Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
In the years leading up to 1853, successive bad harvests and epidemics struck Europe. Particularly hard hit was Ireland, where a potato blight led to mass starvation and death. Working conditions were deplorable and the amount earned for doing those jobs was abysmal. One of the few avenues to offer some hope for escape was emigration. As an essay in the 23 October 1852 edition of the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette explained:
America is to modern Europe . . . the land of aspirations and dreams, the country of daring enterprise and the asylum of misfortune, which receives alike the exile and the adventurer, the discontented and the aspiring and promises to all a freer life and a fresher nature. (1)Why the United States? It was too far, and hence more costly, to go to Australia. Canadian winters were too severe and there were too many hoops to jump through to get past customs. On the other hand, the United States seemed more welcoming to newcomers, wasn’t so far away, and didn’t require as much money. Within the pages of this book, Gill Hoffs shares the story of one particular voyage and what happened to those moving to America to start life anew.
On 23 March 1853, the William and Mary left Liverpool, England bound for America with over 200 Europeans, who had managed to accumulate sufficient funds to pay for their passage. Recently constructed in Maine and just having completed her first transoceanic voyage, the three-masted barque was a merchant ship that could carry up to 512 tons. But once her cargo was unloaded, she was refitted to carry passengers on the return trip. Her captain, Timothy Reirdan Stinson, was thirty-two and married to the daughter of one of the ship’s owners. Serving under him was a crew of fourteen. After weighing anchor, the ship headed for New Orleans where the passengers would disembark and secure other means of getting to their final destinations.
Many passengers came from Ireland, but the barque also carried 91 settlers from Friesland in the Netherlands. Bound for Iowa to establish a new town, these men, women, and children were led by Oepke Bonnema, a grain merchant who paid their way on condition that they work for him. They were supposed to travel to America on a different ship, but by the time they reached Liverpool, that steamship already carried a full complement of emigrants. Among their group were two people who would prove invaluable to all the passengers – a midwife and Johannes van der Veer, a fifty-six-year-old doctor.
Although the journey began on a beautiful day and they welcomed a new baby into their midst on the next, the promising start failed to carry through the entire voyage. In addition to the crockery stowed in her hull, the William and Mary carried iron freight that made her roll so badly it wasn’t safe to be on deck in foul weather. Kept mostly below deck the passengers endured air and conditions that were far from healthy; fourteen died, and their deaths and burials left vivid impressions on those left behind. Insufficient provisions meant severe rationing and a meager diet of hard biscuit, dry rice, and boiled peas. Rats provided the only meat available to passengers and crew alike. By later April and early May, conditions were such that violence simmered just below the surface, waiting for just the right spark.
Another complication was the barque’s location; she sailed in shark-infested waters around the low-lying Bahamas where hidden dangers lurked. During a storm on 3 May, the William and Mary became impaled on a rock and water began to flow into her hold. With only five boats on board, none of which had been used during the voyage, not everyone would escape. What the passengers did not expect was to see the captain and most of the crew escape with only a handful of travelers. The only reason any of the remaining emigrants survived was because a heroic wrecker placed a higher value on their lives than on salvaging the wreckage. But perhaps even more astounding is that no investigation was conducted and no one faced any charges or paid any price for what happened.
Each chapter opens with a quoted passage, from various sources, that pertain to some relevant aspect of the journey. The passage of time is also clearly identified, making it easier to keep track of what happened when. The first chapter sets the stage, providing readers with necessary background to fully grasp the situation. Footnotes are included where the material is most pertinent, rather than requiring the reader to look up the marked passage in end notes at the back of the book. There is a center section of black and white cartoons, newspaper illustrations, advertisements, and a map. One image is the only surviving one of the William and Mary, and several pages of photographs allow readers to put names to faces. The appendix includes a list of the passengers, although not all details about these people are complete. Hoffs does provide an e-mail address so that anyone who can provide missing information may contact her. A bibliography and index are also included.
In the accounts shared, Hoffs keenly shows the difference in value placed on human life versus that of livestock. She crafts a heart-wrenching and vivid tale composed primarily from firsthand accounts that allows readers to envision the terrifying journey these people endured. She also shares what happened to those survivors whom she could track through a variety of sources including contemporary newspapers, survivors’ stories, later articles on the disaster, and family histories. Instead of simply names on the page, these people come alive.
But this book is far more than just the story of this ship and those aboard her. Hoffs enriches the story with accounts from other passages and descriptions to provide readers with a fuller understanding of conditions that led to emigration, what such journeys were really like, and what occurred in the aftermath of the accident and the shameful behavior of those who escaped unscathed. In doing so readers gain a better appreciation for the dangers their own ancestors may have faced to make a new life in a new land.
Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar
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