Life as a Passenger on an East Indiaman Sources



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Life as a Passenger on an East Indiaman


Sources:

‘Memoirs of William Hickey’, Ed. Alfred Spencer, 1925

‘Lords of the East: the East India Company and its Ships’, by Jean Sutton, 1981

‘The East Indiamen’, by Russell Miller and the Editors of Time-Life Books, 1980

The passengers onboard the Halsewell and the Abergavenny were part of an ever increasing number of people caught up in the fortunes of the East India Company. As the Company’s empire grew more and more people were required overseas. By the latter part of the eighteenth century the Company’s ships carried nearly 1,000 passengers a year, often in damp, over crowded conditions. The ships themselves were essentially merchant ships, designed and built to carry cargoes; passengers were squeezed in wherever a space could be found.

At the rear of the ship, beneath the poop deck, was a large space known as the ‘roundhouse’ which was divided into living spaces. These ‘cabins’ were made of temporary partitions such as canvas screens or light wooden panels, and could be quickly cleared away if the ship became involved in a battle.

Despite passengers having to put up with the noise of sailors working on the poop deck immediately above them, the roundhouse cabins were the most expensive and were favoured by wealthy passengers, and ladies travelling alone. The partitions were arranged so that each living space had access to a window, giving the occupants light and fresh air – in contrast to poorer passengers who were frequently in darkness and had to endure the stench of the ship. A British passenger, Emma Roberts, (1845), described the advantages of a roundhouse cabin:

“To ladies, whether married or single, the upper, or poop-cabins are certainly the most desirable, the disadvantages of the noise overhead being more than counterbalanced by the enjoyment of many favourable circumstances unattainable below… [The roundhouse cabins]…are much more light and airy: It is seldom, even in the very roughest weather, that the ports [windows] are compelled to be shut; and it is almost inconceivable to those who have never been at sea, how great a difference it makes in the comforts or discomforts of a voyage, whether a delicate person can have the enjoyment of light and air in bad weather, or be deprived of both, condemned in illness to a dark, close cabin, without the possibility of diverting the mind by reading, or any other employment.

There is also another advantage above stairs, which is the comparative degree of seclusion attainable in these cabins. A few steps lead from them all to the cuddy [dining room], or general apartment: there is no necessity to go out upon deck, or to go up or down stairs to meals; thus avoiding much of the annoyance of a rolling vessel, and all the disagreeables attendant upon encountering persons engaged in the duties of a ship. It may seem fastidious to object to meeting sailors employed in getting up different stores from the hold, or to pass and repass other cabins, or the neighbourhood of the steward’s pantry; nevertheless, if ladies have the opportunity of avoiding these things, they will do well to embrace it; for, however trivial they may be in a well-regulated ship, very offensive circumstances may arise from them.”

Some women passengers took advantage of the roundhouse windows to hang their washing out to dry, although this was not regarded as socially acceptable. Mr Peter Cherry’s three daughters were to join him in Madras. He advised his daughters against hanging out their washing: “Nothing is so indelicate, indeed so indecent, as from the windows of the ladies’ cabins to see anything towing overboard or being hung out to dry.”

Maintaining social decorum was very important. Young women were sometimes escorted by chaperons to prevent unsuitable relationships developing with male passengers or sailors. They were also advised to drink no more than two glasses of wine at dinner, and to decline invitations to play cards or backgammon. When taking a walk on deck they might take the arm of a gentleman to steady themselves against the motion of the ship, but they should be very careful to keep the conversation general.

Mr Cherry advised his daughters on what they should buy to furnish their cabin, as the East India Company merely provided the living space. To help while away the time he suggested a piano, a harp and two or three small writing desks with book shelves, as well as more practical objects such as a washstand, a small bath tub, three chairs and two or three sofas. People who travelled regularly on East Indiamen might take a water-filtering machine, tea, coffee, wine and candlesticks, and possibly small bribes for the sailors such as tobacco, soap and brandy.

