Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Passenger lists as a primary source in SA family history research

The above photo is of a passenger list taken from a handwritten register of arrivals at Port Natal in 1849 i.e. a record made at the time of the event and therefore considered to be primary evidence.
Even at normal size - zoom in for a closer look - the text is by no means easy to read.

Family historians in search of an ancestor's arrival in South Africa clamour for passenger lists. To find an original list mentioning an immigrant ancestor written in a register at the port of arrival is a rare and precious thing. There has been no concerted national effort to index the registers which have survived. In Natal it's fortunate that the European Immigration Registers have been preserved, though they are not all-inclusive. There is also an index (not online) to these arrivals covering from about the mid 1840s to the turn of the century. 

If you're lucky enough to discover in the original register an entry which seems likely to refer to your ancestor, and if you are able to read the handwriting, you should acquire some interesting facts.

From left to right (as seen in the typical example above) the columns of the register show: month, day, name of ship, type of ship, name of master, tonnage of vessel, port of departure, date of departure (that is from the port of embarkation, London in this instance). The passengers' names are written across the width of all these columns (no nice tidy alphabetical lists, if that's what you expected) and continued over the central binding, which has separated slightly (be aware of that when matching up lines of text). Generally, though, the condition of the register is good for its age - over 150 years. Careful handling of these volumes is important.

The arrival date of the barque Washington is given here as 18 July: in fact the vessel reached Natal on 17 July so why does the register offer the following day? The answer is that like many other ships of that era, the Washington had had to wait in the 'roads' (roadstead or outer anchorage) before suitable conditions of wind and tide made it possible to cross the Bar (the sandbank at the entrance to the harbour) and enter the Bay. When compiling our family narrative, which day should feature in an account of the ancestor's arrival at the port? The detail concerning tonnage of the ship often varies from source to source - if you care about getting it right.

In these early volumes (and the 1840s are early for Natal) no personal information such as occupation or age is given for the passengers. This would be one good reason to check newspaper reports at that time for any published versions of a passenger list and to do a comparative exercise.

There could be several versions of a passenger list particularly if the ship was carrying a large group of immigrants as part of a private or government scheme. Mistakes could arise prior to embarkation: passengers might get cold feet at the last minute and decide not to emigrate after all, family members might fall ill, perhaps die. Such names might not be removed from the passenger list - i.e. the list carried on board - before the ship sailed. When the vessel arrived at its destination, the Port Captain would draw up a list of the passengers who landed. The immigration agent would have his own list. By the time the reported list appeared in the press there were likely to be several discrepancies - incorrect initials, misspelled surnames, omissions.

A local newspaper published the passenger list of the Washington twice, because of errors in names shown in the first printing. Yet the first list offered occupations of the immigrants, a useful detail omitted in the second printing and not appearing in the handwritten register's version. Probably the occupations were included in the immigration agent's list made available to the press.

The Washington, because it was one of the Byrne settler ships, is well-documented in other published sources. John Clark's book, Natal Settler Agent, gives detailed lists of all the Byrne passengers and the ships which brought them to Natal. His sources included private correspondence and other documents of Moreland, Byrne's agent. So, if your ancestor travelled on the Washington it's probably not essential to access the original handwritten passenger register: but it is rewarding on some deeper level to see the ancestor's name as recorded at the point of arrival in the country of destination.

For further information on tracing ancestors through passenger lists, use the search facility on this blog or browse the archived posts using the menu at right.

The Natal Witness 18 July 1849: 2nd version of
Washington passenger list.

Update 2012: the eGGSA Passenger List Project is a work in progress and can be accessed at 


Unknown said...

I was wondering if you are able to help in tracing a passenger who travelled between Natal (South Africa) and Italy via England. The passenger name & surname is:
Antonio Chialina

Mole said...

Unfortunately there is not enough information provided for me to be able to make suggestions. You need more than just the name of the passenger. A year or a decade at least would be good. Also it is not clear whether the passenger was travelling to Natal from England/Italy or vice versa, and whether this was a regular trip made. You could try the (surname) search facility on the eggsa site but no guarantee of finding your passenger:

Zelda said...


