A pair of shark jaws showing razor sharp teeth Shark jaws. South Australian Maritime Museum collection.

There was much for emigrants to fear in the 1830s. For almost all of them, the voyage from Britain to Australia was their first time at sea and for many it was the first time they had left home. They were sailing to an unknown coast on the other side of the world.

One of their fears was the danger of their ship sinking and it is difficult to judge whether their fears were real or imagined.

There was public protest about the appalling state of Britain’s merchant ships in the 1830s. The Government established a Royal Commission and it reported in 1836 that it found many problems.  The system of assessing the safety of ships was based on their age rather than their actual condition. The way that ships were insured encouraged ship owners to take risks with their vessels, knowing their financial losses would be covered. The Commission found that many officers were simply incompetent and that crew were frequently drunk at sea. It proposed new laws to regulate shipping but they were rejected by a Parliament that did not want to impose new costs on ship owners. Debates and agitation about the safety of life at sea continued through most of nineteenth century.

The report of the Royal Commission suggests there was a general danger in the state of British shipping but it seems that emigrants to Australia may have been safer than most. In her book Life and Death in the Age of Sail, Robin Haines writes about her research into the safety of emigrant ships to Australia. She studied the annual returns of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, a British government agency that sent emigrants to the Australian colonies. She found that the Emigration Commission regulated its ships and provided a remarkably safe voyage.

Some ships did run aground when they reached their destinations but no lives were lost. Until 1872, only two ships carrying assisted emigrants to Australia were sunk. They were the Cataraqui which sank near Port Phillip Bay in 1845 with the deaths of all its passengers and the Guiding Star which was lost without trace with all 543 emigrants in 1855. However, the remarkable statistic is that they were the only two wrecks of the Emigration Commission’s 853 ships which carried 281,378 government-assisted emigrants to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa before 1872.

Of course, for those lost on the on the Guiding Star the statistics were no comfort; and, for passengers leaving Britain in 1836, the statistics had not yet been gathered to prove the safety of the voyage. The John Pirie very nearly sank in the great storm in late March and other vessels were certainly lost in this storm. The passengers on both the Duke of York and the John Pirie passed floating wreckage as they set sail again.

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