Memories of a voyage

When I migrated from the Netherlands to Australia as part of my family exactly 60 years ago, I was aged just 5½ years and recollect only a few image flashes of the 6 week ocean voyage.

My favourite story is not something I remember but a story my father told from time to time when discussing some of the huge geographic, social and cultural changes involved in moving from the Netherlands to Australia, especially for often somewhat rough and ready Dutchies who had lived through the difficult 1940s (see my earlier blogs about this).  Our ship (the m.v. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt) was crowded with more than 1400 migrant passengers as well as the crew of some 500.

A 6 berth outside cabin on the JvO

Quite some of the migrants were single men and women who were assigned sleeping quarters in the large spaces that had been used to carry troops during World War 2 and to and from Indonesia during the five years since.  Our family was assigned a proper cabin on the upper deck (“B” Deck at the time) because of my father’s special position and task as a Christian minister and chaplain.  But it was a very basic cabin without the convenient “private facilities” that every cabin on a ship has today.

And like almost every passenger ship at the time, there was no air-conditioning.  Even ships like the JvO which were built for service substantially through tropical latitudes had no more provision for comfort than airy decks and public rooms and a blower ventilation system (without cooling) for cabins and other enclosed spaces.  The weeks when the ship was voyaging between Suez and Indonesia or Australian ports could very, very uncomfortable.  From time to time the ship would have to stop (in a port or for engine repairs or a sea funeral), and the conditions on board would become even less bearable.

Dad would recount how on “our” voyage back in 1951, there was at least one robust Dutchman who asked around just one day out of Fremantle (the first Australian port of call) if somebody could tell him where the ship’s bathrooms and showers were.  (Most cabins did have a wash basin.)

Infectious illnesses were another hazard of long ocean voyages in those times.  A vaccine to protect against measles was not d

My sister and I with other passengers and crew members - April 1951

eveloped until the late 1960s and was not generally available until well into the 1970s.  Measles broke out on board our voyage to Australia in 1951, and many of the 600 children on board were infected, including all four children in our family.  My youngest sister at the time was 18 months old and became very sick, and one child on board actually died, a not uncommon occurrence then.  One of my memories is that because of this epidemic all four of us children had to be carried from the ship on arrival in Sydney on May 5.

One of my children at present has three children of her own in the same age range in which my three siblings and I found ourselves in 1951, and I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for my parents to have to look after four sick children aged between 5½ and 18 months on a long ocean voyage.  What courage and commitment did that show!  No wonder my grandparents were not a little concerned.


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