Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “sailing”

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.


Dover to Tenerife

     Towards morning I had fallen into a peaceful slumber, when the Captain called into the cabin, “Come up, Doctor – Calais and Dover.” I rubbed my eyes; the dawn light shone through the little window. As I was half dressed, I threw a dressing gown over and climbed onto the deck. One could recognise shimmering strips of land and the beacons, which winked out of the fog. They were friendly stars that showed us that we were in safety. We now travelled past the white chalk cliffs of Dover and ever towards the English coast, near to the land. It was still blowing strongly and the sea was high, but the shipping lane was safe. There were many ships with us, but only a Dutch East Indiaman sailed faster. Little by little a few of the passengers came up and looked anxiously overboard; most were below seasick.

Our journey in these days was a very fast one. At the end of the fourth day we had the Channel behind us and came “off the bottom” i.e. into the Atlantic Ocean. The water was no longer light green, but blue-black, the waves were long, the weather already milder. The wind became gradually weaker and we moved under full sail. In the course of the next few days, the seasickness subsided. The passengers were much on deck and stood or sat in motley groups. The days were mostly clear and one already felt that we neared a warmer climate. On the 25th of November, after a voyage of 9 days, we saw the Island of Madeira. The evening was glorious, the cloud formation and the colouring on the horizon was of a rare beauty, over us hung a fine gauze-like mist in the transparent air, the sea was deep blue from the reflection of the heavens. Around the mountain heights of Madeira light haze clouds stretched out; 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, while we came nearer to the island, whose mountainous coast lay before us in the glimmering light.

On the following day Teneriffe came into view, the peak shrouded in clouds.

(AAZ no.73 17 Sep 1855, p.291)

How well I remember our many landfalls at Tenerife, the last stop in Europe before our “outreaches” in Africa on the Anastasis, and then the first stop on the way back every year at the beginning of the northern summer. Tenerife is a special place, a strange blend of Europe and Africa, of Spain and Senegal, an island well known to European seafarers since time immemorial. The Anastasis has now gone the way of all ships, scrapped on a beach in India somewhere. The Caesar and the Steinwärder, wooden ships of the fabled age of sail, have also long gone, after much shorter life spans than the fifty odd years the Anastasis plied the seas. But as the Anastasis was our home for two wonderful years, so were the sailing ships their whole world for our ancestors as they made the long slow journey from Europe to the colony of New South Wales. And as we welcomed the sight of the island of Tenerife rising out of the sea, so too must have the Fischer family welcomed this landfall after their stormy baptism into seafaring life on the wild waters of the English Cannel and the Bay of Biscay.


Approaching Tenerife on “our ship”, the Anastasis. 2003.

Seasick… the English Channel

The Fischer family and Johann Holtorf were landlubbers; they had never been to sea. After leaving the sheltered waters of the Elbe on their respective migrant ships they traversed a corner of the North Sea and then entered the English Channel. The Fischers sailed on the Caesar, which was hit by a storm shortly after entering the Channel, no doubt the first of many over the following four months. Here is Dr Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first wild night. Anyone who has lived on a ship at sea will recognise the experience with a smile…

Form the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

From the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

On the following morning I found seasickness in full bloom in the steerage. The misery was naturally greatest among the women; the men generally held out well. The children, of whom we had a great number on board… naturally had to suffer a good deal during their mothers’ sickness. Meanwhile the wind became even stronger during the day and stormy around evening. Dutch fishing vessels came close to us. They were tossed about like nutshells, one minute disappearing and the next minute appearing again on the crest of the waves. Our ship made heavy weather of it too. Night fell and it got very dark. All around was black; one saw only the white foamy crests of the high waves ever rolling on towards us, while heavy rain gusts fell from time to time…

Rest was of course out of the question; one was thrown about in the bunk and it was an effort not to fall out. Outside, the storm howled, the ropes creaked, the rain splashed, the sailors ran about the deck at their work with their yodelling singing, between times the commanding voice of the Captain, the sea raged and the crashing waves hit the planks so that the whole ship shuddered. All at once there was a heavy crack and the table fell over, and all the furniture and trunks that had been fastened down flew about the cabin. From the steerage below boomed a dull noise of luggage tumbling about, then there was a small pause. The next thing we heard from below was the melancholy strains of a hymn; the people believed their last hour was nigh. That night every compartment of the ship had its improvised pastor.

Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung (AAZ) no.73 17 Sep 1855, p.291

My most vivid memories of such rough seas are not from the English Channel, but from the roaring forties between Cape Town and Perth, which our family traversed in 1973 on board the passenger ship Ellinis. The waves towered high, buffeting us constantly from one side. Barely anyone came to meals in the dining room, everyone was sick. My parents warned me against going on deck, fearful that I might be swept overboard, a warning that I naturally ignored. It was wild and dangerous and exciting, although there were times when I too thought that the end had come, that our ship, as huge and solid as it was, seemed on the verge of capsizing and taking us all to the bottom with it. I can’t imagine how those old square riggers weathered these mighty storms at sea. They must have been tossed like driftwood.

