Most early migrants to Tasmania, whether convict, bounty or full fare, travelled to Australia in dumpy looking wooden ships with square sterns, which sailed badly and tended to ride like corks. If well maintained they were fairly safe but they were fire prone and many leaked badly, requiring constant pumping. On board, convicts or bounty ‘emigrants’ who travelled steerage had to put up with overcrowded, dark, smelly, damp quarters which encouraged the spread of pests and diseases. 

During the Gold Rush sleek, fast clipper ships were introduced to satisfy a huge demand for speedy passenger vessels. They often used the shorter but much more exposed Great Circle route, deep in the Southern Ocean and through the roaring 40s. Although the voyage was cut by almost half and the vessels comfortably fitted out, passengers often experienced petrifying, rough passages.

Gradually during the 1800s ships became much larger and sailing times shorter as wooden sailing ships were replaced by iron vessels with steam engines.

farewelling the Saint Vincent in 1844

Farewelling the 'St Vincent' in 1844 
The 'St Vincent' made two voyages to Hobart carrying 205 female prisoners in 1850 and 307 male prisoners in 1853.  She also made voyages to Sydney with convicts and emigrants. Unless those waving farewell followed the migrants out to Australia they were unlikely to ever meet again. Even a letter – if they could write – would take four months to deliver. Illustrated London News 13.4.1844

emigrant families at dinner on the St Vincent

Emigrant families at dinner on the 'St Vincent' 
Emigrants were divided into messes and each mess cooked its own rations. At first the ration was two thirds of the official naval ration. Unfortunately none of this food was suitable for infants and many died on these early ships. Babies also died when mothers became violently seasick and were unable to produce enough milk. Illustrated London News 13.4.1844

Between decks 1850

Between decks, 1850
Convicts and emigrants were housed ‘tween decks’ below the waterline of the vessel and usually in the semi-dark since candles were very dangerous in wooden boats sealed by tar. Emigrants were segregated into single men and single women, with married couples and their younger children usually in between.  Narrow bunks and bulkheads were generally torn apart in Australia to make room for a return cargo. Illustrated London News17.8.1850

Bussorah Merchant
'The Bussorah Merchant' by RM Little. State Library of Victoria

The 'Bussorah Merchant'
Births and burials at sea were normal on emigrant ships. Cramped conditions, the poor general health of migrants and ignorance of good hygiene meant that infectious diseases often spread rapidly. Emigrants on the 'Bussorah Merchant' which sailed from Ireland to Hobart in 1837 suffered particularly badly. Four women and 64 out of 133 children died, most of measles and smallpox.

Wreck of the convict ship 'Waterloo'
Wreck of the convict ship Waterloo 1842

Wreck of the convict ship 'Waterloo' (1842).                          
Surprisingly few convict ships were wrecked on the long voyage to Australia. One casualty was the 'Waterloo'. After an outbreak of scurvy she stopped at the Cape of Good Hope to obtain fresh food but a storm blew up and the anchors failed. The death toll included 143 male convicts, as well as crewmen, military guards and soldiers’ families. The 72 surviving convicts were sent on to Hobart. Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.

Wreck of the Netherby
Wreck of the 'Netherby' off King Island, 1870 State Library of Victoria

Emigrant ships lost on King Island - 'Catariqui' and 'Netherby'   
The 'Catariqui' was carrying assisted migrants to Port Philip when she ran into the rocky shore of King Island in 1845. Four hundred people drowned; only nine survived. When the clipper 'Netherby' ran into the island 25 years later she was carrying 452 assisted migrants to Queensland. Amazingly everyone survived including one addition – a baby born on the desolate shore.    


Emigrants landing in Melbourne in 1863
Emigrants landing in Melbourne in 1863

NEXT: The Journey After Sail