The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 1.

Prefatory and explanatory — The voyage out — The sentimental — The actual — The oblivious — The medley — Practical joking — An unwelcome companion — American patriotism — The first view — The departure.

As a general dislike of prefaces is unmistakeably evidenced by their uncut leaves, and as unknown readers could scarcely be induced to read a book by the most cogent representations of an unknown author, and as apologies for “rushing into print” are too trite and insincere to have any effect, I will merely prefix a few explanatory remarks to my first chapter.

Circumstances which it is unnecessary to dwell upon led me across the Atlantic with some relatives; and on my return, I was requested by numerous friends to give an account of my travels. As this volume has been written with a view to their gratification, there is far more of personal narrative than is likely to interest the general reader.

With respect to the people of the United States, I have given those impressions which as a traveller I formed; if they are more favourable than those of some of my predecessors, the difference may arise from my having taken out many excellent introductions, which afforded me greater facilities of seeing the best society in the States than are usually possessed by those who travel merely to see the country.

Where I have offered any opinions upon the effect produced by the institutions of America, or upon any great national question, I have done so with extreme diffidence, giving impressions rather than conclusions, feeling the great injustice of drawing general inferences from partial premises, as well as the impossibility of rightly estimating cause and effect during a brief residence in the United States. I have endeavoured to give a faithful picture of what I saw and heard, avoiding the beaten track as much as possible, and dwelling principally on those things in which I knew that my friends were most interested.

Previously to visiting the United States, I had read most of the American travels which had been published; yet from experience I can say that even those who read most on the Americans know little of them, from the disposition which leads travellers to seize and dwell upon the ludicrous points which continually present themselves.

We know that there is a vast continent across the Atlantic, first discovered by a Genoese sailing under the Spanish flag, and that for many years past it has swallowed up thousands of the hardiest of our population. Although our feelings are not particularly fraternal, we give the people inhabiting this continent the national cognomen of “Brother Jonathan,” while we name individuals “Yankees.” We know that they are famous for smoking, spitting, “gouging,” and bowie-knives — for monster hotels, steamboat explosions, railway collisions, and repudiated debts. It is believed also that this nation is renowned for keeping three millions of Africans in slavery — for wooden nutmegs, paper money, and “fillibuster” expeditions — for carrying out nationally and individually the maxim

“That they may take who have the power,

And they may keep who can.”

I went to the States with that amount of prejudice which seems the birthright of every English person, but I found that, under the knowledge of the Americans which can be attained by a traveller mixing in society in every grade, these prejudices gradually melted away. I found much which is worthy of commendation, even of imitation: that there is much which is very reprehensible, is not to be wondered at in a country which for years has been made a “cave of Adullam” — a refuge for those who have “left their country for their country’s good” — a receptacle for the barbarous, the degraded, and the vicious of all other nations. It must never be forgotten that the noble, the learned, and the wealthy have shrunk from the United States; her broad lands have been peopled to a great extent by those whose stalwart arms have been their only possession.

Is it surprising, considering these antecedents, that much of arrogance, coarseness, and vulgarity should be met with? Is it not rather surprising, that a traveller should meet with so little to annoy — so few obvious departures from the rules of propriety?

An Englishman bears with patience any ridicule which foreigners cast upon him. John Bull never laughs so loudly as when he laughs at himself; but the Americans are nationally sensitive, and cannot endure that good-humoured raillery which jests at their weaknesses and foibles. Hence candid and even favourable statements of the truth by English travellers are received with a perfect outcry by the Americans; and the phrases, “shameful misstatements,” “violation of the rights of hospitality,” &c., are on every lip.

Most assuredly that spirit of envious rivalry and depreciating criticism in which many English travellers have written, is greatly to be deprecated, no less than the tone of servile adulation which some writers have adopted; but our American neighbours must recollect that they provoked both the virulent spirit and the hostile caricature by the way in which some of their most popular writers of travels have led an ungenerous onslaught against our institutions and people, and the bitter tone in which their newspaper press, headed by the Tribune, indulges towards the British nation.

