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Book Review, NRJ 59.4

November 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Passage to the World: The Emigrant Experience 1807-1940

Kevin Brown

Man’s history is one of travel and exploration. In Passage to the World: The Emigrant Experience 1807-1940, author Kevin Brown emphasizes that everyone is a migrant. This book focuses on emigration via ocean liners. Brown presents an informative account that successfully demonstrates that the journey was not without peril by reflecting on the firsthand experiences of emigrants. The trip across the ocean was more than just a planned voyage; it was instead, a rite of passage that emigrants first needed to survive.

The history depicted is collective; it acts as an amalgamation of emigrant experiences by inspecting a broad spectrum of anecdotes from various travelers. This history draws on emigrants from Eastern and Western Europe and Asia; it tells of them venturing predominately to America and Australia. The book’s time span is meant to show the highest influx of emigrants in the modern world. Emigration boomed when the slave trade ceased and continued until travel by sky became predominate in post war years. Brown’s broad interpretation may leave some readers desiring more specifics about an experience, yet readers are not neglected as the author offers comprehensive endnotes. Brown efficiently relies on primary sources, such as parliamentary and congressional papers, to support firsthand experiences on the perilous ocean voyage.

To develop the argument that crossing the ocean was a rite of passage for emigrants, Brown organized his book with themes; they are the facets of the journey, which include: parting the homeland, becoming human freight, the life of convicts on a voyage, the risks at sea, which occasionally met with death, and feeling like a stranger in the emigrants’ new home. Brown interweaves colorful descriptions of many of Charles Dickens’ popular contemporary fictions when describing conditions in steerage, utilizing literary and cinematic references to illustrate emigrants’ ocean journeys.

The author takes his readers from port of departure through port of entry. This includes the significant reasons for leaving a homeland where one is comfortable with the language and customs; it also encompasses the towns where booming emigration ports first appeared. Development is seen on vessels as conditions improve. Passage to the World touches his audiences’ empathy to convey the humility emigrants faced relegated to the status of human freight. Food preparation and hygiene are not taken lightly, and Brown smartly draws on his specialty in medicine to outline that while ocean liners fully stratified social classes, viruses and infections indiscriminately struck all people.

This history successfully molds the conglomeration of emigrant histories into a streamlined explanation that highlights the perils and livelihoods of steerage to first- class cabin passengers on ocean liners. Passage to the World cleverly shines as a welcomed addition to the general public for the collective experiences and trials faced on ocean liners. Brown’s interpretation represents the current stance on emigration; it offers a well-researched look into the risks at sea while offering a comprehensive biography for those looking to delve deeper in the studies of ocean travel.

  • Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2013
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 243 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $45.95
  • ISBN: 9781848321366
  • Distributed in the United States by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland

Reviewed by Sara C. Kerfoot, East Carolina University

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