Beneath the roundhouse was the great cabin where single gentlemen travellers were accommodated. Because the great cabin was closer to the waves, in rough weather the windows had to be screened to prevent the sea coming in. These window screens were known as ‘dead lights’ and didn’t always work very well, with the result that passengers, their bedding and other possessions became soaked.

Against his better judgement the elderly Mr Hickey allowed the Captain of the Castle Eden to persuade him that he would have a quieter and altogether pleasanter voyage in the great cabin rather than in the roundhouse. Even before the voyage began Mr Hickey began to have doubts. As a young man he had made several voyages on East Indiamen before finally settling down in Calcutta, but in 1808 doctors advised him that he should return to England on account of his poor health. Worried and depressed, he dreaded being confined in ‘a little dirty hole of a cabin’ and despite the Captain’s assurances of ‘a fine fair weather passage’ Mr Hickey’s worst fears were confirmed. He bitterly regretted his decision not to take a cabin in the roundhouse for despite the annoyance of sailors working overhead and the chickens in the hen coups being fed twice a day and the consequent pecking noises, below decks there were far more serious aggravations, the worst of which was the use of the inadequate dead lights in stormy weather:

“…I was often set afloat in my cabin by heavy seas breaking against those dead lights, and entering at the seams, especially so at the quarter gallery door and window, where it poured in in torrents, beating even over my bed. You have also at times the horrid screeches and crying of children going home…for education, or what is full as bad, their vociferous mirth when playing their gambols in the steerage {below decks], added to which grievances is frequently being half poisoned by a variety of stinks, and that notwithstanding the Company’s ships are considered, and certainly with truth, as being remarkable for their cleanliness, being regularly purified twice a week by a complete washing of deck from the forecastle to the aftermost part, and last but not least of the evils, the perpetual creaking of bulkheads, accompanied by the music of the rudder working, all which unpleasant circumstances are avoided by being in the…round house.”

After 11 weeks at sea the ship was approaching the Cape of Good Hope and Mr Hickey had endured storms and gales which lasted days and weeks at a time. He was forced to burn candles due to the darkness in his cabin as a result of the dead lights fastened over the windows, and he was unable to sleep. Eventually the Captain persuaded him to abandon his bed, which was fastened to the floor, in favour of a swinging bed suspended from the ceiling which counteracted the violent movements of the ship. Although he slept slightly better it was only a brief respite before another terrible storm which lasted for fourteen days made him despair of surviving the voyage. Fortunately a doctor was on board the ship and after enduring a further fortnight they reached the island of St Helena where he was able to rest for a week.

The ship in which William Hickey was travelling, the Castle Eden, was part of a fleet of seventeen ships all of which sustained damage during the storms. There were also a number of near misses and collisions, plus alarms over unidentified ships. Twice a week the crew carried out gun drill in which they practised firing the cannons in case they were attacked by enemy shipping – a very real threat when storms had dispersed the fleet. Sailing in convoy afforded the unwieldy merchant ships protection.

Mr Hickey had little confidence in the crew of the Castle Eden, which included men from many European countries, of which no more than ten were English, and nine Americans and eighteen Chinese. After a month at sea two sailors broke into the liquor store and stole enough rum to make 21 sailors extremely drunk. The ring leaders, the sail-maker and a ‘foremast’ sailor, were tied up and severely flogged; four others were put in irons and order was eventually restored.

Mr Hickey also records the illness and death of the captain of one of the ships of the fleet, the burial of his body at sea, the rescue of a sailor who had fallen overboard, a shortage of drinking water, and the sudden death of a cow:

“…we met with a very serious loss and deprivation of comfort in the death of a remarkably fine Europe cow, which had come out in the ship and daily given an extraordinary quantity of milk. Without any apparent previous illness, she appeared about ten in the morning to be in great pain, and at twelve the poor animal died and was directly thrown overboard. Luckily we had another cow, a Bengallee one, on board, which with three fine…goats, yielded us a tolerable share of milk for morning and evening, besides an ample store for the children, who were, very properly, first considered.”

