As captains grew toward middle age, and the children were old enough to be left at home with relatives or put into boarding-school, their wives not infrequently accompanied them on the long voyages “to some port or ports in Europe at the discretion of the captain,” as his orders might cite; or farther afield to “Bombay and such ports in the East Indies or China as the captain may determine, the voyage not to exceed two years” or a longer matter when profit was found in cruising back and forth between the Indies and the ports “down under.” But wherever the port might be, there were sure to be Yankee ships, and many were the visits between ship and ship, commanded, perhaps, by old neighbors at home; more formal festivities ashore were offered by consignees, or the American consul, or a foreign acquaintance that was renewed from voyage to voyage.
In 1844 a Barnstable captain wrote from France: “Dunkirk and Bordeaux are fine places and contain many curiosities to us. We had more invitations to dine than we wished as the dinners in this country are very lengthy, say from three to four hours before you rise from the table, and then not dry. Today we have been to the Bordeaux Mechanical Exposition or Fair, and it is splendid. There are nine American vessels here, and five of the captains have their wives.” These Barnstable captains and their families, when in New York, used to stop at a hotel opposite Fulton Ferry, and when they went uptown of an evening to the Crystal Palace or the theatre or opera, they would charter a special Fulton Ferry ‘bus for the journey. And if the voyage began with an American port of call, at New Orleans, we will say, there was plenty of gayety balls, theatre-parties, opera, and oyster-suppers — and more than once a young shipmaster was captivated by the bright eyes of some Southern beauty.
A long voyage to Australia and India was another matter. The diary and “letters home” of a captain and his wife could tell us that; and while not brilliant in themselves, such records give us the atmosphere of these old times as could perhaps nothing else. On a February 16, some sixty years ago, a captain writes to his children who were in boarding-school: “We have had a very long and dull passage, with many calms and head winds, and are only to the equator and thirty-nine days out. It has tried my patience pretty well; but I can’t make winds or weather.” His wife was with him, and he was also taking a passenger on this voyage to Australia. “It is very warm and fine after a few days of hard rain when we caught plenty of water so we can wash as much as we like, and clothes belonging to all hands are hung out drying all over the ship. While I am writing the rest are reading and sitting around the cabin with as little clothing on as possible. I imagine you at church, muffled up in cloaks and furs, listening to a good sermon while we have to do our own preaching. If I’d had a letter ready a few days ago, I could have sent it by a barque bound up to New York which I spoke. Yet it would have been difficult, as it was in the evening and I could not understand who she was, and don’t know that she understood our name. Mother busies herself sewing when she feels like it, and reads the rest of the time. I must bid you good-morning now and attend to getting an observation and see where we are.” On February 28 he continues the letter: “I am now about where I expect to pass the Sunrise, if nothing has happened to her. I look for her every day. I don’t know what poor Freeman would say if we should meet them.” Freeman was the oldest son who had insisted on going to sea to “toughen” himself in a losing fight with “consumption”; and here on the wide stretches of the southern seas his father hoped to have word with him. “Mother is sewing on old clothes of some sort,” he went on to tell them, “and if she is well I think she will have time to mend all up. Time passes rapidly, but I often think of our little home being shut up and how many happy days we spent there, and hope we may all live to spend many more.” He ends his week’s stint of writing with some excellent moral advice. March 3: “We are now going for the Cape of Good Hope with a moderate breeze and good weather. Mother has been washing a little, and is now much taken up with some story she is reading. I suppose it is washing day at home, and I fancy Mrs. Lincoln hanging her clothes in our yard.” March 15 : “Good-morning, my dear children. I wish I could hear you answer to it, but thousands of miles now separate us and every day still more. We are now abreast of the Cape, and have had some rough weather since I wrote last. Mother is first-rate, and can eat as much salt junk as any of us. To-day she is ironing a little, and I have been pitching quoits with the passenger for exercise. We see nothing but the blue sea now, not a vessel or anything else but some birds. We caught an albatross the other day, but we let him go again as it seemed cruel to deprive him of his liberty. We have got through all our hot weather, and I expect we shall soon want a fire while you will be having the spring the green grass and the trees putting forth their beauty, and I hope you will enjoy it well. I shall not write any more until I arrive. Be good children is the sincere wish of your own dear Father.”