Having made these few remarks, I must state that at the time of my visit to the States I had no intention of recording my “experiences” in print; and as my notes taken at the time were few and meagre, and have been elaborated from memory, some inaccuracies have occurred which it will not take a keen eye to detect. These must be set down to want of correct information rather than to wilful misrepresentation. The statistical information given is taken from works compiled by the Americans themselves. The few matters on which I write which did not come under my own observation, I learned from trustworthy persons who have been long resident in the country.

Of Canada it is scarcely necessary to speak here. Perhaps an English writer may be inclined to adopt too eulogistic a tone in speaking of that noble and loyal colony, in which British institutions are undergoing a Transatlantic trial, and where a free people is protected by British laws. There are, doubtless, some English readers who will be interested in the brief notices which I have given of its people, its society, and its astonishing capabilities.

* [I must here record my grateful acknowledgments to a gentleman in a prominent public position in Canada, who has furnished me with much valuable information which I should not otherwise have obtained.]

The notes from which this volume is taken were written in the lands of which it treats: they have been amplified and corrected in the genial atmosphere of an English home. I will not offer hackneyed apologies for its very numerous faults and deficiencies; but will conclude these tedious but necessary introductory remarks with the sincere hope that my readers may receive one hundredth part of the pleasure from the perusal of this volume which I experienced among the scenes and people of which it is too imperfect a record.

 

Although bi-weekly steamers ply between England and the States, and many mercantile men cross the Atlantic twice annually on business, and think nothing of it, the voyage seems an important event when undertaken for the first time. Friends living in inland counties, and those who have been sea-sick in crossing the straits of Dover, exaggerate the dangers and discomforts of ocean travelling, and shake their heads knowingly about fogs and icebergs.

Then there are a certain number of boxes to be packed, and a very uncertain number of things to fill them, while clothing has to be provided suitable to a tropical summer, and a winter within the arctic circle. But a variety of minor arrangements, and even an indefinite number of leave-takings, cannot be indefinitely prolonged; and at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning in 1854, I found myself with my friends on the landing-stage at Liverpool.

Whatever sentimental feelings one might be inclined to indulge in on leaving the shores of England were usefully and instantaneously annihilated by the discomfort and crush in the Satellite steam-tender, in which the passengers were conveyed, helplessly huddled together like a flock of sheep, to the Canada, an 1850-ton paddle-wheel steamer of the Cunard line, which was moored in the centre of the Mersey.

An investigation into the state-rooms, and the recital of disappointed expectations consequent on the discovery of their very small dimensions, the rescue of “regulation” portmanteaus from sailors who were running off with them, and the indulgence of that errant curiosity which glances at everything and rests on nothing, occupied the time before the arrival of the mail-boat with about two tons of letters and newspapers, which were consigned to the mail-room with incredible rapidity.

Then friends were abruptly dismissed — two guns were fired — the lashings were cast off — the stars and stripes flaunted gaily from the ‘fore — the captain and pilot took their places on the paddle-boxes — the bell rang — our huge paddle-wheels revolved, and, to use the words in which the same event was chronicled by the daily press, “The Cunard royal mail steamer Canada, Captain Stone, left the Mersey this morning for Boston and Halifax, conveying the usual mails; with one hundred and sixty-eight passengers, and a large cargo on freight.”

It was an auspiciously commenced voyage as far as appearances went. The summer sun shone brightly — the waves of the Mersey were crisp and foam-capped — and the fields of England had never worn a brighter green. The fleet of merchant-ships through which we passed was not without an interest. There were timber-ships, huge and square-sided, unmistakeably from Quebec or Miramichi — green high-sterned Dutch galliots — American ships with long black hulls and tall raking masts — and those far-famed “Black Ball” clippers, the Marco Polo and the Champion of the Seas, — in short, the ships of all nations, with their marked and distinguishing peculiarities. But the most interesting object of all was the screw troop-ship Himalaya, which was embarking the Scots Greys for the Crimea — that regiment which has since earned so glorious but fatal a celebrity on the bloody field of Balaklava.

