From the early nineteenth century onwards, literally millions of people left their homes to cross the seas. Some, like the convicts transported to Australia, had no choice; others like the indentured Indian and Chinese labourers had almost no alternative; but the vast majority were driven to escape war, famine or grinding poverty in Europe by seeking a new life abroad. Whatever their circumstances and wherever their destination, the one experience they all shared in common was the sea voyage.
This book is centred on the rite of passage that marked the transition from one life to the other, tracing the story of the emigrant, through a fresh look at original sources and first-hand accounts, from the decision to emigrate, the journey to the port and the voyage itself, to arrival in the new world. It describes the emigrant trade, the differing conditions on board sailing ships and steamers, convict and coolie ships, and the perils of overcrowding, epidemics, fire, shipwreck and even cannibalism. It also investigates the varied receptions emigrants were likely to face – not necessarily the welcome promised the ‘homeless, tempest-tost’ by the Statue of Liberty.
This unprecedented population shift left few European families untouched by emigration, while the present-day populations of the Americas and Australasia are dominated by the descendants of those who made the journey. This gives the emigrants’ story a universal interest.