On April 25 Mother writes Nancy a letter of anxious instructions as to closing the house after vacation; because she is at the Antipodes, Mother is no less the careful housewife. “Take good care of the carpets; you need do nothing about the winter bed-clothes, they are all safe. Be sure that the skylight is secure, and if it leaks more than usual get Mr. Snow to repair it. If necessary, put more platters to catch the water. Have the boys attend to the underpinning of the house so that the rats or skunks cannot get in; and tell them I wish they would paint my boxes and buckets. I wish them light-colored, and put them on the old table and in the sink to dry. You will find some gooseberry and currant pre-serve in the cellar which you can dispose of. Do not disturb a jar in the dining-room closet. When Free-man arrives have his sea-clothes put in the barn. Take good care of Clanrick’s overcoat. If it is wet, see that it is dried as soon as possible, and if torn mend it immediately. You know it must last him another winter for his best. Do not forget to wear your rubbers” and so on. They were entering Melbourne Bay, and Mother, having unburdened her mind of its care, was now free to close her letter, which, as a steamer was sailing next day; would be sent back by the doctor, “who will board us this afternoon.” “The boys [members of the crew, and neighbors at home] will not probably send letters this time. You will receive this a month sooner than you anticipated. Give my love to grandmother. I often think of her, and hope she will not go to her old home to live alone. Tell her father will see that her board is paid. She need not give herself any uneasiness about that. I must now bid you good-bye with much love from your affectionate Mother.”
And of course Mother had been keeping a Daily Journal, a copy of which, from time to time, she sent the children. “Just fifteen weeks from the time we left Boston we saw King’s Island,” she writes of the end of their voyage. “It was a joyful sound to me when I heard the cry from aloft of Land Ho. I was almost tempted to go aloft as I had not caught a glimpse of land or even a rock since I left home. Soon after, I could see the high hills from the deck which are about one hundred and eighty miles from Mel-bourne. The next evening we saw the light, but the wind being fresh ahead we could not gain much, which was rather trying as we were anxious to get in. The twenty-eighth we took a pilot, and as I had an opportunity to send my letters I felt quite reconciled to my situation, it being beautiful weather and fine scenery. The land on both sides of us is covered with trees and shrubbery, fresh like ours in June, although autumn here. Arrived at our anchorage about two o’clock, and lots of people called aboard, Mr. Osborn, our consignee, among them. He invited us to go to church with him on Sunday and dine with him and go to the Botanic Gardens, and we accepted. The Gar-dens are beautiful almost beyond description” but she does describe them, and charmingly too, and the birds there, and the waterfowl, “the plumage of which is superb.” And she notes that the Yarra Yarra River is “not half as wide as our pond.” ” We called also at Mr. Smith’s, a brother of our former minister. He has a very pretty place and gave me a very pretty bouquet. We returned to the ship about sunset very much pleased with my first day in Melbourne. Next morning we were taken up to the wharf, and I am glad to be here where I can come and go as I please. Father is busy, and I have been unpacking and arranging my clothes, room, etc. I have got my cabin carpeted and it looks quite nice. Mr. Sinclair, our passenger, called this morning, and brought me some apples and pears and grapes a great treat. 29th: I intended to have gone to Melbourne shopping, but received an invitation from Mr. Osborn to go to tea and the opera in the evening. Some of the singing was good and the scenery was beautiful. I cannot compare it with American opera as I never went but once in my life and have forgotten about that. This is a great place for opera and theatre-going people, as well as spirit-drinking people. May 1st: To-day I presume you go a-Maying.” And now Mother had her shop-ping expedition, and notes that cotton cloth is cheaper than at home. “I find our last year’s goods and styles just received here, and of about the same price.” Like other Americans in foreign lands she is a little nettled that “they know in a moment I am an American.” The next week being rainy, she did little but “make a few calls upon some English ladies”; and then came a day spent at South Yarra with “the first American lady I had seen since I left home. I was delighted to see one home face, and she seemed as happy to see me. We were not long getting acquainted, and our tongues ran fast I can assure you. I informed her of the latest fashions, while she told me of the points of interest I should visit. They have a beautiful garden and I took lots of slips, and hope to fetch some of the plants home.” With the wife of a Newburyport captain she “went to Melbourne to see what there was to be seen,” and there was more gayety afoot. “You will think me dissipating largely in going to operas and theatres. I think I am, indeed, but as I have no particular regard for such amusement do not think I shall be injured by going.” And she did certainly “see what there was to be seen.” Nothing escaped Mother’s observant eye. “I cannot begin to tell you of it in a letter,” she writes, “but will leave it till some winter evening when seated around our little light-stand at home. But I am resolved to see some-thing of the world while I can.”
