A state of transition. Shipboard diaries as narratives of transformation

Term Paper, 2002

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)




The Sources

Leaving behind

With strangers

The physical experience

A new life in sight

A state of transition

Primary Sources
Secondary Sources


New Zealand today is a settler society. Until far into the 20th century all immigrants had to travel to their new home by ship. Until steamers were used, a journey would take more than three months. Immigration was often irreversible, a step that determined the rest the rest of the migrants’ lives. The settlers left their home, went on a journey and sail to a place they had only heard of from an immigration agent, who would praise the destination as a promised land. The immigration entailed many steps and bore the weight of many expectations. This essay asks what is told through migrants’ diaries which they kept aboard their ships. To what extent did the migrants perceive the farewell, the journey and the arrival as a transformation?

The Sources

The essay is based on four unpublished shipboard diaries. The range selected offers various viewpoints, since there are male as well as female authors, who travel under different circumstances, e.g. kin, language, origin, age and size of ship.

Two of the immigrants are adult men. John Cardwell is an Irish, travelling 3rd class with his wife from London to Lyttelton. His journey lasts from 26 June till 2 October 1881. The City of Tanjore is a comparably small ship, on this journey a crew of 23 carries 15 passengers and two children. The diary covers the time from departure till a couple of days after arrival.

Frederick Otto travels alone from London to Auckland, which takes from 28 September 1869 till 18 January 1870. On board the Helenslee he is the only German among about 30 Passengers. His diary was originally written in German, but the version used here is an English translation. His diary begins as well on the day of departure, but is continued until half a year after his arrival.

The other couple of diaries used here are written by two girls travelling with their families. Minnie Williams, a 15 year-old girl writes about the voyage of her family on board the Zealandia from Gravesend to Auckland, which endures from 23 June till 30 September 1881. She begins her diary already at the departure from their home in Ulster. Their ship carries 82 passengers and 42 crew members.

Agnes Williams and her family’s voyage begins in Gravesend on 15 July 1881, and ends at Port Chalmers on 24 October. They are accompanied by the largest group, since their ship is filled with 101 passengers. Agnes aborts writing her diary on 16 October so that it does not contain an account of the arrival in New Zealand.

This selection is not meant to be representative, but this diversity of voyage conditions promises to reflect various problems and spheres of transformational experiences.[1]

Leaving behind

Leaving behind is the first step of the transformation that migrants experience. In most cases in the 19th century they would never return to England and see their family and their home again, i.e. the country and the landscape they were born in. Often the extended family would gather to say farewell. Minnie Williams describes how two aunts spent the last days before their departure with them. To Agnes MacGregor, this 14 year-old girl, the loss of home appears very painful. She devotes a whole long entry in her diary to the farewell, in which she recollects the cosiness of home and the leave-taking from relative most vividly. She describes the friendliness of her aunt and uncle and the wonderful times at their cottage, and the tearful goodbye at the train station, where all their family had come together.

The separation from home and the family left behind is remembered in two stages, of which one is the direct farewell, written down rather directly after departure, the other are memories that come up after some time on board. John Cardwell and his wife carry beautiful photo albums of home and family in their luggage. After three weeks on the voyage they take them out and show them to their fellow passengers. Anniversaries foster the memory, e.g. Minnie writes on ‘Letty’s birthday’ that all the family think of her. Frederick Otto’s only entry that remembers his left behind family occurs on his 10th wedding anniversary. While it is the only one, it is very emotional, and for once the pain of separation from his wife and child is perceptible.

The leave-taking from place is not nearly as clearly depicted as the one from family. In the four diaries there are no memories of the region where the emigrants come from, no reflection on experiences made in London before the departure. What seems to be difficult is the loss of family, not leaving behind country and known surroundings.[2] Minnie mentions that at the end of the Channel, when land went out of sight, they said goodbye to England, but there is no sign that this is perceived as difficult or very important.


[1] Except for John Cardwell non oof the migrants refers directly to which class he travels in. From the comments and relations to passengers in other classes it can be concluded that all migrants travelled 3rd class except Agnes Williams, who was probably in 2nd class.Agnes’ father was Reverend James Williams. The occupations of John Cardwell, Frederick Otto and Minnie MacGregor’s father are unclear.

[2] In many cases the immigrants left their home due to bad living conditions, see Arnold, Rollo, The Farthest Promised Land.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


A state of transition. Shipboard diaries as narratives of transformation
Victoria University of Wellington  (Department of History)
New Zealand Social History
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
475 KB
Shipboard, Zealand, Social, History
Quote paper
David Glowsky (Author), 2002, A state of transition. Shipboard diaries as narratives of transformation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/20224


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