Thursday, 24 March 2016


The SS Belgic was built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, launched in 1902. Gross tonnage, 9748 tons, length 490.4 ft., beam 58.2 ft., 2 x triple expansion engines making 14 knots. Similar specs to Waratah.

The ship was completed in 1903 as the Mississippi for the Atlantic Transport line and was primarily equipped to carry cattle. In 1906 it was transferred, within the International Mercantile Marine, to the Red Star line and renamed the Samland. For this company it sailed the Antwerp to New York route, carrying only cargo. When the Red Star vessel Nederland was scrapped this ship took its place at the Philadelphia berth. By 1907, however, it had returned to the New York run. On 30 August 1911 the ship was transferred to White Star ownership and renamed the Belgic. It returned to Red Star in 1913 and reverted to its old name and route. In 1930 it was laid up and in 1931 it was broken up by Van Huyghen Freres, Ghent.

The Advertiser (Adelaide) Monday 20 November, 1911.

Conditions On the Belgic

This was the first large batch of nominated
immigrants to arrive in Australia,
and the Belgic, which was specially fitted
for the Atlantic emigrant trade, is making
her first voyage to Australia. The vessel
left Liverpool with 1,746 souls on board,
including a crew of 210. 

The Belgic started out her career as a cattle transport, and given the huge number of emigrants
crammed on board, nothing much had changed. Using the calculation per gross tonnage she should
not have been carrying more than 487 statute adults. By 1911, all regard for safety and legislation was
ignored in favour of the profits to be made from the wave of emigration to the New World.

Some of the immigrants stated that they had to live on food
almost unfit for consumption. One man
said the meat "began to walk"
at times, and other people were of
opinion that they had been badly
treated. A young lady who comes from
London, said the meat was sometimes all
right, but it was badly preserved and
cooked, and they had had some placed
before them that was tainted. She had
spent practically the whole of the voyage
in her cabin, and she said:---"When anything
was given to us good it had what
we called the Belgic taint about it. The
condition of the boat throughout was
simply horrible," she continued, "and I
wonder how we all survived the ordeal."

I can quite believe it was an ordeal. The Belgic was tainted.

Others said the lavatories were in a shocking
condition. As is known, some trouble
was experienced with the crew, who,
according to one of the passengers, refused
to work on leaving Liverpool owing to the
food given them. They were said to have
demanded better food than that given to
the passengers. At Cape Town the
trouble reasserted itself, and scathing
comments concerning the conditions on the
vessel were made by a South African
newspaper. More difficulty was met with at
Fremantle. Just as the steamer was
about to leave some of the crew threw
their baggage overboard and endeavored
to desert, and a delay was occasioned.

There had to be a price to pay for turning steamers into human (emigrant) cattle trucks.

The Captain's Statement.
Captain Thornton said some of the men
got into gaol at Cape Town and Fremantle,
the trouble at Fremantle, he said, was
principally caused by the drunkards and the
disorderlies, not only among the crew, but
also the passengers. The trouble with the
firemen was caused by the men not obeying
orders. The Commonwealth authorities
demanded that the passengers should be kept
separate from the crew, and it was quite
right, too. "You don't want your cargo
ruined before it gets here," he continued.

Outrageous comment harking back to the notorious age of slavers.

"It is a pity the Agents-General did not
take more care in selecting the emigrants.
They were a mixed lot, but the South
Australian contingent I think were the
best. There are always a number of
'copperheads' in any community, and when
2,000 people get together a gaol is always
needed for some of them. No trouble
whatever was experienced at sea, as there
strict discipline can always be maintained,
but when a crew get ashore and make
straight for the public-house the trouble
begins. Although there are some estimable
people going to the eastern States the
South Australian crowd is the best. 

What a relief for Australia. The captain was the all-knowing expert on the subject of human character. 

Of course it was hard to keep the bad
element from the good. Even at the table
the roughs with their bad language were
liable to contaminate the better class. 

'Contamination' is a horror. Australia has come a long way and shown the captain for what he was.

It is regrettable that a country like
Australia should not receive the best
people for its citizens." With regard
to the complaint about the
food, Captain Thornton said most of the
immigrants were never so well treated in
all their lives." 

In other words the riff raff should have been grateful for anything they got. What a judgment on 'all their

Concerning the accounts published at Cape Town, 
the captain said:

- "They appeared in a paper that had just
been established, and probably the chap
who wrote the report had the stomachache."

This captain was arrogant and in the present day would have been brought up on charges for such a
statement, not to mention his general attitude to fellow human beings.

"The Meat was a Bit Tough."
Mrs. Storrie, the matron, stated that
they started with a scratch crew from
Liverpool, but had a splendid voyage. Before
leaving she was under the impression
that only about 300 emigrants besides those
for South Australia were travelling by the

She was quite right - the number of emigrants should have been about 300!

Over 900 were for Western Australia. 
Although there were too many
on board to be looked after properly they
were well fed, but the meat, she admitted,
was a bit tough at times. Mr. Field said
he had made enquiries and was satisfied
that there were no grounds for complaints
of any kind.

Interesting that the complaints were limited to the meat and no mention made of what must have been
appallingly cramped sleeping conditions.

An Official Report.
Mrs. Helen Storie, the matron appointed
by the Agent-General to take care of the
women and children for South Australia on
the Belgic, in an official report to the
Immigration Officer, stated, with regard to the
accommodation and food provided, that she
had travelled twice to Australia, twice to
New Zealand, twice to South Africa, and
three times to Canada, and could, without
hesitation, say that the food and berthing
arrangements were better than some and
no more uncomfortable than the others.
She states that the food put before the
passengers was the best of its kind - bread,
Irish tub butter, Crosse Bros.' marmalade
and jam, porridge, soup, potatoes, pickles,
varied with fish and eggs - and only once
did she get a stale egg. 

Sounds good enough but I wonder if everyone got this varied menu, and little chance of a stale egg.

Mrs. Storie adds that this being the first 
experience most of the passengers had 
of ship life it was a frightful hardship to some, 
and their blessings had to be pointed out to them. 

Blessings including not going down with the overloaded ship, no doubt.

They had the whole length of the ship to walk
about on, and the liberty of staying in their
berths until 10 a.m. if so inclined, and they
could have their breakfast carried up to them.

And during bad weather? I doubt whether breakfast was brought to them under any circumstances.

Happenings During the Voyage.
There were two births on board and
three deaths. Three stowaways were
discovered before reaching Fremantle.
Fine weather was met until leaving Cape
Town, and when crossing the Indian Ocean
an able-bodied seaman, who had turned out
10 minutes before time to begin work, as
ordered, was washed overboard. The vessel
cruised round for some time, but could
not find any trace of the missing man. The
voyage to Adelaide occupied 54 days.

Washed overboard for turning up at work early about sums up the Belgic experience.


Mole said...

Interesting stuff, Andrew. I suppose there are a few refugees arriving in Europe right now who wouldn't have had any complaints about the food or anything else! But, of course, official immigrants had every right to complain.

andrew van rensburg said...

Indeed Mole. Mrs. Storie pointed out their 'blessings'; after all it could have been the Norge. Andrew