Migration and photography: The Skaubryn archive

Port bow view of the Norwegian liner Skaubryn on fire in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[002]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Port bow view of Skaubryn on fire in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[002]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Photography has always played a critical role in documenting the movement of people across borders. The photographs linked to the vast archive of Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test, for instance, put a face to those impacted by the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia policy) for the first half of the 20th century. In more recent times, the 2015 photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach brought the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis to a global audience. Photographs, as material (and now increasingly digital) objects, also cross borders to bear witness to the lived experiences of migration and diaspora.

The museum holds a rich archive of photographs relating to migration (many of which are in the process of being digitised), ranging from informal family snapshots to official portraits promoting government mass migration schemes after World War II. One of our most significant collections documents the fire and rescue on the Norwegian liner Skaubryn in the Indian Ocean in 1958. A selection of these photographs is now displayed in our Tasman Light Gallery to mark the 60th anniversary of the Skaubryn disaster.

Temporary accommodation for Skaubryn survivors on the deck of the Italian liner Roma, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[063]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Temporary accommodation for Skaubryn survivors on the deck of Roma, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[063]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Remembering Skaubryn

The Skaugen liner Skaubryn was the only vessel lost at sea during the era of post-war migration to Australia. It was carrying 1,080 passengers and 208 crew when a fire broke out in the engine room on the evening of 31 March 1958. The vessel was approximately 800 miles from the British port city of Aden (now part of Yemen) and 360 miles from the African coast. Among the passengers were 736 German migrants, 168 Maltese migrants and 176 private passengers.

Within hours the passengers and crew were safely evacuated in the ship’s lifeboats, although one man, Mr Erich Walter Holz, died from a heart attack during the rescue operation. The fire destroyed the midships and forward part of Skaubryn and the vessel sank on 6 April 1958 while under tow to Aden.

Passengers crowd into a lifeboat from Skaubryn, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[015]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Passengers crowd into a lifeboat from Skaubryn, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[015]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration

The museum’s Skaubryn photographs were collected by Australian journalist Keith Woodward, who was a Public Information Officer for the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM, now International Organisation for Migration or IOM). Woodward was based in Geneva, Switzerland, and was one of three ICEM officials who flew to Aden to help coordinate the rescue efforts. ICEM was the successor to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), which was established to assist the millions of Europeans displaced by World War II and arrange for their resettlement in countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Skaubryn transported some 20,000 European migrants during its seven-year career and also had the distinction of carrying ICEM’s 250,000th post-war migrant in 1954.

Skaubryn on an earlier voyage carrying ICEM's 250,000th post-war migrant to Australia, 1954. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0215[111]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Skaubryn carrying ICEM’s 250,000th post-war migrant to Australia, 1954. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0215[111]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

The Skaubryn photographs

The photographs document, in incredible detail, the fire engulfing Skaubryn and the ensuing dramatic rescue at sea. Many were taken from the vantage of the British cargo ship City of Sydney, which picked up the survivors in the Indian Ocean. They were later transferred to the Flotta Lauro liner Roma and returned to Aden.

Skaubryn survivors climb the gangway of the Flotta Lauro liner Roma, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[052]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Skaubryn survivors climb the gangway of Roma, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[052]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Photographs capture the lifejacket-clad survivors crowded into lifeboats, climbing the gangway of Roma and their temporary accommodations on the Italian liner. Others show the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Aden, which opened early to house the survivors, and the private passengers, pregnant women and their families being airlifted to Australia. The remaining German and Maltese migrants resumed their journeys to Australia on the liners Orsova and Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.

Passengers watch from the deck of City of Sydney as Skaubryn burns in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[005]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

Passengers watch as Skaubryn burns in the Indian Ocean, 1958. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen ANMS0214[005]. Reproduced courtesy International Organisation for Migration.

One of the most powerful photographs shows passengers watching on from the deck of City of Sydney, as the ship that should have carried them to Australia burns in the middle of the ocean. One man turns to face the camera, staring directly into the photographer’s lens. Who is he? The museum is keen to hear from anyone who can identify this man or any of the other people pictured, to discover how their lives turned out after Skaubryn’s final passage.

Kim Tao, Curator

Remembering Skaubryn – 60 years on is on show until 12 September 2018.

4 thoughts on “Migration and photography: The Skaubryn archive

  1. I recorded oral history interviews with two of the passengers – Mr and Mrs Camenzuli, who were Maltese – in 1997. They are part of the NLA’s collection. Mrs Camenzuli also signs a folk song on tape, which she wrote herself about the incident. They describe in detail the process of the ship’s sinking. barryyork554@gmail.com

  2. This is a folk song, in Maltese, created and sung by Mrs Georgina Camenzuli who was on the ship ‘Skaubryn’ in 1958, with her husband Nazzarenu (Is-Simenza), and four children, when it sank in the Indian Ocean. (The clip goes for 12 minutes).

    It was recorded as part of an oral history for the National Library of Australia, in 1997 by Kevin Bradley and me at the Camenzuli’s home in Fairfield Heights, Sydney.

    The song is an example of ‘ghana tal-fatt’ or a ‘fact based song’.

    Also performing are guitarists Joseph Mifsud (Il-Koko) and Vince Gauci (Tar-Rabat).

    The ‘Skaubryn’ was a migrant ship that caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean en route to Australia in 1958. No-one drowned but an elderly man died from a heart attack. It was a traumatic and extremely frightening and dangerous experience, needless to say, especially for those, like the Camenzuli’s, who were travelling with their young children.

    They eventually made it to Sydney on the ‘Roma’.

    I am advised that Mr. and Mrs. Camenzuli are no longer alive but they indicated copyright ownership of the song when they completed the Rights Agreement for the Library.

    I wish to thank Mark Caruana, long-time community activist and historian of Sydney, for making the session possible in 1997.

    ‘The Saga of the Skaubryn’ originally appeared on the twin-CD package ‘Maltese Voices Down Under’, produced in 1998 by Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, and the National Library of Australia. (Out of print for a very long time now).

    (Photo of the performers taken by Barry York on 29 September 1997)

  3. Pingback: Four ships and a lifeboat - Australian National Maritime MuseumAustralian National Maritime Museum

  4. Pingback: The saga of Skaubryn - Australian National Maritime MuseumAustralian National Maritime Museum

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