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The Voyage

by Dr. Tim G Williams

posted in Reference and Education

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Today, when crossing the Atlantic many visualize first class luxury ships like the Queen Mary where bountiful food, all the amenities one could ever hope for, and in general a stress free, carefree voyage. When we look back into history it really is a testament to the sacrifice, the courage, the fortitude, and the stamina of all those who took to the sea in making that perilous journey to America. As we now travel back in time to the 18th century we come upon a far different more barbaric realm of reality that faced those courageous individuals who braved unspeakable horror making the journey to the shores of America. To understand what it was actually like on board those small primitive sailing ships by today's standards is to recount the voyage of one Thomas Hawkins.
In the 1700's crossing the Atlantic was not for the faint of heart for the journey was the most perilous journey one could possibly take during ones lifetime. The voyage itself lasted more than 3 months and that's with favorable winds and calm seas. This, where today on board the Queen Mary the Trans Atlantic voyage only takes 5 days. Just imagine now on board a three masted schooner, a ship no longer than 60 feet where even 8 foot waves would make one totally seasick crammed with 100 men, women, and children plus around 30 crew. With no sanitation, no private space, a very real possibility of running out of fresh water, incidentally that fresh water was stored in wooden barrels and by today's standards would be totally unsafe to drink, and the food only made people more thirsty because every edible piece really wasn't edible because of all the salt added to preserve it. Now, you have a recipe for disaster because the real mortality rate onboard a three months voyage under these conditions was very high.
The year was 1752 in merry old England when Thomas Hawkins, the son of a prominent cabinet maker in Leicester, decided to embark on a totally different path from his fathers. With his fathers blessing and part of his inheritance he soon managed to obtain passage to America aboard the Berkshire. The Berkshire was a three masted schooner who had made previous voyages across the Atlantic seemed like the logical choice for young Thomas. By 1750 more Englishmen and Europeans were making that life altering decision to come to America. This, even though the odds of surviving the voyage probably were against many, especially very young children.
It was during the 17th and 18th century America was also the one place where European countries often sent their convicts mush like Australia was the port of call for Europe's most undesirables since 1788. The slave trade was booming during this period with hundreds of thousands of Africans being shanghaied and brought to the Caribbean and America. For them, on board slave ships unimaginable horror existed and many died because of it. But, in spite of all the hardships that awaited Thomas, he was one of the more fortunate ones for he had enough money to pay for his passage. For others not so fortunate who could not pay the full amount upon arrival in the colonies had to indenture themselves to the wealthier colonialists that were eager to acquire cheap and free labor. These poor individuals selling their services for years in return for the price of passage was the predominant norm of the times.
Once on board sailing out with the tide Thomas stood on deck for below those hundred of passengers some 50 plus men, 25 women and 25 children ages between 2 and 14 were now all crammed into the ships hold. For the next ten days favorable winds prevailed as the ship sailed west, southwest. With an anticipated arrival on the east coast of America hoping to arrive by early October it was on the morning of June 30 that gale force winds churned up the North Atlantic seas. As the Berkshire now in the firm grip and mercy of the waves those below deck had to endure the most horrific conditions. The misery, the stench, the vomiting of so many just multiplied the grotesque suffering to the point that Thomas thought that all would perish.
In the days and weeks that followed many succumbed to dysentery, scurvy while others suffered through fever, mouth rot, and, lice. It was the food and water that they were eating and drinking which caused so much misery. Compounded with the food and soiled water the lack of sanitation brought a whole slew of other diseases not to mention the stench of which many more died miserably along this journey. For Thomas he had no idea of the sufferings of women had to endure with their innocent children while in confined areas as was the case aboard the Berkshire. Too often during this voyage Thomas witnessed yet another mother who had succumbed to the ravages of disease cast into the waves along with her child even though that child hasn't yet died. The barbaric rites of passage in this voyage has stirred the emotions within. Second thoughts have now begun to take hold of Thomas.
During this voyage Thomas witnessed all but two of the 25 children perish and thrown into the dark waters of the Atlantic. Many of those children suffered from smallpox, dysentery and other diseases. One such incident that remained in conscious thought happened two weeks before arriving in the American Colonies. The ship was in a heavy gale when an expectant mother was unable to give birth because of the horrendous conditions of the sea. Being in the aft of the ship with no hope of bringing her toward the bow where more space could have made the chance for delivery better she was pushed through a porthole and into the rising waves of the sea. Such was life and death during the voyages of the 17th and 18th century.
It was on October 24 1752 after 110 days at sea the Berkshire finally anchored on the east coast of the American colonies in New York harbor. Thomas having paid in advance his passage and still being somewhat healthy was able to disembark first. Others weren't so fortunate though. Those who could not pay had to remain on board till they were purchased and released from the ship by their purchasers. For those remaining many of them still sick and feeble, those hapless individuals many of whom often die on board and then cast into the waiting waters below.
As Thomas now on American soil looks around the docks of New York it is the sale of human beings that triggers an emotion of disgust and horror just like what he witnessed during those months at sea. The sale of human beings once a ship sails into port is the main event of the times. Every day when a ship arrives people come from miles around to see what cargo and people have arrived. It is then the selecting of passengers who could not pay their passage and bargain with them on how long they will serve until their debt is paid. Indentured servitude is the realm of reality during the 1700's and well until the mid 19th century.
As for Thomas Hawkins soon after arriving managed to acquire a horse and rode to Boston to where his uncle was living. There he hoped to open up his own shop. A new life and a new start was now a reality. The skills he had learned from his father enabled Thomas to enjoy years of prosperity in the American colonies. But it was that voyage that will forever be remembered as the most traumatic event of his life. Even surviving the Revolutionary War wasn't as traumatic as that voyage across the Atlantic.
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