I booked airline tickets to Glasgow recently, from the comfort of my office chair, with the convenience of my charge card. No sooner had I clicked the ‘book it’ button, did I begin to dread the thought of the inconvenient delays at the airport, the long security lines, the lousy food I’d be offered (would they offer decent wine?), and the four inches of leg room I’d be allotted in the seven-plus hours it would take to fly from Philadelphia to Glasgow. Prone to travel sickness, I made a mental note to purchase Bonine. And geez, how many months would it take to pay off this charge? Why didn’t I calculate that before I clicked the button?
Wow . . . I think perhaps I’ve lost my perspective.
Would my inconvenient delay involve waiting for days, maybe even weeks—long past the time my meager budget for lodging had been depleted—while the powers that be waited for a favorable wind?
Would I stand in line at the harbor for hours, only to find when I had finally reached the front, that the ship was already full? Or that the ticket I’d purchased this morning was for a ship that had sailed yesterday?
Would my food for the next six to twelve weeks be unrefrigerated, several years stale, or contain maggots? Would my water have come straight from the foul river, poured into a filthy cask half full with water remaining from the last voyage?
How many passengers would share my six by three berth? Two? Three? Would they have lice? Would I disembark with lice as a result?
Would I contract typhus, dysentery, or smallpox?
Many of those immigrating to America paid via indentured servitude, not American Express. They sold their future services for a number of years—years, not months—to an American looking for a servant. Would I be committing years of my paycheck in exchange for this ticket?
Thankfully . . . no. To all of the above.
An Eyewitness Account
Gottleb Mittelberger, a German schoolmaster, traveled from Europe to Philadelphia in the mid 1700s. His diary left a vivid eyewitness account of the journey:
“. . . during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from the old and sharply-salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.
Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions, and lamentations, together with other trouble, as e.g., the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body. The misery reaches a climax when a gale rages for two or three nights and days, so that every one believes that the ship will go to the bottom with all human beings on board. In such a visitation the people cry and pray most piteously.
No one can have an idea of the sufferings which women in confinement have to bear with their innocent children on board these ships. Few of this class escape with their lives; many a mother is cast into the water with her child as soon as she is dead. One day, just as we had a heavy gale, a woman in our ship, who was to give birth and could not give birth under the circumstances, was pushed through a loophole (porthole) in the ship and dropped into the sea, because she was far in the rear of the ship and could not be brought forward.”
Other diaries from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century survive as well, and the theme of misery in the crossing is commonplace in all. The man wasn’t exaggerating.
I’d wager that in 200 years people will be able to reach the other side of the world in a matter of minutes, even seconds, straight from home. How, I don’t know, but I’ll bet they will.
I wonder if they’ll whine of the slight headache experienced as a result of such flash travel. Again, I’ll bet they will.
“We’ll be in Philadelphia by nightfall, Liam. What’s the first thing ye plan to do?”
David laughed. “Aye. And drink. A full pint of anything wet not laced with vinegar or tar.” ~ Voices Beckon
“Passage to America, 1750,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000).
Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Migration, The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing-Ship 1770-1860 (Canada 1967)