I just love the feel of the word Ticonderoga. It just rolls off the tongue like the best yellow box honey.

I was researching post-colonial history in Victoria and came across the word as the name of a ship which changed the way the Victorian authorities dealt with quarantine in the booming city of Melbourne in the 1850’s.

I looked up the history of the word and discovered it was an Indigenous word from North America and it referred to a region, a very beautiful and historically important region in the state of New York. It was important strategically in the Revolutionary Wars. But it was an important part of the country to the local Indigenous peoples as homelands and trade routes long before Europeans arrived. It sits on Lake George where it meets Lake Campion, which means it was highly likely to have been a place of great gatherings and prosperity during those thousands of years before Europeans landed.

But Ticonderoga the ship was likely taken from Fort Ticonderoga which was hugely important in the war against the English in the middle of the eighteenth century.

When the Ticonderoga sailed into Port Phillip Bay on the 3rd of November 1852, flying the yellow flag to indicate death on board, it became the first ship to be sent to new quarantine facilities at Port Nepean.

Health authorities had been calling for a move away from the quarantine facilities in metropolitan Melbourne. Overcrowding and absconding were rampant.

The Ticonderoga was overcrowded. The urgency of the authorities to remove the population from the highlands of Scotland had overtaken humanitarian concerns like overcrowding and numbers of children per family allowed to travel.

It had already been badly retrofitted to take the extra passengers and it was poorly done and horribly overcrowded. The Voyage

So the health authorities got their way and the Ticonderoga was diverted to Port Nepean. But there were no facilities there. The passengers many with sick children were required to make their own accommodation – tents from the ship sails.

Food had to be hastily sourced from local suppliers. It was a good thing it was November although the highlanders would have been used to the wild blustery winds that blew off the ocean.

The Ticonderoga was quickly followed by more ships each one with its passenger lists of impoverished and dispossessed Scottish Highlanders. In the end 182 people mostly children died of Typhus on board the Ticonderoga.

Each ship one adding to the little cemetery that was built at Port Nepean. The fourth ship The Allison carried the Campbells which is my family. Five children and my 4 time great grand parents. All survived and they made a home for themselves in central Victoria.

In the end, there was such an uproar about the deaths and overcrowding the British authorities had to tighten their immigration laws to prevent this happening again. They had only been relaxed to accommodate the Scottish highlanders.

For those that survived they became part of a vibrant cultural experiment. They could send their children to schools they built, pray in churches they built and be part of a society they built. Things not available to them in the place they had come from.


Hell Ship : The true story of the plague ship Ticonderoga, one of the most calamitous voyages in Australian history - Michael Veitch