In addition to carrying livestock and poultry, some East Indiamen grew salads and vegetables in boxes of earth to try and maintain a supply of fresh food for as long as possible. Breakfast was at 8am and consisted of tea, biscuit, corned beef or curry. The biscuits were so hard that they were almost inedible. On a former voyage on the Plassey in 1769, William Hickey witnessed a bet between two passengers, one of whom bet the other that he could not eat a biscuit in less than four minutes, using only his teeth:

“A watch being laid upon the table, at it he went with a set of remarkably strong teeth, but strong as they were, we all thought he must lose his bet, and he was twice in extreme danger of choking, by which he lost several seconds. Notwithstanding this however, he, to our great surprise, accomplished his object, and won the wager, being six seconds within the given time.”

The main meal of the day was dinner, which was served at 2 o’clock. For the most important passengers who dined with the Captain it was a very formal affair with everyone dressed in their most elegant clothes, and seated according to their social rank. The meal consisted of at least three courses. In 1797 Lady Anne Barnard described a meal for sixteen people which included pea soup, roast leg of mutton, hogs’ puddings, two fowls, two hams, two ducks, corned round of beef, mutton pies, pork pies, mutton chops, stewed cabbages and potatoes. This was followed by “an enormous plum pudding and washed down with porter, spruce beer, port wine, sherry, gin, rum etc.”

After the meal the ladies withdrew, leaving the men to enjoy a glass of port before the Captain and his senior officers resumed their duties.

Afternoon tea was served at 6 o’clock, followed by a light supper at 9pm which usually consisted of soup, cheese and cold meats.

During rough weather special arrangements had to be made. Chairs and tables were lashed to the deck and long rolls of cloth were fastened across the table to prevent plates and dishes sliding around. If such measures were not taken, mealtimes could be disastrous. In 1810 a passenger, Surgeon James Wallace, described the chaos:

“The dishes would forsake their place on the table, and mutton, gravy and all deposit itself in the lap of him who sat nearest it: whilst, on rising from the desolate meal, it was an even choice whether to retire to the dark, close, uneasy cabin, or to parade the deck in the midst of the spray.”

Rough seas might put out the cooking fires, and made even the simplest of chores such as getting dressed, very awkward:

“Some who…got out of bed, had scarcely reached the floor, when a tumble of the vessel sent them tumbling to the other side of their cabin; and before they had time to recover themselves another roll would send them as quickly and roughly back again. Others who got the length of beginning to dress, in the attempt to draw on a stocking, or in any other act which occupied both hands, and put the body on rather a ticklish balance, were thrown down with such violence, that for some days afterwards they had cause to remember it. And to increase the misfortune, the same lurch that upset the man, generally upset along with him, some of the cabin furniture.”

The second leg of Mr Hickey’s 1808 voyage, from St Helena to the U.K., was as perilous as the previous stage. The storms continued and twice Mr Hickey was convinced the ship was going to sink. During a hurricane he comments scathingly on the panic-stricken crew and ship’s officers ‘at a loss what to do’ and the ‘utmost disorder and confusion’. There were also very real fears that they might be captured by the French and taken prisoner, or boarded by pirates. Whenever an unfamiliar ship was sighted passengers and crew were on the alert. Once they were called to battle stations, and the women were bundled down into the hold below the waterline for their own safety, but by nightfall the danger had passed.

Once they reached the relative safety of the Channel and were nearing Dover a lieutenant from the Royal Navy came on board and took away with him 22 of the ship’s crew. The Navy was short of man power and frequently targeted homeward bound East Indiamen, even though the ships’ journeys had not been completed. The captain of the Castle Eden was furious, pointing out to the lieutenant that he was compromising the safety of the ship, which together with its cargo was valued at £200,000, but he was powerless to prevent the loss of his crew.

William Hickey finally disembarked from the Castle Eden on the 15th August,1808, having begun his voyage on the 18th February. Many of the experiences which he recorded would also have been shared by the passengers and officers of the Halsewell and the Earl of Abergavenny.

Mr Hickey knew personally at least three of the passengers who survived the wreck of the Abergavenny. His friend from Calcutta, Mr Evans, was travelling on the Abergavenny with his daughter and niece. They were rescued and put into a boat and were safely brought ashore at Weymouth. The following year one of the women embarked once more for India and arrived safely after a very rough voyage. She subsequently married Mr William Scott, a civil servant who worked for the East India Company, but in 1809 they had to return to England due to her husband’s poor health. They embarked on the Calcutta, which with three other East Indiamen tragically sank during a terrible storm in March, 1809, with complete loss of life.

Mr Hickey records that within eight months of his own safe return no less than seven homeward bound ships full of passengers foundered. There were no survivors. The ships were part of two successive fleets, both of which were caught in violent storms; the Calcutta was in the second fleet.

William Hickey’s memoirs give a powerful insight into what it was like to travel on an East Indiaman. However, the experiences of less affluent travellers were rarely recorded. Most poor people would have travelled steerage, in an open passage way below decks running the length of the ship, with no windows and no privacy. People slung their hammocks wherever they could find space between the ship’s cannon, baggage, stores and the like. On either side were dark, pokey compartments occupied either by crew or passengers. In 1792 seventeen year old Thomas Twining, a passenger on the Ponsbourne, recorded his reactions:

“I inquired where my cabin was. I was conducted down a ladder to it, on the lower or gundeck, not far from the stern, on the larboard side. Here, the port being shut, there was scarcely light enough for me to survey my new apartment. I soon found, also, that the ship had considerably more motion than [I had previously anticipated], and that the relief which I felt in coming on board was of very short duration. For I was scarcely able to stand without laying hold of some fixed object. I also became exceedingly oppressed by a close suffocating air, and by a sickening offensive smell, to which I know nothing comparable…the smell of the ship. My head and stomach soon began to yield to this irresistible combination. I could hardly help returning to the deck to breathe a little pure air.”

By the time Captain and Mrs Sherwood arrived on board the Devonshire all the usual accommodation was taken by other passengers. They were obliged to occupy the carpenter’s cabin on the gun deck, presumably in a similar location to Thomas Twining’s compartment in the Ponsbourne. Although the Sherwoods were travelling thirteen years later, in 1805, conditions had not improved. This ’worse than dog kennel’ was dominated by a large cannon lashed to the deck but facing the porthole, so that in an emergency it could be rolled forward ready for action.

“Their cot [hanging bed] was swung over the gun at right angles leaving neither space enough above to sit up in bed nor room to pass on either side, so that on entering and leaving the cabin they were forced to duck underneath the cot. There was just enough room for one chair and a small table at the side of the gun. When the pumps were working, the foul-smelling bilge water passed through their cabin to the scuppers. Worst of all, Mrs Sherwood had to go down to this shocking place early every evening before the soldiers who filled the steerage settled down for the night.” Sutton, 1981.

The crew, however, fared worst of all. They lived in communal spaces below decks, with no privacy. They ate their food in groups, seated at tables squeezed between cannons on the front part of the main deck:

“For breakfast they probably had ‘burgoo’, a porridge made of oatmeal and water with a few pieces of salt meat in it. The main meal of the day was dinner: this invariably consisted of a stew made from salt beef thickened with oatmeal, or salt pork thickened with peas, served with biscuit…On meatless days the crew had fish, or cheese with butter or edible oil. Puddings were made with flour and suet….After such meals the men were probably grateful for their brandy and the tobacco ration which was always included in the list of stores for each ship." Sutton, 1981.



Eventually, as more and more passengers required transport all over the world, the role of the East Indiamen was superseded by ships designed to carry people rather than cargoes, ships such as the Royal Adelaide and the Avalanche. However, the social divisiveness of accommodation on board ship was perpetuated by the Titanic and other great passenger liners of the twentieth century.



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