In 2010 I was following – by ship – the same route that my mother’s family had taken when immigrating to Australia in 1957. Except I was voyaging in reverse, sailing from Australia to Europe via two oceans, five seas and the Panama Canal. Six weeks it took them on an immigration ship; five weeks it took us, on a container ship from Melbourne.
Passing through the canal, I thought of my maternal grandparents, enticed to immigrate for a host of reasons – a country still recovering from war, Oma keen for a better climate for her health, Opa focused on overcoming thwarted ambition and impatience with his career. They were a couple of years younger than me at the time, with a family of seven children ranging from 18 to about 3. How did they manage six weeks on a crowded immigration ship (bunk beds) on the ocean? What dreams and expectations did they have? How much was based on propaganda and sheer lies? What did they think of the home they had left, to return only once many years later?
As we passed into the Caribbean, I looked up some photographs. Someone had taken some shots with a simple Box Brownie camera, a gift perhaps on departure, like a digital camera these days. Shots of the farewell at Rotterdam, a stop in the Dutch possession of Curacao, the passage through Panama, crossing the equator, a Pacific Island. I wondered what was going through their minds, what feelings of loss and regret, what hopes and anticipations. In one photo, my mother and her brother stand at the railing as the ship was about to leave Rotterdam:
She was 18, he 17, with deep roots already in the Netherlands. A last look to catch a face or two in the crowd on the dock, full of promises to keep in touch, the confidence of young people setting out on the journey of a lifetime, their best winter clothes on for departure. Following Roland Barthes’s advice to identify the punctum of the image, I cannot help notice the contrast between their smiles and the faces beside them. These reflective faces, not without trepidation, know it will not be possible to return easily, that years, not months would mark the absence.
My grandparents, in the middle of this picture, have similar faces:
As land creatures, we tend to take photographs of times at port or on shore, or at least when land is in sight. Although this photograph of the Panama Canal passage brought home a very different time, feeling more like something out of Joseph Conrad:
Birthdays pass on board, people try to find space on a crowded immigration vessel, families are crammed into tight cabins, especially since the Australian government was paying for passage:
My eye is drawn first to my uncle’s face and his birthday cake, but then quickly to the portholes and the sea, the small shelf in tight space, the chipped paint on a no-nonsense working ship, a book (a Bible?) in the corner. What possessions do you take with on a voyage half-way around the world in order to start again in a land about which you know relatively little?
Yet two photographs still strike me, one taken just before departure, the other after a year or more in Australia.
With money to pay for a professional photographer, good clothes and with photo faces on, they cannot help give the impression of anticipation and promise. Of course, the Australian government loved these images for propaganda purposes, a large white family coming to shift the fabric of a small Australia away from its closed English heritage. However, after a year or two in Australia:
The image is grainy, taken with a Box Brownie, only a couple smile, the rest grimace and look a little glum. The reality had turned out to be grimmer than the propaganda given to potential immigrants. Unlike many immigrants, my grandfather actually found work – a coal mine – but accommodation was basic, in a garage for a while, and money was scarce. Thoughts had turned to returning to the Netherlands, but my grandmother’s health was better in the Australian climate and my uncles and aunt had already made friends, my mother had met and married my father.
And I had been born – held in my grandmother’s arms.