Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The same stinking stuff

“Of all the filth ever you tasted our drink for breakfast and tea beats all…This afternoon was allowed off, went for a walk and then to a coffee shop and had tea and we did enjoy it…The noise in the Depot is fearful…The bed and bolster like wood…We dread going back to the Depot…Had breakfast, the same stinking stuff for breakfast, the same noise and confusion…Been out to tea again.”

Edward Allchurch and his family found the immigration depot in Plymouth to be an unpleasant experience and not at all what they were used to. As often as they could, they escaped the depot for quieter and more convivial surrounds, especially those with decent food and drink. I can just imagine them stepping out for a stroll and a cuppa before returning to the chaos of what was essentially a public dormitory. Yet, unless they were travelling as paid passengers, they would have to adapt to the same conditions as everyone else.

I’ve written here about how many migrants found conditions on board ship to be better than they were used to. Robin Haines argues in Life and Death in the Age of Sail, that while this was often the case, it wasn’t the case for everyone, especially people who were migrating as families, perhaps for reasons other than economic. He says that:

“For well-off working class people…being herded together in the depot, while receiving instruction on the discipline and expectations on board, was something of a fall in status and dignity.”

It must have been a similar situation for the Jaeckels. I mentioned in an earlier post that they were likely to have been of the mittelstand, the social buffer zone between working and middle class. They would have had resources of their own and also be used, not to a high standard of living, but certainly a level of comfort higher than many of the Prussian peasant farmer migrants. As owners of their own business, they would have been used to making their own decisions and would have found it hard to be under the perhaps arbitrary command of the captain, surgeon and his appointed deputies.

It’s interesting to think about how different passengers and personalities will navigate the social interactions on board ship. Were migrant ships a microcosm of the world at large reproducing old social classes and tensions; were they an introduction to the functional egalitarianism of the colonies or were they something in between? Would people be happy to have the old order upturned or were they anxious because they didn’t know their place in this new order?

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