Ships, Captains, Passengers
SS Sierra Nevada in the South Pacific
Isabella Lucy Bird
Isabella Bird was born in 1831 in England where she spent her early years struggling with various diseases as her father moved the family from parish to parish as a minister in the Church of England.
In 1854, Bird's father gave her ?100 and she went to visit relatives in America. She was allowed to stay until her money ran out. She detailed the journey anonymously in her first book The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856. The following year, she went to Canada and then toured Scotland.
In the late 1800s, Isabella L. Bird sailed with Captain James H. Blethen throughout the Sandwich Islands and South Pacific on the S.S. Nevada as the steamship delivered mail between the islands.
Isabella Bird's writings were published in "The Hawaiian Archipelago," which is now available in paperback; the preface follows.
In 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Photographic Society.
January 19, 1875
Six Months Among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands
STEAMER NEVADA, Captain Blethen, NORTH PACIFIC, January 19.
. . . A white, unwinking, scintillating sun blazed down upon Auckland, New Zealand. Along the white glaring road from Onehunga, dusty trees and calla lilies drooped with the heat. Dusty thickets sheltered the cicada, whose triumphant din grated and rasped through the palpitating atmosphere. In dusty enclosures, supposed to be gardens, shrivelled geraniums scattered sparsely alone defied the heat. Flags drooped in the stifling air. Men on the verge of sunstroke plied their tasks mechanically, like automatons. Dogs, with flabby and protruding tongues, hid themselves away under archway shadows. The stones of the sidewalks and the brick of the houses radiated a furnace heat. All nature was limp, dusty, groaning, gasping. The day was the climax of a burning fortnight, of heat, draught, and dust, of baked, cracked, dewless land, and oily breezeless seas, of glaring days, passing through fierce fiery sunsets into stifling nights.
I only remained long enough in the capital to observe that it had a look of having seen better days, and that its business streets had an American impress, and, taking a boat at a wharf, in whose seams the pitch was melting, I went off to the steamer Nevada, which was anchored out in the bay, preferring to spend the night in her than in the unbearable heat on shore. She belongs to the Webb line, an independent mail adventure, now dying a natural death, undertaken by the New Zealand Government, as much probably out of jealousy of Victoria as anything else. She nearly foundered on her last voyage; her passengers unanimously signed a protest against her unseaworthy condition. She was condemned by the Government surveyor, and her mails were sent to Melbourne. She has, however, been patched up for this trip, and eight passengers, including myself, have trusted ourselves to her. She is a huge paddle-steamer, of the old-fashioned American type, deck above deck, balconies, a pilot-house abaft the foremast, two monstrous walking beams, and two masts which, possibly in case of need, might serve as jury masts.
Huge, airy, perfectly comfortable as she is, not a passenger stepped on board without breathing a more earnest prayer than usual that the voyage might end propitiously. The very first evening statements were whispered about to the effect that her state of disrepair is such that she has not been to her own port for nine months, and has been sailing for that time without a certificate; that her starboard shaft is partially fractured, and that to reduce the strain upon it the floats of her starboard wheel have been shortened five inches, the strain being further reduced by giving her a decided list to port; that her crank is "bandaged," that she is leaky, that her mainmast is sprung, and that with only four hours' steaming many of her boiler tubes, even some of those put in at Auckland, had already given way. I cannot testify concerning the mainmast, though it certainly does comport itself like no other mainmast I ever saw; but the other statements and many more which might be added, are, I believe, substantially correct. That the caulking of the deck was in evil case we very soon had proof, for during heavy rain above, it was a smart shower in the saloon and state rooms, keeping four stewards employed with buckets and swabs, and compelling us to dine in waterproofs and rubber shoes.
