S. S. Polaria Swansea
It was July 1882 when The Polaria docked in Swansea.
The ship had been launched on the Tyne in the north of England by Mitchell and Co. in February that year for the Carr line of Hamburg. It was 300 feet long, 38 feet wide, with one funnel and two masts. It was built of iron, with a speed of 10 knots. It had been specifically designed for the emigrant service between Hamburg and New York and had accommodation for 1100 passengers. The company was contracted to carry 18,000 people over the subsequent six months and The Polaria was an important part of the huge fleet populating America. Crossings normally took between 17 and 19 days. This was its second trip, the maiden voyage docking in New York on 15 May 1882.
Swansea has always been a busy port and sailors from all over the world have always come ashore, but it was unusual to see foreigners in such large numbers as this. Early on Monday morning the passengers from the ship were suddenly on the streets, no doubt grateful to feel the solid ground beneath them for a while. They still had a way to go, across the Atlantic. Few of them would ever have travelled this far before.
The Polaria was docked for three days, during which time it became “the object of the highest interest on the part of the local community.” It was a drama from another world with 731 characters, which had called briefly into Swansea to pick up tin plate and coal from Wenallt and Resolven collieries.
The paper tells us that the majority of the passengers were Germans “from various areas of the newly constituted but not as yet well consolidated German Empire.” Whilst the cargo was being loaded, they became a local curiosity. They were, we are told, “stared at and joked about by the small minded and the thoughtless idlers” which is very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where “all the boys in Venice” follow Shylock and laugh at him. Certainly, Swansea has never been the most cosmopolitan of places. Soon the locals gathered at the docks for a closer look and many were taken on a tour of the ship, to underline its status as a kind of entertainment.
The ship is described as a small town, “with a most diverse population.” There were nearly 200 Russian and Polish Jews from the “troubled dominions of the Czar” where they had been “cruelly treated.” They are of a “very degraded standard” dressed in rags. Their “faces and hands would be all the more seemly for a freer use of the soap and water which are so liberally supplied on board ship.” Their fares were paid by international relief committees and they do seem to be in particularly difficult circumstances.
The newspaper adopts a rather superior tone throughout, with a curious mix of sympathy and outrageous prejudice. “The odours that ascend from their quarters are not of the sweetest kind.” The writer was not at all troubled by the sort of restrictions we have today and at times there is an awful cruelty in some of the things that are written. He is confident that no one will see anything improper in what he says.
He tells us that the Jewish emigrants may not be as poor as they look; he writes about “the Semitic type in their physiognomy” and their “peculiar genius” for “petty bargaining” and “money changing.” There is an echo here of the prejudice reported by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my monies and my usances.
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug
For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for the use of that which is mine own.
The reporter considers the Diaspora and remarks that “the fabled time for the restoration of the Jews in Palestine is evidently not yet fully come.” He is keen to tell us that the “sacred land is wonderfully productive” and could once again yield “splendid harvests of cereals, olives and grapes.” But there appears to be no appetite for the creation of a homeland “in spite of the cries of the devout in the place of wailing in Jerusalem.” The “wide wild West” appears more attractive.
“So let them go, and may the blessing of their Jehovah rest upon them! May they be a blessing to themselves, and entail no curse upon the peoples among whom they may settle.”
He is more comfortable with the Germans, who are “respectable working class, clean in habits”. They paid about £5 for their passage, though 140 of them had tickets pre-paid by family and friends who had already made the journey. There were new passengers as well, for two children were born, one off Mumbles Head and the second whilst the ship was in dock. They were both boys and whilst they may have taken their nationality from the boat on which they were born, nonetheless he was very keen to point out that it was hardly likely that “these youngsters will ever be drafted into the German armies.”
For him the Germans are obviously a militaristic nation, whilst the Welsh are forever moved by compassion. Our reporter tells us a story which is intended to give his Welsh readers a warm glow of pride about their considerable generosity and humanity.
One of the visitors to the ship was a “thorough Welsh woman in Welsh flannel bed gown attire.” She saw how tired one of the new mothers was, weak and exhausted. “Though she could not convey her meaning in words, she did so in looks. The mothers understood each other and the warm hearted Welsh woman took up the little one and suckled it at her own breasts.”
A symbol of the angelic compassion of the Welsh perhaps? Or a fiction? Perhaps it is best if you make your own judgement, but to me it seems more story time than factual reporting.
Thousands of people gathered to see the departure of The Polaria at 9.00pm on Wednesday. It was apparently a touching sight. The poorer spectators allegedly expressed their wish to join the emigrants. 30 men went to the captain and offered to work their passage. 50 “loafers and would-be stowaways” were found and sent back in the steam tug. Is any of this true? It is hard to say. The reporter adopts a narrative style throughout and perhaps such details just helped to make it a good story.
The article ends with some reflections on emigration and how it is most successful when families and neighbour hoods go together. “There is no loneliness, no misery save through the unavoidable accidents of life.” Sadly I have been unable to find the passenger list for this particular voyage. However, the list for the maiden voyage of The Polaria which docked in New York on 15 May 1882 is available on-line and it brings all the stories about emigration to life. You can see whole families, frequently unskilled, desperate to improve themselves. It is very humbling to see the details of these ordinary people and to consider what an enormous thing it was that they did. I am sure the passenger list for July was not a great deal different.
The Captain P. Winler handed over a list to the Collector of Customs on 15 May 1882. This was his manifest that “truly designated the age, the sex and the occupation of each of said passengers”
If you would like to look at the manifest then click on the link and you will be taken to the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild web pages for the SS Polaria.
So who exactly had he delivered? They were ordinary people, on this occasion 984 of them. Labourers, joiners, shoemakers. There is Wilhelm Ebisch, 23 a bookbinder from Hamburg, with his wife Emma, 20, and their daughter Caroline, 10 months old. There are 8 male labourers from Hungary, obviously travelling together. Christian Warneck from Mecklenburg, 33, a labourer travelling with his wife Maria and Friede, their 8 month old daughter, together with Maria’s mother and father, Carl and Maria Kramer.
The Zinsan brothers, Valantin and Johann, workmen from Bavaria. The Christensen family from Denmark, the Drephal family from Prussia. Jewish tradesmen from Russia with names like Goldberg, Schiduski, Schalamon, Zuckerman, Sarowatzky
All these names were a story. What courage they possessed.
And have things changed? Perhaps not that much. It still happens today, although we are perhaps less understanding of people who are prepared to leap into the unknown for a better life.