Life on a sailing ship

Before the twentieth century, traveling overseas in a sailing ship was not a trip of pleasure, but rather a trip of necessity, because there was no other way to get across the globe. Passengers had compelling reasons to leave their homes and the discomfort of a long voyage was considered worth the trouble if better opportunities of the new land lay at the end of the passage. Why and how people traveled in the nineteenth century, was very different from today.


To appreciate what life was like for the nineteenth century traveler, it is important to understand the social conditions of the time. In Europe during the 1800's, a class system separated people into groups of the privileged, scholars, working class and servants. This system also existed aboard ships. Passengers who could afford first class passage occupied the Euterpe's small cabins on the main deck and spent their time in the large dining/sitting room known as the main saloon.


First class passengers ate with the captain and his officers and probably had little contact with the other passengers or crew on the 'tween decks. Food for all on board was prepared in the galley and delivered to the pantry where china and eating utensils were kept for first class. First class meals were served in the elegant main saloon by one of the crew. On the 'tween deck, second class passengers received their food in bulk and served their meals from large pots. The crew picked up their meals from the galley to eat on deck or in their quarters in the foc'sle.


The social conditions among the passenger were different from those of the crew. While certain shipboard rules prevailed, as long as passengers did not interfere with the operations of the ship, did not become involved with the ship politics and were not unruly, they were left alone to do as they pleased. Passengers organized into groups, elected leaders, appointed teachers to conduct school classes, and had religious services based on their own beliefs. On most of the voyages, the captain conducted a service on Sunday, but attendance was voluntary.


Today traveling by ship is mostly done for pleasure, and passengers do not care how long it takes to get to their destination. If modern travelers have to get to somewhere quickly, they will travel by airplane. On modern cruise ships, passengers are not separated into "classes," they may wander anywhere on the ship, except the engine room, or other places that might be dangerous to any but the crew. Modern day passengers bring aboard a small amount of clothing that they will need for various activities on the cruise ship.


Here is a list of clothing recommended for the trip on Euterpe in 1879:  


Men Women Children
6 Shirts 6 Shifts 7 Shirts/Shifts
6 pair stockings 2 flannel petticoats 4 flannel waistcoats
2 flannel shirts 2 pair stockings 6 pair stockings
2 pair shoes 2 pair strong shoes 2 pair strong shoes
2 complete suits 2 strong gowns 2 suits (exterior clothing)
1 warm cloak    


Passengers were also asked to bring their own bedding, including a mattress, plus metal plates, mugs, pots, knives, forks, and spoons to be used on the ship. The trunks they had for their adventures in New Zealand were stowed below in the hold. If they needed anything from below, they could not get to it until the trunks were brought ashore at their destination.


Roles for men and women have changed a great deal since 1879. Today women have more choices than in the past and can do many things that only men were allowed to do or expected to do before.


The Captain & Crew

It is a matter of record that the passengers on Euterpe were well treated. A number of letters expressing complimentary testimonials to the captain's kind treatment on their trip from Britain to New Zealand are still in existence. It is also known that sometimes friendly crewmembers taught passengers skills that would help them in the new country to which they were sailing.


The captain of a commercial vessel worked for the owners of the ship, who told him where to start the voyage, what cargo, and how many passengers he would carry. The ship owners also dictated the ship's destination. Sometimes there was a surgeon superintendent who was the ship's doctor. He represented the ship owner while on board the vessel. The captain was the master of the ship. Usually he chose his officers and crew. At sea, the captain's word was law because he is the one person responsible for the safety of the ship, crew, and passengers.


On a sailing ship such as Euterpe/Star of India the captain's quarters were in the main cabin where the first class passengers' cabins were located. The captain ate his meal at the table in the main saloon with the people who lived in those cabins. This area was also used as a living room between meals.


Long journeys at sea kept the captain away for many months. Sometimes lonely wives welcomed the opportunity to accompany their husbands. When insufficient winds becalmed ships in the same area, the captain's wife enjoyed the company of the wives from nearby ships. A boat carrying the women would be lowered from the deck and rowed or sailed over to another ship. There, the ladies climbed a boarding ladder to meet in the main saloon for a nice cup of tea.


There is an interesting book written about the women of the sea.
She Was a Sister Sailor, Mary Brewster's Whaling journals, 1845-1851.


As in life anywhere, some captains were friendly and nice to their crew, and some were not! The owners of the ship just wanted the ship to arrive safely and did not care much if the crew did not like the captain. In fact, the crew had no recourse to the courts or any laws to protect them when they were treated badly by the officers. They had to behave and get along together to save their lives and work on the ship. Many good captains maintained law and order in a kind and humane way. The crewmen who worked aboard these ships were fortunate. Even at best, the conditions were harsh; they worked long hours, ate terrible food, their bunks were uncomfortable, cold and often wet with seawater leaking through the decks.


The crew came from various countries, and spoke several different languages. Differences in religion, politics, and moral beliefs probably led to many arguments - if they could understand each other! Often crewmen came from home conditions that were worse than those they encountered at sea. Their voyages were an escape, for at least they had shelter and food to eat.


Two Years Before the Mast, a book by Richard Henry Dana, tells us his story when he was a sailor in the first part of the 19th century aboard the Brig Pilgrim.





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