Immigrants of the late 19th century

Robert Louis Stevenson was brutally honest in the travelogue of his journey to America
Immigrants of the late 19th century
Immigrants of the late 19th century

A parlour/ party game I often contemplate if you had a time machine, to which period in human history would you go But this often ends up in predictable answers, so a variation if you could, which traveller would you like to be There&rsquos an embarrassment of choices here, though the one traveller I would not like to be is Marco Polo. Imagine having to come back home after 24 years and being thrown into prison for mendacity

There is one traveller though whose career fascinates me. That languid Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson, his weak lungs cruelly lacerated by the harsh winds of his native Edinburgh, and consequently a seeker of health and wellness in Davos, the South of France, California and finally the South seas. His 1878 travelogue An Inland Voyage is an account of a canoeing holiday in France and Belgium two years ago but what he omits to mention is that he had met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a married but separated American woman, during the same trip. The two fell in love, and when Fanny returned to the US in 1878, the twenty-eight-year-old Stevenson took a momentous decision. He would cross the Atlantic and join her, in California.

This was not easy as it sounds. First, there was a blazing row with his father, the lighthouse engineer Thomas Stevenson, who thoroughly disapproved of his son&rsquos course of action. No matter. Stevenson took second-class passage on the SS Devonia, from Glasgow, in August 1879. After reaching New York, he undertook an epic train journey across the entire breadth of North America and reached Monterrey in a state of near-exhaustion. By December, he was well enough to travel to San Francisco where he was reunited with the now-divorced Fanny. The couple married in May 1880 and honeymooned in an abandoned tin mine in the Napa Valley.

Stevenson wrote up his journey to New York in one of the finest travel books I have read, The Amateur Emigrant, written in 1879-80 but published only after his death, in 1895. The American passage was covered in Across the Plains (1892) and the California leg in The Silverado Squatters (1883). Owing to the odd chronology of publication, The Amateur Emigrant was regarded as a minor work in Stevenson&rsquos oeuvre. But it has come into its own in recent years, and is cherished as a dispassionate, unsentimental, clear-headed account of one of the greatest mass migrations in the history of the nineteenth century, that of European emigrants to the USA.

There are eight chapters in the book, seven of which are set on board the ship and the eighth in New York. Despite being a second-class passenger, Stevenson spent most of his time in the steerage class, where he thought he would be able to &ldquosee the worst of emigrant life&rdquo. Throughout the journey, he seemed to harbour no romanticism at all about the act of emigration &ldquoThe more I saw of my fellow-passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty many were married, and encumbered with families not a few were already up in years and this itself was out of tune with my imaginations, for the ideal emigrant should certainly be young.&rdquo Elsewhere, he is even more forthright about the emigrant experience &ldquoWe were a company of the rejected the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed. We were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England. Yet it must not be supposed that these people exhibited depression. The scene, on the contrary, was cheerful. Not a tear was shed on board the vessel. All were full of hope for the future, and showed an inclination to innocent gaiety.&rdquo

In the vessel of hope and despair that was the SS Devonia, RLS moved about like a watchful recording angel, always the outsider but alert and engaged. But in New York, he too joined the ranks of the despairing &ldquoOf my nightmare wanderings in New York I spare to tell. I had a thousand and one things to do only the day to do them in, and a journey across the continent before me in the evening.&rdquo That journey took him from New York to San Francisco along the fabled American railroad. But that&rsquos another story, for another day.

Outlook Traveller