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 

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