In this dilapidated condition, when two days out from Auckland, we encountered a revolving South Sea hurricane, succinctly entered in the log of the day as "Encountered a very severe hurricane with a very heavy sea." It began at eight in the morning, and never spent its fury till nine at night, and the wind changed its direction eleven times. The Nevada left Auckland two feet deeper in the water than she ought to have been, and laboured heavily. Seas struck her under the guards with a heavy, explosive thud, and she groaned and strained as if she would part asunder. It was a long weird day. We held no communication with each other, or with those who could form any rational estimate of the probabilities of our destiny; no officials appeared; the ordinary invariable routine of the steward department was suspended without notice; the sounds were tremendous, and a hot lurid obscurity filled the atmosphere. Soon after four the clamour increased, and the shock of a sea blowing up a part of the fore-guards made the groaning fabric reel and shiver throughout her whole huge bulk. At that time, by common consent, we assembled in the deck-house, which had windows looking in all directions, and sat there for five hours. Very few words were spoken, and very little fear was felt. We understood by intuition that if our crazy engines failed at any moment to keep the ship's head to the sea, her destruction would not occupy half-an-hour. It was all palpable. There was nothing which the most experienced seaman could explain to the merest novice. We hoped for the best, and there was no use in speaking about the worst. Nor, indeed, was speech possible, unless a human voice could have outshrieked the hurricane.
In this deck-house the strainings, sunderings, and groanings were hardly audible, or rather were overpowered by a sound which, in thirteen months' experience of the sea in all weathers, I have never heard, and hope never to hear again, unless in a staunch ship, one loud, awful, undying shriek, mingled with a prolonged relentless hiss. No gathering strength, no languid fainting into momentary lulls, but one protracted gigantic scream. And this was not the whistle of wind through cordage, but the actual sound of air travelling with tremendous velocity, carrying with it minute particles of water. Nor was the sea running mountains high, for the hurricane kept it down. Indeed during those fierce hours no sea was visible, for the whole surface was caught up and carried furiously into the air, like snow-drift on the prairies, sibilant, relentless. There was profound quiet on deck, the little life which existed being concentrated near the bow, where the captain was either lashed to the foremast, or in shelter in the pilot-house. Never a soul appeared on deck, the force of the hurricane being such that for four hours any man would have been carried off his feet. Through the swift strange evening our hopes rested on the engine, and amidst the uproar and din, and drifting spray, and shocks of pitiless seas, there was a sublime repose in the spectacle of the huge walking beams, alternately rising and falling, slowly, calmly, regularly, as if the Nevada were on a holiday trip within the Golden Gate. At eight in the evening we could hear each other speak, and a little later, through the great masses of hissing drift we discerned black water.
At nine Captain Blethen appeared, smoking a cigar with nonchalance, and told us that the hurricane had nearly boxed the compass, and had been the most severe he had known for seventeen years. This grand old man, nearly the oldest captain in the Pacific, won our respect and confidence from the first, and his quiet and masterly handling of this dilapidated old ship is beyond all praise.
When the strain of apprehension was mitigated, we became aware that we had not had anything to eat since breakfast, a clean sweep having been made, not only of the lunch, but of all the glass in the racks above it; but all requests to the stewards were insufficient to procure even biscuits, and at eleven we retired supperless to bed, amidst a confusion of awful sounds, and were deprived of lights as well as food. When we asked for food or light, and made weak appeals on the ground of faintness, the one steward who seemed to dawdle about for the sole purpose of making himself disagreeable, always replied, "You can't get anything, the stewards are on duty."
We were not accustomed to recognize that stewards had any other duty than that of feeding the passengers, but under the circumstances we meekly acquiesced. We were allowed to know that a part of the foreguards had been carried way, and that iron stanchions four inches thick had been gnarled and twisted like candy sticks, and the constant falling of the saloon casing of the mainmast, showed something wrong there. A heavy clang, heard at intervals by day and night, aroused some suspicions as to more serious damage, and these were afterwards confirmed. As the wind fell the sea rose, and for some hours realized every description I have read of the majesty and magnitude of the rollers of the South Pacific.
The day after the hurricane something went wrong with the engines, and we were stationary for an hour. We all felt thankful that this derangement which would have jeopardised or sacrificed sixty lives, was then only a slight detention on a summer sea.
