Friday, May 14, 2010

Finding more than passenger lists in SA newspapers

Newspapers, always a rewarding source, can provide a surprising amount of information if the family historian is prepared to go the extra mile, extract as much as possible on the topic being investigated, and carefully interpret the details.

An example is the arrival at Natal of the ship Silvery Wave in November 1863. The passenger list, with those of other vessels, appears in The Natal Mercury of 3 November.

Several pieces of information are evident in this report: first that it took the Silvery Wave three months to sail from London. Next, that she was a small vessel and consequently not carrying many passengers. We cannot be precise about the number of those on board, because ‘and family’ – a term used twice in the list – could mean anything from one to a dozen children. Applying a reasonable average, we could hazard a guess at 25 to 30 passengers, divided between ‘first’ and ‘second’ cabin, and an unknown number of crew. Whatever the true total of souls, the size of the ship wouldn’t have been conducive to a comfortable voyage. She was also carrying a general cargo. The passenger list is coy about initials, except in the case of ‘J Hardy’.

It’s possible that more about the passengers could be established by referring to the European Immigration Index at Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, searching on the surname of your interest among the Silvery Wave’s passengers and then consulting the relevant original passenger register. In the early 1860’s the registers tended not to include as much detail as in later decades.

It would be a mistake to abandon the newspaper search at this stage. Searching forwards and keeping a lookout for further references to the Silvery Wave, the edition of 10 November 1863 offers the following:

Her tonnage is given here as 260. It seems the ship was British-built expressly for the Natal trade and is described as a ‘clipper brig’. To refer to a ship as a clipper meant she had forward-raking bows and aft-raking masts, that is, she was built for speed. Her cabin accommodation was considered ‘superior’ (by her owners, at least). The ship was busy discharging her current cargo and preparing for embarkation on the homeward journey.

Advertisements like this appeared regularly in the press. If you find one for the ship on which your ancestor sailed, it would make an attractive and appropriate illustration for the family history narrative.

Continuing the forward search, on 13 November a more substantial nugget emerges: an account of the voyage of the Silvery Wave ‘by a passenger’. Reports of this type aren't uncommon and are often combined with an expression of thanks to captains as well as ships’ surgeons for their skills in making the voyage as pleasant as possible for all on board. These ‘testimonials’ published in the press were a feature of successful mid-19th century voyages before the increase in sailings, and consequently in captains, made such personal expressions of gratitude obsolete.

To be continued ...

No comments: