“our wooden kingdom”

I return regularly to peruse Janet Schaw’s book Journal of a Lady of Quality in which she describes her voyage from Scotland to the American colonies via the West Indies in late October of 1774. (Other posts by Schaw can be found here, here, and here.) With her on the Jamaica Packet, a small vessel, were her brother Alexander and three young relatives, whom she was escorting to their father John Rutherfurd in North Carolina. In attendance were Schaw’s maid, Mrs. Mary Miller, and her brother’s East Indian servant, Robert. Schaw’s vivid descriptions of life on board ship are a necessary reminder of how perilous journeys across the Atlantic were at that time. In this excerpt she describes the party’s living quarters.

Our Bed chamber, which is dignified with the title of State Room, is about five foot wide and six long; on one side is a bed fitted up for Miss Rutherfurd [Fanny, in her late teens] and on the opposite side one for me. Poor Fanny’s is so very narrow, that she is forced to be tied in, or as the Sea term is lashed in, to prevent her falling over. On the floor below us lies . . . Mrs Miller. As she has the breadth of both our Beds and excellent Bedding, I think she has got a most envyable berth, but this is far from her opinion, and she has done nothing but grumble about her accommodation. . . .

My brother, who was sadly fatigued, had got into his Cott, which swings from the roof of the Cabin; our two little men [the Rutherfurd boys, eleven and nine] were fast asleep in a bed just below him, when we were informed from the Deck that they were going to weigh anchor. Every body that was able, got up to see this first grand operation. My Brother descended from his Cot, the boys sprung out of bed, all hands were on Deck, hurry, bustle, noise, and confusion raged thro’ our wooden kingdom, yet it was surprizing how soon every thing was reduced to order. In little more than a quarter of an hour, all was over, the watch was set, and nothing to be heard, but the sound of the man’s feet moving regularly backwards and forwards at the helm, and the crowing of a Cock that the noise had waked in the Hen Coop. My Brother . . . informed us in passing our state room, that we were now underway . . . He then gave poor Fanny some Saline drops to settle her stomach, which had felt the very first motion of the ship. . . . As yet I am very well, and hope I will not be much hurt, tho’ I must expect a little touch as well as others. My Brother now mounted into his Cot, the boys got to bed, we shut up our half door, and in a few moments, we were all again in the arms of Sleep.

I like being reminded that chickens (among other creatures) were on board to provide food for passengers and crew. Can you imagine anyone being given saline drops to settle one’s stomach! I nearly gag at the thought. Most of all I love Schaw’s phrase for the ship: “our wooden kingdom.”

The above passage can be found on page 247 of In the Words of Women. Janet Schaw’s Journal can be read online HERE.

posted May 26th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Ocean Voyages, Schaw, Janet, Travel


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