Five days out from Auckland we entered the tropics with a temperature of 80 in the water, and 85 in the air, but as the light head airs blew the intense heat of our two smoke stacks aft, we often endured a temperature of 110 .
There were quiet heavy tropical showers, and a general misty dampness, and the Navigator Islands, with their rainbow-tinted coral forests, their fringe of coca palms, and groves of banyan and breadfruit trees, those sunniest isles of the bright South Seas, resolved themselves into dark lumps looming through a drizzling mist. But the showers and the dampness were confined to that region, and for the last fortnight an unclouded tropical sun has blazed upon our crawling ship. The boiler tubes are giving way at the rate of from ten to twenty daily, the fracture in the shaft is extending, and so, partially maimed, the old ship drags her 320 feet of length slowly along.
The captain is continually in the engine-room, and we know when things are looking more unpropitious than usual by his coming up puffing his cigar with unusual strength of determination. It has been so far a very pleasant voyage. The moral, mental, and social qualities of my fellow-passengers are of a high order, and since the hurricane we have been rather like a family circle than a miscellaneous accidental group.
For some time our days went by in reading aloud, working, chess, draughts and conversation, with two hours at quoits in the afternoon for exercise; but four days ago the only son of Mrs. Dexter, who is the only lady on board besides myself, ruptured a blood vessel on the lungs, and lies in a most critical state in the deck-house from which he has not been moved, requiring most careful nursing, incessant fanning, and the attention of two persons by day and night. Mrs. D. had previously won the regard of everyone, and I had learned to look on her as a friend from whom I should be grieved to part. The only hope for the young man's life is that he should be landed at Honolulu, and she has urged me so strongly to land with her there, where she will be a complete stranger, that I have consented to do so, and consequently shall see the Sandwich Islands. This severe illness has cast a great gloom over our circle of six, and Mr. D. continues in a state of so much exhaustion and peril that all our arrangements as to occupation, recreation, and sleep, are made with reference to a sick, and as we sometimes fear, a dying man, whose state is much aggravated by the maltreatment and stupidity of a dilapidated Scotch doctor, who must be at least eighty, and whose intellects are obfuscated by years of whiskey drinking. Two of the gentlemen not only show the utmost tenderness as nurses, but possess a skill and experience which are invaluable. They never leave him by night, and scarcely take needed rest even in the day, one or other of them being always at hand to support him when faint, or raise him on his pillows.
It is not only that the Nevada is barely seaworthy, and has kept us broiling in the tropics when we ought to have been at San Francisco, but her fittings are so old. The mattresses bulge and burst, and cockroaches creep in and out, the deck is so leaky that the water squishes up under the saloon matting as we walk over it, the bread swarms with minute ants, and we have to pick every piece over because of weevils. Existence at night is an unequal fight with rats and cockroaches, and at meals with the stewards for time to eat. The stewards outnumber the passengers, and are the veriest riff-raff I have seen on board ship. At meals, when the captain is not below, their sole object is to hurry us from the table in order that they may sit down to a protracted meal; they are insulting and disobliging, and since illness has been on board, have shown a want of common humanity which places them below the rest of their species. The unconcealed hostility with which they regard us is a marvellous contrast to the natural or purchasable civility or servility which prevails on British steamers. It has its comic side too, and we are content to laugh at it, and at all the other oddities of this vaunted "Mail Line."
Our most serious grievance was the length of time that we were kept in the damp inter-island region of the Tropic of Capricorn. Early breakfasts, cold plunge baths, and the perfect ventilation of our cabins, only just kept us alive. We read, wrote, and talked like automatons, and our voices sounded thin and far away. We decided that heat was less felt in exercise, made up an afternoon quoit party, and played unsheltered from the nearly vertical sun, on decks so hot that we required thick boots for the protection of our feet, but for three days were limp and faint, and hardly able to crawl about or eat. The nights were insupportable.
