Hell Ship—book review

Hell Ship by Michael Veitch

This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.

Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.

It might have been an easier read if the author had stayed firmly in the non-fiction category although I can see why Vietch is tempted to put voices to these people: it is his great-great-grandparents on board and the desire to own them must be very strong. I did find the slips into fictionalised narrative a bit unnatural. There is no character development and way too much exposition for a story.

The research is tremendous, the details so real I assume they come from primary sources: the stink of the oil lamps; the sextant timing the midday bell and time-glass turned every 30 minutes with bells marking time; the food (salted beef or pork morning noon and night); the luxury of soap. I learnt about sailors dry hollow-stoning the deck — which I found on google was also called holy stoning because a) they used church stones, or b) they were on their knees as in prayer, or c) the stones were shaped like bibles… — where sailors in a line scrubbed the deck with sandstone mostly (seemingly) to keep ’em busy. There’s the story of the discovery of the Great Circle Route which makes you wonder why no one had looked at a globe rather than a flat map before then, and more pages than you probably need about the smell of typhus.

This is the story of the Ticonderoga, a ship that took about 800 souls to Australia with over 200 of them dying on the way. The Ticonderoga was 169 ft long x 37 ft wide (51.5m x 11m) — absurdly tiny for 800 people — with the three decks above her hold stuffed tightly with passengers puking and shitting all over the place. There was the very modern vent system which flushed clean air down to the bottom berths, and also seawater (surprise!) in which they dying lay sodden, and wafted the smell of the decaying dead around the ship.

It was a hugely risky business stepping on an immigrant ship and the expectation was that lives (particularly children’s) would be lost, but this tragedy was almost beyond belief. It began early and raged through the entire three month voyage, wiping out families; the fever leaping, with the lice, from bed to bed. I learnt a lot about typhus and I’ll share a quick fact: each louse can lay up to 200 eggs; the bacteria contained in a louse’s shit will live on human skin for days and scratching the itchy bites forces the disease into the bloodstream. This information was still ahead of sailors in the 1850s who had no idea what caused the fevers and rash and fast death and no treatment other than brandy and wine. Bodies were flung over the deck without ceremony and sharks followed the ship.

Hell ship?
Hell yeah.

Author: cristinasandersblog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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