Both the Fischer family on the Caesar and Johann Holtorf on the Steinwärder would, like us 120 years later, have to cross the wild southern ocean between Africa and Australia, but when Dr Middendorf wrote the above description they had barely left Germany, still in northern waters. There were many storms to be survived before they would sail out of Cape Town.

Leaving Hamburg

Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer with their four children departed Hamburg on the Caesar in November 1854. Johann departed from the same dock on the Steinwärder in November two years later. It is cold in November in Northern Germany, and the morning that the Fischers departed was foggy.

A hundred and fifty years later, but now over a decade ago, “our ship,” the Anastasis, was docked at the nearby port of Cuxhaven, and I remember how bitterly cold the winds blowing in from the North Sea were, even in early autumn. I imagine that November breezes could be quite uncomfortable. Here is how the ship’s Dr Middendorf described the departure of the Caesar. My ancestors were amongst the confused and cowering passengers, wondering what lay ahead on this voyage to another world.

As I came on deck on the morning of our departure from Hamburg, the anchor had already been weighed, the singing of the sailors had finished and the tug steamer had already begun its work. The houses on the bank appeared through the thick fog as wavering outlines, and the tips of the masts disappeared in a grey haze. The sun, just risen, hung blood red between the long rows of ships; a weak strip of light quivered on the smooth surface of the water. We were now out of the harbour and the details of the town and neighbourhood slid slowly past us.

I was in a peculiar mood. – strange to say, it was almost indifferent. It seemed to me so natural and ordinary that I was now setting out into the wide world, as if I had thought of nothing else and done nothing else for years…

For almost the whole morning I walked up and down on the deck… One climbs from the stern deck down a steep stairway and then, over a railing, one can get a clear view down below. I often stand at this railing. Down below there was a confused turmoil. The passengers cowered in tight groups. No-one could find their way in the muddled throng – no purpose and no order, because nobody knew how to sort themselves out in what, for them, were wholly novel circumstances. 

The following sketch from a wonderful website by Maggie Blanck captures the chaos and excitement of leaving.


Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room companion, Not dated*, Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Hamburg to Sydney in the 1850s

Johann Holtorf, a 28 year old farmer from Bramstedt, Holstein, sailed in November 1856 from Hamburg to Sydney on the sailing ship, Steinwärder, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. Two years earlier another German family, the Fischers of Harheim in Hessen, near Frankfurt, had departed Hamburg on the same route. They sailed on another square-rigger, the Caesar, of the Hinrich Wilhelm Köhn line. Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer travelled together with their four children, Caroline, Charles, Heironimys and William. Heironimys died on the voyage, presumably of cholera. Caroline, the eldest, was just 7 when they departed in November 1854, but she turned 8 before they arrived in Sydney at the end of the following March. She was 10 when Johann Holtorf arrived in Sydney two years later.

I imagine that the German community in Sydney in the 1850s was close knit. Though Johann was from the Danish Duchy of Holstein in the north and the Fischers were from the German state of Hesse, hundreds of kilometres south, they all spoke German, and it is likely Johann got to know Gottfried and Viktoria and their growing family during his first years in the colony. The Fischer family left Sydney and moved to Forbes for a time in the 1860s, while Johann remained in the metropolis. By the time the Fischer family moved back to Sydney, some years later, Caroline had grown into a young woman, and she obviously caught Johann’s eye; in 1868 they married, Caroline just 21 years old, Johann already 40. They moved to Goulburn and had 11 children, the first of which was my great grandfather, Charles Holdorf.

Caroline and Johann were both German migrants, but they also shared the unforgettable experience of a 4 month voyage by sailing ship between Germany and Australia, though Caroline was just a little girl and was travelling with her family and Johann was a young man and travelling alone. In the 1860s steam began to take over as the main form of transport for migrants, and even in the 1850s there were some steamers plying the seas. Although I have no record of Johann’s voyage, there is an interesting account of the Fischer family’s journey written by the ship’s doctor, a young man by the name of Ernst Middendorf. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the voyage and over the next few weeks I will highlight some parts of that account on this blog.

The description was published as “a long letter home” in a German emigrant magazine called Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung, in Rudolstadt, Germany in 1855. The British Library has copies of all of the issues of the magazine over the period 1847-1871. The “long letter home” was published in serial form in seven instalments in September-October 1855. In 2008 an English translation of the letter by Jenny Paterson was published in an Australian genealogy publication called Ances-tree (volume 21, number 3). There is a scanned copy of this translation on the family history website of the Ubrihien family here.

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