Books & Literature

Book Review: Hell Ship, by Michael Veitch

The moving and compelling true story of the clipper ship Ticonderoga, struck by plague as it was bringing immigrants to Australia in 1852.

Author, broadcaster and comedian Michael Veitch tells the moving and compelling tale of the ship Ticonderoga, bringing immigrants to Australia in 1852. He has a personal connection to the story as his great, great grandfather, Dr James Veitch, made his first and only voyage as an assistant ship’s doctor on the tragic voyage. The ship sailed for Melbourne in August 1852, taking the great circle route down through the Roaring Forties off Antarctica with no stops on the way.

The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, known colloquially as ‘the Board’, was brought into being in order to find working class migrants and provide assisted passage for them as they were needed in the Australian colonies. Finding enough qualified migrants had been a problem initially but not after the gold strikes of the 1850s.

The Ticonderoga was under contract to the Board and, such was the clamour for places with people wanting to try their luck in the goldfields, it was overcrowded with almost 800 passengers. The facilities were very basic with sometimes whole families sharing one narrow bunk and not enough headroom to sit up. Although there were new-fangled flushing toilets, these were of little use in a storm or when people were sea sick or, later, severely ill.

There were deaths on the ship almost as soon as they sailed, particularly of infants, but the first case of typhus was reported to Captain Boyle by Dr Sanger, the senior medical officer, just as the ship was preparing for the Crossing the Line celebrations. As the ship drove relentlessly on, down into the freezing latitudes off Antarctica, families huddled together to keep warm. The infection is spread by body louse and in such cramped quarters, the infection spread rapidly.

Many of the emigrants were Scottish Highlanders who had been evicted from their small farms as absentee landlords found it was far more profitable to raise sheep than rent land to crofters. Many had experienced famine, were illiterate and spoke only Gaelic and this, added to their justified fear of authority figures, served to exacerbate the spread of sickness as they tended to not to report illness.

Even after reaching Port Phillip Bay, the Ticondeoga’s troubles continued as the ship was forbidden to enter Melbourne Port and a makeshift, then permanent, quarantine station was established at Nepean Point. Passengers were still dying of the epidemic into early 1853 and many are buried at Ticonderoga Bay, as it was renamed on the centenary of its arrival.

Although deaths were expected on long voyages, the story of the Ticonderoga made headlines at the time as over ten percent of the passengers and crew died. Numbers reported vary but it is likely more than 100 out of 800 passengers died.  The death toll was horrific, with Dr Sanger eventually becoming ill himself. Dr Veitch struggled on, aided by Annie Morrison, a young woman from the Isle of Mull, who eventually became his wife.

The story is well told, with interesting and informative details on the formation of the Board from the ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, for whom Wakefield Street in Adelaide is named; the background to the Highland clearances; and the state of medical knowledge and the theory of disease. All such details round out the harrowing tale and make it compelling reading.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  7

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: August 2018
RRP: $32.99

There are no known paintings of the Ticonderoga. The image at the top of this review is of the Marco Polo, a similar double-decked clipper ship. (source)

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