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 http://www.naa.gov.au 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.