It is to be supposed that to those who were crossing the Atlantic for the first time to the western hemisphere there was some degree of excitement, and that regret was among the feelings with which they saw the coast of England become a faint cloud on the horizon; but soon oblivion stole over the intellects of most of the passengers, leaving one absorbing feeling of disgust, first to the viands, next to those who could partake of them, and lastly to everything connected with the sea. Fortunately this state of things only lasted for two days, as the weather was very calm, and we ran with studding-sails set before a fair wind as far as the Nova Scotian coast.

The genius of Idleness presided over us all. There were five ample meals every day, and people ate, and walked till they could eat again; while some, extended on sofas, slept over odd volumes of novels from the ship’s library, and others played at chess, cards, or backgammon from morning to night. Some of the more active spirits played “shuffle-boards,” which kept the deck in an uproar; while others enjoyed the dolce far niente in their berths, except when the bell summoned to meals. There were weather-wise people, who smoked round the funnel all day, and prophesied foul winds every night; and pertinacious querists, who asked the captain every hour or two when we should reach Halifax. Some betted on the “run,” and others on the time of reaching port; in short, every expedient was resorted to by which time could be killed.

We had about twenty English passengers; the rest were Canadians, Americans, Jews, Germans, Dutch, French, Californians, Spaniards, and Bavarians. Strict equality was preserved in this heterogeneous assembly. An Irish pork-merchant was seated at dinner next a Jew, who regarded the pig in toto as an abomination — a lady, a scion of a ducal family, found herself next to a French cook going out to a San Franciscan eating-house — an officer, going out to high command at Halifax, was seated next a rough Californian, who wore “nuggets” of gold for buttons; and there were contrasts even stronger than these. The most conspicuous of our fellow-voyagers was the editor of an American paper, who was writing a series of clever but scurrilous articles on England, from materials gleaned in a three weeks’ tour!

Some of the Americans were very fond of practical jokes, but these were rather of a stupid description. There was a Spanish gentleman who used to promenade the deck with a dignity worthy of the Cid Rodrigo, addressing everybody he met with the question, “Parlez-vous Français, Monsieur?” and at the end of the voyage his stock of English only amounted to “Dice? Sixpence.” One day at dinner this gentleman requested a French-speaking Californian to tell him how to ask for du pain in English. “My donkeys,” was the prompt reply, and the joke was winked down the table, while the Spaniard was hammering away at “My donkeys” till he got the pronunciation perfect. The waiter came round, and the unhappy man, in confident but mellifluous tones, pointing to the bread, asked for “My donkeys.”

Comic drinking-songs, and satires on the English, the latter to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle,’ were sung in the saloon in the evenings round large bowls of punch, and had the effect of keeping many of the ladies on deck, when a refuge from the cold and spray would have been desirable; but with this exception the conduct of the passengers on the whole was marked by far more propriety than could have been expected from so mixed a company. If the captain had been more of a disciplinarian, even this annoyance might have been avoided.

I had the misfortune of having for my companion in my state-room an Englishwoman who had resided for some years at New York, and who combined in herself the disagreeable qualities of both nations. She was in a frequent state of intoxication, and kept gin, brandy, and beer in her berth. Whether sober or not, she was equally voluble; and as her language was not only inelegant, but replete with coarseness and profanity, the annoyance was almost insupportable. She was a professed atheist, and as such justly an object of commiseration, the weakness of her unbelief being clearly manifested by the frequency with which she denied the existence of a God.

On one day, as I was reading my Bible, she exclaimed with a profane expression, “I wish you’d pitch that book overboard, it’s enough to sink the ship;” the contradiction implied in the words showing the weakness of her atheism, which, while it promises a man the impunity of non-existence, and degrades him to desire it, very frequently seduces him to live as an infidel, but to die a terrified and despairing believer.

