The American Dream in Antwerp
café directly opposite the entrance to the Red Star Line sheds. Van Mieghem was continually sketching and painting the emigrants who passed his door. His works have a pessimistic aura. For a few years now Van Mieghem has had his own museum in Antwerp, within walking distance of the Red Star Line Museum. The mass migration was also a theme in the work of Constantin Meunier and Eugène Laermans (1864-1940). The latter's imposing canvas The Emigrants also hangs in the museum.
Once all the checks had been gone through, the emigrants could board ship. Over the years the company had 23 ships. The flagship of the company was the Belgenland II which, moreover, had been built in the same shipyard as the Titanic. The Belgenland II could carry 500 passengers in first class, 500 in second and 1500 in third class. For the latter category the voyage was often no joke. They were kept strictly apart from the other passengers, deep in the bowels of the ship. Until late in the 19th century the travellers slept in narrow bunk beds, on straw mattresses. They ate in the same space. If weather permitted they were allowed up on deck. There they could see the promenade decks where the first and second-class passengers enjoyed luxury conditions. After 1889 the conditions for third-class travellers were slightly improved, for commercial reasons.
Sailing past the Statue of Liberty was a very emotional experience for the emigrants. The end of a long and arduous journey was in sight and they were about to be able to begin a new life. But first they had to go through yet another thorough check. In the case of the first and second-class passengers, this was only done if they appeared ill. All the rest were put through a rigorous medical and administrative check-up on Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1924 around 12 million immigrants passed through it. Of these, 2% were sent back with no right of appeal, others ended up in the Ellis Island sick bay for some considerable time. The museum tells the tale of a Ukrainian girl, Basia Cohen, who had to wait a further 8 months on Ellis Island after her arrival because she had a fungal infection.
After their arrival in New York, the majority of the emigrants travelled on immediately to their final destination in America, where they were for the most part awaited by family members or compatriots who had gone before them. This is how real immigrant communities were formed, of which traces can still be seen to this very day. The Belgians had their own communities too, with their own clubs and periodicals. Whether all those emigrants fulfilled their American Dream remains uncertain. Some of them returned after a few years - from homesickness, to find a partner, or simply because they had not found what they hoped to find on the other side of the ocean.
The decline of the Red Star Line began in the twenties, when the American government tightened the laws around migration. The shipping company tried to turn its fortunes round with tourist travel, cruises and car transport, but in 1934 it went into permanent liquidation. The buildings were assigned another use and the Red Star Line slowly faded from the memories of the people of Antwerp. But not from the memory of dockworker Robert Vervoort who had begun to collect everything to do with the Red Star Line. He managed to acquire over 5000 items, including the original foundation charter. It was his mania for collecting that provided the basis for the new museum that is now housed in the original buildings. The American architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, which also redeveloped Ellis Island, built this new museum. The showpiece of the building is a brand new tower from which visitors have a beautiful view over the Schelde and Antwerp. In the museum itself a circuit has been set out in which visitors follow the route the emigrants had to take, through the control area, the showers, over the pedestrian bridge to the bowels of the ship, until they reach Ellis Island. Everywhere the voices of real migrants are to be heard, because there are stories being told here, it's not just a display of artefacts. You become acquainted with unknown travellers, but also with people who are famous the world over, such as A. Einstein who sailed with the Red Star Line
Ellis Island, 1930 © Library of Congress
on various occasions, and Irving Berlin, the well-known composer of White Christmas and There's no Business Like Show Business, who emigrated from White Russia as a five-year old and sailed to America on the SS Rhynland. His family donated one of his pianos to the museum. He is an example of one of those emigrants who did make their American Dream come true via Antwerp. But the museum also looks at migration in general and shows that this is a story from all times and all places.
Whether Arthur Rousseau made his American Dream come true, I know not. I only have twenty or so of his letters that bear witness to his life in America in increasingly deteriorating Dutch. Maybe I should donate them to the Red Star Line Museum. Then his tale will become part of the extensive collection of stories that the museum staff have been able to assemble in recent years.
Dirk Van Assche
Translated by Sheila M. Dale