Ships are an essential part of any family who was compelled to emigrate before the dawn of the age of aeroplanes. Coming from a seaside town, I have always felt a close affinity with the sea, a deep-rooted feeling of awe combined nevertheless with a sense of fear and almost sacrosanct respect. Oddly enough, not one ancestor of mine on my father’s side, both on the English and the Italian side, came from anywhere near the sea, my grandfather excepted, as he was born in New York City. My mother’s ancestors, however, almost invariably lived close to the ocean or the sea, from Genoa to the Celtic shores of Galicia, in north-western Spain.
Having transnational immigrants in the family necessarily implies transportation by ship, whether it was from Spain to Latin America, from England to Oceania, or from the north of Italy to the eastern coast of the United States. The two world wars also took my ancestors and relatives to the high seas, sometimes with tragic results. What follows is a brief report of the ships which somehow or other enabled my family to live their lives as they did, to move to a new land, and to break away from a previous existence.
My first emigrant ancestor was a Genoese man called Nicolás Ronquete, who left his native land to settle in the coastal fishing village of Noya, in the north-west of Spain. Although I have found no evidence to actually sustain the theory that Nicolás travelled by ship, I think this is the likeliest alternative for someone living next to the sea who ends up living somewhere else next to another sea (in this case, the Atlantic Ocean). Nicolás married in the 1770’s a local woman called Manuela da Costa, and had five children (the youngest of them died young). Nicolás apparently became something of a local personality, and even became involved in the local government. By the time he wrote his will in late 1808 he owed money to a lot of people, which makes me think he was either a bit sloppy in financial matters, or else could have been something of a small-scale entrepreneur. He died in the Hospital Real (now called Hostal de los Reyes Católicos), in Santiago de Compostela, during the French occupation of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte. His remains are thus buried only a few feet away from the legendary Cathedral of Saint James.
Ships also took my maternal great-grandfather Guillermo Ramos and several of his older brothers from Spain to Cuba at the turn of the century. There, the brothers separated, but at least two returned home, including my great-grandfather. What happened to the others is a mystery.
In 1910 my paternal great-grandfather Giacomo Ameglio left his hometown of Mombaruzzo, in northern Italy, and made his way to the port of Genoa, where he boarded a ship called the SS Duca degli Abruzzi, bound for New York City. The crossing took several days to complete and there must have been a huge number of Italians onboard, most of them seeking a new life in America. The Duca degli Abruzzi (not to be confused with the Italian destroyer involved in WWII) belonged to the Navigazione Generale Italiana Line, and covered the transatlantic line between Italy and the Big Apple. During its numerous crossings between 1908 and 1922, the Duca degli Abruzzi transported almost 67,000 passengers to a new life in America. My great-grandfather travelled back to Europe several times, and always returned to America on a different ship, but I am sure he never forgot his first voyage to the promised land.
Two years later, and only months after the infamous sinking of the RMS Titanic in the north Atlantic, Giacomo’s future wife, my great-grandmother Giovanna Amerio, also made her way to America from Italy on a ship. Like Giacomo, she too left her hometown of San Marzano Oliveto, in the province of Asti, and sailed from Genoa on the Duca di Genova, another vessel which belonged to the Navigazione Generale Italiana Line. The ship had been built five years before Giovanna’s crossing, and covered the route between Italy and New York. Six years later, only months away from the end of the First World War, the Duca di Genova was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Canet, near Valencia (Spain); although classified as a passenger ship, she was actually transporting troops at the time. As a result, the Spanish government of the day sent three warning notes to Berlin, ordering that Spanish territorial waters be respected. Giovanna was probably unaware of the fate of the ship that took her to America. She died of tuberculosis two years later, aged just 24.
The 1936-1939 Civil War divided Spain and its population. The cruel, bitter and fratricide war only resulted in the needless loss of thousands of men, women and children throughout the country and on both sides of the front. One of those men was Alejandro Cadarso Piñeiro, a third cousin of my other Spanish great-grandfather, who join up after a military coup and the outbreak of hostilities in 1936. Alejandro supported the “Nacionales”, the faction led by General Franco, whose extreme and conservative right-wing ideas would rule Spain with a rod of iron for four decades to come. Alejandro Cadarso boarded the battleship Baleares, a heavy cruiser built in 1928 which had been requisitioned to help fight the Republican forces who were fighting Franco. By early March 1938, the Baleares engaged the Republican Libertad and Méndez Núñez off the city of Cartagena, in the south-west of Spain. Three Republican destroyers fired their torpedoes and mortally wounded the Baleares between two of its turrets. She sank very quickly, and out of its 1,206 crew, a total of 765 men were lost, including young Alejandro Cadarso. Two British destroyers tried to rescue some of the survivors swimming in the water, but a renewed Republican air attack aborted the mission and even caused one British fatality. The sinking of the Baleares was the only maritime loss sustained by the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
My grandmother’s first cousin, William S. Morris, bravely joined the Merchant Navy in WWII, in a heroic attempt to help the war work. He even went as far as lying about his age (he was only 14 or 15 at the time), and joined the crew of the convoy ship SS Embassage, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1941. The ship sunk almost instantly, but miraculously three crewmen survived. Sadly, William Morris went down with the Embassage, which to this day remains at the bottom of the ocean, 100 miles off the coast of Ireland.
My paternal grandfather was much more fortunate. His time in service for the American Army in England as a radio operator allowed him to serve his country without really risking his life. When his duty was over, he and his unit were transferred from Gloucestershire to London in the spring of 1945. From there, the men were packed off northward, to Scotland, and at the small village of Gourock, my grandfather boarded the RMS Queen Mary, the famous Cunard liner which had been commissioned to transport American troops back to the United States. The voyage took just under a week to complete, and the Queen Mary resumed her days as a passenger ship until 1967, sailing to Long Beach, California, where she was turned into a floating hotel.
Have you researched the ships your ancestors and relatives travelled on? How do ships affect your emigrant family?