Whanganui Dinner – Toast to the Emigrants

The following is the text of the Toast to the Emigrants, proposed by Hugh McPhail at the dinner a the Wanganui War Memorial Hall on 25 August 2015 to mark the 175th anniversary of the departure of the Blenheim from Greenock.

Toast to the Emigrants

On this day in 1840 a group of nearly 200 emigrants left Greenock in Scotland for Port Nicholson on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

This was an amazing leap of faith for these people – to undertake a dangerous and arduous voyage of several months to a wilderness that was so far from the ken of their familiar homes and families.

We know they succeeded, and we know that because we are all here, today, to mark the 175th anniversary of that day of departure.

But who were they? Where did they come from? How did they manage on the voyage? What did they bring? And what did they find?

Who were they?

First of all, some numbers. On departure there were 21 cabin passengers and 178 steerage passengers, totalling 199, with births and deaths on the voyage making a total of 203 on arrival.

There were 26 family groups, totalling 177 passengers, with 65 children under 14.

The largest families were those of Ewen Cameron, totalling 13, and his brother Donald Cameron, ‘the cooper’, who had 12 in his party, as well as a married daughter, Jane McLachlan, also on board. Closely following them were Duncan Fraser with 11, which increased to 12 during the voyage, and John ‘Mor’ Cameron also with 11.

There were eight sets of Camerons, some related to each other, totalling 61 or nearly a third of all passengers. How many here have a Cameron connection?

Where did they come from?

Over half of the Blenheim passengers came from the Lochaber area of the Western Highlands of Scotland, a quarter from Paisley, Glasgow and other Lowland cities, and a number from Skye and the Islands.

Of the Lochaber contingent of 108, most were selected by Donald McDonald, late of Dimintoran in Ardnamurchan, with many known to him personally, or were recommended by their landowners or ministers.

In some cases we know that the clearances that were changing the face of the Highlands were the major driver in the decision to emigrate. Both land use and land ownership was changing.

One writer has noted that at the end of the eighteenth century no Lowland Scot or other sasunnach held an acre of land in the parish of Morvern. Yet in the twenty-five years from 1813 to 1838 every single property in Morvern changed hands, and by 1844 there was scarcely a proprietor left who had any traditional or lengthy association with the parish, or (in most cases) with anywhere else in the Highlands either. We know that for the Morvern families these changes were the main reason for them seeking opportunities in the new colony.

In Skye, in the parish of Bracadale, Hugh McAskill and his brother established the Tallisker whisky distillery in 1830, much to the disgust of the local Minister. The McAskills continued the process of moving people from the bulk of the land to displace them with more profitable sheep. To help the process of moving people out, Hugh McAskill helped pay for tenants to emigrate, and recommended the McQuarries and Gregor McGregor, as well as some others who didn’t travel. In any event, since Tallisker whisky was one of the drivers of emigration on the Blenheim, it seemed only fitting that we should use it this evening.

Many of the other Highland families must have seen the writing on the wall for their prospects, and decided that New Zealand offered a brighter future, especially for their children. The enthusiastic and active promotion by the New Zealand Company, including the wide publicity given to the departure in October of the Bengal Merchant, and free passages, fell on fertile ground. Of course, the New Zealand Company was not only an organiser of emigration, but was, perhaps first and foremost, a vehicle for land speculation, so the incidence of off-shore property investors in New Zealand is not a new phenomenon.

But not all of the Blenheim’s passengers were from the Highlands. A few days before the Blenheim was due to leave a number of prospective Highland emigrants changed their minds. Their places were quickly taken up by families principally from Paisley and Glasgow, including Browns, McConnels, Dunnets, Millers, Mitchells, Nicols and Thompsons; but just think about the very short time these families had to make this major decision, then get ready for the journey in a couple of days! The Emigration Committee of the New Zealand Society launched an appeal for funds to meet the costs, estimated at £30, to cover their bedding and clothing requirements. It is also noteworthy that one couple, George and Mary Easton, were married on the day before the Blenheim sailed.

How did they manage on the voyage?

