The Voyage of Their Life by Diane Armstrong

P1190434The Voyage of Their Life is a fascinating book written by Australian author Diane Armstrong who was a passenger on this voyage. It is predominantly a memoir but one drawing on the experiences of many of the hundreds of post-war emigrants on this traumatic voyage of the SS Derna to Australia in 1948. Having grown up with quite a number of “New Australians”, as we called them then, I’ve had a great interest in migration ever since. However this is not just a book about the actual voyage, rather Armstrong tells what brought them to make the momentous decision to migrate to a far corner of the earth, the randomness of getting a passage, and also what happened to them in the decades following.

Inevitably with so many passengers there are times when the cast of characters becomes bewildering but this doesn’t detract greatly from the book. Armstrong segues neatly from one person’s story to another for a connected person.  Virtually all of the passengers had suffered great traumas during the war years and I have no wish to get into the relative merits of each. Armstrong herself mostly manages to remain objective throughout though her own Jewish perspective is clearly stated and occasionally her sympathies are more obvious than at other points in the book.  The horror stories told by so many of the passengers were shocking but those relating to the younger children are particularly horrendous. My father’s oft-quoted phrase of “man’s inhumanity to man” remained in mind from beginning to end.

The voyage itself was a nightmare and a scandal. Greed and irresponsibility would be my synopsis of the effects and consequences of the journey, especially the greed of the Derna’s owner who cut corners and left people with disgusting daily living conditions. The irresponsibility of a doctor who paid minimal if any attention to the sick patients. The greed of not providing sufficient food or water for an old semi-derelict boat tottering its way across vast oceans. The irresponsibility of the man given charge over the migrants to ensure they were looked after. The greed of those who stole the passengers’ precious belongings either during the voyage or on arrival is just mind-boggling. If you have lost family and loved ones do your possessions mean less, or are they more important because they are the only physical memories you have? The greed and emotional betrayal by family who had sponsored their relatives often just to work as slave labour on their farms or in businesses. The sheer courage of the passengers in working beyond all these betrayals is remarkable.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the huge difference between the way these immigrants were treated in comparison with the government assisted passengers to Australia in the 19th century, when their well-being was pivotal and the process was generally well-managed with an emphasis on health.

Armstrong manages to trace many of the passengers in the current day to get their stories, as one link leads to another. It was a strange experience to recognise the name of one of the people I used to work with, who had been a passenger on this voyage. I wondered how successful Armstrong’s quest would have been without the added advantage of Australia’s ethnic broadcaster SBS to “spread the word”.

awwbadge_2013Most of the voyagers settled in Australia but for some their destination was New Zealand. Some worked hard to reacquire their professional qualifications so they could establish themselves and their families in their new country. Others worked incredibly hard at jobs that took no account of their prior experience and training. Some enthusiastically took on their new loyalty and citizenship while others seemed to feel lost between two worlds – the old and the new. The heaviest burden fell on the children to bridge that gap and fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The main flaw in the book is that it is mostly anecdotal, almost inevitably. The pre-migration lives of the emigrants would have been nigh impossible to check in primary records or documents, though Armstrong has had assistance from one of the agencies sending out the emigrants. The Australian government’s records are available, but mostly not online, and it’s not clear to what extent these were used in the research for the book, apart from one rather contentious character. (if you wish to find what’s available you can search and use the search term “Derna”)

This is not the first time I’ve read this book and it certainly won’t be the last. Armstrong has provided an invaluable insight into the experiences of some of our post-war immigrants, a lasting legacy to an important part of her own life. Without them we’d likely still be living in an homogenous Anglo-Celtic Australia – just think of all the wonderful varieties of food we’d have missed out on, apart from anything else. Not to mention their contribution to the nation’s economy, culture and history.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 2 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.


7 thoughts on “The Voyage of Their Life by Diane Armstrong

  1. Your great reviews are coming faster than I can read. As one whose family is comprised of many migrants who ventured to Australia particularly over the last 150 years, many in the beginning of the last century, I am grateful for all their contributions. I love the various cultures I’ve been exposed to within the family, but also all those I’ve come across. When we first came to Queensland, our first home was in a street that would have been right at home as an example of the United Nations… there were English, Scots, Yugoslavians, Polish, Irish, Greek, Italians, Germans, to name but a few. We children knew no boundaries and were very much at home wherever we were, picking up a few words here and there, not always the nicest ones, and enjoying the various foods foisted on us by caring and sharing Mums… These families had arrived mainly by sea… ships like the Oronsay and the Fairstar… they had often lived in the Wacol immigration centre or at the Yungaba Hostel at Kangaroo Point…

    Some of their stories were heartbreaking, some heartwarming… I look forward to reading this book also.

    • You will definitely love this book Chris with its stories (usually not pleasant) of Europe and then their lives and challenges in Australia. At a glance you wouldn’t have recognised our suburb as one with such multi-cultural influences as it remained very much an Aussie working class area with Irish, Scots or English ancestry. Because I went to a Catholic school many of the migrants came to our school: Yugoslavs, Czechs, Maltese, Polish and lots of Dutch (don’t ask me why). The Italians were mostly at New Farm and the Greeks in West End. Grandad had Hungarians who made him wonderful multi-layered cakes in exchange for his handyman work, over the other side of town. Play outings with kids would require standing patiently while the request was translated back and forth -but the body language sometimes gave the answer away first. The Mums and Dads were mostly out working in factories like the Mynor cordial factory, Arnotts biscuits or Golden Circle cannery. We owe those immigrants so much for the diversity they brought and for their hard work. I regret that I didn’t ever know their personal stories.

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  4. my mother and her family were on the ssderna by the name of tiia ohtra for me to read the book gave me the insight of what they all went through to start a new life in a new country.thank you.
    angela Higgins

    • Their lives were a challenge before, during and after the migration Angela, and how privileged you must feel to have had them make that commitment. Pauleen

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