And on May 20, it was up anchor, and off again: “It seemed almost like getting home and we soon got under weigh and bid farewell to Melbourne. We have two gentlemen passengers for Calcutta, and I hope we shall have a quick passage. I have enjoyed myself, and have often wished you were with me to enjoy the pleasures too. Perhaps some day you may do so, if you, Nancy, catch a sea-captain; and you, Clanrick, may be a merchant here. I must now bid you good-night, with much love and kisses from Father and Mother.” The letter was off to them by the pilot, and Father and Mother for Calcutta where their visit was not as pleasant as at Melbourne. Father and many of the crew were ill. “I was very anxious indeed,” writes Mother to the children, “and was thankful to have some home friends near. Captains Dunbar and Crowell were very kind. They have done all of Father’s business they possibly could so that he need not get overdone.” The sick boys among the crew are a particular anxiety: “They are so care-less and imprudent of themselves that I fear we shall not bring them all home with us. They will not hear to reason, but will eat everything which comes to hand and sleep in the open air which is enough to kill any one. But the doctor says they will soon be well after getting to sea. We are obliged to wait for a steamer as by Father’s being ill we lost our turn; but I have just heard that one is engaged to take us down river Friday. I have formed some very pleasant acquaintances here, but have not met any American ladies. Captain Knowles and wife, and a Captain Smith, wife, and daughter have just arrived. I am sorry not to see them. Father is still better, and is now eating his dinner of chicken soup and toast bread after which he will ride down and see his consignee. Do not give yourself any uneasiness, but take good care of yourselves. I must now leave you in the hands of Him Who ever watches over us, and trust He will preserve us all and restore us soon to our loved home.”
Did Mother feel that the best of their voyaging was over? When Father returned to the ship that night, he had a letter “containing sad news from Freeman,” their lad who had thought to conquer the dread white plague by the hardships of a seaman’s life, and who was ill at Valencia. But Mother was not one to spend the long weeks of their return voyage to Melbourne in useless repining, and her Diary shows her alert, as ever, to “see what there was to see.” They made slow progress out to sea, as the weather was hot and calm. “It is very tedious to be lying here, although we have company near us. Today we saw what we supposed to be the Ghats Mountains on the eastern coast of Hindustan.” And steadily, week after week, they nosed their way southward again, and on October 26 she could write: “It has been really cold this week, about like the weather at home this season. I sit up on deck all the morning, and have been very busy this week turning my silk dress.” It was rough weather the last leg of their journey, “the ship rolled terribly”; and Mother was none too good a sailor. When they hove to at Port Philip Light to take on the pilot, they received orders to proceed to Sydney to discharge their cargo. And there was a letter from his captain, one of their old neighbors at home, confirming their worst fears in regard to Freeman. He had died at Valencia, and was buried there, even as Mother had been praying that another year might see them all united at the old home. There was no time to be spent in idle lamentation, and as Father must go to Melbourne, so would she go also to be near him. They landed, rode by stage twenty miles to Geelong through “a very dreary country,” thence by railway to Melbourne where they were disappointed not to find letters from home at the consul’s, nor was their friend Mr. Osborn to be found that day; but they breakfasted with him the next morning, when Father accomplished his business, and by afternoon they were on the wearisome journey back to Geelong and Queen’s Cliff where the ship was moored. Indomitable Mother writes: “It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed the ride.” She had learned the subtlest use of life: to miss none of its beauty, though the heart were breaking. That night, before they sailed for Sydney, she wrote the two forlorn children at home a long letter, with the high heart of courage, knowing that it might be months before they should receive it and the first sting of their sorrow be past: a letter full of Christian resignation and of comfort.
And day by day, recording time by latitude and longitude at sea, ashore by day and month, she set down in the Journal for the interest of their later reading, what she did and what she saw. Wilson’s Point, as they beat round to Sydney in head winds and heavy seas, “would be a terrible place to be shipwrecked,” she thought. And at Sydney she enjoyed things as she could, noting the weather there had been no rain to speak of for sixteen months — living on shipboard, but taking many excursions and meeting pleasant people ashore, and remembering the sermons at the English church, and the markets, and the shops; and again, one afternoon, alone, “I went a-cruising to see what I could see” among other things, in the Public Gardens, “some beautiful plants in the greenhouses. The greatest variety of fuchsia I ever saw, and the gardener gave me some slips to take home. There were lots of birds and animals there, and I saw a kangaroo.” And some friends took them out to Botany Bay. “It was a terrible road and dreary country through which we passed, but there was a beautiful garden adjoining the hotel and I walked on the beach and got a few shells. Saw some wild animals, and returned to Sydney at seven o’clock. I enjoyed it very much.” There is the constant note. Delayed in their sailing by storms, they had Christmas dinner at the consul’s: “a very nice dinner consisting of roasted goose, boiled turkey, boiled ham, cabbage, string beans, and potatoes.” After this mighty meal the company took steamer for “a resort for pleasure parties where there is a place called the Fairy Bower which is very beautiful. The winding way to it is over rocks and through the Bush. There is a public house there in front of which is the Bay and on either side and at the back are high rocky hills. There are lovely shells on the beach. It is a very romantic spot.”
