I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
–John Masefield, Sea Fever
Sitting in the bar of this giant Princess cruise ship, sipping my non-alcoholic piña colada, I’m watching outside the window as the ship rail slowly moves upward, squeezing the visible waves until the rail is level with the horizon. Then it reverses, down, down, down, until most of the window is again filled with slate blue, frosted with whitecaps. Welcome to the Atlantic swells.
We are on a TAC, as some of the veterans here call it—the TAC and the TPC—transAtlantic, transPacific crossings. We are a week at sea, to be followed by a meander up the very western coast of the European continent. Get ready to hear about the Azores, Guernsey, Bilbao, Zeebrugge, and all the spots that meet the long blue horizon. But first, we have to get there. I am thinking of the others who came before me, though at first they mostly traveled in the other direction. Like Columbus, the Pilgrims, the kidnapped Africans, and the Irish.
Decent Sailor, Incompetent Governor, Expert Colonizer
One myth about Columbus is that as he sailed out of Palazzo Muger, he saw the ships with the 40,000 Jewish exiles who had just been expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in August 1492. The timing was probably coincidental, though it conjures a great picture.
By 1492, the master sailors in Venice dominated the Mediterranean while the Portugese had a near monopoly on trade down the African coast. The Catholic monarchs, who had only recently merged Aragon and Castile to create a burgeoning Spanish empire, needed money to fund wars and expansion. It took a few years for that smooth-talking Genoese sailor Cristobal Colon to talk Ferdinand and Isabella into financing his trip, but by the fall of 1492, he was outfitting three ships. No jewel-selling was involved.
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
No sailor in Europe at that time really thought the world was flat. They had maps; they were familiar with Aristotle and Ptolemy. Columbus thought the earth was round but believed it to be far smaller than it was. He was wrong about many things—where Japan was, how to govern a colony, and when best to sail, since he left at the start of hurricane season. He was both racist and petty. A lookout on the Pinta spotted land on October 12th, and captain Martin Pincon of that ship alerted Columbus with a gun salute. Later, Chris insisted he had already sighted a light on land in order to obtain the lifetime pension offered by Isabella to the first person to spot land.
As I mentioned in the last blog, two of the ships were swift, lateen-sailed caravels and one a slightly bigger carrack, all designed for travel not cargo. Note the size of some of the Chinese junk cargo ships of the era in comparison to the Nina.
Luckily, the expedition hit no hurricanes, and he managed to hit the easterly trade winds going out to land in Haiti. He did take a different route back and navigated up to the westerlies to return to Spain, where he proudly displayed a handful of gold dust, a few natives who “came with him” *coff* were forced,* colorful birds, and native artificats. The artifacts made quite an impression.
He must have made the most out of it as the monarchs financed three more voyages, although he was imprisoned and dismissed as governor when stories of his incompetence and widespread practice of torture filtered back home. After the last voyage, as he sickened from either years of bad food and/or sexual diseases, Columbus wrote a lengthy Book of Prophecies linking his exploration to Christian apocalypticism. Whether he was a discoverer is debatable, but he was a good colonizer.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Not Speeding Well A’tall
The passengers on the Mayflower also struggled with challenges, starting with a leaky ship. The Dutch cargo fluyt ship traded its cargo of herring, wine, salt, and hats for 65 passengers and crew in July 1620, picked up on the Thames before traveling to Southampton and rendezvousing with another ship, the Speedwell. The second ship carried the Leiden congregation, the separatist Puritan sect that had fled to Holland to avoid English persecution, and was financing the venture. As they prepared to travel together, the Speedwell didn’t. It sprung leaks twice and eventually was abandoned at Plymouth England, with the now 132 passengers and crew crowding on to the Mayflower.
They finally set sail in September, no longer in good sailing weather and getting worse by the day. The crossing was stormy, with enormous Atlantic waves crashing against the timber so frequently that the water fractured a support beam. Their navigation tools were still relatively primitive; they had a compass, a log and line to measure speed, and an hourglass to measure time. One boy was born in transit: Oceanus Hopkins. Conditions were primitive, with most passengers having only the size of a bed, and having to stoop below deck. But they could cook a little in groups, using an iron tray with sand in it, and could read by candlelight or play cards to pass the lengthy voyage. (I wonder if they ever played Trivia—that seems to be a favorite pastime on our ship, with contests a frequently as five times daily during the crossing—my five day progressive trivia team took a respectable third place.)
