From Hirta to Port Phillip

Eric Richards

From Hirta to Port Phillip

 By Eric Richards

Published by Island Book Trust


From Hitra to Port Phillip, The story of the ill-fated emigration from St Kilda to Australia in 1852, by Eric Richards. Published by the Islands Book Trust.

At the Kist of Emigrants book launch during the late Hamefarin [in Shetland] we were told the story of the Eunson family's nineteenth century move to America, and the tragedy that unfolded. Emigration and good fortune are by no means synonymous. In From Hirta to Port Phillip Eric Richards, a longtime writer on the Victorian Highlands and Islands, illuminates an ill-fated emigration of 36 people from St Kilda to Australia in 1852. It's a fascinating story told over 36 pages, and sad though -- half the islanders died on the way.

Government regulation of the passage from Britain to Australia had made a long sea journey safe in Victorian terms, safer than the much shorter but unregulated, passage across the Atlantic. Perhaps the St Kildans, on the Priscilla, had unluckily found a ship with a poor regime, but while they were 12 % of the passengers, they accounted for 45% of the deaths. 75% of the St Kildans died from measles and like diseases. The survivors dispersed into the colony, and after some difficulties became productive Australians. One "California Gillies" was a famous wanderer, and returned to the island for a short time. There was little other emigration.

Eric Richards has given the St Kilda demographics careful thought. They were unusual, and it was never a community that faced population pressure. Life for a St Kildan began with a mix of fulmar oil and dung being rubbed on an umbilical cord stump. A ferocious and poorly understood death rate resulted. Even by the 1860's 70% of babies died. A population of 100 to 110 meant the island was below the threshold that supported some diseases, and isolation did the rest immunity wise. The populations they migrated into were deadly to the islanders, although they could not have really understood what was happening.

The reasons why 36 people left are largely unknown. There's some suggestion that a dispute with the factor following the disruption of the Kirk played a part, along with the restlessness and confusion following on that event. By 1852, the islanders were gaining more knowledge of life outside the island.. The landlord, however, had no plans for sheep-farming, and the emigration actually cost him money. Given the infant death rate, the population (and rents) could only be replenished slowly.

The emigration in 1852, and the final evacuation of the islands, is attributed to changes in the mental resolution of the St Kildans. As Eric Richards says, this is the most important and least tangible reason for leaving. I'd like to suggest another, even less tangible. In 1852, St Kilda must have been one of the most dispiriting places for any woman who sought motherhood. Did any of the St Kildans work out that once out of the islands, they might see their children live?


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