Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review; Life and death in the Age of Sail

Life and death in the Age of Sail:  The passage to Australia
Written By Robin Haines.

A Paperback book, originally published in 2003.  This edition was published in 2006 by the University of New South Wales Press Ltd. 
ISBN 0 86840 898 0
SAG Reference: A3/21/43
365 pages in total, including Introductory Pages, Contents, Acknowledgements, Abbreviations, Preface, Introduction, Body, Endnotes, Bibliography and Index
The book includes some Illustrations and a Map of emigrant routes
Have you even wondered about your ancestors’ journeys from England to Australia? Would you like to know what it was really like?  Then you will enjoy reading the numerous accounts of voyages from emigrant’s letters, which are contained in this social history.

Robin Haines aims to examine the “health and mortality outcomes of voyages to Australia” and to also determine how the authorities made changes “to improve the comfort and reduce the risk of death on board government-chartered ships”.  She brings the journeys to life through the letters and journals of numerous migrants “who speak to us across the centuries”. 

The book begins dramatically with the heart felt grief of a mother, Sarah Brunskill, who writes to her parents back home about the loss of her two young children within a fortnight of each other, during the long journey from Plymouth to South Australia.    As the book continues, we find out more about Sarah’s despair, faith, courage and future expectations, through her emotional writings.  She was one of many to record accounts of children who were “thrown into the deep” through portholes.  

Robin Haines has uncovered a large number of informative and poignant letters, which tell moving tales of the settlers’ experiences, to family back home.   In addition, the author has also located and analysed many diaries relating to the migrants’ journeys. 

These letters and diaries give us a rare insight into the conditions, thoughts, dreams, illnesses, heartache, despair, activities and social interactions encountered on many voyages from UK to Australia.  The words, thoughts and emotions of the emigrants transport us to another era.   Little did they realise that their words would be read my many and have an impact on complete strangers over 150 years later.   As a family historian, I found the letters to be enthralling and they evoked a range of emotions, including sadness, happiness, surprise, understanding and anticipation.  I could visualise the on-board scenes on many occasions.

It is evident to the reader that Robin has researched the content of this book thoroughly, which is also supported by the extensive list of sources contained in the Endnotes and Bibliography.   These sources, perhaps unintentionally, provide a large number of new potential research avenues for family historians.

At times, Robin has also provided us with a further insight into the lives of the emigrants and their family once they were established in the Colony. 

When the book was written, Robin Haines was a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History at Flinders University, South Australia.  It is likely that it was her association with this State, which resulted in the large majority of the letters relating to immigrants to South Australia.  Personally, I would have preferred to see a more balanced approach to the other States but understand that many records in other States were not as extensive or may not have survived.

The statistical analysis, facts and figures are a necessary addition to support the emotional opinions and layperson perspective of the letter writers.   However at times, I found that the book was written for a more scholastic audience than the average family historian, especially the Preface and Introduction.   Periodically, I found it necessary to consult with a dictionary to determine the meaning of words (eg miasmatical, nomenclature and victualling), which could have been written in alternative words more suitable to a non-academic. 

After the initial high impact enticement, of the opening paragraph of the Preface, I was left waiting for numerous pages until I again became enthralled in reading about the experiences on voyages.   Therefore I was left wondering as to Robin’s intended audience.  Was the book written for research academics, students or family history researchers?    I came to the conclusion that different aspects of the book would appeal to a diverse range of readers.

The index is thorough so the reader can easily determine if your family or a particular ship is included.   However the index does not include details of the (limited) pictures, which are primarily from the Illustrated London News. 

This book gives us a greater understanding about the conditions and experiences of migrants from UK to Australia in the 1800s and early 1900s, including mortality rates and their changes over the decades, which are discussed in detail.  The letters and subsequent analysis also provide an interesting insight into the social differences between the various “classes” on-board.   The reader will also find that the letters provide a different perspective about some common beliefs and disprove some common misconceptions. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in finding out more about the migration of UK residents to Australia and the health and social issues that they faced.  However, I also provide a warning to “keep reading” as I compare the book to their voyages; there are times when it is fast paced and very interesting but then other times where it is becalmed and you want to get off.  Overall, you will be glad that you stayed on for the entire trip!

So I am left wondering; why didn’t the emigrants catch and eat more fresh fish?  Surely this could have reduced illness and potentially mortality rates on-board?


This book review was an assignment for the Society of Australian Genealogists Certificate Course in Genealogical Research 2014


  1. I am definitely interested in all my ancestors migration to Australia... but I wouldn't read the book. I leave the research to you.... And... I thank you Greatly....

    1. Thanks Dee. I prefer doing the research too but I can see that I would like to do my reviewing of books too :)

  2. Fabulous review Sharon. It is a popular book, and I can see why from your explanation. All the best with the rest of your course. I also thought this would fit very nicely in the "Australian Women Writers 2014 Challenge". For more on that have a read of their website

    1. Thank you Alona. Sounds like a good idea but I haven't had much time for reading lately. Maybe next year!

    2. I totally understand. I only came across the Women Writer's thing this week, and thought what a great idea it is. But like you I'm not getting much time to read, so don't think I could do it justice. So will look out for it in 2015.

  3. Thanks Sharon. I've added the title to my list of secondhand books to seek oout.

    1. Hope that you enjoy it too. As mentioned in the review, you do need to persevere though.

  4. As I mentioned to Kylie I'm a big fan of this book having it on my shelves, and using it, for some years. I believe the audience is primarily intended to be academic so it may require a little perseverance but is well worth it. The AWW challenge is great but you do need to have time - I only finished about half of my goal last year on my Bewitched by Books blog, now languishing for the same reason :(

    1. Yes, it did require perseverance but I ended up speed reading past the really technical parts. I definitely don't have time for the challenge at present but good on you for having a go!

  5. An addendum: you may also be interested in this book by her: Emigration and the Labouring Poor: Australian Recruitment in Britain and Ireland 1831-1860. Haines, R, St Martins Press, Basingstoke, 1997.

  6. Thank you Pauline. I would like to read this one too but I have a stack of books beside my bed waiting to be read! lol.