Alt banner image

Author Q&A: Dr Roslyn Russell on the perils of voyaging to Australia

Between 1787 and 1900 more than 1.6 million immigrants, including around 160,400 convicts, travelled to Australia by ship in search of a better life. Many of these journeys lasted more than 100 days, non-stop, and the men, women and children on board endured raging seas and temperature extremes enrolee to their new lives. Passengers formed social communities, putting on plays, developing lasting relationships and taking part in wild nautical rituals. In High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia historian Dr Roslyn Russell uses passenger diary entries and shipboard newspaper cuttings to provide a fascinating insight into what it was like to leave one life for another and sail across the world into the unknown. Here, she talks to Inside History and the research and writing process. 

IHM: What inspired you to start researching the stories in your book?

Dr Russell: The National Library of Australia commissioned this book, based on advice from its distributors that there was interest in this topic in the community. I also have a personal interest in this topic, as my Australian ancestors – both convict and free – made the journey in the 19th century.

IHM: Which resources did you find most helpful?

Dr Russell: The records at the National Library of Australia were terrific; the brief was to use the collection of the National Library to source the material so much time was spent there, particularly in the Manuscripts and Pictures Collections. Museum Victoria‘s website was also very helpful for this topic.

IHM: What resources did you come across when researching your book that haven’t been widely used by others?

Dr Russell: The National Library’s Manuscript collection has also been used by authorities such as Andrew Hassam, but was an essential source nevertheless. Papers of the British Parliament, particularly Reports of the Emigration Commissioners, were also used extensively, as were publications, often by individuals, encouraging people to emigrate to Australia and giving advice.

IHM: There are so many beautiful images in your book, do you have a favourite, and why?

Dr Russell: The cover image by John Charles Dollman – it is very powerful and depicts those who came in vast numbers to Australia as emigrants in the 19th century.

IHM: Which stories affected you the most in the course of your research?

Dr Russell: The stories about untimely deaths at sea – the story of two-year-old Georgina Pettingell, who died not far from the family’s destination of Hobart; the illness and death of the young woman described by Thomas Harbottle; the story of the baby that Margaret Walpole nursed until the infant died; and the story of the young woman who died after being persecuted for her religious views.

IHM: Which stories amused you the most in the course of your research?

Dr Russell: The stories of amateur theatricals; accounts of culinary experiments; and the gossip and speculation about love affairs on board!

IHM: If you could track down one thing you haven’t yet managed to find out, what would it be?

Dr Russell: A diary by a convict woman about the journey to Australia. Convict diaries in general are not common, and one by a woman convict would be a real find.

IHM: What’s your best tip for people wanting to write a history book of their own?

Dr Russell: You need to have a passion for the subject and a desire to communicate it to readers. Also to be prepared to consider all sources of information, even if they may seem dull at first – gems of information lurk in the most unlikely places. To bring the stories to life I used first person accounts from the diaries. They provided wonderful material for quotation – the words of those who enjoyed or endured the journey tell their own stories so well that they need little elaboration.

High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia (National Library of Australia, $44.99) is on sale now

Join our mailing list