This post is my contribution to the Nautical Blog Hop, organised by Helen Hollick. Please do not miss out on all the other posts on this blog hop – right at the bottom of this post you will find a list of all participants. Further to this, why not participate in my little give-away – but more about that further on.
I love the sea. In particular, I like it when it is me and the sea only, like when I’m standing on an isolated clifftop and before me spreads a vastness of blues and greens, here and there dotted with frothy caps of white.
To gaze out across the sea is to inspire a journey, conjuring up pictures of far away places. If that is how it feels today, how must it have felt back in the 17th century, when the lands beyond the waters were essentially unknown, when there were no photos of what would be waiting on the other side? No wonder people imagined the strangest worlds, places full of savages, of impenetrable forests, of gold. Always this gold, this promise of riches unknown, lying waiting for the man intrepid enough to set off towards new horizons.
Today, it is difficult for us to understand just how distant the American Colonies, South America or Australia were from Europe back then. Yes, yes, I know the continents are no more far apart today than in the 17th century, but essentially travelling is about time, and in our world we can go from London to Sydney in 24 hours – compare that to six to eight months in the late 18th century!
For us to properly understand the enormity of the endeavour it was to emigrate in the late 17th century, we must imagine taking off for the moon. Should we decide to travel by high-speed train (and yes, I know we’re not at that point yet), it would take us approximately 80 days to reach the moon. That is roughly how long it could take to travel from Plymouth to Jamestown – except that the level of comfort in a ship at most thirty metres long, with no plumbing, no sundeck, no nice little pool and very little private space would have left a lot to desire in comparison with that high-speed train…
Add to the long journey the imminent risk of not making it across. Shipwrecks happened regularly, vessels swallowed into the deeps with not a trace left behind. Further to this there were pirates, some with the intent to rob the passengers of their worldly goods, some with the far more dastardly intention of stealing away the passengers themselves. And even if they made it across, what if they didn’t like it? Buying a return ticket wasn’t an option for most of the emigrants. Some couldn’t return due to religious persuasions, some had fled the long arm of the law, and the majority simply didn’t have the money to pay for more than a single. So, once landed in the unfamiliar land that was now to be their home, there was nothing they could do but adapt.
Many never did adapt. People went about with broken hearts, yearning for the home they’d left behind. Obviously, broken hearts are rarely fatal, but imagine living your entire life longing for another place, other people. For many there was the further complication of language. When the emigration from Europe grew into a flood, in the 19th century, people from all over converged on America, on Australia. Many of them were illiterate, only a handfull spoke English (with the exception of the Irish, of course) and the only assets they had were their bodies and the courage that had led them to emirate to begin with.
In the 17th century, emigration was to some extent controlled: Spanish colonies were mostly colonised by Spaniards, British colonies by British and so on. All colonial states would now and then succumb to the desire to use their colonies as disposal heaps for the unwanted elements in their societies. Loud, opinionated preachers? Send them off – preferably to the West indies where the hard work in the sugar cane fields would surely curb them of their desire to question church and king. Flighty women, unwed and with a sullied reputation? Off with them – with the added benefit of improving the imbalanced gender ratio in the early years of the colonies. Thieves? Vagabonds? Unwanted orphans? Take them all – the colonies consumed labour at a horrifying speed.
Over time, the colonies would foster a tough people – testament to Darwin’s theories re natural selection. The weak died, the strong thrived. Actually, one could argue that most of those early colonists were damn strong to begin with. It takes guts to slice the ties to family and neighbours, to familiar landscapes and well-known homes, and set off across a dangerous sea to start anew. And I would guess that those that settled close to the sea, would oftentimes walk down to the shore and stare eastwards, towards home, the place that they came from and would never see again.
The world has always had its fair share of eager-eyed explorers, young people who have stood for hours with the waves lapping at their feet, wondering what might lie beyond the beckoning horizon. It’s lucky we have them, these visionary men and women. Had Columbus or Vasco da Gama cringed in fear at the thought of braving the unchartered seas, history would have taken a very different turn. Had Francis Drake frowned down at the map, tapped his finger to his mouth and said “naah, on second thoughts I think I’ll stay home instead, cultivate my garden or something”, the world would have been one dashing adventurer poorer.
