The Immigrant Experience in Antwerp: First-hand Stories


Last week we offered some details to a reader’s questions about what life was like for immigrants in the city of Antwerp prior to their departure.  Some travelers took the time to see the city as tourists as this account from a 1945 article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History (public domain) about the voyage of Johannes Remeeus, a 39 year old Dutch immigrant and his family traveling in 1854.  Although the story takes place about 20 years before the Red Star line began illustrates the experience is remarkably similar to other accounts told of the journey.

In the afternoon we went to the hotel which was maintained exclusively for emigrants. There were in Antwerp 2,700 emigrants, mostly Germans, waiting for ships to take them to America. For four weeks the winds had been blowing out of the wrong quarter; hence no ships had entered the harbors of Holland, Belgium, or Germany.

After we had enjoyed some food every man had to help bring the trunks, boxes, and other baggage on board. We were given permission to furnish our sleeping quarters as suitably as we wished. The women, in company of Messrs. Westven and Snoep, and of Vermeulen, the agent of the line, went to see the sights of the town. I was kept busy all afternoon fixing up my berth. I used a coarse wallpaper for my family. The captain and helmsman observed me while thus engaged and smiled kindly, thereby showing that they were pleased with what I was doing.

When I had finished this task, I went to the hotel to get mother and the children. This was the first night we slept in the ship that was to bring us to America. It was the bark “Fedes Koo” from Portland, Maine, commanded by Captain H. Higgens.

The next morning, June 1, we were busy bringing aboard provisions for our long voyage. Later, when this labor was finished, our names were called from a list, and two men distributed the food according to the size of each family. Provisions consisted of green peas, navy beans, rice, flour, ham, salt, and a small quantity of coffee and sugar. Everything was measured or weighed and had to be signed for. We were to receive potatoes and ship biscuit each week. We also were given enough bread to last about five days.

In the afternoon we had to appear with our families before an officer who examined our papers. When he found they were in order, we were given our ship’s papers.

Next we went to see something of Antwerp. In the evening we returned to our ship. Our thought often took a serious turn, as the reader may surmise. The children, however, readily fell asleep; but with mother and me it was different. The following morning, June 2, we went to the hotel for breakfast. In the afternoon we were required to be on board because we, as well as the other passengers, were going to have assigned our places on board the ship. The Hollanders were placed on one side; the Germans on the other. The total number of passengers was 130.

Although immigrant accounts talk about families seeing the free sights of Antwerp such as the railway station, the diamond district and the Cathedral, if you were an immigrant family with limited funds, your experience of the city would have been circumscribed by your pocketbook. 

Families talk in firsthand accounts of bringing their own provisions like dried meats and cheeses from their homelands.

I can imagine my own grandfather, leaving his wife and baby at the Red Star Line hotel and exploring the city on foot.  A Catholic, he would have made it a point to visit the famous gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, taking the time to walk through the vaulted arches and see the great works of art, including paintings by Rubens.  Then he might have had a Belgian beer in a local pub and eaten a bit of Austrian cheese from home, wrapped in Viennese newspaper in his pocket.

He might have wandered around the diamond district, looking in the windows at the glittering fortunes displayed there—wondering if he would ever be able to buy his wife even the smallest of diamond rings once he got to America and found work.

One of the most wonderful things about the Red Star Line Museum and its place in time and history is the city around it.  When the museum opens I will be able to go through the very buildings that my grandfather passed through.  But more than that, I will be able to see, hear, smell and taste the same things he did when he spent his last days in Europe in the city that surrounds the port.   When I visit the museum for the first time, I plan to see the city on my own special  ”Leopold Hochreiner” tour.

I will make a special pilgrimage to the Cathedral and light a candle, as I believe he must have done, to mark the spot where his journey began.

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