Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

Ship Quebec

Off the Banks of Newfoundland. Three weeks at sea. Dismal weeks of incessant sickness & suffering. Let no one talk of sea-sickness who has not felt it in it’s horrors—it’s weakness, it’s helplessness, it’s utter prostration of all power bodily and mental. O long days & weeks of giddiness & nausea, wretched days, followed by wretched nights! Restlessness, feverishness, low-spirits, overwhelming debility, broken sleep, perturbed dreams, unwillingness to go to a bed where there is no rest, and disability to rise when you have once laid down. Once at least my situation has not been exempt from danger. Fierce cramps brought on by long continued vomitings. Agonizing pain, contraction of limbs, my hands clenched so that no force could open them—no relief but from opium in considerable quantities & hot brandy. I believe I should have died but for an English surgeon or physician who was on board, and who immediately came, at near midnight, from his bed, to my relief. Now I am somewhat better, able to move but very wretched & uncomfortable. Still I can read, I can write, I can crawl to the deck and see what is going on in our ship.

We are in all respects badly off. The ship is dirty, crowded, uncomfortable—full of disgusting sights and more digusting odours. A hundred & forty sixty unfortunate creatures in a close fetid, noisome steerage; men, women & children literally packed above, below & around. I have not visited the scene of horrors, but those who have give a sickening account of it. These unfortunate emigrants seem to me to be the victims of sordid ship-masters & agents. Is there no one whose business it is to prevent such abuses?

In the cabin are twenty eight ill-assorted passengers of different sexes, ages, rank in society, habits, manners, dispositions, degrees of education, yet getting along, upon the whole, decently & quietly, with a certain respect for each others wishes, rights & necessities. There are no altercations and some attempts not altogether abortive, at friendly intercourse. Things might be worse in this respect. There are no individuals outrageously selfish; one lady childishly so, chuses to leave her state room and sleep on the sofa in the ladys’ ladies cabin, and for fear of taking cold, insists upon keeping the sky-light closed all night, thus depriving us all of fresh air & ventilation. I wonder there is no open rebellion against this petty tyranny. We are certainly a good-natured set. Even the sick woman is simply thoughtless. She is young, silly, newly-married & “enceinté”—uncomfortable & obstinately determined to continue so, as she will make no effort to rally her powers or rouse herself from the torpour of nausea, indolence & feebleness of body & mind. She is a Jewess with an old husband who tries in a clumsy way to be kind to her, and succeeds by pawing & scrambling to shew his good-will at least in his efforts to adjust her couch & arrange her pillows, whilst he hangs over her with uncouth fondness & snores or dozes away his own heavy hours at her side. We have another new-married couple on board, very loving & the man very devoted. He is a canny Scot from Aberdeen, married to a girl from Devon who likes to be waited on, and is waited on by her young husband. I wonder how it will be some years hence.—Next comes a patient, American mother waiting on her child, a little girl of two years old, and not waited on herself or assisted in any way by her English husband, who seems good-natured enough but has probably taken up Miss Martineau’s idea, that American women are spoiled by too much attention from the men. One of our most useful shipmates is the young English doctor, going out on speculation. He is a little bit of a cockney & misplaces the letter h now & then, but he has been active in his efforts to afford relief to all sufferers both in cabin & steerage. I am certainly indebted to his seasonable assistance when in the horrors of cramp. Luckily Mr Coolidge has not become a convert to Miss Martineau’s doctrine that the weaker vessel is strengthened by neglect, (what an old maid’s idea!) and takes very excellent care of me. Then I must say for myself that I have no desire to make bad worse and therefore do what I can to get well & keep well, but the weather has been most unpropitious, a succession of calms & gales—the vessel now lying idly on the water with little or no motion, and then reeling, tossing, bounding corvetting, throwing every thing and every body about, so that just as we begin to get better of our sea-sickness, and more accustomed to sea-life, we are all cast back again by the throes & agonies of the sea-tortured vessel.

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 356–9.

According to the Quebec’s manifest, steerage contained more than one hundred and seventy men, women, and children making the crossing from England to the United States, including Coolidge’s own servant Josephine DeVaux. Samuel Lister, the husband of the “American mother,” was also American (Ship’s Manifest, Quebec, 15 May 1839, http://ww.ancestry.com [2015]).