by Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895)
Extract from Notes and Sketches of New South Wales (1844), an autobiographical account of Meredith’s embarkation from England on her journey to the other side of the world.
Embarkation—Indisposition—Pleasures of a Sea Voyage—Fellow-passengers—Observance of Character—Devonshire Coast—Pilots—Land Luxuries—H.M.S. Hercules—Eddystone Lighthouse—Last Land.
Early in the month of June, 1839, we left England for New South Wales; and although at the time the voyage seemed to me very monotonous and devoid of incident, yet, in writing any account of the interesting objects these colonies present, I cannot pass altogether silently over the events, however few or trifling, that served in some measure to vary the tedium of a four months’ passage hither, which I can assure my readers is far more irksome than any one would imagine who has not endured that unpleasant captivity.
It is now more than three years since that time, but I remember most vividly my feelings of disgust on stepping from the chair in which I was hoisted on board the Letitia, amidst the strange mêlée on deck. I was too ignorant of nautical matters to make proper allowance for the slovenly aspect of things in their then incomplete state of arrangement.
Dirt and confusion seemed to share the sovereignty between them, and the heterogeneous assemblage of trunks, chests, cases, bags, hampers, hen-coops, pigs, dogs, coils of rope, sailors and passengers on deck, made me gladly retreat to our own cabin, where the final disposal of our various goods and chattels occupied us the remainder of the evening.
I was greatly amused and puzzled by Mr. Meredith’s extreme caution in lashing every article with ropes to the sides of the cabin, as well as by having deep cleats of wood nailed to the floor to keep our chest of drawers, &c. in place. Even my dressing-case and work-box were tied fast, like a couple of terrible wild animals, lest they should make a sudden rush at us, and the candlestick was securely confined in their company. A convenient shelf, with a strong rail in front, formed an excellent bookcase; and by the time our various little arrangements were completed, our apartment, which was considered a most spacious one, being eight or nine feet square, began to look more snug and habitable than I had believed possible.
Having a stern-cabin, we had the advantage of half the skylight and two stern-windows, which enabled us to enjoy more air and light, and be less annoyed by unpleasant odours, than in any other part of the vessel.
Contrary winds rendered our progress very slow for some days, and that miserable visitation, sea-sickness, kept me almost wholly in my berth, where I lay wearily listening to the novel and strange noises all around me, and hearing with some impatience of our repeated approaches to the French coast, as we slowly beat down the Channel.
To a novice at sea, every hour, nay, every moment, brings some greater or less misery. Even in comparatively still weather, the motion of the vessel, however slight, seems almost intolerable, and you helplessly roll from side to side of your narrow berth, with many a thump and bruise—the best preventive of the latter being a pretty tight wedge, consisting of a desk or box, and pillows. You watch the swing; tray, cloaks, towels, or whatever else is hung up in the cabin, performing various extraordinary gyrations, that make you most unpleasantly giddy as you contemplate the extempore waltzing party, enlivened perhaps by the gentle melody of a couple of sailors holy-stoning the deck overhead, and you are fain to believe your discomfort at its height; but be not too sanguine; skylights will sometimes have broken panes, and “bull’s-eyes”* are notoriously apt to be leaky, in either of which cases your toilet, such as it is, or your bed, becomes saturated with dirty salt-water. Perhaps a cup of some inexplicable sea-compound, called, by a stretch of courtesy, tea or coffee, is brought to you, and, with the most laudable intention of conveying it to your lips, you feel a sudden jerk, and perceive an empty cup fast grasped in your trembling hands, and find that its former contents are communicating an agreeable warmth and moisture to your feet, not much to the improvement of the white counterpane, but greatly to the diversion of your more experienced companion, who, with provoking coolness, inquires, “Why do you pour your breakfast down there?”
[* Thick glasses inserted in a ship’s deck to light the cabins, and favourite spots for people to stand upon when you are reading below.]
At length, with a heroism not to be lightly appreciated, you resolve to have done playing the invalid, and to go on deck; in an agony of fear, and great dubiousness respecting the relative positions of horizontal and perpendicular you perform a painful toilet, and may be considered fortunate in escaping any serious hurt. The extraordinary activity of all inanimate articles is a great annoyance and puzzle for a while; nothing can stand still where you put it. Every comb and brush seems possessed, going jumping about in the most inconvenient manner the moment you require them, and are nearly certain to hop into some impossible corner, as though on purpose to perplex their distressed and unsteady owner in the recovery. When, after all these trials, you cautiously open the door, prepared to make a resolute sally to the “companion” stairs, ten to one but some unlucky bucket, lantern, or other obstacle, lies in wait to embarrass your wavering steps; or a sudden lurch of the ship plunges you headlong into that singular combination of unpleasantnesses, the steward’s pantry! At length, faint and bewildered, you gain the deck, and sink down on the first resting-place you see, glad to feel the fresh invigorating breeze, and enjoy the clear cheering sunshine. Such at least were my own feelings on this my first voyage, and I doubt not that most novices have a like ordeal of the uncomfortable to pass through.
As soon as I began to recover, and take a glance around, there were the faces and aspects of our fellow-passengers to be perused with something of anxiety, as it is a point of no trivial importance on such a voyage, that the few persons with whom you can associate, and with whom you cannot avoid coming in daily contact for four months, should at least be companionable. I cannot conceive any situation in life more favourable to the exposure of real characters and dispositions than a long voyage. Assumed manners of refinement, counterfeit blandness and courtesy, and, in fact, every species and form of affectation, are insensibly forgotten. Those who are really ill-tempered, find so much for their humour to feed on, that the surly countenance remains uncontradicted by the soft and obsequious manner; the truly vulgar are too much engrossed by dear self to seek the favour of others by pretended refinement; and the harmless little arts of “pretty virginities,” finding how vain is the hope of stimulating to admiration beings whose every faculty and thought are engrossed by their own petty distresses, are fain to reserve their efforts for a more favourable season. But when all the counterfeits have lost their gilding, the true metal is the precious coin still; and how valuable in so narrow a circle is unfeigned good-temper, and that only true politeness which springs from kindness of heart, none will perfectly understand who have not had specimens of both kinds in their “compagnons de voyage.”