I wonder if you can help, I am looking for reletives that came to South Africa
in 1856. The came on the Mersey, but apperently were married on the Briatanna,
on the 16 Mar 1856. There names are Carl Walterhoefer/ Carl Walter Hefer and Emma Bacon.Would you be able to help me.


Mole said...

Hi Zelda, regret that nothing emerges on either ships' names or passengers' names as given in your comment. Not all ships' passengers were recorded, either in original registers or in newspaper shipping columns. I have searched for you on the eGGSA passenger list project without any luck either under ship or passenger names. You should search the SA National Archives Index NAAIRS for a deceased estate for either of the couple you seek - they may have remained in South Africa but if no estate file/s found they may not have remained in SA. Best Wishes Mole

Unknown said...


I was wandering if you could please help me with a passenger ship list from the 1822-1824 for the surname "Husselmann"


Mole said...

May I ask if you're certain of the year you have given? That is very early in SA terms. Particularly if you think the arrival took place at Port Natal, which you don't mention. Could it perhaps pertain to the Cape? 1824 was really the beginning of the hunter/trader group who came to Port Natal and passenger lists not applicable.

Unknown said...

I'm certain about the dates. But I'm looking for a passenger ship list from Germany to SA in that year's

Mole said...

It makes a big difference if the ship departed from Germany. Have a look at

But it is still a very early date - the ships indexed above are for later 19th c onwards.

If you do a search on NAAIRS our SA national archive index you'll see that the Husselmann surname only appears in deceased estates etc from about the 1870s - that is over all SA.

Unknown said...

Where the ship Aravind I don't know. Only that the "Husselmann was 2 years old" and when we couldn't get anything on how he in in too SA with from Germany

Unknown said...

Thank you

Mole said...

Have a look at ...
Names of German Immigrants 1652-1806

The main page is
Mostly Germans who worked for the Dutch East India Co. This may be too early for your ancestor.

Interesting that Husselmann was also given as Hoepelman - something to bear in mind when searching the surname.

Unknown said...

Good day I'm trying to see if my grandfather came to South Africa prior to 1935. He came to SA from Southampton as a merchant seaman on the Arundel Castle in 1935. His name was Ernest Samuel Green DOB 1910. I need to know if he had traveled to Durban previously. Thank you

Mole said...

If he was a crew member he would not appear on a passenger list. If you think he settled in SA at some point there may be a deceased estate for him. Search his name on NAAIRS our archive index. An estate file, if one exists, should contain the Death Notice which is an informative document. See my Beginners' Guide - title above the blog page. Best Wishes, Mole

Renier said...

I am looking for information regarding my grandfather's arrival in South West Afica/Namibia.

Information that I have from home affairs is that he arrived in Namibia between Feb-June 1952 . To my understanding he came from Germany, as he is from Hameln, I suppose he must have boarded in Hamburg. I did have a look at your German passenger lists but could not find any passenger lists from that year. His details are as follow:

Names: Friedrich-August Adolf Dietrich
Surname: Wilhelm
DOB: 09-03-1931

Any information would be much appreciated.

Mole said...

Try this link

Best Wishes, Mole

Town Crier said...

Hi -I am trying to trace the outward journey of my Great Grandfather Robert William Hinde who travelled to South Africa with his wife Annie Hinde and their young son Frederick who would have been about 5 years old,circa 1900.
They travelled from the Cape overland to PieterMaritsburg where they are recorded living in the 1901 Trade Directory as a bricklayer in Boom Street PieterMaritsburg.I would like to know which ship and what the date was of their arrival in South Africa.
They returned back to Southampton from the Cape in September 1901 on the SS Gascon The ROYAL MAIL STEAMERS of The UNION-CASTLE MAIL STEAMSHIP CO., Ltd., Sail from Southampton every Saturday Passengers and Cargo, for Cape Colony and Natal. Please e-mail me on