This summer, banners will flutter on New York's Ellis Island, announcing an exhibition entitled Rotterdam Moves, a history of emigration through the port of Rotterdam to the New World. Rodney Bolt retraces the steps of those Dutch pioneers.
During the first part of the last century, Ellis Island was dubbed the 'Gateway to America', as it was the initial clearing house for people who flocked from Europe to seek a new life in the USA. Today, pleasure boats and ferries chug past the Statue of Liberty and dock where trans-Atlantic steamers once unloaded up to 5,000 emigrants a day. A large number of those ships began their journey in Rotterdam.
The Dutch port's connection with migration to the New World began centuries before the Receiving Station on Ellis Island was even a glimmer in an emigration officer's eye. The Pilgrim Fathers themselves set out from Rotterdam.
On July 22, 1620, a small band of Pilgrims boarded the schooner Speedwell in Delfshaven, a harbour town on the outskirts of Rotterdam. Twelve years previously they had fled England, where their ultra-Puritan practices had fallen foul of the more orthodox Anglican church. But even the Dutch Calvinist church proved too liberal for them, and they feared their children were being tempted by the 'great licentiousness' of young people in Holland. So they hived off to the New World.
First stop was Southampton, where they hoped to join a larger ship, the Mayflower, which was to carry the bulk of their cargo to America. The channel crossing took four days. The Mayflower and Speedwell set off from Southampton on August 5 but ran into trouble almost immediately: the Speedwell was leaking appalingly. First they limped in to Dartmouth, then after a second false start headed for Plymouth, where they abandoned the sieve-like Speedwell, crammed lock, stock and Bible onto the Mayflower and headed out to sea. Their gruelling voyage took more than two months.
Religious conflict was again a prime reason for emigration from Europe to America during the 18th century, and Rotterdam became the main port of departure. Few of the migrants that left Rotterdam in the 18th century were Dutch - most were Mennonites from Switzerland and extreme Protestants from the German Palatinate. They streamed to Rotterdam, and then across the ocean to a settlement begun west of the Delaware river by the English Quaker William Penn (whose mother, coincidentally, came from Rotterdam). The thriving settlement became known as Pennsylvania, and the Swiss and German settlers were incorrectly (possibly due to the Swiss pronunciation of Deutsch) dubbed the 'Pennsylvania Dutch'.
Harbour registers from Philadelphia show that of the 319 ships that brought immigrants to Pennsylvania between 1727 and 1775, 253 came from Rotterdam (the rest came from Amsterdam and London). Conditions in Rotterdam were not pleasant - the refugees were often penniless, and were crowded into warehouses and insanitary lodgings for weeks on end while they waited for passage. At times the city authorities forbade them entry until a ship was ready to leave, and a campsite of tents and old boats grew up around a ruined chapel outside town. On board, life was even worse. People were packed below decks in a heaving, stinking world of sea-sickness, foul air and disease. Storms and sickness often proved fatal. In 1741, the Europa, arriving from Rotterdam, sank with Pennsylvania already in sight. But one of the survivors was a certain Hans Eisenhauer, whose descendant was one day to become a US President.
Heyday of migration
The 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of migration to the USA. Once again, religious persecution was often behind the move, but this time it was Jews - first fleeing pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe, and then escaping Nazi oppression - who made up a large proportion of the migrants. In addition, greater numbers of Dutch began to leave to try their luck in a new country.
In 1873 a deep new canal that bypassed the Maas delta and connected Rotterdam harbour directly to the sea helped turn it into the busiest port in the world. Across the Atlantic, the reception centre for immigrants in Manhattan had grown too small, and so in 1892 the American government opened a vast new one - Ellis Island.
Sail gave way to steam. By the 1880s the crossing that had taken the Pilgrim Fathers more than two months had been cut down to around 11 days. Companies such as the famous Holland America Line arose, forming the backbone of a passenger liner service between The Netherlands and America. Even for the migrants conditions improved: around Rotterdam special emigration hotels were set up by the steamship companies. Migrants were even supplied with a Dutch-English phrasebook, complete with such usefull phonetic transliterations as "Hoe musj did joe pee for passeedj?".
And so a link between Rotterdam and Ellis Island was forged that has become part of history as well as family lore. Appropriate then that the Reception Centre, which closed in 1954 and was converted into a museum in the '90s, is home to Rotterdam Moves Rotterdam Moves can be seen at the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island from June 15 to September 30.
Tel: +1 212 363 3200
The main hall of the Ellis Island reception centre where the immigrants queued to be processed by the tedious machinery of bureaucracy
Dutch Newspaper articles
List of names Link page