Bound for Australia: Shipboard Reading in the Nineteenth Century.

A fascinating study of books and reading aboard emigrant ship travelling from Britain to Australia when all sorts of passengers, from gentlemen to convicts, experienced “the longest period of enforced leisure that they would ever again enjoy.

p. 126: While readers might have preferred chapbooks to religious pamphlets, they would nevertheless accept narrative tracts ‘if nothing better was to be had’. Such reluctant acts of reading would have been even more likely at sea, where a combination of factors—boredom, the relative scarcity of printed matter, and the perceived danger of the journey—combined to make the use of even the most overtly moralistic text almost irresistible. Where an alternative was available, however, the emigrant would more often than not reject prescribed reading. The majority of males on board the ‘Prestonjee Bomanjee’ in 1854 were, according to its schoolmaster, ‘men who would sit for hours reading a book’ but were nevertheless entirely ‘indisposed to attend school’. With an unusually catholic library at their disposal, the most popular categories appear to have been ‘History, Biography, Travels, Tales, and above all books treating of the Colonies. The exclusively religious books the people will not read; they are therefore useless for the purpose intended.’….

For all the heavy-handed attempts to proselytize the eminent poor, private diaries and correspondence offer many such examples of readerly resistance, providing evidence that common readers were; in fact far more sophisticated in their use of print than is sometimes thought, real readers resembling; anything but the subjects interpellated [sic] by the texts themselves.

p. 129: The diary of one convict provides a fairly detailed account of life between the decks of the ‘Hougomoont” as it made its way from London to Western Australia in 1867. Entertainments included a debating society, recitations from Shakespeare, nightly theatricals, and the publication of a weekly journal containing original poetry, critical articles, and a lively correspondence column. It would be difficult to imagine a company of more erudite passengers than those responsible for the production of The Voice of Our Exiles, a weekly newspaper published in manuscript on board the ‘Clara’….

p. 135, gives a long list of books encountered by an unidentified passenger on the voyage.

p. 136: While it has been argued that reading is by nature a distinctly anti-social activity, there is evidence to suggest that the use of books at sea could serve important social functions, even in cases reinforcing a sense of common identity. One of the most popular shipboard entertainments in the nineteenth century was reading aloud.

p. 138, conclusion: The thousands of books, tracks, letters, and newspapers that made their way to the colonies in the nineteenth century provided vital connections with familiar social values, serving for many to organize an otherwise unpredictable environment into recognizable patters under strange skies. By the end of the century reading had become for thousands of seaborne passengers a practical necessity, the profundity of three months in cultural isolation enngendering for many the most intense relationship that they would ever have with the printed word.