Sunday, 24 July 2016

Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians

Neighbouring Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are often collectively called the 'Baltic States'.

By Hayden120 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (
or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

While the three countries have had similar recent histories (all were part of the Russian Empire during the nineteenth century and independent republics 1918-1940) their early migration patterns were not identical. Here are a few sources which provide some comparative insights into early migration from these countries:

1. The Baltic Peoples: Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians in Australia (by Betty and Antanas Birškys, Aldis L Putninš and Inno Salasoo, AE Press, Melbourne 1986)

Putninš advises that the earliest person from Latvia to arrive in Australia may have been a convict named Aaron Woolf who had been born in Riga in 1793 and was transported from England in 1829. Many Latvian sailors are recorded as having visited Australia during the second half of the nineteenth century, and the 'Baltic Wharf' at Port Pirie (South Australia) - named for the Baltic Pine - is a remnant of the early timber trade.  One estimate claims as many as 158 Latvian-born residents in Australia in 1891, but a stronger immigration flow began after the 1905 revolution in the Russian Empire, when "all shades of the political spectrum were represented". The Lettish Association of Sydney was founded in 1913, with club rooms in Argyle Place, Millers Point.

Salasoo writes that the earliest known Estonian immigrant was Alfred Julius Siekler, from Tallinn, who arrived in 1853, lived in Dubbo (New South Wales) and was naturalised in 1859.  By 1899 there were at least 9 Estonians living in Australia, all males. And by 1904 the number had grown to 21.  Like the Latvians, "the predominance of men may imply that the settlers were mainly seamen" while some "had been involved in the 1905 revolution in one way or another".  By 1914 the known number had risen to 126, including 4 women. However the first wave of Estonian emigration to Australia really started only after the First World War: "some decided to emigrate for economic, others for political reasons".  Around 700 Estonians emigrated to Australia during the period 1924-29, while arrivals during the 1930s averaged 30 per year.

As for the Lithuanians, Birškys noted that there were Lithuanians among the internees/political exiles from the failed 1831 insurrection who had found their way to Australia. They continued trickling in during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with several serving in the First AIF.  Of the several hundred living in Australia by the early 1930s, "around 70-75% came while Tsarist Russia controlled Lithuania", while over 150 had arrived after independence  in 1918.

2. The 1933 Census

The 1933 National Census in Australia was the first census to record Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as a place of birth:

  • There were 997 people recorded as born in Estonia;
  • 427 had been born in Latvia; and
  • 235 had been born in Lithuania.
66% of these respondents were resident in New South Wales, with smaller proportions throughout each of the states.   The proportion of females to males was highest for the Estonians (36%), followed by the Lithuanians (34%), and the Latvians (25%).  

3. Russian Anzacs in Australian History (by Elena Govor, UNSW Press, 2005) and updated at

Govor has identified over 240 'Baltic Anzacs' - men from the Baltic provinces of the Russian empire who were mostly ethnic Estonians, Latvians or Lithuanians - who served in the First AIF (1914-18); of these, 41% had been born in present-day Estonia, 53% in Latvia and 6%  in Lithuania.  Most had left the Russian empire as young men and been employed as seafarers (59%) before stopping in Australia. Govor noted that "Beyond the 'call of the sea' - or at least the prospects it held out for work - economic hardship was probably the greatest push factor for emigration" (p.47).

In addition to the ethnic Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, there was also a significant migration of Jews from the Baltic provinces, in particular from Lithuania. However, Jewish migration followed a different pattern with family groups being most common.

Govor's analysis of the 'Russian Anzacs' concluded that at least a quarter of all male immigrants from the Russian empire had joined the AIF during World War One.


Monday, 27 June 2016

The Last Great Grain Race 1939

The port city of Klaipėda in Lithuania has a rich maritime history. Formerly called Memel, and part of the Kingdom of Prussia - and then Germany - until the end of the First World War, it had been a member of the Hanseatic League during the late Middle Ages and an important trading centre from its foundation in the thirteenth century.

In 2009 Klaipėda was one of the hosts for the Tall Ships Races that were held in the Baltic Sea that year. We were fortunate to have been there for a memorable weekend.

As well as inspecting the great array of tall ships and yachts we enjoyed visiting many of the special displays, including a well-presented series of municipal notice boards outlining the maritime history of the port. One in particular struck a chord as it mentioned that a Lithuanian seaman had been on the Moshulu's epic journey from Europe to Australia and back in 1938-39. The 30,000 nautical mile voyage on the four masted square rigged Finnish barque Moshulu was recorded by the British travel writer Eric Newby in his book The Last Grain Race (1956) which he later followed up with two photographic essays Grain Race: Pictures of Life Before the Mast in a Windjammer (1968) and Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the Last of the Windjammers (1999).

Having made its way to South Australia from the North Atlantic in late 1938 (the journey from Belfast to Port Lincoln took 82 days), the Moshulu was one of thirteen 3- or 4-masted vessels that anchored in Spencer Gulf over summer while waiting to take on grain for Europe. The 'Grain Race' was an annual competition between these great sailing ships to make the shortest passage back to Europe, and the 1939 race was to be the last one of that magnitude. The Moshulu won that race, making excellent time from Port Victoria in South Australia across the South Pacific and reaching Queenstown (now Cobh, Ireland) in 91 days.

Years later, Eric Newby wrote about the perils and difficulties of the voyage and about the Lithuanian, Vytautas Bagdanavičius, who shared that experience with him. The 1938 voyage to Australia on Moshulu was the second one for Vytautas; he had travelled with the ship "on the timber run from Finland to Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa in 1937 before going to Australia for her grain cargo". Like Newby, Bagdanavičius had been taken on as an apprentice on the Moshulu; the two 18 year olds were to become close friends on the trip to Australia. Newby noted that "I had liked Vytautas from the start"; "he had a happy temperament that did not attract trouble"; and he was "by far the most resilient" in their small group of friends. Despite breaking his arm at the start of the voyage, Bagdanavičius continued and appears to have mentored Newby.

A recent (2015) publication from the Lithuanian Sea Museum in Klaipeda casts some more light on Vytautas Eduardas Bagdanavičius (born in Kedainiai in 1920). After serving on the Moshulu for two seasons, he studied at the Stockholm Maritime School 1939-40 before obtaining a position as trainee navigator on the Lithuanian steamship Šiauliai. Sadly, unlike Eric Newby, he did not go on to enjoy a long and successful career; the only further reference is that he disappeared in Leningrad during the Second World War, around 1942. Other sources state that Šiauliai was sunk in 1940 off the Estonian island of Hiiumaa (Dago island) but give no indication of the fate of the crew.

The Moshulu, however, survived the war. She is now enjoying her retirement as a floating restaurant in Philadelphia USA.
The Barque Moshulu pictured at Penn's Landing, Philadelphia.
Photo taken by N. Johannes, Groningen; public domain.