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Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews

Hell Ship

Hell Ship.
Michael Veitch.
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 272 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76063 084 3.

Review by Ann Skea


Hell Ship is a history book, but it reads like an action-filled novel. There are heroes and villains, dubious characters, drama, thrills, births and deaths, terrors, suspense, discovery, and gold. History, when I was at school, was never this exciting.

On Wednesday, August 4, 1852, Dr. James William Veitch, then aged 27, left Liverpool as assistant ship's surgeon on board the clipper Ticonderoga. This was his first appointment at sea aboard a government-commissioned emigrant vessel bound for Australia, and it was to be his last. Not because he died from typhus, as one quarter of those on this voyage did, but, perhaps, because of the horrors he experienced on this journey.

Dr. Veitch was the great-great-grandfather of the author, Michael Veitch. No one in Michael's family had ever talked about his story, so there is an element of detective fiction about this book. For a ship that caused so much terror and concern when it sailed like a ghost-ship into Port Phillip Bay, the Ticonderoga is now all but forgotten. But Michael has researched it thoroughly, using archives, letters, naval documents, newspaper reports, and accounts left by survivors of the voyage and by those who were involved when the ship arrived in Australia. Michael Veitch, as "a comedian, broadcaster and author," brings to life the society and the circumstances that led to this emigrant voyage, and the lives of the people who lived on board the Ticonderoga for the three months it took to make the journey.

By 1851, England's woollen industries were heavily reliant on imports of Australian wool. A gold-rush in Australia drew men from the cities and the land to the goldfields and threatened the wool-clip. At the same time British cities were struggling to cope with the influx of impoverished Irish and Scottish families who had been forced from their homes by potato famine and by landlords eager to run sheep on their land. Michael Veitch tells of a maverick character, Edward Gibbon Wakefield—ex-convict, ex-politician, persuasive talker—who was responsible not only for the establishment of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission ("the Board") but also for persuading Australian States to stop offering free grants of land to new settlers but instead to auction them and use the money to help impoverished emigrants. He also negotiated a reduction of the cost of the British Government's assisted passages, designed to help emigrants desperate for a better life. So, the "£10 Pom" heading for Australia in the 1950s was long preceded by the £13 emigrant. And impoverished Scots were offered free transport.

Michael Veitch writes of the development of fast clippers like the Ticonderoga, their races to reduce the time of runs to the Far East and to Australia, and of "Bully" captains who drove their ships and their crew on these races—"Hell or Melbourne," one captain is recorded as responding when asked to slow down. Captain Boyle on the Ticonderoga was not like that, but the rigors of this journey were equally hard.

Crowded conditions on the ship, the terrible heat and inertia in the tropics, and the terrors of the icy Arctic seas and their terrifying storms, all would be enough to suffer. But the outbreak of typhus, the sickness and the deaths that broke up whole families and also struck the crew, forced the passengers to help sail the ship. Dr. Veitch became solely responsible for the sick when the Chief Surgeon also contracted typhus, and it was he who dealt with the authorities when the Ticonderoga finally sailed into Port Phillip Bay close to the small colonial city of Melbourne and was put under quarantine.

The threat of typhus in the city caused panic and kept the Ticonderoga and its surviving passengers, plus the sick and dying, away from the city in a remote bay where they were eventually landed and housed in tents and makeshift huts.

Truly, this was a hellish journey and a hellish reception. Dr. Veitch, however, had met a young woman who became his nursing assistant on board ship and whom he eventually married. The photograph of him and Anne included in this book shows a comfortable sitting-room scene and a relaxed-looking middle-aged married couple. Theirs was a tale of great courage, resilience, and love, and Michael Veitch tells it well.

 

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