Intrepid Vikings steered their Viking ships from Norway to Iceland to Greenland and onwards to Newfoundland. Not because they were looking for yet another choice monastery to plunder, but because they were curious enough to do so, well aware of the fact that the world was round, and sometimes things came floating from the other side of the endless ocean.
The Pilgrim Fathers set off to found a new society in a boat the size of half an Olympic pool. One major storm, and the Mayflower and its cargo would have been reduced to driftwood and bleached bones, rustling for ever through the vast forests of seaweed in the mid-Atlantic. (As it was, the Mayflower had a pretty rough crossing, but the experiences at sea were like a spring breeze compared to what the first winter on land would be like)
I stand at the clifftop and extend my arms, relishing the wind, the infinite horizon of the sea that lies before me. The waves slap at the rock-strewn shore, the scent of brine makes my nostril flare.
“Come,” the sea whispers, the froth of the breaking waves like gigantic, ephemeral lace petticoats on the damp shore. “Come to me, come and see.” I take a faltering step in the direction of the singing waters. “Come,” the waves hiss, “come and ride with us, ride with us across the sea, to other places, other shores.”
The sea, the sea. So beautiful, so vast. So utterly unknown, so wonderfully enigmatic. Millenniums ago, life crawled out of the water to conquer the land. I guess that why all of us listen when the sea calls, why none of us stand unperturbed before the majestic sound of waves crashing on a beach.
“Come to me,” the sea whispers, “come home, come home.”
Today it is somewhat safer to answer to the sea’s siren song than it was back then, in the 17th century. And yet they went. Young couples packed up their few belongings, gripped each other by the hand and set off across a sea as frightening to them as the concept of a Space Odyssey is to us. Most of them went with the hope of a better life. Many believed in the tales of gold and other treasures. All of them had to brave the capricious waters of the sea.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown
(T.S.Eliot, The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock)
The sea, the sea. As untamed now as it was then, as yet a mostly unexplored world of darkest depths and sunlit shallows. Who knows, somewhere out there maybe mermaids swim slowly through turquoise waters, and now and then they surface to sing, ensuring that we, landlocked creatures that we are, never forget from whence we came.
In the second book of The Graham Saga, Like Chaff in the Wind, my main characters experience wretched crossings over the Atlantic. Matthew Graham because he’s in chains, an abducted man sold as indentured labour, Alex Graham because it takes far too long, and every day away from Matthew might mean the difference between him surviving his ordeal – or dying from it.
The last few weeks on the Regina Anne were miserable. Alex was torn in two with longing; she yearned for her son during the day and dreamed of her man at night, and the dreams were of a man that stared at her in supplication, hazel eyes dulled with months of toil. She woke to pillows that were soaked with her tears and a certainty that she had to hurry to his side, and she twisted in frustration because there was nothing she could do, no way she could hasten her voyage towards him. She avoided them all, sitting in solitude by the bow, her eyes locked on the west as she pleaded with him in her head to not give up.
Sometimes she pretended she could fly and saw herself beat her way swiftly to the as yet unseen shore. And she found him, a small speck that grew recognisable as she dove towards the ground, and she swished by like a daring swift, turning to dart by him time and time again, until he lifted his face from his work to follow the bird’s spectacular flight. She hoped he knew it was her, that the bird he saw was her longing reaching across the world to softly graze his cheek.
In honour of this Nautical blog, I am giving away one copy of Like Chaff in the Wind in paperback, and one as an e-book (Kindle). To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is to leave a comment before Sept 22nd and tell me what possession you would take along, if you had to leave your old home behind and set out for new lands. Oh; don’t forget to leave your e-mail and let me know what format you prefer. Winners will be drawn by my 16-year-old-son to ensure total impartiality.
Well, dear readers, that is all from me – but please be sure to visit the other participants’ blogs. Pirates, smugglers, famous ships and maybe a sea monster or two – now doesn’t that sound just the treat?
James L. Nelson