Friday, February 26, 2010

How to find that SA passenger list?

There’s so much online about passengers to America and so little for those to South Africa: this is a complaint I hear almost daily.

It may well be true, but the sheer weight of numbers favours North America.

It is estimated that of the three million people who left Britain between 1850 and 1880, two-thirds of them went to the United States. By comparison, the number emigrating to South Africa was relatively insignificant.

An additional factor is that there has been no coordinated effort to transcribe South African immigration records in bulk.

Transcription is a labour-intensive task and usually a volunteer’s labour of love, done in what was once the true spirit of family history research i.e. with enthusiasm, dedication and altruism, and above all the wish to share information freely with others. Such transcribers are a rare breed today.

These are a few of the reasons why, although there are some South African passenger lists available online and with ongoing additions, they are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Full online coverage of surviving lists is probably an unattainable goal. Many South African passenger lists haven’t survived the passage of time, either as handwritten registers or in newspaper shipping columns.
Accuracy, or the lack of it, is another problem. Even the manifests of vessels chartered for group emigration schemes are riddled with discrepancies. Every ship carried a list of the emigrants on board, but nervous travellers often changed their mind at the last moment, fell ill or even died before departure, others stepping in to take their place. In such cases, there might be confusion as to who was on board at time of sailing.

If an emigrant joined a ship at a port other than the main port of embarkation, their names could easily be left off the passenger list. On arrival in the colony, the Captain’s passenger list would be given to the Port Captain and to the Emigration Agent who supplied copies to the press. This was similar to a game of Chinese Whispers, each version containing different information. Misspellings of surnames, incorrect initials and errors in the number of family members are common in newspaper passenger lists. Certain passengers were not emigrants at all e.g. the captain’s wife, the ship’s surgeon, the minister or the teacher taken on to school the children during the voyage.

Lists of departures from South Africa are as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth. And, as the 20th c approached, the volume of shipping, either incoming or outgoing, escalated rapidly, making it more difficult to keep track of all individual arrivals and departures.

UPDATE: July 2012 The eGGSA Passenger List Project now includes Natal Immigration Board immigrants 1850 to 1904 as well as the passenger lists from the departure notices in the British Mail 1879 to 1881. The database includes details of 27,000 passengers and 800 voyages. It's possible to search by name of passenger or of ship.

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