The CarolineAshley MacGregor / History & Fiction
Copyright 2010 A. MacGregor
The mate is reading out the list of passengers permitted on deck as the ship sails into Port Adelaide.
“… and Susan Unwin,” he finishes. My name is on the list! And I sense Captain Walker’s compassion for what has happened to me. On deck I see the land, the first for four months. But more vividly I see the tragedy in my daydreams.
The Caroline left Southampton on 11th January 1855, with her cargo of hopeful souls. She is about to deliver us but, it has been via hell. When we reach port they will look in awe at this crippled ship. They will ask, “Whatever happened?”
“Look at the damage, how did you survive?” The newspaper will want to know all about the catastrophe. We’ll all be asked for our version of events. They’ll talk about it for weeks.
Only a few women from the 360 passengers are on deck, I feel a sense of privilege. Kind Captain Walker, thinking of those who have suffered most. A breeze blows stiffly astern but the fresh air is most welcome. A large gull is gliding to starboard. Suddenly it dives down to the sea; perhaps it has seen a fish. Now, I see a shape darting down, white as canvas. Splash. It disappears and leaves foam on the surface. I watch the foam pass the ship and join the wake. My stomach rises. It tries to come up my throat. I hold back the sickness this time. But not the tears.
The Caroline is running up the coast of the Gulf of St Vincent. I look at the land. The colours are disconcerting yet it is bright and clear. I feel no emotion for this land, it’s just shapes I see. I doubt this country is worth our journey. Oh why did we leave old England?
I was happy in our village, Little Sampford in Essex where my family are cutlers. I worked as a maid at the Fighting Cocks Inn. It wasn’t much, but I was only seventeen. And it’s where I met my husband, Joseph. I remember he easily removed some roughians from the Inn who were disturbing the peace. I fell for his courage and optimism, and was rewarded with gentleness and caring.
Within a year we were married and had a child on the way. What a joy the birth of John was, such a sweet little babe. And a very precious gift for a poor couple. But it meant I couldn’t work, and Joseph found it hard to provide for us. He was only an ostler and these days there was no shortage of people to work in stables, or do any farm labouring.
Then the emigration agent came. He wore a smart suit and had a friendly manner. We must have been ripe pickings. He told us about Australia. “The ships these days offer a fast and comfortable journey. There is a great need for labourers and maids, and no one is poor in Australia.” We trusted everything he said.
Look! Dolphins are swimming at the bow of the ship. There’re amazing. How they fly through the water, and over it. There is one that captivates me. A little white dolphin swimming behind the others. He is showing off with his leaps, trying to hang in the air. As I watch I’m stuck in the moment. The shape is suspended above the water. The slender white form poised, ready to enter the sea. Effortlessly it slides into the water, quietly disappearing under the waves. Its splash leaves a patch of foam on the sea to show where it had been. I follow the spot of foam as the ship passes. Then it merges with the wake.
My stomach turns. That familiar knot of nausea rises. I implore my body again. Please don’t vomit, not here on deck. But I do. Bent over the rail, I retch. There is nothing there of course. I am empty after weeks of sickness. Skin and bone empty.