Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Emigrant's letter home 1849

An Emigrant's Letter Home by Thomas Phipson, published in The Natal Witness 1 June 1849, including an account of a voyage from Table Bay to Natal on the schooner Waterwitch.

My Dear Friends in England,

Some of you, perhaps, ere this, have deemed yourselves forgotten, by those who left their native land some three months since. But oblivion of home is seldom the concomitant of absence either with emigrants or exiles, and our principal difficulty has been, how with any promptitude and facility to meet the various claims upon a correspondence for which, as you must suppose, our numerous avocations on our first arrival here leave us but little time. Unanswered inquiries from friends at a distance, and solemn injunctions to 'write soon' accompanying the last pressure of many a well-known hand, rise before our imaginations, and speed home to our hearts; but to put on paper so many manuscript editions of the same story, we have felt to be a somewhat perplexing and onerous task. In this dilemma the editor of the Natal Witness has kindly come to our aid, and has allowed us to make his paper the vehicle of our communications to you; thus, (thanks to the noble art of printing, extending its power even here) saving our time and fingers, and conveying the intelligence which you no doubt anxiously expect.

My attention, as some of you know, had long been drawn towards Missionary operations in general, and those of Southern Africa in particular, through my former connexion with the office of the London Missionary Society; and I had felt a growing conviction, that by Christian colonization would the spread of the Gospel be most effectually promoted, and the obstacles to its diffusion most promptly met ...

Events, with which most of you are acquainted, led me to attempt personally to act on these views. The unromantic story of a rising family, and a limited income, one to which many a manly heart and matronly bosom can feelingly respond; in how many an English home are the weekly bills anxiously scanned, the table scantily spread, the rent day foreboded, and the tax gatherer feared; while the future looms darker than the present and each succeeding generation stands on lower ground than the last. Had my bonny boys remained in London, their rosy cheeks must have grown pale on high stools or behind shop counters, but an irrepressible thirst in my own mind for nature and her charms made me resolve that at any sacrifice that fate should never be theirs. So without any very sanguine expectations, it was determined by my partner and myself to devote a few years of discomfort or privation, first to the cause of God and next to the welfare of our children; and in pursuance of these two objects, we are now through Divine Mercy arrived at Pietermaritzburg in the District of Natal. I need not now particularly refer to our tranquil passage from England to the Cape, which presents no feature of especial interest, but I cannot let pass the occasion of recording the generous kindness of Captain Drake of the Mary Ann to ourselves, and particularly to a beloved member of our little party who left our company for a better world on the very day which concluded the voyage.

Business at Cape Town was reported to be in a very languid and precarious state; the ebb tide wave of the railway panic in England having then just reached the other extremity of the Atlantic. Our views had been, however, from the first directed towards Natal, and though prospects might have opened in the metropolitan city of South Africa, we considered it best to pursue our original design. Of our fellow-passengers whom we met during our short stay, not one, I believe, but expressed themselves more or less disappointed in the anticipations they had formed. This was, however, perhaps owing in part to their not being generally of a class suited to the requirements of the colony.

We left Table Bay for Natal in the Waterwitch, a clipper built schooner engaged in the cattle trade to the Mauritius. Scarcely had we quitted the shelter of the land when we got into a gale of wind, which continued to increase in violence and pertinacity as we scudded before it. At the end of the third day, said our honest skipper to me, 'We must lay-to; for it's that heavy, we can run no longer, for fear of carrying away the foreyard' - which, by the way, bore only a double-reefed rag of a sail. Scarcely had he spoken when the light bark rounded to, broadside to the wind, and during the process was struck by two heavy seas, that crashed against her sides like huge masses of rock, threatening to split her asunder. Over the deck (as we were afterwards told) they swept, driving all hands to the rigging for safety, and washing away for a time, the man at the wheel; while salt water and rain came in below through the seams in the vessel's strained deck and sides. All night the violent blows of billows and roaring of the wind continued, and many, as you may well suppose, were the discomforts, anxieties, and prayers. Yet in the midst of it all we slept, the children soundly as in a bed at home; ourselves hastily, starting up at intervals from disturbed but pleasing dreams to listen eagerly whether the wind or the sea had abated aught of their rage. In the morning we had reason to acknowledge Divine goodness in the melioration of the weather, though the sea rose around us in liquid mountains for many hours after.

Our passage, though rough, was short; and in eight days we arrived off the Port. A lofty Bluff covered with thick bush shut in the entrance to the Bay and formed the principle object sea-ward, the Port boat soon came off with a Pilot, and without difficulty or danger we passed the dreaded bar, and anchored within a few yards of the shore; on the beach were a few huts the foundations of a new Custom-House, and several Ladies and Gentlemen on horseback watching the arrival of our vessel.

And as I am deferring further details until another opportunity, I subscribe myself, Dear Friends, Truly and Affectionately Yours, Thomas Phipson.

Note: Phipson was Sheriff of Natal for twelve years, and Marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court, dealing with local shipwrecks as well as providing weather information for the Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory. Subject to periods of depression, he committed suicide in 1876. His daughter Rachel married Thomas Vinnicombe.

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