up taking on five more children, one of which was my grandfather, when her first son’s wife died at an early age. She was clearly a strong woman, used to challenges, not shirking the responsibilities that were placed before her. Her earliest experiences as a girl at sea with sick and suffering all around her had been a baptism by fire in the art of caring for people.

The epidemic on board the Caesar eventually subsided, but not until some 66 lives had been lost and many more sick. The doctor’s relief is almost palpable:

On the morning of the 17th of December after sunrise we at last got the southeast trade wind, for which we had so ardently hoped. We were in latitude 5° North. From then on the epidemic was in a process of rapid decrease. At Christmas one more person died – the last; that was our Christmas present. There were now only convalescents. We were very happy that the pestilence had withdrawn from the ship… I breathed freely again, both physically and mentally, since I cannot deny that this beginning of my medical practice had somewhat depressed me.

I understand the feeling!

Quotes are taken from AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298-9, translated from the German by Jenny Paterson. For those interested in medical aspects of cholera in the mid 1800s, especially at sea, there is an excellent article in the Journal of Public Health, which can be accessed online here.

To Australia by sail in the 1850s

In 1973, when I was 12, we sailed from England to Australia on a migrant ship, the Ellinis, of Chandris Lines. We were not migrants, rather returning Australians, but there were many migrants travelling with us. We departed Southampton and sailed south to Cape Town, across the roaring forties to Perth, and then around the bottom of Australia to Melbourne and Sydney. The voyage took a little over four weeks and we travelled mostly in relative comfort, despite an extremely rough 10 day crossing of the Indian Ocean. We had a six birth cabin divided into two rooms. Our luggage was stored in the hold. We ate meals in the dining room. There was ample space to wander on the promenade and aft decks, and there was plenty to entertain us. We had cause to complain, of course, as travellers always do, when the weather got rough and the desalination plant broke down and our drinking water became brackish. But I remember the voyage with nostalgia. It was an exciting journey for a 12 year old boy.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

A number of our ancestors made the voyage to Australia in the 1800s when sailing ships were still the main form of transport. The Fischer family left Hamburg in 1854 and Johann Holtorf in 1856. Others left from various ports in England in the 1870s, but by then steam was taking over. By the time my grandfather, George Simmonds, left England in 1923 ships were beginning to resemble the passenger liners that we travelled on in my childhood, between Fiji and Australia, and later between Australia and England.


Migrant ship (the Artemisia) mid nineteenth century

The conditions on board sailing ships in the 1850s were harsh. Most passengers travelled in a part of the ship called “steerage” between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Since these ships were built for cargo and not passengers this ‘tween decks area was not designed for accommodation, but was converted for the purpose. However, unlike our experience on the Ellinis, passengers did not have their own cabin, but were all crowded into one large room that acted as dormitory, dining room and common room. Until 1852 men and women were all accommodated together, but later men were accommodated separately from the women and children.

When the sea was stormy and rough the hatches were battened down and passengers could not get up into the open. Toilets were usually on the upper deck, about one for every hundred passengers. In rough conditions they coul not easily be accesses and a bucket in steerage had to suffice. These could easily be overturned; the smell could be overpowering, from vomit and human waste. Rats were common. Sea water seeped in through hatches so it was damp below deck. It was also dark because there were no windows and dim lanterns hanging from the deck beams provided the only light. Ventilation was poor.

On the voyage to Australia these conditions needed to be endured not for four weeks but for four months. Bunks were stacked on top of one another, each person had an area measuring about 0.5 x 2 metres. There were no tables or chairs, and the aisles were crowded with migrants luggage. Though German ships provided meals for their steerage passengers (unlike British ships on the transatlantic route), preservation of food was difficult and meals were boring and monotonous. The menu consisted of salt meat and salt bacon, herrings, sauerkraut, potatoes, beans and peas, in various combinations. Passengers had to collect their food from the galley and take it back to steerage to eat.

Between decks at mealtime

With such horrendous conditions it is no surprise that sickness was rife. As Maggie Blanck says on her very informative website, “because of the close quarters in which they lived, passengers often suffered from illnesses like trench mouth, body ulcers, and lice. Conditions were frightful. Immigrant ships were recognized by the smell…” Of course illness and premature death were common on land too on those days, so the expectations of travelers was not high, but the hardness of those four months cannot be underestimated, even if people were tougher than they are now. So much for the romance of sail.

Our Fischer family’s voyage was documented by the ship’s doctor, Ernst Middendorf. Here is an excerpt by him describing the conditions. He, of course, shared a cabin with the captain and first mate, and did not share his accommodation with the passengers, of whom he clearly had a fairly low opinion. I try to imagine gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their four children in the midst of all this:

In the steerage everything ran its regular course from one day to the other, i.e. morning, grumbling over the coffee; noon, over the under-cooked beans or too-small portions of meat; and evening, over the stinking tea water; besieging of the galley, cursing of the cooks, reciprocal bickering and envy if ever anybody got something from the cabin, and if these people just happened to have peace among themselves, then complaining about the ship’s command and myself. In addition, filth and vermin, the stink and clamour of children, and complete indolence in the face of every gentle admonishment about cleanliness -they only stirred themselves if forced to.
AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298

Life on board was not all misery, of course, as Dr Middendorf reminds us in his description of a warm evening in the vicinity of Tenerife: “the wind was mild and cooling, like a German June evening. We had our first southern night. The moon broke through the light cloud and threw a silver spotlight on the gently moving water. Our people danced noisily to the music of a flute…” Another picture from Maggie Land Blanck’s website, captures life in steerage on board another emigrant ship, the Indus, sailing from London to Brisbane. The picture is from an emigrant magazine, and in the middle of the crowd there is “a tall thin sinewy Irishman… dancing a jig to the tune of a violin.” Even in harsh conditions people make their own entertainment. A description of this scene by the artist follows.

Passengers entertain themselves

Passengers entertain themselves

Forward between decks were the quarters of the bachelor emigrants. Here a tall thin sinewy Irishman was dancing a jig to the tune of a violin, the scraping of which combined, with the mewing of a litter of black kittens, and the laughter of the audience, to make a Babel of discordant sounds. The berths in this department were placed in a double row, with a zinc pail, and at times a looking-glass at the head of each. (The Graphic, June 29, 1872)

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