It seems that the cabin passengers ate pretty well and were not uncomfortable, but the steerage passengers would have been cramped for space, remember there were 65 children under 14. They complained about the food, and were also concerned about the way the Captain treated his crew.

The ship did not land at any port along the way, so it was a long and confined four months, with rough seas in the Bay of Biscay, but good steady progress in the Southern Ocean. I strongly recommend that you read Jessie Campbell’s Journal to get her perspective on the voyage.

The Captain and the Surgeon Superintendent were responsible for keeping the passengers clean, active and healthy. There was regular dancing, bagpipe-playing and games such as leap-frog, and on Sundays there were church services in both English and Gaelic.

During the voyage there were two deaths (both children) and six births. There was a smallpox scare but the infected passenger was isolated and there was no spread of the disease.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that prior to embarkation the Highland elders assembled the young of marriageable age and firmly warned them against any ‘funny business’ on the trip. However, the four month journey in the close confines of shipboard life clearly had other results, in that there were a number of marriages, at least 9, between Blenheim passengers, in many cases some years after arrival. Alexander McDonald many years later wrote “coming out on the “Blenheim” I made the acquaintance of a Highland lassie of about my own age [they were 12]. We forthwith became sweethearts and agreed that when our respective parents would permit, or we became of age to act for ourselves, we certainly would marry.” Well they did, and ten years later Annie Cameron married Alexander McDonald. Annie’s older sister Mary had also married a fellow passenger, Alexander Grant within a few weeks of arrival, while over the next year or so Gregor McGregor married Catherine Fraser, and Angus McMaster married Mary McKenzie, and the consequences of all of these unions are well represented here tonight.

What did they bring?

I mean this in the sense of what skills and experience, what culture and traditions, did the Blenheim passengers bring with them to New Zealand. The Highlanders had their Gaelic language and their strong religious beliefs. Sunday observance was strongly ingrained, and Rachael McQuarrie, Jessie Campbell’s Skye servant, refused to make haggis on Sundays, much to Captain Grey’s displeasure.

Most of the Highlanders had worked the land in some form or another, while the Lowlanders included weavers and bakers. Most of the single women were described as housemaids or other form of servant, but few continued in this role in the new country – causing Jessie Campbell to complain in her letters home about the difficulty of obtaining and retaining any servants at all.

Most brought endurance and a willingness to work hard, with the result that within a generation many of the families had become significant landowners and farmers, something they would never have achieved had they stayed in Scotland. Others became publicans and businessmen. Many went on to participate fully in the building of the new colony, being active in municipal affairs and in community organisations.

A number also became proficient in the Maori language, perhaps reflecting their own different linguistic heritage, and acted as interpreters and in some cases active supporters of the Maori cause in disputes over land sales, perhaps also reflecting Highland experiences of both confiscation and clearance.

What did they find?

Well on her arrival in Wellington Jessie Campbell noted: “We were much disappointed at the wild appearance the country presented.” and “The climate would be delightful but for the high winds that prevail.”

Some were clearly not impressed by the earthquakes, the wilderness and lack of civilisation, or were nervous of the local Maori inhabitants, and very quickly moved on to various colonies in Australia.

Others remained at Kaiwarra and worked on the roads being built to Petone and Porirua.

Many were frustrated by the delays in realising their land options and looked to make their own arrangements, like the Sinclairs who settled at Pigeon Bay in Banks Peninsular, before moving on again to Hawaii, and like the McMasters, Camerons, McKenzies and Morrisons who moved to the Wairarapa. And not only in these places: Blenheim passengers were among the earliest settlers here in the Wanganui and Rangitikei districts, in the Upper Hutt Valley, in Porirua, in Canterbury and in Otago, while some even went to Auckland.

It is 175 years since the Blenheim set out with its complement of the hopeful and the desperate, making the leap into the unknown and the uncharted. They left their homes and their wider families behind them, but they brought with them qualities and a culture that has helped make New Zealand what it is today.

So I ask you to charge you glasses and give a toast to the emigrants of the Blenheim.

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