It was a very uneventful voyage. The foul winds prophesied never blew, the icebergs kept far away to the northward, the excitement of flight from Russian privateers was exchanged for the sight of one harmless merchantman; even the fogs off Newfoundland turned out complete myths.

On the seventh day out the bets on the hour of our arrival at Halifax increased in number and magnitude, and a lottery was started; on the eighth we passed Cape Race, and spoke the steamer Asia; our rigging was tightened, and our railings polished; and in nine days and five hours from Liverpool we landed on the shores of the New World. The day previous to our landing was a Sunday, and I was pleased to observe the decorum which pervaded the ship. Service was conducted with propriety in the morning; a large proportion of the passengers read their Bibles or other religious books; punch, chess, and cards were banished from the saloon; and though we had almost as many creeds as nationalities, and some had no creed at all, yet those who might ridicule the observance of the Sabbath themselves, avoided any proceedings calculated to shock what they might term the prejudices of others.

On the next day we had a slight head wind for the first time; most of the passengers were sea-sick, and those who were not so were promenading the wet, sooty deck in the rain, in a uniform of oilskin coats and caps. The sea and sky were both of a leaden colour; and as there was nothing to enliven the prospect but the gambols of some very uncouth-looking porpoises, I was lying half asleep on a settee, when I was roused by the voice of a kind-hearted Yankee skipper, saying, “Come, get up; there’s a glorious country and no mistake; a great country, a progressive country, the greatest country under the sun.” The honest sailor was rubbing his hands with delight as he spoke, his broad, open countenance beaming with a perfect glow of satisfaction. I looked in the direction indicated by his finger, and beheld, not the lofty pinnacled cliffs of the “Pilgrim Fathers,” but a low gloomy coast, looming through a mist.

I already began to appreciate the hearty enthusiasm with which Americans always speak of their country, designated as it is by us by the names “National vanity,” and “Boastfulness.” This esprit du pays, although it is sometimes carried to a ridiculous extent, is greatly to be preferred to the abusive manner in which an Englishman accustoms himself to speak of the glorious country to which he appears to feel it a disgrace to belong. It does one good to hear an American discourse on America, his panegyric generally concluding with the words, “We’re the greatest people on the face of the earth.”

At dusk, after steaming during the whole day along the low green coast of Nova Scotia, we were just outside the heads of Halifax harbour, and the setting sun was bathing the low, pine-clad hills of America in floods of purple light. A pilot came off to offer his services, but was rejected, and to my delight he hailed in a pure English accent, which sounded like a friendly welcome. The captain took his place on the paddle-box, and our speed was slackened. Two guns were fired, and their echoes rolled for many a mile among the low, purple hills, from which a soft, fragrant scent of pines was borne to us on the evening breeze, reminding me of the far-distant mountains of Scotland. The tiny waves rippled towards us like diamonds, the moon and stars shone brilliantly from a summer sky, and the white smoke from our guns floated away in silver clouds.

People were tumbling over each other in their haste, and making impossible demands, each one being anxious to have his luggage produced first, though the said luggage might be at the bottom of the hold; babies, as babies always do, persisted in crying just at the wrong time; articles essential to the toilet were missing, and sixpences or half-sovereigns had found their way into impossible crevices. Invitations were given, cards exchanged, elderly ladies unthinkingly promised to make errant expeditions to visit agreeable acquaintances in California, and by the time the last words had been spoken we were safely moored at Cunard’s wharf.

The evening gun boomed from the citadel. I heard the well-known British bugle; I saw the familiar scarlet of our troops; the voices which vociferated were English; the physiognomies had the Anglo–Saxon cast and complexion; and on the shores of the western hemisphere I felt myself at home. Yet, as I sprang from the boat, and set my foot for the first time on American soil, I was vexed that these familiar sights and sounds should deprive me of the pleasurable feeling of excitement which I had expected to experience under such novel circumstances.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31