We used to lounge in the bow, and retire late at night to our cabins, to fight the heat, and scare rats and kill cockroaches with slippers, until driven by the solar heat to rise again unrefreshed to wrestle through another relentless day. We read the "Idylls of the King" and talked of misty meres and reedy fens, of the cool north, with its purple hills, leaping streams, and life-giving breezes, of long northern winters, and ice and snow, but the realities of sultriness and damp scared away our coolest imaginations.
In this dismal region, when about forty miles east of Tutuila, a beast popularly known as the "Flying Fox" alighted on our rigging, and was eventually captured as a prize for the zoological collection at San Francisco. He is a most interesting animal, something like an exaggerated bat. His wings are formed of a jet black membrane, and have a highly polished claw at the extremity of each, and his feet consist of five beautifully polished long black claws, with which he hangs on head downwards. His body is about twice the size of that of a very large rat, black and furry underneath, and with red foxy fur on his head and back. His face is pointed, with a very black nose and prominent black eyes, with a savage, remorseless expression. His wings, when extended, measure forty-eight inches across, and his flying powers are prodigious. He snapped like a dog at first, but is now quite tame, and devours quantities of dried figs, the only diet he will eat.
We crossed the Equator in Long. 159 44', but in consequence of the misty weather it was not till we reached Lat. 10 6' N. that the Pole star, cold and pure, glistened far above the horizon, and two hours later we saw the coruscating Pleiades, and the starry belt of Orion, the blessed familiar constellations of "auld lang syne," and a "breath of the cool north," the first I have felt for five months, fanned the tropic night and the calm silvery Pacific.
From that time we have been indifferent to our crawling pace, except for the sick man's sake. The days dawn in rose colour and die in gold, and through their long hours a sea of delicious blue shimmers beneath the sun, so soft, so blue, so dreamlike, an ocean worthy of its name, the enchanted region of perpetual calm, and an endless summer. Far off, for many an azure league, rims of rock, fringed with the graceful coco palm, girdle still lagoons, and are themselves encircled by coral reefs on which the ocean breaks all the year in broad drifts of foam.
Myriads of flying fish and a few dolphins and Portuguese men-of-war flash or float through the scarcely undulating water. But we look in vain for the "sails of silk and ropes of sendal," which are alone appropriate to this dream-world.
The Pacific in this region is an indolent blue expanse, pure and lonely, an almost untraversed sea. We revel in these tropic days of transcendent glory, in the balmy breath which just stirs the dreamy blue, in the brief, fierce crimson sunsets, in the soft splendour of the nights, when the moon and stars hang like lamps out of a lofty and distant vault, and in the pearly crystalline dawns, when the sun rising through a veil of rose and gold "rejoices as a giant to run his course," and brightens by no "pale gradations" into the "perfect day."
P.S.--To-morrow morning we expect to sight land. In spite of minor evils, our voyage has been a singularly pleasant one. The condition of the ship and her machinery warrants the strongest condemnation, but her discipline is admirable, and so are many of her regulations, and we might have had a much more disagreeable voyage in a better ship. Captain Blethen is beyond all praise, and so is the chief engineer, whose duties are incessant and most harassing, owing to the critical state of the engines. The Nevada now presents a grotesque appearance, for within the last few hours she has received such an added list to port that her starboard wheel looks nearly out of the water.
. . . This morning we joined our kind friends from the Nevada for the last time at breakfast. I have noticed that there is often a centrifugal force which acts upon passengers who have been long at sea together, dispersing them on reaching port. Indeed, the temporary enforced cohesion is often succeeded by violent repulsion.
But in this instance we deeply regret the dissolution of our pleasant fraternity; the less so, however, that this wonderful climate has produced a favourable change in Mr. D., who no longer requires the hourly attention they have hitherto shown him. The mornings here, dew-bathed and rose-flushed, are, if possible, more lovely than the nights, and people are astir early to enjoy them. The American consul and Mr. Damon called while we were sitting at our eight-o'clock breakfast, from which I gather that formalities are dispensed with. After spending the morning in hunting among the stores for things which were essential for the invalid, I lunched in the Nevada with Captain Blethen and our friends.