We were fortunate in being able to select a very pleasant circle from the small community on board, as one by one they shook off the prevalent indisposition, and reduced their unhappy, pale, elongated faces to their wonted fair proportions.
When I came on deck on the 8th day of our voyage, I found we were running along the Devonshire coast before a light breeze, under as bright a blue sky as ever made England look thrice lovely in the eyes of those who were leaving her, perhaps for ever. Many vessels which, like ourselves, had been detained by the adverse winds, were now in sight, their white wing-like sails fairly spread, and taking all advantage of the welcome change. Sea-gulls swept majestically by, their arched and outspread wings glancing brightly in the sunlight, and their easy, graceful motion seeming a scornful reproach to the unsteady awkward movements of such novices at sea as myself. As we neared Plymouth, where we had to put in for some passengers, a pilot came on board, and the careless yet secure activity with which he sprang from his boat up the ship’s side and on deck seemed worthy of Ducrow himself, unable as I was to go three steps without holding on by something.
I felt quite a respect for that bronzed weather-beaten seaman, as I thought of the inestimable services he and his fellows, the Channel pilots, render both to our own and foreign shipping. In rough or foggy weather, when vessels ignorant of the difficult navigation of the Channel would, but for their guidance, be inevitably lost, they are out in their boats braving such seas, that it does seem almost miraculous such mere boats can live in them. But however stormy the weather or dark the night, there are the pilots ready at the known signal to run alongside and leap upon the stranger’s deck. They are most brave and gallant fellows, and many a good ship owes to them the lives of her crew and the safety of her rich freight.
We entered Plymouth Sound in the evening, and for the last time watched the sun set on English hills and woods. I felt as if to set foot on land only for a few minutes would be the greatest imaginable treat; but we cast anchor so late, that I was compelled to forego the pleasure, and sat on deck watching the boats as they went ashore, thinking their passengers must be almost too happy. A late repast of fresh bread, clean, land-made bread, fresh butter, strawberries, and clouted cream, however, almost consoled me for my previous disappointment. A lucky mortal, permitted to taste the ambrosia of the Gods, would not find it half so delicious as would a poor sea-sick creature, a victim to the unknown atrocious compounds of a dirty sea-steward, think such a feast as mine!
We were up and on deck early the following morning, unwilling to lose a minute’s view of the beautiful scenery around. A man-of-war, the Hercules, lying in the harbour, sent a boat to reconnoitre our crew, greatly to the discomfort and apprehension of our captain, but fortunately without depriving him of any “hands.” I listened to the morning music on board the Hercules, and thought that our grand national air, “Rule Britannia,” much as I ever admired it, never sounded so beautiful as then; and I wept to think I should perhaps never more hear it in my own beloved native land.
We weighed anchor between six and seven o’clock, and in passing the Hercules made a polite nautical salutation, by lowering our royals (an obeisance always expected by ships of war from the humbler body of merchantmen); and the officer on duty ordered the band aft to give us a cheering and melodious farewell as we left the harbour.
We had a fine view for some time of the lovely shores of Devon, and of that noble effort of human science and perseverance, the Eddystone Lighthouse. How mean and contemptible, beside such a fabric, erected for so great and good a purpose, seem by comparison the mere gewgaw palaces of luxury and ostentation, so profusely scattered over our fair country! and yet how few, how very few erections of a like kind are there, inestimable as is their value in the saving of human life, to say nothing of less precious matters!*
A short time before sunset I went below, intending to return on deck and watch the last land fade on the horizon, but on my coming to look for it, an envious bank of clouds hung over the spot, and totally hid it. Some one began singing, “Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!”—had they felt half as much as I did, they could not have uttered a single note.
[* Why was not the “Nelson Monument” a Lighthouse? I can can conceive no fabric of more grandeur and costliness half so acceptable to the spirit it is designed to honour, as the humblest erection devoted to such a service.]
Louisa Anne Meredith
Notes and Sketches of New South Wales During a Residence in that Colony from 1839 to 1844. (London: J Murray 1844)
Note: The above chapter has been copied from the Project Gutenberg Australia online version; it contains a racist reference which has been deleted. A scanned version of the original book can be read online here. Image of Meredith from Library of Tasmania Collection.
“Every comb and brush seems possessed, going jumping about in the most inconvenient manner the moment you require them, and are nearly certain to hop into some impossible corner, as though on purpose to perplex their distressed and unsteady owner in the recovery.”
I often feel that about things, but I can see it would be particularly true on a sea voyage. Perhaps because I’m naturally grumpy, this feels like the truest account of being a passenger on a long voyage that I have read.
Ha! I haven’t had that pleasure for a long time, but it does evoke a sensation of the rolling seas.
I was looking for an illustration and found that an earlier Letitia was shipwrecked en route to Australia in 1828.
“Dirt and confusion seemed to share the sovereignty between them…”
Unfortunately, this is a statement that I feel I could put to use often in my real 21stC life. She was obviously accustomed to more elevated environments. Ahem.
I know how you feel. I really need servants. Or at least an instruction manual for the vacuum cleaner.
I’m wondering about the “envious bank of clouds”. “Envious clouds”!
And I love Buried’s comment.
What expressive writing, though, eh?