Thursday, 3 October 2013

All aboard the dream liner

I don't want to blame anyone, but if I had to I would say it was all the fault of Mungo Man and his family.

Mungo Man is the name given to the skeleton of what is believed to have been one of the first inhabitants of Australia, living about 42,000 years ago.

If his ancestors hadn't left Africa about 70,000 years ago, this whole migration "craze" may never have started at all. 

Who knows, we may even have been lucky enough to have never heard the populist phrase "stop the boats!".

But this was not the case.  Mungo Man and literally billions of us since have always moved in pursuit of "greener pastures".

It's the stories of just some of these migrants that led me to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp  (which has only been open a fortnight so has that "new museum" smell).

The Red Star Line was a shipping company that operated between Europe and the US and Canada in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Between 1815 and 1940, about 60 million migrants left Europe in hope of a better life.  Those travelling through Antwerp, more than two million, usually came from Germany and Eastern Europe.  Often these were people escaping poverty and persecution, particularly before and during World War II when many of Europe's Jews fled to safety from the Nazis.

But they all shared one dream: a better life for themselves and their families.  And this museum, housed in the Red Star Line's old riverfront buildings, charts the story of those who used their ships.  

Some of these passengers included Albert Einstein, who in 1933 was onboard a ship back to Europe when he learnt his house in Germany had been ransacked by the Nazis.  He vowed never to return to Germany again, and he, along with many other Jewish scientists, sought refuge in America's universities.

Before him, the young Irving Berlin (who would later compose White Christmas and Cheek to Cheek) and his family had emigrated from Russia to escape anti-Semitic persecution.  His piano sits in the museum.

For many, just getting to the Red Star Line was a journey, traversing battlefields, enduring long train trips, and risking dangerous and illegal border crossings.

Once in Antwerp, they faced compulsory mass medical examinations and sanitisation showers before they were allowed to board the ship.

Sadly, some of those who did make it to the US and Canada found reality did not match the dream and wrote back home about their bitter disappointment at their new life.

Many also faced racism and fears that they would bring disease, steal jobs and destroy traditional values.

While the museum and its period of history are seemingly worlds away from Australia, the migration and refugee issues it tackles are the same ones Australia is grappling with today.

Australia may now be trying to "stop the boats", but the Red Star Line and its ships represent how human migration has been happening for tens of thousands of years, well before Mungo Man arrived Down Under.

As the museum ponders: "Migration is a timeless story.  For centuries people have gone in search of a better life elsewhere". 

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