Tuesday, March 2, 2010

South African Newspapers for Passenger Lists

Passenger lists published as part of shipping columns in South African newspapers can be rewarding, but may also be unreliable. Typographical and other errors are often found and there was a lack of consistency in the reporting as well as in the presentation format.

Commonly, the surnames of several individual (unrelated) male passengers on board would be given after the introductory word ‘Messrs.’, often without initials. Occasionally, a number might be added in brackets after a surname, indicating two related males with that surname – brothers or perhaps a father and son.

The number of children on board with their parents may be given, but frequently not their names: instead the children are ‘Master’ or ‘Miss’ plus surname. In other cases the parents’ names may be followed by ‘and three children’, which isn’t helpful if you need to know the children’s names to identify Mr and Mrs Brown or Smith as the right ancestors.

The rigid class distinction which prevailed on vessels in the 19th c is reflected in newspaper passenger lists: first and occasionally second class passengers’ names are given, while those of assisted immigrants travelling steerage are not – despite the fact that they formed the majority. Steerage lists are sometimes found in a separate report in the same edition of the newspaper. Similarly, a general news item may announce the arrival of a ship and include a passenger list, though again these are more likely to focus on first- and second-class passengers. There were no rules about the format of shipping columns; some passenger lists are more informative than others.

Military men who might be aboard a ship going to join their regiment were seldom named; if they were, they were usually officers. The passenger list of July 1863 (for a coastal voyage) on this page shows that, in third class, there were 2 non-commissioned officers and six soldiers – no names, no regiment.  Most of this typical shipping column is taken up, not with passenger lists, but with the arrivals and departures of vessels, and those lying 'outside' in the roadstead, unable to enter the harbour due to weather or other conditions.

Any newspaper search is time-consuming, especially where there is no reasonably narrow date parameter. A vague idea of year isn’t enough to make a search feasible, unless you have plenty of time to spare and are conducting your own hands-on research. If possible, check a newspaper passenger list against the original shipping register: between the two versions you may arrive at something approaching accuracy.

South Africa Magazine (which was published in London) gives lists of passengers embarking at British ports for South Africa – and vice versa – for the period 1890-1925.

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