birth on board

It was Christmas on Tuesday.

Well, not really, but it felt like it because of an email I received: 85 pages of scanned materials from the UK National Archives, all relating to the 1873-4 voyage of the Kate Kellock, a journey of 11 months from Liverpool to Calcutta to Suriname to New York and then back to Liverpool. I’ve already been working with the Dutch colonial immigration records relating to this voyage, tracing the stories of those who sailed on this ship on their way to take up indenture contracts in Suriname (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). I’ve read through the records of the Kate Kellock housed here in St. John’s, at the Maritime History Archive. I’ve also tracked the Kate Kellock in newspaper records in The Netherlands and Australia.

But this is different. This is the ship that two of my ancestors sailed on. And these records – the Log Book and Crew Agreement – can give me insight into the nature of the journey itself. This is my chance to see what happened on board; to consider the ecology of the ship.

I’ve only barely had a chance to look at them (buried as I am in grading and meetings), but here’s one tidbit that I discovered…


From reading the colonial immigration records, I had already been struck by the number of births aboard the ship. I’d wondered about what it was like to travel while heavily pregnant, and then, to labour and deliver on a ship, far from home; indeed, in many instances, far from land. I had wondered what this might have been like: Who attended these births? Where did they take place? Was the ship’s doctor involved? Were other women indenturees present? What kinds of rituals accompanied such deliveries? And how might those involved have imagined the newborn’s connection to place and space, given that they were likely very far from land? I’d also considered a question put to me by a graduate student at a recent colloquium – how would time itself have been experienced and imagined aboard the ship?

The Agreement and Account of Crew required the Ship’s Master to enter the following information into the Birth Record: Date of Birth, Name of Child, Sex, Christian and Surname of Father, Name and Maiden Surname of Mother, and Profession or Occupation of Father. These categories are themselves interesting in terms of what they reveal about British understandings of family and respectability at the time, but these aren’t yet the focus of my thoughts…rather, right now I’m interested in the babies themselves.

Seven babies were born during the 11 month voyage of the Kate Kellock, six girls and one boy. Of these, six – all girls – were born to British Indian indenturees between October 1873 and January 1874. Two died very soon after birth: one was premature and the other is listed as dying of starvation.

But what of that final baby – a boy – the one born to someone other than an indenturee? Who gave birth to this child? And what happened to him?

This final child, name “None Yet Given,” was the son of the ship’s master, George H. A. Bevan, delivered by his wife on February 7, 1874.


I knew that wives sometimes travelled with their husbands; after all the 1878 wreck report for the Kate Kellock makes specific mention of the Master – Charles Ricker – and his wife, both of whom were praying below deck as things went awry. It also mentions the Master’s child. But none of the other records of the Kate Kellock that I have accessed make any mention of women other than the “emigrants” or “coolies.” Would Bevan’s wife have been mentioned at all if she hadn’t given birth?

More to explore… I just need to get the grading and meetings out of the way…


© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016



2 thoughts on “birth on board

  1. It will be interesting to see what else develops, Sonja! I had an MA student a few years ago who wrote a thesis uncovering substantial evidence of female stewards on steam liners in the last two thirds of 19thC, some of whom seem to have been wives assigned paid?/unpaid? work. More than are mentioned in the Crew Agreements, and in British/US lines after a point female stewards were required by law when women passengers were on board. Julia is starting a PhD on the topic at UT Austin in the fall.


    • Thanks for the comments, Neil – it will be interesting to see how this unfolds further. I’m really curious about how British Indian women were seen on board ships – were they seen as ‘women passengers’ or as something else? Another Kate Kellock India/West Indies route Log Book includes a few instances of troubles between emigrants/indenturees and the crew. I haven’t yet had a chance to read this log in detail, but the newspaper record says there was a disturbance somewhere in the mid-Atlantic that caused the ship’s doctor to be sent back to the UK (and I guess the rest of the trip went off without the doctor?). I’m hoping to get into this Log this week, and am super curious!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s