Growing up as a child in Queensland, we had a large Queensland nut tree in our back garden. Now known as macadamias, these nuts make you work hard to get to their delicious centres (unless you buy them stripped bare). First you have to work through the hard protective casing around the nut, unless it’s so ripened that the exterior has turned brown and ready to fall off. Then you are still left with the rock-hard shell itself. This is no dainty nut, ready to be cracked with a graceful pair of nut crackers on the Christmas table. No, you need a hammer, the perfect spot in the concrete path and a firm stroke and a good aim for the seam in the shell. Hit too hard and you’ll demolish the nut itself, hit too softly and that delicious nut will continue to elude you. Or you just use your grandfather’s vice from “under the house”.
It struck me last night that’s a pretty good analogy to some family history research, especially the focus I’ve had lately on exploring all things relating to the little barque, Florentia, on which my ancestor Mary O’Brien may have arrived in 1853.
I’ve collected as much possible information as I can including:
Passengers lists from three archives: Tasmanian Archives in Hobart; State Records of New South Wales in Kingswood, Sydney; and Queensland State Archives in Brisbane. A few were available online but there were offline ones as well (thanks to the Unlock the Past cruise I was already going to those places – good timing)
Official Correspondence at the same archives between the various authorities: Colonial Secretary, Immigration Board, Immigration Agent, Brisbane Resident and the Police Magistrate for Brisbane.
I’ve compared the data squeezed from each source and analysed places of origin and relations in the colony.
What did I learn?
Length of the voyage and on-board disputes
I already knew this ship had taken an inordinate, and unusual, amount of time to reach Moreton Bay: 156 days or 23 weeks. They’d had an unscheduled stop in Hobart Town after 19+ weeks at sea, because they’d been loaded with only 20 weeks of provisions. Surely all on board must have been getting anxious before they reached Hobart – after all they’d been rationed since passing the Cape of Good Hope.
The Sydney Morning Herald of 11 May 1853, reported a Brisbane story of 22 April: “The Florentia is the next immigrant vessel for this place, and she may now be considered fully due”. Initially I thought this was code for wondering if the ship had been lost, especially as it had only spoken two other vessels[i], both in the early weeks of the voyage. However by the time of the story, the news of the ship’s arrival in Hobart had already been published.
Unsurprisingly the Immigration Board who mustered the passengers in Moreton Bay on 29 April reportedly found the “state of the ship does not appear to be very cleanly.”[ii]
As alluded to in the newspapers, the “local Immigration Board is now engaged in the investigation of certain charges against the ship’s officers, but what their nature or justice may be remains a mystery”[iii]and “some of the proceedings of the voyage are likely to furnish employment for that mysterious body the ‘Unholy Inquisition.’ We hear that the Surgeon-Superintendent does not appear to be culpable, but more sinned against than sinning. Will the Inquisition stifle this affair also?” [iv]
These newspaper references and the length of the voyage gave me hope that the official correspondence would provide some clues to this enquiry, and indeed it did…but I will keep this for a separate story. The newspaper reporter seems to have been correct in his assumption, too, that the mystery would be stifled. Nothing further is reported in any of the newspapers on Trove, as far as I could find, and as I’ve mentioned nothing in the British, Welsh or Irish newspapers, at least by the ship’s name.
Mortality and the long voyage
There is contradictory evidence as to how many died on the voyage as well as how many births there were. The summary information for the Florentia in Hobart lists 9 deaths: 1 married woman, 3 single women, 1 boy under 14, 3 girls under 14 and one infant. In fact the infant was, as far as I can tell a stillborn child. However by the time the ship reached Brisbane, they were reporting 12 births and 17 deaths.[v] It is entirely possible (probable) that four passengers died between Hobart and Moreton Bay as the total number of passengers falls from 249 to 245. This would still leave an anomaly of four deaths, which would reconcile with the additional four births, though not necessarily the same children[vi].
The most tragic aspect of the deaths is that those people’s names remain unrecorded. One can deduce that two married women died, simply by looking at the details for families, so presumably one died on the final phase of the journey. As the parents’ names are stated for the children in each family, the mothers’ names are revealed even though they are not listed on the manifests as “died on the voyage”, which I’ve seen on other ships. The two married women were Mary Massy (family from Limerick) and Cath Ryan (family from Tipperary).
But what of the children who succumbed on the voyage, or the single women? Sadly, there is no mention of their names anywhere. I wonder if their families ever learnt what happened to them.
With my East Clare database which covers the period 1848-1870, the mortality rate was 1%, very low. On this voyage, the overall rate was 5%, with females being the most at risk category. Girls under 14 were particularly vulnerable, with a 6.98% mortality, and likely more depending on the deaths between Hobart and Moreton Bay. It’s tempting to conclude that this would, in large part, have been down to the reduced provisions, including the lack of water mentioned in passenger complaints, and reiterated in the Immigration Board’s enquiry.[vii] Of itself the long voyage should not have had such an impact but the ship was also a former convict-ship and was probably not as well equipped as some later ones, or as suitable for general emigration.
If ever there was a voyage when one might wish for a copy of the Surgeon’s journal, this would be one of them. Among the SRNSW documents is a letter which indicates that the surgeon’s diary was forwarded to the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners[viii] but sadly it does not appear in the lists of extant diaries on the UK National Archives site. There is also no mention of a passenger diary extant for this voyage in the Log of Logs.
The prince and the glass slipper
My hope from this research voyage was that I’d find any clues at all to suggest there were unassisted passengers on this voyage, and any kind of reference to Mary and her sister. Unfortunately my quest was futile. I know a lot about this ship’s voyage but am none the wiser about Mary. Perhaps my family tree is indeed a Queensland Nut or Macadamia tree…it’s certainly keeping me on my toes.
I’m left feeling like the prince who went from house to house trying to squeeze the glass slipper on each young woman’s foot hoping to find the beautiful girl who’d stolen his heart. I suppose by now I should know better than believe in fairy stories.
Who was mentioned in the documents? What was the scandal? Come back for the second instalment.
A readable and informative reference book on the conditions of voyages is Robin Haines’ book “Life and death in the age of sail”.[ix] I can highly recommend it to provide a solid understanding of the health aspects of migration.
[ii] Moreton Bay Courier 30 April 1853, page 3.
[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 1853, page 2 supplement.
[vi] The newspaper reports that 12 of the deaths were children.
[vii] SRNSW 53/1419 in batch 53/5645. Immigration Board at Brisbane to the Agent for Immigration, 19 May 1853. The Board comprised Messrs Wickham, Duncan and Swift.
[viii] SRNSW 53/8264. Agent for Immigration to the Colonial Secretary for forwarding, dated 15 September 1853.
[ix] Life and Death in the Age of Sail. Haines, R. UNSW Press, Sydney 2003