What people did on long sea voyages 

In my first week of volunteering for the Vaughan Evans Library, I got to read several journals made by people traveling to Australia in the 1800s – mostly passengers, with a captain’s diary as an exception. Some of them are fun, some are wistful, and some are both at once: pigs and captains falling overboard, total eclipses and peculiar fish, missing home and family. It's strange to sit behind a library desk and see into someone's personal thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams, while knowing that the author is long dead.

Most of the people whose diaries and journals I read had never been on a ship, and certainly never had to deal with the dullness that most passengers of a sailing ship were subject to during journeys from Europe and America to Australia: several months of confined quarters, other passengers and the crew as the only company available, sailing into the unknown. Despite this, they still found different ways to amuse themselves, some of which were quite surprising!

The authors

Mrs. Pexton is traveling to New South Wales and then to India on board the Pilot in 1816-18. She travels with her husband, who is the captain of the Pilot. She doesn’t like Sydney, but loves Australian animals and keeps some of them as pets when aboard.

Eliza Taylor, is traveling from England to Sydney in 1833-34. Eliza enjoys observing the stars and the fish, and gets truly poetic when describing the sea. She is also prone to occasional melancholy.

Francis Gosling, is going from London to Sydney on board of the Alexander in 1835. Francis dedicates his journal to his father, whom he had to leave behind in England and whom he now misses very much: he mentions how much he regrets his father's absence all the time.

David Melville, is a clerk traveling to Australia on the North Briton in 1838-39. His writing is beautiful, especially when he talks about animals, and he seems to be very depressed about leaving his home and loved ones – so depressed I actually got concerned about the man. He will settle down in Sydney, get married, and die at the age of 66. I hope he found some peace on these shores.

Another passenger of the North Briton on the same voyage as David is John Sceales, who likes to gossip about his fellow passengers and records his opinions in his journal better than your average Twitter user.

Joseph Price’s journal of the voyage on the emigrant ship Confiance from Liverpool to Geelong in 1852 features his own account (he was the captain) and several passengers’ diary entries. The trip was grim and dangerous, with an epidemic of dysentery and a lot of infant deaths on board, but there still are some fun things the authors found to amuse themselves with.

And finally, Edward Roper, is traveling on the Concordia from Boston, in the United States, to Australia in 1852-53. Edward is an artist, and his journal features several drawings of the fish, birds, and the islands he spots in the distance. He also takes up tattooing during the journey.

On nautical astronomy and the celestial globe, from A Compendium of the Art of Navigation, by John Edmund Ludlow, 1819. ANMM Collection 00040486.

The stars are different in another hemisphere, and the long uneventful hours on board naturally inspired the passengers to study the evening sky, to wake up early to witness the sunrise, or to pick up new useful skills from the more astronomy-savvy officers.
Eliza Taylor stargazes with the ship’s captain and another lady passenger “till tea time”, or stays on deck alone until nearly one o’clock in the morning “admiring the beauties of a fine starlight night in the Atlantic”, concluding that it surpasses any description Eliza could ever give in her writing. Observing something that may be, judging from her account, marine bioluminescence – “beautiful fires on the water by the vessel’s side, upon the nature of which persons are not quite of one opinion” – she finds the golden sparkles in the white foam “beautiful beyond description”. During the journey she notices the changes in the sky above as the vessel progresses down the equator: the moon, she finds, is “always more lovely the farther you get South”, and in the tropics the falling stars “burst and have a long train which remains luminous for some 14 or 15 seconds”. Eliza even asks the captain to teach her to calculate the sun’s altitude, which he does every day for a week, and she proudly mentions that she can now “take the Sun and compute the Longtitude by Inspection” with a quadrant.


Eliza is not the only passenger eager to learn their way around altitudes: Simon Morrison, a passenger on Confiance, is equally proud to learn to use the sextant; he can now “take altitudes of the sun and moon with great ease and exactness” almost as well as the ship’s captain, as he confesses in his journal. 

Sextant made by Spencer, Browning and Rust, 1784-1840. Simon would have learned how to use a similar one. ANMM Collection 00006886. Purchased with USA Bicentennial Gift funds.

In the same manner that Eliza is inspired to wake up early to witness the sunrise, Simon goes on deck at night “to stare at the Southern heavens”. Amazed by the sight of the Milky Way’s expanse, he concludes: “No wonder that Sir John Herschell said it looked like gold dust scattered on the background of the heavens." David Melville does the same: in his diary he describes sitting on a taffrail for hours, gazing on the deep in the clear moonlight. Eliza, Simon, and David all stared at the same stars, years between their journeys dividing them, similar routes of their vessels connecting them – and the rest of humanity - through centuries of fascination with the night sky.

Another peculiar thing Eliza gets to witness is the total lunar eclipse of 1833, which took place in most parts of the southern hemisphere on December 26 and lasted as long as Eliza described in her journal: a little more than three hours, starting at 7pm in the evening and going on past 10 o’clock that night. William Pinnock’s The Guide to Knowledge, a book on arts and natural curiosities published in 1833, enthusiastically advised its readers not to miss this eclipse, and provided a picture explaining the mechanism behind it: