Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A full life at sea

The voyage of the Persia from Plymouth to Brisbane in 1861 was considered a good one in that "only" 20 of the 454 emigrants who embarked died en route. The Moreton Bay Courier reported that "on the whole they had been well treated and well cared for on the passage—every one of them speaking in the highest commendation alike of captain (Smyth), doctor, and chief officer."

The doctor in question was Surgeon-Superintendent Clarence Chapman. The Surgeon-Superintendent was to responsible for the welfare of the immigrants as the agent of the ship's hirer (in this case, the Queensland Goverment). In theory at least, Dr Chapman had the authority to over-rule Captain Smyth in circumstances where the business interests of the ship's owners conflicted with the needs of the people on board.

In some cases, the Surgeon-Superintendent was supported by a Matron who took principal responsibility for "women's issues" with a particular focus on the moral well-being of the single women.

To ensure the Surgeon-Superintendent carried out his duties with due care and attention, his fee was based upon the number of "statute adults" disembarked alive at the end of the journey. For delivering 438 persons including 4 born at sea, Chapman would probably have earned £387.10.0 (since children were paid as fractions).

It would not have been easy to secure the services of a suitably qualified and experienced medical practitioner prepared to be on call for more than 400 patients 24 hours a day for up to 100 days in very challenging conditions. In an ordinary voyage, he might need to deal with difficult births, various infectious "fevers", the consequences of poor nutrition and questionable hygiene, and have to perform surgery for accidental injuries. Hiring the "wrong" man as Surgeon-Superintendent could have literally fatal consequences.

Unless a young doctor undertook the role as a means of moving to the colonies to begin a new life, he faced another 100 day journey home before he could resume his usual practice. Little wonder then that migration agents needed to devise ever more elaborate schemes to make it attractive for a proven man to undertake more than one trip.

In this respect, the immigrants of the Persia were very well served. In 1861, Dr Chapman was making his sixth voyage from England to Australia in just eight years.

  • July 1854 Plantagenet 247 adults and 72 children (1 death) to Sydney
  • April 1855 Speedy 302 adults and 114 children (2 deaths) to Sydney
  • July 1856 Ben Nevis 269 adults and 65 children (no deaths) to NSW
  • September 1857 Admiral Lyons 371 adults and 77 children (12 deaths) to NSW
  • December 1858 John and Lucy 334 adults and 59 children (no deaths) to Melbourne

From The Sydney Morning Herald 16 Sept 1857

Dr Chapman had not lazed away 1859-60 at home. He sailed aboard the Euxine carrying the wives and families of soldiers to India. In a 101 day journey, only one of 224 adults was lost, but 74 of the 238 children who boarded the vessel on 14 October 1859 did not complete the journey to be reunited with their fathers.

When the Persia sailed from Brisbane for China in December 1861, Dr Chapman remained on board. He served as Surgeon-Superintendent when she transported a large group of indentured labourers to Georgetown (Guyana) to work as cane cutters.

After his eventual return to England, Clarence Chapman undertook at least three four more voyages to Australia. He arrived in Port Adelaide aboard the Mary Shepherd in April 1863, then in Sydney on the Castle Eden in November 1864, and sailed into Sydney once again on 14 October 1865 aboard the Venilia.

In July of 1870, Clarence Chapman was commended in the Melbourne press for his work in bring more than 400 new settlers to Victoria aboard the Corona

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