Those in peril on the seas – a voyage to the New World

Sailing vessel in dangerous seas. Detail from painting by W.L. Wyllie National Maritime Museum Greenwich

In an age when  we barely pause to consider the risks to getting into a metal tube and flying across oceans and continents it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the risk and commitment of those coming to Prince Edward Island two centuries ago.  Many of those travelling would never have gone far from their homes before and sometimes had never seen a ship, let alone sail in one.   Even for seasoned travelers the risk was daunting. Each year hundreds of sailing vessels failed to make port and disappeared, sometimes without a trace.  Compared with vessels today, the ships were tiny and if they were in trouble there was seldom any relief from the danger. The appearance of a sail on the horizon could make the difference between life and death.

Following is part of an account from traveler from Fifeshire, Scotland bound to Prince Edward Island in 1833. Like many others he had opted to sail for Pictou where many of the Scots voyages landed, and then cross to the Island.  The writer noted the voyage as uneventful with generally fine weather although lacking in wind for many days. The calm aboard had been disturbed only by a fire on the ship early in the voyage but the author, with a touch of sang froid,  noted that there as an abundance of water easily available and the crew were able to extinguish the blaze before it was out of control.

As with present day aircraft, where the times of greatest danger are with take-offs and landings, for a sailing ship the closer they were to land the greater the peril. As the barque-rigged ship neared the Atlantic shores the weather worsened. The captain appears to have steered her successfully into the Gulf of St. Lawrence east of Cape Breton and towards Northumberland Strait but by then the fog had closed in and the wind increased. What must have particularly terrifying for the passengers was the apparent breakdown suffered by the captain at the time of greatest danger.

Fulfilling a promise made before leaving Scotland the writer, penned a private letter to a colleague in Fife who made a copy available to the Fifeshire Journal which printed it in the issue of 8 February 1834.  The story of the landfall in the sailing ship is but part of a longer missive detailing the impressions of the new emigrant.

13 September 1833

On the morning of the 10th a very dense fog prevailed, and we did not know where we were, but could, distinctly at times, see land at our lee. It was then that the horrors of a lee shore presented itself to our view — we saw the breakers dashing against the rocks in violent fury — out sails began to give way way one after another, until at last our mainyard was carried away — our vessel then laboured dreadfully, having only our foresail and topsail under close reef left, which were also expected to go every minute; some of the others torn to pieces and flying like ribbons and our stately barque presenting all the melancholy appearance of a wreck. At this time I went below, and such a scene I never witnessed — women and children were crying in the bitterest anguish, mothers wild and frantic caressing and kissing their children and taking farewell of their husbands, while large chests, barrels and provision boxes, that had been lashed to the vessel, were broken loose and hurtling about in great fury. Our captain who ought have been the last to show symptoms of timidity or alarm, was the first; for, when the first sail gave way early in the forenoon, at a time we were comparatively in safety, he called upon the passengers to do something to save their lives. After all hopes were over, the boats were pout in readiness, and the officers of the ship (the captain crying like a child) had gone to the quarterdeck to consult where they should try and run ashore as we were drifting upon the rocks at any rate, when, just at this crisis, one of the mariners called out “a sail in view:” this sound as it increased the prospect of life, sent a thrill of gladness through every breast, and some who had not cried before began to do so now. A signal of distress was hoisted; and this vessel which was a French schooner, made to us and as near as to make a signal to follow her, which we did as well as we could, and she piloted us into Pictou (at 3 p,m. ) the port of our destination, which we had passed and re-passed, turning as land headed us, and could have taken early in the morning had we known where to run.  Several vessels were lost during the storm; at some places in the forest trees were torn up and lying in countless numbers, and roads were blocked up by the heavy wood falling across them.

Fifeshire Journal 8 February 1834 p.4


1 thought on “Those in peril on the seas – a voyage to the New World

  1. Richard

    I love this blog.
    Thank you for it.
    My Island Grandmother showed me a handwritten journal she possessed written by an ancestor of ours who travelled from Salt Lake City, Utah to London, England in the 1800’s.
    At the time he was the President of the IOF (International Order of Foresters) and was on his way to London to represent his members.
    Without an understanding of history, even just the past 200 years, you can not appreciate what a journey this was, starting by horse and carriage, then stagecoach, rail and finally a two week sail east from Boston.
    Again, love this blog and Thank You.


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