Emigration, the Press and Fear of the Sea

Press commentary on emigration in the early nineteenth century ranged widely from glowing accounts of lands of milk and honey to terrifying stories of death and destruction. Because the stream of emigrants had lessened by the 1820s, many of the local newspapers began to focus on the journey rather than the destination and

“the tragic, lamentable and uncomfortably frequent tales of shipwrecks and disasters at sea. These stories were particularly common in the south-western papers, so close to ports and seafaring families, but a fear of the ocean was common throughout the south. One Jedburgh woman was so terrified of the ocean that, despite all her living relatives and friends having moved to North America and India, she could not bear to join them. Some of these tales took place along the Australian or African coast, such as the harrowing tale of the loss of the Blenden Hall and the eventual rescue of its passengers. Others were closer to home. The autumn of 1821 saw several wrecks along the Ayrshire coast, though with no loss of life thanks to the efforts of other passing ships. A ship sailing from Liverpool a few months later was less fortunate with four of its crew washed overboard by a storm. In 1826, the Mail reported another ship lost on the Ayrshire coast:

the account they give is, that the Captain, seeing their fate inevitable, was going below for the money he had received for the coals, that he might divide it among the crew to supply their wants should any of them be cast ashore, when a huge wave broke over the vessel, carried him overboard, and he was never seen more. His body has not yet been found. Forty-five pounds of money have been found scattered up and down the shore, near the place where she struck, and a pair of trowsers [sic] and a watch of Captain Elliot’s have also been picked up.

Other events verged on the absurd, combining elements of emigration, shipwreck and the loss of the innocent. In the same issue as the above, the Mail reported that a young boy from Alloa, whose employment was to blow the steam-boat horn, went from his home to Miramichi, New Brunswick. His ship caught fire and he had to abandon her. He was saved and found his way to Miramichi. Once there he secured passage back to Alloa. Off Prince Edward Island, however, he was shipwrecked and had to return to Miramichi. On his second attempt, his ship was a third time lost, this time off the Ayrshire coast near the Isle of Arran. Whether or not this story is true, it would resonate with readers. Few would not have friends, or friends of friends, who had made the trip on Canadian timber ships. Few would not have worried for their safety. The Mail engaged in this sort of tragic storytelling several times in the latter half of the 1820s. Another story had a young boy playing with his friends on a docked ship. His friends had lost interest and departed, but the boy remained, thinking the ship would remain near the harbour for some time. However, the Captain soon ‘hoisted sail for America; the boy was seen from the shore making signs for someone to come for him, but the vessel was going as such a rate, that relief was impossible.’

-From Coin, Kirk, Class and Kin: Emigration, Social Change and Identity in Southern Scotland (Oxford, 2011): 183-5.

Coin, Kirk, Class and Kin: Emigration, Social Change and Identity in Southern Scotland (British Identities Since 1707)

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