THE PROMISED LAND
The new year of 1823 announced itself in violent fashion with a vicious storm that battered the east coast of Britain for a fortnight. Scotland suffered the worst of it, lashed by gales and snow that trapped people in their homes, brought mail deliveries to a halt, and made travelling by coach too dangerous even to think about. At sea, the weather was lethal. The American ship Elizabeth, out of Boston, running for shelter off the Scottish coast, sank with all hands, while just a single survivor was washed ashore from the Russian vessel Eolus when she went down. A local packet boat, the Betsy Crook, almost made it to the Firth of Forth, but was blown on to rocks and wrecked at the entrance to Crail harbour, below Fife Ness.
In the comparative calm of the port of Leith, on the Firth a mile from Edinburgh, Henry Crouch watched the weather with anxious eyes. He was the captain of the Kennersley Castle, an armed merchantman, due to sail on 14 January carrying nearly 200 passengers and a year's supplies. They were destined for a new colony in South America but with just a week to go before departure, it seemed unlikely that the loading of the ship could be completed in time unless the storm abated quickly. In the event, it grew worse. Tuesday 14 January was the very day on which the tempest unleashed its full force on Edinburgh. Virtually nothing moved in or out of the city; the roads were impassable under the swirling snow.
For the emigrants booked on the Kennersley Castle, quartered at the inns and boarding houses of Leith, it was a frustrating time. They had arrived at the port in a state of high excitement, impatient to embark on new lives full of promise and, they were sure, of prosperity. Theirs was not a flight of the dispossessed, an escape from rapacious landlords, a deliverance from the poverty and hardship that accompanied the economic upheaval of the industrial revolution. It had been a conscious, carefully planned decision founded on the ambition to better themselves, to improve their standard of living, and to be pioneers in a land that they had been assured would amply repay their courage and enterprise.
Among the party was a small group of professional Gentlemen--doctors, lawyers and even a banker--who had been encouraged to see themselves as the future elite of the new colony. Others were farmers, some in late middle age, who had sold their holdings or relinquished long-standing tenancies and used their savings to buy perhaps a hundred acres of what was, by all accounts, astonishingly fertile ground, and might even contain the bonus of rich gold or mineral deposits. Then there were shopkeepers, who saw the opportunity to develop a whole new market, or artisans attracted by wages better than they could hope to obtain in Scotland. Clerks had been lured from behind their desks by the promise of posts in the civil service of their new country, and one young man with artistic inclinations looked forward to becoming a theatre manager.
Small wonder that, like Captain Crouch, these eager emigrants chafed at the delay imposed by the storm. As the women struggled to keep bored children amused indoors, and the men watched the blizzard from the grimy windows of some gloomy alehouse, they dreamt of what life would be like in the sunny, gentle climate of their new South American home which, they had been told, was 'one of the most healthy and beautiful spots in the world', where 'Europeans do not suffer by any of those disorders so dangerous in the West Indies; and live to a very old age.'
Indeed, the settlers had been furnished with so much information about the country they were to adopt that they almost felt as if they knew it already. They could hardly wait to see with their own eyes the scenes that had been painted for them in promotional leaflets, in newspaper articles and advertisements, in ballads they heard in the streets, in a handsome, 350-page guidebook 'chiefly intended for the use of settlers', and by the representatives in Scotland of the government of a land which--according to a senior British naval officer who had spent many years in the region--'is excelled by no country under the influence of the British dominion'.
Copyright 2003 by David Sinclair. All rights reserved.
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