Thursday, 17 November 2011

Journal of a Voyage - book review

Journal of a Voyage
From Liverpool to Hobart Town and Sydney in the ship Othello in 1833 - 1834
by CM and NB Abbot
November 2011

A most unusual book, given to me by a friend who knows of my fascination for Watery Tales.

Its the verbatim journal of Thomas Mitchell, surgeon on Othello, a transport ship from Liverpool to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) which offers a brief day by day account of his journey which lasted over a year. From the off it was apparent that disease and death were constant companions and with little or no formal medical training the surgeon was in reality little more then a carer. 

Its an everyday tale of an extraordinary journey followed by thousands seeking out a better life on the other side of the world, in an age when life was cheap and emigration normally a one way ticket. The journal was never written to be read as a public document so you get a very gritty account of what happened, but very little insight into its author. A rare and fascinating perspective.

Just once, on 14th September 1834 and 13 months into the journey he open up a bit and we see a glimmer of the real man:

Fine day with more wind which is sending us homeward rapidly which makes everyone glad except myself who am as much or rather more at home here than in my native land. I certainly feel pleasure in seeing England, I can scarcely say home, for home I have none, pointed at and scorned by my relatives; but they never can persuade me to think myself the rascal they picture me; Tis' strange that none except themselves should think so but if God gives me health what need I care (it's bad enough now).

The authors strike me as amateur historians who stumbled over the original manuscript and became captivated by the subject, using the tale as a thread to research places and events along the way. By way of a counterpoint, they found correspondence relating to the Fenton's, an Irish family some of whom migrated on the Othello. The subsequent family history reveal what life was like for emigrants. 

This is therefore a book of two halves, a first rate journal at the front and a patchwork composite family history at the back. I am not convinced that the two sit very easily together but taken as a whole its insight is a unique gem, rare, unusual and one not to be missed.

One final and very personal twist comes in the provenance which brought this book to me.

As far as I can tell, the author died a few years after the voyage and the journal returned to his mother in Beverley, Yorkshire. It then stayed in Beverley till it was found for sale by the the father of the Abbot brothers, the authors and editors of this book. The journal than passed to the brothers who, in the 1980's, produced this volume. This particular copy was signed and given to John Bourne, a history professor at Birmingham University as a gesture of thanks for services rendered, who passed it on to my colleague Jim on his retirement as he cleared his shelves. Jim lives with my watery obsession and gave it to me to satisfy my interest in watery tales. If for no other reason, this known set of links sets this book apart from the ordinary.

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