Gregg R. Hennessey, Book Review Editor
“Euterpe:” Diaries, Letters & Logs of the “Star of India” as a British Emigrant Ship.
Compiled and edited by Craig Arnold. San Diego: Maritime Museum Association of San Diego, 1988. Illustrations. 234 pages.
Reviewed by Thomas R. Cox, professor of history at San Diego State University and author of articles on maritime history and trade.
Craig Arnold, librarian of the San Diego Maritime Museum and editor of Mains’l Haul, the museum’s historical journal, has done a major service in compiling “Euterpe.” The documents and accompanying commentary in this volume revealing depict life at sea in the last years of the age of sail. It should be welcomed by maritime history buffs everywhere, but San Diegans in particular should find the volume of interest. Arnold’s work gives understanding of the Star of India beyond what any number of visits to the museum ship moored on the city’s waterfront can provide.
Arnold gives a two-sided picture of life aboard Euterpe, as the vessel was then known, during the 1870s and 1880s when it ferried emigrants from England to New Zealand. First he uses letters, diaries, reminsicences, and other documents to provide a picture of life aboard ship as seen by its passengers. Then he draws upon logs by the captain and first mate, as well as other materials, to show the seaman’s point of view. Judiciously selected and edited, these documents serve his purpose well. A host of illustrations, most from the period, complement the text effectively.
Neither a hell ship nor a fleet greyhound of the seas, Euterpe had a history far less romantic than some, but as she plodded along voyage after voyage she represented the mainstream of merchant sail better than more famous — or infamous — contemporaries. Her owners and captains showed a genuine concern for the welfare of their passengers and seamen. Those aboard suffered hardship and occasional death, but also had shipboard entertainments, a school, Sunday services, and even a handwritten newspaper. More than one employee was cashiered or disciplined for failing to take proper care of passenger’s needs.
The documents are especially effective in making clear the dangers of getting out of the crowded Thames and storm-wracked English channel and the drudgery of life in ports down under. Collisions occurred in the river, contrary weather sometimes meant that weeks were spent simply trying to clear into the Atlantic, and due to a lack of adequate port facilities cargoes had to be laboriously off-loaded into waiting lighters once New Zealand was reached. Long delays often ensued, frustrating captains and encouraging desertions from the crews.
Arnold provides context for each of the periods that his documents cover by giving a short sketch of what was going on in the world at the time. This is the weakest element in the book. His accounts abound in stereotypes and indefensible, outmoded interpretations. But these short sections can be passed over quickly. When Arnold address that on which he is truly expert, maritime history and ships, he is clear, helpful, and sound. Arnold’s discussion of these things — and the documents that these discussions illuminate — make Euterpe a volume of real worth.