Almost 60 days later, they sighted Cape Cod and tried to head south to Virginia, where they thought they had permission to settle. But they were forced to turn back and anchor in Provincetown harbor, where they wrote and signed the famous Mayflower Compact document.
A group of 34 went ashore, poorly clad and ill-provisioned. Wet and cold in the late November weather, several died from that first night. The rest stayed on board for months as they decided how to proceed. By March, half had died from a disease that was a nasty combination of scurvy and TB. During that time, the first European child officially born in New England was christened Peregrine White. Eventually, the Leiden sect got off the ship, started “borrowing” corn from the natives, thumping Bibles, and trying to guess which among them were witches.
CAPTION: Plan of lower deck with the storage of 292 slaves, 130 of these being stowed under the shelves as shewn in Figure D…by means of platforms (in the manner of galleries on a church)–caption from exhibit from Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788
In the Manner of a Galleries on a Church
Of course, at least the crossing of the Pilgrims was voluntary. Mass numbers of people crossed the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries without their consent. Conditions on the African slave ships that ran from the Ivory Coast down to the West Indies were an abomination. A whole bed’s length and a five foot ceiling would have been a luxury to them. As many as seven hundred were “stowed” on ships like the Brooke, where they were “shelved” with 2 ft 7 inch breathing room between planks, chained, and left unable to move, even to relieve themselves on the month long voyage.
The Brooke example was used to help pass some kind of regulation, where Parliament in 1788 limited the number of slaves allowed on a single ship to be 450.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
Tiresome, But Better than Ballast
Today, the steamships like my 3000-person behemoth only take a week to cross the Atlantic, but even as late as the 1840s, passengers were still ferried in sailing ships in tight conditions, though nothing as extreme as the slavers. The mid 19th century saw a mass migration from one particular country of desperates: Ireland, escaping from the Great Potato Famine.
Cunard steamships existed at the time and could cross the ocean in two weeks; however, those were only for the wealthy. The rest were still on clipper ships, and those took six weeks from Liverpool to New York, four days shorter when starting from an Irish port. Cargo ship owners sold excess space for as little as ten to twenty shillings. Often, the ships had original carried guano, hides, lamp oil, or old rags and weren’t cleaned or even hosed down before taking on passengers. The owner’s attitude: “Passengers were tiresome but better than sailing in ballast.” A new “triangle trade” developed, where New Orleans sent cotton to Liverpool, Liverpool sent Irish to the northeast U.S., and New York sent coal and manufactured goods to the southern plantations.
…the emigrant had never known what it was to sleep in a bed. Give him pork & flour & you would make him sick. Let him lie on a good firm deck & eat salt herring, he would be hale & hearty.
—Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted
In 1846, mortality was high. One passenger in nine died on the vessels leaving county Cork. When storms came, the hatches would battened down for days, with not food or water provided. Water would become ankle deep in the hatch. Stephen De Vere, “a public-spirited Irish landlord,” traveled as a passenger in order to assess conditions and report back to Parliament in 1847, which eventually prompted requirements for improved conditions, with maximum passenger allotments and minimum requirements for food and water provisions. Even with the three quarts of water provided, however, it was often made drinkable only from adding vinegar.
By the end of 1847, the awful toll could be calculated from the 441 immigration ships that had made the crossing. Of 98,105 passengers (of whom 60,000 were Irish), 5293 died at sea, 8072 died at Grosse Isle and Quebec, 7,000 in and above Montreal. In total, then, at least 20,365 people perished…–from coffin.ships.html
While I know passengers occasionally get served watery coffee or very sour wine on our 21st century cruises, it is a far cry from water with vinegar in it. We get more to eat than salt herring and hard tack. And no matter how I might complain about the tiny room and cramped shower, I don’t have to stay in bed the whole time, and it’s much, much bigger than 2 ft 7 inches. Plus plenty of pineapple danish, so I don’t need to worry about scurvy.
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when then long trick’s over.