“that most disheartning, disspiriting malady, Sea sickness”

After the treaty of peace between Britain and the United States had been signed in 1783 John Adams, who had been named Minister to Britain, begged his wife Abigail to join him in London. His pain at their continued separation— it had been nearly six years since he “first crost the Atlantick”—was palpable: “What Shall I do for Want of my Family. . . . Will you come to me this fall and go home with me in the spring? If you will, come with my dear Nabby. . . . This is my sincere Wish, although the Expence will be considerable, the Trouble to you great. . . . I am So unhappy without you that I wish you would come at all Events.”

Abigail was reluctant to go: “the ocean is so formidable, the quitting my habitation and my Country, leaving my Children, my Friends, with the Idea that perhaps I may never see them again . . . there are hours when I feel unequal to the trial.” In the end she could not resist her husband’s entreaties.

She made all the preparations necessary for her departure. Her two boys were left with her sister ELIZABETH SHAW and her husband who would prepare them for Harvard. Her sister MARY CRANCH was to look in on John’s mother. The care of her house and furniture she entrusted to Pheby, a slave whom her father had freed in his will, and who had recently married William Abdee. Abigail expressed confidence in the pair: “I have no doubt of their care and faithfulness, & prefer them to any other family.” She let the farm to a tenant and enlisted two servants—a man and a woman—to accompany her.

ABIGAIL ADAMS sailed with her daughter Nabby on the ship Active on June 20, 1784. On the voyage she kept a journal, with entries on most days, that she sent to MARY CRANCH when she was able to find a ship bound for America.

Latitude 44 Long 24 on Board the Ship Active twesday July 6 1784
from the ocean
My dear Sister
I have been 16 days at sea, and have not attempted to write a single Letter; tis true I have kept a journal when ever I was able, but that must be close locked up; unless I was sure to hand it you with safety.
Tis said of Cato the Roman censor, that one of the 3 things which he regreted during his Life, was going once by sea when he might have made his journey by land; I fancy the philosopher was not proof against that most disheartning, disspiriting malady, Sea sickness. Of this I am very sure, that no Lady would ever wish; or a second time try the Sea; were the objects of her pursuit within the reach of a land journey. . . .
And this was truly the case of your poor sister, and all her female companions, when not one of us could make our own Beds; put on, or take of our shoes, or even lift a finger. As to our other cloathing we wore the greater part of it, untill we were able to help ourselves; added to this misfortune Brisler my Man servant was as bad as any of us. . . .
Our sickness continued for ten days; with some intermissions. We crawled upon deck when ever we were able, but it was so cold and damp that we could not remain long upon it, and the confinement of the Air below, the constant rolling of the vessel and the Nausea of the Ship which was much too tight, contributed to keep up our disease. The vessel is very deep loaded with oil and potash, the oil leaks the potash smoaks and ferments, all adds to the flavour. When you add to all this the horrid dirtiness of the ship, the slovenness of the steward, and the unavoidable sloping spilling occasiond by the tossing of the Ship, I am Sure you will be thankfull that the pen is not in the hands of Swift, or Smollet, and still more so that you are far removed from the Scene.

More from Abigail Adams’s journal in the next post.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 September 1783, Adams Family Papers: Electronic Archive Massachusetts Historical Society; In the Words of Women by Louise North, Janet Wedge, and Landa Freeman (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011), 257-259. “Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 6 – 30 July 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-05-02-0204. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 5, October 1782 – November 1784, ed. Richard Alan Ryerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 358–386.]


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