Forgotten tales

stories of my family

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.

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2 thoughts on “Sailing south

  1. Beautifully written with obvious empathy.

  2. Thanks Pauline… As I have mentioned in various posts we too have sailed south along the west coast of Africa and they were good times, and a lot easier than the experiences of our ancestors…

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