On the twenty-sixth, “Boxing Day at Sydney,” she writes, they sailed early, and by afternoon “it blew very fresh and I was obliged to go to bed, being a little seasick.” On the eighth, in a fair wind, she re-members that it is just a year since they left Boston. On the nineteenth they were rounding Cape Leeuwin, and after a week of heavy swell and variable winds “we took the trades. Very pleasant and fine steady trades, which we appreciate.” So through fair weather and storms, starlight nights and sultry days, they came to Calcutta once more, and the steamer took them upstream, and their old friends welcomed them.
And there, incredibly, plucky little Mother, who could not have believed that she would not be in the world to serve any one of them while they had need of her, sickened with the deadly cholera and died. And Father, heartsick and alone, is sailing southward once more, this time for borne. As the pilot takes him downstream, he is writing the son and daughter at Cape Cod. “I am seated here alone in my cabin where your mother and I have spent many pleasant hours and taken sweet counsel together, with everything around me to remind me of her. Here sets her chair, and there her trunk and clothes and everything as she left it.” (We wonder if the “slips” she had taken at Melbourne and Sydney are blooming yet.) “Oh, my dear, dear children, how much I have to feel and suffer. Your mother was thinking much of coming home to you again, but her spirit is with those in heaven. She spoke much of Nancy and Clanrick before she died, and said be sure to give Nancy my watch, and buy one for Clanrick and tell him it was his mother’s request. I hope you will find a home at the Cape somewhere till my return. Clanrick, be a good boy and kind to your sister; and try to cheer one another up in your heavy affliction. I soon expect to discharge the pilot. Good-morning, my dear children. God bless you. Your own afflicted Father.”
Father seems to have been of no such indomitable fibre as Mother. Perhaps for too many decades the sea had had its will of him, and for too many times, before this last voyage that had been so beautifully companioned, he had suffered the loneliness of long months afloat. Yet Father, in his youth, had been one of the gayest lads in town; within an hour of his arrival from sea, he was in and out of every house there, with a joke for the old ladies, and a new story for the cap’ns, a song for the girls, and a new style for the lads. Then he had taken on a steady pilot in Susan, his wife, and had steered straight through all their years together. He adored his children, and gave them perhaps more pleasures than he could well afford; for somehow, although he was an able captain and trader, riches had never come his way. Men said he was a free-spender, and ought to have saved. And now, in his broken state, after a few weeks with the children in the old home among the willows and lilacs, he must be off again to earn money for them all, this time on a coasting voyage, Boston to “New-Orleens.” And at sea, with far too much time for reflection, he is writing his loved daughter: “I hoped I never should be drifting about the ocean again, but here I am, and no one but my Heavenly Father knows what my destiny is. When I look back on the past two years, it seems all a dream: our dear Freeman pining away in a foreign land, and longing to get home once more, poor boy. And your mother in her last moments perfectly calm and serene, not one murmur or complaint. I have tried to bear up the best I could, but it has been dreadful hard. Perhaps I do not realize my blessings, but I do have many I’ve been restored to health better than I ever expected to be, and I have two fine children, and can make me a comfortable home.”
Poor tender-hearted Father, struggling to count his “blessings.” The voyage to “New-Orleens” was not one of his most prosperous, he had lost the magic touch of success; nor was health as firmly restored as he supposed: that old fever at Calcutta, the sorrows that followed, had broken more than his spirit, and he returned only in time to die at home happy, at the last, to have made that familiar haven. And fortunate beyond many of his fellows. For there was a reverse to the old tales of daring and adventure; and many a man, long before age should cool the ardors of his hot-blooded youth, had died in a foreign port, or on shipboard; and many a memorial stone records that such a one died at Panama or Madras or Bassein, at Sourbaya or Batavia or Truxillo, or at Aden. And there is the longer list of those “lost at sea,” when wives and sweethearts waited through heartsick months and years for the word that never came. Yet those at sea and those ashore found their strength in the old faith: “Ye see when the mariner is entered his ship to saile on the troublous sea, how he is for a while tossed in the billows of the same, but yet in hope that he shall come to the quiet haven, he beareth in better comfort the perils which he feeleth; so am I now toward this sayling: and whatsoever stormes I shall feele, yet shortly after shall my ship be in the haven, as I doubt not thereof by the grace of God, desiring you to helpe me with your prayers to the same effect.”