Wednesday 18 January 2012

Ships,Storms and Sea-Sickness

 I am the world’s worst traveller. I starve myself before any journey and set off for my destination armed with prescription travel tablets and wrist bands, and I am still ill. Anything involving water is worst of all – oceans, seas, rivers, canals, boating pools in the park, you name it, I’ve been sick on it. I can’t even watch films about boats without feeling queasy. So Charles Dickens’ account of his first voyage across the Atlantic rang a chord, and I felt enormous sympathy for him, his wife, her maid, and all the other passengers (and crew) who sailed to America in January 1842 in the roughest weather encountered for many years. 
The steam-packet Britannia was the flagship of the
Cunard line. 
Dickens wrote about the experience, very humorously, in American Notes, which charts his travels around the New World. He and Catherine were booked into a ‘state-room’ on board the steam-packet Britannia, but it was so small that their two enormous portmanteaus could ‘no more be got in at the door ... than a giraffe could be persuaded or forced into a flower-pot’. And he adds that ‘nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever had except coffins’.

Describing the sufferings of passengers during the storm, which lasted well over a week, he says: “Two passengers’ wives (one of them my own) lay in silent agonies on the sofa; and one lady’s maid (MY lady’s) was a mere bundle on the floor, execrating her destiny, and pounding her curl-papers among the stray boxes. Everything sloped the wrong way: which in itself was an aggravation scarcely to be born. I had left the door open a moment before, in the bosom of a gentle declivity, and, when I tuned to shut it, it was on the summit of a lofty eminence.”

Charles Dickens
On the third morning out his wife wakes him with a ‘dismal shriek’, demanding to know if they are in danger. He finds: “The water jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat, except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal-barges. Suddenly, I see them spring in to the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast to the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head.

Before it is possible to make any arrangement at all compatible with this novel state of things, the ship rights. Before one can say ‘Thank Heaven!’ she wrongs again. Before one can cry she IS wrong, she seems to have started forward, and to be a creature of its own accord, with broken knees and failing legs, through every variety of hole and pitfall, and stumbling constantly.”

Dickens' wife Catherine
Dickens also tells us about ‘the domestic noises of the ship: such as the breaking of glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols overhead, of loose casks and truant dozens of bottles of porter, and they remarkable and far from exhilerating sounds raised in their various state-rooms by the seventy passengers who were too ill to get up for breakfast’.

According to him one gentleman had a large mustard poultice placed upon his stomach by the ship’s doctor (which sounds a very strange remedy), while another hopeful passenger tried hot roast pig and bottled ale as a cure for his sea sickness, taking them day after day (usually in bed), ‘with astonishing perseverance’, although they ‘decidedly failed’.

At one stage Dickens obtained a tumbler of hot brandy-and-water as a restorative for his wife, her maid, and a little Scotch lady, who clung to each other at one end of a long sofa.  Dickens explains: “When I approached this pace with my specific, and was about to administer it, with many consolatory expressions, to the nearest sufferer, what was my dismay to see them all roll slowly down to the other end! And when I staggered to that end, and held out the glass once more, how immensely baffled were my good intentions by the ship giving another lurch, and their all rolling back again! I suppose I dodged them up and down the sofa for at least a quarter of an hour, without reaching them once, and by the time I did catch them the brandy-and-water was diminished by constant spilling, to a tea-spoonful.”
The tiny cabin used by Dickens and wife.
 As the voyage progresses he tells us four hands are ill, several berths are full of water, the cabins leak, the cooks are ill (one is drunk!) and all the stewards have fallen downstairs and ‘go about with plasters in various places’. 18 days 

I intended to write about Dickens’ tour of America, but got side-tracked by the Atlantic crossing. Suffice to say I really enjoyed American Notes, which shows his keen observational powers. He had an eye for oddities, whether they were people, buildings, landscapes or events, and some of the scenes he describes are as grotesque as anything you find in the novels, enabling him to give full rein to his comic abilities. 
The steam-packet Britannia, owned by the Cunard company,
made her maiden voyage in 1840. Sails were seldom used
but helped stabilise the ship in bad weather.
I posted this as part of the Dickens Month being hosted by Amanada at here's a couple more links: if you want to know more about the Britannia and sea travel in the 1840s, go to and - but please read Dickens!


  1. I'll have to read this. I love the way he tells stories.

  2. This is hilarious! I love it!